How Targeted “Pop-Up Newsletters” Grab Hyperengaged Audiences

All that time and effort for an open rate of 20 percent hardly seems worth it, does it? Newsletter marketing might be experiencing a renaissance, but so much of it sticks to a tried-and-true formula: regular drops, same template, point to content available on your hub. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s tried-and-true for a reason. But is it really maximizing the impact of your fantastic brand storytelling? Continue reading “How Targeted “Pop-Up Newsletters” Grab Hyperengaged Audiences”

How One-to-One Marketing Is Changing the Content Marketing Game

Thanks to AI, brands can learn how to market the right products at the right time using the right channel to a specific, individual customer.

We’re on the cusp of a one-to-one marketing revolution, experts say. If that’s the case, why can’t one of my favorite retailers figure out that I am, in fact, female?

Sadly, of all the emails that litter my inbox every day, only a fraction are highly relevant to me. (And many, like the aforementioned retailer, deliver content that’s highly irrelevant.)

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Extreme personalization has the potential to make brand content much more relevant and appealing to average consumers like me. Like a majority of Americans, I welcome hearing from brands—when the content is relevant. The problem is that most of the time, it’s not.

AI (artificial intelligence) and deep learning software could upend this scenario. Thanks to machines, brands can learn how to market the right products, at the right time, using the right channel, to a specific, individual customer. This kind of extreme personalization has huge potential to help brands break through the noise and forge stronger connections with their target audience.

The Future Is Extreme

Sure, using your customer’s name in an email subject line will help improve open rates. But as far as personalization goes, that tactic is barely scratching the surface.

Unfortunately, going beyond the obvious name-based personalization tactics can be tricky. Brands might try to segment their audiences and provide different messages to different demographics, perhaps based on age or location. There’s a problem with this approach, however. Two 20-something women may both live in Atlanta, but they may have highly diverse preferences in terms of music, hobbies, social activities, clothes, and more. That’s why one-to-one marketing is so powerful: It moves beyond messages aimed at demographic segments to messages aimed at the individual, ensuring each person gets a message targeted specifically to him or her.

While one-to-one marketing has great potential, many brands are struggling to figure out how to translate customer data to personalized content and experiences. While 79 percent of brands surveyed by Sitecore place a high priority on personalization, only 12 percent have the ability to collect data at the individual (versus customer segment) level, according to a press release. Around a third of brands say they lack the skills needed to analyze the data collected, and 42 percent lack the ability to integrate data collection.

Meanwhile, 96 percent of consumers say there is such a thing as “bad personalization,” which can encompass brands using outdated information about them, getting personal customer details wrong, or making incorrect assumptions about what consumers want based on single interactions. Creating personalized content isn’t enough—it has to be the right content for the right person.

Psychologically, people are motivated by personalized content. A study from the University of Texas found that people perceive greater content enjoyment when exposed to a “customized online environment.” For customers, better content is a trade-off. They’re willing to give up more personal data, as long as they get a more personalized experience in return. A Salesforce study found a majority of consumers will share data in exchange for personalized offers or discounts (57 percent), tailored product recommendations (52 percent), or personalized shopping experiences (53 percent).

These days, content personalization is the expectation. Call it the Netflix effect: We now expect retailers and other brands to be analyzing our purchases in order to deliver more relevant suggestions, content, or product discounts.

Amazon, already notable for offering product recommendations, is upping the ante with a new feature called “My Mix.” Amazon already offers suggestions based on past purchases and browsing history, but “My Mix” is a little less like your shopping to-do list and a little more like Pinterest. “My Mix” is populated based on items you heart across the site, offering a Pinterest-like discovery experience for new products. The shop is refreshed several times a day, Tech Crunch reports.

Amazon one-to-one marketing My Mixv

Not all personalization attempts are successful. I recently received an email from Airbnb reminding me of a trip I took a year ago. The trip, I should note, was fantastic; the email content, on the other hand, was anything but. Instead of prompting me to dream about future destinations, the email included a few rental listings for seemingly random big cities. For all the times I’ve used the platform—for quick weekend trips to two-week stays in international locales—I was surprised the email wasn’t more personalized to help me discover new destinations. The context was there with the one-year reminder of my trip, but the content wasn’t up to snuff.

Airbnb one-to-one marketing email marketing

B2B brands are diving into the personalization game, too. Online video platform Vidyard created a personalized video for one of its customers, including a handwritten white board with the customer’s name and a unique script, as detailed by HubSpot. The video goes beyond the expected by taking content personalization to the extreme.

Vidyard one-to-one marketing

These examples highlight several aspects of the future of personalization. Importantly, brands are moving away from marketing to segments and instead marketing to an audience of one. Thanks to the power of machines, marketers can understand how to reach those individual customers at the right time, on the right device, with the right message. Instead of guessing about what messaging is working and what isn’t, AI can help understand individual preferences based on actual consumer insights.

Respecting Privacy

While users have demonstrated a willingness to trade data for tailored messaging, that doesn’t exonerate marketers from treading lightly with how they use that personal information.

Marketers need to be upfront about whether they collect customer data and how they use it. They also need to give customers the ability to opt out, if they desire. No consumer wants to feel like their personal data is being used inappropriately. But part of mitigating the “creepy” factor of using consumer data is showing consumers the benefits of sharing that data. When people see the “Because You Watched” section on Netflix, they appreciate the fact that Netflix is helping them discover great movies and TV shows based on their viewing patterns. Showing users that sharing data provides value can help ameliorate privacy concerns.

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Email Newsletters Are Experiencing a Renaissance

Email Newsletters Are Experiencing a Renaissance

Forget VR goggles and chatbots. These days, the rising star of audience engagement is an unlikely candidate: the humble e-newsletter.

Despite the competition from apps and social platforms, email newsletters are experiencing a bona fide revival. Publishers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have doubled down on e-newsletters, hoping that curated content delivered to your inbox will help attract a content-hungry audience. Celebrity influencers like Lena Dunham are using the medium to reach like-minded followers. And brands, too—from large B2B companies to small businesses—are re-imagining the e-newsletter and exploring its content strategy possibilities.

Their efforts seem to be paying off. Publishers are noting big jumps in email subscriptions. Meanwhile, audiences are proving their devotion to the format, and many newsletters earn high open rates.

Given the myriad digital communication tools we have at our disposal, it’s ironic that an old standby like email still packs a powerful punch. Of course, people still use social media platforms and apps to explore content. But email offers something unique—an intimate vehicle for sharing in-depth news, stories, and personal viewpoints. For readers who want great stories but don’t want to peruse the entire web to find them, e-newsletters are the antidote.

The Curious Revival of E-Newsletters

Email is nothing new; we’ve been using it for decades now. So why are publishers and other organizations pivoting back to the newsletter format?

Several factors help explain this e-newsletter renaissance, but it mostly boils down to content overload. These days, we have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, but we’re also experiencing new challenges in parsing that information. Sheer quantity is one issue. We need help finding the most relevant, quality content, and Facebook’s algorithm only helps so much. The rise of fake news and clickbait content is another problem, because it’s becoming harder to discern credible content sources.

We want to be informed, inspired, or emotionally moved—but with so much bad content out there, we don’t know what content we can trust, nor do we have time to wade through it all.

Today’s reconceptualized newsletters help solve these problems, turning down the fire hose of information to a trickle of great content. Subscribers actively choose from which outlets the want to receive information—whether publishers, brands, or influencers. In return, they expect to receive quality content from a source they trust, in a format that’s better for slower consumption—the type of content you can get absorbed in, rather than scroll by in a flash.

And because the content is delivered via newsletter rather than social, content creators have more flexibility. Writers can experiment and take risks with quirky subjects or unique writing styles. Basically, the things that wouldn’t work that well on social can work smashingly well in a newsletter format.

Consider, for example, Disturbances, an email newsletter about dust. (Really, dust!) Through his newsletter, British culture geographer Jay Owens tackles the “science, history, and culture of dust,” in a way that’s “quirky, erudite, and totally spellbinding,” according to Wired’s Clive Thompson.

For Thompson, Disturbances and other highly original newsletters are the next evolution of the blog. Now, instead of blogging, writers and content creators can deliver long-form personal expression directly to your inbox. Instead of selling or begging for clicks, these newsletters aim to educate, to intrigue.

email newsletters content strategy - Disturbances

“After blogs, Twitter, Medium, and Facebook, the inbox has become the new site of readerly seriousness: How weird is that?” Thompson said.

The New Newsletter

Top publishers offer great examples of how e-newsletters can be adapted for content-hungry audiences. Publishers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have revved up their email newsletter efforts recently. New York Times email subscriptions have jumped to 13 million, more than double the number of subscriptions from three years ago, Digiday reports. The New York Times now offers over 50 newsletters regularly on a variety of news and lifestyle topics, up from 33 a few years ago.

Interest in politics following President Donald Trump’s election has played a role in this resurgence, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The New York Times, as well as other publishers, have leaned into e-newsletters in recent years, hoping to pull their content (and readers) from competing platforms, such as Google and Facebook, Digiday notes. The New York Times experiment has yielded interesting new newsletters, such as Vietnam ’67, a limited-run newsletter that examines the war in Southeast Asia through the course of a single year.

Similarly, the Washington Post boasts over 70 e-newsletters and is experimenting with new content angles. The Lily, a new distributed media brand aimed at millennial women, incorporates a strong emphasis on design, Digiday reports. Content is shared two times a week via an email newsletter and repackaged for Medium, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Each piece of content produced (about ten content items per day) gets a custom, platform-specific illustration. Through top-shelf visuals, Lily hopes to capture audiences via email and on social platforms.

Lily News instagram e-newsletter marketing

Email newsletters with a celebrity influencer also attract an audience. Actress Lena Dunham’s feminist-minded e-newsletter, Lenny Letter, strikes a balance between informative articles and personal stories from Dunham herself. The mix has paid off—Lenny Letter scores 500,000 subscriptions (almost all of them women) and a 70 percent open rate, Digiday reports.

Lenny Letter e-newsletter marketing

Brand newsletters can also use the power of personality to stand out from the crowd. The e-newsletter from the Park restaurant in Echo Park, California, engages the reader in a conversation with chef-owner Joshua Siegel, who brings the reader behind the scenes with his musings on restaurant life, as LA Weekly reports. The newsletter does include information about upcoming restaurant events, but the content star is Siegel’s deeply personal writing, tackling topics like an ode to a longtime server or what makes a meal authentic.

B2B companies can set themselves apart with similar tactics—great design, content that can’t be found elsewhere, and expert perspectives. Email marketing company Litmus excels especially in its design, using color and graphics to make the newsletter easier to read and more visually compelling. Naturally, the content shines as well.

Litmus e-newsletter marketing

There’s a reason why the newsletter format appeals to such a variety of organizations and audiences. In a word: flexibility. E-newsletters provide a blank canvas for in-depth, unique stories: stories that wouldn’t work well on social but are nonetheless captivating. These stories—from informative and educational to deeply personal and conversational—help forge a personal, emotional connection with an audience, spurring engagement and community.

Expect to see more brands and publishers experimenting with newsletters in their content strategy. With more quality newsletters out there, the bar is also becoming higher for brands. Building a great newsletter can’t be an afterthought; brands will need to invest time and effort into making sure each newsletter looks spectacular and offers outstanding content. Without that care, it’s all too easy for users to click delete.

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How the Huffington Post Redesign Can Inspire Digital Publishing

Newspaper Vending Machines

When I was first a reporter in a radio newsroom in Spain in the late nineties, typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines were still the norm. A few decades later, a single person in front of a touch screen can run a whole radio station like a one-man band. But even more than they have affected the profession, technology, digital publishing, and emerging media platforms have complicated the business of journalism beyond recognition.

Companies have become publishers themselves, and in this evolving context, they’re struggling to leave behind the corporate blog stage and enter the realm of brand journalism.

The strategies developed by traditional and digital media serve as a model—in some cases to survive the digital transformation and in others to disrupt the news market. The way I see it, however, brands don’t need to stick to a single template. The structure of a brand newsroom or a content team is more agile than that of a media newsroom, their needs more diverse, and their stories more varied than news stories. It stands to reason that they would cherry pick the best ideas for every circumstance.

There is one condition. Content hubs have to be digital publications capable of creating value by themselves. If they are able to do that, companies can personalize their digital publishing as much as they want, and that’s why they need to know their options. Here’s how Lydia Polgreen, who in December succeeded Ariana Huffington as head of the renamed HuffPost, is revitalizing the digital news company.

A Redesign in Search of Tabloid Roots

To date, the Huffington Post has seventeen editions globally, and more than half of its monthly unique users are international. That’s reason enough for global brand publishers to keep an eye on the ideas the digital newspaper is putting in place to regain some of the 30 million monthly users lost over the past two years while still keeping it true to its tabloid-inspired origins.

1. The Splash

As Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab, “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do—looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”

The HuffPost’s most popular splashes, with their punchy short headlines, work well both in the webpage and across platforms.

Huffington Post Splash

The concept refers to the way a newspaper splatters a story or picture on the page to make it noticeable, much like a tabloid’s front-page stories. Marketers should be aware that this carries all the qualities commonly associated with the tabloid press: popular in style, with eye-catching layout, big headlines, plenty of images, and a focus on sensational stories. Splashes don’t provide much actual content; they only work as a hook to get visitors interested.

Beizer describes splashes as “funny, immediate, bold, [and] of the moment.” In brand publishing, they can get a lot of shares and serve to visually connect the company’s homepage and its activity across different distribution platforms. Splashes could be especially useful in a real brand newsroom—that is, a team with the ability to react in real time and with confidence that their readership is familiar and comfortable with the format.

2. The Readers’ Participation

Beizer previously served as the director of mobile product at The Washington Post, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged a spirit of radical experimentation after he bought the newspaper in 2013.

Beizer has instilled some of the same values and passion into the HuffPost. In January 2016 she told NiemanLab that “what’s interesting about the brand is that […] it has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge—how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.” In October they launched Action Button as part of a collaboration with the technology company Speakable, fellow news outlets Vice and the Guardian, and a group of nonprofits including Amnesty International, CARE, and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).

Action Button

The Action Button enables the audience to act on the stories they care about by signing a petition, taking a poll, donating to an NGO, or emailing a policymaker. A tool like this can give marketers a great starting point for advancing a more customer-focused culture. Often the readers of brand content, much like the readers of newspapers, feel compelled to respond to a story but are frustrated when leaving a comment doesn’t take them as far as they would like to go. They want the active voice that Julia Beizer talks about, and something like the Action Button makes it possible for those interested to change headlines instead of being passive consumers and spectators.

3. Third and Foremost—the Story

Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen took charge of The Huffington Post after a fifteen-year career with The New York Times. Her experience in two very different media settings gave her insight as to how to reach an audience outside those who are willing to pay for their news. In her view, there seems to be nothing better than finding a story that resonates with them. When asked how she wanted to approach Obama voters who became Trump voters, people who are in her own words “passive consumers of news,” Polgreen considered her own experience.

“Did you read de Tocqueville in college? So de Tocqueville talks about how what makes American democracy possible is this idea of ever-expanding opportunity and optimism. And the fact that our optimism is built on the premise that you could in one generation go from—take my story. My mother was born a daughter of a coffee farmer in Ethiopia. One generation and here I am running this big news organization, right?”

Choose the right story in order to reach the audience you’re aiming for. Digital publishers can certainly take that away from journalism, but they have to gain the reader’s trust first. In order for stories to be effective, storytellers need credibility.

Building Trust and Authority in the Era of Fake News

Post-election studies have shattered many commonly-held beliefs about fake news.

The BBC reported that fact-checking websites are noticing a rise in anti-Trump, “left-wing fake news,” but their evidence is merely their own experience. CBS, on their side, took a more technical approach and asked the Internet advertising company Trade Desk to investigate for them using specialist software. They were surprised to find that liberal fake news readers are more likely than the general population to be affluent and college-educated, and on the conservative side are more likely to be among the top 20 percent of income earners.

But regardless of demographics, everyone agrees that most fake news sites just care about generating clicks. So how can readers protect themselves against unscrupulous broadcasters and their own appetite for bias-confirming stories? Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, the same fact-checking website that the HuffPost uses for trustworthiness ratings, told the BBC’s Trending team, “[A]sk yourself, by reading the headline, what emotions do I feel? Am I really angry, scared, frustrated, do I want to share this to tell everybody what’s going on? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then check your sources.”

Corporate publishers definitely care about clicks and they often appeal to emotions, so many are certainly wondering if it’s possible to be both trustworthy and popular at the same time.

The HuffPost answer is called The Flipside.

The Flipside, HuffPost

Headlines for The Flipside are a reflection of the previous two hours of Twitter feeds from fourteen publications. They are displayed in an interactive graphic designed using trustworthiness rankings and the 2016 Public Opinion Quarterly study for ideological rankings. Readers can explore different topics and tap the bubbles to see headlines from each publisher.

Content marketers can surely see here all the possibilities of curated headlines or news stories as they relate to their field of activity or to the interests of their audience. Being able to display different points of view on a topic that matters to customers shows expertise and will certainly help to build authority and engagement.

How to Plan a Strategy Using Journalistic Models

Brand publishers can afford to be more flexible than a news organization, as their company’s primary business is not information. This can be seen in the distribution alternatives available to firms.

Content distribution no longer relies solely on corporate websites. Distributed content is consumed on Facebook’s Instant Articles, on Snapchat’s Stories stream, on LinkedIn’s long-form posts, through Twitter Cards, and in numerous other ways. It means that digital publishing no longer has control over distribution, but it also means that content ends up finding the public anyway—if brands choose the right strategy.

A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the different ways that organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post use the platforms available to them. While the former utilizes more networked posts, aimed to draw in readers willing to pay for their news, the HuffPost prefers native content that maximizes their reach, since they don’t depend on subscriptions.

This is what I mean by flexibility. A business may find that the tabloid format of the HuffPost suits its content best, but if the goal is to link back to a main site, then The New York Times distribution choices are certainly a better fit—and it’s no problem to adopt them. Whatever combination digital publishers decide to use, they must strive to keep their content recognizable, wherever it appears.

Brand journalism can be every bit as innovative as traditional journalism, and there is nothing wrong with taking hints from media companies from time to time. The greatest discovery for marketers, anyway, is the realization that they too can inform and entertain their audience—instead of walking in front of the screen when the movie has started.

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Why Likes Don’t Matter for Engagement Metrics

It's Time to Remove Likes from Your List of Engagement Metrics

Whether you’re a regular social media user or a marketing manager, you know the situation all too well: You post a great pic, a witty joke, or a wonderfully written comment. And then you wait, hoping your content will generate a wave of likes and impressions.

Among engagement metrics, likes are an easy metric to track. Brands launch campaigns to increase their number of page likes, then track those likes over time as a measure of their success. As the story goes, the more likes a brand has, the more people are signaling their intent to engage and purchase from the brand. What’s more: Get one person to like your brand, and you may also convince her friends and family to give you a try, too. But are these assumptions accurate?

New research suggests that likes, one of the key features of platforms like Facebook, have minimal relevance when it comes to predicting consumer behavior. Sure, getting people to click that thumbs up icon may feel validating. But that act in and of itself isn’t enough to get people to engage with and spend more with your brand over the long haul.

Survey Says Likes Don’t Matter

To test the effects of likes on behavior, researchers with Harvard Business School conducted multiple experiments with more than 18,000 people. Their aim was to figure out what people would have done if they hadn’t followed a brand, versus those who did. In one of their first experiments, researchers invited half of participants to like a new beauty brand on Facebook; the other half didn’t get the invite. Then, both groups received a coupon for a free sample. Did those who liked the brand redeem the coupons more frequently? Not at all. Researchers found that the supposed signal of interest (liking the page) apparently made no difference in coupon redemption rates.

In another experiment, researchers tested whether liking a brand on Facebook increases the likelihood that friends of that person would also be more likely to engage with that brand. To test this, researchers asked about 700 people who had recently liked a brand to provide the e-mail address of three friends; each friend received a coupon. Some recipients were told that his or her friend liked the brand on Facebook and had sent the coupon; others were told that the friend liked the brand in the “conventional, offline sense”; a final control group was told only that the friend had sent the coupon. Funnily enough, the group that was told their friend liked the brand on Facebook had the worst redemption rate (4 percent). The group that was told the friend liked the brand in a conventional, offline way scored a 6 percent redemption rate, while the control group logged a 5 percent redemption rate. Perhaps this signals that Facebook likes actually have negative currency—at least compared with more conventional referrals.

In yet another experiment, researchers tested whether brands’ investment in their Facebook contact pays off with more activity from customers who like the brand. Because Facebook’s algorithm prevents branded content from landing in your news feed organically—something the Content Standard has discussed previously—researchers hypothesized that brands often misjudge the effects of their social media efforts. The researchers partnered with an insurance company that incentivizes healthy behaviors through a points system of rewards. Researchers found no difference in the points-earning activity between those who liked the Facebook group and those who did not, with one notable exception. When the company paid for a sponsored message to its followers, points earning jumped by 8 percent.

“Put another way, liking a company that offers flu shots does not translate into getting a flu shot,” according to the researchers.

But if you combine that like with a paid Facebook message, you have a better chance of spurring consumers to action.

Why Likes Don't Matter for Social Media Marketing
Image attribution: Piotr Lohunko

A Better Strategy

What the above studies show isn’t rocket science. Marketing experts have long cautioned against using engagement metrics such as the number of page likes, impressions, or video views as a measure of true effectiveness online. Simply put, passive likes or passive views don’t translate into action. Instead of obsessing about likes or views, keep in mind the following approaches.

Focus on Quality, Depth, and Purpose

Remember that reach doesn’t equal value. Often a small-but-engaged audience is more valuable than a large-but-passive audience. Social managers should optimize content for the subset of people with a stake in what your brand has to offer, not for the passive masses. Engaging with the right audience is what counts.

“You can have 10, 10,000, or 1,000,000 followers and all it takes is for one post to be noticed by one person to cause a social media chain reaction,” wrote marketing expert Gary Vaynerchuk.

Indeed, numbers alone often don’t tell the whole story. Consider, for example, the difference between Coca-Cola’s Facebook page and that of Humans of New York (HONY), which features street portraits and interviews of average people. Both have large social presences, although Coke’s 104 million Facebook page likes dwarfs HONY’s 18 million. Yet HONY’s posts regularly log thousands of comments and shares (not to mention a steady stream of likes). Coke, despite its huge number of page likes, earns just a fraction of those same interaction rates.

Humans of New York content marketing

The lesson here isn’t to be more like HONY and less like Coke. Rather, it’s important to understand your audience and how they want to engage with you, and then deliver the content that will activate their interests.

Work Your Endorsements

While a like may be a weak social signal, a referral or endorsement is clearly still meaningful on social media. As the previous research noted, it’s not that people can’t be swayed by their friends’ opinions on businesses and brands. Rather, they want to feel the sincerity in that friend’s relationship with a brand. Celebrity and influencer recommendations are often highly valuable on social, as previously reported by the Content Standard. But you don’t need a celeb to sell your brand. Campaigns that encourage user-generated content, reviews, and recommendations can move you toward your goal and provide a stronger social signal than a Facebook page like alone.

For example, to promote his book, Vaynerchuk send advance copies to over 1,000 Instagram influencers, asking them to post a review on the platform with a photo. Based on whom he wanted to reach, Vaynerchuk determined that an Instagram endorsement would command the most attention.

I want Instagram book reviews .. A picture of the book and a long review on Insta … Tag …

— Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) February 5, 2016

Reconsider Your Facebook Purpose

Thanks to Facebook’s algorithm, it’s unlikely that even those who like your brand will interact with your page in a meaningful way. Paradoxically, for many brands, the best use for Facebook may be as a vehicle for advertising. Other platforms, such as Instagram or LinkedIn, may be a better fit for the type of interaction your brand seeks. Regardless, be willing to pay or assume your content won’t be seen—no matter how much work you’ve put into it.

The ever-changing social landscape can be frustrating for marketers, especially if they’re approaching platforms like Facebook in the wrong way. Likes may be irrelevant for brands, but don’t let it get you down. Hone in on your audience and deliver content that works for them. For social success, connection, not follower count, makes the difference.

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Marketing Innovation Happens at the Nexus of Different Domains

Marketing innovation and creative thinking often come from the most unexpected places. When I worked in management consulting, my colleagues took on some of the world’s most challenging economic problems. What avenues are open to boutique hotel owners in Jamaica trying to compete with international chains? How can animation studios as far afield as Macedonia acquire international business? How would a fast-growing internet industry change the playing field for entrepreneurs in East Africa?

The answers to these challenges were not, as I initially suspected, buried in tomes about these specific disciplines. Instead, marketing breakthroughs occurred when we looked at how change happened in other domains and experimented with those ideas in a new context. It was here that I first learned to see that real innovation and big ideas happened when you brought together inspiration from different fields. Where does this nexus of innovation happen in content strategy, creativity, and marketing? And how can today’s talent push beyond the boundaries of what they already know to develop more interesting, engaging campaigns that challenge the obvious approach and generate real results?

marketing transformation

Image attribution: Breather

Catalytic Questioning Through the Lens of Other Domains

Sometimes the process starts with asking the right questions. Hal Gregersen is a thought leader on the intersection of leadership and innovation. One of his approaches for stimulating innovation is the idea of catalytic questioning. He writes that leaders are often shielded from the information they most need in order to innovate, and by systematically engaging in catalytic questioning (an alternative to brainstorming), you can break through to big ideas: “The process simply allows one to concentrate on a problem—no matter how big or small—and examine alternative vantage points so they can arrive at a new and innovative solution.” He encourages leaders to find a writing surface, gather their team, center on a problem, and then start asking questions. Aim for 50, at least.

The key, of course, is how to ask good questions. One way to approach the process is to break your questions into three sections:

  1. Think through the lens of your field. How would people with your specific background or expertise approach the problem? What questions would they ask? Follow this train of thought as far as possible to see what unique advantages your perspective could give you.
  2. Ask questions through a general business lens. What questions would people ask if they were coming at this challenge through the perspective of finance, sales, or customer service, for example?
  3. Shift your perspective even further. What questions would people ask about this if their specialty was in a completely unrelated field, like biology, computer science, or economics? An easy way to do this is to find someone with that expertise and ask her what kinds of questions she’d ask. Another is to find research frameworks and general methodologies for different disciplines and adapt these questions to the challenge you’re trying to solve.

When you ask the right question, unexpected insights and inspiration can emerge.

Boy with backpack, viewed from behind, walks between library stacks

Image attribution: Redd Angelo

Marketing Innovation and the Collective Brain

Bringing in insights from different domains is one of the easiest ways to tap into what researchers have called “the collective brain.” Research shows that innovation is rarely the product of a single individual or idea. Instead, it’s the confluence of the activities, thoughts, and efforts of multiple people. As Katie Dowbiggin and Michael Muthukrishna said, “Ideas flow in these collective brains, much like neurons fire in our individual brains. We see multiple ‘inventors’ of the same idea, because if the historical, cultural, and conceptual conditions exist in the collective brain for an invention to emerge, inevitably there will be multiple individuals at the nexus of these conditions. Or to put it another way, innovations don’t rely on a particular innovator any more than your thoughts rely on a particular neuron.”

One of the most important insights the authors offer is how to stimulate innovation: connect previously unconnected ideas. They use the example of Darwin decoding evolution as he traveled the world and studied a variety of inputs. As marketers, writers, and content strategists, it’s our job to tap into the collective brain and stimulate innovation. We have to push beyond the bubbles of our disciplines, read more widely than our industry, and understand the best practices in problem solving and connecting with audiences from different industries. For example:

  • What can screenwriters teach you about writing a compelling story audiences will love?
  • Could psychology help you more effectively connect with the emotions of your audience?
  • Does an understanding of evolutionary biology give you perspective on your audience’s fears and desires?
  • What would a deep dive into data analysis show in the hidden patterns that fuel your creativity?
  • If you studied the techniques of an industry that’s had success in digital marketing, like B2B technology, could you apply them to a different industry like agribusiness or manufacturing?

Here are practical ways to find inspiration in other fields to push your creative thinking and help you innovate in unexpected ways.

Approach a Problem With a Tactic From Another Field

Participatory observation is a technique I learned studying anthropology and archeology. One way we made sense of what we saw in the field was by using a technique called card sorting. You write down every impression, detail, insight, and observation that seems important. Then you sit down with a fresh eye and “bucket” similar things together. It helps researchers understand how individuals cognitively understand different categories.

The same technique has been adapted to user experience (UX design). In a similar way, explore how an expert in a different field might attack a problem you’re facing. For example, could thinking like a medical researcher and starting your content strategy with a comprehensive literature review give you a different perspective than diving right in?

Learn to Listen and Read for Unexpected Insights by Widening Your Pool

As we get more established and go deeper into our field, our focus often narrows and our expertise gets deeper. In the marketing field, it’s easy to spend your spare time reading the latest business books, keeping up with marketing blogs, and scanning issues of the Harvard Business Review. While you can glean great ideas this way—and keeping up with your field will put you ahead of many of your peers—there are two weak spots:

  1. The top thinkers in your field are drawing from the same pool of ideas and intellectual predecessors.
  2. Your competition is most likely reading (and being inspired by) the same pool of limited material.

Instead, breakthrough ideas are more likely to come when you push the borders of your reading. For example, if you love books about marketing, explore adjacent ideas by reading books on innovation or entrepreneurship. Books that integrate ideas from multiple domains to solve a problem can inspire you to think differently.

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely takes a broad look at the topic of human motivation. Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandburg teamed up to write Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience. What these, and many other great books, have in common is that they draw from sociology, history, business, economics, pop culture, and many other places to make a strong argument about a particular topic. For marketers, you can achieve the same by reading popular books outside your field, exploring the blogs and articles that have leaders in different fields buzzing right now, and taking a deep dive into how different disciplines talk about a specific issue. For example, you can find everyone from wildlife biologists to hospital administrators talking about the challenges of leadership, offering wildly different examples and perspectives, often unified by common themes.

Cast a Wider Net for Your Team

If you’re working on a team with others, consider bringing in people with different expertise. For example, many companies have learned that pairing a writer, a designer, and a data expert can result in a much stronger story than a writer working alone. Could a content strategy or marketing campaign be richer if it incorporated perspectives from around the company or looked at completely different underlying factors such as psychology, digital marketing technique, copywriting, and systems thinking? Be bold about imagining how different types of expertise could lead to more creative thinking and, by extension, marketing innovation and transformation.

Fostering real innovation is a challenge; as marketers, our goal is often just to improve by incremental percentages and keep the momentum going forward. But when you’re aiming for real marketing transformation and breakthrough creative thinking, you can’t let yourself get trapped in the box of your own domain. Break down the walls by seeking out the ways that other disciplines ask questions, solve problems, and look at issues. Read widely, find diverse thought partners, and think about the ways you can bring insights from one domain into another. The end result may be a campaign that takes your work in completely unexpected directions.

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Featured image attribution: Shannon Kelley

The post Marketing Innovation Happens at the Nexus of Different Domains appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

Creative Storytelling Lessons from Animated Scientific Communicator Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

When I’m in need of optimistic inspiration for creative storytelling, I come back to this wonderful archival BBC footage of Richard Feynman opining on the wonders of understanding the physics of everyday life.

The pleasure he derives from understanding how the world works from a scientific perspective (and how he delivers that passion) is infectious. Throughout the talk, he offers colorful new observations on everyday phenomena—a ball bouncing, hammering a nail, a fire, or how elastic bands work—that encourage us to appreciate things we may not even think twice about normally. “The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right,” Feynman said.

Richard Feynman

Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

The Importance of Lightness and Humor in Creative Storytelling

In talking about science, Feynman said, “I don’t want to take this stuff seriously. I think we should just have fun imagining it, not worry about it…there’s no teacher who’s going to ask you questions at the end.”

This is a wonderfully simple thought coming from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. It also speaks to one of the most fundamental storytelling techniques (which has been echoed more recently by another scientific storyteller, Chris Hadfield): the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. A sense of fun and wonder, and the lightness and humor that get reflected in the way you communicate on a topic, can make all the difference to the success or failure of a message.

Just a few years ago, ABC reported on the new trend of companies breathing a bit more levity into their marketing campaigns by making fun of themselves and the industry at large. Companies like Nordnet, Arby’s, and Newcastle Brown Ale created hilariously honest commercials that audiences found not only entertaining but genuine.

Nordnet begins their ad with this meta piece of dialogue: “Hello, I’m an actor. I’ve been paid $8000 to tell you how great Nordnet is compared to other banks. They chose me because I’m more handsome than their real CEO and because I look successful in a suit.” It’s this light, humorous, and self-aware approach to communication that breaks the standard mold and is often remembered more fondly than standard TV spots.

The Packaging is as Important as the Content

In an insightful essay in The Atlantic, author George Johnson compares the careers of Feynman and colleague Murray Gell-Mann, who Johnson argues was “probably the greater physicist,” while he talks about Feynman as a “celebrity scientist.” While Feynman may not have been as prolific a scientist as Gell-Mann (a debatable point), the author writes, “Feynman had a more vital gift: he knew how to package himself.”

Gell-Mann also believed that Feynman’s real genius was in “seeing beyond the dazzling surface of the equations to what nature was really doing.” Drawing connections to real life experiences is one of the hallmarks of successful creative storytelling. Feynman never lost that initial sense of wonder that drew him to study physics in the first place, and he realized the power of this underlying attraction for convincing others likewise.

One of his greatest legacies is the success with which he popularized physics through his books and lectures, reaching a far wider audience than the field of physics usually touches. He even inspired Bill Gates. On his blog, Gates says that “Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.” Gates’ advocacy is a great example of how good packaging helps messages spread to new audiences.

Using Visual Creativity to Communicate Complex Messages

Not only did Feynman have the character and the passion to inspire a popular audience, but he also had a vivid approach to problem solving and communicating that became well known in academic circles. The birth of the “Feynman diagram” in 1948 ushered in a new way of visualizing challenging concepts in particle physics and quantum mechanics. Writing for Quanta, Frank Wilczek explained the value of these diagrams: “They help us bring our powers of visual imagination to bear on worlds we can’t actually see.”

Feynman diagram

Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

Even for theoretical physicists, a visual aid to help bring a level of tangibility to abstract concepts is enabling. MIT professor David Kaiser wrote: “Since the middle of the 20th century, theoretical physicists have increasingly turned to this tool to help them undertake critical calculations. Feynman diagrams have revolutionized nearly every aspect of theoretical physics.”

A visual approach to brainstorming in the form of mind mapping is actually fundamentally similar to the way in which our brains process information. Interconnected networks of concepts and the relationships between them are the cognitive building blocks that give rise to meaning. I make use of mind maps in generating new story ideas as it lets me explore insights in a more three-dimensional way than simply listing out keywords. I often find I hit upon new ideas much more readily by bringing this kind of visual dynamism to them. Coggle is a great free tool for visual brainstorming.

Feynman’s communicative genius is in the way he recognized opportunities to help people understand complex concepts and ideas in new ways. He was an enabler of shifts in perspective and reminded people of the simple pleasures of everyday life. He encouraged people to recognize the miraculous in the mundane and, in so doing, inspired many future scientists as well as his own peers and a world of people who otherwise have no connection to or interest in physics.

Storytelling Lessons from Feynman

Feynman’s approach to storytelling often guides my own. When I’m feeling stuck I come back to these core principles:

  1. Have fun with your subject and your audience will too. Breathe levity and humor into your work where appropriate.
  2. Think about how the content and the packaging will work together. Don’t underestimate the importance of the way in which you tell your story.
  3. Are you hitting a creative block? Try applying a visual approach to brainstorming to gain some new perspective on your options.

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Featured image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

The post Creative Storytelling Lessons from Animated Scientific Communicator Richard Feynman appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

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