B2B marketing: Are we outsourcing creativity?

“You need to have not only a strong understanding of digital but also an inherently analytical approach and passion for data and numbers. Combine these attributes and you have a well-rounded marketer.”

I read this quote in B2B Magazine. It was from a senior executive with experience spanning Microsoft, Google and GoDaddy. As his “Top Tip” it seems innocuous enough; but read it again.

What’s missing?

It’s something that’s been bugging me for some time.

Creativity.

It used to be at the core of any good marketer. It’s what attracted me to the industry in the first place. Today, the ability to think creatively and find a unique solution to a business challenge seems secondary to the ability to operationalize its delivery.

And it’s hurting our industry.

The shape of most large [internal] marketing departments has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years.  It was once the case that creative talent stayed close to the brand and marketing operations were outsourced to partner agencies. Today this is reversed. It’s not uncommon to find entire marketing teams focused on operational delivery with strategy, messaging and creative development being delivered by an army of outsourced agencies and consultants.

No one denies that the role of the marketer has changed. Teams have had to adjust in order to stay relevant and new skill-sets have emerged. I’m in no way belittling those skills, or even the intent of the original quote at the top of this post; the ability to analyse data helps us to qualify and quantify some of our decision making and better track success; and the use of marketing automation platforms has helped to scale operations. But let’s not paper over the basics. Technology is there to enable, not to replace what should be core attribute and requirement of any marketing function – the ability to tell a story, to find creative solutions and to have a passion not only for “data and numbers” but words.

 

We’ve forgotten the value of long form content in B2B marketing

Those who have been in the marketing industry for more than ten years will remember that once upon a time, the majority of content produced was long form. Lengthy whitepapers, detailed case studies and 2500 word by lined articles. These were the norm.

However, over the last few years, as the idea of “content marketing” began to explode (we’ll ignore the fact that we were doing this 15 years ago, we  just didn’t have a name for it), the art of long form content started to be lost. Gone were the in-depth pieces that conveyed deep domain expertise, making way for short, bite-sized content assets designed to appeal to the attention deficit that our time-poor culture seemed to demand.

Now, I believe, is the time to bring the art of long form content back.

I’m not suggesting that all long form content was/is good. It’s easy to lose the reader in hyperbole-filled rhetoric; key messages become diluted behind pompous prose. However I’ve long worried that a lot of short form content being produced misses the point; written solely with SEO in mind rather that the value that needs to be conveyed to the prospect in the later stages of the sales cycle. The result is noise; and a lot of it.

SEO, of course, remains a vital component in today’s marketing world but  a lot of marketers have forgotten that the use of content changes as you progress through the sales cycle. Short, pithy blog posts, visually exciting, shareable infographics; these are all wonderful tools to drive traffic to web sites, grow attention and capture a lead. However, they are something of a blunt implement when looking to convert those leads.

It’s at this point in the cycle, as leads start to evaluate prospective vendors, that the need to demonstrate credibility and domain expertise becomes paramount. The in-depth case study displays credibility, the detailed white-paper a sense of thought-leadership; quality long form content inspires the confidence that prospects are looking for before they commit to more meaningful vendor conversations.

Make no mistake, long form content is an investment.

You may allow your web team to craft snappy Tweets and blog posts, but long form requires more traditional communication skills. In my own team we have a dedicated resource whose job it is to create such content. First and foremost they are a communicator and writer; spending time across different internal functions to discover exciting stories – everything from customer behaviour through to technology development.

Of course there’s benefit to this investment. The advantage of a piece of long form content is that, if constructed properly, it can be broken into multiple shortform assets that will feed your content machine and SEO requirements for several months.

Every year we invest in a 30 page industry report; it’s a significant time (and financial) investment that takes several weeks to design, write and artwork. It’s a hugely valuable asset that is used to convert marketing leads into meaningful, qualified sales leads. The additional benefit is that its shelf life runs into months. The core document will be carefully deconstructed; the web team scheduling dozens of Tweets, blog posts and commissioning infographics with the data, the PR team producing short by-lined opinion articles and using snippets of the text to engage through the comments section of key influencer articles.  Presentation slides are even built for the purpose of conference engagements or for sales to use in client briefings.

I read that long form content is making something of a comeback. I applaud this. Content marketing has become too noisy and for most brands it’s become impossible to shout loud enough. If we want to protect our pricing, build a sustainable relationship and differentiate our offers we need to demonstrate our value in a more meaningful fashion.

If you make the time investment, so will your prospects.

There’s an accepted wisdom that our prospects are time-poor; that they all suffer from ADD and that to be successful we must communicate to them in bite-sized chunks. This is a horrid generalization.

Be clever in how and where you deploy content marketing. In the awareness phase of the sales cycle, those high-frequency, shareable, bite-sized, SEO-laden content assets are golden. This is how you capture leads.

However, two-thirds of the buying cycle now happens before the prospect even engages with the brand directly. They are evaluating vendors indirectly, so as you nurture those leads it’s imperative to deliver credibility and convey value to establish your base position. This is where your long form content investment will pay dividends.

* For the purposes of this piece I define long form content as a content asset comprising 2000 words or more.

Uber sneaky: The dirty side of the sharing economy

If press reports are to be believed, ridesharing company Uber has been playing a grown-up version of Knock Down Ginger (Ding Dong Ditch to US readers). Lyft, a competitor to Uber, claims that Uber employees have ordered and cancelled more than 5,000 rides since last October. That’s a huge drain on resources, effectively taking drivers off the road and potentially sending customers to Uber.

Where the rides aren’t cancelled, Uber employees take short journeys for the explicit purpose of recruiting the driver for themselves.

Lyft claims 177 Uber employees (likely temps on commission) around the US have participated in this activity suggesting this is a coordinated marketing effort from Uber. The Verge even has internal communications from Uber apparently supporting the campaign (codenamed SLOG),

I don’t necessarily have a problem with a company trying to recruit “employees (drivers)” from a competitor, but the practice of purposely wasting competitor resource for your own gain seems morally dubious from a marketing perspective.

Regardless, it was a hugely risky decision:

  • Regulatory lobbying: Ride-sharing companies are continually battling city regulators. In the US, taxi companies have used their local and state level leverage to protect the status-quo and restrict the operation of ride-share operators; or at least ensure they are regulated in the same way as a traditional taxi service. Uber has recently hired lobbyists to fight its case, but it’s an up-hill battle and negative publicity surrounding business practices will do nothing to make the process any easier.
  • Awareness for Lyft: Outside of the [US] West Coast the Lyft brand was relatively unknown until last week. The PR surrounding SLOG has raised awareness of a competitor. This is never a desirable outcome.
  • Negative brand perception: Uber has been riding the wave of the sharing economy. This movement has inherently become virtuous in its nature. Unethical marketing tactics put the Uber brand on the back-foot and risk diluting the virtuous elements of its brand. For many consumers this publicity will be their first exposure to the brand…and first impressions count.
  • Valuation & funding: Uber is one of the fastest growing tech companies to come out of Silicon Valley since Facebook. In June this year it raised a further $1.2bn, helping to value the company at over $18bn. There’s a serious group of investors behind Uber – from Fidelity Investments to BlackRock Inc. Those are names that won’t want to see their multi-million dollar investments put at risk by negative press commentary and consequent.

 

 

Don’t blame new technology for the age-old problem of poor parenting

Stuart Dredge has become something of an authority on the role of technology and children. I’ve often followed his recommendations for educational apps and have even had my eight-year old experimenting with coding through apps such as Tynker. Needless to say, I’m very much aligned to Stuart’s mindset; today’s youngsters will grow into a world where the skills needed to succeed professionally are light years away from those that I needed to master during the 70’s.

Of course, there are some constants; social skills for example. But how today’s children master problem solving and language have almost certainly benefited from the digital revolution. I say benefited with absolute conviction because I’ve seen first-hand how my own children learn through digital tools and the gamification of subjects such as mathematics.

And yet any suggestion of the benefits delivered to children from digital technologies still draws such vitriolic attacks.

Stuart’s recent piece in The Guardian (online) listed 25 of the best apps for children when travelling this summer. It was a sensible piece, comprising apps for entertainment, creativity, problem solving and education. And yet the comments section quickly filled with vitriol.

  • “What a stupid article highlighting more useless drivel to hinder their childs [sic] development. How about not relying on electronic devices to keep children occupied. Old fashioned parental interaction with the child should be norm.”
  • “Why bother when you can abandon parental responsibilities and give them a device that will impede their mental development? This is grotesque and is symptomatic of everything wrong with modern life. indicative of why the future will be worse than the present.”
  • “Prefer to keep my kids off stupid apps, thank you.”
  • “This article is nauseating.”

You get the point.

comments miss the point?

 

The arguments are strange, but expected. I imagine the same arguments being presented when the first computers were introduced into schools. People seem hard-wired to resist change, perhaps it’s the feeling of uncertainty or a loss of control?

The arguments assume a lack of parental control. The astringent commentators seem unable to comprehend that technology plays a role in balanced education. Instead the myopic assumption is that technology is used as a replacement for traditional learning or as distraction to keep children occupied.

I don’t doubt that there are some parents who use technology as a baby-sitter. But I also don’t doubt that many of these commentators grew-up in a generation where the television, radio or VCR was used in much the same way. We’ve all done it at some point.

But to assume that this is the sole purpose of apps is blindly ignorant. The same parental skills are needed. Managing screen time and vetting apps is just another skill to be mastered by today’s parents.

My daughters are both under eight. They each have a tablet and as a sensible parent I chose the technology based on my ability to control it. My youngest has a Kindle Fire HD and I applaud Amazon’s responsible approach; it allows me to set educational targets requiring my daughter to read for an hour before it allows her access to an entertainment app. I can block certain apps or ensure it can’t be switched on after 7pm. I am in control.

For my eldest daughter, technology is completely integrated with her learning. I’ve seen her spend hours on her tablet researching the solar system, then pick up a pen and paper and write a thoughtful poem about the planets. Sure she enjoys curling into her beanbag to watch something on Netflix, but no more so than she enjoys swimming, riding or any other physical exercise.

It’s about balance. It always has been. Don’t blame new technology for the age-old problem of poor parenting.

What do you think?

 

Churn & Customer Value Management in Telecoms

I’ll be speaking this month in Prague, chairing the Churn & Customer Value Management in Telecoms conference.

Some great speakers have been lined up (O2 UK, Tele2, 3UK, TTNET, Vodafone etc).

I’ll be keeping a live blog / Twitter stream throughout the event. If you are planning to attend, feel free to connect with me in advance.

More information at www.churnandcvmintelecoms.com

Why PR’s big-data, geek-laden rhetoric makes me cringe

Dear PR Industry.

It’s ok, we get it. Times are changing and PR needs to change too. But, please, for the love of god, stop with the “Future of PR rests with Geeks and Big Data” angle.

It smacks of desperation, misunderstanding and a genetic desire to associate yourself with the latest zeitgeist.

In your imagination you think that bringing someone to a pitch with a “data analyst” title is going to impress me. The reality is that it’s like listening to my five-year old daughter trying to be grown-up by using words she’s heard adults use, but that she doesn’t quite understand.

You throw the world “geek” around like a badge of honour, applying it to anyone with a Twitter account and an iPhone. And if one more agency pitches me with Big Data credentials, only to explain that what they really mean is that they have an intern that can use Excel I might very well implode.

I’ve just read this and it made me feel sorry for you. I know you are relevant, but throwing buzz words at the problems is not the answer. Heck, this post even tells PR professionals to develop their big data skills by taking a course in Excel.

Excel? Really?

Yes, we need a different skillset in the industry. Measurement is vital and the ability to extract a story from data correlation is hugely advantageous, but it doesn’t make people geeks, it makes them effective workers who have skilled themselves for the 21st Century.  The ability to craft a “countif” statement in Excel is not big data and it doesn’t make you a geek. It just makes you employable.

NB – PR industry, I say this because I love you.

 

 

This guy was mediocre, what he did to increase his popularity will blow your mind!

You clicked. I knew you would.

But is it fair? Have you clicked because you value my commentary or because the headline delivered an emotional promise? Do you consider this click-bait or will this post actually deliver something?

If you are a B2B marketer I hope this will be of interest, because I want to understand whether the “Upworthy-Style” of headline writing has any place in B2B marketing.

The Upworthy headline has infiltrated almost every corner of the internet and anyone who’s spent time on Facebook will recognise the style. There is no room for debate in the proposition they present. Loaded with hyperbole and superlatives, your emotional reaction to the content is being primed as you read the headline. The post promises that “Your faith in humanity will be restored”, or that it will “Blow your mind”.

Of course, the reality is that you are unlikely to be shocked by what you read. The content probably won’t “blow your mind” and your faith in humanity is more than likely to still be in tatters. But that doesn’t matter because it still works. Upworthy is now the third-most-shared publisher on the Internet and the average Upworthy post attracts 43,446 Facebook shares.

It’s a divisive approach. Personally it annoys me. I don’t like to be told how I should react to a piece of content before I’ve even opened it. However, I acknowledge that this is a very personal opinion and the [Upworthy] traffic statistics speak for themselves. I also acknowledge that what’s going on here is more than just click-baiting. After all, click-bait only gets you to click; the content needs to stack up if it’s to be shared.

Upworthy knows this, it hires staff full time to scour the internet for the most compelling content before applying the Upworthy headline formula to it (a simple mash-up of outrage, mood and mystery).

The Upworthy style isn’t inherently new. It’s classical storytelling. It’s “conflict and resolution”. If we want to understand how the conflict was resolved we must click.

The real question, regardless of your personal opinion is whether this approach is something B2B brands could (or should) be using in their content marketing. Is it time to the classical, descriptive headline?

After all, the conflict and resolution structure of an Upworthy headline translates well into what B2B marketers try to achieve; present the challenge (conflict) and present the solution (resolution). Would a subtle shift in the way the content is packaged positively impact a response rate?

Upworthy’s own data claims that a headline can vary traffic to a piece of content by as much as 500%. It’s not uncommon for them to test dozens of headlines before going live. If you’re not convinced by the power of a headline in generating shares, take the case study of Zach Sobiech.

Diagnosed with a form of bone cancer when he was 17, Sobiech was given a year to live. During that time he recorded a song about how he was dealing with illness and was the subject of a short documentary called “My Last Fays: Meet Zach Sobiech”. In total his story was viewed by less than a 100,000 people globally. That is, until Upworthy repackaged the content after Sobiech’s death in 2013.

Posted under the headline This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular”, the story went viral and went on to be viewed several million times (at the time of writing the video has been viewed over 12m times).

Sobiech’s song went on to become No.1 on the Apple iTunes download chart and more than $300,000 was raised for cancer research through a link Upworthy added to the content.

Remember, the content hadn’t changed. Upworthy was simply tuning how it was packaged.

Upworthy’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the more traditional publishers. Some have even tried to replicate the style; with mixed results. In January, CNN tweeted a story synopsis, employing the Upworthy style of headline writing.

cnn_upworthy

The reaction was caustic. The was a story about the murder of a child and the obvious click-baiting lent an air of levity to a tragic event.

cnn_upworthy2

So, while I’m [personally] keen to experiment with the Upworthy-style with some simple A/B testing on some of our future campaigns, CNN’s experience offers some warnings.

Positive stories only: The enigmatic prose of an Upworthy headlines works best with positive news stories. Like CNN, don’t apply levity to a serious issue that involves human tragedy.

Conflict and Resolution: Remember; the Upworthy style relies on a very basic storytelling principle. Present a challenge (conflict) and deliver a solution (resolution). Don’t explain how you get from the conflict to the resolution in the headline. This is the “curiosity gap” and it’s this that will make targets click. Let’s take an example.

Traditional Style: AcmeTelecom uses sensor technology from the medical industry to improve network performance.

Upworthy style: When customers demanded more speed, AcmeTel found the answer in an unlikely place.

Brand alignment: Not every brand can make this work. Established news outlets (CNN, BBC etc) are unlikely to be able to replicate this style without its audience calling them out for “dumbing down”. Likewise, the Upworthy style is designed to appeal to the masses, so luxury brands, or those with a very small, niche target should avoid such prose.

Good content: A good headline is no substitute for good content. Click-bait headlines that drive targets to misleading or poor content will have a negative impact in the long-term. Brand engagement will reduce and unsubscribes will increase.

Forget viral: Upworthy wants its content to go viral. Its business model relies on advertising and sponsored content. It’s untargeted so achieving the greatest number of shares across a wide consumer base is the priority. In a B2B context, while a viral piece of content is certainly beneficial, it shouldn’t be top-of-mind when packaging a campaign. The same rules of marketing apply; understand and target your audience. With this in mind, the priority for this style of headline is click / engagement rate.

Above all, remember to measure the right thing: I’m not suggesting that the Upworthy style is right for every B2B campaign, but as marketers it’s our job to test, finesse and figure out what works best for our audience. Sometimes we can get wrapped-up tracking things that don’t matter to our organization’s goals. An increased click rate is meaningless if it doesn’t create a sales uplift. Make sure you can track the engagement and that your metrics are aligned to the financial goals of the business.

I’d be fascinated to learn of any B2B case studies that have looked at this style of headline writing. Again, I’m not advocating this as an approach for everyone; but given Upworthy’s traffic stats, it must be worth some exploration. I’d also be fascinated to see if my own Upworthy headline will indeed increse my popularity (traffic stats)!