News & Views

Here at New Narrative we have a long history of railing against jargon. We’ve even created handy guides to help people cut through it. Yet every once in a while we have to (quietly) admit that an expression that might be in jargon territory, bandied around a bit too much but not necessarily well-understood, has its place.

Take ‘value proposition.’ It makes regular appearances in marketing presentations and pitch sessions the world over. Pretty much every enterprise (and more than a few individuals) agree they need one. But start asking what it is or how to ‘get’ it, and you’ll be treated to a lot of different answers.

Common definitions frame a value proposition as the statement that captures the essence of what makes a company, product or service relevant to current or would-be clientele. Or a succinct answer to the question that’s on the mind of every prospective investor or buyer, but usually not directly articulated – if I give you my money, what’s in it for me?

These definitions are fine as they go – but also a touch superficial, and tend to provoke a knee-jerk response. Most organisations are (rightly) confident that they have a pretty clear idea about what they bring to the table, and how to express that. And so after some quick internal deliberations they go a few steps beyond the company’s slogan to come up with a definitive statement on their corporate character, or world-beating capabilities. We are constantly client-oriented. We innovate in our sleep. Value proposition job done. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it essentially limits the value proposition to a self-contained marketing exercise, suitable for propping up a website or providing a ready-made answer to employees who wonder just what it is they’re all doing around here, anyway.

That’s a shame, because done right, a value proposition is capable of so much more. Far from being an empty catchphrase, a value proposition with real, well … value, can serve as the foundation for an editorial campaign with long-lasting impact. That requires developing a proposition distinctive and intellectually credible enough to strike a chord with a time-starved and information-saturated audience, and that touches on big ideas that lend themselves to repeated exploration as you publish and communicate over time. A tall order, but certainly not impossible. Here are a few tips on where to start.

*It’s not all about you. A value proposition naturally has to say something about the organisation, but given the purpose is to communicate and build connections, must also make it clear what the organisation brings to the table for everyone else. That means the focus should be less on what the enterprise ‘does,’ or excels at; more on the problems or issues it allows others to overcome, or the contributions it makes to a bigger picture.

Put another way, rather than what an enterprise ‘has’ – even if their talent, technology or competitive advantage is worth boasting about – a solid value proposition explains what the company creates, and at least hints at some kind of higher purpose. Saying you’re building the infrastructure for a borderless world, for example, is a message that will travel a lot farther, and to a lot more people, than insisting you’ve got the fastest networking technology.

*Cast a wide net. Creating a value proposition that connects with external audiences and a wider cause is tough to pull off if you’re only consulting stakeholders or conducting brainstorming sessions in-house. Seeing the big picture means almost inevitably looking outside the organisation, to consider the changes sweeping your industry and society; the issues that are emerging as a priority; and how competitors and peers frame their arguments in response.

Given the amount of background noise in any market this is best tackled through a structured research process that includes systematic analysis of the content coming from leading voices and peers in the field, and in-depth consultations with both internal and external authorities to zero in on the themes or concerns that emerge as common and consistent. This allows the enterprise to determine where it is best positioned to speak to those concerns – and to develop a value proposition that does so in a direct, and distinct, way.

*See the proposition as a starting point. Consider a value proposition the opening shot in a protracted battle – or if you prefer a warmer, fuzzier image, the shelter under which everything to follow is built. If you’ve done your research homework, the proposition will touch on a broad issue that can be broken down into any number of sub-themes or topics – each of which could be seen as an opportunity for further discussion or publication on the organisation’s associated views or capabilities.

A value proposition based on the company’s commitment to financial inclusion, for example, could give rise to content on everything from pushing the limits of mobile financial services, to the most pressing needs for regulatory reform. One built around technological advancement could lead to an in-depth report on balancing privacy and consumer convenience, or a roundtable on best practices to promote innovation.

Template for building value proposition content marketing

Map those out systematically – a basic structure that we’ve employed in our consultations is above – and you’ve got the basis for a full-scale content campaign that’s united on a powerful core concept, yet still capable of supporting dialogue with diverse audience groups. With a bit of work, a value proposition can move well beyond the realm of jargon, or serving as an internal creed, to actually deliver what the label promises.

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Beyond dashing a lot of plans to retire early or buy that Bay Area mansion, could Uber’s IPO debacle signal something more serious – the decline of a business model that’s dominated the tech (and, increasingly, non-tech) industry for a decade?

Even before the disappointing debut, some voices were warning that Uber-variety platform businesses – basically, any enterprise that creates a digital environment for different parties like buyers and sellers to interact – carry elevated risks of failure.

Views like these are especially notable because of the torrent of hype that preceded them. By some estimates platform businesses now account for seven of the top 10 biggest companies globally. Studies show an overwhelming majority of firms across a wide range of sectors now see digital platforms as an integral part of business strategy. Companies as august as GE and BNY Mellon have got into the business of platform-building. For some time the default message has been: platform or die.

Less talked about (at least until now) is that for every Lyft or Airbnb, there’s a Homejoy, and high-profile, supposedly transformational platform initiatives sometimes end badly. The Uber IPO will no doubt prompt more critical analysis of the platform model, and those previously isolated platform cynics may feel a  little less lonely. But – as with so many other technologies that have generated excitement – the real issue may be less a fundamental problem with platforms, than misconceptions about what they are, and what they should be used for.

Beyond ‘build it and they will come’ 

There’s a lot that’s appealing about the idea of creating a great platform for people and/or enterprises to connect with each other and (paid) services; letting the network effect take hold; and watching the revenue roll in. Sometimes, that’s exactly the way it works. But there’s a few inherent vulnerabilities in this model too. First, as CB Insights has so aptly noted, is the persistent tension of trying to keep both sides of an equation happy – perhaps Uber’s biggest struggle is making drivers feel fairly compensated and riders feel like they’re getting a good deal at the same time.

Another is that network effect. Often to attract the kind of critical mass that makes a platform viable, companies try to either offer something that appeals to a broad range of users and throw the gates wide open; or constantly tack on new offerings or features to cultivate different user groups. The former (as Uber certainly knows) usually entails a low barrier to entry for competitors, particularly since the core technologies that enable platforms (like cloud computing) are rarely unique. With the latter comes expensive proposition of constantly innovating and expanding your technology infrastructure – and probably drifting away from whatever your core business was in the first place.

And that might just be the most dangerous misconception about platforms – that they should be designed exclusively to make users happy. They have to do that, of course, but as some experts have pointed out, platforms need internal purpose. In thinking about becoming more ‘digital’ and building a big user base, it’s easy for organisations to lose sight of the fact that platforms should also connect directly to their own goals, and help them do whatever it is they do better. If those connections are hard to draw, the enterprise is probably better off without one. The verdict on Uber might still be out, but if the IPO prompts a few organisations to reconsider platforms for platforms’ sake, it may have already created some value.

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After our fifth-year anniversary event in our hometown of Hong Kong, we thought it was about time to celebrate in another place that’s very important to us – so we rang in New Narrative’s sixth year with cocktails and canapes on the breezy rooftop of the Scarlet hotel in Singapore’s historic Chinatown district. Many thanks to the clients and friends who came out to celebrate with us, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Lion City in the very near future.

 

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Whether you call it the new oil or the new gold, since the The Economist declared data the world’s most valuable resource way back in 2017, its value only seems to have risen. Like most of our peers in marketing and the media it’s certainly become more integral to what we do as an organisation. Virtually every project we take on now involves an element of data measurement and analysis. At the same time the near-perpetual excitement surrounding data and the emerging technologies it fuels, like artificial intelligence, has caused even its biggest advocates to warn we’re in a time of “data gluttony.”

I wouldn’t dare claim to be a data scientist, but it’s quickly become clear to me that both the skeptics and the data champions are right. In many fields, including marketing, data can be an immensely powerful tool for targeting audiences and measuring outcomes – one global study from consultancy Bain, for example, shows leading marketers are more likely to refresh the data they use and consistently factor it into decisions. But there’s also plenty of evidence of data failing to deliver the desired results, or steering companies in the wrong direction.

What it comes down is that getting data is no generally longer a problem; extracting meaning from it is. With so many data sources and metrics at our disposal, trying to process information into something that can be acted on is often the mental equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose. In this kind of environment it’s no wonder people crave simplicity and jump at any clear conclusion they can get – which can fuel some pretty questionable decisions.

Bigger isn’t always better

As an example one recent project had us delving into the Twitter traffic on a certain topic to see who was effectively leading the conversation on it. One organisation seemed to be clearly in the forefront with almost everything they posted garnering a truly exceptional number of retweets – surely a sign they were doing something right? Until we dug a little deeper and noticed the vast majority of these retweets were from just one or two sources. Their closest competitor may have been a distant second in terms of sheer numbers, but its shares came from a far more diverse base – a much stronger indicator of credibility in our view.

In addition to the obsession with volume, data analytics (as many marketers practice it) is excessively retroactive. AI-powered predictive analytics is starting to make some impressive inroads into marketing, but in general the majority of analysis concentrates on results.

The fact is, by the time the data tells you conclusively something isn’t working, it’s too late – whereas a degree of analysis before a campaign is launched might prevent you from going down an unproductive path in the first place. Applying the right tools, there’s an incredible amount you can learn from what (and where, and how frequently) peers or competitors are publishing on a subject that can then be factored into your plans – whether on the themes that strike a chord with professional networks or what phrases risk putting you in the jargon danger zone. Our head of digital will be sharing more on those possibilities in the weeks to come.

Whatever light it sheds on audience engagement or the topics of the day, to me it’s only become clearer that data needs to be examined from a number of angles, and filtered through the lens of good old-fashioned human inquiry and cynicism. That’s why even as our practice becomes more ‘digital,’ I’d prefer to call it data informed, rather than ‘data-driven’ – no offense to our future robot overlords intended.

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With 2018 already practically in the rear-view mirror (just where did it go, anyway?), thoughts inevitably turn to plans for the New Year – or will turn, once the equally inevitable gluttony and good cheer of the holiday period have been dispensed with. It’s a time when financial targets and strategic priorities are set for the months ahead. Many marketing teams will be going through a similar process with their publishing and content goals for 2019.

At a lot of organisations, these plans will take the form of a content calendar. Whether cradled in a visually dazzling PowerPoint or slapped up in a spreadsheet, this will lovingly detail all the amazing things the company plans to publish over the next twelve months. In the first few editorial meetings of the new year relevant teams will rally around the document with a deep sense of shared purpose, working around the clock to bring that next video interview or op-ed to life.

And then, something happens. Or to put it more accurately, nothing happens. The editorial meetings slow down. Maybe one or two tasks listed on the calendar are skipped or put off when people are busy dealing with other things, or priorities change and the business wants … something else. Soon enough, the calendar is banished to the dark corners of a desk or Intranet and the team is back to scrambling to produce things on an ad-hoc basis.

Given the amount of time and effort that can be put into these documents, the untimely demise of a content calendar is a real shame. From what we’ve seen, it’s also often the result of a few common mistakes. Following are a few tips to help your editorial calendar stay alive (and relevant) well into the new year.

*Be realistic. The misstep we see most often is the tendency to get overly ambitious in the planning stages. Setting out ideas for a bunch of polished videos with no clear idea where you’re going to get the production resources, or assigning a series of opinion pieces to a stressed-out senior executive who’s constantly on the road, sets a calendar up for failure by making execution next to impossible and calling the entire exercise into question.

*Get the experts involved. Publishing meaningful work is often highly dependent on the insight of in-house experts – yet marketing teams often cook up content plans on their own and present them to the rest of the business as a done deal. Make sure the people whose views you’ll need to draw on are deeply involved in the calendar’s development; this will not only help define key ideas and themes, but also help get their goodwill and buy-in for the entire process. They’ll also often be the first to tell you if that plan to have them crank out a LinkedIn post a week might be too demanding (see “Be realistic” above).

*Be versatile … to a point. Established wisdom rightly dictates that content calendars should include a mix of themes and formats (articles, graphics, videos, podcasts), to serve various audiences and purposes. But this is another area where planning can easily get carried away. Not every enterprise needs to do it all; a certain amount of consistency in topics and formats builds focus, makes it easier to keep going, and helps teach your audience what to expect.  As we’ve said before, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself or repurpose material now and then. Constantly creating new intellectual property from scratch is a time-consuming and exhausting business (which is exactly why a lot of organisations seek our help).

*Be flexible. While it’s good to stick to a blueprint whenever possible, be ready and willing to embrace a certain amount of change based on market or industry developments, and business needs. A commentary that speaks to a recent news event will almost certainly find a wider and more receptive audience than whatever you planned six months ago. It’s also important to look how what you’re publishing is being received and to apply what you learn to future plans on the calendar – even if it calls those plans into question.

With that, the team here at n/n wishes everyone the best for the planning/holiday season, and the new year. May all your publishing dreams be happy ones.

 

 

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At n/n we have a love-hate relationship – okay, mostly hate – with buzzwords (and buzz-phrases for that matter). Judging from some of the client workshops I’ve been involved in recently, we’re certainly not alone.

This struggle is rooted in a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, it’s important to publish content that’s relevant to the key themes of the day, whether the rise of Southeast Asia’s consumer class or the adoption of artificial intelligence in financial services. Using the right vocabulary shows you’re abreast of, perhaps even advancing, the dialogue on a pertinent topic. When a word is sweeping an industry, people are eager to learn more about it, which means whatever you’re publishing is more likely to find an audience, get picked up and passed (or commented) on.

On the other hand, after the conversation reaches a certain pitch and density, fatigue begins to set in. Words that formerly drew interest cause eyes to glaze over. Concepts begin the long, cold journey to the buzzword graveyard, depicted so aptly in this cheeky cartoon from the New Yorker.

Exactly what constitutes a buzzword at any given point in time is an always-rich source of debate. Personally, we share the Guardian’s doubts about disruption and blockchain – and the wanton use of ‘digital’ as a prefix causes the hair on the back of our necks to stand up. We’d also agree with most of the New Yorker’s choices, with the glaring exception of ‘bacon.’ Like it or not, bacon will endure and inspire content for generations to come.

Thus any content creator is left struggling to strike a balance. In the workshops I was conducting, there were a lot of questions around how to demonstrate you’re up to date without publishing platitudes. When does a word galvanize and when does it start to sound, well, a bit lame?

Unfortunately there are no definitive answers. It’s not always realistic for organisations or marketing campaigns to avoid buzzwords completely. But they should, at least, be handled with caution. Here are a few questions to consider when publishing on a topic that’s in the buzzword ‘danger zone’.

*How late am I to the party? In other words, how much have I seen peers/competitors publish on the same word, phrase or topic, and for how long? If it’s dominated the media you read and your e-mail inbox for what seems like an eternity, and you’re sort of sick of hearing about it yourself, there’s a good chance a lot of other people feel the same way.

*Am I an actual authority, or just jumping on a bandwagon? Much like overprinting a currency, overuse of a word eventually distorts its meaning and diminishes its value (‘disruption’ is arguably a good case in point). Consider whether you understand the original meaning of a term and are applying it in that way – and whether you have a legitimate claim to knowledge on the subject. Some borderline buzzwords – sustainability, say – cut across a wide range of industries and functions, so can plausibly be used by a lot of people in a variety of contexts. Others are probably best left to the industries they sprung from. ‘UX,’ for example, makes a lot more sense in software than in sales.

*Am I saying something new? Using a buzzword risks your content drowning in the tidal wave of material on the same topic – making it especially important to assess whether you’re bringing something new to the table. Before writing that screed on sustainability or blog on Belt and Road, it’s a good idea to conduct some judicious Googling – or better yet, embark on a full-scale content audit – to ensure you’re not simply repeating what’s widely understood and has been said before. On the other hand, publications that contravene conventional wisdom or zero in on a relatively underexplored aspect of a much-discussed phenomenon will turn a lot of heads – even if those discussions have been going on for a while.

Perhaps the best way to think of buzzwords is the verbal equivalent of junk food – quick, easy, good to turn to once in a while. But under no circumstances should they make up the bulk of your diet. Which means the New Yorker may be on to something with the bacon reference after all.

 

 

 

 

 

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For a medium that’s been declared all but dead dozens of times, print is proving remarkably spry—even in the marketing arena. No less a digital behemoth than Facebook recently launched a decidedly old-fashioned bespoke quarterly magazine (er … we’re sorry, “thought leadership platform”) to connect its clients to cutting-edge ideas.

Judging by the book projects we’ve been involved in, and the amount of beautifully glossy publications we’ve seen distributed and admired (or at the very least flicked through) at some of the events we’ve attended recently, print still has a place in many an organisation’s heart. And why not? When well-executed, it’s a beautiful, tactile thing of joy, not only more physically present than words on a screen, but scientifically proven to outperform digital in terms of engagement and lodging in the memory.

So is this where we advise every business to rush off and start publishing a magazine of its own? Well, not exactly. Doing print well is incredibly resource-intensive, with questionable return on investment. It’s also not realistic for the many companies who struggle just to update their own websites or coax commentaries out of their senior executives, let alone conceptualise, design and produce an entire publication on a regular basis. That said, there’s no shortage of success stories from the firms that have taken what must have seemed like a reckless first step, from the venerable McKinsey Quarterly to lesser-known publications like Rockwell Automation’s Journal, pored over by engineers for its insights (and apparently entirely self-funded through ad revenue).

… or not

When producing a journal is out of reach, print is probably best deployed selectively. It may not be worthwhile (or particularly environmentally friendly) to produce and distribute something with a short shelf life in print format—an agenda for a half-day event, say—but content that is less time-sensitive, destined to be savoured and returned to, whether an illustrated history of an industry or or collected lessons from the CEO on the things business schools can’t possibly teach, may just warrant the print treatment.

And even for organisations that can’t print so much as a canteen menu, there are a few best practices from the print medium that apply equally well to the digital context. Such as:

*Act as if space is limitedbecause attention spans, appetite, and tolerance are. Print publications come with only a limited number of pages and column inches, so a lot of careful thought goes into what gets included and what doesn’t make the cut. Websites and social media provide a limitless publishing platform in theory, but that’s no reason not to apply the same rigour, and give serious thought to whether an article or infographic would make the grade if you could release just one or two a month.

*Think visually. Many organisations invest heavily in website design … but then confine the articles they publish on their websites to words on a screen. Take a cue from magazine designers, and think about subheadings, pull quotes, graphics or callout boxes to break the visual monotony and drive key points home, even in online format. Fast Company and The Verge are good examples of design that engages without veering into the visual equivalent of a deranged shout.

*Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Arguably the best-loved features of magazines and newspapers are the columns that appear like clockwork (just ask Abigail van Buren). When considering a publishing strategy, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every release or new quarter. Developing a feature or column that is published regularly helps build a consistent identity and voice, and to cultivate a loyal audience. Having a few gives you a de facto template, so when deciding what to create you’re never facing a completely blank slate.

In other words, it doesn’t only do a much better job of filling bookshelves—print has a lot to teach us even in an entirely digital environment. That alone should ensure its new lease on life lasts decades to come.

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It wasn’t so long ago that ‘brand newsrooms’ – in-house publishing operations that companies staffed with armies of keen journalists, editors and producers to crank content out around the clock – were all the rage. And indeed some of the model’s early adopters, from Marriott to Alibaba, still maintain the kind of publishing resources that would turn most newspapers green with envy. But no one seems to want to use the term anymore; it’s a lot more fun to dismiss it as a  “myth” or one of the “most lampooned marketing buzzwords.”

That might be for the best. Having come up in real newsrooms we’re wary of any attempts to equate what brands do with actual news operations, or to obscure the lines between marketing and journalism. Newsrooms also aren’t a realistic goal for most companies: they’re massive, complex and hideously expensive to maintain, populated with a rotating cast of prematurely world-weary cynics migrating bleary-eyed between hangovers, the coffee pot and the next big scoop… okay, maybe that was just my last job.

For all that, it would be a shame to throw the idea out completely, because there’s so much newsrooms can teach other industries about effective publishing. There’s a reason virtually every publication adopts an editorial ‘chain of command’ that since the dawn of mass media has remained largely unchanged.

In newsrooms, while journalists may collaborate on stories, they’re rarely produced ‘by committee’, and the number of people with a say on any given piece is strictly limited. Content also moves through a strictly defined process, from production to quality control through to signoff, simply because there’s rarely time to do things any other way. Companies may not be dealing with breaking news-variety deadlines, but there’s a lot to be said for newsroom-style structure in enabling anyone to produce articles (or graphics, or videos) in an efficient, consistent way. Let’s look at some typical newsroom roles, how content progresses from one to the next, and how this structure might apply to other environments.

Journalist/reporter: The content writer/designer/creator; in many companies this will be someone on the marketing team. Bigger publications (and firms) may have dozens. They occasionally tackle pieces together, but in general have designated ‘beats’ (areas of specialisation) that they cover in-depth and independently to cultivate sources and develop expertise on a topic. It’s their job to build relationships with sources in their areas of specialisation (in the case of companies, these will be internal subject matter experts), checking in with them regularly with an eye to their next story. Reporters may have to consult with editors on what they have planned, but are given a high degree of autonomy on the assumption they have an ear to the ground and knowledge of their topic. In the words of one of my former editors, “nothing kills the creative impulse, or more good stories, than meetings and micromanagement.”

Subeditors: Once the reporter produces a story (or graphic, or video), it will be reviewed by a ‘second pair of eyes’ — the subeditor, who’s responsible for fact-checking and poring over the piece for spelling, grammatical and/or design errors, as well as general sense and flow. In most firms this would be a senior member of the marketing team. Again, several subeditors may get involved in a larger story, but most newsrooms will control this, conscious of the old adage about too many cooks. The subeditor may have the authority to publish the piece then and there, or it may go to the managing editor for a final review.

Managing editor/editor in chief: While they will sometimes get involved in day-to-day publishing matters, the managing editor’s real responsibility is to set the overall direction and drive the editorial agenda. The managing editor may want to see everything prior to publication, or review only the most high-profile content — either way, they have the final say. In the corporate context, this could be the role of the CMO or head of branding/communications. The complexities of contemporary business can make a single point of sign-off difficult — at many companies legal or compliance may need to get involved — but if the editorial process is working well this should be largely a formality.

Editorial lessons

Even if a firm doesn’t formally establish editorial roles or titles, there are some valuable takeaways from the newsroom blueprint:

*Content is born from on-the-ground research and relationships — someone has to be thinking about it regularly

*It helps to give people areas of specialisation — it creates a sense of ownership and builds their expertise, meaning what they produce just gets better

*Content should flow through a formal process overseen by people with defined roles. Be open to cooperation and other views, but don’t attempt to involve everyone or collaborate your way to production; very likely nothing will get done

*Everything, no matter who produces it, should be reviewed by someone else

*The buck has to stop somewhere; some decisions can’t be made by committee

Call this if you will, ‘newsroom lite’, or perhaps newsroom discipline — just don’t use the dreaded ‘brand’ word.

 

 

 

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HONG KONG, Apr. 24, 2018 — New Narrative Ltd., Asia’s leading content consultancy, today announced that Arjun Kashyap, former Hong Kong Bureau Chief at S&P Global Market Intelligence, joins the company as Managing Editor.

Kashyap will help the Hong Kong-based firm expand its growing business producing strategic content for leading financial institutions and corporations in Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

Kashyap, an analyst turned journalist, has over 15 years of experience at publications in the US, India and Asia. As a correspondent he has reported from around the globe, interviewing investors in New York and Washington, technocrats in Silicon Valley and Bangalore, central bank officials in Mumbai and Nairobi, and women entrepreneurs across rural India, among others.

As an editor, he has led coverage of major business and geopolitical news from around the world, with a focus on Asia and the Middle East. Among other initiatives he helped launch and scale up audience engagement platforms for Thomson Reuters and overhauled IBT Media’s newsroom operations in India.

Kashyap’s work has appeared in various outlets, including The New York Times and CNBC. He has also been an invited speaker, panelist and moderator at numerous industry events.

Kashyap holds Masters degrees in Journalism from Michigan State University and Columbia University, and a Masters in Management Studies from Mumbai University.

“As Asia’s importance as a driver of the global economy grows, New Narrative, with its deep content expertise, is perfectly placed to help companies raise their brand profiles in the region,” Kashyap says. “I’m very excited to be part of such a great team.”

About New Narrative

Founded in 2013 by former financial journalists, New Narrative works with leading professional and financial services companies to give them and their executives a distinctive voice. New Narrative helps them communicate their views to clients, employees, investors, governments and regulators through sustained, compelling content campaigns in a variety of written and visual media.

Press enquiries:

Joseph Chaney, Partner:
joseph.chaney@new-narrative.com
+852 9411 7441

 

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New Narrative recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and though we’re still not quite sure where the years went, we decided to mark the occasion with an evening of drinks, canapes and good cheer at LOT88 in Central, Hong Kong. Some photographic highlights from the event are below. A massive thank you to our clients, colleagues and friends old and new who took the time out to join us — we couldn’t have done it without you.

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Last time we checked, the New Narrative headquarters were staffed by an entirely human team of writers, editors and other creative types … which is why recent research showing a third of marketing teams in Asia Pacific are already using artificial intelligence (AI) to create content — well above the rates in North America and Europe — made us a touch uneasy. Most of the media’s biggest names, of course, have been experimenting with automated news writing for a while. The tech gurus at Gartner predicted a while back that a full 20% of all business content this year will be authored by machines.

Never ones to back down in the face of competition, we decided to put these pesky robots to the test. In this case that meant experimenting with AI Writer, billed as a service that’s able to research and write an article for you from scratch — all it needs is a few keywords. Better yet, trying it out is free of charge.

Choosing a relatively straightforward subject close to our (and our clients’) hearts, we asked for an article on “investing in Asian emerging markets.” Just a few minutes later it arrived in our inbox, as promised.

The first thing we noticed was that ‘AI Writer’ apparently doesn’t do headlines. Score one for the humans. Bracing ourselves to be sucked in by a riveting lead paragraph, we read:

Strategists at multinational corporations can draw on a rich body of work to advise them on how to enter emerging markets, but managers of local companies in these markets have had little guidance.  

Hmm. We were thinking investment in asset markets, but fair enough. Keen to find out more, we read on.

Like Bajaj, most emerging market companies have assets that give them a competitive advantage mainly in their home market.

Wait, where did India’s renowned maker of auto rickshaws come from? And isn’t the fact that companies tend to enjoy a home-market advantage, well, not much of a revelation? But lest we be accused of robophobia, we indulged our circuit-based scribe a little longer.

As protectionist barriers crumble in emerging markets around the world, multinational companies are rushing in to find new opportunities for growth.

But … don’t we get to hear more about Bajaj? And protectionist barriers crumbling? Evidently this robot thinks it’s 2005.

It sort of went downhill from there, with the conclusion of the article cheerily informing us that Taiwan is one of the four markets “that are part of the acronym TICK.” Has anyone else heard of this, or did the robot make the whole thing up?

It’s worth pointing out that AI Writer was nothing if not rigorous in its sourcing — it cited the article created on our behalf to Harvard Business Review and Nasdaq, among others. But proper sourcing is a legally delicate process that again argues for some degree of human oversight.

All that said, we admit AI Writer appears to be able to trawl the web for views or factoids on a topic with uncanny speed. So perhaps expect to see more AI-assisted research powering content, AI-informed approaches to areas like content distribution and analysis and perhaps more AI-authored content that’s heavily data-based or follows standard formats — earnings reports, for example. Okay, okay, we’re biased, but we came away from this exercise confident generating genuinely insightful ideas and analysis will be the domain of humans (like us) for some time yet.

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Over the past few years both marketers and media companies have become more focused on sponsored/branded content (or native advertising if you prefer), the former as a new way to connect with audiences, and the latter to replace revenue lost with the decline of traditional ads. This a trend we welcome, both for the obvious commercial reasons and because we sincerely believe content marketing at its best—i.e. an organisation sharing genuine insights backed by data or thoughtful research—is far preferable to the shouty, saturation-based approach to marketing that dominated in decades past.

That said, having emerged from the media world, there are aspects of the sponsored content explosion that give us cause for concern, chief among them the difficulty sometimes of distinguishing between articles that are honest journalism or opinion, and the paid-for variety.

To be clear, we’re not calling out Forbes or the PR firm in question here; Forbes is an old hand at the sponsored content model and its branded content is typically clearly labelled as such. The views in the article (since apparently removed) may well have been genuine. But the fact it attracted scrutiny is troubling enough. There’s no shortage of other examples of the lines between editorial and advertising being blurred, from the merely questionable to the sanctionable.

Too many of those examples, and media outlets will find themselves completely discredited by audiences convinced they’re bought and paid for. Companies, meanwhile, will see most of what they publish crashing against a brick wall of cynicism. And of course, eventually audiences themselves will lose out, as a revenue/publishing model that has every shot at being sustainable breaks down and more publications close. Not a good situation for anyone, in other words.

So while we couldn’t agree more that brands need to start thinking, and publishing, more like media companies, it’s also vitally important that the ‘walls’ between brand and media don’t disappear completely, and that all sides practice complete transparency—especially at a time when the highest powers are only too happy to call the media and what constitutes truth into question.

At the very least that means clearly and visually distinguishing paid from editorial content, via unique logos, altered formats, even different colour schemes or backgrounds.

Ideally for media companies, it also means ring-fencing editorial and commercial staff, and limiting the participation of journalists in commercial projects (a practice we know some of our former employers have adopted).

In the end, there’s little to be lost from this approach. Few people will dismiss well-reasoned, credible views or intelligence from commercial sources. After all, journalists contact companies for their perspectives on industry or market issues all the time. And (we hope) no one would begrudge a publication the opportunity to earn the kind of revenues that will allow it to pay its journalists a living wage. In the media/ad business at least, honesty really is the best policy.

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A couple of interesting articles that caught our eye recently got us thinking about the growing importance of — perhaps even dependence on — data in media and marketing. Data is now the foundation for a lot of journalism and increasingly fuels publishing and marketing campaigns as well, both as a source of insight (on audiences and how to reach them) and collateral (by demonstrating an organisation’s knowledge or expertise).

This piece from Germany’s C3 references a couple of great examples of the latter, including dating site OK Cupid, which trawls through its data to produce interesting tidbits on the contemporary dating scene (shock finding: older men are more inclined to message younger women than vice versa) and Expedia’s crunching of data to generate sound travel advice for the jam-packed US Labor Day weekend.

We could add others with which we had the pleasure to be involved, including this groundbreaking report from Philips, which combined the results of an ambitious international survey with third-party data to develop a roadmap for the future of healthcare.

So far, so good. But as C3 rightly points out, whether you’re a journalist or marketer, in approaching and using data it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Data is no more inherently conclusive or free of bias as any other source of information, and should be subject to the same levels of scrutiny.

This isn’t a new story, of course: the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” was popularised by Mark Twain more than a century ago. Which means that if you’re not questioning your own data, someone else very likely will; a recent survey by KPMG and Forrester Consulting found that most decision-makers don’t even trust the data insights their companies generate internally.

Beyond the issue of trust, there’s the question of whether data really connects on an emotional level. As one of the most powerful quotes in this excellent Vanity Fair piece on how data has transformed decision-making puts it:

“No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

Having seen firsthand what data can (and can’t) do, we’re staunch advocates of putting it to good use. But as our recent reading has underlined, it’s important that data is used with principles in mind. Here are those that we see as the bedrock for any solid data-driven storytelling:

*Strive for transparency: Being as open and specific as possible about where the data comes (without sacrificing privacy standards) will add to its credibility; avoiding the matter will do the opposite. In publishing the results of a survey, this would include details such as the methods used and the number and composition of respondents.

*Practice acceptance: Maybe you’ve commissioned a poll and the data doesn’t quite tell the story or support the thesis you had envisioned. That’s okay, and no reason to discard the results — surely they contain other information worth sharing, and if they’ve confounded your expectations chances are other people would find them interesting as well. Also avoid cherry-picking findings to fit a pre-generated thesis, as it’s almost always obvious when this tactic has been adopted and it risks discrediting the whole exercise.

*Be selective: At the risk of appearing to contradict the above point it’s also important to be at least somewhat selective about the data you use and share. The ‘big data’ term exists for a reason; any data-gathering exercise inevitably produces a staggering amount of statistics. Rather than attempting to ‘go broad’, pick one theme or issue to target through research or a survey and ‘go deep’; the results will inevitably be more interesting. And when you do have findings, don’t plan to publish them all. Instead, look for consistent patterns or data points that seem to challenge conventional wisdom, and concentrate on examining and sharing those if they stand up.

*Remember data is a starting point: Regardless of the topic (yes, even the wild and wonderful world of online dating) audiences aren’t engaged by data alone, and a page chock-full of statistics or charts, no matter how tastefully designed, will cause a lot of eyes to glaze over. Proprietary data should be seen as a starting point for stories and campaigns that are fleshed out with anecdotes from internal and external experts, case studies and research from other sources, to build credibility and bring the numbers to life.

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Given the nature of our business, you’d think we welcome the news that content marketing is the top priority of marketers in Asia Pacific this year, even beating out getting return on investment — at least according to this study by consultancy NewBase. And don’t get us wrong — it is indeed good to see the industry reaching new levels of maturation, with (as NewBase says) most enterprises now fully accepting that producing “relevant and engaging content is a necessity.”

But (there’s always a but) the report contains some troubling findings as well. Content itself might be seen as important, but content quality and content relevance, less so, taking a dismal number seven and number eight on the priority list, respectively.

There’s no shortage of possible reasons for these low showings. Things like audience measurement may simply be seen as more pressing. Perhaps good content is so abundant that most organisations aren’t in the least worried about finding or producing it (though what we hear from our clients, sadly, suggests otherwise).

More likely is that some are more concerned with being seen publishing, or saying something (anything!), rather than the substance of what they’re communicating. Another possibility is that content has attained enough critical mass as a buzzword that marketing departments feel like they should be prioritising it, and say so, even if they’re not quite sure why, or how.

We wouldn’t be so bold as to deny the importance of some higher-priority items on the list. Or to potentially discourage marketers from exploring a field that means a lot to us. But generating content for content’s sake, or to populate different channels without careful consideration of the audience and how pertinent the information is to them, probably won’t yield the desired results, and can in fact be counterproductive.

That’s because though ‘content marketing’ might sound new, it’s been around in various guises for a very long time. And even if it’s produced with reputational or commercial goals in mind, content is subject to the same laws as any other creative endeavour. Less is sometimes more. Quality is infinitely more important than quantity. Audiences will quickly sniff out the vacuous or fake, and learn to look elsewhere. The smartest, most respected voice in the room doesn’t need to drone on, or to shout, to be heard.

It’s also important to keep in mind that just like any other business function — whether corporate social responsibility, human resources, or, well … the rest of marketing, content is most effective when it’s part of a bigger strategy or vision, and makes the most of internal expertise and resources. Achieving that alignment, and making the most of those resources, can take time, but it’s not a process to be avoided.

So by all means, create, publish and experiment. Pay keen attention to the possibilities of emerging formats like mobile video. Ensure anything you publish is distributed in the optimal way and carefully tracked. But don’t forget quality is the ultimate differentiator, and the soundest of all investment strategies in the long run — even if it means you’re slightly slower out of the starting gates.

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HONG KONG/NEW YORK, June 13, 2017 — New Narrative, Asia’s leading custom media agency, today announced that Lorraine Cushnie has joined the firm as a partner in its Hong Kong office.

New Narrative creates custom research, thought leadership, multi-platform editorial content and publishing campaigns for top-tier corporations and media organisations worldwide.

Cushnie, an award-winning financial journalist and editor, has spent 15 years covering financial and professional markets in Europe and Asia. Drawing on her extensive experience in banking, asset management and the legal industry, Cushnie will consult on, devise and execute market-leading content campaigns for New Narrative clients across these sectors.

Cushnie joins from Euromoney Institutional Investor where she was the managing editor for the banking and capital markets group in Asia. Based in Hong Kong, she oversaw the editorial teams and publishing schedule for the company’s financial titles including Asiamoney and GlobalCapital.

While at Euromoney, Cushnie established the first news site dedicated to covering the internationalisation of the renminbi, which now publishes under the brand GlobalRMB and is the leader in its field. She also produced custom reports and content for the region’s leading banks and has been a regular moderator of panels and roundtables at major industry conferences.

Cushnie holds a degree in German from King’s College London and a postgraduate diploma in Newspaper Journalism from City University London for which she received a bursary from the Guardian Media Group.

Cushnie joins at an exciting time for New Narrative which launched an office in New York in February and is expanding its operations in Hong Kong.

“We are delighted to welcome someone of Lorraine’s calibre,” said Joseph Chaney, Hong Kong-based co-founder of New Narrative. “Her joining is a tremendous boost for our team from both the editorial and business development standpoints.

“Since its founding by experienced financial journalists in 2013, New Narrative has shown consistent growth in a wide range of sectors, particularly financial services. Lorraine’s credentials as an experienced journalist and editor mean she is ideally positioned to drive the company’s expansion in this field in Asia and beyond.”

About New Narrative

New Narrative Ltd. (n/n) is a content consultancy and custom media agency founded in Hong Kong in 2013. The firm conceptualises and creates tailor-made content campaigns that drive value for a range of global companies, media organisations and research institutions.

New Narrative partners have decades of experience as senior editors and executives in leading media organisations, reporting on market-leading events and producing insightful commentary and analysis for an audience of senior decision-makers.
Press enquiries:

US:

Glenn Mott, Partner
glenn.mott@new-narrative.com
+1 646 330 3282

Hong Kong:

Joseph Chaney, Partner
joseph.chaney@new-narrative.com
+852 9411 7441

 

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We don’t usually blow our own trumpet at n/n; we’re usually too busy helping our clients blow theirs via the content that we create on their behalf. Nevertheless, it’s gratifying that our work sometimes gets recognised, even if by proxy.

In the 2016 International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) awards, held in London earlier this month, FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) and Ketchum Research took the prize for the World’s Best PR Campaign in the Healthcare sector, for the Philips Future Health Index.

This groundbreaking campaign benchmarked countries’ readiness to meet emerging healthcare challenges by examining perceptions about the accessibility and level of integration of healthcare services, and the adoption of connected care technology. This was based on an ambitious survey of healthcare professionals and patients conducted by a team led by FHF and Ketchum Research.

Where did n/n come in? We analysed the findings and used them to craft the core FHI report, turning the extensive research data into a trenchant and compelling editorial product that contained insights and calls to action for a broad audience of healthcare practitioners, policymakers and experts. Far beyond a simple marketing exercise, this programme puts Philips at the centre of a global discussion that will have profound implications for how countries and populations worldwide address emerging healthcare challenges.

We’d like to extend our congratulations to Philips for recognising the transformative potential of content backed by solid research; FHF and Ketchum for devising a great campaign … and, okay, ourselves. We’ve always believed that our work sets new bars at the highest international levels, and that editorially impeccable content will be increasingly vital to help firms burnish their brands. This is solid evidence that we’re not wrong on either of those counts.

Here’s to an award-winning (and content-rich) 2017!

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