Thinking about building an online following

‘Thought leadership’ is remarkably resilient for a concept that has such a bad reputation. Like the fashion for ‘stories’, thought leadership is too often exactly the opposite of what the name implies.

Apart from not always being terribly well thought out, a lot of supposed thought leadership – rather than lead anywhere new – simply follows the latest trends, herd-like, over a cliff of irrelevancy; ‘big data’, ‘digital transformation’ and ‘emerging markets’, yes, we are looking at you.

Another problem is that the label is inherently smug. This was neatly summed up by marketing expert Allister Frost, who said, at our annual conference last month: ‘Who put you in charge of thoughts?’

Why, then, are we still talking about it?

One of the biggest reasons is because, when done right, it can be incredibly effective as a marketing and communication tool. From a marketing perspective, there is the white paper that starts a conversation that leads to a multi-million dollar contract. For corporate communicators, a steady stream of well-focused and high-quality editorial can be an important part of ‘selling’ the group to its stakeholders and boosting it reputation with customers.

It has been many years since ‘thought leadership’ was a cutting edge buzz phrase, but corporate digital teams are still being asked how best to position their organization’s thinking on websites and social medial channels. We have picked out a few examples of best practice across the corporate web that we think are worth emulating.

Don’t call it thought leadership

Thought leadership can be effective, but as I’ve mentioned, the name is outdated, smug, dull and usually misleading. That is why, even if it is handy shorthand internally for what your organization is trying to do, it should not be used as a label on the website.

Goldman Sachs, for example, prefers ‘Our thinking’ as a primary menu label on its corporate website (Bowen Craggs also uses this as a signpost to our thoughts about the corporate web). KPMG, the big-four accountancy firm, goes for ‘Insights’; as does its competitor EY.

Linklaters, the UK-based multinational law firm, uses ‘Insights’ as a primary menu item, but ‘thought leadership’ crops up in the secondary menu, along with the categories of ‘publications’ and ‘seminars’. This brings up another labelling no-no – referring to categories of content rather than themes. ‘Publications’ and ‘seminars’ make the website sound like a filing cabinet rather than a destination to learn something new.

Insurance company Axa’s new website does a good job of naming the themes and headlines for its thinking from the perspective of target audiences’ likely interests – such as ‘future of insurance’ and ‘a new way to work’. Axa does not always get it right – ‘environmental challenges’ and ‘protecting people’ are on the vague side – but the intent is clear (and it’s all far better than ‘seminars’ or ‘publications’).

Exploit the home page

KPMG’s global home page is effective at showing off the company’s thinking on current business issues, offering multiple points of entry for existing and potential customers to browse the Big Four auditing firm’s views on Brexit and renewable energy, as well as promoting its in-house research, a CEO survey.

Be creative with design and try different formats

Axa, as well as choosing good headlines to draw people in, uses a modern design – large, clear fonts, original imagery, and clever use of pull quotes and captions to draw people into in. In its ‘Spotlight’ section, thought leadership often blends seamlessly with storytelling, as in the case of ‘Axa Lab Asia: commerce goes mobile in China’. 

Goldman Sachs’ corporate website is carefully designed and curated to position it as a font of knowledge and expertise about socioeconomic and financial trends.

Its ‘Exchanges’ podcasts are housed on its corporate website in the ‘Our Thinking’ section. The series started in 2014, and is updated two or three times a month.

Each episode features Goldman Sachs experts analysing global financial, social and technology trend. They are regularly updated with an interesting mix of editorially engaging topics; draw people in with sharp headlines; employ an easy-to-use menu on the site; and allow people to subscribe on iTunes.

Goldman Sachs is taking advantage of the rising popularity of podcasts in the wider digital world, and adapting the form well for its own online needs.

Consider a blog

EMC, the US technology company about to be merged with Dell, uses blogs written by senior leaders and topic specialists to help build up a meaningful portrait of what the group cares about, and what it knows about.

Becoming a ‘destination’ with an editorial approach

An organization’s experts may not always have the time or editorial skills to finish a piece that is web-ready, or to come up with the right ideas in the first place. It takes a dedicated editorial team to source a steady stream of fresh content that highlights relevant themes; and to shape contributed draft copy into punchy prose.

The mix can include human-interest features from around the business, and issue-based pieces on topics of direct relevance to customers’ business problems.

At our conference, brewing giant SABMiller highlighted the importance of having an editorial board with deep networks in the business, in order to encourage everyone to contribute. You may already be lucky enough to have someone blogging somewhere in the far corners of the organization, and their efforts can be brought into a larger ‘content’ strategy for thought leadership material.

A central editorial team can also help to avoid some of the hallmarks of bad thought leadership – thin arguments, dull headlines or a failure to see how multimedia elements such as video, infographics or interactive features could bring the content to life.  

Following some of the above examples – good labelling, strong signposts, creative design, a clear editorial voice and focus – can help to turn the corporate site into a ‘destination’ on important industry themes, and a nonstop idea factory that creates and maintains sales leads; and boosts your reputation among important stakeholders such as journalists and jobseekers. 

- Jason Sumner


BC tip - AXA: Spotlight on editorial quality

A French insurance group’s online stories make excellent use of different editorial techniques to engage readers.

The Site

‘Spotlight’ is Axa’s online magazine, linked via the primary navigation on the French insurance group’s corporate website. Described as ‘a journal of ideas, experiences, and the people that make them’, Spotlight covers themes especially relevant to its customers, employees and jobseekers – protecting the environment, customer stories, the future of insurance and the future of work.

Within each section, image panels with teasers promote individual stories, with the invitation to ‘Read more’ or Discover more’, linking through to the full-page articles.

The Takeaway

Insurance companies are usually trying to dispel the idea that they are boring and old-fashioned. Axa’s Spotlight storytelling section helps counter this image by making excellent use of editorial techniques, including documentary photography, pulled quotes, embedded videos, data visualisations and subheadings that break up the text.

This makes the company's stories easy and enjoyable to read on screen. The responsive section provides an equally good experience on desktop or mobile. It also helps that AXA frames its stories within categories that are inherently interesting and relevant to its stakeholders, such as 'Future of Insurance' and 'A New Way to Work'.

https://www.axa.com/en/spotlight


IR in France: who's top?

We held an event in Paris this week, at which we revealed the best among France’s biggest companies for online investor relations (our global ranking was covered by IR Magazine earlier this month).

The top French performers provide some useful lessons for IR and web teams around the world.

Joint-top: Sanofi and Total

Both of these companies excel in serving two IR audience groups: analysts researching the company (as opposed to those who already follow the firm); and individual shareholders.

Look, for example, at the clear, plentiful overview information about the business and its performance on Sanofi.com; and at the powerful data analysis tools in the accompanying 'Financial Reporting Center’.

Look, too, at the warm welcome that Sanofi extends to private investors, and the wealth of information in the dedicated Individual Shareholders section.

Over at Total, highlights include clearly presented historical data tables for institutional investors, and a crisply laid out individual investors’ Publications page, stocked with useful material for visitors looking for both quick overviews and deep detail.

Indeed, our French IR ranking highlights the fact that France leads the world when it comes to serving individual shareholders online. If you’re interested in how this can be done well, the dedicated retail investor sections from Air Liquide and L’Oreal are well worth looking at too.

Third: AXA

This insurance giant shines at serving a third audience group: analysts who know the company (and therefore want historical performance data, quarterly results materials, webcasts and the like).

Highpoints of this site include a polished quarterly results index with a wide range of resources, including Excel financials, transcripts and podcasts; plus an exceptionally elegant and well-executed webcast service.

Joint-fourth: Air Liquide and L’Oréal

Standout features here include...

·      An engaging ‘Why Invest in Air Liquide?’ section – a particularly sensible provision for firms that do business in areas that might not be self-explanatory (like ‘liquid air’).

·      Intelligent and effective use of video on L’Oréal’s Shareholders Corner landing page, in which private investors say ‘what they like about their relationship with L’Oréal’.

Conducting the research for this ranking uncovered some other interesting trends among French firms’ online estates.

For example, unconventional navigation systems are unusually common on French corporate websites. In some cases even the primary menus break with convention. Four of France’s biggest 20 companies have no visible primary menu at all, opting instead for a mobile-style hamburger menu even in the site's desktop ‘mode’. This undermines usability by ‘hiding’ a crucial navigation tool.

Tablet/mobile investor apps also remain more prevalent on French corporate sites. Four of the top five French companies in our IR ranking continue to offer an investor app for phones and tablets (L’Oréal, Air Liquide, Sanofi and Total), bucking the global trend away from corporate app development due to disappointing uptake among investors and others.

HTML annual reports also remain more common in French IR sections than elsewhere. Five of our Top 10 companies offer an HTML version of the annual report (Orange, Vivendi, Air Liquide, L’Oréal and BNP Paribas), even as many companies have been moving to abandon such services, to save money.

This may be a yet further sign of a very French devotion to relationship building with private shareholders. Though Bowen Craggs’ research – and that of the Financial Reporting Lab at the UK’s Financial Reporting Council – indicates that private investors actually prefer a simple, hyperlinked PDF to a whizzy HTML report. So when you’re trawling through French IR sections looking to cherry-pick ideas, it’s probably worth thinking twice before adopting all the fancy features you’ll find there.

Sue Harding, director of the Financial Reporting Lab at the Financial Reporting Council, kindly joined us in Paris for a panel discussion about what investors and analysts really want from companies’ online IR communications. Her team’s report on current use of digital media in corporate reporting is interesting and useful. Download it for free here.

Here’s our French online IR ranking in full:

Scott Payton


 

 

 

Lessons in content strategy, from your fund manager

Instead of asking a fund manager about the Chinese economy, stock market tremors or emerging market risk, maybe you should be asking for advice on your online content strategy.

This article from the FT (may be behind a paywall) shows that some of the top fund management firms have embraced digital communications and social media, and the way they have done it holds lessons for any company establishing (or refining) its online content strategy:

Have a clear reason for doing social media in the first place. Woodford Investment Management, which launched in 2014, went on social media as part of a ‘conscious decision not to pay for advertising’. Other more established fund management firms started to see an opportunity cost in not talking to customers on channels that they were using already. The ‘market insight’-type material that most fund managers have long produced in print and online, are a natural fit to broadcast via Twitter, for example.

Don’t treat every channel in the same way. We think ‘social media’ should not be thought of as one entity, but as individual channels with different audiences. So, apparently, does James Cardew, global head of marketing at Schroders:

‘It is important to engage with clients and customers on the platform they use, rather than attempting to dragoon them all into one channel, Mr Cardew says… “We started out thinking we would use LinkedIn for business, Twitter for journalists and Facebook for graduate recruitment,” he says. In the event, Twitter was the most popular platform for engagement, so that is where Schroders has focused its efforts.’

‘Communications’ can be good marketing. We have been saying that the lines between marketing and communications in organizations are blurring, and that corporate communications can be seen as ‘group-level marketing’ – with customers as one set of stakeholders for company messages and information. Here is Woodford IM’s head of corporate comms: ‘We wanted to use social media to educate and inform, but also to communicate and engage. You can’t get the message across in an ad.’ I take this to mean that fund management clients are not the type to respond well to inauthenticity – they want useful information, about a company they might do business with, about subjects they are have an interest in, etc. Increasingly not unlike the rest of us, I would argue.

Apart from the FT article, a quick trawl of some fund managers’ websites shows that the sector’s reputation for being Luddites may be undeserved. Amundi’s Research Center makes good use of Twitter to promote its thinking. AXA Investment Management has prominent signposts to its social media channels. Many fund managers have YouTube videos of their experts embedded on their websites. And the industry has taken up blogging in a big way to stay in touch with customers – a point raised in the article as well. See for example Fidelity UK and Blackrock.

- Jason Sumner