Where is the Content in Content Marketing?

The marketing world has finally discovered that honest and valuable content makes a difference in interacting with consumers. Not surprisingly, marketers had to name and define this activity. We called it “Content Marketing”. Definitions abound but it is meant to encompass all marketing formats involving the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumers.

It begs the question…is there such a thing as non-content marketing?

Beyond my jadedness, content marketing’s intent is to provide high-quality, relevant and valuable information to prospects and customers to drive brand awareness, consideration, and purchase. Content Marketing can take many forms such as custom magazines, print or online newsletters, digital content, websites or microsites, white papers, webcasts and webinars, podcasts, roadshows, roundtables, interactive online, e-mail, and events. Read more

Ban the Elevator Pitch

Warning! This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.

Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.

One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. elevator-pitch1I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.

It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.

Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too. Read more

The Cost of Vice

Last week I visited my hometown of Winnipeg. Following a long walk along lovely Wellington Crescent to the city’s sprawling Assiniboine Park I stopped at a Starbucks. My small Pellegrino, a grande coffee and oatbar totaled north of CDN$10.00. No big surprise.

While soaking up the sun on the patio I spotted a gent who purchased a venti-something. He carried a bag containing two or more bottles from the provincial liquor retailer (we have a different system of selling in Canada). He wandered off the patio to smoke a cigarette at a respectable distance (it was Canada after all). I absently wondered what his annual spend was on these three habits or vices.

I don’t smoke, never have. Starbucks is a once-in-awhile thing, I have never been hip to the vibe. When it comes to drinking that is a different story, in a bar graph my bar and booze spending would spike. This is no morality tale. I am not preaching the cut of one habit or vice over the other. I am in no position to do so.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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The Appeal of Writing Cabins

You do not have to be a writer to want a private little cabin…but it helps. The solitude, peace and focus could keep the words flowing. Here is a question, could you go without Internet in your small pad? Author Jonathan Franzen writes in the big city but on a computer without online connection. And that is the point, to make sense of the world either through fiction or nonfiction, you have to disconnect. Imagine doing so in any of these tiny muses.

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Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past. A bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a 140 character tweet, or captured in an oversimplified to-do list. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Methodologies at agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements. Creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession.

Still, storytelling is constantly critiqued. It is viewed broadly as integral, over-used, irrelevant, or even dead. Storytelling is constantly evolving in interesting ways. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Still they control context and that is critical. Context provides the story’s framework. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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The Write Advice

God I love writing. Too bad the ‘Gods of Writing’ can be so demanding even cruel. That is why it is important to draw on the experiences of others. Take Ernest Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” There is both comfort and terror in that observation.

Enid Bagnold captured my own sentiments of writing, “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

Here are other quotes on writing that may cause you to slap your forehead and say to and for yourself, “That’s it!”

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” George Orwell

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” Stephen King

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.” William Zinsser

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.” John Updike

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Samuel Johnson

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” Elmore Leonard

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” Larry L. King

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” Doris Lessing

“Style is to forget all styles.” Jules Renard

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” Lawrence Block

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” Leigh Brackett

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” Stephen King

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.” Jim Tully

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” Harper Lee

“Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.” Jack Kerouac

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” Ray Bradbury

“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” George Singleton

“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” Jim Thompson

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” Andre Gide

“When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.” Margaret Laurence

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Annie Dillard

 

Your Brand Story is Your Brand Strategy

So much has been written on storytelling in business that a subset of the marketing community is pushing back against its purported benefits. Yet, increasingly creative agencies big and small are specializing in helping clients better tell their story. More and more conferences are dedicated to the topic. Content marketing and copywriting professionals now fall under the umbrella of storytelling.

All of this activity is taking place with the hope that customers will identify with the story, tell it, and share it. This sounds a lot like the overall purpose of branding and IMG_4556marketing and that makes me a believer in the power of storytelling.

When it works, it really works. I am not a fan of overly simplistic stabs at business storytelling. Those attempts rob brands and businesses of what makes them interesting in the first place, namely, their depth and complexity. This does not mean everything should be “War and Peace” but it certainly should not be dumbed down to a tagline or strive for a one-word association.

I use two different constructs to help build an engaging narrative. The first answers seven questions and generally works better for B2B, professional services, and association clients. These require honest and uncomfortable answers to be successful.

  • Where do we come from?
  • Where is our world going?
  • Who are our communities?
  • What are we like?
  • How do we behave?
  • What is our purpose?
  • What is our brand idea?

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A Collection of Business Storytelling Stories

We share a collection of business storytelling articles that offer value. These are both recent and go back a few years but all support the effectiveness of telling the right tale right.

Why Storytelling Will Be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years (HubSpot)
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

The Irresistible Power of Storytelling (Harvard Business Review)
A Strategic Business Tool.

Why Companies Need More Novelists (Fast Company)
Leaders, take note (and MFA grads, take heart): acclaimed novelist Mohsin Hamid on the most quote-Tim-OBrien-storytelling-is-the-essential-human-activity-the-135637important tool you’re not using enough.

Product Narrative: How to Use Fiction to Get Your Story Straight (Inc. Magazine)
David Riemer of the Haas School of Business explains why story telling is so powerful.

The Inside Story (Psychology Today)
Success in the information age demands that we harness the hidden power of stories. Here’s what you need to know to tell a killer tale.

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Marketing is a Human Activity

Marketing-Jeff-Swystun

This originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

I am a part of a team researching marketing studies for a prospective book. Our intent is to discover commonality and difference in content. One thing that we found immediately was the need to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Everything else is blinding white noise. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

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