Ask fifteen content strategists about any topic of the day—say, the upside of simian space travel—and what will that yield? Fifteen opinions, audited and mapped out on a spreadsheet with possible outcomes. And an infographic.
Or, as John McCrory sees it, fifteen content strategists can yield remarkable results over the course of a year for a handful of clients. Fifteen is the number of strategists McCrory oversees at Huge, the ever-growing digital marketing agency whose marquee win in 2006 with JetBlue—a website redesign decreased customer-call-center costs for the client by 45%—put the Brooklyn-based interactive agency on the map, and greased the wheels for an acquisition by Interpublic shortly after.
We spoke to John and asked him about the story arc according to Huge, the challenge of the click-through, and learning curves for clients.
What’s your day to day like? How many projects are you working on?
John McCrory: A bit of everything for me. I'm executive director of a team of content strategists, probably about fifteen of us. I'll work with maybe three to five different clients at any given time. I might be helping present some of our work to clients, sometimes I roll up my sleeves and get into the spreadsheets—it's always good when you’re a content strategist to spend some of your hours during the week in the spreadsheets.
How do you respond to people when they ask how close what you do is to advertising?
Well, the truth is, no one ever asks me that. What I think people do ask is whether, as a content strategist, I do editorial, am I a writer. And the truth is, that’s part of it but at least at Huge we develop the content strategy that relies on four skill sets. Editorial is one of them, information or library science is another—the kind of thing that led to information architecture and user experience design over the last 12 years—and then there’s technology, particularly publishing technology, digital asset management and CMSs and things like that, and then marketing. That’s the business we are in.
At Huge, where does content meet marketing?
Our perspective on this is that what’s happening in digital is that we are sort of returning to the way marketing had been for a long, long time. If you look at advertising as it is commonly understood—30-second spot, the billboard, reducing the brand to something so tiny like that, where you’re just really making an impression and building awareness—that approach is a kind of an aberration in the history of marketing, something that's lived for 50 years. And now brands are finding that there are many more important channels that they have to be marketing in. It's not that any of that is going away, but we know that customers are looking for information and news in lots of other channels besides television. So, we have to be in those other channels, and by their nature, those channels need content, and so it’s really impossible to market without content in this day and age.
So the customer journey is the most important aspect of any content marketing campaign?
Yes, it plays a key role in determining what content to make, but I think the important word here is relevance. We have to be relevant to what the customer wants and needs, and that is going to change as they go through that customer journey. At Huge, we think of it as a story arc that begins when they are in the consideration phase: they’re shopping around and they are learning about what sorts of things can help them do whatever it is they want to do, and the brand has to position itself as capable of enabling the customers what to do, whatever it is they want to do. So, that’s the beginning and that leads to this climax of the story where the customers is like, “Ok, sign me up,” or they make a purchase, they decide to purchase or whatever it is. But it doesn’t end there. It continues on to the transactional part, where there might be a set-up of a complicated service or product. There’s ongoing loyalty. Maybe, there’s other things that the brand can offer, to augment what the customer has bought the first time, ways of extending the relationship, and so then it continues into more of a cycle and repeats itself. So, each one of the phases of the story, the content we need is different, the tone of voice that we’re going to use for the brand is going to change slightly to meet the customer where they need to be met. So, it’s definitely true that the customer journey is the tool we use to understand what should we make and what should we share with prospects to customers.
You talked about things you can do for a brand that can help to extend that relationship at the very end to continue the cycle. What are some specific things you do at Huge?
Pretty common is loyalty programs—that’s another element of marketing that has a long history going back to airlines and frequent flier miles. There are all these loyalty systems that have been created for businesses of various kinds just to maintain that close relationship with their customers, but what often happens is that the customers earn a lot of points, or miles, and then that becomes a liability on the business. It is something they owe to their customers and so it is in their interest to try and drive down some of that liability, in terms of raw dollars, and to get customers to use the points they’ve accrued. This is a big challenge for all kinds of brands that get into the loyalty game. That’s where you have to create digital experiences that help the customers use their points. It’s looking at what the customer cares about, what we’ve learned about them, and personalizing an experience that shows them the ways they can use their points in ways they actually want to. Showing them some random set of products, for example, here is what you can get with your points. It’s figuring out what content is relevant to which type of customer, both at the segment level and the personalization level.
How do you advise a client who’s debating allocating resources in-house or going with an agency?
Many clients have that question of where they should invest their resources, what kinds of roles and responsibilities do they need that they don’t have now? We feel there are five signs of success at content, among them, having the best creative/editorial talent. Each of the signs of success involves a core competency; we work with clients to identify the core competencies they possess already, and which are missing. Then, we work together to determine if they want to grow those competencies in-house or not, how quickly they need to bring in new talents. For many businesses that are not media companies, an outside agency is an essential partner for launching a new brand publishing or content marketing initiative. They often have the subject matter experts who know the products, but lack the creative talent to bring their brand promise to life in digital.
Another part of it is knowing how much they need to spend, and I think we need to help our clients understand how to benchmark what they should spend relative to their competitors. If they want to win in digital marketing they need to know what their competitors are spending on digital, both in terms of what they’re spending on paid media buying, but also what they’re spending on content development. Because, if you want to play in this game, you have got to pony up the right amount. You can have a great strategy, great creative ideas, but if you don't have the adequate resources, your stuff is never going to make it.
Owned, earned, paid—in what order?
Owned, earned and paid are becoming integrated now from a strategic perspective, but the organizations, the people working on the marketing content for those different channels, can be isolated from one another, and that’s the real challenge to getting them to work together. Overall, probably businesses are spending too much of their time and attention and funds on paid and not enough on owned and earned, because it’s easier to do paid media. I think a lot of the earned media, a lot of PR communication departments, are still learning to operate in the digital world, and they need to orient themselves from pumping out press releases and doing press events for trade press and learn how to go direct to consumer and feed earned media that way. And that’s a different ball game.
When was the last time you were surprised by a client?
That’s a hard one. It’s more how data are interpreted by clients or companies. We had one company which had an e-mail program to existing customers getting a 5% click-through rate, and everybody at the company thought “Oh, that’s the sign that this is working.” And we thought that’s basically like saying spam is good enough or the click-through rates that we associate with cheesy banner ads is good enough. We have to set the bar higher than that, especially because this is customer relationship management. E-mail customers are customers who have bought your product, and they respect your brand. They’re in your fold, and if you’re wasting their time through e-mail, then you’re not getting the bang from your buck. In cases like this, e-mails are often very expensive to produce. It can take three months and a quarter of a million dollars for a large brand to do this kind of stuff when they haven’t streamlined their process. Doing all that to get a spam click-through rate, that’s kind of crazy, don’t you think?
What are some things that we can do to increase click-through rates?
I think one thing that's missing usually is the personalization part of really following what customers are doing. A lot of personalization engines out there are very generic, and are not necessarily designed for the specific needs of a lot of businesses. There’s also a kind of a disconnect in a way personalization is built in. A lot of companies they have a group, a technology group, very smart people, and they are set up as a service to the rest of the company, and they respond to sort of the ad-hoc requests they get for personalization features and no one is thinking sort of at a strategic level of how do we want to enable personalization across the brand. Rather than different promoters within the company who are looking for “I just need something that can give me the segment from our customer base.”
Everyone’s talking about snackable and shareable content. What terms do clients actually understand?
I think clients totally understand this concept, this snackable and shareable. They see what is going on out there in social, they see that they need to create things that are more than just long-form, so they understand the goal. What they really find challenging is how to make that stuff and what to make, and which channels to plan for. So, what we try to do is take a step back and think about what content to make, and not thinking about how it's going to be a Facebook campaign, but create content somewhat agnostic of where it’s going to be used. And then we have the raw material that we can convert into an end content product that is useable in multiple channels and to think more in terms of content building blocks. That’s the first challenge I see.
How do you reply to a client who says, “How little content can I buy moving forward?”
You know, it is funny. Usually, it is one or the other with clients. Either they know exactly the content they want to do—and it is often more than they need—so we have to go back to what does the user want and need, what has a business purpose, and how do those intersect? So, it helps to dial back to, in some cases, “Why bother to create this content?” They really need guidance about what and how much. And, invariably, it’s ten times more than what they’re imagining they need. What we really end up doing is creating some kind of phased road map. So we'll get the client to a place where they say, “Ok, we know that too little is not enough, but we can’t just change our whole organization over to be an enormous Time Magazine publishing division type thing that’s pumping out all kinds of stuff all the time.” We have to create a way to get there.
Is digital marketing mostly gut or data?
They have to work together and the way we think of it here is if you think of the gut side of things, it’s the story we create, and the data side is sort of how we measure the results. You know, we say that story and data need each other. Data without story is mythology, and story without data is propaganda.
And what I mean by that is: I can share a lot of data with you that is supposed to be persuasive, but who knows what exactly it means. It tells me some facts that are supposed to support some view of how things really are in the world. I don’t really understand them and so it becomes mythology. Ultimately, it’s not trustworthy, like the stories of the gods and goddesses and the stories about why the universe is the way it is. All of that is like data without story, and the reverse is when you have a story that is emotionally connecting and persuasive and makes immediate sense to someone but it’s not supported by data. Then we’re persuading people without proof and that’s propaganda. And at some point the data is going to come up and everything we’ve been telling you how things are, you’re going to realize, oh, actually, that is not true. You know, you see that in all kinds of PR and marketing, but I don't want to get into calling anyone names...