We sat down with renowned storyteller and content marketing expert Jonathan Crossfield to discuss his career and the importance of creativity.
Mahlab Jonathan, you’ve had a pretty eclectic career so far – tell us about it.
Jonathan Crossfield I studied media and comms because I wanted to work in TV – that didn’t happen so I got into night club DJing and did that for 10 years. I worked as a factory hand, an office manager… It’s been a very varied path! Sometimes, you find ways to bring it back to the things you’re most interested in; what you know, and for me, that was first and foremost people and creativity – making things, presenting, engaging with people and being creative with ideas.
M How did you get into marketing?
JC I didn’t go through the traditional marketing route. I got into it by accident. I applied for a copywriting position at a company in Sydney and I was the only person who applied for that job that didn’t have grammatical mistakes on their application.
That was 2007, when social media was just beginning to become mainstream for business. Facebook was still fresh and Twitter had just taken off, so it was a good time to start.
I found very, very quickly that copywriting was a very small part of what I was doing, but writing and using words – communicating and telling stories – was integral to everything. Marketing was just one of the gigs that obviously has a use for for that skill set. As a result I think I’m always trying to force marketing to be what I want it to be, rather than allow marketing to force me to be what marketing usually becomes. That’s one of the reasons why my business card says “Storyteller”. I don’t know what other single tag to put on there! I try to take a more holistic approach across everything – I’m not solely a social media guy, an SEO guy or that copywriter guy – because my experience and background is so varied.
M As marketers come to their senses and recognise that content marketing is so much more than just analytics – ROIs, KPIs, CTRs, SEO and a plethora of other related acronyms – what role do you think storytelling has to play?
JC The way that I always picture it is that storytelling is the linking theme tying together all of those things. You may have your email strategy, your customer service, a sales team, your website and social media, SEO, and all your other various channels, but all of that means nothing unless you have a consistent story across all channels.
So many brands seem to think that the story starts and ends with them, but most of the time it really doesn’t. The brand and its products are only one page or one chapter within a story that the customer is trying to act out. The mobile phone, for example, isn’t the goal. The goal is what the customer wants to do with the phone – communicate, connect and share stories with others. Whatever the end goal, the brand and their products are just one step towards achieving it. That’s good storytelling: understanding what that end goal is. Knowing that then allows marketers to build a story that’s relevant.
M You’ve said in the past that the tag ‘content marketing’ can be a frustrating one. Why do you think so many are so quick to brand the practice of content marketing as something new, something ‘buzzworthy’?
JC Because they haven’t done their research?!
No, the phrase ‘content marketing’ is relatively new – that was coined only a few years ago in Cleveland to describe an attempt to push marketing back to where it should be: away from all the digital analytics and tricks and back to content being king. In the last 10 to 15 years or so, the marketing industry has gone down a bit of a cul de sac. Digital marketing became about spreadsheets, numbers and analytics. People suddenly became 0s and 1s rather than individuals with different goals and ideas.
So, I think if anything is ‘new’ it’s that marketers are finally coming round to the idea that they can’t simply throw a load of keywords into a pretty ordinary web page and sit back, count conversions and treat the whole process like a mathematical equation. It’s the realisation that there needs to be that sizzle, that story, that ability to engage with an individual – not an abstract audience, but an individual. That was exactly how marketing operated for hundreds of years before, but we had lost that sense of individual customers with the rise of passive mass media and large corporations towards the end of the last century.
M You have a knack for turning a dry topic into something thoroughly entertaining and engaging. What do you say to marketers who sacrifice creativity and quality storytelling for the sake of consistently spiky analytics graphs?
JC At a conference last year, there was a question put to a speaker on the stage: “A recent survey shows that marketers’ creativity has an impact on marketing outcomes”. I was utterly dumbfounded! This is not a mathematical problem. Of course, creativity is important! Did we really need research and data to show us that?
Creativity is your point of difference, your way of expressing your information differently from the competition; a way for you to connect with the right people in a more effective way. That’s where the battlefield really should be, not in somehow trying to squeeze more clicks out of people just because you’ve been smart with some SEO tricks.
To me, you can’t have storytelling in your marketing without analytics. Data is still massively important. Creativity that no-one reads might be fantastic, but that’s not what we’re here for – it’s not going to pay the bills! But at the same time, analytics without creativity is just… so 2005! We know creativity matters. But when we get into our offices with our day-to-day pressures, a boss, targets, KPIs, and deadlines, in this environment creativity seems to be the first thing we throw out the window.
M What would you say defines content marketing success, then? If you’ve got to strike that balance between creativity and crunching numbers…
JC One thing is to be aware what resources you have available. One of the most common questions I get when I hold a workshop is “Great! Fantastic! Love everything you’re saying here about content marketing/would love to do all this stuff, but we’re a small business! How on earth would we have time? I don’t have the time/resources!”
Well, actually, you do, but you need to cut the cloth accordingly. A blog with three posts a week is not going to be the right strategy for everybody. If you only have X amount of time with X amount of budget, don’t have a blog! Create one really good e-book every 6 months, and make sure that it’s packed with strong content. Or do one brilliantly entertaining YouTube video every quarter if that’s what your time and resources will allow you to do. Do few things extremely well, rather than a lot of things poorly.
M Quality or quantity? Are you still having to tackle this question?
JC At the moment there’s still that big push; that mentality that content quantity is somehow more important than content quality. I come across a lot of businesses that seem to want to just churn it out, and it’s only later that they then start questioning the quality of the content because the results aren’t there. Marketers have to remember that there are so many business blogs out there – millions of business blogs, social media pages, LinkedIn forums – that it’s no good just being in the race anymore. It’s no good just having a sturdy blog with regular content on popular topics that tick all the boxes. It’s the same story over and over: 10 tips to improve this, 5 ways to do that. It’s not enough to produce good content on those topics because everyone is already producing good content on those topics!
Ask yourself: how is your content unique? How does it say something no one else is saying? What’s your brand’s individual voice? What are you offering that no one else will? People will engage with your content if what you’re offering is unique.
M And that’s the key isn’t it? Being unique?
JC Yes. I’m a big believer in content taking sides. We’re not journalists, we don’t have to be unbiased and we don’t have to give both sides of the story a fair representation. Don’t get me wrong, transparency and accountability are crucial to a brand’s reputability, but writing an exhaustive piece of content that says everything that needs to be said leaves no room for conversation and debate.
Good content marketing starts a discussion. It always seems to leave something unsaid. That silence, that break in the conversation, often leads audiences onto the next piece of engagement. The moment you round things off, there is nowhere to go. How does a customer move forward onto the next chapter if you’ve closed off the discussion? Give your audience crumbs to follow their way along your brand’s journey.
M What are you going to be talking about at Content Marketing World, Sydney?
JC My talk is called ‘Hunting Hippos’ – how to get approval from the C-suite for your content marketing. It’s borne out of that conversation I spoke of earlier: “This is all great, but I’ll never get approval for this/I don’t have the budget”.
It’s about trying to get marketers to stop thinking in terms of “this is too hard” or “this’ll never get approved”, and to realise that content marketing is an ongoing process. It’s not something for the next quarter, it’s about looking not only to the next quarter but also ten years ahead.
I sometimes find that marketers struggle with being able to communicate in two separate languages within the office.
They are free to be creative, funny and engaging with their language on social, but then they’ve also got to speak to the accounts guys, the management team and their boss in a language that matters to them – numbers, KPIs and the bottom line.
One of my pet hates is the term ‘brand awareness’ – it’s marketing lazy-speak for ‘I don’t know how this helps the brand, but I’m sure it must’. No boss I’ve ever come across accepts ‘brand awareness’, but marketers like using that phrase all the time. It means ‘you don’t actually know what the KPI is’. So, ‘Hunting Hippos’ gives marketers practical tools to get their content strategy approved, up and running and on its way to greater heights.
M What are you most excited to see at Content Marketing World?
JC It’ll be interesting to see the progression of content marketing in Australia since last year. Last year’s Content Marketing World Sydney was very much a toe in the water – seeing where the level was, how advanced the country’s marketers were and what content really worked for them. So this year, I want to see whether people are moving on; whether people are coming back and asking the next set of questions.
M What are your content marketing predictions for 2014?
JC For the past couple of years we have been seeing a shift in Australia where people are tagging themselves and their agencies as content marketers and repackaging what they did before. SEO agencies, for example, are suddenly content marketing agencies, regardless of the fact that they aren’t really producing anything different from what they did previously: “Now we’re Hummingbird friendly”, that sort of thing.
I think this is settling down now, and people are starting to look to more innovative ways to produce content – content that is itself innovative. This year I think we’ll see some local brands really take the front foot and others probably stumble because they did it half-hearted. There’ll be a growth in the amount of mediocre content being produced, but I reckon we’ll also see a few local case studies really begin to start out – that’s what I’m hoping for.
At the end of this year I want to see some fantastic Australian case studies. I want to see a well-known Australian-named brand actually do something remarkable. And I think I will.