Sean Stanleigh is the managing editor of Globe Edge, the content marketing studio at Canada’s The Globe and Mail. Stanleigh leads a team that crafts stories on behalf of brands, helping to position them as thought leaders across multiple platforms. His clients include Dell, Audi and Siemens. He believes great content marketing comes from a blend of audience data combined with journalistic intuition. Here shares his wisdom on the power of data, and talks to Content Magazine about why marketers can no longer rely solely on intuition to succeed.
Content: You once said that good storytelling is born out of a mix of data and journalistic intuition. What comes first, the data or the intuition? How do they influence each other?
Sean: For me the data comes first. I like to see what the data is telling me before I move on to the intuition stage. Traditionally, when marketers didn’t have data, they would just dream up campaigns and hope that something would stick. Now we’re in an age where we don’t have to do that. We can look at what the market is telling us first, and then try to respond to it in a creative fashion. We don’t have to be a slave to the data, but we do want to use it to guide us. Data helps us to know a little bit about what the market is telling us, but we still need to differentiate our content, and that is where the creativity comes in. Really great content marketing campaigns not only recognize what people want to hear, they then take that information and present it in a way that creatively differentiates them in the market place.
In the era of ‘Big Data’, which companies have you seen utilising their data effectively? What have they done that has impressed you?
The number one user of big data is Amazon. The Amazon platform uses data to manipulate your purchasing decisions. They use keywords to not only surface the items you are looking for, but other products that are related to it, that other people might have bought too. They are always trying to get you to buy more than what you are looking for. They are always trying to get you deeper and deeper down the purchasing funnel via data — through what they know about you, and what they know about what other users are looking for. They will also take your buying history and start surfacing things that they think might interest you from past buying habits.
It is often said that good content comes from a great strategy. What role does data play in shaping that strategy?
The trick is to balance the data, the intuition and the objectives of the client you’re working with. Whether you’re a brand that’s creating its own marketing campaign or you’re an outlet, like the Globe and Mail that creates campaigns on the behalf of someone else, it’s about balancing the objectives with what your data and your intuition is telling you. The data should make your strategy stronger. Rather than acting purely on instinct, the data can help you be more confident that your proposed strategy is going to work.
There is so much data out there, coming in at such a rapid pace, which data sources should marketers focus on mining, and what tools should they use to manipulate it?
We take a dual-pronged approach to our data. One is to take a look at how readers are behaving on our site, and for this we have a piece of proprietary software called Sophi — a modern day analytics platform where page views are not the most important metric analysed. Then we take a look at what is happening off platform, on the broader internet, and for that we use a tool called Sysomos. From both of these tools we determine whether or not a piece of content will have appeal. On platform, we give each piece of content a ‘Globe’ score, which has a bit of a secret sauce in it, and one of the key metrics we look for is whether a piece of content drove a subscription. In other words, we look at whether people take an action as a result of consuming a piece of content. Time spent on page is also an important part of that, but page views, which still factor into it, are less important than they were a year ago.
Sysomos enables us to take a look at what is happening on social sites and forums. It helps us to determine whether certain key words are resonating on social media or not. We tend to combine data from Sophi and Sysomos to view what people are doing on and off platform. We look for similarities in that data, and if there are differences – we try to establish what they are, and why those differences exist.
What happens when you ignore what the data is telling you?
We had a client that insisted that headlines be written in a certain way, but we said to them, based on the data, that type of headline writing isn’t going to resonate. Nonetheless, that’s what they decided they wanted to do, and so the campaign didn’t do as well as we had hoped because the headlines weren’t optimized in the way they should have been.
Do you use A/B testing in your work?
We do A/B testing for everything we do because testing and trying needs to be part of every marketer’s tool kit. Every story that we post has some multivariate testing — in order to help us achieve our marketing goals. Sometimes we try five or six, up to 10, headlines and if the story still doesn’t resonate we then know the content didn’t achieve our objective. Other times we only need to try just two or three headlines before the piece takes off. You definitely need to test a multiple number of variants to achieve your objectives and to be successful.
If you could offer marketers any advice about using data, what would it be, and why?
Marketers need to ask themselves: What are my goals? What audience am I trying to reach? And what do I want that audience to do when I have attracted them? Once they have established the answers, they then have to try and figure out how data can help them achieve those objectives. I recommend that marketers take a two-pronged approach - first collect the data and second, analyse it. The secret sauce of content marketing is being able to take audience data and to marry it with intuition. Goals first, data second and intuition third. That will give you the magic result you’re looking for.