Tearful toast to storytelling success

On Monday, something sad will happen in the world that Bowen Craggs spends its time closely watching.

One of the very best corporate websites, SABMiller.com, will be switched off. 

Why? Because the takeover of SABMiller by fellow brewing giant AB InBev will be completed. SABMiller’s 120-year history as an independent company will end. 

But the web team at SABMiller is dropping the final curtain in style. They've used their global site’s most distinctive feature – editorially and visually rich "stories" – to publish a poignant final piece reflecting on “the legacy SABMiller leaves the beer industry”. 

The headline and wistful image for the article dominated the home page for the final week of the site’s existence...

SABMiller's home page during its last week as an independent company

SABMiller's home page during its last week as an independent company

The approach, far more powerful than a bog-standard press release, has garnered positive coverage in the business press – and been warmly received by employees too, judging by the tweets from some of them. 

It also offers an important parting lesson to web managers at other companies on how the heavily hyped but often badly executed idea of corporate "storytelling" can be used to bring an organization’s past achievements and future plans to life. 

SABMiller is currently ranked third in the Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence ‘Message’ metric, and 14th overall among the world’s 200 largest companies.

When it relaunches online on Monday evening as a newly-merged entity, AB InBev's website has a tough act to follow. 

SABMiller published more than 160 'stories' on its global website. This is its last. 

SABMiller published more than 160 'stories' on its global website. This is its last. 

- By Scott Payton



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

Defying the 'whisperers' and leaps of faith: Five lessons from the Bowen Craggs Web Effectiveness Conference

It’s been two weeks since our 10th annual conference in Copenhagen, and we’ll be publishing a summary next month (email Dan Drury to request a copy: ddrury@bowencraggs.com). In the meantime, I’ve come up with a list of five lessons I took away from the event.

1. Corporate ‘stories’ can entertain as well as inform, but they need to put the audience first

Our keynote speaker, Allister Frost, former head of digital marketing marketing strategy at Microsoft, had unkind things to say about corporate attempts at ‘storytelling’. So-called stories, he said, often ‘just get in the way’ of website visitors finding what they need to solve a problem.

Still, Allister also said that corporate online content, whether marketing or communications, needs to aim to do one of two things – inform or entertain. So just because there is so much bad storytelling out there does not mean companies should give up, but try to get better. One way, Allister said, is to be more audience focused. The ‘story’ is not about what is interesting to your company’s head of marketing, but what will interest the intended reader or viewer.

I would add two things: it is also about strong editorial governance and quality – good headlines, clear writing, etc – something we talk a lot about at Bowen Craggs. And also signposting and placement – stories in a section for investment analysts are likely to go largely unread; but creative, relevant material for private investors or jobseekers, for example, is more likely to find an audience.

2. Greenpeace is looking for a good story too

Greenpeace, although sometimes in direct confrontation with the companies at our conference, faces some of the same challenges that corporates do in getting audiences interested in online messages. Michael Hedelain of Greenpeace shared his organization’s approach. ‘People are at the centre of our stories,’ he said, an idea inspired by Winning the story wars, a 2012 book by Jonah Sachs, which casts the audience as ‘heroes’ in a broken world that needs fixing.

Practically speaking, Greenpeace focuses on four things to tell a good story: suspense and jeopardy; personal motivation; audience interaction through social media; and duration – activities that go on for weeks and months to allow a story to build momentum.

3. Measurement requires a leap of faith

Approaches to website measurement are maturing and companies are trying to move beyond ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ as a way to evaluate online communications.

‘Clicks are proxies for success but they do not tell us if we got a sale,’ Allister said. ‘Did seeing an article make our employees more or less enthusiastic about their work or not? Did downloading a white paper inspire an investor to buy or sell?’ Data can only ever be a clue, ‘ROI’ from marketing and communications will always be elusive.

SABMiller considers measuring the impact of stories to some extent a ‘leap of faith’ – by knowing the company a little better, audiences will think well of them.

The Financial Times’s Tom Betts proved that all measurement is specific, presenting the publisher’s own algorithm for measuring ‘engagement’ – ‘recency’, ‘frequency’ and ‘volume’. There was not an exact correlation with corporate editorial, which is not subscription-based, but companies could consider coming up with their own combinations of individual data points as a metric for engagement.

4. Give website ‘whisperers’ the tools to work with you

Zurich Insurance has a way of working with so-called whisperers – external web agencies that convince managers to break with global governance guidelines. Give them a publicly accessible, downloadable toolkit to build on-brand pages with their own code, which has ‘brand guidance baked in’ and ‘allows agencies to post elements into the system without Zurich’s involvement’.

5. Third parties add credibility but what happens when they criticise you?

Simon Thresh of SABMiller showed a video from an investor seminar with outside analysts praising its performance, including a professor from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University talking about the success of the company’s CSR efforts. The video was much more credible as a result.

Accepting third-party praise is the easy part though. What about organizations and websites that criticise you? The corporate site is just one of multiple information sources, and probably less trusted. An important question for corporate communicators in the future will be how much to engage with sites that are seen to be more objective, such as Glassdoor, and in what ways.

- Jason Sumner

Tales of the too expected

Once upon a time there was business trend called "storytelling".

Corporate web managers quickly made friends with it, using journalistic and film-making techniques to try to make their case studies and other online material more engaging.

Some were successful. Look at SABMiller’s punchily written and elegantly illustrated beer “stories” for one example. Or visit the new Shell global site’s absorbing Our Major Projects section for another.

But soon too many people jumped on the "storytelling" bandwagon, and it began to creak.

Some corporate web editors labelled things "stories" when they were in fact merely press releases.

And corporate "storytelling" became a not altogether wholesome industry in its own right, with "experts" of various kinds trying to crowbar the concept into areas where it does not really fit. This recent article, for instance, rejoices in the headline "Stop Conflict At Work Now With The Power of Story".

Not everyone will live happily ever after.

The end.

- Scott Payton