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outREACH Online Conference: Q&A’s from Mark Johnstone

Louise Ali

Louise Ali

June 26, 2020

In the next part of series of speaker follow ups, we asked Mark Johnstone to answer the questions we were unable to cover at the outREACH Online Conference. If you were unable to make the conference, you’ll be pleased to know we recorded all of the sessions, including talks from Rand Fishkin, Shannon McGuirk and Lisa Myers. Take a look at them today!

Since leaving Distilled in 2016, Mark Johnstone has helped a plethora of teams and people create better content through his consultancy work. Now he has set up Content Hubble; a new site focussed entirely on generating and inspiring awesome content idea. Check out the website or twitter feed for more resources and information on training opportunities.

In the meantime, Mark has kindly taken the time to answer your questions…be ready to be inspired to create great content!

What did you learn from your biggest marketing mistake?
I have 2 answers to this. The first is that I’ve created checklists & frameworks to make sure I learn from the mistakes and remember not to make them again. I have checklists of criteria for ideas, QA checklists for production, and more.

The second one is there have been periods where I rested on my laurels. I thought I was good at what I did (which I was) and I stopped learning. In retrospect, this became a period of stagnation, and I’m disappointed that I succumbed to arrogance and wasted time when I could have been growing. One of my favourite lines from Mad Men is when Don says to Peggy “You’re good, get better.”

I hear a lot about brainstorming with, bouncing ideas off your team etc. What if you are a one man band like me?
It’s always valuable to find someone to soundboard ideas off of. Just saying them out loud to someone, you’ll notice which ones you’re not even convinced of yourself. And you’ll see how they respond. Do they look intrigued or do they look confused or indifferent. Don’t listen to what they say. Look at how they respond. I would try to find someone to chat to – your partner, a friend in the pub, a colleague in another team, an industry associate. I’m sure you can manage something. You can do it overtly or covertly, just dropping it into conversation and seeing how they respond.

Could you share some resources that you follow which share creative content campaigns? like Blogs, Twitter accounts etc
Content curated, digital PR examples, The Pudding, the best of the visualisation web by VisualisingData, NYTimes (their annual list is a great place to start, in fact here’s a list of annual lists), the Information is Beautiful Awards, Information is Beautiful itself, Reddit /dataisbeautiful and /internetisbeautiful, and FlowingData. And following agencies and their key people on Twitter, their case studies, conference presentations, etc. And the awards ceremonies e.g. UK Search Awards, European Search Awards, The Drum Search Awards. That should keep you busy! And I’ll be sharing stuff myself via Content hubble in due course, so stay in touch (via the site and/or Twitter).

I’d love to know how people stay on top of news, trends, campaigns etc. e.g. 30 min solo research, team scrums etc. Any recommendations or thoughts?
In the beginning, I set up RSS feeds and Twitter feeds and went through them every day for 30 minutes or so, first thing. It’s good for inspiration. I then save them in a swipe file, e.g. on Pinterest (I prefer a visual swipe file).

As a team, we also used to share anything anyone in the company found on a channel in Slack (not my favourite platform, but if it’s the one everyone’s using, it has the least barrier to entry). I would save anything I liked in there into my own personal swipe file.

As I’ve progressed, I don’t do it every day now, but I do sit down every month or two for half a day, or even more, and go back through the sites I like to see what I’ve missed. If you’re starting out, I’d recommend doing it regularly, i.e. daily. You can maybe switch to less regular once you’ve really absorbed a lot of reference points that spontaneously come to mind while you’re generating ideas.

I’m pretty new in the digital PR space and absolutely amazed with all the brilliant creative campaigns. How much time do you set a side from research and ideas phase to finalising a campaign like this?
There are really 2 parts to this. There’s the project duration (over how many weeks) and the hours you put into it. The campaigns, goals and budgets vary greatly, so it’s very difficult to answer specifically and succinctly.

In terms of duration, I like to set aside a minimum of 2 weeks for ideation, otherwise I find there’s a tendency to rush half-baked ideas through without allowing a cooling period to see if you still like them. For production, it really depends on the complexity of the data and the design, and whether there’s interactivity. It could be anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks, so it depends on what you’re creating. You could feasibly produce something simple in a week too.

In terms of hours, I like to encourage people to put more hours into ideation than they might be used to. I find it continually frustrating that people will happily allow days or even weeks worth of time and budget for design and development, but not for ideas. That’s simply because they can’t see the work that went into it. But if you don’t spend time getting a good idea, you could be wasting all that money on design and dev.

At the very, very least, I’d want half a day on ideation, but realistically, I like to take a couple of days just researching and generating ideas, and a couple more developing them. Spread out over a couple of weeks.

For data, it can vary from half a day to 2 weeks (or even more) depending on what you have to do to get the data (does it come in a nice table, or do you have to scrape it and tidy it up, etc).
If you’re starting out, try to allow at least a day for data and 2 days for design. I know plenty of people doing closer to half a day on data, half a day on copy and 1 day on design, but personally, I think 1 day on design is a little tight. Even 2 is short, but you can get something decent for 2 days. If you’re starting out and budgets are tight, avoid interactivity for now.

Loved all of these campaign examples: Working for an office supplies company, sometimes it is hard to come up with outside the box campaign ideas as it is related to a somewhat boring topic. What’s a good way to expand the idea brainstorming for “boring” topics like office supplies?
Here are 3 cool content campaigns off the top of my head for stationery companies –  Emma the office worker, a paper dragon and the Staples speed reading test.

And it’s useful to notice that a lot of the examples that are shared widely in our industry are not for exciting sectors, e.g. there are quite a few for insurance companies and there are a few great recent examples for bingo. Bingo itself is fun, but it’s not a great topic for content creation.

The main thing to do here is shift your thinking away from the product. Now, it doesn’t have to go too far away from the product. But think more about what people do in offices. What challenges and frustrations do they have? What are they trying to achieve? You could tap into productivity, creativity, employee engagement, communication, anything that makes sense for what you do and what your customers care about in that context.

Think about what people use your product to do, what it does for them, as opposed to what it is. That’s what most advertising campaigns focus on. Dove don’t make campaigns about moisturising cream, they make campaigns about feeling beautiful in your own skin. Red Bull don’t make content about caffeine, they make campaigns about pushing life to the limits.

Stationery content doesn’t need to be about index cards. It could be about office life, productivity, business innovation, business communication, business presentations, whatever you decide. A bit of strategy work to set a clear direction could help here.

When you think of a creative campaign but then find yourself constricted by budget – would you scale down design first or do you think that’s the most important aspect?
There are two things we’re usually doing with content campaigns when you boil it right down. We’re either presenting new information or presenting information in new ways, or both, e.g. Profanity on Film presented new information. The Future Gamer presented information (that already existed) in a new way. So I’d figure out what your idea is bringing that’s new.

Then figure out what information is essential to gather and analyse, and how much time that needs.

Then think about the simplest way you can present the information. It could be as simple as a table, and there are plenty of examples of tables getting coverage. Or it could be a very simple chart. Whatever is the easiest way for people to ‘see’ the information and understand the point. Depending on the idea, you could potentially get something done for one day of research/data/analysis/copy and one day of design.

I’d do what you can to increase those budgets over time, or over-invest your own personal time if you believe in the idea and its success will open doors for you in the future. That’s kind of how I started out.

Also, when gathering a swipe file, find examples of content that could be done within your budget. And for more expensive pieces, ask yourself, how could this have been done more simply. There will often be an answer.

How do you manage the budget for such campaigns most efficiently?
Get very specific about the idea before you start. What data will it need? How will you get it? What needs to be done to it? How do you intend to design it? What interactivity will it likely contain? What’s the nearest thing that exists to this online already? Discuss it with your team and find out how long they think they’ll need (in days) for each part.

There is always a tension between project management & creative direction. Project managers want everything on time and budget, creative directors want the idea to be as good as it can be, and will discover challenges and opportunities along the way that they need/want to respond to.

Even if project management and creative direction is controlled by the same person, you’ll probably lean one way or another. I obviously lean towards creative direction. I suspect, by the question, I can guess which way you lean, although I may be wrong. There is value in both approaches, and a middle ground needs to be found.

But if you don’t have much success at creating content at the moment, be prepared to over-deliver on time on at least a few projects in order to start making them successful. That’s how I made my breakthrough, and I know others did similarly. That’s also how you get case studies that retain clients and attract more business.

There’s no point having a very efficiently delivered content project that doesn’t work.

Do you have a morning routine that helps sparking creativity?
Ha! No, I’m not much of a morning person whatsoever! Okay, a more serious answer! if I do have some creative work to do in the morning, I’ll do some research around it the night before, write down the different components of what I’m discovering on post-its, and play around with them. Look at them, brainstorm off of them, and think about the question that I want to answer the next day.

I get my desk (digital & physical) ready to start work straight away in the morning (with all the documents open that I need). I write the question down on my desk. And then, in the morning, I try to get to work as quickly as possible, without any other distraction and without opening anything else, even my phone.

I also like listening to music, and I dance about a little bit as I’m working. I like to have a pen and pad to hand, as somehow, at times, I find the physical act of writing seems to aid creativity more than typing on a computer.

The key is to stay free from distraction, focus for a good length of time, and loosen up. You’re just playing at this point in time. You are not committing to anything you write down, so get it all down, no matter how ridiculous or unlikely. You can filter through it all in a different session later. For now, lighten up….

Psst! did you know work is allowed to be fun?

Thanks again to Mark for his time during and after the conference. The next in our series of Q&A follow ups will come from the absolutely fabulous Shannon McGuirk, with more to come beyond that!

And don’t forget you can still get tickets for outREACH London, which will now be held in November, but if you can’t wait until then, you can pick up the footage from the online conference here

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