AB Thinks  →  19th June 2018

The future of content

The full transcript from Katie Macaulay’s speech at AB Thinks Live in central London on 12 June 2018.

The physicist Neils Bohr once said: “Prediction is very difficult – especially about the future.”

While precise predictions are tricky, I think it is possible to analyse current trends, extrapolate from them and make an educated guess about what will be shaping the future of content.

One trend is blindingly obvious – in the future there will be no shortage of content. By 2020, nearly £2bn euros will be spent on content marketing annually across Europe. This spend has almost tripled in six years.

Put another way, around £500,000 will get spent on content marketing everyday of that year.

The world is awash with content.

We all know how this deluge of content feels… news outlets, consumer brands and social media platforms are battling to get us to pay attention – to stop our thumbs from scrolling.

This is potentially bad news for us as internal communicators. Why? Because we are competing against a wall of noise.

After all, employees do not owe us their attention. We have to earn the attention of the workforces we serve. And earning that attention will get harder.

Not only are our messages in danger of being lost in a sea of content, but employees will have an increasingly ambiguous relationship with the organisations they serve.

Let’s look at our audience of tomorrow.

Traditional models of employment will become obsolete. For many of us, work is already becoming a thing we do; not a place we go. For others it is becoming more transient and flexible. Numbers working in the gig economy are set to increase. For many there will be a greater convergence of work and home life.

As practitioners, we will be increasingly communicating with people on devices and at times of their choosing, not ours.

That said, there is clear evidence those entering the workplace today want meaning in their work and to be part of an organisation with a clear sense of purpose. Research suggests if we fail to articulate why our organisations exist – beyond the obvious reason of making money – our employees will vote with their feet and our organisations will lose the war for talent.

That’s where we come in. As internal communicators, we are ideally placed to ask the difficult, probing, philosophical of those around us. We are ideally placed to ask Simon Sinek’s why question: “Why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?”And then to create a clear, compelling narrative that provides real meaning and context.

I will admit, we do not have the resources or budgets of our friends in other communication disciples. In this regard we remain the poor relation.

But when you don’t have any money, instead you have to be clever.

We do have a secret weapon up our sleeves. All those content creators with the big dollar budgets who kill for the information and insight we have about our audiences. Imagine what Google, Amazon, Facebook or the Murdock empire would do with the information we have at our fingertips. Not just our audiences’ sex, age, location, length of service, salary, job, title and when they last got a promotion… but, for free (I’ll repeat that, for free) we can ask them anything!

Businesses worldwide spend billions every year on market research – trying to climb inside the minds of their customers and clients. We just need to pick up the phone, walk down the corridor or arrange a site visit.

What’s more – research creates a virtuous circle. Our experience suggests simply asking people what they think and feel – especially in qualitative research – is rewarding and motivational for people, if you genuinely listen and acknowledge what you have heard.

So I predict internal communicators will find ever more sophisticated ways of analysing their audiences – building personas, mapping influence and being smarter with segmentation.

Why is this important? In my experience, the most powerful IC channels are the ones that have the most intimate knowledge of their audience. The more tightly defined the audience, the more powerful the connection.

The result of this better use of data and audience segmentation will be the ability foster tribes within our organisations – people at all levels bonded by common interests and common goals. Seth Godin says: “A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

If we are able to create tribes, our success can then be measured not simply by clicks, downloads and likes, but by how many people actively choose to subscribe to and follow our content.

Once we have tribes of loyal followers, we will have moved into a new era of internal communication. To build on a concept from Seth Godin, we will have shifted from interruption IC – that unsolicited email you send at the end of a working week – to permission IC – content that is anticipated, relevant and personal.

I predict (of course) the line between internal and external will become increasingly blurred. There is a clear demand for businesses to become more transparent. The walls of our organisations are becoming more porous. We all know what happens inside is reflected outside.

Clever organisations are using this to their advantage; using genuine employee storytelling to market their products and services directly to consumers.

Game Plan A from Adidas, for example, turns employees into a marketing function. This works because consumers know it is hard to fake employee passion and ingenuity.

We, as IC professionals, are best placed to help turn our employees into brand advocates. We know our organisation’s culture, its influencers, unspoken values and the obstacles to success.

We must nurture this position and use it to become hunter and gathers of knowledge and insight.

But, we must be careful not to become stranded at Clapham Junction. There are 17 platforms at Clapham Junction with 110 trains departing every hour. Increasingly, we see IC teams presiding over an ever-growing number of platforms and channels – or fearing they are missing the next big thing coming down the tracks.

At AB, we believe in a simple editorial philosophy fewer, bigger, better.

  • Fewer – just the most relevant, appropriate channels to reach the right people.
  • Bigger – impactful content that is re-purposed across different platforms internally and externally
  • Better – intelligent use of measurement to help you optimise that content and make better editorial decisions.

I also predict there will be a flight to quality. Because we have hungry 24-7 channels, it is easy to slip into seeing content as a commodity – an off-the-shelf product you can simply package up and post. But our audiences increasingly deride this approach as inauthentic or even disrespectful. Take a look at #BadStockPhotosOfMyJob on Twitter.

Our job will continue to be about the very opposite. Our job is to shine a light on the real, often unsung heroes in our organisations. We celebrate the people and personalities that make our organisations special. We reveal hidden work environments. We showcase the men and women quietly championing good causes inside our organisations. And our images don’t merely adorn the story, they help tell it.

I’ve just mentioned the word ‘story’ several times – and that’s with good reason.

One of my colleagues, Simon Ward, once said “No one ever read their child bedtime content”. He’s right. Stories linger in our memory. They spark an emotion. Stories are how we make sense of our world and our work.

Your organisation is ripe for storytelling – I bet it has heroes, villains, obstacles and hurdles to overcome and the promise of something better on the far horizon.

I predict those journalistic skills – having a nose for a good story, being able interview people, interrogate facts and create brilliant, beautiful prose will regain their importance.

My final message is a personal one. I predict internal communicators are set to become more powerful inside your organisations.

You will have opportunities to influence, guide and develop your organisations in ways IC teams of 10 and 20 years ago could only have imagined.

So… don’t fly too low.

You probably know the story of Icarus from Greek mythology. Icarus disregards the advice of his father and flies too close to the sun, melting wings made of wax. He plunges into the sea and drowns. It is a fable told to encourage us not to be too ambitious or adventurous. However, there is another piece of advice Icarus’s father gave him that has been lost in the midst of time.

His father also said: “Don’t fly too low.”

Getting too close to the water might feel safe, but it will make your feathers wet. They will get heavy and become impossible to flap. This too will lead you to drown.

This was also a fable warning us against meekness and timidity. 

It may feel safe to fly low, but it is just as dangerous.

Everything I have seen over nearly 30 years in IC has taught me that brave, bolder editorial decisions lead to more credible compelling content.

Be bold, brave and purposeful in your choices and actions – your organisations will thank you for it.

And I’d like to thank you for listening.