They started a custom publishing arm that’s putting out some of the most interesting content on tech including the High Growth Handbook.
But most impressively, they started Stripe Atlas. It’s a starter toolkit that significantly lowers the bar for forming an online business that’s registered in Delaware and getting it going (so it’s easier to do things like issue stocks).
It’s such good marketing it’s hard to even call it marketing.
It isn’t just a bunch of pieces claiming Stripe makes it easier to start an online business. It’s actually making it easier to start an online business.
It’s an extension of the business strategy itself. Not just a mouthpiece for it.
This, I think, is how high modern marketers need to aim.
First, because it makes marketing more valuable to the business. Stripe aren’t just doing marketing. They’re building a market. Every new online business is a growth opportunity for Stripe.
And second, because it makes marketing more valuable to the end-user. The marketing isn’t just broadcasting messages at people.
It’s giving them real, tangible value. (And, critically, the value they’re delivering is intrinsically tied to Stripe’s own value.)
But aiming this high means changing the questions you ask of your marketing strategy.
It’s not just about figuring out the story. It’s about figuring out the problems the business helps solve. And figuring out how marketing can help solve those problems too.
It’s about making marketing so valuable it’s hard to even call it marketing.
*Stripe is NOT a client. They’re just very good at this.
Welcome to the latest instalment of Velocity’s most popular blog series (bar none, because there are none), Let’s Steal From…. We pick a piece of marketing that blew us away and distil it to its essential elements in a bid to understand how any of us mere mortals can ever come close to recreating something equally brilliant.
This one’s about way more than a piece of content. This is about a total, content-rich experience that blew me away.
Back in 2016, I flew to the US via Reykjavík on an Icelandair flight. As a traveller, it was great. As a marketer, the experience was nothing short of gleeful. More than two years later, I’m still obsessed with it and convinced there is a lot we can all learn from these guys.
Iceland is pretty convenient if you’re flying to North America – Reykjavík is further on the way than any other European city and Icelandair is making a fine trade ferrying people across the Atlantic. It’s also encouraging travellers to stop over in Iceland on the way, for up to 7 days at no extra charge.
I picked the flight because it was the cheapest option available, and it had all the hallmarks of low-cost flying: a couple of hours’ wait in Keflavík airport, no food, no headphones. It’s the smallest plane I’ve ever been on for a seven-hour trip.
It was also one of the smartest, most charming 360-degree marketing experiences I’ve ever come across.
Everything about the trip – and I mean absolutely everything – sang the same song: that Iceland was a uniquely special place and you’d be crazy not to visit. And none of it felt like you were being clobbered over the head.
There were things you might expect, like having Icelandic Skyr and various mystery Icelandic drinks on the menu, and Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós on the sound system.
There was the in-flight magazine, which was obviously full of stunning scenery and tourist highlights, and the entertainment system pre-roll, for once not hugely irritating but a David Attenborough-style affair featuring whales and geysers and glaciers.
The flight safety video managed to take place almost entirely outside, in a cool almost-AR-style which superimposed the usual spiel about emergency landings on water with footage of actual rafting, and oxygen masks with, oh yes, breath-taking mountain views.
Icelandair In-Flight Safety Video - YouTube
It didn’t stop there. It was delightfully relentless.
The plane was named after a famous Icelandic volcano.
There were interesting facts and quotations from saga literature embroidered on the headrests, and possibly also the pillows and blankets. (I’m not sure, I may have imagined those. Isn’t that incredible? The campaign was so good that I’m now remembering marketing that maybe wasn’t even there.)
(NB – didn’t imagine it. It’s a thing. Though the pillows are disappointingly printed, and it’s not quite saga literature.)
The best bit?
There was aurora mood-lighting on the plane. I could have swooned.
Have you seen inside the world's first northern lights plane? - YouTube
The attention to detail was insane. And the cumulative impact, well. I’ve never been so excited to spend two hours in an airport anywhere.
I was totally, utterly, completely sold. I forgot about the fact my flight was delayed. Iceland instantly shot up my list of places to visit. And while we’re on the subject of stealing, I was sorely tempted to make away with the saga-embroidered blanket I may or may not have made up in my enthusiasm. (I didn’t. Steal it, that is.)
You could argue that it’s easy to market something when you have a literally captive audience in a tin can for seven hours, but it’s just as easy to overwhelm and put people off.
With so many channels and touchpoints and bits and pieces of content – as marketers, how many times do we actually get to experience the whole and make sure that it actually fits and works together seamlessly?
It’s a hard balance to get right, and whether B2C or B2B, it’s something we could all benefit from thinking about more.
So what can we learn and/or steal from Icelandair?
1) Identify and own the hell out of your strategic advantages.
Icelandair had several, and they made the most of the resources at their disposal.
First, their geographic location. No other European country is so ideally placed half-way between Europe and the US – if you’re coming from Europe, a stop-over in Iceland makes sense.
Second, a captive audience. You’ve chosen to fly with Icelandair, you’ve already converted. But that’s not quite the same as choosing to fly with them to Iceland, and staying there though, so the flight becomes a 7-hour nurture process.
Third, the country’s natural landscape. There’s a lot of beauty in the world, but nowhere looks quite like Iceland. It’s remote and filled with the sort of exciting natural features – volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, and so on – that are inevitably described as majestic or dramatic. Not difficult to make it look attractive in all sorts of formats and situations, without it ever getting boring or even repetitive.
Last but not least, enthusiastic and expert staff. Not only did they deliver great service in-flight, but they were also offering their now-famous Stopover Buddy scheme, pairing you up with an Icelandair employee to show you around the country for a day. The airline drew on their workforce’s local expertise to casually deliver the holy grail of tourism: genuine insider knowledge.
They could just have had a nice flight with good service and a pretty in-flight brochure, but they leveraged those advantages to go above and beyond what people would normally expect. They knew exactly what their strengths were, and they found new and interesting ways to play on them.
2) Get the right balance of consistency and innovation.
(By which I mean, don’t be scared to innovate.)
We’ve got a rather more extensive (and excellent) blog post on this – the paradox at the heart of every B2B brand. But the crux of it is that brands are constantly struggling to be fresh and interesting, while also maintaining a consistent identity.
Most brands err on the side of consistency, but Icelandair is a perfect example of how you can take something well-established and give it a new spin, year after year.
The stopover isn’t new. It’s been going for nearly 60 years. Every year, Icelandair and their agency, The Brooklyn Brothers, have a slightly different take on it, breathing new life into the concept and sprucing it up. In 2016, it was the Stopover Buddy. In 2018, they focused on the World Cup.
In-flight, brand and service stayed central, but every detail appealed to travellers’ curiosity and their own personal interests. Take the saga literature – I happened to have studied it at university, so my attention snagged on it. Someone else who had less niche interests might have been more impressed by the showcase of Iceland’s hiking opportunities instead.
The variety meant they could target individuals while maintaining a consistent overall brand.
3) Elevate a mundane experience by making it beautiful.
For most people, flights are at best smooth, and at worst a terrifying experience – but that same attention to detail turned an unremarkable experience into something special. (And why shouldn’t it be remarkable? You’re flying, after all.)
This is true of B2B content too. So many companies are doing interesting things, yet B2B content is often mind-numbingly boring. It’s always the same story – data is taking over the world, AI is big. So how do you make it exciting?
There’s an art to finding a new angle, or even simply delivering content that manages to stand out on a topic that’s been done to death. Whether it’s beautiful design, convincing opinions, a slightly different take – look for the ways you can elevate what you’re doing, even if it’s a simple email or blog post.
4) Think about the end-to-end experience.
Nothing exists in isolation. It’s not just about the content but about the overall experience of that content – everything around it, essentially. How often do we actually get to experience a whole strategy end-to-end before launch and ensure that it all works together as well as the Icelandair marketing did?
A multi-sensory experience might be harder to achieve in B2B but we should be paying attention to every single element that surrounds our marketing, because it all adds up. Somebody should own and curate the entire customer experience from discovery to sale. If not the marketing team, who?
5) Play the long game.
Like most content marketing, Icelandair’s is a long-term strategy. It’s about raising awareness and a desire to travel to Iceland in general – not about immediate conversion.
It’s about delivering an experience that’s so good people will come back.
Create marketing you’re proud of, then let exposure and inspiration do their thing. (Case in point, I am still obsessed with this two years later – and telling you about it).
6) Above all, tap into your real enthusiasm.
For me, the relentlessness of Icelandair’s enthusiasm was part of its charm. They were so excited about Iceland that they really wanted to share it in everything. You might think bombarding people with advertising for seven hours would be cheesy at best and oppressive at worst. Instead, they made it infectious.
As a marketer, you can be forgiven for not always drinking the Kool-Aid. A healthy scepticism about the product you’re selling can come in handy when it comes to identifying potential pitfalls – and let’s face it, not every product is that exciting.
But there’s always something you can riff off. Find that thing. Authentic enthusiasm is infectious, even if you’re selling something at the end of it.
(I haven’t worked out the trick to making your enthusiasm feel authentic, so I personally prefer to just be authentically enthusiastic.)
Go forth and filch
So there we go. We may not all have the advantage of seven hours with our captive audience – but there’s plenty of ideas we can shamelessly pilfer from Icelandair.
So whether it’s knowing what you’re good at and finding interesting ways and formats to showcase it; or never underestimating the cumulative power of an end-to-end experience – attention to detail and a streak of enthusiasm could be taking you very far indeed.
PS. I wish I could sign off this post with a photo of myself under the northern lights. But the truth is that I actually haven’t made it back to Iceland yet.
Why? Because their marketing was so effective that I can’t decide whether I’d rather go in winter or in summer – and have been paralysed by indecision since. But as you can tell, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
My conversion is assured, merely delayed. Watch this space.
Other posts in the ‘Let’s Steal From…’ Series:
Real robber barons diversify their loot. Why not swipe from:
This is another post in our Content Performance series, in which we look at what B2B businesses need to make their marketing more effective.
Choosing the right marketing automation tool is like picking a needle in a needlestack.
Spend half a minute staring into the abyss that is Brinker’s Beast and you’ll know what I mean. The amount of MarTech out there is staggering. And there’s more every year.
Which is why so many people end up taking the ‘I’ve heard of Salesforce, and they’re good, so I’ll go with them’ approach.
And before it sounds like I’m criticizing Salesforce, I’m not. Salesforce is great. But that is a terrible approach.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with many different tools for our content performance clients. So I’ve seen pretty much every platform and side-by-side comparison you’ll find.
To the naked eye, it looks like they all offer the same range of all-singing-and-dancing capabilities. There’s a good reason for that. They kind of do.
Pretty much every platform today can give you the tools to make your marketing processes more efficient and less manual. But here’s the truth no vendor out there will ever tell you:
Choosing a marketing automation tool isn’t about comparing technical capabilities.
It’s about clearly articulating your goals as a marketing organization and then figuring out what the technology can do to help.
That might sound pretty obvious, but this is the eat-your-greens part of the process that you can’t afford to rush through.
There’s so much you can achieve with just a bit of upfront thinking and planning. So without any further ado I’d like to present:
The Velocity super-secret goals-driven bullet-proof recipe to choosing your new Marketing Automation software
When working on a brand-new automation project our content performance team follows a deep-dive process involving five crucial steps.
To do it well, you’ll need to include a range of key stakeholders from management, marketing and sales (trust me, you don’t want to do this in a silo) and it usually takes between three to four weeks.
The secret lies in mapping your requirements; your processes, your gaps and your goals, that will shape the core tool demands now and (crucially) in the future.
1. Review expectations from your stakeholders
Document your business goals, challenges and expectations from upper management. There’s no need to go into the nitty-gritty details, just get on the same page and define what success looks like.
This core step will help you understand your basic requirements of your new software. What’s more, mom and dad will know they’re involved in the decision-making so they’ll trust you more down the line.
Here’s a super-condensed real-life example of what this looks like:
2. Talk to your peeps in Sales
Yeah, I know. But marketing automation is a Sales and Marketing game, not just a marketing one. Your sales team will play a key role in your new lead management process, so get them involved early in the process. Give them the opportunity to chime-in, and show them all the benefits of a structured, automated process. Once they’ve got a whiff of how you’re qualifying those leads, that’s half the battle won.
On the other hand, if you go ahead and do a bunch of set-up without their input, it’s going to be way harder to make changes (and way more tempting to ignore them).
3. Review the shape of your current marketing stack
Bring your marketing team together and re-visit what channels are important for you and how they are (or should be) supporting your business goals. What’s working? What’s not? This step will become very important at the tool evaluation stage.
For example, many automation tools support a bi-directional sync with your CRM (your Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics). But if you run a lot of webinars, you should know that not every tool supports 3rd party integrations with GoToWebinar or WebEx.
Account-based Marketing is another great example, with just a handful of automation players (like Engagio, Marketo or Terminus) offering integrated solutions to really run and, most importantly, measure your ABM efforts.
Here’s a real scorecard example of how three top marketing automation providers would differently support the same business requirement:
4. Set your aspirations – where do you want to be in 12 months?
You can do a lot with Marketing Automation, so defining your priorities upfront is really important.
If you’re trying to figure out what you can reasonably aim for in the next 12 months, here’s a Marketing Maturity Curve I tend to use.
For some companies, being able to put out basic email nurturing campaigns and get simple, straightforward reports on their performance is more than enough to support their strategy. We love Hubspot for that.
Other companies need to think much bigger.
If your aspirations include revenue performance, ROI reporting and closed-loop analytics on your marketing campaigns, then you’re automatically qualifying for a more complex platform and a longer implementation period. Personally, I’m a big fan of Marketo’s Revenue Cycle Analytics (RCA).
5. Evaluate the options based on your selection criteria:
This is where everything comes together and you finally get your hands on some cool new toys. In this stage you need to:
Chart the outcome of your discovery audit into a clear set of goals and priorities from each team.
Align these goals against your marketing requirements, both commercial and technical.
Evaluate how much each tool excels at each of their individual capabilities and determine how relevant those are for your specific goals. In my experience, you should be looking into at least two platforms.
Automation is worth getting right
It might seem like all marketing automation platforms are basically the same. But you don’t want to rush into this decision.
Your ability to track your leads’ journeys, simplify your processes and calculate marketing’s impact all depend on you having the right tool.
And you’ll only know you have the right tool if you know precisely what your business needs.
Ask the right questions, answer them clearly and truthfully, and you’ll end up building a suite of tools around your business, rather than a business built around a suite of tools. You don’t want to do that.
Good luck with your selection process. If you get stuck, get in touch.
“Even though its bread is surely devoid of many more E numbers than its fast food rivals, its target customers, the expectations they have, the brand positioning and 20 years of advertising on napkins are all pointing to ‘natural’. Customers go to Pret because it is additive-free and the news that it is not will hit the brand much harder than KFC, McDonald’s or Subway.”
It’s precisely because Pret has worked so hard to get known as the natural brand that they’re held to a higher standard.
That will almost certainly feel unfair to the no-doubt-sleep-deprived marketers in the middle of that crisis, but it’s actually a testament to how well they’ve positioned their brand.
You want your market to get mad at you for not doing what you said you would. It’s how you know you’re doing something worth doing.
The thing is, a company’s positioning isn’t just a promise it makes. It’s also its ability to live up to that promise.
So when you’re trying to position your company, the calculation you’re making is based on two variables. For starters, you’re trying to shape a story so compelling the market just has to do something about it.
But you’re also trying to figure out what your company can actually do. If you promise too much, you’re just setting yourself up to look foolish later.
If you promise too little, you’re just setting yourself up for tumbleweeds.
This is where courage matters most for technology companies.
You will ruffle no feathers within the business if you make an underwhelming but technically accurate promise on behalf of the product team*.
You may even win bonus points if you cover up some of the company’s deficiencies with a cleverly evasive story.
But it’s at moments like these that you have to ask yourself who marketing really represents.
If marketing only represents the business, then all you have to do is articulate the promises the business can already keep.
If marketing also represents the market – the customer, the prospect, the mission that both you and your buyers care about – then what you have to do is articulate the promises the market needs you to keep.
It takes talent and engineering and a well-structured business model to actually keep those promises.
But it takes brave marketing to make them.
*Especially the product teams that are just happy marketing understands the product.
Comedy and marketing have an interesting relationship.
On the one hand there’s a lot of overlap (there’s a reason Tina Fey was the guest speaker at Content Marketing World).
But they’re also very different. Some would say antithetical. Especially if you’re a Bill Hicks fan (warning: not safe for work. Or advertisers).
So can marketing be funny? Should marketing be funny?
Yes. To both.
Why some people are wary about funny marketing
There are a four big reasons not to include comedy. They are:
1. Comedy is hard
I mean, it’s not exactly brain surgery, but it takes professionals decades to get it right. And even they mess it up.
Brain Surgeon - That Mitchell & Webb Look , Series 3 - BBC Two - YouTube
I love that sketch – it’s a simple idea done well. An actual brain surgeon brags to everyone, until he meets an actual rocket scientist. Beautiful.
But originally it had another bit at the end where a different guy comes over and says “Rocket science? It’s not exactly jazz trumpetry”.
Died on its arse.
See, even the professionals get it wrong. So what chance do marketers have?
2. You’re not B2C
The deodorant and soda sellers of the world have it easy. Ish.
But we’re B2B. That means bureaucracy. Stakeholders. A plethora of people we need to charm before they give us their money.
You’re less likely to get an impulse purchase, no matter how much you make them chuckle.
3. It gives people a reason to ignore you
Comedy is generally regarded as less serious than non-comedy. That’s why funny films rarely win big at the Oscars.
Handle humour wrong and it gives people a reason to think you aren’t serious.
Being serious and funny at the same time – that’s hard.
4. It gives people a reason to hate you
You won’t be for everyone. And, usually, that’s not a bad thing. It helps you to find your people.
But sometimes you can get it wrong.
Like the time we wrote a piece with a sweary headline that some people were less than enamoured with when it landed in their inbox.
And they were even less enamoured when they tried to unsubscribe and the ‘are you sure?’ message called them a “heartless bastard”.
Like I said, even the professionals get it wrong.
So why bother being funny?
There are lots of reasons not to add comedy to your marketing. But these arguments all miss one fundamental truth.
The reason the ‘Velocity voice’ (such as it is) uses comedy is because people use comedy.
If you don’t, you sound less human (and more corporate).
Conversational writing matters. And it works.
That makes discussing whether to include humour in a piece a bit… weird. You wouldn’t say “should we include seriousness in this piece?” or “are we sure about using verbs?”.
Including humour in your writing isn’t a choice. Excluding it is the choice.
And sometimes excluding it is the right choice.
But somewhere, at some point, businesses made the choice to default to not being funny. To only speak seriously, because they thought it made them sound like ‘grown ups’.
It made them sound stuffy. Corporate. Boring.
Getting comedy right
So you should use humour. But how should you use it?
That’s a… big topic. Phew.
But OK. Here are some general things to consider.
B2B Marketing and comedy are structurally different
When it comes to good comedy and good marketing, some of the rules are the same:
Cut unnecessary words
Use simple language
The rule of three
But a lot of stuff is different too. For instance, in marketing the most important bit comes first – in comedy it comes last.
Let’s say you want to use an interesting fact:
Marketing – important info, supporting statement:
Chainsaws are safe. You’re twice as likely to be injured by your trousers than by a chainsaw.
Comedy – supporting statement (set up), important information (punchline)
“In the UK, trousers cause twice as many accidents as chainsaws. Which is true, I’ve had a lot of accidents in my trousers” – Jimmy Carr
But it’s worth remembering why we’re making the thing. We’re marketing. That means when the two are different, the marketing always wins.
Sure, it might kill your joke. But the comedy is there to help the marketing.
If the humour is getting in the way, it goes.
“Make your thinking as funny as possible”
David Ogilvy knew a thing or two about marketing. He once said:
“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”
Behind the scenes, being funny (and having fun) is super important.
One of the reasons people laugh is because their brain has made a new connection. That’s why we often chuckle when we finally solve a riddle or puzzle.
If you don’t bring that playfulness behind the scenes at work, you’re missing out. In fact, if you’re not laughing when thinking stuff up, you’re probably rehashing stuff you’ve seen before.
No new connection, no chuckle.
So whether or not what you think up ends up being funny, the act of thinking it up should be.
(And added bonus – it makes work more fun too).
Make the comedy about something
Comedy in a piece needs to matter. It needs to say something.
A pun in the title isn’t enough. An un-related joke at the end of the video won’t make it ‘funny’.
The humour needs to be baked into the very essence of what you’re saying.
Without that, it’s like baking a loaf of bread, putting some frosting on the top and wondering why no one likes your ‘cupcake’.
Instead, the fundamental aspect of the piece needs to be funny.
What does that look like? Maybe:
Play on a marketing trope – people are used to most marketing sounding the same. When you dare to be different, it can be funny – “Subject line: Yes, another damn newsletter. I’m sorry.”
Point out an industry absurdity – sometimes industries do stupid things, or have archaic systems in place. Hold a mirror up to it and it can be funny – “how can you trust a tool that still uses the floppy disk as the save icon?”
Point out an unexpected consequence – Take something to its logical (but absurd) conclusion. A good example is the Peter Principle. We know that people get promoted when they’re good at their job. If they’re still good, they get promoted again. When do they stop getting promoted? When they’re no longer good at their job. So people get promoted to their level of incompetence.
Connect two seemingly-unconnected ideas – Link two things that shouldn’t be linked – “What project managers can learn from sumo wrestling (and what they shouldn’t)”.
When the very heart of your piece is about something funny, something interesting, then you can make a piece that really works.
Crossing the comedy chasm
Once upon a time I did a comedy course (for charity, I should point out) with a guy called Logan Murray.
One of Logan’s key ideas was that all jokes are connecting two unconnected ideas (sound familiar?). That’s what gives the joke its surprise.
Man walks into a bar. Ouch. – Oh, didn’t expect it to mean a metal bar.
“My dog’s got no nose.” “How does it smell?” “Terrible.” – The inclusion of “nose” made me expect “smell” to be related, but it wasn’t. Interesting.
Why’d the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. – Ah, based on the construction I expected that to be a joke and not an obvious statement. Conventions don’t matter. Language is meaningless. Send help.
The secret to a good joke is that the wider you can make that gap, the funnier the joke will be. The only problem is that fewer people will make the leap.
This brings us to a fundamental problem – do you want to put people off working with you because you want to be funny?
What if someone is new to the industry so they don’t get your cunning pastiche? Or what if you throw in a cultural reference that goes over people’s heads?
Fewer people will get it.
But, and it’s a big but, it’s worth it if those that do get it are more likely to convert.
It all comes back to that rule – the marketing comes before the comedy.
Realise that committees kill comedy
Marketing is almost inherently built by committee. There’ll be writers, designers, developers, managers, stakeholders and just generally a bucketload of people having their say.
The problem? Committees kill comedy.
Lots of opinions all dilute a once-great idea down.
Plus making something takes time too. A joke that’s funny at v1 might feel old by v5, and therefore feel like it should be cut.
Balancing everything is a struggle. But it’s one worth having.
Do you still want the comedy in there?
Comedy is tough, risky and, even done right, risks alienating some customers.
But it’s human.
It makes you sound less like a large multinational organisation and more like a person offering a useful tool.
Then again, whatever the benefits of comedy, we can’t forget the reason we’re making a piece. We aren’t artists. We’re marketers.
A lot of B2B marketers are talking about authenticity now.
It makes sense.
Sure, the internet’s been a good way for anonymous/pseudonymous trolls to spread bullshit.
But it’s also been the absolute best way for honest, authentic, well-meaning companies to get known.
When I look around at the B2B brands being established online – brands like Apptio and Stripe and a16z and Slack – one thing sticks out.
These brands weren’t ‘built’. They were earned.
Apptio didn’t just tell IT financial planners they were technology business management experts. They actually did the hard work of establishing a technology business management framework the industry could find value in.
a16z didn’t just tell founders they weren’t like the other VCs. They actually shared more secrets, gave better advice and exposed more network. They didn’t shy away from the fact they had skin in the game. They showed skin.
Stripe didn’t just say they were ‘passionate about helping people start businesses’. They invested serious time, money and effort into Stripe Atlas so it’s actually easier to start a business.
Slack didn’t just say it was a more fun, easy way to get everyone in a company talking to each other in one place. It actually made something so fun and easy everyone in the company started talking to each other in one place*.
So yes, it’s fair and right and true to say that ‘authenticity’ has been key for all these brands.
But here’s my problem.
Too often, when I hear marketers talk about authenticity, I worry they’re doing it inauthentically.
That is, they’re more worried about looking authentic than being authentic.
(If you’re saying authenticity is a big deal for you now, you’re also saying it wasn’t before. Pro tip: maybe don’t do that in public.)
So let’s be perfectly clear about the imperative for authentic brand building.
There is no shortcut.
There is no tell. There is only show.
There is only what you actually do.
And what it means to me.
It’s that simple. And that hard.
Brand is no longer bullshit.
*As an aside, I wonder what percentage of nice things said about Slack are said in Slack.
Back in 2014, a New York Times internal strategy document leaked out into the world, called The New York Times Innovation Report. It was the result of an 8-month, deep-dive reporting project. Basically, a small strategy team studied the whole company and its blindingly-fast-changing industry, then reported back.
The Innovation Report caused a big stir and for good reason: this was a clear, strategic overview of the challenges faced by every newspaper trying to escape a fate that seemed written in stone (or like, litho plates).
I was blown away by it back then, and, having just re-read it four years later, I’m even more impressed. This is what strategy is all about: a clear-eyed view of the current situation; an honest appraisal of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; and a smart, coherent roadmap to drive change.
That it could even be conceived from such a place—the very epicenter of old-school journalism; an empire built entirely on print—is remarkable.
That is was so damn right is pretty much unprecedented.
Here are just the first paragraphs from the introduction:
“The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging— and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition.
At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era.”
Boom. Instant clarity.
Dead in the water?
When this was written, almost every media-watcher, part-time pundit and Silicon Valley smart-ass was predicting the certain demise of all the old print newspaper businesses, especially The Gray Lady.
[I once heard a Buzzfeed exec dismiss all newspapers as “legacy mastheads”. Ouch. Today, I’d much rather own NYT shares than Buzzfeed shares. I don’t wish them ill, but it did rankle to hear a two-year-old web puppy built on half a billion dollars of VC money and stories like “Which Disney princess are you?” lecturing The New York Goddamn Times on the future of publishing.]
As it’s turned out (so far), The Times has defied both gravity and gurus.
When the report was written, the Times had 780,000 online subscribers. That was a pretty strong start for one of the industry’s paywall pioneers but it was a long way from replacing their disappearing ad revenue and print sales.
Today (according to the latest data I could find: Feb 2018), they have 2.6m digital subscribers, with subscription revenue accounting for 60 per cent of the company’s revenue.
Subs revenue passed $1bn for the first time in 2017, and they’re well on their way to their five-year goal of doubling digital sales by 2020. (Source FT.com)
This is partly (and hugely ironically) thanks to the ‘Trump Bump’, the surge in appetite for real news during a blatantly fake administration.
What’s even more interesting and impressive is that the Times is doing this by focusing not on advertisers but on readers. As CEO MarkThompson (ex BBC head) said:
“We still regard advertising as an important revenue stream, but believe that our focus on establishing close and enduring relationships with paying, deeply engaged users . . . is the best way of building a successful and sustainable news business”.
So what can marketers learn from the New York Times?
So, so much.
Put aside their unrivaled journalism (see the excellent 4-part documentary called The Fourth Estate to see what journalistic integrity looks like. I loved it but it got a lukewarm review in… The New York Times.)
Put aside their seemingly futile but critically important attempt to hold powerful, orange people to account. Or their deep, long-form work like the series on the rise of China, The Land That Failed To Fail.
Put all that aside and just look at the Times as a firehose of digital innovation.
The Times is constantly coming up with cool, smart, exciting, interesting, and innovative ways to tell stories.
The people you’d have bet on to be last in letting go of the Gutenberg mindset and embracing digital turned out to be first.
As soon as the snowy hero banner loaded, you knew you were in for a new kind of storytelling. And that promise was kept, as every scroll and click was rewarded with smart new perspectives that always enhanced the story rather than distracting from it.
Every web publisher and marketer who saw it rushed back to their writers, designers and developers and said, “Make me one!”. By the time the imitations went live, The Times was on to its next experiments.
And for each experiment that made it over the very high bar that is the NYT ‘publish’ button, I imagine there have been dozens that never made the grade. These guys may occasionally produce crap but they don’t often publish it.
Check out these impressive pieces:
This Is 18 Around the World– a look at girls’ lives through girls’ eyes, capturing “what life is like for girls turning 18 in 2018 across oceans and cultures — in Mexico and Mississippi, Ramallah and Russia, Bangladesh and the Bronx.”
(Oh, you’re not a subscriber so you can only view three of these? Well. FIX THAT. NOW.)
Things we can all steal from the New York Times
We could extract 10-15 lessons from any one of these innovative stories but I’m taking the lazy way out and giving you a cluster of core principles that every marketer can and should steal from The Gray Lady:
Put your reader first – No really first. Before your VP of Sales. Before your CMO. Before your CEO. Serve your readers. Earn every subscriber through quality, craft and integrity.
This single North Star for the NYT team makes every other decision relatively clear. What I’m most excited about when I think about this grand experiment in transformation is that The NYT is essentially inventing a new business model that profits from serving readers ahead of advertisers. The future of democracy itself may depend on their success.
Always be experimenting – The Times doesn’t just run a lot of experiments; they’ve made experimentation a central part of their culture. That’s a huge advantage and one every marketing team should be copying.
This digital thing is still new and no one knows exactly what works. There’s a hidden universe of new ways to tell stories and experimenting is how we discover it.
And, of course, part of an experimentation culture is getting better at capturing and sharing your learning. An example: one of their early Times experiments was about re-packaging archive content to make it relevant again. This is how they captured the lessons:
Simple, clear and actionable for a wide range of people and departments. Do you have a ‘Lessons Learned’ section in your analytics reports and strategy docs?
[BTW: By definition, many experiments fail. The Times was an early pioneer of native advertising… and it sucked, betraying their core values. I’m glad to see it gone.]
Love your story – you can only lavish all this care and attention on a story if you really, really want people to come with you and to understand what you’re trying to tell them. It’s not just how you say it, it’s what you say. Say fresh, interesting, new things and you’ll be almost forced to tell them in new ways. (We’re exploring this with pieces like The New Media Message — and it’s fun).
Let go of Gutenberg – Print was the Daddy for 550 years or so. But it’s time to let go. and if a newspaper founded in the 19th century can let go, you can let go. (Why are we still cramming 750 words on to a PDF page? Ink and paper cost a lot of money. Pixels don’t). Think digital first.
“It is essential to begin the work of questioning our print-centric traditions…”
— from the NYT Innovation Report
Break down silos – The team that created the Innovation Report included journalists, editors, a UX person and two strategists. To develop the strategy, they interviewed over 100 people across the business. The legacy drag of tradition is a formidable thing. Overcoming it takes a village.
“We are not proposing a wholesale reorganization. But we do believe simply issuing a new policy— collaborating with our colleagues focused on reader experience is encouraged and expected— would send a powerful signal and unlock a huge store of creative energy and insights.”
— from the NYT Innovation Report
Work harder to get your work discovered – My examples above focus on the innovative content that the Times produces. But the Innovation Report has even more pages dedicated to getting readers to discover their journalism than it does on the storytelling itself.
To an organization whose idea of distribution used to involve trees and trucks and kids on bikes and corner shops, this was probably the biggest learning curve of all. And they climbed it frighteningly quickly.
“The work [of audience development] can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty).”
— from the NYT Innovation Report
Be brilliant – A lot of the success of The New York Times comes down to having already assembled many of the world’s most talented journalists, editors, photographers, designers and creators. That didn’t happen by accident, it happened by raising the bar and keeping it high.
Marketing teams everywhere can learn from that. Instead of making the best from whatever talent you’ve already got, work even harder attracting better talent, then giving them the kind of exciting briefs that keeps them on board.
Go forth and steal
A fundamental premise of the ‘Let’s Steal From’ series is to choose your victims carefully. It’s not enough to steal from the standard ‘best-practice’ work done by your peers in marketing.
Stealing from the very best in all disciplines is a far richer source of inspiration, ideas and specific tactics.
For me, The New York Times is right up there with the world’s most eligible targets. Every marketing team in the world will get better by shamelessly ripping them off.
Others posts in the ‘Let’s Steal From’ series:
Marketo tells me you’ve already read four of these but Google Analytics says you’re ripe & ready to binge on the rest. So click through and steal shamelessly from:
How to create performance marketing KPIs in seven steps
B2B marketing teams don’t work with KPIs nearly enough.
And that’s crazy because they are – as the title suggests – key. So why do so many marketing teams skip this utterly vital stage of any marketing process?
It’s a head-scratcher. And usually a result of thinking of generating KPIs as a pure data challenge. It’s not. You need to think of it as aligning your goals, users, actions and expected outcomes.
Going to your data source to find your baselines, set your target and build your reporting framework is the last step. Not the first.
Today, we’ll show you just how that works and how you can arrive at SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) metrics with real meaning.
So let’s go ‘open kimono’, in time-honoured tradition, and show you how it’s done with deck excerpts, whiteboard scribblings and quotes to show you how we make this work for our clients.
1. Engage your team
This first one’s simple. Get the people who will own the KPIs in a room. And make sure they understand they’ll be contributing their ideas rather than their “finger-in-the-air” data.
Start by getting everyone to define how they expect to run campaigns to get the ball rolling. You’ll be interested to see if these initial assumptions survive the session. (Hint: unlikely). A good way to do this quickly and efficiently is with a pre-workshop survey.
2. Define your purpose
You know you need a purpose. And we like to define it in under 30 words.
But don’t expect everyone to agree all at once. The data from the upfront survey ensures there’s no falling into the slipstream of the room’s HIPPO.
For this client, we asked: “How would you define the mission of the marketing team?” A stream of valid, but different, responses came back to illustrate how difficult it can be to achieve peak focus.
An hour later we agreed nobody would have a KPI that didn’t (forgive the double-negative) focus on an action to:
“Drive sustainable pipeline and revenue growth while creating an aggressive position, messaging and product offering to capitalise on emerging market trends and opportunities.”
3. Prioritize your audience
This goes beyond a textbook ‘put your client first’ mantra. Again it’s all about focus. Who do you need to attack first and hardest (both externally and internally)?
Our friends agreed it’s time to rebalance from prospect to account based marketing (ABM) to drive pipeline and revenue. This is a big deal. It means a different approach to content. A different approach to campaigns. And a different approach to measurement.
And that leads to this little beauty:
4. Define your goals
This bit is usually a bit easier. What do you want? But let’s do it without losing sight of what we’ve just agreed. Are your goals:
Aligned with your defined purpose
Aligned with your target audience
Written in a strong and active way
In this case that became:
Drive net new sales
Grow existing accounts
Become the gold standard
Contribute to the product roadmap
These goals are simple. And, in this case, simplicity is genius. You will now question any project or activity that doesn’t directly speak to these goals. The net tightens.
5. Map your goals to user needs
This bit is usually a bit harder. It’s a struggle to think outside our own needs. So we need to force alignment between what we want and what users need.
You just won’t achieve your goals unless they’re made user-friendly.
We break up into teams and discuss the user needs for target audiences. Draw yourself a table, with a column for each of your goals.
Under each goal, put audience needs that your goal can fulfil. And question any goal that doesn’t match with user needs. It’s starting to get interesting.
6. Hypothesise and analyse
Now that your thinking cap is well and truly on, you get to start hypothesising about what actions you could take to achieve your goals and delight your users. They should follow the structure of:
“If we do X then Y will happen.”
Once you’ve got a number of hypotheses, you rate them using three metrics:
Potential (Difference we think it will make)
Importance (Value to the bottom line)
Ease (Can we realistically get it done)
Note: people often get confused between potential and importance. Think of it this way: potential is the difference you can make and importance is how much it matters.
You give each a score out of 10.
For obvious reasons we call this PIE Framework Analysis. Let’s have a look at an example.
Many high potential and important solutions are hard to achieve. The type of projects that often stall and cancel. It’s important you balance the home runs with the easy hits.
7. Define workstreams
Okay, so you’ve got loads of good theories, now you’ve got to make them actually happen. We do this by creating workstreams. Every workstream is:
You can see where this is going.
Up top is the objective with the priority next to it. Underneath that is the person who owns that workstream (where the buck stops) and the stakeholders (backseat drivers), the date (you know, so it actually gets done). Then the discovery needed and what it’ll take to execute.
Now if that doesn’t sound like an activity designed for an accurate KPI then I don’t know what does. And if that doesn’t look like the basis of a data-infused creative brief then I know even less.
Wait, where are the numbers?
We will go into the actual data capture of KPIs to be plugged into our workstream in our next post. We will dig out the data to show how it can be applied for accurate content reporting (and more effective content campaigning).
The important thing is you do this part first if you want them to be successful. Because the numbers depend squarely on what you’re going to do. And success depends on everybody’s understanding of why it matters.