The marketing events circuit hosts plenty of shows and conferences on slick and up-and-coming topics like performance marketing, martech and business trends. Alas, that means it’s pretty rare to encounter talks geared towards the humble copywriters and content creators of the world, so imagine my surprise when Al forwarded me Creative North’s event, The Future of Content; a veritable ContentFest taking place a stone’s throw away in Manchester.
Notepads grasped, me and Mary headed to the Royal Exchange Theatre, ready to learn from the nine-strong line-up – here are our takeaways.
Authenticity will gain importance
Practically every luminary assembled by Creative North saw authenticity as a main aspect of the most powerful campaigns, and that it would become much more important going into the future. But what does authenticity mean in terms of activity?
- Marketing rooted in fact, not fluff.
- Faithful, transparent storytelling.
- Brand tone of voice perfectly grounded in the realities of the business.
- Authentic influencers who believe in the brands they’re selling.
- Positive and relatable content experiences.
- Being on the side of the user (such as mentioning a product’s downsides before ladling on the positives).
- Brands being themselves – displaying good, bad and ugly traits, not just angelic ones, thus acting and appearing properly human.
Formed on a solid foundation of customer understanding, all these things cut through the inauthenticity that surrounds us, on and offline. Put simply, by ditching the clichés and dross, brands can better earn the trust of customers in an ever-more-crowded marketplace.
Niches will gain influence
In a world of user-generated, highly democratised content, Co-Founder of The Receipts Podcast, Tolani Shoneye noted that today, niche communities hold more power than ever – sway that shows no sign of shrinking.
Using her experiences as a black writer and podcaster coming up against content gatekeepers, typecasting and cultural appropriation, she explained that when geared towards niche audiences, content can be far more captivating that when created with mass in mind.
By not explaining every aspect of the topic – by writing purely for the niche – this content naturally found a greater audience. Why? It piqued the interest of a wider community, all while allowing the niche to feel gratified they were still the primary audience. In Shaneye’s experience, doing the above replaced blandness, cliché and appropriation with inclusivity and the awesome power of curiosity.
Navigating the future of content
Multiple speakers, including Applied Futurist Tom Cheesewright and Dr Francesca Sobande, Lecturer in Digital Media Studies, shared their thinking and research on the future of content, specifically how we would cope with a greater diversity and volume, but lower overall quality of content, and how this would impact users and creators.
Disparate identities and the decline of watercooler moments
Asserting that future content would likely be embedded in the physical world via augmented reality, Cheesewright also hypothesised most users would utilise machine learning or AI assistants to help them access the tiny percentage of content best-suited to them, leading to ever hardier content bubbles.
As audiences formed around content topics on a global level, he noted identities would too – something that’s already happening as the tribal affiliations of yesteryear (punk, indie, emo etc) disappear in the face of easy, infinite choice. The downside to this, however, was that globally connected groups would find it hard to come together in meaningful ways and share en masse what Cheesewright termed ‘watercooler moments’.
For brands, the challenges posed by these trends were huge, as big ideas designed to cut through the static to appeal and connect with the majority would be ever more difficult to create and promote successfully. The answers to this? A focus on niches, personalisation and the leveraging of the exceptional power of peer influence, as well as taking advantage of the inevitable gravitation of a substantial minority of users towards physical content and curation. Zines and vinyl? We’re only just seeing the start.
Addressing content ethics in the user-generated age
Dr Sobande, on the other hand, looked at the future of content from the perspective of tomorrow’s content producers – of which there would be many, many more than today. With a democratisation of content production, and a focus on immediate and viral content, she warned that content would be far more open to becoming polluted by misinformation.
She also argued that content producers were at risk of greatly reduced labour rights, particularly when user-generated content was recontextualised and used by content publishers and brands. Bad news, right? Well, not entirely. As users became more aware of the ethics of content production (if misused content originated from a cherished niche of theirs, for instance) then brands would face an inevitable backlash and fall from grace.
How should brands avoid the backlash? Sobande argued that they should build sustainable, ethical and long-term content creator partnerships, and use platforms seen as ethical by users. After all, brand content is always seen alongside other content. If a platform’s feeds were filled with questionable, hate-filled and unethical material, when viewed alongside, a brands’ well-meaning work may also be tarred in the eyes of users.
On a wider note, it was refreshing to see Creative North’s organisers include diverse points of view such as Dr Sobande’s – it’s not every day you go to a marketing conference and receive a Marxist critique of the industry!
Of all the industry tools out there, Slack is widely seen as possessing one the most interesting tones of voice: playful, empathetic, courteous and crafted. Slack’s Head of Brand Communications, Anna Pickard, explained that the company’s voice was designed to be human, but not in the forced, uncanny-valley way that many ‘human’ brands end up adopting – think cringy slang, contractions and eye-rolling emoji usage.
So, how did Slack create their effortless tone of voice?
- Trial and error – the only way to find your tone is by understanding the tones that don’t represent you.
- Turn your culture outward to discover your true brand, then use this insight to inform your TOV.
- Use kindness and empathy at moments of frustration (error messages, say) to put a positive swing on negative moments.
- Speak on an individual level – doing so makes users feel seen, valued and recognised as humans, and more likely to engage.
- Own up to mistakes – because humans make mistakes, and users repay honesty with trust.
- Reward effort and curiosity – do you read release notes? I don’t, as they’re usually a huge effort to read. Slack’s are entertaining though, which makes me want to read them, and ultimately rewarded when I do.
- The spirit of play – lots of brands try to be playful but just end up being relentlessly silly, coming across as annoying. Pickard explained that Slack’s solution to this is allowing staff the ability to communicate with users playfully, but only with great self-control. If you’re quiet most of the time but choose to be loud at the correct moment, you’ll end up being heard by lots of people in a fresh, positive light.
- Speak to customers like they’re someone you respect and admire – like a trusted colleague.
Brands need to get a grip on tone
With the day drawing to a close, we caught TOV tastemaker Nick Parker explaining why he thought the future content was all about tone. Exploring trends such as the problem of brands producing tone without content – Brewdog and Oatly’s rather annoying self-referential meta ads, for example – he suggested that brands across the B2C and B2B spectra would become more informal, even if their line of businesses weren’t: check out Lemonade Insurance for a masterclass.
The biggest takeaway? In his experience, brands were finally beginning to start taking tone of voice seriously instead of consigning it to a single page of a 40-page brand guideline doc. By investing the time to really think about their tone and its application, they would differentiate themselves from their competitors and be rewarded by drastically more engaged customers.
Creative North 2019 was hugely insightful, and we’ll definitely be heading back next year. Want to learn more about how we can make your brand sing with creative, strategised branding and campaigns? Chat to our experts today.