News & Views

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.


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.

 


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.


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.


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.


How can you tell content marketing works? When even the marketing companies are using it. The ‘State of Inbound 2016’ report from sales software specialist HubSpot is a good example, and an insightful piece of research in its own right.

HubSpot being an inbound sales platform, the neutrality of its conclusions might be called into question, but the firm’s certainly done some legwork, polling 4,500 marketers globally and 800 in Asia Pacific alone — most non-HubSpot customers in small and mid-sized enterprises. Not surprisingly, the report shows inbound marketing (that is, getting customers to come to you via a website, content or referrals) is far more effective in terms of return on investment than the ‘outbound’ variety (shouting at customers to come to you with display, banner or other types of ads). Here are some of the other key findings from our perspective:

Content is a must — and a struggle

Creating content was the second-biggest inbound marketing priority for Asia-Pacific companies, just under enhancing their website search engine optimisation. But it doesn’t necessarily come easy; nearly a third (31%) saw targeting content for an international audience as a major challenge.

Content can also be exhausting — 66% of marketers said they develop their own content in-house, and almost a quarter (23%) spend four hours or more crafting one short blog post. It’s great that so much thought and care is going into the process, but (depending on subject matter) it really shouldn’t take that long — and can’t, if small marketing teams hope to generate content at a rate (and on a level of quality) to fuel ambitious campaigns and long-term engagement. Simple lack of capacity may result in more enlisting the help of (ahem) outside agencies to support their content needs, which a mere 21% those polled did currently.

Distribution: The classics reign (for now)

While HubSpot concentrated on blogs in this study, next year’s will almost certainly have to encompass video — YouTube and Facebook video were the most popular emerging content distribution channels, with 51% and 40% of those polled respectively planning to add them to their marketing programs in the next 12 months. Instagram was a distant third (28%) while few placed much emphasis on Snapchat (11%) or Vine (5%). This indicates to us that marketers plan to focus their content efforts on a couple of key formats or platforms, and that’s a sound strategy — far better to master one or two distribution channels than to do a half-hearted job of populating all of them.

The study also shows most people continue to draw a line between social and business networking. Only LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are seen as ‘professional’ platforms; others, including Instagram, WeChat and Weibo, are still used almost exclusively for personal purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean these channels should be disregarded by businesses, but does suggest that LinkedIn and Facebook are still the places where ‘serious’ content is most likely to connect with decision makers, and have the most impact, particularly in the business-to-business context. This might change as more organisations refine their visual content offerings, or turn their attention to the mainland Chinese market and its homegrown networking platforms.

All in all, it’s encouraging that content and not ad spending is viewing as the new marketing currency, and we look forward to seeing how the results change next year.


We’re very happy to announce today the formal appointment of n/n’s new Hong Kong-based director of business development, Elizabeth Kwong.

A veteran of top-tier media brands such as Asiamoney, Time and the Economist Group, Elizabeth boasts a formidable combination of sales skills and serious publishing and project management chops, and has helped shape content strategies for a range of clients in industries from technology to retail. We expect Elizabeth to play a major role in our future growth (and perhaps keep the rest of us in line in the process).

For more details on Elizabeth and the rest of the expanding team, please see our People page.


Many of the events of the second day of RISE, Hong Kong’s tech-startup-focused conference, were devoted to disruption in marketing and media (how could we not attend?) One of the most interesting panels was entitled “The media-driven brand”, but as one panellist noted the discussion could equally have been about “brand-driven media”. Which is driving which? It’s not a new question, but it has become more pointed as traditional publishers struggle to revamp their subscription and advertising-dependent business models, and as companies are producing more high-quality content (which is where, *cough*, we come in) alongside pure brand advertising.

Publishers have traditionally won or lost on the size and quality of their audiences, but now–in competition with behemoths like Facebook and its endless free newsfeed–they face difficult choices about how make their businesses sustainable. “Media needs to be rebooted,” said Rob Fan, co-founder and CTO of Sharethrough, a native advertising platform, on the RISE panel. He cited Buzzfeed, which has parlayed its mass appeal to the digital native crowd into some serious journalism.

Coming at it from the other direction is harder. Traditional publishers will find it hard to build Buzzfeed-level fanbases and are unlikely to see subscriptions or old-style ad sales recover lost ground. Sadly, great content alone is not enough to make them solvent. (Just ask Alan Rusbridger.) There are some innovative attempts out there–including in our home town–to crowdfund news reporting, but however commendable such efforts are, it seems media and brands will have to keep collaborating to make the most out of their target audiences’ evolving proclivities.

One solution–that Mr Fan’s platform was founded to enable–is to allow native advertising; that is, embedding and integrating a brand’s content alongside the publisher’s own. This can help independent publishers survive, Mr Fan claimed, warning that without them we’d risk a world where “everyone is a blogger” and no one does any serious reporting. But there is a risk with native advertising that companies and publishers alike recognise: if it isn’t clearly demarcated, the audience may start to lose trust in the credibility and authority of the publisher–and by extension the brand paying for the content. (The Onion, itself no stranger to the concept, made a good, and very crude, point about this a few years back. Only follow that link–or read The Onion–if you’re not easily offended.)

Trust is hard-won and easily lost. But as another panellist, Lara Setrakian, co-founder and CEO of NewsDeeply, explained, there is a way to build it and simultaneously make high-quality independent publishing sustainable in collaboration with corporate partners. First, and above all, establish that editorial goals are paramount, and do good work. This will generate loyal and passionate communities of followers that companies will want to reach. Then use this experience to create custom projects on related themes. (It’s also a model that The Economist Intelligence Unit has used to good effect when conducting sponsored research.)

Of course this means walking a fine editorial line, but it is one that it pays both media platforms and corporate brands to adhere to–if they want to build trust in their audiences. Ceding a degree of editorial control is uncomfortable for some brands, but given they share with the publisher the objectives of building a sustainable business and pleasing a discerning audience, it’s a step that must be taken.

 


We’re very pleased to announce we’re seeking the next addition to the n/n team, in the form of a Hong Kong-based director of business development. A full description of the role is below — please e-mail applications or any questions to info@new-narrative.com

Title: Director of Business Development, Hong Kong

New Narrative (n/n) is looking for a dynamic sales director to help scale the company and drive its growth from phenomenal to incredible. With responsibility for new client acquisition as well as deepening relationships with existing clients, the role calls for a dynamic, motivated and confident sales leader eager to grow professionally in—and alongside—an ambitious and rapidly expanding enterprise.

Skills and Experience Required

The successful candidate should have:

— A minimum of five years’ experience in media sales or a senior corporate communications or marketing role

— Experience working in the financial or professional services sectors

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

— A deep network of contacts among marketing and communications decision-makers in these industries

— A gregarious personality and a keen desire to expand his or her network of contacts

— Awareness that success depends on timely action and tenacity in adversity

— Fluent English; Cantonese would be an advantage

— The right to work in Hong Kong

Salary

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

New Narrative is an equal opportunities employer.


So, according to Fortune, computers are taking over the reporting of breaking financial news, and are in some respects better at it than human journalists. As former financial hacks, we saw the early stages of this transformation, and find it both intriguing and slightly troubling. We’d agree that human judgement will always be required to determine what raw numbers actually mean, and to steer clear of the kind of language that might inadvertently sow market panic. But leaving aside the implications for the journalism industry, the article raises an excellent point:

“The role of reporters today should be to act as ‘silo busters’ who can acquire information from diverse sources and present it in context … for journalists, it’s now about connecting, synthesizing and analyzing.”

This, in a nutshell, is how data should be viewed and treated by everyone. With data collection and analytics now vital to any business, most companies generate data as a matter of course that can tell compelling stories about their organisation or industry. However in addressing the media or a wider audience, simply cherry-picking a few figures is unlikely to have much impact, as numbers in isolation are essentially meaningless. For example, sales might have rose 125%, but off what kind of base? And 70% of your customers may be repeat clients, but how does that compare to the industry average?

An organisation that sifts through data to identify and shed light on longer-term trends, however, can use it to position itself as an authority with plenty to say not only about its field, but wider issues. And this applies to just about everybody; a logistics firm, for example, will have intelligence on the state of infrastructure where it operates; an online florist could easily produce some tongue-in-cheek findings on the state of romance in the various markets it ships to. Teasing a story out of data doesn’t necessarily require computer scientists or costly analytics engines; often it’s a more matter of working with the right partners to highlight, repurpose and present existing information in the most engaging possible way. We’ve used company data to develop everything from research reports to ongoing proprietary indexes, which often produce the kind of rankings and headlines that can compete with the most blatant clickbait (with, of course, a lot more class and intellectual heft).

In a crowded content market, intellectual property is one of the most valuable currencies there is — and most companies are sitting on a mountain of it. We’d humbly suggest ‘connect, synthesise, analyse’ works equally well as a mantra for business journalists and the best content programmes.

 

 


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