Content ideas that cut through

alan. creative director Benedict Buckland outlines the 3.5 steps to creating content that performs in a crisis.

alan. creative director, Benedict Buckland, outlines the 3.5 steps to creating content that performs in a crisis.

“I don’t care what we do, it just needs to be on Zoom”. No.

Since lockdown set in, I’ve witnessed a lot of innovation, a lot of enterprise and a lot of…distraction by shiny new things. Albeit extremely ‘well intentioned’ distraction by shiny new things. Wherever I turn, I see attempts to rip up the rule book and turn every conceivable B2B content marketing activity into some UGC‐style webcast. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, “cyber coffee mornings” sound like a laugh (and could work) but too often they miss the point. The format should never be an end in itself. In fact, the format should be the last thing to be decided. What really counts is the story you’re telling and the message you’re trying to get across to your audience. 

And, before I am accused of being too preachy, we’re not totally immune here at alan. Sadly, I did spend a proportion of "week one" being pitched various improvised, live‐streamed, audio‐visual marketing mega mixes…on Zoom!

So, confessions over, how do you come up with great content creation ideas amid COVID chaos?

The 3.5 steps to content ideas that work

Since the outbreak, we’ve been advising our clients to pause, take a step back and look at things through a very particular framework. (Apologies in advance, this is where I’m going to sound more management consultant than creative director but bear with me — it really does help generate the best content ideas.)

(Re)profiling your audience

The starting point of any content creation should be the people with whom you are trying to communicate. Now, many B2B marketers will have a good understanding of their target audience but, unfortunately, a pandemic changes everything. Business decision‐makers now have a whole new set of priorities, a whole new set of pressures and a whole new set of stakeholders to manage, all at quadruple pace. The end result? You no longer know your audience.

Under normal circumstances, we conduct in‐depth qualitative interviews with our clients’ prospects and undertake online audience analysis to build personas. In a crisis, however, speed counts. Therefore, we’ve been working with our clients to re‐profile their audience in real‐time. This has involved pulling together improvised, cross‐functional working groups, made up of marketing, sales and product, from our clients’ organisations. 

For one client, we even got them to rope in their European finance director, since the target job role we were "re‐profiling" was the CFO. If you decide to run this exercise, and can grab a colleague from a relevant function, do. It’s invaluable.

Within these groups, we brainstormed everything we collectively knew about the target audience and re‐imagined them based on the impact of COVID‐19 that we’d witnessed on our own business and read about in the media. This allowed us to redefine their objectives, needs and specific pain points.

Business decision‐makers now have a whole new set of priorities, a whole new set of pressures and a whole new set of stakeholders to manage

Mapping the competition

An understanding of what will be relevant and useful is fundamental when it comes to crafting the best content ideas…but it’s not the full picture. The next step we’ve been helping clients with is figuring out what they’re up against.

To do this, we worked with them to identify the competition and conduct a quick audit of what it is they are putting out there. Sounds simple — and it is! — but the trick is to expand how you define ‘competition’. In the context of the content landscape, the competition is any brand or ‘publisher’ putting out content that vies for the same share of attention, not just those selling the same product or service. 

And, in the spirit of tips, it’s worth checking out some online tools like Buzzsumo and Pulsar to help the ‘audit’ process. Although I’m afraid that there’s no cheat for seeing what the competition is pushing out on Linkedin. Annoyingly, Linkedin can’t be crawled, so you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and click through yourself — sorry!

the competition is any brand or ‘publisher’ putting out content that vies for the same share of attention, not just those selling the same product or service

Spotting your point of view

After insisting on the discipline of maintaining an outward‐looking approach, we finally let clients turn attention back to themselves! We worked with them to identify all the areas where their expertise and experience intersected with their audience’s needs. With this list drawn up it was a case of whittling it down to those that are either not covered or covered inadequately by the competition. 

After some reluctant strikethroughs and sounds of “yeah, but…”, we got our clients to the point of understanding the areas they should be focusing on for that all‐important, relevant, differentiated and legitimate point of view.

And that, you’ll be pleased to hear, is the end of the pseudo‐consultancy speak. Now for the creative part.

Generating the content ideas

To come up with the content ideas, we simulated a live commissioning meeting for our clients, set up just as we do for all the content we publish on Raconteur and in our special reports in The Times. 

Along with our managing editor and content strategists, we got our clients to bring a team of subject matter experts to the ‘virtual’ table (Microsoft Teams rather than Zoom was the go‐to for most clients, in case you’re interested). Given the timeframes, the clients’ teams were mainly from the extended marketing community, but if you’re running a commissioning meeting yourself, cast the net wider to get as broad a range of perspectives as possible.

In preparation for the meeting, we pulled together briefing packs that gave a thematic overview of the topic and drilled down into relevant search behaviour (we use SEMrush but Ahrefs will also do the trick). The commissioning meeting itself was run by our managing editor, who is a master at teasing out new angles for stories by constantly asking “yes, but how does this move the conversation on?”. In the event that you don’t have a managing editor knocking about, designate the role to one of your team. You need someone who is good at bringing people into the conversation but who, most importantly, doesn’t take any shit.

The other exercise we found helped was to role‐play the target audience. Sounds cringe, I know, but hear me out. In getting one of the team to take on the character of the role and visualise them in the current context, we were able to filter out ideas that wouldn’t land and spark intriguing lines of enquiry. Again, a question such as “why would this get my attention right now and how’s this telling me something i need to know?” gives instant structure and focus.

After what can only be described as a series of lively sessions, our clients have now got ready‐to‐go content ideas for everyone from the COO to the CHRD and the CEO to the CIO. 

So, how many ended up on Zoom? Thankfully, none — although there were a few touch and go moments. What we were able to show is that great stories tell themselves and don’t need elaborate or novel delivery devices. More often than not, well‐crafted editorial with some carefully selected and visualised data is not only quicker, cheaper and involves less office politics to produce, it works better. 

Engaging your target audience is difficult at the best of times, and even more challenging when the world is turned upside down. However, it is those marketers that can remain calm and trust their systems that will emerge on top. By being disciplined and looking at content creation through the lenses of audience, competition and expertise, you will be giving your stories the best chance of cutting through the noise and making an impression.

Practising what we preach

It’s often the case that you lecture your clients on best practice and then let anarchy ensue in‐house. However, I am pleased to confirm that we took on‐board our own advice when it came to developing a content plan for the COVID‐19 period.

We segmented our readership on alan. into key functional verticals. Using the framework outlined in the main piece, we were then able to generate a full calendar of editorial ideas. These will form cornerstone pieces online but what we’ve also managed to do is convert this repertoire into a series of editorial toolkits by job role, which will be at the heart of our next inbound marketing campaign.

To be the first to know when this series of editorial toolkits go live, sign up to our weekly B2B marketing newsletter.

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