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Take a quick scan of online news and you might conclude that the internet has played an important role in democratising the spread of information.
Makes sense. There appear to be more news providers than ever, liberated by the near-zero cost of digital publishing.
No longer is the flow of news restricted by the time, trouble and, above all, cost of printing and distributing news content to readers.
Instead, the process of publishing news is reduced mainly to its essentials: gathering, selecting and collating.
Certainly the proliferation of information sources complicates our task at VitalBriefing of searching, curating and summarising relevant news to distribute to our clients. The volume of online information relating to a particular topic or issue has exploded massively in recent decades. As such, it significantly increases the importance of our role in assessing and selecting the sources we use to find the news our clients need.
Yet, what we’ve found is that even as the number of news sources rises each year — and in a multitude of languages — the proportion of those that are high-quality and reliable is diminishing. And not only as a proportion of the overall information flow, but in absolute terms.
In short, as quantity is swelling, quality is waning.
There’s no secret behind this. Gathering news in a serious way is an expensive business. Across Europe and other parts of the world, the number of news organisations with the resources to provide comprehensive coverage of current affairs at a national and international level is shrinking.
The erosion of newspapers’ advertising base (not to mention those of TV and radio stations) by competition from internet platforms has undermined their ability to employ journalists and editors of the highest quality.
Experience is a particularly expensive quality, and many news organisations find they cannot afford much, if any, or at least not as much as in the past. And many news businesses have struggled to really understand the internet, its business models, audience behaviour — and to compete successfully for revenues there.
An aspect of the shrinking of breadth and depth in the news business long predates the internet. Until some 20 years ago, many newspapers employed teams of foreign correspondents, bringing their readers first-hand accounts of international news.
Starting in the 1970s and accelerating, however, their numbers have steadily been shrinking as media instead turn to news agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press, dpa and Agence France-Presse.
The wire services strive to provide a good service but they are not immune to budgetary headwinds. This has an impact on the number, experience and expertise of the journalists they employ, and even more the editors who act as gatekeepers of the quality of their work.
Over the past couple of decades, I have seen numerous examples of how these constraints are eroding quality and accuracy.
It doesn’t help that news information as a commodity is significantly less valuable than financial data — which is important, but to large segments of the public, even among decision-makers in business and politics, often means little without expert and cogent analysis.
Not that financial and business news are exempt from the overall trend toward erosion of expertise and quality. Quite the contrary: Many more lucrative activities can be performed with a sound knowledge of finance, economics and business than to write about it.
That shows in the output. The result is a diminishing pool of capability and understanding in areas in which it matters greatly.
I see too many young journalists trying to deal with complex topics for which they lack sufficient grounding. I should know — I was one of them. But I was fortunate to benefit from the guidance of mentors and editors who taught me over the years. I fear there are far fewer such influences around today. As noted, they’re expensive.
And the quality of coverage is all the poorer for it.
In the absence of sufficient journalistic expertise to create valuable original content, the void is filled by official information and press releases.
True, thanks to Google and its peers it’s so much easier today to seek out information online than by making phone calls or, perish the thought, visiting libraries. But scraping data from companies’ websites is no substitute for critical analysis and asking difficult questions.
The notion of press releases takes us full circle to the issue of the proliferation of what appear to be online news sources. A substantial proportion of the information found online is simply that — recycled press releases begging for clicks that bring revenue from advertisers.
Yes, it’s information of a sort. But journalism it isn’t.
So you’re thrown back to a diminishing circle of news organisations that still remain dedicated to reporting and analysis that enhances the knowledge and understanding of its audience. In many cases they support themselves through subscription plans that inevitably restrict the availability of that high-quality information.
Some, bravely, are trying to avoid this fate. I’m thinking of outlets such as the left-of-centre UK newspaper The Guardian, which asks readers to donate what they can, or The Washington Post, that found a high-rolling saviour in the form of Jeff Bezos.
If you ever doubt the value of high-quality news sources, consider the more than five years spent by the Financial Times (full disclosure: I have worked for the FT from time to time over many years) investigating the credibility of the financial statements of Germany’s fintech stock market darling of the 2010s, payment processor Wirecard.
For years, the newspaper’s journalists kept nagging away at inconsistencies and discrepancies in Wirecard’s accounts that pretty much wholly escaped the company’s regulators. Wirecard dismissed the FT’s reporting as lies encouraged by the company’s rivals and short-sellers — right up until June 18 this year, when it acknowledged that €1.9 billion on its balance sheet was non-existent and it collapsed into bankruptcy.
As an illustration of what makes high-quality news sources valuable amid so much online noise, it’s hard to improve on that.
In the classic, ever-relevant 1976 movie, Network, deranged television news anchor Howard Beale exhorts his viewers to stand up, go to the window, open it and yell for all to hear: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”
That’s how I feel these days — endlessly angry, frustrated and heartsick over so many aspects of our current global reality.
But at the top of my personal list is the horrifying ascendence of deliberate lying by political and government leaders, their spreading of false and misleading information, and the steady and wilful erosion of critical thinking among people who should know better than to ignore or subvert undisputed facts in favor of unproved, dangerous or hateful beliefs.
I’m a native citizen of the United States and a recent citizen of Luxembourg. and Europe. I promise that I’m putting my politics aside for this piece.
With that caveat in mind, to me there is no greater signal of just how dangerous these times are than the persistent and consistent disavowal of fact-based thinking by President Donald Trump and many of the officials and advisors around him as they confront the Covid-19 pandemic. (I’m leaving aside the many other issues to which this thought applies — for example, climate change, or the use and abuse of the pandemic for political advantage, like taking credit for a vaccine that doesn’t even exist yet, or promising miracle cures where there are no miracles.)
For me, it’s the loudest indication — deafening-siren, blinding-flashing-light loud — of these dark times and the threats to our global future.
I once co-authored a general health book with an American doctor who hosted nationwide television and radio shows aimed at debunking phony medical stories. “The biggest threat out there,” we wrote, “is wrong or distorted information.”
That was in 1999, during the quaint days of widely-read, responsible, mainstream newspapers and news magazines and massively-watched television talk shows. Also, it was long before Facebook, Twitter, QAnon, and all manner of Internet-propagated lies and conspiracy theories were believed and traded by tens of millions of allegedly sentient people.
Yet, we felt compelled to devote a chapter entitled “Trust the Media at Your Peril” to the kind of problem that today literally threatens lives and undercuts responsible governance.
Little did we imagine the world we’d be facing now, where the traffic in life-threatening untruth rides an Internet superhighway into the minds of millions of the too-easily-fooled.
Last week, two doctors, Seema Yasmin and Craig Spencer, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about their efforts to counter the Covid misinformation epidemic hampering efforts to beat the pandemic. “We’ve been working to dissect and debunk the many myths about this new virus, its potential treatments and the possibility of a vaccine. We read the mistruths on our patient’s phones, listen to theories borrowed from internet chat rooms and watch as friends and family scroll through Facebook saying, “Here — it says that this was definitely created in a Chinese laboratory.”
They cite a chilling report by the citizen activist group Avaaz that lays significant responsibility for the massive spread of Covid misinformation at Facebook’s door, calling its algorithm “a major threat to public health” and charging, among other things, that networks in five countries spread global health misinformation that attracted some 3.8 billion views in 2019, clocked 460 million views in April 2020 alone, and that top health-misinformation sites got four times as many views as organisations including the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control.
Covid misinformation has been cited by a variety of medical experts as an ongoing threat. In February, the World Health Organization issued a “Coronavirus Situation Report” in which it warned that the pandemic “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it” and that “the most prevalent rumours…can potentially harm the public’s health, such as false prevention measures or cures.”
Yasmin and Spencer, who are a clinician and an emergency room doctor, see the consequences of this Covid misinformation every day in their workplaces. “Patients question our evidence-based medical guidance, refuse safe treatments and vaccines, and cite Facebook posts as ‘proof’ that Covid-19 is not real.”
And while they’re right that “purveyors of false news will always exist” and that “for as long as there have been epidemics there have been snake oil salespeople exploiting fear and peddling false hope,” social media as a channel for its propagation and magnification takes it to a new level of destructiveness.
I find it hard to be optimistic that after four years of deliberate lies and misinformation — not to mention breathtaking managerial incompetence — Donald Trump has a very real chance of reelection.
All other issues aside, the fact is that his boldface denial of scientific fact and evidence isn’t in itself enough to guarantee that voters will turn him out. How depressing is that?
In the New York Review of Books, the terrific British journalist Jonathan Freedland lays out in Disinformed to Death the price we pay for deliberate ignorance.
“When a pandemic is raging, it becomes harder to deny that rigorous, truthful information is a mortal necessity. No one need explain the risks of false information when one can point to, say, the likely consequences of Americans’ coming to believe they can deflect the virus by injecting themselves with bleach.”
He hopes for a receptive audience that, as a result of the pandemic, “has seen all too starkly that information is a resource essential for public health and well-being—and that our information supply is being deliberately, constantly, and severely contaminated.”
I have to admit that it’s a challenge not to despair that the counter-efforts seem not to get a sufficient foothold.
Much as I obsess over the tragic sinking of my native country into a sea of disinformation and deliberate lies, the issue — like climate change — is truly global. Freedland cites work by Oxford Internet Studies professor Philip N. Howard that documents 70 governments with “dedicated social media misinformation teams, committed to the task of spreading lies or concealing truth.”
This includes two million Chinese whose jobs are to grind out some 450 million messages each year, Vietnam’s 10,000 students dedicated to pushing the government line, and Russian bots generating nearly half the discussion on Twitter in that country.
Yet, in a recently-published book, Howard argues that the United States has seen disinformation spread more widely and deeply than anywhere else. With the “highest level of junk news circulation…during the presidential election of 2016…there was a one-to-one ratio of junk news to professional news shared by voters over Twitter.”
Howard calls them “lie machines,” while another author, Thomas Rid, calls them direct threats to a “political system that places its trust in essential custodians of factual authority,” in which he includes science, the academy, journalism, public administration, and the justice system.
When I co-founded VitalBriefing in 2011, our tag line was “the cure for information overload.” We had seen a need in the marketplace for reliable, trustworthy information authored by credible professional journalists — calling on a notion I had written in the 1999 book: “Legitimate journalists would never report something that they knew to be untrue.”
We have seen a growing market need both in the private and public sectors for information our clients and prospects can trust. I’m immensely proud of the small part we can play to counter the massive and deliberate attack on facts.
Like Freedland, my hope is that the global pandemic will lead to a re-set for audiences around the world as they confront the reality of a pandemic that doesn’t care what lies Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro and other irresponsible and immoral leaders tell about it.
Because bad information can kill you, or someone you love.
Today, your favourite search engine delivers every catalogued article, review or social media posting in nanoseconds, rendering competitive intelligence and media monitoring easier than ever before.
Which begs the questions: which links should you trust?
The tsunami of articles, blogs, reports, studies and data – content – being published online is overwhelming. The Washington Post, for example, posts 500 articles every day; the New York Times, 230; the Wall Street Journal, 240; and BuzzFeed, 222.
And that’s from a few legitimate news sources. More than 2 billion blog posts were published — 5.76 million every day — in 2018 alone.
Knowing how to cut through all that noise efficiently and effectively to identify the most critical news and updates — the ‘news you can really use’ — is must-have. The current context, when disinformation, ‘fake news’, and political agendas are constant threats to fact-based reporting, the task is still more complicated by the need to identify and assess the sources you can trust.
Bottom line: effective media monitoring has never been more difficult. There is too much industry-related information for many companies to sift through.
Information overload is not a new concept.
According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s been an issue for at least 2,300 years. There’s even a reference in the Bible to the growing menace of the printed word.
In the digital era, research shows that information overload is bad for business — and for your employees. When unfiltered, business and competitive intelligence are at best ineffective, at worst harmful.
From sales data to media reports, the value of that information declines sharply when recipients aren’t guided to what matters most. Information overload – a.k.a “infobesity” and “infoxication” – quickly leads to infoxiety (information anxiety).
As business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues, information and news filters may simply confirm our own biases based on what Big Tech knows about us already.
Too much information also inhibits our ability to digest and process information.
Even so, media and competitor monitoring can’t be overlooked as a crucial element in decision-making.
That information is a key component of any business and competitive intelligence and analytics architecture. A well-designed system will follow the latest news about your specific subjects, competitors, products, legal and regulatory developments.
Sounds like common sense. Yet designing an effective monitoring system is hard.
Even conducting your own internet search will quickly swamp you.
VitalBriefing is hardly the world’s largest multinational (for the moment), but a quick Google search for us tosses out 5 370 results.
Try a bigger media outfit, like the BBC or New York Times, and the results run into the billions.
Online notification services such as Google Alerts are free and easy to create. Yet the results can prove frustrating: complaints have been growing since 2013 that alerts are more about driving traffic to specific websites than about delivering relevant news.
Free filtering tools are fairly basic. For example, no matter how carefully you tailor them, alerts set for the ECB — European Central Bank — are just as likely to deliver match results and player news from the England and Wales Cricket Board (also the ECB).
At best, Google Alerts is a back-up when all else fails.
Bain & Company’s consultants call infobesity the enemy of good decisions.
They suggest taking a step back, reviewing exactly what you need from your data, focusing on the important elements and standardising the output – in an internal email, on an intranet or in a corporate knowledge management system, for example — making it easier to digest.
They also suggest that timing is everything. With big data ever more accessible, the tendency may be to deliver too much information, too often.
But perhaps the most significant insight from Bain & Company is on ‘quantity’ and ‘source’. Not every executive decision needs every single news article on a successful product launch or the impact of a new regulation.
If the views are fairly uniform, then one or at most two will do, especially if the second adds new information.
For ‘source’, read quality. Algorithms and artificial intelligence aren’t always best at discerning quality media. Their filters often are founded on momentum and traffic volumes.
In entertainment, ‘clickbait’ articles create tremendous amounts of traffic (and advertising revenue), so popularity could be said to equal success of sorts.
But in business, law and finance, the most insightful articles may be hosted on trade-news websites, government or agency sites or hidden behind subscription paywalls.
Then there’s fake news, particularly regarding politics and current affairs. In the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, fake news often was published on new and virtually unknown websites, their reach amplified by social media retweets and “likes”.
Fake news is no longer confined to politics.
It can strike businesses big and small, often with a real financial and reputational impact.
That’s why media and competitor monitoring, news curation, competitive intelligence, and high-value business intelligence continue to require a human element.
As Andrew Koek explains, “The expert doing the curation takes the time to meticulously review all sources and carefully determine which material is most relevant and valuable. Even when you’re using automated tools, you still need someone in place to identify what’s most important and then translate it into usable insights.”
At VitalBriefing, we’ve assembled a growing team of journalists around the world with expertise in their chosen fields, from financial services to logistics to sustainable development to the space industry and beyond. Their experience and knowledge of what’s important to your business — and what’s credible — is an invaluable resource.
Here’s an example of ROI: for one of our global clients, whose 63,000 employees get our daily competitor monitoring (after the CEO and his direct reports), we noted from Tagalog-language newspapers in the Philippines that a competitor was building a new manufacturing plant. With that information, our client’s specialists were able to reverse engineer the technology being developed and to answer the threat with their own products.
Software and automation just can’t substitute for the human expertise and insight into what you specifically need to know to protect – and grow – your business.
We’re betting that will be the case for a long time to come.
The private equity industry has long struggled to overcome a public reputation for maximising profit and jeopardising healthy businesses by loading them with unsupportable debt and charges. In light of the new world we live in, can the sector restore its image by helping to relaunch economies after the Covid-19 pandemic?
Over the past two decades the private equity sector has evolved from a marginal and mostly obscure corner of the investment industry into a core element of the financial system.
Now the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath poses unique challenges for private equity firms and their investors living in a world where company valuations are fluid and volatile, creditworthiness is cloudy and governments seem set to play a far more prominent role in economic management than at any time this century.
In terms of financial heft, private equity should be well placed for a leading more in economic recovery. Worldwide, the industry is flush with cash — or at least commitments.
Private equity funds have a record $2.5 trillion available in ‘dry powder,’ money pledged by investors that firms have not yet drawn down.
The environment promises to be welcoming for firms with money to spend, especially those specialising in distressed debt, of which there is plenty expected to emerge over the coming months and years, or those seeking to build industry-leading portfolio companies through bolt-on acquisitions that add scale.
True, the market environment for private equity investment was looking less favourable before the pandemic emerged and lockdowns began. The huge pile of dry powder reflects in part an increasing shortage of suitable investment targets, which had been pushing up prices.
But private equity, along with other types of more complex and longer-term investment, looks more attractive to institutional investors than turbulent public equity markets, cash earning next to nothing in interest and bond markets yoked to the imperatives of central bank monetary easing strategies.
Not to mention the clouds gathering over that staple of institutional investment portfolios, commercial real estate.
However, private equity has its own hurdles to overcome to position itself as a saviour of struggling companies and stuttering economies.
First and foremost? A wretched public image, fuelled by both misunderstanding of what private equity is and does and by the industry’s frequent tone-deafness to wider concerns of society.
Private equity’s opaqueness, complexity and lack of public accountability is often placed in contrast with the (supposed) transparency of companies listed on public markets.
Critics such as Sheila Smith, a former senior economist at the UN Development Programme, describes the sector as “termite capitalism”, targeting a business model characterised by reliance on borrowed money rather than investors’ capital, asset stripping and job destruction, opaque fee structures, unsustainable extraction of returns through dividends funds by further borrowing and use of debt and offshore structures to reduce, often to zero, tax liabilities in the companies in which portfolio companies operate.
In vain do private equity companies protest that their business involves not wanton extraction of assets but the creation of value through the restructuring and re-energising of struggling, directionless companies, the empowering of capable managers and the incentivisation of employees, and that they focus on companies’ long-term development, not just the next quarter’s bottom line.
Because it’s such an emotive phrase, they don’t like to speak of ‘creative destruction.’
But that’s a key driver of the private equity model: stripping away dead-end jobs and businesses and replacing them with new ones that are more productive and have a long-term future.
Some of the criticism is certainly unfair. The obsession with the offshore tax haven structures of private equity (and other alternative investment firms) tends to ignore the key classes of institutional investor that are non-taxpayers, such as university endowments and charitable organisations.
Rather than a pure creature of plutocratic vampire capitalists, the private equity industry is driven principally by the needs of their investors: pension funds to meet their commitments to retirees and insurance companies to meet policy-holder claims.
It’s against this unfavourable reputational backdrop that the private equity sector must face the challenges of the post-pandemic world.
What will it look like?
In the short to medium term, the industry is suffering similar hits to revenue and profit as other businesses. Antoine Drean, founder of private equity placement agency Palico and consultancy Triago, expects profit-sharing – carried interest – on above-benchmark returns to dry up, especially for firms with heavy exposure to the most vulnerable areas of the economy, such as the hospitality, travel and energy sectors.
Hugh MacArthur, Graham Elton and Brenda Rainey of consultancy Bain & Company argue that dealmaking is set for a slump while firms focus on the health of existing portfolio companies and bank lending to the sector is likely to be significantly constrained and subject to significantly tighter conditions (although this is likely to be offset by the sheer volume of dry powder and likely lower valuations of acquisition targets).
They say private lenders, a significant force in the market since the global financial crisis, should also help fill the gap while the need to exit mature portfolio companies in order to provide returns to investors will also spur deal flow.
The Bain & Co. partners also warn that some investors may find themselves financially squeezed if calls on existing capital commitments exceed private equity distributions.
This points to a reduction in fundraising, at least temporarily, after a decade of soaring inflows from investors looking to private equity’s historically higher levels of return to offset the impact of interest rates at rock-bottom or worse.
While the industry’s overall levels of return are likely to take a quick hit from lower valuations on existing investments, especially those made near the peak of the market, the recessionary environment should yield more profitable opportunities.
Can we expect a better reputation for private equity in the months and years after Covid-19? There’s no guarantee that public perceptions will change radically in the near future.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the sector has drawn fire from politicians and others over the insolvency of venerable names of American retailing such as Neiman Marcus and J. Crew, although the critics tend to ignore that the businesses have been deteriorating for years in the face of changing consumer habits and growing internet competition.
However, with near-zero interest rates apparently locked in for years to come, barring an upsurge in inflation that stubbornly refused to materialise despite a decade of loose monetary policy, the core position of private equity in institutional asset portfolios seems more likely to strengthen than to diminish.
In a world where job preservation is now a central economic policy objective, private equity firms will also be under pressure to avoid wholesale layoffs and business closures.
They and their investors likely will have more skin in the game as the peaks of bank leverage of recent years recede and the days of egregious debt-driven dividend recapitalisations are probably mostly over for the foreseeable future. If private equity can claim to be playing a role in saving viable companies and jobs, it may become less of a bogeyman for critics of capitalism.
But it shouldn’t count on being better loved.
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It’s a long-standing joke – going back to early 2016 – among my family and friends: “Don’t ask David about Donald Trump.”
So I want to get this clear at the start: I loathe the American president. No president in my lifetime has earned the degree of contempt I feel for this imposter. I believe he’s a force for evil — a “wicked stage master,” as American journalist George Packer calls him — the living representation of what I think is wrong with this world: racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic, narcissistic, misogynist, nationalistic, fascist, authoritarian, selfish, greedy, fraudulent, classist, arrogant, cruel, hypocritical, vain, cynical, pompous, domineering, inept, frivolous, materialistic…for more, go here.
And yet, I have to give him credit for a single skill. Honestly, I do.
Before I’m deafened by the collective gasp from those family and friends — “Hypocrite, David!” — let me explain.
As a media professional, I have to acknowledge his mastery of one of the keys of effective content marketing:
He knows his audience.
And he knows how to appeal to them. Again and again, despite howling opposition from all corners of his country and the entire planet.
He is maddeningly consistent — even in the face of occasional and usually mild critiques from his allies — and loyal to that core base that may yet inch him to reelection in November, although I shudder at the thought of the havoc he will wreak if given another four years.
I’ve often likened him to the original Godzilla, made only stronger by the force of the bullets, missiles and electric lines lobbed at him by the Japanese military.
And this modern Godzilla, with his “shrewd, reptilian brain” (Packer again) knows better than anyone how to play to his audience, calling on his singular skill with persistence and flair.
In a famous essay, philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. He drew the distinction from a saying by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Donald Trump is a hedgehog, albeit one wearing an orange wig. He has nailed that one big thing.
The signs of playing to his audience are legion. In the past few days alone, he insisted on holding his first campaign rally since the Covid-19 lockdown in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site in 1921 of one the worst racial massacres in US history that left some 300 African-Americans dead — and on the same day as Juneteenth, an important holiday for black America, marking the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger read out Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in Texas, freeing slaves in the final holdout state.
In a nod to the outcry in a country torn by growing social protests over racial injustice, Trump agreed to reset the rally — for the next day. But he’d already won the points he was doubtlessly looking for from his diehard core supporters.
Last week, his administration erased protections for transgender patients against discrimination — announcing the move on the four-year anniversary of the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida — and in the middle of Pride month, which commemorates the June 1969 Stonewall riots, an important date in the history of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights.
In the midst of the protests, he suggested via tweet (with no evidence) that a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, New York, who was seriously injured by police may been a “provocateur” who staged the event (and presumably his injury).
A day later, Trump argued against renaming American military bases named after Confederate leaders — even as military leaders themselves expressed support for the idea.
In a country roiled by the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over the horrifying abuse of black Americans dating back since before the country’s founding, Trump stays true to his base.
Nationwide polls show that despite the fact that he’s losing against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, he still holds on to 93% of his Republican base.
As CNN wrote recently, “Trump has made a clear play during his presidency of satisfying the Republican base, and the polling indicates that this effort is clearly paying off. His base is not abandoning him, even as his overall numbers remain weak.”
But while most Republicans would deny they’re racist — as Trump himself does repeatedly — the data would indicate otherwise. “Donald Trump’s support in the 2016 campaign was clearly driven by racism, sexism, and xenophobia,” researchers Vanssa Williamson and Isabella Gelfand wrote in a piece for the Brookings Institution. “While some observers have explained Trump’s success as a result of economic anxiety, the data demonstrate that anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and sexism are much more strongly related to support for Trump.”
As deplorable as is this element of his support, what’s the lesson for content marketers?
“The more you know about your audience, the more powerful your digital marketing efforts will become,” Mindy Weinstein wisely advises in Search Engine Journal. “It isn’t enough to know the demographics and location of your prospects. You have to know as much as possible about them, including their personality traits, interests, values, opinions.”
I would argue that Donald Trump is a master at that aspect of content marketing, instinctively and with a political organisation around him to reinforce and build on those instincts in their own communications with his supporters.
In our world as content marketers, Weinstein points out that the outcome of this exercise is practical and hard-edged, resulting in:
To get to know that audience, she recommends starting with the basics: Market research, compiling all the data and details about your targets that eventually will feed any personas you build.
Two tools Weinstein recommends are YouGov, whose free version offers access to data pulled from more than 200,000 consumers, and Demographics Pro, which analyses Twitter and Instagram profiles for insights into their followers, starting with basics like age and gender, then digging deeper into brand affinities, audience interests and more.
She uses other tools such as qualitative interviews, quantitative surveys and personas.
For Trump, the “success” of his content inherently relates to the brand story that has evolved since his presidential campaign, and the impact it had then and still has on his target audience — those Americans most likely to vote for him.
His 2016 campaign aimed at specific concerns and prejudices of his likely pool of voters and presented Trump as the solution to those issues — “I alone can fix it,” as he famously claimed — through a brand story that presented him as a successful and experienced businessman who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or take on entrenched political and economic powers (fictional as that claim was).
Trump’s “content” consisted of his Tweets, declarations and actions. I know this isn’t traditional content marketing — but he’s not a traditional president.
The results for his candidacy? His base ate it up. They still do.
Agree with him or not, we’ve all been talking obsessively about him since 2016.
Some share and engage enthusiastically with him on social media, while others complain. Doesn’t matter what’s said. Ultimately, we (myself included) all have helped spread his brand story wider and wider, in the process helping him reach even more potential supporters.
Indeed, Donald Trump’s campaign received billions — yes, billions — of dollars worth of free media. In fact, according to data tracking firm mediaQuant, he amassed $5.6 billion in free earned media throughout his campaign, more than Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio combined.
Trump also got 50% more media coverage than Clinton during the election.
What he truly understands, better than most, is how to speak to his audience. He intuits how to offer them the kind of content that will appeal to them, get them emotionally charged and move them to consider the value he says he has to offer.
And therein beats the heart of content marketing.
As Benyamin Elias, director of Content Marketing at ActiveCampaign, puts it: “When you know your audience, you can pluck the words right out your customers’ mouths and use it in your marketing. You can read minds.”
Elias then draws a straight and convincing line to more leads (“because people feel you understand them”), more customers (“because leads feel like you understand them:) and more referrals (“because customers feel like you understand them.”). (Emphasis, mine.)
From there, he believes that conversion rates, social media shares, email opens and clicks and sales will all rise.
By the way, this should not be because you’re trying to manipulate your audiences. Rather, its should be because you understand them, their needs and their desires in ways that enable you to bring them value with your product, service…or simply, information that helps guide them (which is the core of our business at VitalBriefing).
Interestingly, Elias also criticises the exercise of building personas if you’re missing the psychographic piece that must accompany the demographics in order to provide the “AIO” element – activities, interests and opinions.
Add to that data analytics to “help you send your messages to the right people at the right time.”
His ultimate point is that you need to arrive at the ability to speak (or write) in the language that your audience uses and understands.
Of course, it’s fair to argue Trump is manipulating the public with false information — which he certainly does on a steady basis. (As of May 29, according to The Washington Post, Trump had made false or misleading claims 19,126 times in 1,226 days in office, an average of one per every waking hour of the day.)
Obviously, this is not an approach I endorse, recommend or advocate. In fact, I’m depressed by the fact that his behavior doesn’t send his support plummeting. But the reality that he maintains a considerable well of support indicates to me that he understands the kind of content that appeals to a significant portion of this base.
As Search Engine Optimisation guru Neil Patel says (not referring to Trump), knowing your audience is more critical than identifying keywords to stuff into your content: “Catering to a specific and defined audience is far more powerful than targeting keywords.”
It makes sense. As Patel notes, engagement is far more important than generating traffic to your website. Because if they get there and you can’t engage them, you’ve lost the battle, and the audience.
If they’re neither commenting, sharing or buying, bringing them there brought you (and them) nothing.
All those actions reflect an understanding by publishers that the game is about far more than attracting eyeballs. If they’re sharing your content, spending time with your content or on your website, commenting on what they read and see or visiting various pages, then you’ve connected with them in one way or another.
In short, you speak their language. You know your audience.
Just like the president I can’t stand to hear or see.
But still…I have to give him credit for that one big thing.
It takes a lot of work to write effective and engaging content marketing articles and blogs.
As content specialists, we know that for a fact.
That said, as brands across every industry look for cheap inbound marketing opportunities, many are now pursuing content marketing strategies.
That makes sense. When produced in-house, among other benefits content marketing articles:
These benefits explain why market research company Technavio forecasts that the content marketing industry will be worth nearly a half trillion dollars by 2021, more than doubling in value in the five years from 2016.
If you’re considering devoting time and resources to a content strategy, however, heed our warning: don’t bother unless you intend to create high-quality material.
If you’re here to discover what that actually means, be patient. We’ll get there.
First, we need to explain why this is so important.
The old days of “put out anything” are gone. Publishing low-calibre articles or blogs today is counterproductive, and even can alienate a company from its targets and prospects.
Does it really makes such a drastic difference for your material to be well-written, researched and optimised for SEO? Take it from us:
Yes. It. Does.
There are two major reasons that lead to the same end: the value of your content.
The idea of brand relevance that offers value to the public aside from selling products or services has become crucial.
No one engaged in business research wants to feel like a sales mark (unless, of course, they’ve arrived at the purchase stage in their buyer’s journey.)
Rather, what people are looking for is useful information that helps guide decisions.
That was a major finding we uncovered during our research at the dawn of VitalBriefing, before we even launched the company. Our extensive market research found that people are sick and tired of companies trying to sell them products and services.
Indeed, 71% of buyers agreed that they’re turned off by content that seems like a sales pitch, according to research from the Economist Group.
Plus, in the wake of major events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, coupled with the explosive growth of ‘fake news’, consumers are looking for — and demanding — credible, authentic, reliable and high-quality content.
Meanwhile, the sales cycle is growing increasingly longer. On average, B2B buyers now consume between 10 and 14 pieces of content before committing to a purchase. But nobody wants to deal with a salesman.
Since the focus should no longer be on ‘selling’, we all must provide value, guiding prospects through the sales funnel/buyer’s journey with content.
But if it’s not high-value material, don’t bother.
The flip side of this value relates to SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation.
In response to content consumption trends, Google, in the way it ranks results on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), has increased its emphasis on content quality and authority.
In 2018, Google made a number of significant changes to its algorithm. One of those is known as the Medic Update, and it changed the way Google measures the quality of a webpage.
To offer users the best possible experience, Google’s algorithm evaluates web pages first and foremost for the value it believes they will provide audiences.
Google scores an article or blog on key metrics in relation to value provided to the audience, such as bounce rates, average time spent on the web page and whether a reader clicked out of a domain after reading the material or if they further explored a site (think: your site).
This means that if you intend to write effective content marketing articles and/or blogs, you had better ensure you’re doing the best job you can.
In addition to supporting your sales funnel, good (and great) content also will improve the SEO of your entire website, ensuring your homepage and content rank higher for the most relevant searches and keyphrases.
Remember, you should ensure that the topic of your article or blog:
To achieve that assurance, you’d better do your due diligence — which in this case translates to doing your research.
For instance, if possible find an angle or connection to major recent news and events to discuss in your article.
Also, what subjects are experts in your space creating content to address? Look for the industry-specific buzzwords and hot topics that you could take on.
You could also do some keyword/search phrase research and create content that targets a specific search query.
And, of course, remember we’re talking about content marketing articles rather than simple marketing or sales material. These pieces should clearly reflect your organisation’s mission and values in order to resonate with your audience.
Get them to believe in your story and they’ll believe in your brand.
If you think you’ve found a good topic, ask yourself this: are you offering expert insight or opinion, or even actionable advice? If not, then what makes your article noteworthy to the reader?
Other factors to keep in mind:
Users spend an average of 15 seconds on a webpage. You must do everything possible to ensure your content is appealing from the lede (first sentence) and entices your audience to read to the kicker (last sentence).
Although optimising the formatting of your piece won’t guarantee success, it certainly will help. The more attractive the formatting, the more likely your audience will keep reading — and to take that crucial next step after consuming your content, from engaging with you on social media, visiting your homepage or downloading something off your site.
Here are some tips that will help. (Take special note of the last one on the list):
Remember this: you are trying to achieve a goal with your content marketing articles or blogs. You are striving to convince your audience of something — to get them to do something.
You need them to take that next step at whatever stage of the funnel they’re at. To get there, make your value proposition clear in the right way.
Easy to say (or write), harder to pull off. Somehow, without talking about your company and its services, you must make it clear that your company and services are first-in-class.
How can you do that?
Prove it through your competence and knowledge — after all, these are the qualities that distinguish you from your competitors. The subjects you cover should make it easy for your expertise to shine through.
Throughout this process, remind yourself of your end goal — which isn’t simply to see your company’s name in print, online, or in any particular medium. You want your prospects to read that piece of content and continue their way through your funnel.
Remember to match whatever you’re writing about with the appropriate CTA to accompany the article.
For instance, if your desired outcome is audience download of a white paper or ebook so that you can capture qualified leads (e-mail addresses), you’ll probably want to cover a more technical topic that leaves them hungry for more in-depth information.
On the other hand, if your ambition is to boost social media engagement, you’ll probably target a broader, more attention-grabbing topic with broader audience appeal.
Ultimately, it may seem there’s a lot to consider. Don’t be dissuaded or discouraged. Practice makes better, if not perfect, and the more you write, the easier most of this will become.
Eventually, you won’t even need to think about many of these elements — they’ll just come naturally.
Do you need more content marketing tips and advice to help you creatine effective and engaging material? You might be interested in:
I was born into a family of readers. Long before I knew what that would mean for my life, my well-being and my career, I had been gifted both a healthy addiction and key tips to creating effective content marketing that would drive what I would do with my life.
In fiction, I revel in great writing and great writers and my taste is eclectic, crossing centuries, countries, styles. At the top of my favorites, and who have had profound impact on my life and thinking, sit Chekhov, Dickens, Nabokov, Munro, García Márquez, Austen, Tolstoy, James, Tyler, Bellow, Roth, on and on.
I’ve hauled their books around with me over more decades than I want to admit here, in dozens of boxes, across continents and countries, in vans, cars, trains, boats, planes and briefcases.
What do they all have in common, the gift that keeps on giving?
They tell great stories.
They tell us about those around us, as well as ourselves, and the world we live in.
And they show us the way to creating great content ourselves. How they do it is both subtle and obvious, and always delightful (even when the subject matter is painful).
From David Copperfield to Elizabeth Bennett to Colonel Aureliano Buendía to Augie March to Humbert Humbert to Anna Karenina, their characters illustrate aspects of our existence and make us think about what we do, how we do what we do…and why.
That’s why when I enter someone’s home for the first time, I try to make a beeline for their bookshelves. That way, I have an immediate sense of who I’m dealing with, how they think and what they care about. It’s one way to anticipate what to expect from our time together.
It’s an insight into my audience of the moment.
It’s amazing how what goes around, comes around. I had no idea when I founded a content company that the lessons of literature and great writing would underpin our approach as content creators and content marketers.
Whether we’re reading for personal or professional reasons, we return to the sources we trust, the authors we believe, the analysts we consistently value because the content they create is meaningful to us.
And that’s what we should represent to our own audiences. They should value our content for the same reasons we value those we trust.
As content creators, we have much to learn from the wisdom and brilliance of great writers. There are the obvious ways:
As a young journalist, I learned that what matters most is the single sentence – a few, if you’re really good – that a reader will remember from your story later.
For me, that means opening sentences like this, from Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful autobiography, Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
Or this, from Jane Austen’s Emma: ” “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Such sentences are packed with meaning, every word carefully weighed, building to a conclusion that foreshadow everything that’s coming — and keeps the readers (think: your audience) moving to where the author (think: content marketer) wants them to go.
It’s the kind of writing that opens a window — a door, really — to walk through and escape this world while learning about it at the same time, guiding the audience into seeing things differently, imagining possibility where they might not have otherwise.
To one degree or another, isn’t that what we all want for the content we create? A well-crafted, well-told, engaging story that will seduce our audience — regardless of the medium.
If the audience believes in your story, blog, infographic, podcast or video, they’ll believe in you, your brand, your product, your service. “Hook” them with content that’s irresistible, that invests them in you, and you’ll see better results — for example, social likes and shares, longer and more sustained engagement with your material.
Then they’re on the way on the buyer’s journey to your golden land, leads that evolve from unqualified to qualified and, finally, to conversion.
As a foreign correspondent some years ago, I had the great privilege to spend time with Gabriel García Márquez for a story I was writing. It was late in his life and he knew time was running out.
How did he spend it?
“I don’t read new fiction any more,” he said. “I reread the books I love.”
As content marketers, that’s what we want for our audiences. If they believe in us, they’ll keep coming back. But to win that loyalty, we must consistently be authoritative, credible, entertaining, timely, relevant, authentic — and interesting.
As a newspaper and magazine journalist for many years, I knew brilliant investigative reporters who could unearth incredible stories, spending months digging deep, amassing facts, unearthing evil and wrongdoing — then put it all together into an incomprehensible story that lost its readers after the first paragraphs.
I’m thinking of all this now after reading an insightful piece by Carina Rampelt of Find a Way Media for the Content Marketing Institute in which she makes the compelling case that “reading fiction can make you a better content creator.”
By now, it’s obvious how much I agree. All good writing makes you a better content marketing creator because the elements of storytelling and writing are the same in any medium — from long-form print to short-form digital blog posts, from Facebook and LinkedIn posts to thought-leadership-content headlines.
Even tweets, today’s digital poetry. (Of course, there’s also the can’t-take-the-eyes-away-from-the-car-crash tweets of American President Donald Trump. But of all the factors I listed above for winning audience that he’s missing, he can’t be faulted for not being interesting.)
Even as Rampelt emphasizes the lessons to be learned from literary fiction as they apply to effective content marketing, she aptly cites William Faulkner on the virtues of an expanded horizon: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.”
Who am I to argue with Faulkner, although at the top of the heap I would rate the merits of great non-fiction equal to those of great fiction in the practical help it offers content creators.
In different ways, each genre imparts invaluable keys to organization of material, structure, storytelling and use of language — all critical to content marketing that resonates with audiences.
Non-fiction is particularly helpful in a different way than fiction because it relies on the notion that accurate and credible facts matter — presumably as does the content you will produce.
Let me add to Rampelt’s point. Often our clients ask us whether “the story” is really so important given that what they want is a sales-focused result — be it leads, conversions or sales.
Our answer is yes, it really is that important.
All results, including those driving to the sale, will be enhanced by ensuring you tell a good story (great story, even better) in whatever format you’re telling it — from text to video to whatever. Even your website copy and content need to follow the rule.
There’s a wonderful example of how effective storytelling creates ROI. In 2009, an outfit called Significant Objects launched an experiment, gathering 100 talented writers, assigning them an object bought for a few dollars as fodder for a fictional story, then putting the object and story up for bid on eBay.
The group was testing a theory: “Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.”
And it did. In their first outing, the group sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. They repeated it several more times, raising money for various charities.
The formats of digital platforms create different challenges — the need for scalability of content, multiple screen sizes, specific requirements of SEO and search.
While they have a huge impact on how we shape and present our content, the elements of effective writing still apply: clear, concise language, well-organized structure of information, clean and error-free copy, an understanding of the audience that will consume what you have to offer so that what you create resonates and creates loyalty.
And again, first and foremost, last and most important, for creating effective content: a compelling story, well told.
So we’re back to the beginning, coming full circle to the most important content marketing advice I can give: Never stop reading.
Do you need more content marketing tips and advice to help you creatine effective and engaging material? You might be interested in:
It took massive public-sector bailouts financed by unprecedented levels of borrowing to reverse the global financial crisis of 2008-09 brought on by rash lending and investment policies of banks in the United States and elsewhere. With the world on the brink of a coronavirus-triggered recession, how is it different this time?
“In 2008, the banks were to blame for the crisis, but the real economy was not in crisis,” CSSF CEO Claude Marx observed recently. “Now we are in the reverse situation, where a health crisis is causing an economic crisis, and…the banks are part of the solution.”
In fact, the abrupt cutback of bank lending in 2008 and 2009 contributed to the plummet of most countries’ economies into recession.
However, Marx notes, the confidence enjoyed by the banking sector is a critical aspect of governments’ response to the current coronavirus pandemic. One reason: new rules designed to ensure that institutions are substantially better capitalised than 12 years ago, as well as guarantee schemes expanded to protect retail deposits.
Increased transparency affecting both regulators and investors, as well as tools such as stress tests, have been established to prevent both a ‘business-as-usual’ mentality and disregard of the lessons of the century’s first decade.
In the grand duchy in particular, cautious business practices are a well-engrained habit already. For that, we can credit the two Luxembourg institutions that required state rescue: Dexia BIL and Fortis Banque Luxembourg, both brought down by the imprudence of their parents abroad.
For the most part, privately-owned commercial banks have played the key role in channelling government funding into loans and guarantees to preserve businesses and jobs.
But Marx acknowledges that the risk of a recession brought on by the coronavirus cannot be ruled out altogether.
If the economic shutdown prompts widespread bankruptcies and defaults on the share of government-backed loans where the risk is retained by commercial institutions, as well as on previous lending, we may be headed again for trouble.
Because of the banks’ capital strength, and in several cases deep-pocketed shareholders, the risk of a coronavirus-based recession affecting Luxembourg is lower than in most other countries.
But policymakers worldwide must consider seriously the risk as the confidence of a rapid rebound that was widespread just months ago — remember the famous V-shaped recession and recovery? — has begun to fade.
Today, economists are illustrating the recovery with hockey stick charts more like Nike’s trademark swoosh logo.
Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell has argued that US economic activity could contract temporarily by as much as 30% and that a full-scale recovery may be delayed until the end of 2021. He says it depends on people regaining confidence that their risk of illness is low, which in turn may rest on the widespread availability of a Covid-19 vaccine.
He expects unemployment to continue to climb for at least another couple of months before a rebound begins in the second half of this year.
Already, the Fed has warned in its semi-annual report on financial stability that US banks are at risk of material losses that could strain even their post-financial crisis capital and liquidity buffers, as well as the billions of dollars they have set aside in provisions for potential non-performing loans.
Any renewal of volatility in financial markets could create additional financial stress if asset prices fall, it adds.
There is also concern in France’s banking sector about the longer-term implications of the government’s credit guarantees. Industry members warn that a significant number of companies taking government-backed loans could be heading for a debt crunch over the next next years — perhaps as early as this summer — given that their profitability is likely to remain depressed for some lime.
Encouraged by the European Central Bank’s ultra-low interest rates, companies have been loading up on debt in the form of bank loans and bond issues for years.
“The risk is that by putting French companies that were already not in good health on life support, we could be adding a financial crisis to today’s consumption crisis, perhaps in a year, when companies are no longer able to refinance themselves and banks may be closing the credit taps,” worries Pierre-Arnoux Mayoly, a partner with law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
Apart from general concern about businesses, especially small ones, and households whose financial equilibrium may have been eroded by loss of income since March, policymakers are closely examining companies in particularly vulnerable sectors, along with those that were already heavily indebted before the pandemic took hold.
Potential problem areas that were already causing concern before the pandemic include highly-leveraged hedge funds disproportionately affected by market volatility and asset price declines.
They also may have contributed to the turbulence by having to sell assets to meet margin calls or reduce portfolio risk. A year ago 14% of US hedge funds accounted for half the industry’s net borrowing.
Red flags are also waving over so-called leveraged loans — lending to companies that were already highly indebted, typically with debt exceeding five times their earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda).
These include a significant number of private-equity-owned companies burdened with debt from their acquisition cost or from special dividends paid to investors — paid not out of profit but additional borrowing.
Analysts say the two high-profile, private equity-owned US retailers, J. Crew and Neiman Marcus, that have filed for bankruptcy over the last two months were crippled by debt burdens — $1.7 billion and nearly $5 billion respectively — that prevented them investing to meet the challenge of e-commerce and new shopping habits.
The sector’s problems aren’t purely coronavirus-recession-related. Indeed, they have been worsened by the steady erosion over the past seven years of loan conditions imposed by banks, especially for leveraged loans and private equity-backed companies.
This trend has developed over the past decade amid rock-bottom interest rates that prompted lenders to compete for the business of more lucrative but riskier borrowers.
According to Moody’s, syndicated leveraged loan covenant quality set a decade-long low in the fourth quarter of 2019, with the majority of credit agreements permitting, for example, collateral-stripping asset transfers, the retention by owners of excess cash flow of the proceeds of asset sales, and substantial ebitda adjustments.
Meanwhile, central banks and regulators have been accommodating with banks in the interests of keeping loans flowing into the economy, allowing institutions to draw on capital buffers introduced since the global financial crisis and to delay for a year compliance with new Basel III capital standards, measures designed to prevent a repeat of the banking sector’s problems in 2007-09.
The European Parliament is considering legislation that would ease stricter bank leverage ratio requirements due to take effect next year.
In addition to a one-year delay, the European Banking Federation also is backing an existing measure that would allow national regulators to exclude deposits held at the European Central Bank from their balance sheet total for the purposes of calculating the ratio.
Some governments want to go further. France’s finance ministry says the government-guaranteed loans issued by banks should receive the same treatment. There are even calls for the state debt on banks’ books to be excluded from leverage ratio calculations, a measure already temporarily in place in the US.
So while the banking industry may be confident right now that this time it is not the problem but the solution, a little caution is appropriate — the potential of a coronavirus recession is very real.
Neither the Covid-19 pandemic nor its economic consequences are close to being fully played out, and not even the most prescient expert can predict with assurance where all the chips are going to fall — or when.
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