BC Tip: IBM – A smart campaign page?

IBM has a sprawling web estate with many blogs dotted around it – and a page which tries to bring order to the disorder

IBM’s ‘Let’s put smart to work’ page

IBM’s ‘Let’s put smart to work’ page

The Feature

IBM created a portal page as part of its 2018 ‘Let’s put smart to work’ brand campaign to help direct users to relevant material around its large digital estate.

The portal has several videos, presumably created as part of the campaign, as well as links to upcoming events.

An ‘Industries’ area on the page collates links to case studies and blogs in other parts of IBM.com, such as its Internet of Things Blog.

What appears to be a navigation bar at the top of the page takes users to dedicated IBM sites for products or services, such as Watson.

The Takeaway

The creation of a page to support a campaign by making use of existing materials is, in many cases, a sensible idea, especially if the campaign itself directs users there.

IBM’s page certainly gives users a good idea of the wide range of engaging stories it has produced, which demonstrate how the company’s services can help its customers in many different industries.

But the problem with this particular page is that it has no obvious home in the IBM estate – indeed we stumbled across it rather than finding it through IBM’s navigation.

It is still being updated, as the advertisement for an upcoming event shows, and the information it showcases is still relevant, but we suspect that few users will be finding the page now, some months after the campaign’s launch.

None of the links we found on the page - including the ‘navigation bar’ - indicated where the user was being taken, even though IBM.com is effectively a vast federation of microsites and blogs with at best loose connections to each other. So users who follow the links will likely end up disorientated in one part or another of the estate.

For more commentaries, tips and downloads for online corporate communications professionals, visit our website.

If you have a query or for more information about Bowen Craggs, please contact Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com.

BC tip: BP - Making existing material go further

BP selects some of its best images from 2017 for an effective New Year photo feature  

BP 2017 picture show

The Feature

BP has an online magazine which is one of the main sections of its website.

At the end of 2017, BP selected nine images which it had previously published in the magazine during the year to create a new article ‘Picture show: the faces and places of BP in 2017’.

The images are varied, ranging from an employee working in a laboratory to schoolchildren at an event to a landscape of an offshore platform. Each one is titled, credited to a photographer and has a short caption.

The feature was posted in the Observations sub-section and heavily promoted around the site, including on the global home page, and on the company’s Twitter feed.

The Takeaway

Individually the images are impressive, but taken together their impact is increased. The user is drawn to scroll down the page to see all the photos, partly by the strength of the images, but also by the bold titles such as ‘Line of sight’ or ‘The colour purple’.

The images seem to have been chosen and captioned carefully to convey the wide range of projects and locations that the company operates in, to convey key messages, and to provide a retrospective on the year.

For example, the top image ‘Hanging out’ is of an employee high up on rigging, installing equipment on a platform. Not only is the image stunning, with the operator in the foreground far above a ship in the background, but the fact he is wearing safety gear – and that the caption underlines this – is designed to communicate BP’s approach to safety.

A link to a magazine article from April 2017 on the company’s North Sea business, where the platform in question is located, is an effective way of drawing the visitor in to related information.

Crediting the images is a nice touch too – not just to recognise the photographers, but it also helps add to the magazine-feel of the piece. One criticism is that the original articles in which the photos were published are not linked: this would add context and interest.

Overall this is a powerful way of telling the company’s story and engaging the website’s visitors, simply by reusing valuable material the company already has. A useful pointer for companies that could be helpful not just at New Year, but at any time in the editorial calendar.


BC tip: Washington Post – Memorable design features

Design elements from an online special feature could be adapted for corporate stories.

BC tip - WaPo.png

The Feature

‘Tampa Bay’s coming storm’ is a special feature on the Washington Post’s website, published in July, about the disaster that could unfold if a strong hurricane hit the Florida city.

It is full of creative animations, illustrations, embedded videos and professional photography; with interesting arrangements of the elements to increase impact – for example, as readers scroll down the page, a pull quote from a government official appears alone against the backdrop of an animation of a hurricane.

The Takeaway

The Washington Post feature represents the best of online journalism at the moment – great writing combined with unique and eye-catching visuals, all of which make the most of the web as a medium. You continue to scroll because the writing is compelling and the design elements keep surprising.

Companies with the appropriate budgets should consider adapting the ideas in the ‘coming storm’ feature to engage with readers and make their own online stories more memorable.


Facebook beyond the feed

The social media giant’s web estate is fragmented and often frustrating to navigate. However, there are pockets of brilliance and originality; and signs that the company’s approach to online corporate communications is maturing, Jason Sumner says.

In the last few days, we’ve been doing our annual check of Facebook’s web estate to help keep our Index of Online Excellence up to date. Since we last looked in detail at the firm’s online presence in 2015, the all-conquering social media platform has become one of the world’s 10 biggest companies by market capitalisation and now has 1.8bn monthly users. 

We think it’s unlikely that Facebook will break into our top 30 ranking though. It has too many weaknesses, the most obvious of which is fragmentation, something that it has in common with a lot of US technology firms’ online estates. Journeys to information for anyone who is not a signed-in ‘user’ are often difficult, with an array of dedicated Facebook pages and microsites that have different navigation systems and do not always link up neatly.

But Facebook has online communications strengths in a few important areas that make it worth watching: 
•    It is highly effective at providing online information for its customers (advertisers and potential advertisers), an issue that is front of mind for digital managers we speak to. 
•    Careers pages are at global best practice standards.
•    Visually speaking, much of the estate looks elegant and parts are outstanding. 

We also saw signs that the company thinks ‘corporate’ online audiences such as investors and CSR professionals are worth trying to serve better too. 

Facebook.com/business is the gateway page to resources for advertisers. The material here is clear, straightforward and well-targeted to the audience. The calls to action anticipate some ignorance about the basics of Facebook’s business model and address it – ‘How Facebook adverts work’ – or, for those already in the know, ‘Create Advert’, which leads to a step-by-step process to set up an online campaign. There is abundant and useful supporting content, including clear, succinct video tutorials, FAQs, case studies, pricing information, metrics, etc.

How-to video in the business section

How-to video in the business section

Careers information on Facebook.com was strong when we looked in 2015 and it is strong now. On digital careers metrics alone, we rate Facebook among the best online estates in the world, and well worth emulating. Jobseekers receive a top service, with the global vacancy mechanism and careers information provision at global best practice levels. The online application form is excellent - elegant, streamlined and appropriately targeted at digital natives. The ‘Careers hub’ provides a very effective pitch to prospective jobseekers, positioning the workplace as a lively environment in which staff are encouraged to pursue their ideas and make a real difference.

Careers landing page

Careers landing page

Facebook has made some improvements in the way it communicates with traditional corporate stakeholders such as investors and CSR professionals. In 2015, we noted that their investor landing page stood out for its boring conventionality (even if their recent quarterly information was very well organized). Since then they have launched a modern-looking microsite for investors that is much more in tune with the company’s visual style. Although it falls short of best practice (we could not find a quarterly results archive, for example), the microsite is a step forward.

Investors landing page

Investors landing page

In 2015, we could not find any CSR data. In our most recent visits, the Sustainability microsite had a long scrolling page of creative data visualisations, housed under ‘Our Footprint’, covering carbon emissions at data centres, the energy mix between renewables and fossil fuels (including its goal to be using 50 per cent renewables by 2018), and water usage. The site provides a PDF download of all the data and a useful list of links to external resources about Facebook’s environmental performance. The page has links to interesting real-time dashboards tracking ‘power usage effectiveness’ and ‘water usage effectiveness’ at Facebook’s four data centres.

Sustainability landing page

Sustainability landing page

Real-time energy and water usage dashboard

Real-time energy and water usage dashboard

The Sustainability microsite is a good example of the site’s often striking visuals. It uses (currently-trendy) looping video on the landing page, original photography, clean fonts and colours to tell make the company’s case that it is a force for good in the world. 

‘Facebook Stories’ are another example of professional visuals combined with high-quality editorial. Housed on a microsite, they are a set of well-produced videos that cover what ordinary people have accomplished by setting up Facebook groups. Many of the videos have CSR and community-based themes, including 'Homeless in Seattle' about an architect who has a page 'Facing Homelessness' and 'Save the Monarchs', a group in Iowa dedicated to butterfly conservation. The production values are high, and may well be outside many firms’ digital corporate communications budgets, but the way the videos are summarised on the page, and the way the videos are subtle about connecting Facebook to the groups doing the work, could be a model for other corporate 'story' videos.

Facebook Stories microsite

Facebook Stories microsite

Overall, we were struck by the imbalance between how frustrating it can be to find specific information on the estate, and then being impressed by the abundance and detail when we got to the right places. It is a good thing for Facebook, given how frustrating our journeys were, that the estate tested very well for visibility on search engines. Users starting from the home page could struggle, for example, to find the links for journalists, investors or sustainability, but putting these terms into Google returned the exact destination at the top of the results every time. 

- Jason Sumner

BC tip: The Pool - Calling time

Does stating how long it will take to read online articles make for more ‘engaged’ readers?

The Feature

The Pool, an online magazine aimed at women that was launched last year, puts labels on all of its stories and videos saying how long they will take to consume.

Subject feeds, under ‘News & Views’ and ‘Fashion’ for example, promote articles with a headline, summary and a circle saying ‘1 min’, ‘2 min’ etc. The articles themselves have these circular signposts as part of their headings, sometimes appearing right under the title. The drop-down panels in the primary navigation also use the device for featured stories.

The Takeaway

We can see the appeal of signposting reading or viewing times for online stories, where attention is scarce and infinite scrolling automatically invites the question – ‘when will I get to the bottom?’ The scroll bar used on most sites does the same thing but less explicitly. As a reader, there is a comfort in knowing ahead of time how long it might take to get through a piece.

Time stamps could be appealing in a corporate context (and we have seen at least one corporate online magazine using them). However, clicking around the Pool even briefly, all of the signposts can start to make the site appear unduly preoccupied with time, although this may play into the brand’s attraction for a ‘busy’ audience.

The precise timings, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 23 minutes, etc, invites the cynic to ask who is the presumably ‘average’ reader on which the measurements are based; maybe better to be more vague – ‘short’, ‘long’, or time ranges. Used sparingly and in the right context, it can’t be a bad thing to let people know a rough idea of the time investment before they click.


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



BC tip: IBM - A bad place for good stories

The tech giant wastes high-quality editorial by burying it in the online annual report.

The Site

IBM’s 2015 online annual report features ‘150 stories of IBM today’ in six categories – cognitive solutions, cloud platforms, ecosystems, clients, research and people.

The primary navigation makes reference to the nuts and bolts of annual reporting – financial highlights, stockholder information, etc – but the stories take centre stage.

Visitors can scroll to ‘explore all’ stories or browse by category. The stories we looked at are visually and editorially impressive, employing the latest online publishing techniques and multimedia to engage readers; and they look good on mobile or desktop screens.

The Takeaway

IBM’s stories are impressive, but it is a waste to publish them in the online annual report.

People only usually look at annual reports once, whereas this material should be given the widest possible audience, and the big traffic is likely to be on the main website. There tends to a be a viewing surge for annual reports when they come out, then a steep drop in interest, largely because they are usually promoted for a few weeks then forgotten about.

Annual reports are also ‘frozen’ (by law for the audited material, but that means everything else is frozen too) - so the opportunity to constantly provide new stories and build an audience is lost.

It is a symptom of the ‘annual report first’ mentality that still dogs companies. Our view is that you should put material that is compulsory in the annual report - mainly statutory audited material (this is exactly what IBM does in the PDF version of the report). Everything else should go on the main site, boosted where possible by social media.


How to make your words sing

Nielsen Norman wrote up an interesting test this week to show that ‘tone of voice’ on websites made a difference to how companies were perceived. Not surprising, but it’s nice to get proof that what should be true is true. It started me thinking about tone of voice on corporate sites – something we monitor constantly in our work, but rarely attempt to analyse.

When it comes to navigation, we always insist that corporate sites are different – if you apply the same rules to them as you would to a brand, or a news, or a social media site, you will run into trouble (evidence in plenty from so many modern sites).

With tone of voice, the opposite is true. That is not say that it should be the same across all types of sites, but the same basic rules apply. I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as ‘web writing’ – or at least no more than there is ‘book writing’, ‘news writing’ or ‘legal document writing’. Each needs a form of expression that is appropriate to the medium, but anyone who knows how to produce good written English (or any other language) will be able produce words that work in their context.

Words please, or perhaps copy, or editorial – but not ‘content’, that killer label that drains the magic out of an art. ‘That Shakespeare, he did great content’. Yeah, right.

That said, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind when you are writing for a corporate site (or editing words produced by others).

  • You need a basic understanding of how to please search engines. Not difficult to learn, but it can take skill to ensure that what you are writing are both ‘good SEO words’ and ‘good words’.
  • Many of your readers will not be native speakers. The chances are your main site is in English (perhaps in parallel with your local language), but you can be sure that a good proportion of your readers will not be anglophone.

But even this last point is not really a differentiator from other forms of writing – it’s just a matter of being aware of your audience, as any good writer will be. Journalists know to keep language simpler when they are writing for popular papers than when they are writing for more serious publications. Same if they are writing for people who do not share their native language. Only a very few novelists have the luxury of using the words that they want without thinking about their readers.

So any good writer of English should be able to produce words that are engaging, clear, suitable for the medium and the audience, and transmit the messages you want in the correct tone of voice.

Easy, so why do so many websites fail to do all or any of those things? Because there is an acute shortage of ‘good writers of English’ employed to do the job.

Using someone simply because their first language is English is not good enough. Most English speakers do not write well. I was talking to the manager of a continental multinational and pointed out that some of the English on his site, while not grammatically wrong, was inelegant and sounded unnatural to my (anglophone) ears. ‘But our agency uses a British guy to do that,’ he said. He clearly was not a British guy with a good feel for his language – you need an experienced journalist, editor or copywriter. And even then be careful: I used to edit features on a London daily and some of the words handed in by professional journalists were poor indeed.

The good news of course is that there is ample supply of good writers who are short of work – put out of work by the internet. Hire them now – they’re lovely and cheap.

David Bowen





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

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'.


BC tip - Jigsaw: Audio case studies

A Google-owned think tank makes innovative use of radio-quality audio clips for its case studies.


The Site

Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) is a think tank and technology incubator within Google’s holding company Alphabet. Its mission is to invent technology that will address global problems such as violent extremism, online censorship and digital attacks.

The think tank’s website uses radio-quality audio clips coupled with rolling transcripts to illustrate its services. For example, in ‘Uncovering corruption in Cairo’, investigative reporter Hisham Allam tells a 2m story about how he uses the Jigsaw database and records-access service, Investigative Dashboard. Visitors can either listen, or turn the sound off and read the story.

The website home page plays excerpts of its case studies in a loop, inviting visitors to click for more on the story, or the Jigsaw service it is helping to highlight.

The Takeaway

Jigsaw’s audio case studies take a simple, but innovative approach to content creation. It is an unusual choice not to use video for this kind of material, but the quality of the recordings and power of the language lend immediacy to the testimony. 

The clips are relatively short, and signposted via a vertical bar. The audio also acts as a hook – viewers can decide to turn it off and read the transcript.


Noises off – the making of corporate content

‘Mitt’ is a documentary on Netflix that takes viewers behind the scenes of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful attempts to win the US presidency in 2008 and 2012. Romney, whose stiff and patrician demeanour was one of the reasons voters never warmed to him, is filmed doing things you never normally get to see during the years-long slog of an American presidential campaign: in prayer with his family (he always tried to publicly downplay his Mormon roots); swaggering backstage about a good debate performance; and flagellating himself after a bad one. We even witness the moment on election night when he knows he’s lost and has to put on a brave face for his family and staff.

It’s compelling, as well told ‘fly on the wall’ style stories always are. It turns out Mitt is not so stiff after all – surprise, he is a human being. His reputation rose after the documentary was released.

Going ‘behind the scenes’ can be just as compelling in a corporate context, as more (brave?) digital managers appear to recognize. The slick veneer of corporate-speak is ripe for puncturing, and readers (eg, jobseekers) will thank you for it; but share too much reality or the wrong kind and your company’s reputation (and your career) might never recover. There is a reason Romney was happy to let the cameras roll, but (likely) only agreed to release the film long after he thought his political career was over.

The best corporate ‘behind the scenes’ features we’ve seen subvert the low expectations of corporate content – that it will be dull, ‘on-message’, false – and provide a more true-to-life view, while stopping short of letting Michael Moore follow the CEO around with a film camera.

French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, for example, has a number of ‘in situ’ videos on its corporate website, inviting visitors to ‘take a glimpse at the daily lives of our employees’ - grape harvesting, a press team meeting, a morning briefing in a department store cosmetics department.   

Highly professional and unique (the absence of narration is one striking feature) they give candidates a good feel for the exciting parts of the job (filming a promotion) and the mundane (addressing envelopes for posting).

Blackstone, the US private equity and investment banking firm, has a link to ‘Mondays at Blackstone’, on its home page. The video is more conventional than the in situ features at LVMH. There is narration in text form and an abundance of talking heads, but the concept is based on a behind the scenes look at the company’s Monday morning meetings, where bankers come together to set the agenda and challenge each other about deals and investments.

The meeting could be seen as inspiring (or frightening) depending on your point of view, but as a candidate, you can watch and decide whether you can see yourself sitting around the giant boardroom table in New York on a Monday.

It is effective, but the idea could have been pushed further – jobseekers might have benefitted from letting more of the meeting footage play out. This is the interesting bit, the bankers talking to camera less so.

Maersk, the Danish logistics giant, gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of a disaster-preparedness training seminar for employees. Like at Blackstone, talking heads dominate, but the film – using documentary editing techniques – shows some tense moments and the kind of arguments that happen under crisis pressure (and employees when they are less guarded).

Not all ‘behind the scenes’ content is video. My colleague Mali Perdeaux recently wrote here about a blog on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, which gives a backstage perspective on life running a museum.

‘Making of’ features are a variation on the theme. Private investors get the VIP treatment from Air Liquide on its website, with a highlights video from a photo shoot for ‘Portraits of shareholders’.

Total, the French oil company, set up a microsite to describe how its global advertising campaign was conceived, designed and launched.

So far I have not seen many of these done badly. Maybe that is because they are unique enough to have fairly big budgets (meaning the best people will work on them), and close scrutiny – no matter how ‘real’ a film seems, there has been meticulous editing to make it seem that way. As they become more widespread, perhaps standards will slip (and that is when the reputational risk will rise).

Most companies are a lot more interesting than their corporate websites let on. The less time people have to spend reading between the lines, the more they might warm to you. Just ask Mitt.

- 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

Don’t mention the brand?

It is brave to do ‘content marketing’ without ever mentioning the brand. Brave, because ‘content’ without any ‘marketing’ is usually for the chop when budgets are decided. GE appears to have pulled it off with its popular sponsored serial podcasts –fictional stories no less – and it is worth asking whether corporate digital comms could learn anything from the GE’s success. Could they (or should they) try to do something similar?

GE’s special circumstances are probably not widely shared – namely, an obviously big budget and senior managers with open minds. Still, corporate websites should be an ideal platform for compelling, brand-free stories. The context around the story is everything – if there are cues, links and contact details to satisfy the marketing folk, the story itself can stay pure. 

Maybe fiction is taking it too far, but if the content is interesting, and reasonably on topic (eg, a fictional story about battling cancer on a pharmaceutical website), and it attracts eyeballs (or ears in the case of podcasts), why not? 

Some might view this kind of corporate sponsorship of creative works as vaguely sinister – I view it a little like medieval patronage, the prince might be evil but the sculpture (can be) beautiful…

- Jason Sumner

A new channel for corporate stories

I’ve spent some time this week playing with the new Apple News mobile and tablet app, which arrived in the UK (via an operating system update) at the end of October.

It’s a news aggregation service like Google News and Flipboard – allowing users to create a personalised feed of articles from a wide range of newspapers, magazines and blogs.

Like Google News, it can be a bit overwhelming at first. But it’s certainly prettier than Google’s offering, as well as good old RSS feeds, and is easy to personalise.

Importantly, publishers and readers alike will also be pleased with the fact that each publication’s fonts and layouts are preserved via the Apple News app, rather than merely poured into a crude ‘feed’ template.

I mention this app because it got me thinking about the fashion for corporate ‘stories’ –using journalistic and other ‘traditional’ narrative techniques to convey an organisation’s messages in more engaging ways.

If traditional publishers are increasingly using third-party services to widen the reach of their output, shouldn’t corporate web managers be thinking more about this route too?

Some companies have already been experimenting with this. The former head of Coca-Cola’s corporate site worked hard to get his team’s material syndicated by the likes of The Huffington Post.

Unilever has a media partnership with UK newspaper The Guardian to spread the word about its sustainability agenda.

Professional services firm EY has a “content marketing” tie-up with Forbes’ site.

But many companies’ efforts to produce more engaging online editorial material remains confined to their own channels.

For sure, there is a good reason for using your corporate website as the hub of your company’s editorial output: it’s the one channel over which your company has complete control.

But third-party news outlets may have a powerful future role to play – alongside a company's own Twitter feed and other channels – in ensuring that more people find your company's stories in the first place. Something to muse over, perhaps, if and when you get the chance to play with Apple’s latest app.

- Jason Sumner