Esti Frischling is spreading the word about NewsCred and how to improve the state of content marketing in Australia.
NewsCred is one of the biggest names in content marketing. Its enterprise technology is used by some of the world’s best-known companies. Founded in the US in 2008, it has hundreds of customers in more than 70 countries.
Until recently, however, NewsCred had no colonies in the Asia-Pacific region. That changed when it dipped its toe into Japan. Then, in 2018, it opened operations in Australia.
NewsCred didn’t need to look far to find someone to run its Australian outpost. Former English teacher Esti Frischling was working in the NewsCred New York office when it decided it was time the company needed to develop an Aussie twang. Having spent a couple of years as senior account strategist at native advertising business Outbrain in Sydney, US-born Frischling was well placed to be NewsCred’s first Australian country manager.
“The plan was to replicate and expand what we’d been doing in Japan in Australia,” she says. “NewsCred realised what an important market Australia is; how much potential there is there.”
NewsCred is a company built on technology and strategy. It typically helps huge companies organise their content and gain insights from data to improve the business bottom line. It believes to its core that content without a strategy driving ROI is a waste of time and money.
“We found content marketing here is in a position where it’s almost like a ‘nice to have’,” Frischling says. “People are doing it and getting budgets for it, but they’re up against the need to prove that it’s working, so what they found is they need to understand the ROI of their content efforts.”
Finding ROI is just one problem for Australian enterprises. Another is getting their operations in order is another. “Brands with big enterprise operations produce lots of content across the board,” she says. “At this stage, many find there’s no way of unifying those efforts in a single place and understanding how to drive operational efficiency across their organisation.”
None of this surprised Frischling. They are issues businesses face everywhere. They were also confirmed when NewsCred teamed with the Content Marketing Institute for specific pre-launch market research.
“We’re not a content farm. We’re not looking to churn out huge volumes of 500-word blogs. We’re looking for partners who can create exceptional content that drives business results.”
“We found one of the biggest challenges, particularly with B2B clients, was just being able to connect the dots for content marketing – from leads to ROI,” she says. “Then particularly with the bigger enterprise brands here, ones that have more teams, it’s understanding how to break down the silos within organisations.
“I think we’re primed to answer the question here. Without sounding condescending, I think Australia is the market that’s closest to catching up with the States but maybe a little bit behind. When we evolved our operations to meet those ROI needs, Australia made sense to be the next place to roll that out because they’re ripe for doing that. They have all the steps in place up to that point. So they are able to understand engagement and the value of content marketing, but that’s the one place NewsCred can excel and close the loop.”
Frischling acknowledges one of NewsCred’s problems is convincing large businesses they need a tool to help with their content marketing. It’s not the marketers who need convincing, of course – they feel the pain every day. Often, though, not even the marketers know who authorises or produces enterprise content.
“The content marketing people don’t necessarily have access to the demand generation people in these big organisations,” she says. “They might not even know who’s running their email or marketing automation. Finding where those tech stacks align is not always something the CMO is on top of or aware of.
“It’s sometimes hard to find those people – even for them. Understanding the marketing operations functions in addition to the content marketing functions has been a challenge in terms of reaching the right people.”
NewsCred doesn’t develop content itself. It forms relationships with agencies and freelancers to feed clients’ content beast. In Australia, NewsCred has teamed up with Storyation, an award-winning Sydney-based content agency founded by Lauren Quaintance and Mimi Cullen.
“We always outsource our content creation, we never white label it,” she says. “We choose premium partners to create our content, either with partners like Storyation or freelancers. We always try to find partners that are more quality over quantity.
“We’re not a content farm. We’re not looking to churn out huge volumes of 500-word blogs. We’re looking for partners who can create exceptional content that drives business results.”
NewsCred also offers clients licensed content from deals it makes with global publishers. This is particularly helpful for brands looking to scale their content efforts and supplement their material with lower-cost premium publisher content. Frischling says she has been in talks with local publishers to provide this service for domestic enterprise clients.
Frischling says that at its heart, NewsCred is a software company. One of its key offerings, though, is a content marketing advisory service. She describes this as “almost like an internal consulting group” – a team of program directors and strategists ensuring clients’ strategies are clear and aligned with business needs.
“The exceptional storytelling goes hand in hand with business results being delivered,” she says. “There’s a lot of work on the front end. We build out a measurement framework and an action plan for customers to make sure we’re staying on track to reach their goals throughout the program.
“If you’re not doing it strategically to deliver on those business goals, then you’re just contributing to the noise because there’s so much content on the internet. We don’t need to be writing blogs for the sake of writing blogs.”
Frischling says enterprise businesses need to think broadly about the content they produce – not keep it siloed under “blogs”, “videos” or “social media”. They need to think of it less as “content marketing” and more as “content for marketing”. She calls it the “connective tissue” of all marketing efforts.
“It’s about thinking of the assets a person experiences when they come into contact with your brand – a blog post, a video, a banner ad or an event. So all of those things can be considered ‘content’. The goal is to make sure those things are all cohesive and speaking to each other so that they’re delivering a unified message to the customer.”
“I think we’ve been fortunate to find people who are still believers in content.”
She says it’s good most marketers now agree it’s wrong to interrupt people and force messages down their throats. “We have to become what people are interested in, but that doesn’t have to be an article,” she says. “It could be a quiz, an interactive. Think about the Nike store where you can go on a run and they’ll tell you what shoes you should be wearing. All of that ties together – not be interruptive.
“We say the consumer journey is the content journey. [Find out] what questions people are asking to help them make a decision and make sure that you’re there where they are to answer those questions.”
Surprising, the former English university graduate and writer gets excited about metrics. Frischling says she is “really passionate about” the subject, especially when it comes to choosing the right measurement tool for its proper purpose. She cites the example of a business complaining its high bounce rate as a reason for failing their content marketing efforts.
“Bounce rate is a metric created for landing pages or product pages or index pages at the advent of Google Analytics,” she says. “It’s not a metric designed to measure how people are engaging with content. These things we associate with actually clicking on a landing page aren’t necessarily relevant for the attention you give a piece of content.”
She says marketers should concentrate on metrics that look at “attention time” – for example, mouse movements or scroll depth actions – to assess how people are interacting with content.
As she drinks coffee with contacts and makes NewsCred’s presence known in Australia, Frischling is aware many local businesses are gun-shy about working with agencies promising big things. Following King Content’s catastrophic failure, some enterprise marketers remain sceptical about committing to a company specialising in content marketing.
“I think we’ve been fortunate to find people who are still believers in content,” she says. “People believe content works because they’ve seen that it works, but they have been very receptive to a more data-driven approach, which is what we’re offering.
“We have a proven track record, we have plenty of money in the bank and we have plenty of runway. I would say the difference here is that we’re expanding the definition of content marketing to think about it in an integrated marketing fashion.”
Editor Greg Roughan explains how Castleford produces compelling content for its clients.
Castleford editor Greg Roughan applies a particular “sniff test” to gauge the quality of content marketing. “If you can tell it’s content marketing, it’s probably not any good,” he says.
“When you read something, you can just smell it was written by somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. They use tired old phrases … ‘read on to find out more’ sort of stuff. If it feels like content marketing, you’re probably not respecting your audience or your reader.”
With offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, Castleford is one of Australasia’s most prominent content marketing agencies. At any one time, it has 150 to 200 clients and employs 15 to 20 writers and editorial managers, most of whom are full time.
Auckland-based Roughan’s job is to keep up the quality standards of Castleford’s content executions. He is the company’s “subject-matter expert” when it comes to writing and editing.
“The bar on quality content is constantly lifting, and we need to be able to write some astonishingly sophisticated stuff across a broad range of industries,” he says. “I kind of lead the charge on upskilling and training in-house and I’m teaching people how to write more and more sophisticated content.”
After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, Roughan has been a professional writer for two decades. He is a former feature writer, magazine editor and newspaper subeditor who has also written three novels.
On his website, Roughan posted a blog setting out his 14 tips for better writing. Intriguingly, something he teaches writers is that “ugly words are your friend”. “Short words with hard, guttural sounds – those with Zs, Ks, Ds etc – are better at snagging attention and delivering impact than their softer cousins,” he writes. “So you can write ‘get’ instead of ‘receive’, ‘cut’ instead of ‘sever’, ‘shrink’ instead of ‘reduce’.”
Roughan has similarly definitive views on superior brand storytelling at Castleford. “Our core editorial values are clarity, immediacy and value,” he says. “Clarity and immediacy are pretty easy to understand. Write clearly and simply as if you’re explaining something to a person and get to the goddamn point. Don’t waste people’s time.”
Great content also offers value. “That’s what content marketing is about, right? It’s not about talking at people. It’s about giving them something of use. To do that, you have to understand the audience.”
One way Castleford does this is by having a thorough “onboarding” process with its clients to understand what they do and who they should be trying to reach. “We create persona docs for each client so they understand who we’re talking to and what they want to know,” he says.
After that, it’s about developing an agreed editorial brief. “That’s where we ask a lot of questions about their USPs and what they read to stay abreast of the industry,” Roughan says. “We’ll ask what their customers ask about them. Speaking to their salespeople at this point can be invaluable because they translate the product the company makes out in the real world. They have the elevator pitch absolutely down pat and know what it is about their product that people need to understand.
“From there, we will start to pitch ideas for the first pieces of content. If our strategy called for a series of whitepapers for gated downloads, we’d spend a bit of time coming up with initial ideas. We would make sure they would be on brief, had the right search intent behind them and were supported by what people were looking for in the marketplace.”
“Apart from crafting half-decent copy, a key skill is being able to learn about an industry and know all the facts about it. The skill is to go out and find out what’s relevant.”
Roughan says client involvement in story-idea generation varies. “Some clients we’ve been working with for years are like ‘we know you, you know us – go do your thing’,” he says. “Others naturally are going to have a much closer hand in things.
“In terms of taking the lead on idea generation, that’s our bread and butter. Coming up with fresh content ideas for our businesses is what we do.”
Castleford has three editorial managers. They have their own client lists and run teams of writers, strategists and program managers. Roughan says content strategists and project managers will stress-test story ideas before running them past the editorial manager and gaining client approval.
“People are a lot more sophisticated about what content marketing is these days,” he says. “Clients understand when they talk to the audience, they’re going to need maybe three, four or five touchpoints before that audience ever picks up the phone. They know they need to tell the story rather than just badger them.”
Roughan says the stories that often work well offer “social proof” – true-life case studies and testimonials. “It’s classic bottom-of-the-funnel material,” he says. “Real trust-factor stuff.”
What does Roughan look for in a good writer? “Well, they need their writing chops – If it’s not there, it’ll never be there,” he says. “Beyond that, I think the biggest skill is curiosity – someone interested in putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. Apart from crafting half-decent copy, a key skill is being able to learn about an industry and know all the facts about it. The skill is to go out and find out what’s relevant.”
Castleford needs its writers to be versatile, too. The agency services businesses and organisations from a wide range of industries: B2Bs, B2Cs, not-for-profits and enterprises, as well as tool makers, yoga studios and travel agencies.
Two executions stick out in his mind as great examples of brand storytelling. One was a long article for a travel client in which the writer researched every sim card needed to travel through Europe. “[The writer] translated German and French sites and compiled all of this highly useful information,” he says. “We created this immensely valuable piece.”
The other example was a case of using comedy to enliven a dry IT topic – managed services. “[The writer] understood the audience because IT people are often into sci-fi,” he says. “It was about fictional organisations that would have benefited from managed services, breaking down the plots from those movies and showing how good data security protocols would have prevented the attack on the Death Star, and so on. There was real pleasure in the writing, and it really came across.”
Which means it must have passed Roughan’s sniff test.
Valuable Content’s Sonja Jefferson on eight inspirational lessons from Romanian billion-dollar startup UiPath.
Sometimes a chance encounter can change everything. Just a few short weeks back, I visited Romania for the very first time. Along with my friend Jon Burkhart, I was invited to talk at WeContent – the first content marketing conference in the country.
As Jon and I took our seats on the Tarom Airlines flight from Heathrow to Bucharest, my overriding feeling was one of bubbling excitement. I love to travel, meet new people and share my enthusiasm for this valuable content thing.
It quickly became clear that my neighbour in the aisle seat was experiencing a very different set of emotions. The tense-looking man next to me was gripped by flying fear. I’m no stranger to panic attacks and wondered if talking might help.
He introduced himself. Here was Bogdan Florea, marketing manager for UiPath, world leaders in the field of robotic process automation (RPA). Bogdan was one of the original members of the UiPath team, a company that has become Romania’s first billion-dollar startup, the fastest growing enterprise software company in history.
Bogdan recounted the story of UiPath’s incredible journey. The content it so generously shares has played a key role in its phenomenal growth, and as soon we landed I changed the slides for my talk. I couldn’t wait to tell this story on stage.
UiPath’s story hasn’t left me. The secrets to its success go way deeper than content. There is an inspiring message here for any business that wants to really kick things up and grow.
Here’s what I learnt from that serendipitous introduction to UiPath. Fasten your seatbelt. Let’s go.
The UiPath story
UiPath is a leader in its field. In March 2018, the company was valued at US$1 billion – a rare enough event for the company to be dubbed a “unicorn”. But the road to success has been far from straightforward. Its first decade was a rocky one; only five years ago the owners considered shutting it down.
But in the last few years, everything has changed. In 2017, the enterprise customer base grew from less than 100 customers to more than 700, pushing the company’s annual recurring revenue up by a staggering 690 per cent. Its team expanded from 10 people to nearly 2000 in offices around the world.
What changed their fortunes? What can other businesses learn from this? Here are the lessons I take from my research into UiPath’s story.
Lesson 1: Change your motivation, change your fortunes
The UiPath team was always committed to building the best technology in its field but between 2005 and 2015 it just didn’t catch fire. It was only when founders Daniel Dines and Marius Tirca changed their motivation – from a focus on building wealth to the desire to do something bigger, for the greater good, making a change for the better in this world – that things started to shift.
Dines explains in an interview with Romania’s Business Review magazine: “You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to build a decent life. It’s not worth it. Because being an entrepreneur is extremely risky and while doing it you risk ruining your career.
“So the right motivation for an entrepreneur is that something deep inside of you, the desire to do something. It changed my thinking completely.”
This shift in motivation from profit to bigger purpose has changed everything for UiPath and it’s been pivotal to its success.
Lesson 2: Lead with your purpose and beliefs
When it comes to communicating what it’s all about, UiPath leads with its mission and beliefs, not its product.
The (software) robots are coming but that’s an opportunity. If we automate menial processes and tasks then imagine what humans can achieve? Human work should be creative and inspiring, so the point of UiPath’s innovative technology is to free up our time and creativity, to allow for ever higher degrees of human freedom. Everyone progresses, everyone wins.
Communicating by starting with why, not what, is compelling. It’s helped to draw the right people towards the business.
Lesson 3: Build a culture based on shared values
The Romanians are incredibly hospitable people and Bogdan is no exception. After the conference, he invited Jon and me to the office Halloween party to meet the team. As we chatted on the balcony looking out over the lights of Bucharest, I was struck by everyone’s openness and clear sense of mission and belief. Every person I met told a similar story about the business and shared the same zeal for making a difference to the world.
Despite growing at hyperspeed, UiPath’s culture remains strong. Alongside a shared desire to make a difference, its values are surprisingly human – boldness, openness, collaboration and (I love this) humbleness drive all they do. It recruits to these values and everyone I met seemed to share them.
Daniel Dines, UiPath | UiPathForward 2018 - YouTube
Humbleness is such a surprising word. It stopped me in my tracks. I debated the meaning with Bogdan. Do you mean humility? No, not quite. Humbleness is not being proud or full of ego – it’s always having curiosity and a willingness to listen and learn more. They don’t see themselves as the best software engineers in the world but they want to make a difference and together they can make that happen.
Their purpose and values set the tone for all they do – in person, on their website, through the content they share.
“Our content has helped us grow at the incredible speed that we’ve been growing at and has majorly contributed to UiPath’s preeminence in the industry,” says UiPath’s Mina Deckard. “Every product guide, every tutorial, every resource article, every thought leadership blog and every tweet we’ve ever done have had a direct contribution to this success.”
Lesson 4: Do your research – understand the market opportunity
Success takes a lot more than having the perfect technical product. It takes a keen understanding of the market your product operates for. For a few years, UiPath was going in the wrong direction and clients weren’t knocking down the door. It had a good product but didn’t know what to do with it. It was a conversation with a customer in India that changed everything – the client could see the opportunity. UiPath listened hard and shifted focus. It found its niche.
As Dines explains: “We understood there was a huge market out there of people who just do repetitive processes all day long, for whom our technology, which emulates what people do, is perfect.”
From that moment things changed dramatically. Its product connected and everything started to snowball.
Lesson 5: Collaborate to succeed
Another step change for UiPath came from its decision to open up its technology and to collaborate freely. That revelation led to alliances and partnerships that have fuelled growth. It has encouraged the best minds to contribute and create the next technological leap. More than 200,000 developers of all levels are now building on the free UiPath platform.
Marius Tirca, co-founder and chief technology officer explains: “Our secret weapon for building the best technology is no secret: we play a team sport, where everyone’s an A player, and we keep it open to level the field for everyone.”
UiPath couldn’t have achieved the level of success it has without this willingness to give freely and receive.
Lesson 6: Share what you know with the world
A desire to open up its knowledge and thinking was another game changer. This desire to educate led first to blog articles and other valuable content, and then to its incredibly popular conferences and events (#UiPathForward) and more recently to its UiPath Academy.
The academy takes this willingness to give knowledge away for free a step further. It offers free training to reskill and upskill people in this groundbreaking new technology. Education is focused on the people who need it most, so it’s supporting diverse communities – women, minority groups and people whose jobs are impacted by the inevitable rise of automation.
Do you know why Robots are here? - UiPath story - YouTube
It’s the first open online training and certification platform dedicated to RPA users, and more than 100,000 users across the world have enrolled in online courses since its launch in April 2017.
UiPath is doing all it can to make its knowledge open and free. Share share share is its philosophy. Why keep an idea to yourself? You can get there faster by sharing what you know.
Lesson 7: Put your customers in the limelight by sharing their stories
Shine a light on your customers. Let them talk about the impact of your product and your teaching – that’s the UiPath way. This is a fast track to trust.
For UiPath, this approach embodies its humbleness – we don’t know everything, so we’re collaborating to find the answers – but it’s also perfect “show not tell” valuable marketing. Show the impact, through real-life stories, and your message will resonate more strongly.
Lesson 8: Don’t give up!
“The 2005-2015 period was the most difficult of my life,” Dines recalls. “I was constantly trying to find the perfect product, and failing. We had just enough money to survive. Before we got the first funding round, the money we had in the bank would have only been enough for another three months.”
UiPath has gone from a decade of struggle and uncertainty to becoming one of the fastest growing companies on the planet. A clear message for entrepreneurs is to hang in there, keep learning and experimenting, to aim higher and keep on keeping on.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing
The story I heard on the flight to Bucharest totally kicks things up for me. It’s fired up the energy behind our mission at Valuable Content to help other companies uncover and communicate their purpose and story. To share their ideas, change their fortunes and change the world. And a new desire to think bigger, and to collaborate with others who share the same aim.
There are so many lessons here, for me, and I hope for you, too. Success for UiPath can’t be chalked up to one action. It’s a series of interlinked lightbulb moments that have shaped its path and propelled it forward.
Creative, inspiring and collaborative, UiPath embodies the human values the world needs to thrive. In the lines of the cliche, they are being the change they want to see. And in a world of robots, the humans are coming.
Sonja Jefferson founded Valuable Content in 1999 and works as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She is co-author of the award-winning Valuable Content Marketing book, now in its second edition, and hosts the Valuable Content Awards, recognising content and marketing excellence from businesses around the world.
Tourism WA’s content head on the fusion of great stories, data and technology.
When Tourism Western Australia’s content marketing manager Chris Amson isn’t dreaming up ways to entice people to go west, he’s thinking of the future. As well as looking to data and technology to tailor customer experiences, Amson believes marketers need to shift towards “emotive” and “progressive” storytelling.
Brand Tales: What are the biggest mistakes large or small businesses make when it comes to producing or measuring their content efforts?
Amson: One of the biggest challenges is spending time developing the strategy around it. Content is at its best when used as more than the sum of its parts. Deciding not just what content you need to create but how you intend to use it is probably the biggest factor in measuring content efforts. It’s at that stage businesses can start applying measures for content effectiveness to acquire leads, grow audiences and take people along the purchase path with meaningful content engagements.
BT: Can you explain what you mean by “progressive storytelling”?
Amson: That’s the concept of developing content featuring people whose story builds over time, and telling that story across media and in different formats. It’s when a story starts in one channel and builds progressively across others. We do this through our “Just Another Day in WA” creative platform, which surfaces the stories of real people, travel writers and visitors in a number of ways. We have sought to put real people and their stories at the heart of our content creation in recent years. We’re selecting certain stories that can build across video, editorial and social posts. I think an extension to this approach will emerge over the coming years when businesses start to plan campaigns, content and story concepts with the same objective – to move an audience from awareness and engagement to decision and action. At that point, content takes on a central role. All of the work in recent years to drive content marketing forward is leading in that direction.
BT: What do you say to content marketers who believe tourism boards have a natural advantage when it comes to telling great stories?
Amson: Destination marketing organisations have the advantage of promoting places, which by and large are home to great stories. We’re certainly no different, although the competition for people’s discretionary spend has almost never been higher. A new car, a home extension or a new TV are all influences on holiday spend before we’ve even got towards rational barriers and the enormity of destination choice people face. I really believe, though, that when businesses think differently about content, it unlocks a range of great stories they may never have considered. In that sense, there’s an advantage for anyone in just thinking differently about content.
“Great content can only go so far. It’s the fusion with data and technology that will help take it the final mile.”
BT: What role do data and technology play in helping businesses create effective content experiences?
Amson: I think we’re tremendously fortunate to have access to great stories, storytellers and product, but I also think that’s only part of the solution. On the one hand, there’s a growing range of content planning, analysis and distribution tools. We use Percolate to manage our content workflows, organise our assets, manage our social production calendar and publish to social channels. This has brought us a good level of efficiency for managing content at speed and scale across teams and markets. The other side is how businesses use data and technology to create a digital experience using their content. This is a transition stage towards a future state when content takes on a central role within a bigger marketing framework underpinned by data, technology and advertising.
I think businesses at all levels are looking at how they can do this. It can be anything from gathering cookies and profiles from those engaging with your content in Facebook, and the demand side platforms you or your media agency might use for retargeting, to wholesale digital transformation, data management platforms and fully connected digital ecosystems. Whatever level of transition towards this a business is in, there will be common themes in the way they are tailoring the experience. Such as developing audience segments for intent levels, interests and product clusters. Then aligning a content experience to those segments, and either retargeting them via paid media or their own CRM and owned media, to serve content that moves them from awareness and engagement to decision and action.
Great content can only go so far. It’s the fusion with data and technology that will help take it the final mile.
BT: What is your definition of “emotive” content?
Amson: We’re weird and wonderful creatures, and we know that if you give a human a difficult decision, they will replace it with an easy one. We tend to rely on what has made an emotional impact to decide; no matter how much rational evidence we see, we prefer to use fast, instinctive and emotional thinking to help us navigate life. Because of this, I think the inclusion of really good emotive content is a very powerful asset for a business. Good emotive content draws you in with a personal insight, tells a bit of history, talks about why something is important and humanises an experience. I think we’re lucky in Australia to have some great agencies and businesses doing some exceptional work in this space.
Born This Way, presented by Nulon - YouTube
BT: What are some of the best ones you have seen lately?
Amson: There are some great examples out there from a wide range of sectors, too. A few that spring to mind is Nulon Oils and its “Born this Way” content series. Presenting the product through the people who are most passionate about using it creates a sense of community around the brand. Adding a video series alongside this featuring the stories of the offroaders and modifiers from that community is a good example of progressive storytelling, and creates an impactful customer experience. Vic Health took a similar approach with its adaptation of the “This Girl Can” platform from Sports England, which is supported by layers of useful content to make a healthy change in girls’ lives. Bupa, Tourism Australia, Virgin Australia and Qantas are beginning to fuse content, progressive stories, data and technology into their customer experience.
BT: Why do you think this approach works so well?
Amson: It uses characterisation and people to form emotive content, and supplements this with genuinely useful content for different information needs. I think you can recognise the planning that has gone into these approaches, and ultimately they’re effective because they have created authentic and useful content with meaning. The latter examples from some of the bigger national brands have the benefit of being able to invest and adopt some of the major technology platforms, and you can begin to see more personalisation and targeting behind their content. It’s really starting to create quite a different digital content experience to what was possible a few years ago. Of course, there’s a lot that can be done without these. The advances in data and audience management in Facebook, Outbrain and more accessible tools are helping businesses increase the effectiveness of content across the board.
Businesses looking to encourage a creative environment need to engage in ‘perpetual innovation’, says corporate storyteller Carla Johnson.
American marketing expert Carla Johnson has a ready gauge to determine how prepared companies are to be creative and promote fresh ideas to help their customers.
“I think there are two kinds of companies,” Johnson says. “There are companies that innovate, which are very much B2B companies. They have an amazing product, amazing service or whatever it is. They focus on tweaking that, iterating that, making sure it’s the best product it can be. Then there are companies that are innovative. They look at how they can serve their customers better. How can we remove complexity?
“If you’re in a company that innovates, and you ask somebody in marketing, IT or finance about doing something different to serve customers better, they stop and look at you and say, ‘we have a team for innovation’ or ‘that’s not my job’ or ‘I’m not smart enough to do it’. But in a company that’s truly innovative, they believe everybody has a responsibility for new ideas.”
Johnson is a speaker and seven-time author, including Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, which she wrote with content expert Robert Rose. As chief experience officer at Denver-based consultancy Type A Communications, she has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including American Express, Dell, Western Union and the US Army Corps of Engineers, to promote corporate storytelling and help clarify their collective purpose. One of her missions is to get large and small businesses – particularly their marketing teams – to become more creative and innovative.
“My background is all B2B marketing,” Johnson says. “I notice that when B2B marketers hear something about a consumer brand – a Lego, Nike, Apple and Amazon, the ones we always think of as being amazingly creative – they tend to say, ‘I could never do that. My boss would never go for it. We’re not that kind of industry’. Everybody, at any level, even within companies that are super creative, has this tendency to say, ‘that’ll never work’. We perceive creativity and innovative ideas as something that is risky.”
Innovation in action
Johnson believes businesses need to apply “perpetual innovation” principles to encourage creativity. The idea is based on people making the most of their innate curiosity and observational skills to adopt new ideas. Sometimes it’s about looking at what other businesses are doing – perhaps those in other industries or B2C – to see what works for them and why, and applying that to their specific situations.
This isn’t an easy process, of course … especially for those who work at risk-averse businesses. “If we can use a process that makes new ideas and creativity feel familiar, then it will start to feel safe,” she says. “People start to let their guards down and become more open to new ideas.”
Johnson says it’s not about marketers “cutting and pasting” ideas and applying them in the same way. It’s about finding the essence of an idea and making it work in a different environment.
She cites the example of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a global social media phenomenon in 2014 that raised awareness (and millions of dollars) for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neuron disease. “I’m not saying that this exact idea will work in a B2B environment,” Johnson says. “It’s about understanding the essence behind a great idea – the broader theme that worked. For ALS, it was about community and sharing. How do you take that idea as a B2B marketer and apply it in your world?”
Johnson says innovative companies understand that any group within the organisation can generate successful ideas using this process. “I think we have such a tremendous opportunity as B2B marketers to bring more ideas into the work that we do that’s driven by customers,” she says. “It’s just that we don’t know how to bring those ideas in-house.”
Success rides on whether employees feel they have the “right” to be idea generators, Johnson says. “How do we take an outside inspiration and put it into a process that’s familiar so that we can continually bring new ideas in? We need to learn how to understand the constraints within a particular environment that are a big part of whether a new idea will succeed. What are the things that can be so crushing and kill an idea?”
How can you teach marketers – or anyone in business – to be more curious?
“You know, curiosity, whether it’s on a small scale or a big scale, is actually something that’s teachable,” Johnson says. “I would say curiosity starts with awareness. Think about young children. They’re insanely curious about the world around them. That’s why they continue to ask ‘why? why? why? why?’ … it drives us crazy. It’s just something that happens to us as we grow up that kills that. A big part is that as you go through life, you can’t question everything and be interested in everything all the time because you’d never get anything done. You’d still be at that toddler level of productivity.
“It’s about understanding how to bring ideas from the outside that are truly inspirational and bringing them insight in a way that makes them palatable.”
Johnson says the problem is that we soon start filtering things according to our sense of their relevance. “But research shows the most innovative and creative people in the world don’t judge whether or not something has relevancy or importance,” she says. “They start by just being very, very good at observing the world around them. And the best way for us to do this as adults really is to practice.”
Johnson admits that practising curiosity can be difficult in our high-paced, data-driven business lives. But she says it’s something you can do while queuing for your morning coffee. Why does the queue line up to the left? What are people doing to amuse themselves while waiting for their toast? How do the baristas do their latte art?
“It’s really very much about raising our awareness and being present for 10 or 15 minutes a day,” she says. “We start to see patterns. Then we can start relating that to our own world.”
Art of the pitch
Johnson believes getting our bosses to commit to an idea relies heavily on how well it’s pitched. “In B2B marketing we’ve learned a lot of things,” Johnson says. “We learned the four Ps. We learned a lot of tactics. We learned a whole lot of things as we’ve gone through school or our career. But one thing that we’ve never learned is how to pitch an idea.
“The truth is that bad pitches kill even the best of ideas. So, if they aren’t presented correctly, it makes sense that your bosses would say no because it doesn’t have context for them. It doesn’t relate to their world. A big part of innovation is being able to pitch an idea so your boss has a vested interest in it.”
Johnson feels businesses in the Asia Pacific region may have an advantage over their colleagues in the US or Europe creating an innovation mindset. “When you understand a process, you can bring inspiration in from anywhere,” she says. “For companies that may not be at the same level of sophistication or maturity as a European or American company, it can become a competitive advantage because they can leapfrog some of the learning steps. It can help them move forward at a much faster pace than maybe they expect they could.”
Johnson cites the example of US-based giant Arrow Electronics – a company founded in 1935 that now has 18,700 employees and US$24 billion in sales. “It’s just about as big as a B2B can be,” she says. “About seven years ago they had high-quality products but all of these different divisions, different business units and different companies they acquired. A new CMO came in – Rich Kylberg – and asked ‘how do we actually stand up and become different?’
According to Johnson, Kylberg saw similarities between his company, with its numerous product lines and business units, and entertainment giant Disney. “They have theme parks. They have movies. They have retail stores. They are probably just as big and as complex as a B2B electronics company. But Kylberg said, ‘What’s the essence of what they’re doing?’ He saw it was creating a cohesive brand that people got excited about engaging in. It doesn’t matter where you enter the brand. It’s a consistent, seamless experience.”
Johnson said Kylberg was able to learn about Disney’s success from the ground up. While Arrow continued to make substantial acquisitions, it unified its essential communications and messaging and become one of the world’s biggest electronics publishers. “They have been able to experience amazing growth, leading their industry,” she says. “They have incredible brand equity, brand value. They see the difference between being a company that innovates and being a truly innovative company.
“It’s about understanding how to bring ideas from the outside that are truly inspirational and bringing them insight in a way that makes them palatable. It gets people excited.”
Cooperate’s head of growth on matching marketing with technology.
Operations platform Cooperate* helps brands centralise their marketing activities, content and reporting. Amy Walker co-founded Cooperate with Justin Cannon, Tom Spencer and Rohit Gupta after working with a series of software as a service (SaaS) businesses in Australia, Spain, Japan and her native New Zealand. She manages Cooperate’s marketing – from lead generation to thought leadership.
Brand Tales: What attracted you to the world of startups, SaaS and content platforms?
Walker: I’ve always been interested in finding innovative solutions to problems, and that is what the SaaS industry is really built on. It’s about creating technology-driven solutions that empower brands to compete in today’s marketing landscape, regardless of budget. Finding smarter ways to leverage content across multiple channels, markets and regions is a real game changer for many brands and something we’re passionate about.
Brand Tales: Has your definition of “corporate storytelling” changed since you started work on the Cooperate platform?
Walker: Absolutely. In the five years since we started [the business], I’ve seen brands move through what I think of as the content realisation lifecycle: from the initial realisation that content that offers real value to a customer can impact sales, to the realisation that this is true of all marketing content across all channels, markets and regions – not just “content marketing”. The most successful brands I’ve seen move through this lifecycle understand that corporate storytelling should form the core of all of their marketing activities.
Brand Tales: Do you have a story that best explains what Cooperate offers clients?
Walker: I think this Pepsi example sums up the challenge we have today. Pepsi used to create four pieces of TVC content a year and have $1 million to spend on each ad, plus the luxury of time. Now they’re creating over 4000 pieces of content a year across an array of channels, but budgets haven’t changed. This is the new reality for marketing teams. It’s a constant battle to keep on top of the amount of content needed to “feed the beast” of marketing and deliver a personalised experience for the customer. Platforms like Cooperate take that pain away, centralising people, content and processes into one marketing engine and enabling teams to deliver consistent, on-point messaging that is on-time.
Brand Tales: Are Australian companies and organisations getting better at measuring the effectiveness of their content programs?
Walker: I don’t think so. And the problem isn’t the data, it’s the number of different systems brands use to manage their marketing content. If you have your paid social, native social, articles and email content all in different systems, how are you expected to know if a piece of content is truly effective? For brand consistent measurement, you need a holistic view of content performance across all channels, and that’s why we partnered with DOMO to help give brands that consistent level of visibility.
Brand Tales: What is your pet peeve about the content business in general?
Walker: When you see siloed marketing teams, with one specific team driving “content marketing” rather than integrating content strategy across the organisation. It’s such a wasted opportunity.
Brand Tales: What advice do you have for brands (and agencies) that want to use content as part of their marketing mix?
Walker: To me, content should be at the core of all of your marketing activities, as it’s critical at every step of the customer journey. My advice would be to stop thinking of “content marketing” as a channel and think of it as a tactic. Look instead at the entire customer journey, and map the right content to the right stage to deliver maximum impact, then work out the optimal channel to deliver that message. Then track everything, of course.
Brand Tales: Is there one specific content execution that you admire? What can other brands learn from this?
Walker: [Cooperate client] Monash University continues to impress me. What [CMO] Fabian [Marrone] has achieved in the past year, mapping out a detailed and complex customer journey that allows the customer to interact with different content aspects and duck in and out of different journey paths at any time, is exciting to see. But what has excited me more is how Monash has broken through that traditional university siloed faculty content approach. It’s building cross-faculty content that talks to current global issues and demands a response from audiences. I’m looking forward to seeing where Monash is in another 12 months.
* Cognitives was rebranded Cooperate on November 2, 2018.
It’s time organisations found a ‘bigger boat’ and started producing original content, argues Matthew Schwartz.
Consider it a wake-up call for brands and organisations whose content marketing efforts are half-baked and underfunded. According to the latest survey, newsroom employment in the US fell 23 per cent between 2008 and 2017. During the same period, the number of PR professionals has surged. In keeping with the ratio tracked by media software platform Muck Rack, that translates into six PR pros for every one journalist.
With that ratio in mind, PR and marketing managers can ill afford to stick with the status quo when it comes to their content marketing efforts. Indeed, the downward spiral in the number of US journalists – juxtaposed with the upward trend in the number of communications pros – will force brands to become quasi-media companies.
This isn’t about bolstering your “digital PR” efforts. You need to change the culture.
Depending on the business sector and local media markets, more and more companies are looking at fewer and fewer news outlets to pitch their stories. It’s your garden-variety disintermediation, as companies increasingly distribute their content directly to consumers or B2B audiences without a filter.
“Hold on,” marketing managers say. We supply our websites and social channels with a steady stream of original and branded content. Via our YouTube channel, we offer plenty of online videos to feed consumers’ growing appetite for visual communications. And, oh yes, our executive suite delivers online-video messages to our constituents via multiple media channels on a pretty regular basis.
That’s all well and good, but largely tactical. If marketers want to make content marketing core, they’re going to need “a bigger boat”. That means having regularly scheduled and original programming steeped in storytelling and rich media. It means being less risk-averse and exploring new communications channels and products.
Marketing managers need to stretch their imagination for how to create content that will separate their brand from the pack and hold appeal for both existing customers and prospects.
How much longer do we have to wait until companies start to produce, say, the “The Acme Co. 5pm News”, “Globex Corp’s Weekly Business Report” and other branded or themed programming based on a broadcast-news model?
Rather than distribute content whenever it’s ready, companies need to condition their customers for “appointment” viewing. That might be regular news programming, website serials and YouTube series and documentaries, anchored by consistent scheduling.
As part of what must be an ongoing exercise, brands also need to find senior executives and employees – regardless of where they reside on the organisational chart – who are eager to help create ideas for original branded programming.
Senior managers should also encourage employees who are media-ready and can play the role of the “talent” needed to host (and promote) the various programming.
This is a major undertaking that will fundamentally change how brands and organisations develop, produce and distribute original content. But when they take a cold-eyed look at the ongoing deterioration of traditional media, they have little choice.
PR pros, whose numbers are growing steadily, are in a good position to drive the strategy, coordinate across the company with departments such as finance, product development and sales, and develop new editorial content.
Above all, communicators need to start thinking like programming strategists with business acumen. Their scope needs to be much larger.
In the not-too-distant future, communicators will be evaluated increasingly based on the company’s branded programming and cultivating a new marketing model appealing to both customers and prospects.
There’s barely time to wait.
Note: This article first appeared here and is republished with permission.
Links & references
Brand Tales article on how businesses can adopt a brand newsroom approach
About the Author
Matthew Schwartz is a former journalist who is director of content for Stanton, a communications firm with offices in New York and California.
Design and brand expert Jaid Hulsbosch explains how his agency helped reimagine the iconic Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
It’s a rare opportunity for a design and branding agency to find a new client that’s 200-year-old. But that’s the chance Hulsbosch had when it worked with the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
The 30-hectare Garden, founded by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1816, overlooks Farm Cove on the edge of Sydney Harbour. It is home to an outstanding array of local and foreign plants, and attract millions of visitors every year.
While it is been long acknowledged as an important recreational and tourism destination, the Garden team wanted to emphasise the work of its scientists and reposition itself as a leading Australian scientific institution. This planted the seed for a branding reboot, and Hulsbosch was brought in to make it bloom.
Hulsbosch began with a research program with insights from stakeholders, supporters and volunteers. It accompanied a communications audit by reviewing and measuring the Garden’s brand differentiation with local and global botanic competitors.
Hulsbosch says the final branding concept, “The Vital Science”, reinforces and emphasises the active output of the Garden’s scientists and horticulturists and their role in safeguarding our future. It’s a brand statement that anchors all Royal Botanic Garden Sydney creative executions.
Brand Tales asked Hulsbosch director Jaid Hulsbosch to explain the motivations for his agency’s work:
Scientists address some of the world’s most pressing issues and critical work is being done right here in Australia. All our lives depend on science and unless we continue to apply authoritative scientific expertise, the global population and humanity will be threatened.
It’s a rapidly changing time we live in. How can a creative services agency recalibrate brands and in doing so help to save science?
Our recent work with the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney – Australia’s oldest – revealed the significance of botanical science. When plastics kill the oceans, a rogue asteroid arrives on earth or an erratic foreign leader pushes the doomsday button, it’s the science of plant life that will keep civilisation from ending.
We needed to deliver a message about plants and their direct impact on our existence. We also needed to signal the start of a new era for the Garden – from one as guardian and custodian to courageous contributors of plant science and the broader conversation about sustaining our quality of life.
At the same time, we needed to expand perceptions and experiences of the Garden from being both a beautiful, relaxing place to visit with stunning horticultural displays, to also being a brand synonymous with scientific research and innovation.
Rallying behind this purpose, Hulsbosch created a campaign to demystify but also connect people with the issues of nature today to enrich their awareness and provide education. Helping people really think about sustainability and ways they can change their lifestyles to safeguard the future.
The compelling campaign confronts people with challenging statements and images that either hero real-life scientific projects happening in the Garden, or the every day, much-loved items that could be under threat if solutions are not provided as a global scientific community.
Fundamental facts and everyday items illuminate the need and the actionable results, so they can connect it to their everyday lives. The issues are now personal. The topics are real with high-level implications if plants disappeared with transforming impacts on climate change, food supply and medicine. There would be no flat white coffees or smashed avocado breakfasts or much, much more.
The Garden is a living lab developing revolutionary crop research and the world’s first rainforest seed bank, which is just some examples of its vital work, created through its leading horticultural and scientific expertise. It contributes real solutions for some of the world’s most critical environmental and biodiversity issues.
The Hulsbosch brand project has effectively built importance and supported the Garden to secure local government funding and played a role in recently securing the biggest NSW Government investment in botanical sciences history – $60 million.
Truly creative brand work links innovative thought with good business sense and in this case, has significantly adjusted the state of science, offering up a critical “brand can help to save the world” result.
In a time of consumerism, the multi-layered brand approach has bolstered the important work of scientists and successfully continues the stories of botanical science today and for generations to come.
Links & references
Brand Tales article on the secrets of great branding
How Luke Wheatley turned a wild idea into a winning content solution for Flight Centre.
As you might expect from Flight Centre’s head of creative, content and engagement, Luke Wheatley spins a good yarn. Especially when the topic of conversation is his pet project – the travel retailer’s own television show, The 48 Hour Destination, now in its second season on Network Ten.
Although Wheatley is busy managing Flight Centre’s content and a large team, 48 Hour Destination is his baby. He writes and directs much of the material for the show and is responsible for logistics and production. He’s the executive producer, assists the on-camera talent – Flight Centre consultant Greer Gardiner – and handles deals with TV executives. Wheatley has full creative control. Network Ten just puts it to air, currently on an early Saturday afternoon timeslot.
As an example of owned branded content, 48 Hour Destination is about as good as it gets. As a way of showing how to turn a creative idea into reality – almost out of thin air (and with a budget to match) – it’s worth retelling in full, in Wheatley’s own words …
“Well, like all ideas, it came out of necessity. I thought, ‘Who better to make a travel series than one of Australia’s most loved and known travel retailers?’ So, I went to my boss at the time and said, ‘Let me go produce our own travel show’. He said, ‘You’re crazy’.
“I was given a small budget to make a pilot … and it wasn’t enough to fund the pilot in total, so I had to match those funds through another way. Out budget included everything, right? Flights, accommodation. Nothing is free. No-one’s gonna help you.
“I went to Tourism New Zealand and said, ‘This is what I wanna do’. My end pitch was: ‘If it all fails, you’re gonna get half an hour of content you can have’. And they went: ‘For sheer audacity, we’re gonna give you the money.”
“I was then in production, so I started to call up suppliers, like helicopter companies, “OK, I’m trying to make a TV show, we don’t have distribution, do you want to be involved?” People were like, “No. You’re crazy.” One guy’s like, ‘Yeah, mate, I’ll do it with you. Flight Centre sends so many people our way.” They were so open to helping and even let us open the doors and film on top of a glacier. It was like guerrilla filmmaking at its best.
“Our editor, Digby Hogan from Empire Post, came over with us because we didn’t know how it would all come together. I mean, I know how to tell a story, but this is different. And we had a real [Flight Centre] consultant as our host. She had no experience being in front of the camera like this. So it was like, ‘All right, Greer, get in front of the camera, we’re gonna go in a helicopter, we’re gonna jump in a glacier, we’re gonna go down the rapids…’ She’s like, ‘OK.’ Let’s strap Go-Pros to it.
“We did it [in Queenstown]. We literally filmed it in 48 hours … something I’ll never do again. I edited it and showed my boss, Darren Wright, Head of Marketing for Flight Centre Jason Wolff and Skroo [Graham Turner] our CEO turned up to the meeting as well. No one’s seen the TV show. Here I am, showing the TV pilot and Skroo’s there. I thought: ‘This is going be the death of my career’.
“I was pretty proud of what we’d done. And he’s like, ‘OK, that’s great. What’s next?’ I said, ‘Well, we need distribution’. He said, ‘OK. How?’ I said, ‘I dunno, I’ll just call ’em up’. So I emailed Channel 10, 9, 7, SBS … all of their CEOs. I didn’t know them – I was just emailing them. I Googled ‘CEO’ and found their email addresses.
“Channel 10 got back to me. Two weeks later they said, ‘You know what? You got something. Let’s talk.’ Jason and I flew down to Sydney, they took the show, and we’re in the second season now. We’ve sold it to National Geographic internationally. We’re still trying to sell it to other areas.”
Season 2 of The 48 Hour Destination Series - YouTube
The 48 Hour Destination has turned into a ravenous time beast for Wheatley and his team, but it’s not the only content Flight Centre produces. It publishes a series of 100-page destination-based magazines called Travel Ideas (with a 100,000 print run for each) and an SEO-friendly blog that has travel tips, news and information.
“When I started [in 2014] we were doing three stories a day, seven days a week on the blog,” Wheatley says. “No one was reading anything on weekends, and trying to amplify 20 stories a week is impossible. It’s all about quantity, not quality.” Wheatley says.
Flight Centre also produces The Wow List, its annual guide to the top 50 things travellers could do over the following year. “We’re thinking about turning into a TV show,” Wheatley says. It also pumps out product-oriented advertising and printed brochures.
Then there’s 48 Hour Destination. Wheatley says the show has had a positive impact on the brand’s tone of voice, which he says is now more irreverent and cheeky, and less stuffy. Flight Centre promotions traditionally included the heavily lapelled male “captain” character front and centre, with the brightly jacketed female consultants standing behind. “My job is really to bring the consultants forward a bit more,” Wheatley says.
While he always envisaged 48 Hour Destination would feel like “editorial”, he learned this can be a drawback on travel shows. “Like most creatives, you have this idea that your idea is pure and you won’t sell yourself – that it won’t be too advertorial,” he says. “Funnily enough, that went against the success of the show.
“The first season has no real product information. Greer went to a place in New York that was the No.1 bar in the world two years running. But we didn’t tell anyone where it was. Now we give information with maps. We want to show people where [things are], not just keep it all to ourselves.”
“Our content writers can produce [shows], and they will come on set with me and write. Some of our designers will help direct, so we’re upscaling the team. Most of those people in the credits are my team.”
Despite the show’s name, Wheatley says each show takes about five days to shoot. “We have to be realistic,” he says. “It’s everything you can do in 48 hours if you’re willing to give it a try. The show was never about ‘You should do this in 48 hours’ … it’s about trying to make a story with a purpose.”
Destinations are a mix of locations with good promotional potential for Flight Centre and places Wheatley wants to cover. “My dream was to film in New York when it was snowing, and that’s what I got,” he says. “It wasn’t just snowing, it was a blizzard … Greer was ice skating in Rockefeller Centre. Cape Town was incredible, too. The animals there are just phenomenal.” Most featured destinations have been overseas, although the show has covered places closer to home – for example, north Queensland, Darwin and Western Australia, as well as Auckland and Christchurch.
He says he’s fortunate he has a team of “leaders” at Flight Centre who can help when he’s not around. “Most people on my team touch the show in some ways. Our content writers can produce [shows], and they will come on set with me and write. Some of our designers will help direct, so we’re upscaling the team. Most of those people in the credits are my team.”
Although the 48 Hour Destination is now flying, Wheatley says some things haven’t changed since he made his “crazy” suggestion to Flight Centre management. “We have the same budget per episode, pretty much,” he says. “We get a little bit more help. And I have people calling me now.”
Links & references
Tenplay’s page for Flight Centre’s 48 Hour Destination
Brand Tales article about content’s role in overtourism
Matt Allison has left Bupa to set up a consultancy he hopes will reshape the meaning of content marketing.
As a younger man, before his name became associated with Australia’s most celebrated content marketing initiative, Matt Allison dreamt of being a professional tennis player. “I obviously wasn’t good enough because I’m now a marketer,” he told Adam Fraser on the EchoJunction podcast. So, for a while, he became a tennis coach.
As a strategist to his core, coach Allison would have known a lot about the concept of going on the counter-attack. When a player is deep behind the baseline and the opponent is at the net, he has two choices. He can try to lob his opponent – hit the ball high in the air and deep in the court to push him back. Or he can try to go around him – hit the ball hard and wide, with enough spin to keep the ball inside the lines.
Ultimately, a player at the back of the court can either play it safe and hope to still be in the point so he can attack later. Or he can go on the attack and trust his skills to hit the perfect passing shot.
Allison faced a similar situation as head of global content strategy at Bupa. He led the team that built Australia’s highest-profile content marketing project, Bupa’s The Blue Room, which has defined how a multinational business that provides insurance and aged and healthcare services can connect with customers by publishing valuable content.
While The Blue Room continues to be a commercial success and an industry leader, one aspect of the project always had Allison on the defensive. Working with internal and external experts to formulate new strategies, Bupa’s global team found it challenging to coordinate cohesive plans that could be integrated across the entire customer journey. It worked with a search agency, a digital agency, a PR agency, a content agency, a social media agency … plus whatever agency might be needed to deliver something even more specific.
“The challenge was that I wasn’t able to find one partner that could work across everything,” Allison says. “I was able to deal with this ‘virtual’ team – it was due to be the maturity of the agencies I worked with that everybody was happy to work in this way. But it dawned on me that we [needed] to develop a holistic strategy across paid-owned-earned.”
So Allison went on the counter-attack. He recently left Bupa and launched his own consultancy, Ubiquity Lab. He is backing his skills, and his breadth of contacts, to reinvent the way organisations plan and execute content strategies that deliver a clear return on investment. He wants to use his experience to help businesses find that sweet spot between delivering customer needs and business outcomes.
“What we call ‘content marketing’ is not a stand-alone. It’s not even marketing. It’s part of that broader customer engagement mix.”
Allison says his overarching principle is that content programs shouldn’t exist unless they satisfy business goals. In the end, cutting costs or increasing revenue needs to be part of the equation. “How do we continue to get better at delivering quality content that meets people’s needs and actually engages them and provides utility in a way that we can monetise?” he asks. He argues content needs to be integral to a marketing strategy, but only as part of a wider “ecosystem”.
Allison has created a model that he says illustrates his vision of content-led marketing success: “How to win customers”. It’s a Venn diagram intersecting “thought leadership”, “content”, “automation” and “data”, within the context of “brand”, “innovation” and “customers”. “I believe you need all of these elements working in unison,” he says.
Allison says a mistake many marketers make is seeing content as a function that sits apart or stands alone from other marketing activities. Content, he argues, is the “blood” pulsing through the marketing “body”. “How do organisations get more sophisticated at leveraging their content in a way that powers that ecosystem so it’s integrated and becomes a business and customer enabler?”
He’s also created an “ecosystem maturity benchmark” – a guide to help marketers find the milestones that move them from a “walk” to a “sprint”. He says this helps businesses “operationalise” his Venn diagram. What it shows is that it’s almost impossible to replicate Bupa’s success with The Blue Room overnight.
“Tourism Australia is often used as an example, and rightly so, but it has a customer ecosystem that is fully developed,” he says. “It’s really hard to walk through those stages, and I think a lot of the organisations I’m speaking to at the moment are at the ‘walk’ or ‘jog’ stage. It’s recognising that it’s really hard to go from zero to 100 per cent overnight.”
Allison believes the Australian content marketing scene is growing quickly but “is still in its infancy or, at best, its teenage years”. He says the two biggest issues organisations grapple with are integrating content into the marketing mix and delivering measurable business value.
“There are a number of organisations doing content marketing incredibly well,” he says. “I guess the opportunity is how do we use content as a conduit between brand and performance marketing? I think everyone wants to move from brand publishing to integrated content marketing that delivers business outputs, but [many] haven’t quite locked down the strategy and the operating model to enable that yet.
“I think America’s seven to eight years ahead of where Australia is. What’s really interesting there is that within a year or two the term content marketing will have almost died out. It’s coming full circle. What we call ‘content marketing’ is not a stand-alone. It’s not even marketing. It’s part of that broader customer engagement mix. It’s one of the levers we pull.”
So what can Ubiquity Lab provide its clients that couldn’t be done in-house or by engaging a battery of agencies, as Bupa did? Allison says he is excited to work closely with large and small businesses, and not for profits, on what he calls “really deep strategies”. He knows the key to his success, however, is being able to bring together the right talent for each project.
“I have partners and experts across Australia,” he says, “whether that’s in agencies, people who run smaller agencies I worked with for a number of years at Bupa and in other capacities. They’re best of breed within the industry. I’ve pooled them to dial up what they deliver based on customer needs.
“We’re playing at the strategy end, but we also have the capability to help with execution. If somebody wanted us to, say, produce all of the content for a Blue Room or something of that size and scope, I’d partner with a content marketing or production agency to provide that for them. The sweet spot for us is actually up one layer – more focused on strategy, operating models and helping organisations move through those different phases.”
“Instead of [clients] working with five different agencies, we’re able to be that centralised service provider looking across all of the customer journeys. We provide that cohesive strategy and plan.”
“How do we help you build capability so that you can take the model in-house? Ultimately, our job is to make ourselves redundant.”
Allison says he has no ambitions to rewrite the typical agency model. “I’m certainly not agency bashing or on a journey to re-educate people on our view of the world,” he says. “I think agencies play a fantastic role. My message is really around integration. Integration and customer.
“Everyone is customer-focused and wants to get better at it. For me, it’s how do we start with the customer and then think about the different services that will enable that, as opposed to starting with a service-first mentality?”
Allison also wants to make it clear that he believes organisations must own the strategy, as well as build a sustainable operating model that enables them to transform how they engage with customers.
“I don’t want [Ubiquity Lab] to be the consultancy you have on retainer for five years,” he says. “For me, it’s more about how we can work with you. It may be for six months. How do we partner with you to develop the strategy, how do we help you build your operating model? How do we help you build capability so that you can take the model in-house? Ultimately, our job is to make ourselves redundant.
“I don’t think you should ever outsource strategy. That has to live within your organisation. But how do you partner with the right consultants to get their expertise, to help co-create the strategy, and then to help you build the operating model so that you can take the bulk of the activity in-house?”
Allison plans to take the lessons from his Bupa experience to help other brands create similar success. “We understand driving cultural change within a complex organisation is incredibly hard, because we’ve lived and breathed it,” Allison says. “It’s this first-hand experience, from both a strategic and operational perspective, that I feel really sets us apart.
“When I helped transform Bupa’s paid, owned and earned strategy, I had to learn the hard way – we got a lot right, but we also made mistakes. This experience at the coalface enables me to help other organisations win the hearts and wallets of consumers, as well as to avoid making the same mistakes I did.”