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When Mahlab met Julie Hamilton

Julie Hamilton talks corporates as publishers and the importance of language in content creation.

We sat down with Online Content Editor of BT Financial, Julie Hamilton, to discuss outsourcing, corporates as publishers and the importance of language in the creation of content.

Mahlab Julie, could you tell us a little about your career history.

Julie Hamilton I come from an old-school content background. I trained with the BBC as a journalist and worked for the early part of my career in print publishing; in magazines. I have worked for almost every national publisher in Australia. In about 2008 I realised that if I didn’t get into the digital space, there was a very good chance that I’d end up becoming a dinosaur. At that point, major publishers didn’t have much of a digital presence for their magazines – they were reluctant to invest in it. I was considered mad to be contemplating a move over to the digital space because so many believed that there was no future in it! So I made my move, and became editor-in-chief of Yahoo within six months. That was a really steep learning curve for me but nevertheless it was really exciting. From there, I’ve worked mostly in digital and moved into social media too. In short, I’ve been a magazine editor, a journalist, a writer, an author, a blogger, and a columnist – I’ve worked with content in many different ways and across many, many different platforms and formats.

M So when did content marketing come into the picture?

JH I find ‘content marketing’ to be quite an interesting term. For me, content marketing is, in fact, showing companies how to be publishers; how to communicate. We seem to have created a term for that now, but at the most fundamental level what we’re doing is publishing and communicating. I delivered a strategy to the Commonwealth Bank titled ‘Comm Bank as Publisher’ – that was the first time they’d ever thought of themselves in that way. It was a shift in thinking that served them well. It’s far more useful for companies to think of themselves as budding publishers; to consider that great content marketing will help them to communicate most effectively with their clients.

M So why do you think people look at content marketing as something new, something buzzworthy?

JH It is, in fact, very new to a lot of companies, but the things that make content and content marketing great are not new. The reason that it’s become super fashionable and relevant is because we now have digital and social media and we need content to push through these channels. Customers want us to touch them at different points in the buying cycle. To do that we need to have content and that content has to be compelling; it has to be engaging and sharable. The term content marketing has come because of a change in the way we do business and communicate with our clients. It’s come out of a need. The entire marketing landscape has changed out of all recognition and it will continue to change – content marketing is just a term that represents part of that.

M What process do you go through when you’re coming up with ideas for content? How big a part do your audience members play in those decisions?

JH If your audience is not the very first thing you’re considering when creating content then you should, put simply, go home! The most important aspect of content is relevancy. There’s no point pushing out content if no one wants to read it; if your content doesn’t inspire and empower your customers or give them added value. Understanding this is often the biggest 180 corporations have to come to terms with. But for magazine editors, book editors, publishers, and distributors, relevancy is everything because their jobs stand or fall on how many people read or buy their content. That’s not been true of big corporations in the past but, increasingly, it is.

The questions that I ask when deciding on content are: is it relevant? Is it timely? Is it entertaining? Do people want to read it? Can it be easily shared? Would I want to read it? There needs to be an understanding of the importance of using media-rich content that answers all, or at least most, of the above questions. I’ve often said to writers that I‘ve trained: if you’re not interested in the subject you’re writing about, no one is going to want to read it. You have to be passionate about the subject matter you’re engaging with.

M You work in the financial services sector – some would say not the most exciting space to be creating content for. What do you say to those marketers working in perceivably dull or drab industries who struggle to harness entertainment, sharability and creativity in their content marketing efforts?

JH You should change jobs! If you’re not passionate about it you’re not going to be an effective communicator. I think money is one of the driving force of most people’s lives. If you can’t write passionately about money; about creating wealth for people, then that’s a problem. People care very much about money and just because it traditionally hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean to say it can’t be done.

You have to find the angle. Truly successful content marketers are hugely creative and can bring new ways of looking at things. At BT, we’ve been getting a lot of amazing feedback about some of the content we’ve been pumping out about insurance, especially on our blog, BT Insights, and on our website. Insurance is not a subject that most people find sexy so I think, again, it comes back to relevancy. We all have bank accounts, we don’t want to lose our jobs. Difficult things happen to people; they happen to us and they happen to people that we know, so it’s about touching the real life stories of people and talking about how we can help people with these challenges. It’s not about saying ‘here’s our great product’. That’s the shift that corporate businesses have to make. They have to reach out with the personal story.

M You’re from a journalistic background. You understand the power of words and language to evoke particular emotions, feelings; to make people shift the way that they think and act – how do you use language and words in the creation of your content?

JH You have to talk in the language of the people that you’re talking to. You can’t talk to all your clients with the same voice. It’s a segmentation; it’s tone and style. If you’re talking to 21-year-olds who have just started their first job and think they’re immortal and don’t really care about their superannuation, that’s a very different conversation from someone who is 55 and looking to transition to retirement, for example. The most important thing with words is to speak in the way that your reader wants to be spoken to. It’s about aligning the values of your target demographic with your content. And you’ll know when you get it right because they will engage with you. One of the things that I really enjoy when working in the digital space is that I can measure if I’m getting it right through hard analytics. If someone buys Woman’s Day, for example, we don’t know if they’ve bought it because Princess Mary is on the cover or because they like the crossword on page 55. But in digital we know – same in social. If people like what you’re doing they will respond and, ultimately, you’ll be starting a conversation.

M So when you look at engagement, what are the metrics that you value most. What have you found works and what have you found doesn’t work when you’re measuring the success of your content?

JH I tend to measure the success of content on four pillars: traffic, engagement, time spent and sentiment. But the companies that content marketers are working for play a significant role in measurement too. I might have my own ideas about how best to measure the success of content; content marketers might have their own ideas, but they have KPIs that must be met. It’s very important that content marketers align with the goals of the company that they’re working for. You can have lots of really creative and passionate ideas but if they don’t actually align with what you’re trying to achieve for the company and what the company itself wants to achieve then you are probably working in the wrong space.

M You mention sentiment. Could you elaborate?

JH Do people like what we’re pushing out? How are they responding to it? Are we improving the value of our brand by the content that we’re pushing out? Do people have a better feeling about us? Do they trust us more? Are they more likely to buy our product? Are they saying good things about us in the social space? Financial services institutions are not particularly liked. A lot of engagement can be negative, so just because we’re getting a vast amount of interaction, if that’s not positive, we are not being successful, so we’re looking for positive sentiment in our measurement efforts.

M What are the main commercial reasons that a corporate, senior level marketer or CEO should want to adopt a content marketing approach? And have you encountered a kind of content marketing resistance from C-suites in the recent past?

JH Today, I think we have enough under our belts here in Australia to show that it works. Two years ago, I joined Colonial First State and launched the first ever social media strategy for an investment bank – it was very much a test and learn. Same with Comm Bank. I launched their first blog which was, again, a test and learn. But we’re two years down the track now and the success of content marketing is obvious. We know that people like it, want it, share it, and we have the statistics to prove it. So I would say increasingly that I don’t meet resistance in the C-suite. What I meet is not knowing how to go about executing it. Most CEOs and CMOs know they have to be in this space – it’s no longer a question of if they should be in this space. But they are concerned about both the cost and how they should measure the effectiveness of their efforts.

I would say to those resisting, that content marketing works. But for it to work, you have to have a strategy. You cannot do content half-hearted. You’ve got to have a strong strategy, a regular publishing calendar; you have to build the trust of your readers by publishing regularly and you have to measure it – it takes time, effort and commitment. Content beats SEO in terms of effectiveness, but it can take a couple of years before you start to see solid success. Content is not a quick win.

M Working in a space like the financial sector – a space that has, for decades, developed a reputation for lacking a certain degree of transparency and accountability in its actions – how can content marketing better the reputations of these kinds of large institutions?

JH Firstly, I would say that banks have in fact been at the vanguard of change with this. They have take risks to be transparent, perhaps more than other companies. Banks have really embraced change because, quite simply, they knew they had to. It comes back to that idea that there really is enough proof on the table pointing to the fact that companies that are authentic, who are transparent and are able to say ‘we’ve made a mistake and we’re sorry’, get massive brownie points.

It’s also about sentiment. We’re reaching a velocity of understanding that being truthful and offering answers, even when you’ve messed up, is going to get you a better result. Clients know if you’re withholding from them. I’ll give you an example: about 18 months ago when we were going through a huge period of market volatility, clients very much wanted to hear just how bad things were. They wanted to know if they were going to lose money, so to come out and say ‘well, just sit tight’, simply wasn’t good enough. The more honest that we are, the better the response from clients. People prefer the truth no matter how painful.

M What’s your take on outsourcing? Are you for or against it across the board or do you think there should be a mix up?

JH I think it really depends on the needs of the company. I think a mix up is great. Obviously, if you have someone working within a company who’s passionate and great with content then that’s always going to be the preferable option. But it’s always good to have different voices; to have access to different writers who have different expertise, not simply one person and one voice. All companies should try and use a mix of paid-for content, curated content and internally sourced content.

I’ve experienced this issue on both sides of the fence. I think a lot of the content that is created externally is either disappointing or not what the client wants, often because most people in corporate don’t know how to brief; they don’t know what they want, they don’t know how to get what they want or there’s not a clear strategy.

Sometimes you’ll find that corporates just aren’t able to say clearly what it is that they want; what they want you to do. You can work to the brief you’re given and have stakeholders come back with, ‘this is just not punchy enough’. But what exactly does that mean? But they themselves don’t know because they’re not from a journalistic background. That’s the problem. So it’s good to have someone in the company with expertise, but if you’re going to outsource, hire people who understand your business and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s just so obvious, but often it just doesn’t happen!

M What will you be talking about at Content Marketing World Sydney?

JH I’ll be talking about how corporates can work with content agencies. I’d rather leave the details for the conference, but I’ll be giving solid pointers on either side – agency and business – about how to get the content that you actually want; content that really works. I’ll also be talking about how to manage that relationship, where it can fall down and how to receive maximum benefit from the relationship.

Check out Julie’s work with BT Financial on Twitter @BT_Financial, via the BT Insights blog or through their website.

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