Convincing the content marketing naysayers

There are reams of material written about the importance of content marketing for brand development. Unfortunately, most of it is not aimed at the people that need the most convincing.

These days most marketing professionals are alive to the advantages of thought leadership, but at New Narrative we have plenty of conversations with clients who have to work hard to convince ‘the business’ that it’s worth their time and effort.

This is especially true in financial and professional services, where support functions such as marketing and communications can be seen by front-line staff as a cost centre.

It’s quite common to hear reports of marketers being told by fee-earners that they resent having to spend time on something they don’t see as contributing directly to the bottom line. In some ways this isn’t surprising, as the fee-earners’ performance is measured in financial terms. But it’s also a mindset that has to change if a custom content plan is going to succeed.

To help, we have compiled our top tips for marketers looking to win over the cynics:

Engage early and often

One of the regular complaints we hear from finance professionals is that the marketing team only reaches out to them when there’s a deadline approaching and they are expected to drop everything to write an article.

As a marketer, you will be effective if you involve thought leaders and experts early in developing a content calendar. It’s then important to check in with them regularly to find out the ideas they are talking about with clients. This should help you develop a better relationship with them and should mean last-minute requests are less likely to be met with silence. It will also help improve the marketing team’s industry knowledge, which leads us on to our second point…

Do your research

As former journalists, at New Narrative we understand the importance of research before an interview. All it takes is single comment that shows an ignorance of the subject matter for an interview to go sour. It’s the same when engaging with your thought leaders.

As part of the in-house marketing team you will have a good understanding of the firm’s strategic goals but it’s also important to understand the specific business or practice area of the person you are talking to. This does not necessary mean hours of research, but a few questions based on the latest article in the business press or the most recent piece of research on the topic will get you off on the right foot. And it will also help with the third piece of advice…

Be specific

Nothing is more likely to infuriate your experts than asking them to write something where your topic suggestion is too general. For example, asking for an opinion piece on China will give the impression of a lack of industry knowledge within the marketing team and is also likely be met with a degree of frustration. But asking for something targeted — such as an article on the significance of China opening its financial markets or the impact of a rising renminbi on capital outflows — will encourage greater engagement.

Minimise the workload

Even with the best will in the world, there will be time when your expert will not have the time to generate the content you need by the deadline. But if she can’t spend an hour writing a blog post, maybe she can spare 30 minutes for a phone call? Or 15 minutes putting the main arguments in an e-mail? These can then be used as the basis of an article to be written by the marketing team or content consultants and reviewed by her later.

Use empirical evidence

It always helps to have some statistics up your sleeve to prove a point. This could be in the form of engagement metrics for a previous campaign. Alternatively, there are plenty of surveys on the effectiveness of content marketing. One of New Narrative’s favourites is the recent survey from Edelman and LinkedIn that asked 1,300 business leaders and C-suite executives how they viewed B2B thought leadership. The results include the fact that over 60% of the respondents think thought leadership is one of the best ways to vet an organisation and understand the caliber of its thinking. Armed with stats like that it should be easy to convince even the cynics that producing thought leadership is time well spent.

The power (and perils) of data

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.