Branded content, authenticity and authority

My company, Better Things has its roots in content marketing. Our team all have experience working at agencies that create and distribute branded content through multiple channels. We like making content whether that content be beautiful illustration, animation, editorial features, blog posts, or photographs. We like making the vehicles for that content too, but that’s a different matter.

So it was with interest that I read a piece by Dermot McCormack on Mashable Business entitled ‘3 commandments for the next online content leaders’.

According to McCormack, the art of successfully using content to market a brand comes down to  to three simple things:  authority, curation and context. More specifically, it comes down to earning  authority by curating your content well, within context. His article is great and I agree with all of it, so have a look. The bit I’m specifically interested in here though is the first part, ‘authority’.

What does McCormack mean? Well, he says that brands need to become trusted as content providers. And trust, according to McCormack, comes from authority. The BBC for example has authority when I want UK news. Pitchfork has authority when I want new music suggestions (although I also turn to the BBC in the form of six music for that). For US political news I go to The Huffington Post or The Daily Beast. You get the picture. But these are all media owners, not brands, and the authority they have has taken time to earn, and has come partly because they are an independent voice, not trying to sell something. So brands have to try to generate authority, and quickly – leading to trust. McCormack acknowledges that this process can only be achieved by brands knowing who their audience is, then constantly fine-tuning the way they communicate with their customers, and always, always remaining honest, talking to them about things they care about and striving to improve the way they do things. So far, so obvious. But he also says brands must ask themselves ‘is my voice authentic’, and this is the really interesting part for me.

I’ve had debates over this question for years, but for me, authenticity of voice is something that needs to be carefully considered and planned hand in hand with brand positioning. Sometimes authenticity can be manufactured – see Red Bull’s authority in adrenaline sports after years of careful sponsorship. And sometimes that authenticity is customer-led (ie the brand notices that certain consumers are using their product in a certain way and uses that behaviour to its advantage) – see Converse and music. But either way, for me what your brand can speak with authenticity and authority about shouldn’t be a casual decision. The authentic voice that your brand develops must be integral to EVERYTHING you do.

This might seem obvious, but sometimes when I talk to customer magazine publishers (or custom publishers in the US, Canada and Australia) they argue the case for bands producing ‘lifestyle’ features in their customer magazines – for example a bank doing a feature on a home makeover, or a top ten gadget feature. Their argument is that the lifestyle content somehow adds value for the customer. This has always worried me, mainly because the brand doesn’t necessarily have any authority in that area, or really any authentic voice, and therefore I’m skeptical about how much value it really adds. Red Bull spent years building up their authority in adrenaline sports before it launched its (fairly adventure sport-dominated) Bulletin. Waterstone’s Books Quarterly is a magazine about books and, much as you might doubt the objective nature of their reviews, there is no doubt that they have an authority to talk about books. They also have an authenticity which comes from the again undoubted knowledge and passion of their booksellers, if not their (previously) corporate owners. But I never really believed in the insurance magazine I produced that did features on how to fit out your home-working office, or style your new bathroom – I just didn’t see why I should trust the brand to tell me about that stuff.

This is alway going to be a slightly controversial argument, because it implies that using content as a marketing tool isn’t right for some brands. That’s not what I’m saying though – I’m saying be more careful about the content you choose, because it should both add to your perceived authority and come from a position of authenticity. I’m also saying be more careful about the channel – it may be that a magazine isn’t the right forum for your brand’s content, but a blog or a Facebook page is.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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Obligatory Google+ post

Google+ screen

We thought we’d let the dust settle a little bit around Google+ before posting out thoughts up here. But since its launch on June 18th, the dust has shown no sign of settling – in fact there seems to be more and more dust being kicked up every second.

I’m going to stop with the dust metaphor now because I’m annoying myself.  Google+ has added 18 million users and notched up a billion shares a day. It’s being touted as the Facebook killer, the Twitter killer. Business is clamouring to get involved. Every where we turn in the blogosphere, the twittersphere, even in (the) Facebook(sphere) there’s a new article on Google+, and almost every website we look at now has the ‘+1’ button integrated next to their ‘like’ and ‘tweets’ counters (just scroll down toward the bottom of this piece). It feels, already, like part of the landscape.

But let’s break this down a little:

Those figures

I like to think of myself as an early adopter, and indeed, was amongst the first 18 million Google+ users. Not bad, eh? I digress. Anyway as an ‘early adopter’ messing about in Google+ feels a bit lonely. Even with all those folks on there I have about 20 people in my circles. Of which I would say 3 are posting things regularly. The rest have set up a profile and as yet have posted NOTHING – no activity. A large user base is good, lots of shares is good, but if it’s limited to a small elite then it’s not. Of course, it’s early days. There are some interesting stats on usage on Mashable if you want further reading.

UPDATE: In addition it appears that Facebook users spend 4 times as long on the site as Google+ users – again indicative of the fledgling nature of the site, but nevertheless not all that impressive as yet.

Google+ as the Twitter killer

Some commentators have said Google+ is akin to Twitter in that you can follow people without their permission (rather than them having to accept your request, as in Facebook), and therefore this makes Google+ the Twitter killer. Obviously this doesn’t take into account the stripped-down appeal of Twitter – the single-function nature of it that allows people to rapidly scan a whole load of information. And Twitter’s die-hard fanbase. And the niche it’s carved its-self as a real-time news feed. NEXT!

Google+ as the Facebook killer

Facebook killer. Well, again, no. Facebook is entrenched in Western society to the point that it is showing signs of reaching a natural saturation point, but in countries that were a little slower on the uptake, Facebook is still registering phenomenal growth. And good luck if you think you’re going take Facebook’s audience – comfortable and familiar with the user interface as they are – and prize them away. Look at the uproar that happens when Facebook change their own page layout. Oh no, people DO NOT like change. Yes Google allows you to combine multiple networks and integrate your contacts and email – but I know a lot of people who don’t have an email address and communicate online exclusively via Facebook’s messaging feature. Google has taken most of Facebook’s features (lists is basically a less sexy interfaced version of circles; video chat is coming to FB via the Skype link-up, etc etc) and made them a bit slicker in some cases, but I don’t think enough to get people to move. Having said that, I don’t think it has to be an either or.

Google+ for business

Google+ have actively asked businesses to wait for a few months until they have their specific business version ready. And that makes a lot of sense. Brand who are desperate to get onto Google+ now – why? We don’t yet have enough data on how, when and why people use it to know what your strategy should be for the medium. It took a long time before Facebook opened up properly to brands and with good reason – they now have a fantastic brand offering, which acts as a second CRM for brands that use it. Google+ are wise to follow suit.

UPDATE: here’s a little more info on Google+ brand pages, and how brands can prepare for their launch.

Summary

So in summary – I think Facebook, Twitter and Google+ can certainly co-exist in the medium term. I’m not sure exactly how my Google+ use will differ from my Facebook and Twitter posts as yet, or whether I’ll just end up replicating – it depends what my network on there ends up looking like. But I don’t see myself shutting down any of them. At the worst, Facebook gets marginally less facetime from me. At the best, I spend exactly the same amount of time on Facebook but work a longer day.

And – lame though I know this sounds – I think it’s way too early to say how useful it will be to me, you or business. But I had to contribute to that dust cloud!

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The shift to Social Entertainment

Last week we downloaded a free copy of GlobalWebIndex‘s annual report looking in detail at the way people use the internet.

The report re-stated some things that are obvious just from looking around, and formalised some things that for us were gut-instinct. The major thrust of the report is that a movement away from content creation to content distribution, fragmentation of the devices and platforms from which we access and consume the internet, and changing perceptions of the internet as an entertainment platform, are all bringing about a return to the traditional hierarchies of professional content generators, paid-for content, media giants, big brands and the political elite.

Good to read it all in one place and backed up by robust data though – and we like their name for it: The Social Entertainment Age. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s a bit more detail on what the report says.

GlobalWebIndex identified three key themes in their report.

Social Entertainment Age

The rise of real time social

This is one of those so-far-so-obvious observations that we all knew anyway but is good to have verified by data. There has been, and is an ongoing, shift from the old text-based social media of blogs and forums, to real-time sharing of information and content enabled by micro-blogging services – such as status updates and tweets. This means that the emphasis of social media is no longer on creating content and publishing it, but on sharing other people’s content and real-time opinions about real world events. So the social web is now about distribution rather than creation, and consequently there is a shift of focus back to traditional media and professional content. This is major: for years the web has been seen as a threat to the traditional world of media giants, big brands and the political elite – now these changing trends in the way people participate in the social web are pushing us back towards those same hierarchies.

Packaged internet platforms

The way we access the internet is changing. The way we all know – the open, browser-based web – is losing out to ‘packaged’ internet platforms: tablets, mobile apps, internet connected TVs, e-readers, gaming and video platforms, PC apps. Increasingly, everything is wired in to the web. And Mobile is leading the way: over 17% of people surveyed watched TV in the last month on their mobile, and 26% watched an on-demand video on mobile. In keeping with the theme of ‘real-time social’, this is giving traditional media owners a second bite of the cherry – these packaged platforms allow them the means to create sustainable business models, to actually charge for their content – something that the browser-based web totally failed to accommodate.

The entertainment platform of choice

The online experience is now very strongly centred around ‘traditional style’ content. For hundreds of millions of consumers the internet , across multiple platforms, is about entertainment. This is caused by the growth in (legal and illegal) video sites, the rise of real-time and the sharing of traditional content that that implies, and the growth of packaged platforms.

Time will tell whether GlobalWebIndex are right in their assumptions and predictions, but one thing is for sure – the changes in behaviour that they are reporting are real, the data is good, and the drive back to the status quo seems inexorable. The question is whether this is a good or a bad thing, and for whom. What do you think?

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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Two things I’ve liked

I haven’t posted for a while. I had a busy Christmas and January. But I’ve not been walking around with my eyes closed, and a couple of things have made me go ‘ooh, that’s pretty cool’. So here, for your pleasure, they are.

First is this cool video from CPG Grey. He tells us lots of stuff we already know about the UK, but he does it in a concise way that seems to poke fun at the ridiculous complexity of the whole thing whilst not explicitly doing anything that pokes fun at the ridiculous complexity of the whole thing. And it has a Venn diagram in it, which in my mind means it rocks.

Second is this nice little idea from Grey Stockholm and Ogilvy Stockholm:

INGO website screengrab

They’re merging, dontcha know. They wanted to reveal their new name, INGO in a cool way. So they asked users to follow their page on Facebook, and then used the profile pics of the followers to gradually reveal their name. It took 2,922 faces and 4 hours to reveal the name, apparently. Pretty cool. Shame the name itself is a bit weird: INGO means ‘International Non-Governmental Organisation’ in English. They sort of know this – they refer to the NGO part on the website. But WHY dammit, if you know that the aconym is already taken? WHY? It’s like calling your agency WTF. WTF?

Anyway. Nice idea from INGO. And we’ll post more stuff we like soon.

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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Thoughts on new social network Path: as a user and as a marketer

After months of rumour, new social network Path launched Monday. We’ve been playing with it a bit. It’s early days to make a lot of comments – and I suspect until I reach a critical mass of friends it’ll remain difficult to comment. Obviously though, I’m going to comment anyway.

Path calls itself the “The Personal Network”, because unlike Twitter, which encourages users to aquire large numbers of ‘followers’, it limits your personal network to just 50 users.This isn’t just being churlish though – it’s based on the thories of Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford Robin Dunbar, who reckons that 150 is the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships“. By limiting to 50, the guys at Path figure that your network will be limited to your closest friends and family and so there will be a high level of trust in the network. So far, so laudable.

But what does it actually do? Well, it’s a suite of apps (the Monday launch was the iPhone app, I would assume Android and other platforms will be available soon) that focus on sharing photos with your group of close friends. Basically, it uses location services to allow users to give their photo three pieces of contextual information: people, places and things.

Path

So I can take a photo, tag one of my Path friends to it, use geo-tagging to say where it was taken and state the ‘thing’ which could be a noun (‘notebook’, ‘garden gnome’, ‘traffic light’ etc) or a verb (‘walking’, ‘partying’, ‘dancing’). Then I share it with my Path network. That’s it. No sharing across other social networks, no comments or ‘likes’ or hipstamatic filters, just People, Places, Things.

As I said, so far it’s kinda fun – but I need more friends to truly see how much fun it’ll be, so time will tell. One thing that strikes me starightaway though, is that the extremely personal nature of the network means that there isn’t an obvious ‘in’ here for brands. You can’t ‘broadcast’ if you can only have 50 friends, and I doubt brands would lavish the time and attention needed to maintain a social network presence on just 50 individuals – no matter how big fans they are of the brand.

On the other hand, for smart brands, there might be an opportunity. If you’re willing to give one of your limited friend spots to a brand, you have to really love them. Marketers could use Path friendship as a serious level of reward for the most engaged and dedicate fans of a brand, and friendship could come with a whole host of benefits for those lucky enough to be one of the 50. And 50 uber-advocates could be worth their weight in gold.

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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Curious curation

I read a great blog post the other day by Neil Perkin over at Only Dead Fish on content curation.

We all know that the internet has shaped a new paradigm of content creation: no longer do we rely on traditional sources – books, newspapers, magazines – to provide our content. So far so obvious.

And Neil doesn’t talk about content generation. Rather, he talks about the way the internet is creating new paradigms of content curation. The content that is shared through social networks like twitter, or socially enabled tools like spotify mean that we no longer look exclusively to traditional ‘editors’ for curation.

Instead, we create a consistently relevant stream of interesting and personalised content for ourselves. We elect to follow people on Twitter who we trust to only share information that we will find relevant. We receive spotify links from like-minded friends who share a similar taste in music. We self-select RSS feeds. Neil calls this a mash-up of social and personal curation, both of which I like as terms.

Neil works in the advertising and media community, as do I, and he notes that Twitter and RSS are the ideal tools to ‘curate’ information in and about our industry. He’s right. And, as a strategist, I can honestly say that I have been able to quickly build a stream of content around almost any subject, industry, passtime or interest I have needed to. It took very little time, when I started working with a public sector managed facilities supplier, to plug myself into a community of public sector thinkers. Working with anAutomotive client led me to start absorbing information from dealers and car buyers and classified websites. The charity sector opened up very quickly for me when we were briefed to produce a social media campaign for Bliss. And I did it far more quickly than I might have by signing up subscriptions to industry publications or visiting a library.

Neil notes that these streams don’t necessarily replace traditional media curation (ie by a knowledgable, trained, recognised editor), rather that the best models use both sources. He sites the Guardian’s recent launch of the Guardian Science Blogs network as an example of traditional media (and by extension ‘curation’) workng with non-traditional (in this case the blogosphere). Incidentally this would have been a great plan for theUnion of Concerned Scientists, had they given it some thought and not gone for the knee-jerk ‘let’s spank a load of cash on uneccessary advertising’ option. Neil goes on to talk about the way the Guardian opened up its entire ‘process of producing, hosting, and curating great content’ to the public, rather than simply facilitating user generated content. He talks about it a whole lot better than I could, so read his post. I agree with him.

Guardian Science logo

The one thing I picked up on from Neils post that I found slightly risable was in the initial paragraph,where he quotes Christopher Bailey, CCO of Burberry, who said: “We are now as much a media-content company as we are a design company, because it’s all part of the overall experience.”

Now, I get brands creating content (although I think they should only create content where they have a real authority to talk on a subject, Burberry for instance shouldn’t start telling me how to maintain my car in winter), but being ‘as much’ a content generation company as a design company seems daft. Burberry can generate content about (clothes) design because they design clothes. If they stopped designing clothes and carried on talking about designing clothes, I’m not sure anyone would listen. So let’s not get carried away here: by all means, brands, hold forth on subjects where you have a passion and an authority and can give people genuine insight and advice. But don’t start thinking you are an independent editorial voice. That’s just forgetting what you are and what you exist to do.

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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