Sunday, December 17, 2023

Influencer Marketing in 2024

In the fine tradition of a yearly post on the future of our industry, here are a few thoughts about influencer marketing and the road ahead.

2023 was a disruptor for our industry, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) being at the forefront and influencer marketing still a pivotal force in teasing consumer behavior and brand perception. 


As we near 2024, digital marketing is set for yet another overhaul, fueled by technological advances, changing consumer preferences, and a drive for authenticity and the personal touch. Brands want to show they’re connected to an ever-increasingly skeptical customer base in an honest and approachable way. 

Only last week, I was propositioned by a company proposing advertising on my (sweary and somewhat profane) personal fan podcast, Dirty WHoers. “We’d love to send you samples and for you to create your own advert for us, in your style,” seriously? And they are offering serious money. Admittedly, we do get plenty of downloads by a very targeted and passionate audience, but if brands are considering promoting themselves through a medium like that and think an 18-rated Doctor Who podcast is the place to do it, the floodgates are wide open. 


Influencers are becoming central to brand strategies, moving way beyond the after-thought add-ons to other campaigns. I believe brands, especially B2C brands, are going to have to think more innovatively, promoting ‘a creator economy’ that needs to go beyond conventional collaboration models if they want to foster trust and get in front of their prospects.


The Rise of Micro and Nano Influencers 


The influencer marketing scene, traditionally dominated by macro-influencers with hefty follower numbers, is gradually recognizing the value of micro and nano influencers. 

These smaller-scale and specialist content creators, known for their highly engaged and loyal (nah, obsessive) followers, offer brands a more genuine connection and trust, which can be elusive with the larger influencers. They're also a lot cheaper than going for the traditional big fish. Going niche means solid targeting, and while it may be long-tail, that’s a good use of marketing spend.


AI-Powered Influencer Discovery and Matching 


AI is revolutionizing influencer marketing strategies. In the coming year, advanced AI tools for influencer discovery and matching will undoubtedly become more commonplace—trawling a wealth of data to match brands with influencers who share their values and ethos, with the aim of finding 'more meaningful' partnerships. I’ve not played with AI influencer analysis tools much, but there are a few good examples here, and the likes of podcasting platforms are already promoting them as a possible source of revenue.


New and Developing Mediums


The trend is shifting from static content to interactive and immersive experiences. Live streams through Twitch, interactive polls, and augmented reality (AR) content are becoming more popular, meaning influencers can create more engaging and dynamic content in a whole new space. Brands that embrace these formats can forge deeper consumer connections and stand out from the crowd at the same time without necessarily having to become experts on these new mediums themselves. Why would Karcher, for example, develop their own VR game about pressure-washing fire engines when there are streamers who already have a dedicated audience—yeah, that’s a thing.

Back in my days working in virtual worlds (notably Second Life), we created a campaign to carbon offset an avatar's virtual life and the spaces they owned by planting real word trees for the green news aggregation site (alas now defunct) Big Green Switch. We sponsored well-known SL creators to create virtual trees, environmentally aware household objects, and assorted giveaways. This led to the brand winning The New Statesman Campaign for Change Awards and a plethora of positive PR, and the assets from which continue to be shared in-world to this day.

The Rise of Virtual Influencers 


While somewhat alien to a lot of marketers, virtual influencers and computer-generated entities are carving an interesting place for themselves in influencer marketing. Names like Lu do MagaluLil Miquela, and Imma may be unknown to us Gen Xers, but for the right audience, they are household names. Admittedly used by the single brand Mattel and riding the coattails of her recent movie success, Barbie, however, should be no stranger to any of us.


Yes, it’s admittedly a wee bit bizarre, but they offer a unique and fresh approach to brand promotions, and as technology evolves, they will become more integrated into marketing strategies and shouldn’t be ignored. Aligning with a virtual influencer is, after all, still an indirect PR stunt in itself and well worthy of consideration, and one the marketing team has a degree of creative control over. 


Long-Term Partnerships for One-Time Campaigns 


The trend is noticeably moving from one-off campaigns to long-term influencer relationships. Sustained partnerships allow for non-intrusive and authentic storytelling and better brand integration, making for a consistent brand narrative over time, plus longevity of spend. 

Remember the YouTuber ‘Where the Hell is Matt?’? He was sponsored over a decade ago (long-term and subtly) by Stride Gum (Cadbury Adams USA), which still features to this day, proudly on his videos, now with 100s of millions of views.

Sustainable and Socially Conscious


Most businesses will create a Sustainability Report, something I particularly enjoy doing, but you can leverage a whole different audience with the right collaborations. 


More generally, as consumers grow more aware of their environmental and social impact, brands aligned with influencers who share the same concerns and ethics can boost their brand image and appeal to socially conscious consumers by tagging along with the right content producers. 


Adidas is doing good work in this area by stepping up as a surprising sustainability leader in fashion. They're visibly shifting their focus to create cool, eco-friendly stuff, like shoes made from ocean plastic. Teaming up with Parley for the Oceans, they've come up with sneakers made completely from recycled materials. They're also using their online clout with influencer campaigns to get the word out, which isn’t just great for their image; it's moving the goalposts by showing everyone how fashion doesn't have to be 'fast fashion' has the potential to be both trendy and good for the planet.


Ephemeral and Short-Form Content Dominance 


Ephemeral content, care of platforms like Snapchat and Instagram Stories, is still a growing trend. In 2024, influencers are expected to continue leveraging these fleeting formats to further instill a sense of urgency and exclusivity in their content, and effectively capturing their audience's attention. This content strategy, which emphasizes momentary engagement, appeals to the audience's fear of missing out (FOMO) and can drive more immediate responses. “Buy this awesome thing now, or lose out.”


General video content continues to evolve, with platforms like TikTok obviously leading the way and cross-posting being the norm. The rapid growth of TikTok highlights our audience's leaning towards short, engaging, easy-to-consume storytelling. Influencers are harnessing this trend, creating content that is not only visually appealing but also capable of conveying messages quickly and effectively—all be it with a lot of dancing. This ongoing shift is a reflection of changing consumer behaviors and offers an undeniable opportunity for the way the right brands and influencers can connect with our audiences.

It may not be for everyone, but even my work in cybersecurity is offering opportunities, with influencer opportunities growing in every field.


More of the Same


The 'creator economy' of 2024 is set to be marked by technology, authenticity, and social consciousness. If nothing else, it’s going to pay my podcast hosting fees and give me some pocket money—with very little effort on my behalf. Only a decade ago, I had to resort to spammy banner advertising to do this.

As marketers, we need to stay agile and innovative, open to new ideas, and understand the dynamic influencer-follower relationship to be an effective part of the ever-changing influencer marketing opportunities.


For brands, diving into this space opens up a world of possibilities, from reaching wider audiences to adding a personal touch to our marketing. Partnering with influencers can bring our brand story to life in the most relatable way. So, here's to making those connections.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Why SEO is Still Important for Content Marketing in 2024

Creating content without an eye for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is like having a brochure printed and leaving it in the stationary cupboard. Customers don’t read cold marketing emails, they go to a search engine when they have a genuine need. As we careen towards 2024, the relevance of SEO continues to be a vital part of the content marketing stack.

Apologies in advance, this is probably going to be a long one. Google will hate it. It hates my unoptimized Blogger blog anyway, which is ironic as Blogger is a Google service.

I started my digital career in SEO, back at the turn of the millennium. However, the modern digital world is in a state of perpetual disruption, and SEO practices are no exception. The algorithms that determine search engine rankings are becoming mind-bogglingly sophisticated, embracing the latest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and this evolution calls for a more dynamic approach. Sympathetic table layout and getting a client on DMOZ just won’t cut it anymore. 


As a content marketer, it’s common sense for me to stay abreast of the latest trends and updates in search engine algorithms to maintain and improve online visibility for the sites I manage. While I work with a splendid agency (Bay Leaf Digital) specifically for SEO optimization and the bulk of link-building, it’s still a big part of my remit to get us seen and incorporate their research and on-page recommendations into my work. However, The focus has shifted from traditional keyword-centric strategies to a more holistic approach that prioritizes a solid user experience, mobile optimization, and (thankfully for my bank balance and mental health) high-quality content that addresses user intent. 


We need up-to-date strategies. Adapting to these changes is fundamental for organizations to be sure their online presence remains strong and that they continue to reach their target audience. In 2024, staying informed and agile in SEO strategy isn’t just beneficial; it's going to be essential for the win.


I’d grab a coffee if I were you. Here we go.


Understanding User Intent 


Stuff keyword stuffing. We need a much more nuanced understanding of what people actually want. 

Loading webpages with a bunch of relevant keywords was a common tactic to boost search rankings – and, shamefully, one I’ve used myself. Sure, we still need our keywords, but search engines have become more sophisticated, now “prioritizing the ‘relevance’ and ‘value’ of content to the user's search intent.” 

This means that effective SEO needs an understanding of what users (our customer personas) are searching for – their needs, questions, and the type of content they’ll find of actual value. This creates more engaging, useful, and informative content (Hurrah!) that resonates with an audience. It improves search engine rankings, sure, but it also enriches the overall user experience - hopefully leading to higher engagement, trust, and loyalty. This is a good thing. Understanding and catering to user intent is a clear commitment to providing value and relevance to an audience – of which I’ve always been an advocate.


Quality Content is Thankfully Still King 


The old adage 'content is king' holds more truth than ever, especially for SEO. Engaging, valuable content is totally essential for achieving and maintaining decent rankings. 

E-E-A-T: Google's ranking system leverages a ton of factors to rank high-quality content, loving content that's the most useful, as indicated by experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). Trust is the cornerstone, with the other elements enhancing it, though not all are required for content to be considered valuable. For instance, content may be deemed helpful due to the author's experience or the expertise presented. 


While E-E-A-T is one of those annoyingly nebulous ’indirect’ ranking factors, it does “guide the system,” especially for the critical "Your Money or Your Life" (YMYL) topics affecting health, finances, (online) safety, or societal welfare.


I’m a big fan of creating assets that thoroughly answer user queries. This involves delving deep into topics, providing detailed explanations, and covering all the aspects and nuances that users might be interested in. I utilize keyword research to understand what our target audience is searching for and attempt to address those topics with depth and clarity. I also do my research and dive into the forums and specialist sites where our target audience is talking. You can also use the likes of ChatGPT to get some inspiration about your audience's biggest concerns. Knowledge is power.

I run the whole gamut of content formats, like blog copy, explainer videos, infographics, solution brief resources, and even podcasts, in an ongoing (but strategic) attempt to enhance engagement and cater to user preferences. Try our resources page for some examples. Content marketing is only dull if you’re doing it wrong.

I also update and tweak existing content fairly regularly to keep it current and relevant. Going back and cross-linking to newer posts to promote trawling, etc. Producing rich, informative assets that genuinely satisfy user queries and updating them with new info., adds to thought leadership creds and goes a long way to establishing any website as a trusted resource.


Video Content for Enhanced Engagement 


The growing power of video in SEO is a testament to changing user preferences and the engaging nature of visual content. 


Videos increase the time visitors spend on our website, known as ‘Page Dwell Time,’ but they also provide a dynamic way to present information and tell stories, which can be another boost to search engine rankings. To increase dwell time from a content perspective, in the past I’ve used audio recordings of the copy so visitors could play them without having to wade through posts that went beyond the fold. Page dwell time is accompanied by a new metric in GA4 called ‘engagement rate,’ which is essentially a bounce rate flipped on its head. It also factors in other shenanigans like the percentage of the page scrolled. This is all achievable with content, but a proper run-down would need to be a whole other blog post.


To optimize video content for search engines, I focus on metadata, including relevant keywords in the video title, description, and tags to improve its ‘discoverability.’ I usually repurpose any script to provide a transcript, as it generally makes the content more accessible to search engine crawlers, thereby improving the chances of ranking for those relevant keywords. 


By hosting videos on platforms like Vimeo and YouTube, and then embedding them on our site, we leverage YouTube or Vimeo’s high domain authority to boost visibility. They also appear on their own in Google search results.

Mobile-First Indexing 


With the majority of internet users accessing the web via mobile devices, some 60.73% in July 2022, it's now standard practice for websites to be optimized for mobile browsing to maintain and improve their search engine rankings. 


The big key to this optimization is responsive web design (RWD), which makes sure that any site is “visually and functionally compatible” across devices, giving a more seamless user experience whether on a smartphone, via tablet, or on our desktop. 


Page speed is a big one; mobile users invariably have less patience for slow-loading pages, I know I don’t, and search engines (like Google) factor load times into their rankings. It’s good practice to focus on optimizing images, leveraging browser caching, and minimizing code. Implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) can also be a boon to load times, directly impacting a site's visibility and user engagement, which Google loves more than chocolate.


AI and Machine Learning 


The impact of AI and machine learning on SEO, particularly regarding Google's algorithms, has been somewhat transformative to say the least. It’s created a new playing field for search engine optimization and will be one to watch in 2024. 

Google's AI-driven algorithm, such as BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), focuses on understanding the context and nuances of user queries, moving way beyond just keyword matching. This disruptive change means that SEO strategies have to adapt to prioritize content quality and relevance. 


In an active attempt to align with advanced algorithms, once again I focus on writing for users first, keeping content natural and informative, and answering key questions. Embracing semantic search principles by including related keywords and topics that provide a comprehensive view of the subject matter is now part of the process. This takes into account factors like the searcher's location, search history, word variations, synonyms, and the relationships between words to provide more accurate and relevant search results. Basically, “semantic search aims to understand the searcher's intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on a webpage or part of a user query,” to improve the accuracy of search results. This means a portion of my output must focus on creating content that answers questions and provides valuable information related to the topic rather than just the old-school targeting of specific keywords.


Try SEMrushAhrefsMoz ProMarketMuse, or Ubersuggest. I’m a big exponent of AI, and I believe that staying updated with the SEO tools that incorporate AI for keyword research and SEO analysis gives us something of a competitive edge. I’m also a fan of Yoast Pro, in Wordpress.


Local Search for Local People


Local SEO is fried-gold for businesses serving specific areas, meaning they can target their local audience. A big portion of searches have local intent, so having a presence in local search results is important. 

Businesses can make a start by optimizing their website for local keywords, and adding location-specific phrases that potential customers in the area are more likely to use. Claiming and optimizing a Google My Business (GMB) listing is standard. This involves providing accurate and updated business information, like the address, phone number, and hours of operation, as well as adding photos and responding to customer reviews. 

Encouraging customers to leave reviews, and then engaging with them afterward, can also be a plus. Finding local online directories and checking consistent NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) information across all listings will support any local visibility.


For more ideas, check out my post on How to use Google Shopping to get Local Sales.


Secure Websites Are a Must (HTTPS) 


A secure website is the new normal, serving as a foundation of trust between a user and any online presence. For visitors, a secure website - signified by HTTPS and a padlock icon in our address bar - signals a safe space where our data is encrypted and protected from interception or misuse. This level of security, usually provided by SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates, safeguards sensitive information and builds consumer confidence. 


Most search engines prioritize secure websites in their rankings, considering HTTPS as an important ranking signal. Implementing an SSL certificate, therefore, is a dual-faceted tool: it acts as “a guardian of data integrity and privacy” plus boosts search engine visibility. Website security is a necessity - trust me on this, I work in cybersecurity – to influence credibility, user experience, and search ranking. Go HTTPS or go home.


The Rise of Featured Snippets


Featured snippets have become a coveted feature in search result real estate, usually appearing at the very top of the page in the much sought-after "Position 0." These snippets give quick, direct answers to user queries and increase visibility and click-through rates. Happy days. Well, happy days if your customers are using desktop machines. This year, Google moved the goalpost once again and removed the ability to influence snippets on mobile using FAQ schema, so who knows where this is going in the future.


I don’t make every post optimized for snippets. When I do, in an attempt to increase the chances of our content being featured like this, I do so strategically. This includes directly answering questions in a clear, concise manner, ideally in the form of short paragraphs, bullet points, or numbered lists. 

Content that addresses common questions in a "how-to," "what is," or "why do" format seems particularly effective. I try to include a relevant question as a subheading, immediately following it up with a straightforward answer or definition. I also try to keep well-organized, using header tags (H1, H2, etc., still with relevant keywords) and adding custom-made (thank you MidJorney), 
consistently high-quality, and relevant images. I use clarity, brevity, and directness in my snippet copy, which so far appears to be working, but I do so sympathetically to the site and the content itself, and always consider where on the site that content is going to sit so it's still natural and doesn't come off like content spam. In my opinion, be it unofficial, overusing this tactic is a further kiss of SEO death.


Core Web Vitals and UX 


As a user, Google's introduction of Core Web Vitals as an SEO factor is a welcome shift towards prioritizing user experience as a part of the ranking process. Professionally, a bad UX makes my teeth itch. Core Web Vitals are a bunch of factors that Google considers important in a webpage's overall user experience, including loading performance, interactivity, and "visual stability." It’s basically good for everyone, especially the customer.


Step one, have a chat with your web developers to reduce load times - optimizing images, leveraging browser caching, minimizing JavaScript, etc. - improving server response times and reducing the impact of third-party scripts. 


Enhancing "visual stability" means making sure that elements on the page don’t shift around unexpectedly as the page loads – and honestly, that’s well above my pay grade. 


Regularly checking a website's performance with tools like Google's PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse can give me some idea of how well our site is performing and insights to drop into Jira for those who know more than I do.


Building Quality Backlinks 


Backlinks are links from one website to another and are of best value if they're one-way and not reciprocal. They can be a time vampire, but they’re still a cornerstone of SEO, acting as a key indicator of a website's authority and relevance to search engines. A solid backlink profile from reputable, high-authority websites is a thing of beauty. 


I can’t stress how important it is to avoid black-hat SEO tactics - like buying random low-quality links or taking part in dodgy link farms - as these will lead to ranking penalties. Just don't. The process of disavowing backlinks is another logistical headache that nobody needs.

To build backlinks ethically, I focus on creating valuable and polished content that naturally encourages other sites to link to it – check out the likes of ‘30 Sobering Cybersecurity Statistics for 2023,’ with over 200 social shares and a ton of blogs linking to it in just week one. I also offer my services on (reputable) sites for guest posting in exchange for inbound links. I started with industry partners and resellers, reaching out and suggesting I share any posts I write for them on our own social channels to grease the wheels and give them something in return. Adding RSS feeds to syndication sites is a simple win, see my copy on Security Boulevard as an example. Hitting up industry influencers and bloggers for collaborations, or to share our content, is time-consuming but has resulted in a few nice inbound opportunities.


Building relationships within your industry and actively participating in community discussions, forums, and social media can give organic linking opportunities, but again, there are only so many hours in the day, and we're usually not the experts. Most in-house or agency content creators aren't knowledgeable enough on a specific topic to have the critical and supportive conversations needed. I try to focus my efforts on quality over quantity, making sure backlinks are relevant and adding value to our audience by encouraging relationships with sites that discuss our industry issues - giving credence through context - which has the added bonus or reinforcing my own writing creds on any given subject.


The Role of Social Signals? 


The role of social signals in SEO is a heated topic of much debate among digital marketers, but when I see my own LinkedIn posts in search results, I’ve got to give the idea some props. 


‘Allegedly,’ social signals - likes, shares, comments on social media platforms, etc. - influence a website's search rankings. While Google has repeatedly said that “social signals are not a direct ranking factor,” the benefits to me appear to be very real. Social media can also boost brand visibility and drive traffic to a website, which are further components of SEO success. 


If nothing else, content that gets decent traction on social media can boost backlinks, as it gets noticed and shared by a wider audience, including bloggers and journalists who might link to it from their own websites, plus opens the doors to syndication.


Again, I focus on creating shareable, engaging content that resonates with our audience with good, custom-written social posts written for each asset. I encourage social sharing through the integration of social media buttons on our website, as standard, and actively engage with our followers and evangelists on platforms. By building a strong social media presence, you can enhance brand recognition, drive traffic, and (potentially) positively impact your site's SEO (all be it indirectly). 

While the ever-changing value of individual social channels is a whole other conversation - gee, thanks, Mr. Musk, for taking the Twitter [X] pipe away from Google - social still appears to be a part of the process.

Voice Search Optimization?


I have to mention voice search, or someone's bound to say, "What about voice search?" 

Voice searches have been ‘the big thing for next year’ for over half a decade, but honestly, all it really does is read snippets. Nobody is regularly optimizing for voice. So far, it seems to be "a goalless win." With any result, where's the click-through? Where's the transaction? Who's booking a demo through voice results? Where's the memorable experience? Where's the branding? Where's the awareness element? Yeah, it's happening, but it's not making sales - so far.

Voice search queries tend to be more conversational and longer than typical text-based searches. This means that if I am catering to them, I focus on optimizing for natural language and long-tail keywords that mirror how people speak in everyday life. I occasionally craft posts that incorporate question-based phrases and complete sentences into my copy, at least into my H2 copy, as these are seemingly more likely to align with voice queries. For instance, targeting phrases like "What are the best Chinese restaurants in the center of Liverpool?" would be better than just "Chinese restaurants Liverpool."

Even if it’s not a sales goal, I still try to make sure that my content gives clear, concise answers to potential questions, which can supposedly increase our chances of appearing in voice search results. However, that's just something I do for clarity rather than a conscious effort to court the likes of Alexa. At the start of 2023, structuring content in a Q&A format or including an FAQ section on a website page (like this one I wrote on mitigating zero-day attacks) was beneficial - and actually not as ‘grey hat’ as I initially thought - but now this doesn't show in mobile results. As a result, that's two days of writing fluff for FAQs I'll never get back.

Voice search optimization is still one to keep a casual (and critical) eye on, but I won't be making it a big priority until the algorithm and the outcome tell me otherwise.


SEO Analytics and Tools 


Analytics provide insights that are a goldmine for understanding the effectiveness of my efforts and for making informed decisions. It’s a dopamine fix when I’m proven right and helpful when I'm proven wrong.

Analytics tools let me monitor key metrics like conversion rate, organic traffic, bounce rate and 404s, keyword rankings, and page load times, and give me a clearer picture of overall performance. Google Analytics is the de facto tool, giving me data on website traffic and user behavior. Google Search Console gives me insights into search query data, website impressions, click-through rates, and the health of our website in terms of indexing and pesky crawl errors. Other tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz offer advanced features for keyword tracking, analyzing backlinks, and thought-provoking/content-inspiring competitor insights. 


Regularly reviewing the numbers helps me see the areas of success and highlights those much-needed improvements, allowing us to smooth overall SEO/content effectiveness and work better towards our business goals. I also like services like Tableau and Skedler for visualizing SEO report data, which gives my non-statistical brain that wee bit more clarity.

Getting SEO Ready for 2024


Sorry, I did say this was going to be a long one, but SEO is as crucial as ever heading into 2024.


As search algorithms evolve, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, an informed approach to SEO and content marketing is going to be a must. The narrative has shifted from the keyword-centric tactics of yesteryear to a holistic strategy that embraces user intent, new tools, visual storytelling using video and quality imagery, and mobile-first indexing, all underpinned by the timeless value of quality content. 


For success in the coming year, we content marketers need to stay as informed and agile as our specialist SEO comrades, adapting our content strategies to sophisticated, context-aware algorithms without resorting to content spam for the sake of it. A multifaceted content repertoire optimized for semantic search, mobile responsiveness, and AI tools, alongside ethical backlink practices and leveraging social media's indirect benefits, are going to be the backbone of growing (and keeping) a decent online presence. 


With Google's focus on Core Web Vitals enhancing user experience, and the potential of featured snippets to boost visibility, there’s an obvious call for continuous learning and adapting content marketing accordingly. It needs to be as much a part of the job as creating graphics and copy. Monitoring these efforts through accurate analytics means strategies can be data-driven and finely tuned to the whims of search engines. There are interesting times ahead.


After that, I’m going to go and have a little lie-down...

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Storytelling and the Brand Narrative

The Backstory

Even my father says so, at heart, I am a storyteller – and there are stories everywhere. Being “creative” on demand and rolling things in narrative glitter are my bread and butter. Giving an organization a clear message and a clear voice in which to tell it is the crux of my nine-to-five. Making that message resonate, giving it life, making it visual, making it stick, stimulating a conversation, and giving people a reason to actually give a damn, is a disciple in itself. 


Please excuse the somewhat flavorless tone of the following post. This was initially written as part of my 2013 visiting lecturer series at Nottingham Trent University, but I’m trying to post something relevant at least monthly, and alas, October has run away with me. 


Flippancy and professional irreverence will be resumed as soon as possible.


Crafting Connection and Distinction


The Power of a Story in Branding 


Ideas are cheap, nay free, and products are plentiful. And boy, the marketplace is crowded. What makes you stand out?

A "brand narrative" is a consistent and compelling story that encapsulates a brand's values, mission, and unique identity, designed to provoke an emotional connection with its audience. A compelling brand narrative isn’t just a luxury; it's a necessity. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a connection, so you have no emotional value to your audience.


The art of brand storytelling - yes, I did say art - goes that step beyond just advertising; it creates an emotional bridge between us (the brand) and our audience (probably a buyer or prospect), fostering a deeper, more meaningful connection. It’s not esoteric, it’s just basic psychology blended with creative journalism. It’s about wearing our brand values and product journey on our sleeves and cutting through the hyperbole and marketing speak.


Emotional Engagement Through Storytelling and Design 


Emotional engagement is the cornerstone of effective storytelling, and there is an interplay between storytelling and design. Admittedly, this is the natural angle I come from because my roots are in graphic design, English literature, messaging, filmmaking, scriptwriting, etc., and technology and theory are moving forward all the time. It is, however, in my somewhat jaded experience, true.


A well-crafted story, combined with visually striking graphics, be they AR animations or magazine copy layout, can evoke a range of emotions, from trust and comfort (John Lewis) to apprehension and anxiety (the pro-Brexit campaign) and from excitement and aspiration (Nike’s "Just Do It") to simple FOMO (Apple tapping into their existing consumers' desire not to be left behind in the latest advances in shiny tech). 


Obligatory 1984 Apple's Macintosh Commercial playing in the background. Not because it’s related or illustrates a specific point. Just because it’s awesome.


Brands like Apple have mastered this blend, using minimalistic design and poignant narratives to create a loyal and passionate customer base of like-minded souls. Apple's narratives often focus on innovation, creativity, and the human element in technology, resonating deeply with their tech-savvy audience. 


Crafting a Compelling Brand Narrative 


I don’t have the great British novel in me. I get my dopamine fix in other ways, and with more regularity. I imagine, however, that creating a compelling brand narrative is akin to a plotting a captivating book. 


It should have a clear theme, consistent characters (your brand's voice), and a plot that unfolds over time. The narrative should be authentic, reflecting the brand's values and mission. 


NB: Brand values and a clear mission statement are crucial as they define a company's identity, guide its business practices, and inform its relationship with customers. They serve as a compass for decision-making and communication, helping to build trust and loyalty by ensuring consistency and authenticity in all aspects of the brand's operations and messaging. There is no brand narrative without them.


Anyway, par exemple, the fashion brand Patagonia's commitment to environmental sustainability isn’t just a marketing strategy. It’s a core narrative and brand equity that influences all its business decisions and marketing efforts. It’s their “shtick,” their “hook,” and their base identity. In many ways, it is its audience, and it supports the same ideals and standards. 

It attracts that audience by saying, “We are who we are, and we’re passionate about it. We take a stand. We’re on your side, our side, and the planet’s side.” 

Many folks say Patagonia “goes against the normal,” but customers in most sectors are bored of normal. Normal doesn’t stand out. Normal doesn’t sell. Who wants to wear normal?


Standing Out with Stories 


Our increasingly skeptical consumers are bombarded with obvious and targeted advertisements. A unique and creative story can cut through the skepticism (if it’s told with sincerity and consistency) and legitimately raise a brand above the heard. Customers are savvy and can see when they’re being sold to, but an honest and compelling brand narrative with real motivations and an obvious human behind the curtain adds credibility, passion, purpose, and trust.


Good stories make good brands stand out. Take, for example, the then somewhat revolutionary storytelling approach of Dove with their 'Real Beauty' campaign. By focusing on real stories of diverse beauty, with real people at the fore, Dove instantly distinguished itself in a market saturated with unrealistic beauty standards and created conversation around the topic of its detrimental effects. We know that the use of impractical and unrealistic ideals of physical perfection in advertising fosters negative body image, low self-esteem, and mental health issues among consumers. It perpetuates narrow and unattainable ideals, contributing to a culture of exclusivity and discrimination. Dove used their campaign to make a stand and to stand out, sparking conversations and creating a strong emotional response. It broke the mold in a good way, immediately promoting the likes of online retailers to use common and plus-sized models, which we now think of as the norm.


The Role of Brand Voice and Personality 


This will be in the quiz, so write this down as I say it: “A brand's voice and personality are essential elements of storytelling.” 


This voice should be consistent across all platforms, whether it's the witty and irreverent tone of Old Spice (wow, you can tell when this was written) or the inspirational and aspirational tone of Under Armour, Tesla, Airbnb, L'OrĂ©al, or Peloton. 


The brand voice is a critical tool in making any narrative relatable and memorable. 


Discovering Brand Stories 


Finding stories within a brand can seem daunting, and some of the examples I’m using above are, in reality, obvious extremes, but stories often lie in simple places: the origins of the company, customer experiences, the journey, employee stories, stakeholder passions, or the creation of a product. 


For instance, the story of how the microsegmentation and zero-day protection provider, TrueFort, was founded: “It all started with a breach” at a major banking organization, which revealed a problem, so two clever guys in the trenches fixed that problem then took their solution to market - is a narrative that speaks of innovation and industry-focused solutions. It’s honest, simple, true, and says, “We’re real people on the side of CISOs and the security team.”


I’ve talked about finding inspiration for stories previously in my Staying Creative as a Content Marketer post, which might have some nuggets worth mining, and here are some further notes on finding your brand story.


Leveraging Thought Leadership Content 


Thought leadership is a simple and recognized way to build a brand narrative. It positions a brand as an expert in its field, adding depth to its story. 


A tech company might share insights about emerging technologies, or an interior design firm might discuss future home trends. Essentially, a small brand can have a big voice and become a source for opinion and news on their specialist topic. This content, while informative and of value to the customer, also tells a story of expertise and foresight. Rocket science it ain’t.


Using personality is useful for companies of all sizes, and personality can be used for used to leverage the distribution of the message. 

Consider a project I did with renowned opticians Vision Express: Then CEO, Jonathan Lawson, connected with all 500+ employees on LinkedIn. That was a lot of clicking, trust me. He then began to use the platform to share Vision Express posts, silently promoting brand content. He blogged on LinkedIn, ghost-written by me, to showcase new technology, his leadership style (keeping it human/personal), and company achievements. He shared company PR and HR ideals from a personal perspective. His connection to the organization, and a transparent and accessible (managed) voice from behind the curtain, was the story.

While I was working with Vision Express, I went to a store opening and had one of their free eye tests with their new visual fields testing equipment, and the ophthalmologist found I had early-stage glaucoma. Catching this at the beginning, with their new in-store technology, probably saved my vision, and treatment stopped the headaches I’d been ignoring for months. Stories are everywhere. I shamelessly jumped on this, crafted a raft of related video and written content, and I was happy to be the poster boy for that month. “Go and get a free eye test.” After all, I kinda owed 'em one.


Creating Written and Visual Brand Journalism 


Brand journalism combines storytelling with journalistic principles. It's about creating content that's informative, engaging, and newsworthy. The key is to focus on stories that interest your audience, not just your brand. 


Red Bull is a prime example, with its magazine and media company focusing on extreme (non-combative) sports and lifestyle, which aligns with the brand's “adventurous spirit.” 


Cohesive Storytelling 


The art of storytelling in branding is a multifaceted endeavor. It's about striking the right balance between emotional engagement and informational content. A successful brand narrative should be consistent, authentic, and above all, compelling. 


Consumers are more discerning and better informed, and a well-told brand story is what will ultimately resonate and endure.

Here endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

How to Manage Gen X Employees

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."

I made my first ‘corporate video’ on a 16mm Arri BL, and it contained the words “Just 5 minutes from this cinema.” I've created magazine ads in 1:618 with a scalple and Cow Gum. I rendered video titles with my Atari ST. I wrote my first website in Notepad and my second in Netscape Composer. I worked in SEO when getting on DMoz was critical and Lycos was still a puppy. I’ve seen dot com bubbles burst, the Berlin Wall fall, every Star Wars film at the cinema, and I was an art student under Thatcher. I am tech-savvy - but not tech-dependent. I’ve written millions of words of copy, been married twice, and lived/worked in six different counties. I have footwear that's probably older than you are.

Be sure you actually want an honest opinion before you ask me for one. My work/life balance is good, but I’ll work ‘til I die (and when I work, I work hard). Self-reliance is my middle name, and I don’t give a damn about workplace politics unless it’ll get in the way of my deliverables. I’m flexible and can adapt to change, but I can involuntarily roll my eyes so hard I check out my own ass. I have learned to keep my mouth shut, but only recently, though not if I see injustice, bad science, or bigotry. I am loyal but do not cross me. 

I am Generation X

Here’s how to manage us so that nobody gets hurt. 

Who Exactly is Gen X? 

My Gen X colleagues, in my experience, are often the unsung role models and silent mentors in the modern workplace. Born between the late 1960s and early 1980s they are more Taoist than the Boomers and more stoic than the Millennials. Now in our 40s and 50s, we hold senior positions in agencies and across all industry sectors. 

As any savvy marketer or creative will tell you, understanding the dynamics of your team and where people fit is important. We're not complicated, but there's some things you need to know becasue they run deep in the Gen X psyche.

While younger workers may be taking career breaks, Gen X employees are deliberatly choosing to stay employed, driven by necessity and desire. Primarily, our financial obligations of kids, mortgages, divorces, medical bills, that classic camper van we didn't really need, etc. that make a consistent income indispensable. Moreover, after navigating numerous economic upheavals and diligently building their careers, many are reluctant to sideline their potential for further career advancement. So much for the label of "the slacker generation."

Here are my thoughts, from the horse’s mouth, based on thirty years working in/with creative teams (in-house and in-agency) and from being a somewhat typical (all be it neuroatypical) example of my demographic: 

Unpacking the Gen X DNA 

Gen Xers are archetypically known for their resourcefulness, independence, and for valuing work-life balance. We embraced personal computing from the ZX Spectrum onwards and invariably hold strong views on equality and individual liberty. 

As the ‘latchkey generation,’ we’re more than capable of managing our time and challenges solo. We’ve been feeding ourselves since we were ten and we "drank out of the hose" because we weren't allowed in the house. We thrive without micromanagement, solving challenges with experience and initiative, and are best given a goal and some KPIs. Revved up, then let loose like an Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Helicopter-manage us and we’ll hate you, our jobs, and leave (for a 16%+ pay rise with your competitors). Micromanagement shows a clear lack of trust and feels like it’s taking away our autonomy - it will stifle our creativity and hinder productivity. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve plenty of connections and other places to go if we don’t like it here. 

While respectful, we do lean towards open, relaxed work settings. Expect friendly collaboration and an open-door policy. We are often straight-talking and appreciate straight-talking comms in return. Gen X are resilient, having self medicated themselves through the 90s, and we’ve earned any success we may have. Our tenacity - some may say bloody mindedness - often shines, and can be used to drive projects with passion and perseverance. The MTV Generation (X) is less about the hustle, and more about efficient results. Often cited for our grace under pressure, Gen X will ensure quality over quantity. Our aptitude at time-management and problem-solving makes us efficient players – so let us play. We got this. Leave us to it.  

Growing up in a battlefield of economic shenanigans, we value work dedication AND personal time. If you want a late meeting, fine, but don’t push it too much or we’ll quickly feel undervalued and unappreciated. Quid pro quo, Clarice. Taking us for granted is a mistake, but with some concessions for fair division of holiday time so we can take our teenagers to Disneyland (or whatever), and keep weekends for our hobbies, we’ll nod and smile quite happily. I work for a US company, so it’s part of the job to be flexible and available outside of GMT, and that’s fine, but I still take time to walk my dogs in the mornings if I’ve got meetings ‘till 9 PM. Having experienced a litany of seismic shifts in work cultures, we’re all about adaptability. 

We can embrace change, proudly championing diversity and creativity, be it AI in the workplace or collaborative cloud tools, and are often change leaders. Putting us in charge of collating the ESG report or having us on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council is our natural habitat. We evolved with the rise of PCs, mobile phones, and the internet. Quick to pick up new tech trends and early adopters, while valuing traditional methods, we’re happy to try most new things (unless it’s decaf coffee) if you can engage us with how they’ll streamline processes and won’t impact on our deadlines.

We genuinely value a clear brief and constructive dialogues, so open feedback channels to promote growth and understanding. A tech-free childhood fostered innate problem-solving and collaboration abilities. Gen X is capable of taking part in some superb team dynamics leading to productive and creative outcomes. 

Actual Management Tips

To harness the dynamism of your resident Gen X, consider the following:
  • Micromanagement? No thanks. Allow them their autonomy.
  • Feedback is Gold. Constructive criticism is welcome but expect a two-way conversation.
  • Valued Time = Productivity. Their work-life balance mantra ensures optimal results.
  • Open Conversations Lead to Success. Honesty garners respect and drives collaboration.
  • Never Stop Learning. Offer opportunities for skill enhancement.
  • Experience is Priceless. Respect their journey and insights; they’re a world-weary goldmine. 
Tapping into the strengths and understanding of Gen X can really add to any team's dynamism – especially when there’s so much young blood in our industry it’s important not to be trapped in a single generational mindset. Gen X is a bridge between tradition and innovation, and can bring invaluable insights from both past lessons, a hands-on and polymath attitude, and from a passion for exploring future trends. 

Whether you’re a Gen Xer yourself, work alongside one, or manage a whole team of them – appreciating their unique blend of skills and experiences can only set you up for success.

Play nice, and we’ll play nice back. Probably.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Why Content Marketing Should Embrace AI

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about how I was using AI, still pretty much in its content marketing infancy, as a collaborative tool in my daily work. It might be a good time for an update. 

I’m writing this by hand, not using any AI input, but I am using AI spellchecker because, well, that just makes sense.
I genuinely believe that artificial intelligence isn’t just a tool, but a transformative force in content marketing. It offers unparalleled personalisation, enhances creativity, optimises distribution, and fosters data-driven decision-making. While there’s ethical considerations that undoubtedly need to be addressed (should I be sharing the by-line?) and a wider conversation to be had, the gains for me have been weapons-grade.

For content marketing professionals like myself, who seek continuous innovation and efficiency as part of the process, the integration of AI has a lot of benefits. Its power to revolutionise the way we approach marketing is not just promising; it's already here. And I use it daily.

Using AI Day to Day
Just about everything I’ve written at work since last November has had some level of AI collaboration, be it ideas, data, explanations from ChatGPT, or images and visuals from MidJourney. As I said in my early thoughts and finding on AI, I am not now and never will be, any kind of an aficionado of Artificial Intelligence (AI). I’ve found a level of usage, however, that suits the way I work and has put my productivity level through the roof. If there were KoolAid, I’ve drunk it.

Here's a few reasons why:
I can’t spell for Jack: Or punctuate, really. I get by pretty well and always have, but most of that is from practice and I don’t have an English degree. I’ve worked with journalists who have nothing but my deepest admiration. I don’t naturally write in US English, for starters. On the most basic level, AI tools (like Grammarly and Wordtune) are indispensable spelling and grammar checkers that can be tuned for brand voice and stop me rambling on with run-on sentences and comma splices. They do this in-line while I’m writing, across assorted applications, with zero friction. If we get one decent solar flare, I am so screwed.

Explaining concepts: Most content markets are biblical at trivia – especially those of us in an agency who flit from topic to topic. We have to write and create fresh ideas around everything from pet food to the socio-economic impact of retail robotics. Immersing myself in a topic is one thing, but I work in cybersecurity, and sometimes, working from home as I do, I need to ask someone to “explain, like you would to a graduate student, what are the core concepts behind user and entity behavior analytics” without (once again) hassling our product marketing manager in Teams. I don’t have time to wade through pages of weak Google results. Thank you, ChatGPT4.

Fresh ideas: Being creative on demand, daily, is what I do. Some days, at the risk of using the phrase “writer's block,” it’s not a natural state to be in. Sometimes I need some inspiration. AI is one of the options I turn to when I’m staring at my screen like a goldfish in a strobe light.

Above and beyond ChatGPT, which is my default for most things, platforms like ShortlyAIJasper, and others provide creative writing environments with useful prompts and suggestions. Websites like Reedsy offer writing prompt generators that can kickstart the creative process. If we have some programming skills, and it’s actually not rocket science, we can use AI models (including OpenAI) to create customised prompts based on our specific needs and interests. 

I recently wrote a whole other post on the creative content marketing process, including the use of AI, but tools like MindMeister or Lucidchart also allow us to create mind maps and visual prompts to help brainstorm and ideate.

Talking to the audience: I’m not the Chief Information Security Officer of a billion-dollar Fortune 500, but the CISO is the main target of the bulk of the output I produce these days. What do they actually care about that will be of genuine value to them? What are their concerns? What is the CISO community talking about? Much as I love them, this is the new Yahoo Answers (alas, no longer with us) and Quora

Using AI for inspiration, I recently crafted a post on “How can Busy CISOs Avoid Occupational Burn-Out?” Sure, it’s low-hanging fruit. It was, however, “syndicated” by Cloud Security Alliance, who published it to their site, giving us a ton of retweets from their share and some juicy PageRank from linking. This has happened more than once, because the professional cybersecurity community found real value in my writing.

Making it pretty: Back in the 80s, before I ventured into the world of film production and before the advent of the Internet, I studied graphic design at college. I can turn my hand to a reasonable infographic, airbrush a burnt-out car out of a corporate image (true story), and I’m something of a Photoshop veteran, but, MidJourney is now my go-to for basic imagery. Sure, there’s beautiful original art for free at Pixabay and Upsplash, and many a time I still make use of these invaluable assets, but I have deadlines and things to get done. While always enjoyable, I don’t have the capacity to wade through thousands of images that are “almost” right for the job – not when I can cut and paste a prompt I know will give me exactly the brand look and consistent style we use, add a few new words that reflect my copy, then spend two minutes in Photoshop to round off the edges and apply (in our case) a corporate duotone. And this for $15 less month than Shutterstock and with no limits on volume.

Just this week I’ve been dabbling with PikaLabs, to give our corporate Twitter pics some movement - because it’s our job to experiment. I also use MidJourney for ideas, like showing me graphical suggestions for infographics (using specific data) that I can then exploit in Illustrator. It’s not the whole process, far from it, but it’s a part of the process.
Analytics: AI’s not just useful for producing content, it’s also a godsend for analytics and decision-making. Statistics and data analysis leave me cold, but content is born of good data. Original data insights make bankable PR, and getting those insights is now a whole lot easier. Also, trend analysis affords inspiration. I have to give Tableau some props. It's great for anyone who wants to play with data and make it come alive visually, and I’m no tech wizard. It can handle complex calculations, mix different data together, and getting started with the free trial was a breeze. Again, I then add brand and other elements to the output, but it’s damn helpful for ideas and for pulling out the unseen. Being able to dump a load of web analytics onto OpenAI and ask it who our most engaged visitors are, then create me a few personas for those visitors, all within seconds, is useful, enlightening, and inspiring.

Saving time: Rolling all the above together, how much time do I save on a full production day? I’d estimate an hour, maybe two. What do I do with that time? More work. 

I can produce two 1200-word blog posts, or a blog post and solution brief, plus my other work, between 9-5. That’s probably an extra case study and an explainer script in a week – and good value content at that. Harsh, perhaps, but with a level of productivity like that why would future employers consider a candidate who hasn’t embraced AI collaboration?

Will AI Take Our Jobs?
Obviously, I think of AI as a boost for my creativity and efficiency. It is, right? 

Well, yes and no. Unless we’re an undertaker or a hairdresser, we’ll have to embrace the possibilities of AI, or yes we’ll get left behind. Proofreaders and translators, copywriters, video producers, graphic designers, audio editors, analysts… I do elements of all these jobs in my content marketing role and all jobs in the AI firing line. But is my job in the firing line? 

No. AI isn’t creative without the right promps and actions by a human agent. Ps Beta now has AI image generation built in, and it’s now part of the creative process. Digital artists are training on this in Universities around the world, right now. The likes of outpainting and process-driven AI image creation are a massive time saver, and now a part of the creative process. Augmenting imagery with AI is now normal and part of the job, but it still needs a creative operator – well, at least for now. As you can see from the above, I’m still pretty hands on. AI is not the creative in creative content marketing, it’s a means to an end.
We can’t afford to put our heads in the sand and ignore AI, and we need to make it a part of our day-to-day or, frankly, get a new career. Isn’t it a part of our jobs to be experimenting with new tools and mediums? In the future, AI will turn one creative person into a polymath, an individual into a team, and continue to be a fantastic collaborator for outstanding creative output. Embracing AI as a collaborator, now, means we’ll be a part of that future.

Let’s not get left behind.

If you’d like to follow up with me on this post, please grab me on Twitter (though I’m shadow tweeting these days), Threads (where I’m happily get my book geek on), or LinkedIn for a chat.