News & Views

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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When searching for an effective thought leadership strategy, many of our clients ask us: “Where do we begin? How do we know what to publish?”

That’s a fair question. Publishing with impact is hard no matter who you are.

And then there are those clients – admittedly far fewer in number – who have the exact opposite problem: they simply publish too much. That’s to say, they saturate the market with commentary on every little development, trusting that volume alone will win the battle for more influence.

What these clients forget is that discernment and balance are also vital factors in any sound publishing strategy. We all know that friend who talks too much, much to the annoyance of his fellow dinner guests. After a while you begin to nod mindlessly at the sound of his voice – or tune him out completely.

Another parallel is found in the world of luxury travel. Five-star service is not only knocking on your door at evenly spaced intervals to inquire if you need your shoes polished or desire another complimentary fruit basket. Five-star service is also about knowing when to leave you alone.

These same principles apply to the world of thought leadership publishing. If you don’t publish at all, well – you can’t become a thought leader. If you publish too much, clients and consumers will tune you out.

So, at risk of talking too much and ignoring my own advice, here’s a few tips to help you find that elusive balance.

1. Clean your internal publishing pipes
Clients who publish too much often suffer from the same problem: they lack a formal publishing process and everyone internally – from VPs to MDs – wants a piece of the action. They simply turn on the tap and hope what flows out is good enough. This results in too much content from too many voices – much of it mediocre at best.

Solution: Identify who internally owns which pieces of your company’s editorial output, and give them the authority to set the tone. Have the confidence to say no to those who shouldn’t be publishing – and also resist editing everything you publish via committee. The more editors involved, the more you water down your output.

2. Allocate clearly-defined content budgets
Knowing how much you have to spend on thought leadership (as opposed to other types of marketing) encourages you to make strategic decisions and take a structured approach. It also helps you figure out what’s possible with the budget you have, forcing hard decisions about expenditures and desired ROI.

Solution: Mark the budget at the beginning of each year (or the beginning of each quarter) to establish a clear view of the potential size – or limits – of your publishing programme. And then work backward to define and shape your editorial calendar.

3. Be honest about what you’re qualified to talk about
Let’s be honest – no one is an authority on everything. Take Amazon for example. The e-commerce giant can easily talk about literary trends, because it has the sales data to back up its observations. But it’s better qualified to talk about e-commerce, or internet book retailing in general. More traditional publishers are better positioned to talk about literary trends.

Solution: Be honest about where you stand in the market and pick your sweet spot. Be confident enough to let others – even quasi competitors – to lead a conversation that you aren’t uniquely qualified to speak about.

4. Know what else is out there
Far too many aspiring thought leaders don’t know their place in the public conversation simply because they aren’t aware of what has already been said and what needs saying.

Solution: Read up on the best out there – whether that’s on Bloomberg, Reuters, or in the Financial Times – and do so frequently. That will give you a better view on the value of what you’re saying, and how it is likely to be received in the marketplace of ideas.

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Earlier this week fellow n/n Partner Lorraine and I gave a perhaps ambitiously titled talk at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about B2B Content Marketing”.

After we’d finished, a former journalist colleague approached me, perhaps remembering what we’d said about being careful with statistics, and said that although it didn’t quite deliver “everything”, it covered at least 84.6% of what he wanted to know. (Unfortunately he didn’t tell me what the missing 15.4% was…)

We’d be happy to share the entire talk of course (watch this space for a webinar) but one part in particular had most of the audience reaching for their smartphone cameras: this diagram, which set up the rest of the talk.

B2B Content Marketing Decision-Making Flowchart

This isn’t rocket science, but it bears repeating. If content marketers follow this flowchart – with each step ranked in order of priority – and get buy-in on each decision before they embark on a campaign, then they are much less likely to go wrong (in terms of strategy at least; as to actually producing quality content, that’s a different matter.)

Everything flows from the business aim of the campaign, whether this is broad brand-building at the top of the sales funnel, lead conversion at the bottom, or anything in between. That decided, the next most important decision is the audience: nowadays you can be very precise indeed about specific “personas” you might want to target and, of course, which channels are suited to reach them.

Only then should marketers think about the type of content to produce. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s crucial to remember that this is subordinate to those first three decision points. In our experience, content campaigns that don’t follow this decision-making hierarchy are far less likely to succeed.

This brings us to the last decision point: how will you define success? Since the commercial aims of a campaign may vary, so too do the means to measure ROI. There are hundreds of thousands of potential KPIs to choose from (not least metrics from social media) but this doesn’t make the job easier, since budget decision makers won’t be impressed with a disordered jumble of stats.

That makes it doubly important to agree on this in advance. Of course, you need the flexibility to adapt, especially in a long campaign. But getting stakeholders’ buy-in on all five points from the outset should get you at least, I estimate, 84.6% of the way to success.

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Content marketing remains a nascent, if growing, industry in Asia so it’s always great to have to chance to hear the opinions of other professionals working in this area. That was one of the pleasures of a recent panel discussion I attended in Hong Kong (as well as the complimentary wine…) In addition to providing plenty of insight, it brought into sharp relief some of the miscommunication common between marketing teams and the agencies that serve them.

So in the interests of bringing greater harmony to Asia’s content market industry, here are some of the main talking points from the night and New Narrative’s assessment.

Budget or no budget in the brief?

This question produced the biggest divergence in opinion on the night. The agencies speaking at the event felt very strongly that clients needed to provide a budget when commissioning a project. If not a precise figure, then they needed at least to give a range or upper limit to give some sense about what the agency should be aiming for.

Marketers, though, were quite opposed to the idea. In part, this was borne out of their previous experience of agencies far exceeding the budget limits given to them. It also came from a feeling that agencies would inevitably pitch a solution that used up the whole budget regardless of whether it was justified.

New Narrative’s take: While an unscrupulous agency might be looking to squeeze their clients dry at every opportunity, the best ones are trying to build long-term, strategic partnerships. As part of that, they want to understand a client’s needs — and that includes budget. Having a budget allows agencies to recommend the correct mix of content at a price the client can bear. Otherwise they are left guessing, which means their proposals might be rejected multiple times before they meet a client’s requirements, leading to frustration all round.

Clients need to trust agencies to come up with the right solution at the right price. Likewise, if a budget is available up front, agencies need to accept that not every project needs to max it out to succeed. Of course, trust on both sides needs to be earned!

Information vs instruction

How much detail is the right amount for a project brief? A lively discussion on this was prompted by a question from the audience. For the agencies, it was felt that having as much information as possible about the context for the campaign meant they were able to present better ideas to the client.

More information doesn’t necessarily mean more instruction, though. Marketers and agencies agreed the key was for a client not to be too prescriptive in which ideas could be put forward. In addition, both sides viewed the process as one of evolution, where ideas can be discussed, adapted and revised until the best outcome is reached.

New Narrative’s take: Generally speaking more information is better, but let our creative juices flow! That’s what you’re paying for, after all. On top of that, we always advise clients not to view a proposal as the final say, but rather as the beginning of the conversation. As a strategic partner, we understand a client’s need for a flexible and collaborative approach and it’s also how we prefer to work.

Trust me, I’m an expert

Finally, during a discussion about pet peeves, one frustration clearly voiced by agencies was not being treated like the expert. This was less about ego and more about asking clients to recognise they had hired an agency for its expertise (and, as mentioned, its creative talents), and should listen to the offered advice rather than force through bad decisions that weaken rather than strengthen campaigns.

The marketers took this on board but didn’t look happy!

New Narrative’s take: This is one of the biggest challenges for agencies and marketers. At New Narrative, we always advise clients on what we think is the best course of action and will be clear if we think a decision will undermine the project objectives. This is especially crucial when it comes to creating a credible editorial voice, an issue content marketing (as opposed to plain old marketing) always has to grapple with.

But we also understand that marketers have internal relationships and pressures to manage that sometimes no amount of good advice can overcome. And we are always willing to help marketers craft a convincing argument to use with internal stakeholders to get the best outcome.

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2017 was a year of expansion for New Narrative with the launch of our New York office and three new team members in Hong Kong. And we’re continuing this growth into 2018. We are pleased to be hiring for a talented financial writer and editor to join our 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.

JOB DESCRIPTION

New Narrative, Asia’s leading financial and professional services content marketing agency, is expanding and looking for a talented financial writer and editor to join its growing team in Hong Kong.

From our offices in Hong Kong and New York, New Narrative delivers compelling content to the world’s leading banks, asset managers, law firms, fintech companies, consultants and others. 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, reporting on major events and producing commentary and analysis for an audience of senior decision-makers in the financial and professional services sectors.

Role: Editor, Financial Services

The company is looking for a dynamic and ambitious writer and editor to create content across a range of media for discerning and demanding clients. The role calls for a motivated and confident writer and editor with experience of covering financial markets, and the ambition to show what they can do at a young and fast-growing company in a new and rapidly evolving industry.

As Editor you will be responsible for producing content on a range of topics, in a range of formats, and to a range of deadlines. One week you might be writing a blog series on blockchain; the next you could be crafting tweets live from an asset management seminar in Shanghai; the next setting down to write the agenda for an event on the economics of the Belt & Road Initiative. The appeal of the job lies in its constant variety: no two client briefs are alike!

Skills and Experience Required

The successful candidate should have:

— A minimum of three years’ experience in an editorial role at a major publishing business

— Experience producing high-quality content across a range of formats, including long- and short-form written content, infographics, video and other digital formats (NB: we are looking for editorial quality; graphic design and video production skills are not required)

— Experience writing about the financial and professional services sectors for audiences of senior executives (samples of both unedited and published work will be required)

— Knowledge of the traditional, new and social media communications strategies of financial and professional services firms

— Impeccable written English skills and a commitment to editorial quality in everything you do, from text messages to tweets to treatises

— A network of contacts among marketing and communications decision-makers in these industries would be a distinct advantage

— The right to work in Hong Kong

— The willingness to travel overseas for work

Salary

The role offers a generous base salary, based on experience.

Other benefits include medical insurance, paid holidays and a company mobile phone.

Why work at n/n?

New Narrative offers a progressive working environment. While the hours don’t always fit easily into 9-5, we actively pursue a policy of work-life balance for all staff.

As a small but fast-growing company in a nascent industry in Asia, we offer unmatched opportunities for advancement. The right candidate can help shape the future direction of our business and the region’s content marketing industry.

New Narrative is an equal opportunities employer.

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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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One of the most dispiriting things about political discourse these days is the readiness of some people to shout “Fake news!” when confronted with facts they don’t like. Misinformation and propaganda are as old as human communication, of course, but there is such a thing as a credible source of information–as well as plenty that don’t qualify.

Using credible sources is crucial when it comes to creating content that will impress a discerning audience (the aim of all of our clients). n/n founder Jon Hopfner recently set out how data alone isn’t enough to get your message across, and I’d underline that with the point that using any old data won’t do, either. At a minimum you have make sure you can trust where it’s coming from.

Trust…

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious who has the right stuff. For economic, social and demographic data you can’t beat the resources and diligence of multinational NGOs like the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, OECD and the like. (OK, so extreme conspiracy theorists would say these guys have some nefarious agenda too, but let’s assume you’re not interested in trying to convert flat-earthers or David Icke fans.)

Stats from news sources with long, hard-earned editorial credibility (think Reuters, the Financial Times, New York Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal etc) you should also feel comfortable quoting. They typically go to great lengths to ensure the reliability of their data, and they have fact-checking quality controls without which their brands wouldn’t have gained the cachet they have. (OK, they make mistakes; to err is human. But to wheel out an old maxim, you should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.)

…and verify

We admit to some bias here: n/n was founded by two former Reuters journos, and I was an editor at The Economist Group for 10 years. Being aware of potential bias is of course crucial when judging the credibility of sources, especially if you’re looking for a stat to help prove a point you want to make.

I could tell you, for instance, that 70% of people would rather learn about a company through articles than an advert. How credible is this? I found it midway down a (frankly intimidating) infographic from “Point Visible”, a Croatian marketing agency. They’ve included sources at the bottom, but none actually has that stat in it (and some merely cannibalise other cited sources, including a hefty CMI study.) Googling “70% of people would rather learn about a company through articles than an advert” reveals that the same stat was used in a 2013 blog by someone at inboundmarketingagents.com, but the source they give leads to a 404 error. I could go on, but my patience has already worn thin.

There are credible sources on marketing out there: Edelman and LinkedIn’s survey of 1,300 senior executives, for example, has an impressive sample size and clear methodology. Just using one stat from that study–that 9 in 10 respondents think thought leadership is important, for example–carries much more weight than a shotgun blast of factoids with no or dubious provenance.

So it goes for statistics in any content. Be judicious and transparent in sourcing your stats and they will work much harder in your favour.

 

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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.

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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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