Content Marketing in a HyperNormal world

Did you see the recent BBC documentary HyperNormalisation? In it, Adam Curtis explores how we as a community are facing a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to understand, explain and predict – all the while there is a “fake reality” happening around us.

As Sci-Fi-esque as it may sound, it is a disturbing story of how the world is allowing itself to be manipulated by various forces in sometimes subtle, unconscious ways. It makes us seem quite far from the enlightened, advanced society that we like to believe we are.

But aren’t we in fact all doing this ourselves, to our own reality, albeit on a micro scale?

If you’re reading this, you are most likely a “social animal” – you engage with other people and with various groups, brands and businesses on social media. But did you know that by absorbing information on social media you are in fact orchestrating the very information you see? The various algorithms at play in your Facebook or LinkedIn feed are far from straight-forward. There is a highly intelligent system which carefully selects content based on your demographics, your interests, affiliations, background, browsing history and much more.

You are in fact creating your own reality.

This selective reality is of course designed to help us. It’s meant to make our lives easier and more enjoyable as we see more of the kind of things we like and less of the things we don’t like.

So, what’s the problem with that?

  • True or not, it’s true
    One major issue is that many people are still under the impression that what they are seeing in social media is balanced and regulated. Juicy news stories often gain traction regardless of whether or not they are true – and by the time the story is validated or denied, it’s too late. Opinions are already formed. And what’s more, the original story often keeps making its rounds across the world.
  • Restricted voice for brands
    Another problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people and businesses to reach anyone outside of their existing tribe of supporters. It’s no longer enough to be writing and sharing content while boosting it and advertising – because the intelligence behind the recipients’ newsfeed will automatically “censor” you if you’re not considered to be interesting enough to the reader.
  • A skewed reality
    Not only is this development making it difficult for brands to get their voice heard, it also means that the social audience is receiving a highly skewed version of perceived reality. In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg said about Facebook: “Our goal is to build the perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world”. Out of thousands of news stories, only a small fraction makes it into our line of sight. And those stories will typically support beliefs and opinions we already have.

So how can we, as brands, outsmart this ever changing content selection process?
Short answer: We can’t.

We can, however, reduce our reliance on social media traction. We should still invest in the social platforms, but we need to become increasingly aware of the importance of our own media agenda. Websites, email lists, own forums and communications platforms – these will all need to play a much more crucial part of our strategy if we are to wriggle loose from the restrictive media display of the social channels.

The next challenge is of course to get traffic on these alternative channels, which may take time and patience.

But here, unlike in the distorted reality of Adam Curtis’s vision, you will actually be in control.

“So what? It’s just a typo.”

I once applied for a job as Marketing Manager for an up-and-coming software provider. In the interview, I was really put through my paces. In military style, every aspect of my capabilities were scrutinised, questioned and battered. I came out of the room feeling slightly downcast, knowing that I had not convinced the manager that I was a good fit.

Two days later, I was offered a more senior role working for a different vendor. As expected, the other job went to someone else. However, in the application process I had signed up as a newsletter subscriber of the first company, which meant that I started receiving email updates from them a couple of months down the line. I took some interest in reading them, as I knew they would have been written – or at least approved – by the role I had applied for.

In the same vein as looking up an old school mate on Facebook, I suppose I wanted to check out how good they were and compare myself to them.

The first spelling error was in the subject line. A little bit unfortunate, but not catastrophic. It did, however, make me scan the rest of the text a bit more closely to see if there were any more mistakes. Shockingly, I found another two errors in the same newsletter, one of them being a misspelling of their own product. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit amused by this discovery!

I read the next monthly newsletter with the expectation that any quality issues would surely have been rectified by now. But embarrassingly, this issue too was riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. As was the next, and the next. It got to the point where error-spotting became a bit of a game for me. How many mistakes will there be this time – and how quickly can I find them?

Almost a year after applying for the job, I happened to be having lunch in the same restaurant as the gentleman who conducted the interview. We had a brief chat, in which I mentioned I still received their newsletters. I hesitated at first, but then asked if he was aware that not a single one had been fault-free in the last year. At this, his face went very pale. He wasn’t aware. (He obviously didn’t read them himself). As amusing as it was to me at the time, particularly as it brought me some level of vengeful pleasure, this became a vivid reminder of how important spelling and grammar can be in communications.

It only took one mistake for me to start subconsciously scanning for more mistakes, and every one of those mistakes would impact the credibility of the brand.

Rather than focusing on the content, I was spotting spelling mistakes. And rather than building a trusted brand, they were turning into a joke – while senior management were none the wiser.

I recently ran a poll in a group of entrepreneurs in my network, and 81% agreed with the statement that “Spelling and grammar mistakes cause a brand or author to lose some credibility”. 38% also stated that they felt “frustrated or annoyed” with the lack of quality that errors like these denote, while 19% of them even expressed that mistakes in written communications “could cause them to choose an alternative brand in the future”.

When it comes to social media updates, users tend to be a little bit more lenient as these are often done on the fly and without proper spell check support. But marketing emails, website copy, adverts and printed materials are the vehicles that carry your brand – which should be flawless.

My guess is that your business doesn’t quite fancy the idea of sending 19% of your prospects to your competitors. So how about investing some time in copy editing and proof reading for your next campaign?

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How many Russian brides are on your website?

There was a story in the Swedish news recently about an ice hockey supporter who found, in his view, a “highly inappropriate” advert on his local hockey team’s website. Outraged, he took to Twitter to lash out to the team’s web administrators, complete with screenshot of the ad – featuring a pouting, scantily clad young lady advertising an online chat service. The team’s Twitter officials promptly explained that the advert was in fact a targeted message, entirely based on the user’s own previous browser search history. This of course tickled the entire social media world and was re-tweeted far and wide as an epic fail.

While this is quite an entertaining story, it does raise a few issues around dynamic content and ad optimisation online. Dynamic adverts can be an attractive option for sites wishing to earn money from referral traffic. After all, the user is much more likely to click on an advert for something they have already expressed an interest in, so the click-throughs generate more cash for the website. However, as demonstrated in the aforementioned example, the website itself does run a risk of becoming associated with the ad content displayed. In some cases, this ad content could have been detrimental to the message of the website itself.

What if the website had been an anorexia awareness community? Or a sex addiction support page?

Often brands spend a great deal of time considering how their messaging and imagery can be interpreted by their target audience. Their affiliations and context, however, may get less attention. The brand could be displayed within directories, on syndication websites, in sponsored newsletters and much more – sometimes next to brands or names of a questionable reputation. If you are involved in managing your brand presence online (or offline too, for that matter), this should never be allowed to be a surprise. Demand clarification from your various advertising and sponsorship partners on where your brand will be displayed and how it will come across to the user.

Another interesting example of branding association gone wrong was the 2012 viral photo of what appeared to be a Mongolian dog fighting event sponsored by Heineken. The beer brand quickly denounced the photo, explaining how the event organisers had failed to take down the banners following a promotional event that had taken place the night before. Despite Heineken’s condemnation, the photo is still in circulation by users clamouring for a brand boycott.

As for dynamic advertising, you may want to think twice about whether or not to take the risk of being accidentally associated with something you don’t support. At least on your website, which is pretty much the only place where you can fully control this. (Your social media presence will always be at the mercy of surrounding adverts – but in general, the user public is fully aware that these adverts have nothing to do with you as a business.)

When in doubt, you may consider appointing a “brand detective” to map your brand impression across various channels and report back to you on a regular basis.

 

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Don’t fear the Marmite

Love and hate - credit to Baro24If you’re anything like me, you have an inner drive to be accepted, listened to and loved, especially by the people who really matter in your life. When it comes to business, the same applies. We want our customers – the people who really matter to our business – to accept us, listen to us and love our brand. But does that sometimes mean that we play a bit safe, become a bit bland – or even boring?

A fellow marketer at a creative agency told me about a recent direct mail campaign he had carried out, targeting prospects within the pharmaceutical industry. The letter itself was laid out in the form of a doctor’s prescription sheet, ordering the “patient” to take a hefty dose of the agency’s services. So far, all is well and good. Clever, but nothing too controversial.

However, for the envelopes, he chose to use a red ink stamp with the official-looking statement “Important medical documents inside”. This, as it turned out, stirred up a few emotions! The phone started ringing. Some were congratulating him on a cool, eye-catching and fun campaign, but others had a few bones to pick. Some felt it was unethical and deceptive – and one person even explained how she had hand-delivered the mailer to her colleague who was at home on sick leave, thinking it was crucial that she received it.

Now, regardless of whether the recipient loved or hated the campaign, it’s likely that they will remember it.

Some may place the agency on their wish list for future creative work; some may blacklist them for the foreseeable future. So – does this mean the campaign was successful or unsuccessful?

Some would argue that this is “natural selection” in the marketing world and that the unhappy targets weren’t a good match for the agency in the first place. Others might say that a campaign that aggravates part of your audience is inherently flawed.

In my personal opinion, I think the campaign was risky – but that was also what made it great! Some of the greatest artists, creators and leaders of our time have been both loved and hated, because they refuse to play it safe. So why can’t businesses do the same? You may face some tough commentary, but you may also gain some superbly dedicated advocates along the way.

Allow your brand to ruffle a few feathers!

(Image credit to BaRo24: baro24.deviantart.com)

4 ways to build “Brand YOU”

hello-my-name-is-uniqueWhether you are an entrepreneur, business professional or service provider in some capacity, chances are a large portion of your time and effort is spent helping others look good. By working to improve profitability, solve problems, save time or improve image – you are making others more successful, just by being good at what you do.

But what about YOU? How do you make sure you also work on building your own brand – and get more business, more job offers or better compensation?

Now, I’m not talking about self-promotion here. Selling yourself through shamelessly waving your qualifications in other people’s faces is not how you build a strong brand. The only way you will gain true respect and confidence in your industry is by having a solid track record of performance and collecting a string of very satisfied customers and partners along the way. They are your true assets.

What you DO need to do, is to make sure that you leverage those assets in the most efficient way. So how do you do this?

Make yourself aware of what you’re good at

This may sound obvious, but there are two elements to this.

  1. Take time to actually evaluate yourself and bring your strengths and qualities to your conscious mind. By mapping them out in writing, you can make yourself aware of all the things you have to be proud of. But don’t stop there!
  2. The second step should be to speak to the people you serve. Your clients, co-workers, business partners – they all have an opinion on you. Ask them what they enjoy about working with you, how you have helped them and what benefits they have seen. Chances are they will point out things which surprise you, or at least things that you didn’t think mattered very much.

Work on your presence

Are you one of those people that tend to fade into the crowd at gatherings? Are you afraid of becoming the centre of attention, or do you play yourself down so as not to come across as one of those obnoxious horn-tooters that nobody likes? Well – having a humble personality doesn’t need to stop you from building your brand. There are many ways you can establish yourself as an authority in your field without coming across as cocky.

  1. Take genuine interest in people. It may sound counter-intuitive, but by focusing on the other person you are actually shining your own brand light over them. You are offering your ears – as well as your advice, if possible – which establishes a sense of reliability and confidence.
  2. Offer specific examples. Prepare a few anecdotes that you can quickly reel off when a suitable topic comes up, which really showcase your core strengths and abilities. Practice a few times and make sure you feel comfortable talking about yourself, but use the leverage of the client or partner perspective. Hone in on what benefits they saw from working with you or why they chose you instead of the competition.

Find your channels

Not everyone likes to write blogs or schmooze at networking events, but everyone can find platforms for brand-building where they are comfortable. Have a look at the channels you have access to, and identify the ones you like best – then think about how you can amplify them. For example, if you like to comment in an industry group on LinkedIn, you may want to consider also setting up a group of your own and create a schedule for sharing informative content and curating others’ articles. If instead you feel happier behind the podium at a conference, then perhaps you could build a global audience through sharing your knowledge in online webinars.

Keep getting better at what you do

Do you want to be seen as a superior provider, an industry expert or the go-to-person for a particular product? Then telling your story is not enough. You need to make sure you are constantly striving to be the best you can be. You are only ever as good as your delivery, so focus first and foremost on making your stakeholders happy. All the best brands show a consistent, proven quality over time. Without it, you are just an empty rattle.

Do you have other tips on how to build Brand YOU? Feel free to leave a comment!

Who owns your brand?

labelLet’s be honest…

You only own a very small share of your brand presence. The part that you own is what you tell the world. The rest is down to what the world says about you.

When your target audience wants to know more about your business, it has access to a wealth of information across a wide range of channels – many of which you have little or no control over.

Market initiated channels

  • Social Mediascreenshot
    For many, LinkedIn and Twitter are now the first ports of call for learning about businesses and products. Although you can of course control what is being said on your own official social media channels, you cannot restrict what other people are saying about you. Stay aware of what is being discussed and respond to genuine queries in an official manner – but avoid the trap of defending yourself in every instance or you will simply appear arrogant and deprecating, like this restaurateur for example.
  • Glassdoor
    Employee reviews are becoming more prevalent through channels such as Glassdoor, where people can give anonymous comments and feedback on their experience working in a particular business. And this is no longer just a jobseeker’s resource – we now see prospects and customers looking at vendors’ profiles on Glassdoor to gauge internal efficiency and optimism levels amongst staff, which then reflects on their views of the business.So what do you do if you have bad reviews? Well, the best way to manage this is to read them, raise them internally and make tangible plans to resolve them. Don’t be afraid to ask staff to use these types of sites – it can be the best driver for improvement you’ll ever have.
  • User forums
    Whether or not you are aware of it, it is likely that there are independent forums online for customers discussing your products. Some may be public, such as general DIY websites or money saving forums for example, while others could be private and more product or brand specific. Again, you may want to monitor what is being said – where possible – and then aim to incorporate any complaints areas or suggested improvements into your roadmap.

Vendor initiated channels

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys
    This is the company or service provider’s chance to proactively collect the sentiments of their customers to get a full and impartial view of what is done well and not so well. Apart from the fact that a positive NPS carries a substantial weight when it comes to credibility and market confidence, the qualitative feedback from customers can also provide extremely valuable input into how to better serve them. A company should always share their score with their customer base, accompanied by an executive summary outlining which actions the business will be taking as a result of the input.
  • PR
    Public Relations, in all its many guises, is where a company could spend a great deal of funds on creating the image which they want the public to subscribe to. And although this can go a long way to rectify a negative market view or reclaim customer confidence, the general public is becoming increasingly shrewd to identifying PR as a strategy – and will seek to complement the PR messaging with more nuanced, unbiased peer review.
  • Analyst reports
    The analyst community aims to support vendors in their market positioning, while maintaining a balanced messaging environment based on a true representation of market perception. However, as with PR, customers are aware that there is an element of bias in the sense that the analyst is influenced by the amount of face time with the vendor and by how the vendor conducts themselves in the analyst relationship.
  • Content syndication
    The purpose of syndication is to make marketing content available in locations where customers go to research information to base purchasing decisions on. The majority of the buyer journey currently takes place before they even speak to the vendor, so content syndication is an important channel for organisations to be discovered and researched. This is why it makes sense to create collateral that informs and influences rather than purely sells – as the customer doesn’t want to be sold to at this stage. They just want to learn.

Conclusion

Amidst this wealth of content, the most trusted source of advice for many customers is that of professional peers. We all look at what other, similar businesses are doing and what their views are. We then collate comparisons between products and weigh this against any purchased or vendor-driven media. This is why a business can spend thousands on content marketing and still see limited sales impact.

You may think your brand is yours, but it’s not!