Words to the wise

Paul Nolan

“If it involves arranging words in rows with occasional punctuation, then I’ve given it a bash,” says Jonathan Crossfield, a Sydney-based marketing consultant. On his entertaining and informative blog, Crossfield sounds off on a wide range of ideas regarding using words to build your brand. We focused our discussion on content marketing.

SMM: Your website says, “Jonathan Crossfield: Storyteller” Is storytelling essentially what content marketing is? Is it really what marketing has always been?

Crossfield: Never mind marketing, I would argue storytelling is, and always has been, at the heart of how we communicate – even how we think. The reason why it’s become such a marketing topic again more recently is so many businesses, especially B2B, communicate very, very badly.

Storytelling is far more than just once upon a time, this happened, then that – although that’s what most marketers mean when they use the term, only to then tell a story no one cares about or that doesn’t actually work. (Badly written case studies, I’m looking at you!) Bad storytelling is often used to obfuscate a lack of specific information, replacing it with generic terms and claims and hoping the narrative will keep the reader interested. But storytelling is actually about providing very specific information from a very specific viewpoint, with enough detail to have a sense of authenticity and context.

In short, storytelling is about the communication of meaning in a way that taps into how we all perceive the world  – structuring fragments of information in such a way that the brain makes the connections and infers the insights we hope to get across. As marketers, it is the meaning we want to convey that is always far more important and persuasive than the context-less facts underneath.

SMM: What is the Australian B2B community’s view of content marketing? How does it differ from the U.S., assuming you have gauged the status of B2B content marketing in the U.S.?

Crossfield: Australian businesses are definitely on a content marketing journey – particularly B2B. In recent years, my workshops have seen an increase in B2B participants, especially in the finance industry. Some of this enthusiasm is driven by competitive pressures – scared of falling behind if someone else cracks the content marketing advantage before they have a chance to catch up, as happened with Jyske Bank in Denmark which left it’s competitors in the dust when its web TV strategy exploded.

More recently, there has been more interest in detailed strategy and ROI instead of just throwing stuff out there to say they’re doing it and hoping to justify the results later. And I’ve also noticed businesses beginning to pay more for quality writers and content production, having realized that content marketing cannot be treated like a sausage factory.

Australia is still a smaller market than the U.S. of course, so the economies of scale can restrict the size of content marketing in some industries. This can also lead to more conservative or traditional ideas, particularly in B2B. Meanwhile, in the U.S., there is such a wide scope of opportunities and skill levels that it’s always exciting to see a brand strike out in a brave or completely fresh direction – made possible because they’re big enough to experiment on a larger scale. And if an experiment pays off, then the competitive advantage benefits are obvious.

In Australia, B2B businesses tend to not want to stand out from the pack too much which means content strategies can take longer to evolve into something truly different.

SMM: You state in a blog post that content marketing cannot simply be a regurgitation of facts because the facts are already out on the Internet. My thinking is that companies are tempted to use content marketing to talk about themselves – facts that may not be out on the Internet yet. Does that work?

Crossfield: Absolutely not. Who is looking for facts about your business, apart from those already in the final consideration stages? And, let’s be honest, I’ve never had to tell a brand to talk about itself more. That sort of content is already very well catered for.
Content marketing is about far more than that final purchasing stage. It’s about inspiring and motivating and educating about the need much earlier, building relationships and awareness and trust long before the audience may even need your services.

It’s the insight, advice and opinion that separate regurgitated fact from unique, helpful and inspiring content. That’s what thought leadership is supposed to mean (instead of the empty buzzword it has become) – showcasing the expertise and values of your brand and the people within it, not just the technical specifications. What can you say that A) the audience genuinely is seeking out, B) provides insight or ideas that aren’t already commonly available and C) will be remembered and considered long after the person has clicked the back button?

I’ve worked with a few web hosting and cloud hosting businesses over the years and the challenge is always the same. No business cares about hosting except in that small window when, for whatever reason, they need a new provider or new infrastructure to achieve some other goal – such as launching a website to grow the business. Once the hosting is set up, they don’t really want to think about it again, until it breaks. So if the provider only ever talked about itself and about hosting, it would miss most of the market.

It’s like tires – who cares about tires and tire manufacturers except on that one day you need new tires? That’s why Michelin created the Michelin Guide back in 1900 to provide information to motorists that motorists actually wanted and would keep in their glove box. It’s a book of journeys – places to go, where to eat, to stay, and so on. What it is not is a bunch of information about Michelin or about tires, because no one cares. But on the one day motorists do care, when they do need new tyres, they already have a familiarity and a trusting relationship with one brand over any other. Michelin built a massive global audience on the back of a classic content marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, because anyone can use Google to plan any journey, book hotels and read reviews, the same strategy probably wouldn’t work so well or gain the traction it did if it was launched today. That’s why a new strategy needs to offer even more. Provide advice, insight and opinions that the target audience is seeking out. What answers are they looking for? What problems do they want to solve? What is their real goal (and the product is never the goal)?

So, in web hosting we talk to dev agencies about how to increase productivity and project reliability to grow their businesses. Or we talk to small businesses about how to reach more customers online (of which web hosting is only a tiny, tiny part).

Content has to go beyond the simple “how to” and “what” content and instead explore the “why;” delve into issues, compare alternative views – in fact, become a lot more like journalism and a lot less like business copywriting.

SMM: To date, the ROI on content marketing seems rather hazy.Am I wrong about that?

Crossfield: Only insofar as marketers make it hazy by often focussing on the wrong things or attempting to post justify a strategy that isn’t documented and/or  isn’t tied to measurable business outcomes.

SMM: Will it always be difficult to measure ROI of content marketing

Crossfield: I don’t think it’s difficult now. It’s just that marketers go about it the wrong way. They start using content marketing or social media or whatever because that’s what everyone is doing. And eventually someone higher up asks whether it is worthwhile. So they end up trying to prove ROI retrospectively while not knowing how because the content strategy was never created with the right outcomes in mind in the first place. It comes down to planning, knowing exactly why every part of the strategy exists and how they work together to produce the right outcomes.

Some content marketing will always be harder to measure than others. You can say how many people clicked through to an article. You may be able to tell how many of those read it, by using scroll trackers (be warned – there is no correlation between social media shares and whether people actually read the content so don’t rely too heavily on those). But it’s hard to say how many people then went and bought something as a result of that article. It will always depend on your goals, your business model and what actions you hope to drive in the reader.

With so much content available to us in any single moment, the audience gets to choose which they consume, when and in what format. And our emotions are far more influential in those choices than we like to think. So yes, assuming the quality of the information is the same, an entertaining piece of content will always win over a dry piece of content that we have to expend more effort to read (or to stay awake!).

This is why I’ve come to dread the two words “white paper” because it almost always means a humourless, academically written piece of self-serving, self-important nonsense that most people won’t read beyond the first few paragraphs. Let’s face it, most white papers are primarily created to capture leads with a gated form anyway, which is probably why so many fail to live up to the promise of the title or landing page or whatever. And I hate it when content becomes incidental like that. Such a missed opportunity that does nothing to further the brand’s relationship with the reader.

I often talk about white papers as fruit and veg. I will regularly buy plenty of fruit and veg because I know they contain plenty of stuff that’s good for me. And then two weeks later I’m throwing out lots of rotten broccoli and spinach because once I’m back home I keep choosing something more tasty to snack on instead (mmmm…. cheese). White papers are very much like fruit and veg in that regard. Everyone downloads them because they think “this information is good for me to know” and then most of these white papers sit in the downloads folder unread because there is so much content choice out there competing for increasingly small windows of attention.

Your content has to make the reader want to choose it above all of the other options at any one time. The only professional writing is that which is read and understood from beginning to end. So don’t make your content an unpleasant experience. And cut the faux-academic crap. Suits are people too!