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: 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