winter / 2016

The magazine of branded content
How To Create
Content That Cuts
Through The Noise
Feature
Juliet Stott
01/04/17
The Content Council’s John Caldwell Award Winner On How To Create Content That Cuts Through The Noise
Juliet Stott
Jan 4, 2017

Gary Johnson, President of MSP Communications, has been involved in the content creation business since 1973. In that time Johnson has overseen the development of more than 225 print titles and digital projects. He has produced magazines, websites and digital content across every platform and channel for international and national brands, associations, single events and organizations including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Delta Airlines, 3M, United Healthcare, IBM, McKesson Corporation, Thrivent Financial, Macys, and many others.

In 2016, Johnson was twice recognized for his significant contributions to the content field, receiving the Milton W. Jones Lifetime Achievement award from the City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) in May and the John Caldwell Award from The Content Council at the Pearl Awards in November.

In addition to his duties as President of MSP Communications, Johnson also teaches "Content Strategy & Brand Journalism," a Masters course in Strategic Communications at the University of Minnesota journalism school. Here Johnson talks to Content Magazine about the year ahead and how marketers can use content to cut through the noise.

A recent study has indicated that content consumption has flattened, yet content creation is continuing to grow. What does this mean for the future of content marketing?
Trouble! It doesn’t necessarily mean we create less content, but it does mean we create far more interesting and creative content, resonant content and contextualized content. I think it’s that simple. We simply have to do IT better. Experienced content creators who understand the challenge of content shock, which has been increasing exponentially over the last five years, are going to find effective ways to reach their audiences. It’s the companies who produce content without strategies or journalism-based methods, that are really going to struggle.

What does interesting, creative, resonant and contextualized content look like?
The best way to reach people is to understand them. It works in everyday life, it works in content creation and it’s one of the prime tenets of journalism: know your reader. It’s imperative to understand who your audience is, determine their need, knowledge and mood states and then craft a creative content campaign that helps them get to where they want to go. That said, the content team also needs to produce highly creative, surprising, innovative, personal types of content customized to whatever channels are being utilized. I believe that, of all the content creation disciplines, magazine publishers are best suited to create the kind of content we’re talking about here. They have, for decades, been effectively engaging and maintaining readers who are willing to pay—imagine that?!—for the content they’re producing, through subscriptions and single copy sales. The lesson that the content industry can take from magazine publishers is, perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. That is, you CAN win hearts and minds and engender trust through content, which is conceived first and foremost with the user in mind.

It has been reported that 87% of millennials have a smartphone, which they check multiple times a day, and Generation Z are mobile first. With this in mind, what kind of content do we need to create for the mobile generations and should it differ from the desktop experience?
Although people are people and will always respond to content that delivers, heart, soul, humor, surprise, high utility and resonant stories, delivery systems are having a profound impact on the nature of content. Content is in the midst of an incredible evolution, or devolution, particularly at the hands of mobile. Statistically we know that people tend to be more attracted to games, search and destination-style, utility content on mobile. They also use mobile devices for chat, social media and email, and less so for what we think of as real content. If they do access content, they’re accessing news/information rather than features or stories. Marketers are using data and geolocation technologies, combined with user behaviour to deliver highly relevant content. Contextual content is engaging users far more effectively. Video has exploded as a primary go-to source for mobile users. It provides brands with an opportunity to reach video-friendly millennials, and an even greater opportunity to reach Generation Z. However, the essential nature of content may be dramatically affected by the current and future mandates of mobile users.

Are augmented, virtual and mixed reality the future of content?
The Gartner hype cycle is a fascinating way to look at the continuum of digital marketing tools, channels and platforms. Like the transient bright and shiny objects that have come and gone, today’s innovations will either find a place in the space, or they won’t. It’s difficult to know, particularly with AR and VR, whether the attraction will find roots or if something more technologically sophisticated will disrupt and replace. VR and AR are in fairly primitive states right now. The big thrill is wearing silly looking goggles and riding roller coasters. As content creators, the bottom line is that the fundamental content lessons that have existed for decades still rule the day. We know the type of content that appeals most to people, whether it’s delivered through a pair of goggles or in a novel, a TV documentary, a song lyric, poem or a great ad. Neuroscience tells us, humans still respond most profoundly to the simple things; magic, humour, deep thoughts, personal resonance and high utility.

You cite Deluxe’s Small Business Revolution as an example of a brand taking a pioneering approach to content. Why is it so clever? What benefit has Deluxe seen/experienced as a result of its content?
It was an ingenious distribution and amplification campaign that ultimately took a very soft approach—of building an audience first, at the top of the funnel, and then moving them towards some of the wonderful small business products and services they offer. Amanda Brinkman, the CMO at Deluxe, told me that they wanted to play to the sensibilities and the need states of small business owners, so they set out to tell the personal stories of small businesses and their owners. In the first series, where the Deluxe brand name was barely mentioned, thousands of people shared the documentary stories organically on social media. I know the metrics on it have been outstanding. Amanda is now traveling all over the US to selected cities who, in some cases received grants from Deluxe, to help revitalize their communities. This was an incredible campaign that captured the very essence, the essential power of what content can do to engage people.

Is it realistic for brands to still think they can reach their audience organically?
Rarely was there ever a time when if you built it, they came. There was a time when organic could win the day. Not anymore. I don’t think there’s a content marketing program out there that wouldn’t benefit from a significant paid media campaign. Paid media really allows you to get your message to the right audience, and much larger one. One thing data has done, it has provided incredibly targeted ways to reach very specific audiences, but obviously, an investment is required to fully optimize the opportunities.

Top editors like to look at data to guide their content decisions, but not be dictated by it. Do you agree?
It’s the old Jerusalem/Athens dichotomy - science and reason versus intuition and creativity. There was a time when a good editor mostly relied on their gut instinct. And the great editors, like John Mack Carter, Helen Gurley Brown were geniuses that way, just as some of the great marketers were like David Ogilvy. They created content framed around their understanding of the reader, their interpretation of need states, their belief in the types of content they thought the reader wanted and needed. Fast forward a few decades and the introduction of data a decade ago seemed to show some promise for providing validation to gut instinct and creative decision making. But it’s only been in the past few years that data has matured enough and content creators’ skill sets have evolved sufficiently for data and content creation to be a more collaborative process. Data has become a key tool, even for the best content creators. Our editors use data and metrics to guide and determine the types of content we create for our clients. That said, without an expert, instinct-driven editor, data will not deliver the goods.