News & Views

I learned a lot from the B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum Asia 2018, held in Singapore in September, particularly about how tough life is for the typical B2B marketer. As is the custom of our times I jotted down some “key takeaways” on the day and sent them out tout de suite on LinkedIn. Having (two weeks later) found some time on my schedule, I think it’s worth revisiting and expanding on those, as they get to the heart of the issues facing anyone trying to reach and impress a rarefied B2B market.

– B2B marketers are deeper in the trenches than their B2C colleagues (“using sniper rifles, not shotguns”)

The pithy description of the B2B marketer’s arsenal given by one speaker captures the wholly different nature of many B2B campaigns from their B2C counterparts. This speaker, from a global financial services consultancy, revealed that they had fewer than 40 target enterprises across the region and created content with them exclusively in mind. What use, then, are flashy brand campaigns of the type so beloved by the Cannes crowd? B2B marketers have to show a much deeper understanding of their targets’ businesses, and the challenges their clients face, than is possible with a 30-second Superbowl ad. Credible content is a huge part of the solution.

– B2B marketers must manage stakeholders in every part of the business – and often do so facing a “trust gap”

I met a ton of talented, motivated and razor-sharp people at the event, with diverse backgrounds – from audit and accounting to programming to development economics. Yet I got the sense that the B2B marketing function often battles a lingering and unwarranted inferiority complex compared to the revenue generating side of the business (again, not something that troubles many Cannes Lions partygoers, I’d imagine).

This was aptly summed up by Thomas Barta, keynote speaker and author of “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader”, who pinpointed the problem as a matter of how the rest of the business can perceive the marketing team – illustrated on this slide (apologies for the low-quality photo).

Funny though this might be to some, battling the “trust gap” can a daily problem for B2B marketing departments, unless they can get to grips with the next two points:

– B2B marketers are held to tough standards of accountability by the business

– They need multiple skillsets, not least the ability to prove ROI by marshalling the torrents of data at their disposal

Much of the conference was given over to the problem of how to prove ROI on marketing campaigns. As Barta put it: “If anyone says you’re a cost centre, change it – or leave. Get in the revenue camp!”

Naturally this applies to B2C marketers, too, but their B2B counterparts are more likely to have to account for every bullet fired from their sniper rifles. The metrics by which campaigns are judged obviously vary depending on their aims and how far towards the top or bottom of the sales funnel they are positioned – and, as we’ve noted before, must be signed off by the business well in advance. Hit those metrics, thereby demonstrating value, and the trust gap disappears.

Partly this means speaking the right language: C-suite execs don’t really care about social shares, brand salience, or other marketing buzzwords. But educating the rest of the business is also crucial to changing perceptions. Branding campaigns might not have metrics as easily linked to revenue as those aimed at delivering qualified leads, but are nonetheless crucial for B2B firms too. As one speaker said, “Brand is the reason the sales team gets in a client’s front door. But no one on the business side wants to pay for it.”

– The tools B2B marketers need must be highly specialised and targeted, across geographies, sectors and audiences

Given the specialised nature of the audience B2B marketers are trying to reach, expertise in certain sectors (especially when it comes to content) is a sine qua non for agency partners. Picking the right channels is also crucial – because as several people pointed out, quoting Jonathan Perelman of Buzzfeed, “Content is King, but distribution is Queen – and she wears the pants.”

Speaking of which, among the pearls of wisdom there were inevitably some oft-repeated quotations, platitudes and buzzwords, as there are at any conference (even at those run by my former employer, which strives to set the bar pretty high for live discourse). I recommend keeping yourself amused next time you are at a comparable event by playing “Marketing Conference Bingo”. Here’s the card I put together in between moments of insight at the event. Enjoy!

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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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Can your company be an agenda-setting ‘thought leader’ if it practices self-censorship?

Answering this question has taken on an increased sense of urgency in recent weeks, following news that Google is re-evaluating whether to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

The blogosphere, as expected, is boiling over with criticism of Google and its secret China-friendly project, codenamed Dragonfly. Meanwhile, more than a thousand Google employees have signed a petition condemning what they believe is the tech giant’s abandonment of core principles.

Given Google’s history, the outrage is understandable. Only eight years have passed since Google co-founder Sergey Brin led the vaunted search engine’s much publicised exit from China, citing his extended family’s first-hand experience of living in the Soviet Union. And then there’s Google’s infamous motto “Don’t be evil,” – a clever and memorable way to articulate the company’s belief that technology should always be a force for good.

Sure, you say, but this is Google’s problem – what does it have to do with my company’s content campaigns?

Thought Leadership Requires Consistency

Put simply, Google’s dilemma is the same dilemma that every organisation planning a thought leadership strategy faces – and that is: How do you balance your organisation’s thought leadership ambitions and positioning, with the rules and expectations of tightly controlled markets (not to mention a whole host of additional interest groups such as shareholders and compliance officers)?

Here at n/n we ruminate on this problem daily.  We spend our days devising thought leadership campaigns for some of the world’s largest companies – campaigns that cut across multiple jurisdictions such as New York, Dubai and Shanghai. Our job is to help our clients do the hard work of parsing strong and true ideas from stale and false ones, and to remain consistent in their messaging in all of the markets they operate in.

And so, our view is an emphatic NO – thought leaders don’t self-censor. In fact, just the opposite: thought leaders drive conversations forward by uttering pesky and uncomfortable truths – and they don’t censor their views for certain markets.

On that basis, Sergey Brin’s decision to abandon search efforts in China in 2010, and his statements about his family’s experience in the Soviet Union, were in many ways the ultimate demonstrations of thought leadership.

Here’s the proof: the outcome of Google’s brave move. Even though they gave up search in one of the world’s largest internet markets, they are still – eight years later – the undisputed global leader of search technology. It’s such moves that arguably helped knight Google as the head of the tech pack.

Of course, many of the world’s leading companies have chosen to remain in China and adjust to China’s rules, arguing that (1) it’s wise to play the long game and (2) the benefits outweigh the costs and some exposure to China’s massive market is better than none.  These companies certainly have a point. And such declarations – if made consistently, without apology, and backed by data – also qualify as thought leadership.

The point is this: Thought leadership requires companies to abandon the premise that they can hold a certain view but soften its expression so no party is ruffled or offended.  That means if Google has changed its stance on China since 2010, it needs to come out of the dark and clearly say so – and own any fallout that follows. Only then can it regain lost ground and possibly retain its crown as one of tech’s most trusted thought leaders.

Being a thought leader does not mean courting controversy for the sake of it. But it does mean articulating clear views on major issues – and, importantly, either holding your ground or openly admitting to a change of heart when external forces pressure you to change your mind.

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How long should an article be to ensure maximum readership and engagement, and how many words does it take before eyes glaze and readers keel over? The ideal word count question is one that marketing professionals (and journalists) wrestle with all the time.

The bad news is there is no magic number, and several factors need to be considered to gauge the ideal length of an article – such as the intended audience, subject matter and the ultimate objective. But we’ve pulled together some data to help marketers address this issue and navigate the constantly shifting online content ecosystem.

If the aim is to provoke a discussion, snappy posts of 300 words or less are ideal, according to this guide. But, if readers are to be encouraged to share a post widely, it needs to be longer – between 1,000 to 1,500 words. Word counts between 300 to 750 are deemed to be a workable compromise for garnering a respectable number of online shares with some engagement. To maximise shares across platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google, some estimates show that articles ranging from 3,000 words to as much as 10,000 fare best.

This post compiles figures from several sources to propose subject-specific word counts that do justice to the topic at hand while helping with social media shares and high page rankings. Articles on finance are estimated to require between 2,100 to 2,500 words while technology-focused write-ups are best limited to around 1,000 words. The ideal length for posts on real estate is deemed to be between 1,800 and 1,900 words while marketing or advertising-related articles work well when they are close to 3,000.

Some research focuses on the time readers are most likely to spend on a given article, which according to one estimate works out to seven minutes. Which brings us to the question of why longer pieces seem to be in vogue at a time when fewer people are reading articles in their entirety. This could be due to the frequently changing search engine algorithms at Google, which tends to have an outsized influence on what users see when they search for online content.

Past research has shown that lengthier articles ranked higher on Google’s search results, with the average length of content that showed up on the first page of Google’s search results pegged at 1,890 words. These metrics make a significant difference in a world where search engine algorithms determine the content presented to readers and how they consume it. How many of us click through to the second page of results after typing in a search word or phrase?

Getting the word count right is crucial. That part is not up for debate but it’s also true that quality usually trumps quantity. If an article is unreadable its length becomes moot. It’s best to get the content right before worrying about hitting that magic number.

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It’s been just over one year since I ended my 15-year financial journalism career to enter the content marketing industry. Plenty of former colleagues are surprised when I say I have not once regretted making the move, but I’m willing to admit that the transition has not always been easy. So for those of you thinking of making the jump from journalism into content marketing, here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.

You know more than you think

As journalists, we spend our days gathering information — from research, interviews, events and so on — that can often be complex and technical in nature and then sifting through that information to turn it into a clear and compelling piece of writing. The result is that we often underrate how rare and valuable that set of skills is.

But since moving into content marketing, I’ve realised that the ability to interview someone, take that information and turn it into something that people want to read is a specialist skill: one that’s hard to come by and one that companies view as valuable. Add in the ability to meet deadlines, juggle multiple projects and build a rapport with people (especially with those who aren’t comfortable being interviewed), and those skills that seem normal in the newsroom become something that marks you out as an expert.

You know less than you think

Expert journalist you may be, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have lots to learn. Certainly for me, with a background in fast-paced financial trade publications, content marketing required me to adjust my writing style: less focused on getting down the facts and more focused on the narrative (hence our name!)

Plus, before this job I’d never written video scripts, put together an infographic concept, written a sales proposal or closed a deal (maybe less relevant if you take on an inhouse job or a less senior agency role), all of which required me to learn new skills.

And as with a move to any new industry, I’ve had to wade my way through a new set of jargon with all the bewilderment that entails. Pet peeves include ideation, marketing funnels, and omnichannel.

In addition, the dynamics of writing as a service provider rather than an independent journalist are very different, which brings me onto my next point…

It’s fun on the dark side

There’s no getting away from it: writing for an agency on behalf of a client can be quite different from being a journalist. I know it’s an area that many journalists struggle with when they change to the so-called ‘dark side’.

As a service provider, some of the autonomy you enjoy as a journalist is gone. That said, most clients understand that content marketing should be about sharing their insights and expertise and not about pushing a corporate message. The result is that I still get access to the top experts in their respective industries and to distil their insights into a piece of content I can be proud of. And as a consultancy, an important part of our role is advising clients on the best strategy for their content, and that inevitably means ensuring that a piece of written or visual content delivers market intelligence rather than a corporate message, ultimately helping the client reach their audience more effectively.

Have I had to write pieces of puff that are more advertising than thought leadership? Yes, for some stubborn marketers who don’t get it (and refuse to listen to the experts!) and no doubt I will have to again, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Variety really is the spice of life

Content marketing has given me the opportunity to write on a greater breadth of topics than I ever did as a journalist. Even with New Narrative’s focus on finance and professional services, in the last 12 months I have written on subjects that include blockchain, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ESG, digital payments, family offices, healthcare technology and even K-pop.

The formats have ranged from white papers and blogs to videos, infographics and social media. And for each client you have to strike the right tone, complexity and message for their brand and their target audience. The result is that I am a sharper and more confident writer than before.

So what are my key tips for journalists wanting to make a move into content marketing?

  • Go for it! It’s a great career
  • Don’t forget the basics: journalists have all the skills and more needed for content marketing
  • Be prepared to have to rethink the way you approach writing (and to not get it right straight away)
  • By-lines and scoops will be a thing of the past. You will need to get used to seeing your work assigned to someone else
  • Finally, expect journalist friends to be amazed (and a little bit jealous) that you are enjoying yourself!
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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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Those of us in the content marketing industry like to claim that “Today, clients, investors and consumers expect major companies to act like publishers.”

Heard that one before? Given that you’re currently reading an article by n/n, I’m certain you have.

You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing such a declaration, you concluded that it’s simply something content marketers say to justify their work – akin to a donut hawker recommending the regular consumption of donuts.

But alas, I’m afraid that a few recent campaigns demonstrate it’s not just another corporate slogan. For evidence of this, look no further than the Mercedes Benz mini-film, ‘Tough Conversations.’

For those in need of a brief summary, this corporate campaign follows punk rock icon Henry Rollins across Australia as he interviews everyone from famous surfers to local tattoo artists, focusing on the issue of ‘toughness’ – what the concept implies, and how its definition differs for each individual.

Of course, Mr Rollins is driving an X-Class Mercedes pick-up truck throughout – and the video is full of shots that linger on the iconic Mercedes logo gracing the steering wheel, with Mr Rollins’ heavily tattooed arms framing the screen. The message is simple: Mr Rollins is ‘tough,’ and in its own unique way the Mercedes pick-up truck is too.

The camera also lingers overhead and behind the well-built machine as it speeds gracefully down open roads across Australia’s dusty and majestic outback.

Neither Mercedes, nor Mr Rollins for that matter, need further introduction. But it’s safe to say this campaign crosses the proverbial Rubicon. Why? Well, it’s a stark example of a new era in which major companies are making media that resonates well beyond very specific interest groups.

Until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that someone with the cultural cache of Henry Rollins – punk rocker, author, spoken word artist, and talk show host – would ever align himself with a corporate campaign of this nature.

By the same token, until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that a corporation such as Mercedes – which sells expensive cars to the global upper class – would ever align itself with someone like Mr Rollins.

And lastly, until a few years ago it’d be safe to conclude that buyers of Mercedes’ cars would be unlikely to “get” or appreciate the campaign. In fact, they might’ve been turned off by the brand’s association with Mr Rollins.

And that just proves the point, doesn’t it? For better or worse, we’re now in a world in which everything is jumbled. There are no clear corporate or cultural demarcation points. That great media democratiser – the Internet – has erased those boundaries, and it looks like they will never return.

Companies are commenting on culture. Cultural heroes (heroes for some of us, at least) are partnering with companies. Corporations are making short films that newsrooms used to produce. And some newsrooms, though they are often loathe to admit it, are producing corporate media under a different name (usually called ‘sponsored content’).

Put another way: Mr Rollins, like many adults, is not above providing his cultural commentary in exchange for a healthy paycheque and high-profile publicity. And Mercedes desperately wants to be ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ so it can sell more X-Class trucks. In this way, they are perfect bedfellows. We can scream heresy if we want. Or we can just dedicate ourselves to producing quality media, regardless of how it is financed.

Mercedes recognised this much when it dumped a whole lot of money into the ‘Tough Conversations’ campaign. I’d wager that many more companies, sensing their new role as publishers, will follow suit with similar productions.

Up next – Johnny Rotten and BMW?

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Job title: Content Executive

New Narrative, Asia’s leading content consultancy, is looking for the newest addition to its editorial team. Full job details are below. Interested parties, please email a CV, cover letter and two examples of your writing to careers@new-narrative.com.

About the role

We are looking for a dynamic and ambitious content creator who will work to deliver written, visual and digital content across a variety of media, for a range of blue-chip clients.

As a core member of a dynamic and fast-growing editorial team you will be responsible for researching and producing top-quality content, from articles to infographic concepts to social media copy.

The appeal of the job lies in its constant variety: no two client briefs are alike. One week you might be researching a blog series on blockchain; the next you could be crafting tweets live from an asset management seminar in Shanghai; the next developing a social media strategy for ground-breaking European healthcare research.

This is the ideal role for an ambitious self-starter keen to develop their content creation skills in the new territory emerging between media and marketing.

About New Narrative

From our offices in Hong Kong and New York, New Narrative creates agenda-setting content campaigns on behalf of the world’s biggest companies in diverse sectors, from financial services to technology to healthcare.

Our clients rely on our unwavering dedication to editorial quality and our deep understanding of their businesses – and what resonates with their target audiences – to help them publish world-class research and thought leadership.

New Narrative’s management team has decades of experience in senior editorial roles in leading international media organisations. By joining our team you will get the chance to learn rapidly and work on high-profile campaigns in a fast-growing, vibrant and welcoming environment.

Skills/Experience:

The successful candidate should have:

• Experience or demonstrated interest in a journalism, marketing or research role, ideally with a focus on financial and professional services

• Experience producing content across a range of formats to tight deadlines

• Knowledge of the digital and social media aspects of publishing

• Strong research skills

• Impeccable English language skills; other languages (particularly Cantonese and Mandarin) preferred

What we offer:

• Unmatched opportunities for advancement, to develop new skills and to shape the future direction of a dynamic young business at the forefront of the rapidly expanding regional media and content marketing industry

• The opportunity to exercise and showcase your creativity on high-visibility projects for industry-leading clients

• A highly competitive salary to the right candidate, along with benefits such as a company medical plan and paid holidays

• The chance to be part of and learn from a diverse and global team of professionals with decades of combined experience in journalism, digital media and publishing

• A flexible, progressive environment where work-life balance is a priority

New Narrative is an equal opportunities employer.

Interested parties, please email a CV, cover letter and two examples of your writing to careers@new-narrative.com.

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While statistics can make content more credible or help make a point in fewer words, it is tricky getting numbers to tell a story, and developing actionable insights from data is among the top challenges for marketers. By considering these key factors you’ll be off to a good start.

The Message

To keep the story on point, try to summarise it in a single headline or tweet, as this post in the Harvard Business Review suggests. Select one or two key data points or insights – the more unique the better – that support this core message and lead with them. Also resist the urge to cram as much supporting data into a piece as you can; few things provoke as many yawns as a sea of numbers and just a couple of strong statistics can add more weight than dozens of middling ones. Any data you leave behind can always be used in the future.

The Sourcing

Especially when working with external data, take extra care to ensure its provenance. Always look for original sources and vet their reliability. Databases of governments and world bodies, research agencies, industry associations and renowned think tanks are good places to start. Also make sure to be transparent about where your data came from and how any conclusions are reached. Attribution is key, especially when working with third-party data, as it burnishes a campaign’s and the organisation’s credibility — whereas failing to attribute data properly does quite the opposite. Read more about that here.

The Analysis

To cut through the jumble of data, make comparisons and look for trends, patterns and relationships to coax out relevant findings. However don’t overstretch in the desire to make connections, and make sure you’re comparing rough equivalents. Contrasting the economic data of cities with vastly different population sizes, for example, is unlikely to yield anything worthwhile. Most importantly, look for (and test) findings that are genuinely counterintuitive or run against the grain, which are virtually guaranteed to attract attention and provoke debate.

The Narrative

To paraphrase behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman: No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story. Data-driven stories are as much about the narrative as they are about the numbers. So, it’s necessary to step into the audience’s shoes and ensure a piece flows logically from one data point to the next. Keep it simple, avoid jargon, and include anecdotes and real-life examples that will help the audience readily relate to the information. Here’s an example from the South China Morning Post that weaves a compelling narrative about the Belt and Road Initiative through interactive charts, maps and graphs.

The Presentation

Given that the numbers are the story, make the presentation as visual as possible to break down complex findings and drive home the message. Research has shown that the human mind can’t process numbers beyond a certain level (read more about that here) so it helps to provide visual aids. Charts, infographics and interactive tables, used with a strategic combination of colors, can convey the data in a striking yet easy to digest manner. This selection from the New York Times provides a good overview of the various ways data can be presented.

The Engagement

Considering that the entire exercise is aimed at engaging the audience, make sure to create an opening for interactions. Invite, encourage and drive discussions around the story; guide the audience to information that complements the material at hand; and, seek feedback. Gathering statistics on what your audience likes and dislikes can provide you with fresh data to inform the next stage of your publishing plans.

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Amid all the comment about Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most commonly heard complaint was about the flood of spam from companies who realised, a little late, that they needed people’s “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous” consent to keep receiving their emails. (NewsCred has a good explainer on the impact on marketing here.)

I’m sure like me you deleted most of these “Don’t Miss Out on Our Bumf!” emails with nary a second thought – the first thought often being “I didn’t realise I was even on your mailing list.” (The ones I received may have sounded more plaintive than those sent to people who aren’t EU citizens: requirements obviously differ outside the EU, but the rest of the world won’t be far behind in legislating data protection.)

More interesting perhaps is the jolt of alarm I felt about the prospect of not receiving something I actually valued or relied on. I had that a few times and didn’t mind the extra steps of confirming my interest or re-entering my details.

This raises the question, what was the crucial difference between the two reactions? It all boils down to quality of content.

In the information economy there is plenty of content you need and are happy to pay for: reputable news sites and data feeds have all but stopped giving away content regularly in exchange for advertising reach. They needn’t worry about GDPR-related complaints from loyal readers (assuming they’re not over-using the privilege and flooding their inboxes): nothing screams informed consent like giving up your credit card details.

But paid content is still a minuscule sliver of what’s coming into your inbox. Email, for all its faults, is still a great means of receiving regular digests of news and comment from informed sources. Most companies rely on it to reach their best customers and hottest prospects and will need rapidly to work out how to keep doing so.

What GDPR has brought home is that if you’re giving away content in the hope of building a willing audience, it had better be as good as the stuff people are paying for. Because if someone signs up for “free” content with an email address and explicit consent for you to use their information, they are in fact paying for it – with their data, rather than their money.

The upsides to this are twofold. For the recipients, it should mean pure dross won’t get through: marketers will have to raise their content games.

For companies forced to get to grips with their audience, it offers the opportunity to find out at a more granular level what they’re interested in (and prepared to sign up to receive). This means that if companies can deliver it, their content will be all the more likely to help them achieve their commercial aims.

Of course, getting to professional-standard content isn’t easy. Which is why we’re here to help companies reach a bar that’s getting raised all the time. With GDPR, it’s even more vital to make the jump.

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