Is your sawdust set to become your bestseller?

We all know the research and data that goes into producing a story, and we content marketers often discard it like a carpenter does his sawdust. But, argues Matt Potter, Head of Content for John Brown Media, we may be missing the trick that will add value to our bottom lines

Matt Potter, Head of Content, John Brown Media Group

It’s a curious thought that the chief product of many content programmes isn’t content at all. It is the most visible product, of course: the thing that everyone focuses on, mocks up, signs off, distributes, all down the line. But as any journalist, creative or strategist will tell you, in terms of what gets produced, content is just the tip of the iceberg.

The rest of the process – from input relationships to raw, proprietary data often generated during the process – gets treated like sawdust. And the failure to recognise and monetise that part of the process has led brands and media owners alike into a fatally flawed idea of ROI. For a prime example of what happens when data generated is treated like sawdust, look no further than the newsstand media’s troubles. For every report in a newspaper there are often hours of interviews, recordings, numbers crunched, files scanned, documents sifted, models generated, reactions sought, raw data, raw copy. All to generate the one shock figure and the one killer quote that will be read on the commute. Except in a few isolated cases, all that information sits on a thousand hard drives – never seen, much less monetised. No wonder the time and resource devoted to producing the final 500-word article feels like a lot. No wonder Rupert Murdoch can’t figure the idea of ROI without a paywall.

“Instead of asking people to pay for the tip of the iceberg that makes the headlines, what about asking them to pay for what journalists do”

The Economist – an exception to the rule

There are exceptions. The Economist Intelligence Unit informs all content; but it also monetises data directly. In its latest annual report (2014), the Economist Group shows its data generation arm the EIU contributing a whacking £47m to group turnover – a figure almost 20% of that generated across the entire portfolio of The Economist-branded businesses.

Put that against the £0 most brands leverage theirs directly for, and look at the wafer-thin profit margins UK-wide, and you have quite a persuasive argument for leveraging areas of authority in terms of proprietary data.

Economist Group Turnover by business 2014

The Guardian newspaper’s Membership programme is a way of monetising team investigations, sources and data, rather than the team’s output as media content – as well as providing data services.

Instead of asking people to pay for the tip of the iceberg that makes the headlines, what about asking them to pay for what journalists do, 99% of the time: that intelligence; that data; those sources; the raw material. Instead of being a cost, the production process becomes part of the product.

For brand marketers, most of whom are blessed with the kinds of insight into their customers that media organisations dream of, the challenges posed by the need to demonstrate ROI surely involve monetising all these ‘by-products’: raw media; insight; customer and prospect contact and feedback; data sets – the sawdust of the content generation process.

So why aren’t more brands doing it? Part of the answer lies in the way companies silo their functions. This is a world lived by consumers as omnichannel, but served by brands with separate PR, social media and marketing divisions and budgets. And when each silo is challenged to demonstrate ROI for its function alone, the internal conversation about where speculative data harvest and interrogation should sit simply isn’t an easy one for clients to have.

Still, until it is had, the effect is a bit like a chef dishing up the sirloin and throwing the rest of the cow away.

Finding secrets in the sawdust

At John Brown, we’ve been working on models in which the sawdust becomes part of the brand’s marketing output.

Our expertise in fashion, and the proprietary data we gather, not only informs our approach to client content for brands like John Lewis, Monsoon Accessorize and F&F, but has turned us into a standalone fashion and retail insight shop. The futurology this drives not only places our clients ahead of the game; it’s won us the 2014 Association of Qualitative Research/Prosper Riley-Smith Qualitative Excellence Award. All before a single piece of traditional collateral is created.

Our latest social media programme for RBS Invoice Finance (RBSIF) may have culminated with published content; but as with The Guardian, the process of crowdsourcing that content through real-time customer events, information-sharing seminars and ongoing consultation began affecting outcomes – driving loyalty and advocacy – before a word of what most marketers would recognise as ‘content’ was even written. Across the programme, customers said they felt more positive about RBS and RBSIF as a result of their contact with, and consultation with, John Brown.

So while data on what you’ve already done is vital – and there’s no shortage of tools telling us what content works and what doesn’t – think hard about your own data, and how you can use it to benefit your brand. There are secrets in the sawdust.

“The challenge involves monetising the ‘by-products’ of content: raw media, insight, and customer and prospect contact”


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