CT No.59: Planning for 2021 like you know change is necessary

Corporate social responsibility was never socially responsible

Black Lives Matter. Donate to bail funds in Louisville.


Last week’s newsletter discussed a nonprofit Minnesota media company and its recent missteps around outdated conceptions of how media companies should work. This week, Transform MPR group released an open letter to Minnesota Public Radio’s/American Public Media’s audience and their employer, essentially a vote of no-confidence in their senior leadership. APMG president Jon McTaggart resigned, which is a start. Today, employees of the music side of MPR announced their intent to unionize (the newsroom is already unionized). Anyway, here’s to the employees at APMG for standing up to their leadership in solidarity.

In this week’s newsletter:

  • How to plan your Q4 and 2021 content and marketing initiatives like you GAF (and how to talk about them so you’re heard)

  • A review of interactive content builder Ex.Co

  • Links of the week


Planning for 2021 like you GAF about your audience, our digital experience, and our future

No matter where you work or what you do, if you’re here, you’re probably aware, at least a little bit: to fix systemic racism, to remedy climate change, to maintain our own sanity, to give our descendants a better future, we must fundamentally change the way we work.

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, businesses have engaged in some form of what is called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), subsidizing volunteer time or making marginally more ethical choices considering the environment. It’s likely clear to most of you that most CSR initiatives are either greenwashing or white saviorism, doing little to offset the impact on the environment, systemic racism or global inequality.

Radical changes to the way most companies operate, even those considered disruptors, are highly unlikely. BP isn’t going to stop drilling; Cargill isn’t solve world hunger by opening slightly more functional meat processing plants; UnitedHealth isn’t going to stop overcharging for and denying treatment of necessary healthcare. It’s overwhelming and disheartening and can make nihilism look really appealing.

Some days it’s more comfortable to believe in nothing, that we’re powerless. But our conversational acumen and digital awareness makes it easier for those in content marketing and communications to start the conversation.

Yes, you can try to converse with your racist relatives and make a plan to vote. But we all have the power to introduce change at our workplaces and with our clients, however gradual. There are better thought leaders than I who can speak to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which are crucial to any company’s transformation.

But what we can change are the questionable habits and assumptions from 20th century mass media audience growth and 21st century rapid scale tech adoption that keep us chasing our tails at our jobs.

At the intersection of content, media and technology, we’re in a unique position to ensure facts are correct, to maintain the complexity of nuanced stories, to prioritize long-term brand trust over short-term growth spurts, to behave responsibly with our audience’s data, and to build a more sustainable digital information economy.

If you want to build change into your 2021 planning, you should come equipped with high-quality data and conversation starters. Hopefully the following should help you start more meaningful conversations in your work, no matter where you are in your career.

1. In 2020, your audience changed. Do the research that indicates how and why they did.

We’re in the middle of a massive economic downturn and period of social change, but that can’t be the sole cause of every single decision a brand makes. “Well, people bought fewer widgets because of COVID” isn’t really a statement that holds much water in a report this year.

Instead, I encourage content and marketing analysts to look at hard data of how audiences have changed — and be aware of over-simplification when reporting on this year’s downturn. Question easy explanations and simple solutions for current business problems because they’re unlikely to hold long-term weight.

Here are some audience behaviors that changed, with some stats and suggestions to back them up.

  • Audiences of all races and political affiliations changed in their opinions on how companies should address racism. As of August 31, 2020 55% of U.S. consumers expect companies to address the root causes of racism, acknowledge that racism is a problem, and make products accessible and suitable to all communities. If you’re being told that customers do not want to hear about racism or politics, please pad your planning decks with some stats from the excellent Edelman Trust Barometer report: The Fight for Racial Justice in America. You’ll find stats for both brands and media companies that indicate a majority of Americans support major change in how our institutions address racism.

    Take what you will from this graph, but I read that all information producers should really be highlight more social scientists and experts on how to address racism to increase trust in data.

  • Audiences changed their digital behaviors: more screen time, but less patience for garbage. I’m unable to locate a good study on this, but this article reflects the conversations I’ve been having with my friends: we’re being far more intentional about how we interact with our devices and KonMari-ing our digital habits. We’re leaving Facebook for real this time, getting mute-happy on our keywords, filtering out digital garbage as we make time for real change.

    Most of us have spent far more time online this year than we have in the past, stressing about what we see, and our patience for poor user experience is thin. We have the time to research better solutions, better places to shop, more engaging conversations to have or new websites to read, if we’re going to spend time online. There’s no longer any missing out to fear.

    Unless it’s a big news day — like every Tuesday when I watch a local journalist live-tweet the Minneapolis Charter Commission meeting — the doomscroll is not worth the depression. Fluff content is for the Netflix or Twitch hours; if I have to stare at your shitty website and slow-loading ads, I want to be gaining some kind of new understanding of what I’m seeing.

    And I’m willing to bet that you’re seeing it as well. Check your metrics: How many people have unsubscribed from your marketing newsletters or social accounts this year? Can you see evidence that people are muting or blocking your content? Has time on page gone down on the clickbait articles you wrote “for SEO”? (If you’re seeing the opposite, then give a shout. I’m super curious.)

  • Both privacy rules and expectations have rapidly accelerated change. With increased scrutiny of digital privacy in news media and the adoption of CCPA earlier this year, consumer expectations of privacy have shifted. Based on a Datagrail survey (which may be skewed cos they’re a pro-privacy brand but the methodology looks good), 68% of consumers expect to be able to opt-out of a company selling their data to a third party.

    We’ve spent more time online this year, so we’re increasingly more literate about how our data is used and sold. Consumers place the onus on brands for managing privacy, even when vendors make privacy practices opaque, so agencies and vendors need to lead the conversation with their clients.

2. Truth and transparency is better than “authenticity.”

“Authentic” content in the 2010s was just the same old advertising written with an air of chattiness, a bit of slang, the filtering out of any looks or phrases that were potentially ugly or off-brand. Authentic content is also cheap because for many, authentic means that you don’t need to really check facts. (I’m a blogger; I know how this works.)

With rampant misinformation across the internet and a general distrust in science, we need to ditch “authenticity” in favor of truthful, transparent and vulnerable. We’ve all learned too much this year about who and when we can trust when even the CDC is shifting its recommendations about the virus that has killed 200,000 people and has never really declined in the U.S. Many of us were shocked — or our worst suspicions were confirmed — with NPR’s recent report on how the oil industry deceived the public for decades on how much plastic was actually recycled.

For those of us who grew up with Joe Camel and are on the second or third recession of our careers, it’s natural to be suspicious of corporate and media storytelling. Many of us monitor the ingredients we eat, and in the information age, it’s not uncommon for audiences to monitor their media diets.

Audiences want to hear when you don’t know the answer, or why your answer may not be the whole story. Lay your cards and questions on the table, and you’ll create better conversations and deeper connections.

Even Google is concerned with truth signals, which are represented by links to other authoritative sources. Link out to truth, even if it means “driving traffic away.” Your audience — and Google — will be more likely to consider your content trustworthy. With Google under the antitrust and misinformation microscope, I’m sure they’re working on even better ways to determine truth signals with their algorithm.

I can tell you from experience that you’re not going to lose much traffic or any customers by including more links. (Disturbingly few people check those sources once they see that the links are there. Audiences are smart but not always thorough. Still, it only takes one whistleblower or SME to out a disingenuous claim.)

3. For your sanity, and your audience’s, shift to opt-in thinking.

Opt-in is a hard shift for all the TV-raised, spray-and-pray-minded marketers out there, but I think about it this way: in content, we’re in the business of educating and changing minds.

So when you’re planning, ask your clients and internal marketing teams:

  • Do you like using the web right now? Do you like how it works?

  • Do you like receiving email you didn’t sign up for?

  • Do you like when your phone browser crashes because it’s loaded too much stuff?

  • Do you like when autocorrect sends a message you didn’t intend to write?

  • If you’ve told someone no, do you like it when they ask you again and again for a yes?

Sometimes the answer to these questions are: “No, but it works.” Hell, I’ve answered those questions with “No, but it works.” But I think about my daily digital frustrations: how could I have built a world that’s like getting smacked in the face with a coupon mailer every time I want to find a piece of information? How can I change this?

Sometimes I think about the marketing benchmarks I’ve worked with in the past: is under 1% really a good engagement or conversion rate? Yes, in comparison to other dated tactics, 1% might be brilliant. But also, that means you have a 99% opt-out rate. That means 99% of people have told you no. That’s not good.

To invest in opt-in marketing, we need to shift our focus to better interactions with a smaller scale, only using data that we own in secure databases, and being more transparent about finding our audience’s trust. How much money do we spend grasping at larger scale when we could be making better connections with the audiences we already have?

Hinging an entire marketing strategy on a bought email list, a tv ad or a display campaign just because it reaches a large amount of people — that’s broadcast thinking. And we’re in the process of shifting to a conversation ecosystem. (Conversation isn’t a comments section, btw. It’s telling a better story, listening to the response, and following up.)

Sometimes we call it “brand safety;” I like to think that we can shift to the age of consent. I’d recommend shifting away from $30k six-month minimum ad spends and shifting toward tactics like the following:

  • Secure, owned, subscription-driven data that’s used to surface preferences but not block content (some notes on ethical personalization)

  • Understanding how users interact with your email — and knowing that if you’re getting an open rate under 25%, maybe you’re due for a content and audience reckoning (some notes on better emails)

  • Divest from annoyance or “attention economy” thinking. Intentionally audit every web experience your brand owns — either on your website or where your ads run — for potentially bothering genuine customers. (We need to chill with the pop-ups, notifications, and ad units. I can’t do this for another 40 years. I’m about to Ted Kaczynski every time I look at a news website and I love the web. I imagine your target audience is not too different.)

  • Focusing on more direct ad buys with publishers whose information you trust — and auditing the experience to ensure they’re not sharing your audience’s information to sites whose facts you don’t trust. Content-based keyword blocking can hurt good publishers, so knowing that the sites where your ads run publish quality information is key.

  • Invest in content that attracts audiences without deceiving them. Make tools they need and facts they can use.

4. Plan for content like we live now, not for how we used to live.

Many of you have likely scaled back on just about everything in the past year. You’ve reevaluated priorities and gotten rid of the unnecessary. Keep it up.

Instead, devote time and resources to getting it right. Instead of saying “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” start asking: are we setting high enough expectations for good?

I’m not advocating perfectionism; I’m in favor of a more considerate process that values conversation and multiple voices. Your definition of “good” should reflect a diverse audience and user base, a healthy, human audience experience, and a sustainable creative experience. (Some more thoughts on good web content here.)

Some conversation starters for in-house teams, vendors and clients that can shift the dialogue to advocate for your audience:

  • What is the most important impression/perception our audiences should take from our brand in 2021? How can we honestly deliver that to them while making their lives easier?

  • Where are the opportunities to make our content more accessible to wider audiences?

  • Are the techniques we’re using potentially driving away good customers?

  • Imagine our audience’s attention isn’t divided: how are they perceiving our content and our brand?

  • Are we giving ourselves enough time to make this content trustworthy and reliable?

  • Have we considered what this content might appear to our future audiences? Does this stand the test of time? (And if not, is it worth the effort right now?)

  • Do we have the resources to contribute more transparently to public conversations around trusting science and fact?

  • Do we publish regularly successful content? Or only the occasional hit? How can we ensure our content is more regularly successful without running ourselves ragged?

  • Do we need all the data we’re gathering from our audience? And who has access to that data? What are we not using and how can we excise it?

  • When we choose our KPIs or success metrics for next year, what metrics are we ignoring and why?

  • Are we paying our creators enough to enable them to create their best work, i.e., researched, trustworthy and factual content?

  • What are we sacrificing when we prioritize scale? Are we trying to game a system for quick growth when we could influence equity and perception more naturally? Are we protecting our audience’s best interests?

  • Are we putting too much trust in platforms, technology and algorithms to surface and distribute our content? How can we do a better job of building a system to directly engage with our audience without over-advertising?

  • If we showed our content plan to a mother working from home full-time with two elementary school-aged children who are distance learning, would she start weeping from frustration?

Remember that we are all in this together. Every company has good people and we are all doing our best. We can hold each other accountable with more conversation, more questions about assumptions, and a general deference and respect for people who may slow things down. We’re all very aware that we can’t continue like this.

Not every conversation will go well. Many vendors, stakeholders, and clients will be uncomfortable with feedback and conversation, insisting that we continue exactly as before, unable to imagine a different future or a different model. But diving into quality data (Edelman! Pew! calculating your own data!) will help back up your case.

Build in even more time for the slowdown. Trust your gut. Don’t subject your audience to anything you wouldn’t want your mother or your child to use. Pivot to high quality.


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Exceedingly engaging embeds for engineer-deprived teams: ExCo review

Without a devoted interactive developer and deep content resources, it’s difficult to make a website that’s much more than a brochure with a few links. And even when you have an interactive developer, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be jazzed about your super basic quiz requests every month.

In the past few years, a host of interactive content tools have flooded the market, with assorted capabilities and varying levels of sophistication. I’ve written about Ceros (high sophistication) and Typeform (low sophistication) before. Ex.Co, backed by Disney and used by Warner Brothers among others, is somewhere in the middle, with the ability to design, execute and test complex interactive content in a WYSIWYG interface.

Ex.Co at a glance

You should know: even though it’s cloud-based, Ex.Co has no auto-save function. Like desktop software, you have to hit a button to save your work. This would be a dealbreaker for me with most content creation tools (it’s 2020, and I would like auto-save with version control in my content SaaS please), but Ex.Co’s capabilities are robust enough to overcome its lack of auto-save.

With a variety of templates for quizzes, chats, social graphics, videos and more, Ex.Co provides an extremely intuitive interface for drag-and-drop style content. In the trial content Each Ex.Co subscription comes with:

  • access to a library of Getty Images and videos (the sexiest stock photo vendor)

  • A/B content testing

  • analytics integrations with common vendors

  • polling, video, quiz, and lead generation tools that can be compounded to make a single piece of content with multiple elements

  • unlimited seats and unlimited number of interactive widgets published, so you can write quizzes til you drop under 30k pageviews

Content from Ex.Co is HTML5, so it’s embeddable and crawlable from search engines. It integrates with many common CRMs and segmentation vendors, so you can integrate the data you’re collecting with your other and use for some high-quality opt-in content personalization.*

The final product appears highly templated, so you’re not going to get wild with digital creativity here — but it’s functional, responsive and measurable.

Ex.Co isn’t priced for individual users, and it’s telling that most of its blue chip clients are legacy entertainment industry, but I’d recommend it for agencies and publishers that plan to produce multiple interactive items on a weekly basis.

*I’m not a huge fan of many of the ad tech vendors that Ex.Co integrates with, but as long as you keep your data in-house, secure, and relevant to your customer’s interests, I’m totally ok with this kind limited-use content personalization.

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