Possibly the highest-value-per-page non-fiction specialist book I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Only worth reading if this is your bag, of course, but if it is then you're in for a treat. Endlessly useful and chock full of frameworks, suggested processes, and ideas.
Selling is always a human to human experience. The stories we tell help our brands to resonate with the other people in other businesses before the 'buying process' even begins:
'Brands that don't have the right type of digital content - that is content which is engaging and appealing to decision makers – have lost their sale before it's even begun.' (Page 5)
Trust is critical in all of this. You need it to make a sale but it's in short supply, hard to build and easy to lose. You can no longer just try and hard sell your products - you must show that you have the same beliefs as your customers.
'Key to success is to 'interrupt' the decision-making process with your brand message in as appealing a way as possible. If you can push through the noise – be clever with your messaging, not just shout the loudest – there is scope for brands to use storytelling and brand journalism to gain awareness and start the journey to a trust position.' (Page 11)
Businesses are open to, and welcoming of, good educational content that they can make use of in their decision-making process.
The key to approaching content creation in the right way is to approach things in a journalistic fashion. You won't get very far just pumping out articles and blog posts that look and feel corporate... actually good content fires human curiosity and interest, so you have to work with this as your fundamental principle.
'The creation of multi-format content, the themes of which are driven by the broad cultural, societal and business landscape, brand values and corporate purpose. Stories created are information-rich, relevant or of real value to the target audience and are created using the sensibilities, skills, tools and processes of journalism. This content is primarily uploaded on a brand's own publishing and amplification channels.' (Page 22)
Principles to live by as a brand journalist:
Think like a journalist: ask questions, look for interesting stories: who, what, when, why and how
Don't sell, just tell: focus on the story first and foremost, don't overtly try to shoehorn your product or gadget in there. The focus should be on the reader/customer and what they're interested in.
Be accurate and fact-based: trust is vital - work to build it, and never lose it
Develop a journalistic process: clear steps in a process that everyone can follow, deadlines for writing, review and publication
Be interested (not just 'aware'): know your subject matter properly, built expertise, read widely, cultivate contacts, go to industry events... just generally be a nosy git and get about the place
Be responsive: pay attention to what's going on in the world, e.g. world/current events, anniversaries, emergent themes and how this can relate to the content you're producing. You can also try 'newsjacking', but be considered and sensitive depending on what it is you're 'jacking'.
Be consistent and agile: 'always be posting' - the content machine doesn't take holidays.
Quality > Quantity: commit to publishing only high quality content rather than lots of dross. The very best brands will be building publications for these things, building an audience for that rather than just for individual pieces of content.
'True brand journalism is about creating and delivering stories of value to your audience, with a view to what their issues and challenges are. Your aim should be turning the focus on them, and away from your company or brand.' (Page 25)
Keep your audience in mind, first and foremost. Developing a persona for the audience you're talking to really helps here; it all depends on how specific your industry/niche is. Think about the roles they take, the demographics they're in, their status and their challenges (from day to day to existential).
Undertake both quantitative and qualitative research. Gather data from sales teams, access any market research if it's available. Interview customers and find out what matters most to them.
Aim to develop (and develop an understanding of) your 'Alpha Audience' - the people who will be most engaged with your content, and be sharing it. They help you to build trust.
'Arresting the scroll' is the next big thing. Make sure what you're adding is incredibly high value, highly credible, interesting and, yes, full of human drama if you can at all make that happen.
One of the best things you can do is make sure humans are at the centre of the story, regardless of the content you're looking at. Find a way, either with human examples or case studies, to always be bringing real people into the equation. Their dreams, hopes and fears are much more interesting than even the most interesting topics we might be writing about alongside them.
'Having an audience in mind is less about thinking, 'What story do we want to tell?' or 'What message do we want to send?’; it focuses on the pivotal questions of, 'What parts of the story will people engage with?' and 'How do we get that message across?'' (Page 34)
Great stories don't just fall out of the sky - you need to have a strategy for discovering them in the first place.
'Before you start, consider:
Story publication process:
Brand Objective: what is the overarching message/theme of your business?
Content Objective(s): what is it that we want our content to do in aid of this brand objective? Increase traffic? Build trust? Grow awareness? Improve reputation?
Content Strategy: how we are going to develop, create and amplify content in aid of meeting our content objectives.
Workflows and processes: what are the underlying ways we operate to make all of the above happen in an orderly manner?
People and partners: who's doing all the work, inside our business or outside of it?
Each customer will go on a journey from 'not having any idea who you are or what you do' to, hopefully, having bought your product or service and wanting some kind of content to support their decision or help them now that they're using that product or service.
Build X by increasing (Y): with this content.
Awareness (Reach): insight articles, trend analysis, opinion pieces, live events (with companion content), 'thought leadership' pieces, personal value narratives, white papers, long form articles, podcasts, videos
Interest (Engagement): business and topic-focused articles, white papers/ebooks to support sales
Consideration (Understanding): insight pieces, case studies (proof), amplified through social media and mailing lists
Purchase (Convincing): webinars, live event engagement, detailed case studies, trial, demos, Q&A documents or meetings, specification documents
Post-Purchase (Reassurance): continued email marketing with examples of best practice/customer success, confirms the right decision has been made.
Flashman also lists out five different ways of thinking about content as archetypes, which is a handy way of talking about what the purpose of your content is at the 'defining your strategy' phase. Imagine it would be most useful with senior leadership.
Content as presence: high volume, widely appealing content to reach a broad audience (Example: World Economic Forum)
Content as currency: content as value to help in some regard, often in terms of advice and decision making (Example: McKinsey Quarterly)
Content as window: transparency and credibility through stories about people, product and customers
Content as community: open fora for engagement, content to be commented on or contented created by the community itself
Content as support: how-to and support content to help people learn how to use or work with something (Example: Webflow University)
What will our audience care about and what do I want them to think, feel and do? Means for finding out:
We want to be able to match the interests and needs of our audience with the content we publish.
There should always be a big focus on value in published content that wants to inform and interest. Become a trusted source of information and your product will sell itself.
Three types of audience from the core outwards:
Core: direct relationship, defined and specific
Network: network around that core audience
Broad: further out than the central network and core
'Your aim is not just to service a core audience with your stories and brand journalism; it is to deliver content that will be part of the broader customer experience and can be shared to a broader network, reinforcing a brand message for you throughout multiple arenas or networks.' (Page 47)
It's not just what you say, it's how you say it.
Tone: how you speak. Are you aiming to be informal and approachable or more formal and clinical? Funny or serious? A sense of humour? Smart, innovative? Helpful to understand 'yes' words and 'no' words.
Language: who is going to be reading your content? At what level are they usually reading? (To which I would add, what is your content really competing against? Other publications in your niche, or other publications that are wider than that?)
Technicality: steer clear from making your content too technical unless there's good reason to make it this way. Depends on who your audience is, but even the most technical of audiences could do with a breath of fresh air and something that's a joy to read.
Localisation: do you need to adapt your content for specific geographies? This isn't just translation, this is also things like idiomatic changes and cultural differences being taken into consideration.
'Your verbal or written identity speaks volumes about who you are as a brand. Landing the right tone of voice - one that sits with the image you want to create, and doesn't jar with existing style guides – is an art form any brand journalist has to master and then stay consistent with to get the cut-through they want.' (Page 49)
This could be as often as daily, but for most the best case scenario for quality content is once a week. It could be blog posts, but it could also be things like videos or podcasts. Each publish event should be accompanied by a handful of posts across LI/TW/FB...wherever else.
'...for many brands the reality is one new quality article each week, with only high-volume publishers delivering more.' (Page 52)
While this drumbeat is going on, we can also overlay certain campaigns or themes. This could be to coincide with a product launch, or an upcoming event, or supporting collateral for sales conversations, announcements about key people moves, complementary and so on.
For each theme, assign however many assets (perhaps 3-4). Maybe they're all blog posts. Maybe there's a white paper supported by three blog posts. Maybe there's two blog posts, a podcast and a video. All of these should, separately, have their own supporting social media posts or be announced/published on platforms elsewhere.
One way of getting theme content is to create one cornerstone piece - perhaps a long video or longform article - and then to 'atomise' it into many smaller pieces that all derive from the mothership. It could be small sections of text, or short video clips, or simply a post of the infographic that was included in the article itself.
On on level, you need some amount of governance so that you are able to manage the process of editing, reviewing and approving pieces before they get published. But we also need to consider the rest of the organisations we work in.
Marketing and PR: what are the upcoming broader marketing campaigns? Is anything happening with PR any time soon? What can content marketing do to support?
Sales: is anything they're prioritising? What, when and for how long? This doesn't mean sales collateral per se, but rather the sort of content that will make it easier to open doors and help conversations happen.
Snr stakeholders and wider teams: how many among them are happy to evanglize? Who among them are keen to write content and who else needs to be considered when writing about X or Y?
Measurement and Data: are we able to justify activity and show ROI for what we're doing? Do we know what's working, do we know what's not and do we know what to do next?
B2B buying is relatively complex and long-winded. Your brand needs to stand out and your stories need to reflect a clear narrative right from the very beginning. 'Corporate myopia', though, can get in the way of what's interesting and leads to a large number of articles that are only interesting internally, and even then not that much.
Truly 'sticky' ideas tend to have some of the following traits:
'A simple messaging framework can guide and support your content if you are not clear what you should be talking about and what subjects should form the core of your content. It will also help you clarify your messages and how you should talk about your organization.' (Page 65)
Some businesses might need different frameworks for different industries/sectors, or their different internal divisions, or both. Smaller businesses may need only the one, and it can be very simple.
Mission or narrative: outlines the total business offer and outcomes that a business drives for its customers
Comms themes: 3-5 specific messages that clarify how the mission or narratives are achieved
Comms messages: messages that support each of the above individual themes
Proof points: these are 'reasons to believe', case studies, stories and people profiles
'Broad and contextual stories reflect the issues, narratives and challenges of the world we live in, and it's a world that brands also operate in. As such, these stories should be created to attract the attention of our audiences and pull them in.' (Page 68)
We make 'raincatcher content' to gather people in before they even enter into the traditional top of the sales funnel. This is broader content that barely even refers to the product(s) or company.
It has to reflect the beliefs and values of customers, and you must see your audience as people first and foremost, and B2B buyers second. You must have empathy for and understanding of the reader.
There are five ways you can cut your content in these terms; the first three are reputational and the latter two are more concerned with direct lead gen:
Planet: the world we live in, the trends and the issues influencing everything around us (e.g. climate change, the pandemic, etc)
Purpose: the trends in the way we work or do business, our values, our leadership. What do we believe? Op-eds. What are the challenges facing X and what can we do about it?
People: stories of individuals or leaders, evangelists, customer orgs, our own org, historical events. Most often includes 'thought leadership' and opinion pieces from inside the org, can be ghost written if need be.
Process: industry and business stories, the latest research
Product: narratives about how the product/service works, what it's done and why it's so great. What are the questions and objections your audience might have when thinking about buying your product?
'Although a key tenet of brand journalism is not to push products, it is still possible to develop thoughtful product-related material that has brand journalism characteristics to ensure it is more popular, more shared or more engaging.' (Page 76)
'Story mining involves developing mechanisms and processes to surface information-rich stories from all parts of the organization or its network that can be developed into multiple formats within your content schedule.' (Page 82)
The process of actually coming up with the stories you're going to write!
Ideation:. editorial team agree key themes, integrate internal messaging and priorities, schedule story workshops and ideas submission systems. Starts with sharing the kinds of content/stories that we are looking for in the first place (use the 'Raincatcher' model here to socialise)
Planning: brainstorm long list ideas, reviewing against aims and calendar
Sign Off: develop titles, write abstracts (~100 words or so), review against aims and calendar
'At its simplest, good story mining becomes a process for identifying the right stories from within your organization - those which your target audiences will find appealing, relatable, and which will help you and your organization meet its business objectives.' (Page 82)
Internal, Interview-Led Stories: 'talk to as many people as you can within your organization in different areas to uncover their stories, insights or resources that you can pull on to develop your brand journalism.' (Page 90)
'From the Workplace' Stories: Go to where the stories are happening, and talk to the people who are in the thick of things. Take photos, produce video, conduct interviews: do whatever you can on location to make incredibly high quality content.
The Event Driven Story: Pre-event publicity pieces, 'news desk' activity on the day of the event for live blogging, live tweeting, interviews with attendees and roundups of the events of each day.
Research-Led Story: Analysis of a sector or industry, looking at trends and opinions within it.
Expert-led story: stories from your very technical people who might consider their day-to-day remarkable things totally mundane, bring that out and tell the story.
'Sometimes the key is to start a conversation that enables them to recognize how different or innovative or interesting a piece of work that they do is.' (Page 92)
Online and desk-researched: what's out there on the internet? Twitter, Reddit, Quora... what are people saying? What are the other key pieces of research that have been published lately?
'The typical B2B buyer will consume, read or digest at least three pieces of content before talking to a sales representative' (some reports even say it's more)' (Page 99)
Trying different formats is important to cater for different preferences across potential buyers. What are the preferences of your audience in particular?
Early-stage content: articles/blogs, videos, ebooks and podcasts
Middle-stage content: white papers
Late stage: case studies
Insight Articles: 6-800 word pieces, brand awareness
Listicles: roundups to pique interest and build brand awareness
Buzz articles: based on a piece of news or latest research, report, chart or statistic
Thought leadership: high impact but hard to get senior time to work on it
Q&A: time efficient, quality depends on amount of prep put into the piece
Roundtable/Q&A: extended Q&A with multiple parties, can be used to create long-form pieces too
Long-form: needs lots of time and can be very high cost, but very high value content to have
Cutting across the format of the article are the various different approaches you can take:
Inverted pyramid: map the major newsworthy points at the top of the article, working your way down through further detail. Grab interest and keep attention or include some kind of human interest to get them interested and reading through to the detail at the end.
Hero and villain: the hero strives against a villain and is changed through that process. Creates empathy and a desire to read on. Real life, real world examples create better understanding and make points land harder.
Resolution/drama: similar to hero/villain, but centres a protagonist more obviously. Typically the protgaonist comes up with some sort of solution for how to solve a problem and works through challenges until everything is resolved.
The 'What If': Great for posing questions big and small and working through where things might lead. Can also be quite effective to use this format as an opportunity to debunk things.
The 'How To?': as simple as it gets. Can be based on technical information from a reliable source turned into user-friendly info, or based on one or more interviews with various parties who have already gone through the transformation of 'doing the thing'.
'Stories presented with a photo scored almost 20 per cent higher in engagement than stories without, whilst stories with either audio or video correlated with 36 per cent more overall engagement.' (Page 125)
'There's no point creating content that's well researched, carefully crafted, expertly written and properly produced if it doesn't actually get consumed.' (Page 162)
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