Researching the story that tells your story

If content is king, for business content marketing is emperor. And the craft of storytelling sits squarely next to its throne. Research and case studies bear out the truth universally acknowledged that there is no greater power than that of a good story.

As we discussed in our first post in this series, Picking the right story to tell your story is the first step. Now that you have that story in mind, what exactly do you want to say?

How do you ensure it has genuine impact?

And what does that impact look like?

First, just as if you were researching a new product idea, you need to do due diligence. That means you “do your reporting”, as journalists call the act of research. Only when you know your story inside out will you discover the best way to tell it (which we’ll discuss in the third post in this series).

As you launch into reporting, keep in mind where you want the story to go. It’s like following a recipe: you know what you want the dish to look like, and how it should taste. But you need to have the right ingredients in the right combination to get there.

Crucially, during the reporting process, remind yourself that the story isn’t about you – it’s about what you help your customers or clients accomplish.

In fact, the hero of the story should never be you – it should be either the problem you’re solving, or the opportunity you’re creating. After all, no matter how good your story is, it won’t be good for anything if it doesn’t resonate with your audience.

In business, that means your story shows how you can help that audience, either by resolving their problem, answering their needs or fulfilling their dreams.

Consider Airbnb. At its essence, it’s simply about travellers finding a roof over their heads. Explore its website, though, and you’ll find a very different approach: the beauty of being alive, of ‘having experiences’ and revelling in them. An entire section of the website is dedicated to stories from hosts and guests around the world, including blogs and videos.

Stories upon stories. Each one an adventure of its own, “reported” by the traveller to convey the thrill of the trip, in rich detail, illustrating how his or her life has been enhanced – thanks to Airbnb.

Showing, not telling.

In crafting this approach, Airbnb clearly began with a simple question: “Who is the audience and what is our message?”  Once it was decided that its customers are the focus of the story, it became clear that it would be down to these customers to report the story that would perfectly illustrate Airbnb’s value.

The company could talk numbers – the millions of lodgings customers book, the millions of nights reserved via the site, the hundreds of countries, cities and towns in which it operates.

Instead, its focus is to make the story human.

Remember, for you to be successful, your audience must relate to your story, even if that story is highly technical or data-driven. Ultimately, you want to define your value in human terms.

Our brains are far more engaged by powerful images that stay in our minds than by cold, hard facts. A Nielsen study found that consumers want a personal connection when they gather information.

Researchers have amply demonstrated that it’s much easier for our brains to recall stories than data – which means the story should be simple and straightforward, but filled with meaningful detail that relates to the point of the tale. Those are the details you’ll gather as you “report the story.”

In the end, your reporting needs to cover the three key elements driving your story, no matter its length: The problem (the beginning of the story), which leads to the solution (the middle), which drives to your success (the end).

That’s what audiences expect from a good story. That’s what will show them your value.


In this campaign, Guinness nails successful storytelling to market its
brand. The key factor that made this ad a slam-dunk – amassing three million views within four days of its online release – is that it made drinking Guinness a reflection of some of life’s highest values.

Watching people play wheelchair basketball is inspiring in its own right. But when you get to the ‘twist’ in the story – that all but one of the athletes are playing in wheelchairs so that ‘the court is a level field’ – it’s hard not to be still more inspired, and to admire still more their brew of choice.

Then, the voiceover: “The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.”

Great “reporting”, even for a manufactured story: problem (playing an ambulatory sport in wheelchairs), solution (it can be played just as hard, fast and skilfully), success (friendship – and the right beer – overcomes life’s challenges).

Not only is this a powerful, heartfelt story, it relays a surprising and delightful emotional message, promoting loyalty, friendship, resilience and perseverance.

The key elements:

The story is relevant to the target audience: young adults with a focus on maturity, friendship, sports, male bonding and sharing good times.

The message is simple: depicting a group of athletic, beer-drinking men defined as much by their compassion as their physical ability. The slogan seen at the end – “Made of More” – is brief, memorable and resonant.

The focus is on the customers: celebrating the customers (the basketball players), and “what they’re made of.” The product itself, Guinness, has very brief screen time (at the end).

It’s all about people: the product is a supporting character in the story, while the human element is central.

It’s different: not the stereotypical beer ad, Guinness is showing that men can be strong and sensitive.

It’s about the image: creating emotional engagement, Guinness is ensuring that you won’t forget this commercial – or the beer behind it.

Next: Now you’re ready to write the story. Uh, how?

Picking the right story to tell your story

Stories are primal. That’s why the world runs on them.

As novelist Philip Pullman put it, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

And that’s why in recent years storytelling has become an increasing focus for brands and organizations as they recognize that the emotional wallop of well-told stories translates into long-term relationships…and sales.

VitalBriefing tells stories. That’s what our clients pay us for, whatever the format, whatever the content. In this series about storytelling, we’re going to look at what it takes to do it really, really well. With these basics, you’ll recognize a new and effective form of content marketing to drive your business forward.

First, where you must start: Picking the right story to tell.

the floor of an office is strewn with discarded paper balls signifying bad abandoned ideas as a mature businessman sits at a conference table thinking of more ideas to write down.

While there’s loads of science to this – raking over search results, trending topics and Twitter feeds, for example – we’ll focus on the ‘art’ side of the equation. Because there’s an art, too, to finding and selecting the right story to illustrate your value.

A good story is crucial because not only does it connect you to your audience on an emotional, gut level – which is exactly where you want to land your punch – but it also has the power to create trust between you both.

That said, the science matters. The human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories, influencing both its sensory and motor cortex. Simply put: To read a story is to feel an experience.

Scientists call this ‘neural coupling,’ which Princeton researchers have found leads to greater comprehension, understanding, anticipation and receptivity.

When searching for the right story, always ask first: “What’s the human element that will make people pay attention?”

You know that winning audience attention in a fragmented world overloaded with information is a massive challenge. So consider brands with stories that have resonated for decades now – how Jobs and Wozniak built their first Apple computer in a garage, or how Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop started in a renovated gas station on the back of a $5 correspondence course.

Both these tales focus on heroes’ hard work and perseverance to win in the face of overwhelming odds – a universal narrative we can all relate to.

Successful storytelling for a brand or organization is about showing the story rather than just telling it to your customers. You could analyse the business acumen of Ben and Jerry, but what matters is illustrating how they did it, the challenges they had to overcome, and the results: An excellent product that surprises and delights customers.

Ultimately, customer experience is key in the story selection. Consider that consumers are guided first and foremost by emotions (feeling and experiences) rather than information (brand attributes and data) when they’re making purchasing decisions. In fact, loyalty is influenced more by positive emotions toward a brand than mere trust and other judgements that are based on the brand’s characteristics.

But that doesn’t mean you should treat your story as simple marketing, or as a sales pitch. Instead, it should clearly reflect your organisation’s mission and values in order to resonate with your audience – essentially, get them to believe in your story, and they’ll believe in your brand.

Your story should illustrate the value of your business, but first it needs to connect with your target audience. Do you know who they are, how they think, what drives them and what interests them? You should. Then you can grapple with finding the story that will connect with them emotionally, and intellectually.

To get there, think simple – sincere, honest, personal – and try to be as visual as possible. The story should create mental images: Ben & Jerry’s gas station, the Jobs family’s garage.

However, the story should not necessarily focus on you or your company. Instead, it should appeal to your audience’s problems – the spotlight is on them, not you.

By homing in on the right emotional triggers, the best stories will show how you can solve their problems, satisfy their desires, identify opportunities and even threats to their future (B2C), or their business (B2B).

 In short, the right story is the bridge that creates the relationship. From there, you showcase the expertise that can meet their need, whatever it is.

Like we at VitalBriefing are doing with these blog posts. Right?



Patagonia tells the story of how the company’s clothing canbe useful for years through a program called ‘Worn Wear.’ It’s a clothes-recycling program where customers can buy used Patagonia clothes and later trade them back to the store down the road. It’s been so successful that Patagonia even made a movie about it.

For Patagonia, a company that cares strongly about its environmental footprint, this is a powerful story. But why?

  • With the tagline “The stories we wear,” the program plays on sentimentality and nostalgia.
  • It reflects the company’s eco-friendly brand and mission – which matter to its customers.
  • The story is placed directly in the product itself.
  • It incorporates the customer as an element of the story.
  • Trust is created from the moment a customer buys a product and ‘becomes’ the story.
  • The campaign builds and sustains a community and network involving the company and its customers.

Next: Now you’ve got the story, how do you research it to get the best material?

Painting the big picture from media monitoring

There are many ways to monitor media, with many possible outcomes. Like the elephant and the blind men in the ancient parable, it’s easy to draw conclusions based on partial results – at the risk of making costly mistakes. So how do you get “the big picture,” complete with the full intelligence on markets, customers and competitors that will really drive your business forward?

In our first post, we focused on the importance of search technology for filtering – or cherry-picking – the world of news and data. We followed with a deeper dive into media monitoring and the importance of sourcing, filtering and analysing data to gather critical business intelligence.

So now we land at the three central takeaways:

  1. How to get what you need from media monitoring
  2. How to fit the activity into your organisation
  3. How to obtain actionable, accurate and comprehensive results that propel your business, sales and marketing.

Let’s use the classic marketing funnel. Your media monitoring needs will likely tie directly to your specific expertise or role. If, for example, you’re in a branding or early lead generation position, you will focus on monitoring and measuring your brand’s market strength and name recognition. That means you need to analyse whether the coverage meets your messaging goals.
If, on the other hand, your responsibility is to generate sales, feed-driven social media channels have created new opportunities for high-speed analytic and sentiment analysis that push existing boundaries by using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

As different as these needs are, both operate under the “media monitor umbrella” with the same requirements for identifying media activity around your brand and products. Yet, each has its own, very different “next steps” for how to use this intelligence.


Monitoring Brand and Product Coverage

Brand media monitoring, the grandfather of all media services, continues to evolve thanks to technological advances from its early days of cutting-and-pasting news coverage into a clipping notebook (that to our constant surprise we find some companies actually still do – in 2017 – even if few people in those companies tend to use it).

The first big leap of media monitoring’s digital transformation was the introduction of Google Alerts, which gave each everyone the power to monitor media activity via automated emails.  (The convenience factor has only recently been improved by proactive alerts sent directly to computer and mobile screens.)

However, relevancy remains a significant issue as the alerts generate considerable “noise” that derails users with irrelevant term matching, redundancy and – the loudest and most recent challenge – fake news.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning lately have led to significant advances in media monitoring services, enhancing their results and the quality of their analysis. Some key players in this area are Critical MentionLexisNexis Newsdesk  and Cision. Each offers full platform monitoring and analysis supported by international teams.

Critical Mention also provides an API that creates the ability to monitor TV and radio broadcasts. LexisNexis Newsdesk is strongly integrated with LexisNexis industry-leading legal and company research and distribution tools that make research easily shared.

Along with its news and social media tools, Cision’s acquisition of PRNewswire, the world’s leading PR distribution network, offers clients new advantages in global content distribution, influencer outreach and monitoring services.

VitalBriefing is a bit of a different animal within this ecosystem, providing a hands-on service that uses human review by subject experts to ensure that monitoring results are not only relevant, but also matter to the client’s business goals. This relevancy reporting includes a handcrafted summary of each news mention, individually tailored and customised to provide the business intelligence each client needs. In that way, we deliver only essential intelligence to inform and drive the decisions you must make.


Media Monitoring to Boost Sales

If brand monitoring is the grandfather, social media monitoring – especially with the advancing capabilities of marketing automation and bot capabilities – is the toddler just learning to walk.

Social media monitoring is experiencing the same evolution in search filtering and discovery that’s advancing brand monitoring.  But it has an extra advantage from technology that monitors both high-velocity activities, such as current events, as well as low-speed, 24/7 requests (for example when a client posts a question on a company’s Facebook page) and, finally, crisis communications that can occur at any time.

Regardless of the technology and processes you use, brand and media monitoring will give you insight into what the media and your customers are saying about you. But that’s only the elephant’s trunk. It won’t tell you whether you’re missing coverage of your brand or what’s going on in your markets – or open new sales opportunities.
Nor will it give you the deeper insights you need to analyse the overall health of your business and status of your industry.

Neither robots nor natural language processing nor automation technology can do what human eyes and skills can: Paint the entire elephant.


– post by Tim McGuinness

Media Monitoring: Your recipe for successful sourcing, filtering and processing news

Effective media monitoring requires a mix of ingredients, blending both efficient search technology and hands-on expert human review. As discussed in our last post, this is one part of the “secret sauce” that goes into producing relevant and actionable business intelligence. But what’s the complete recipe for success?

We use the term “search” to describe the overall activity of finding the exact news you need to power media monitoring programmes. Now let’s break it down into three essential steps: sourcing, filtering and processing.

Generally, these steps could fit into any media monitoring programme. But reaching your business goals can get messy if you move ahead without understanding what each process and its underlying technology can – and cannot – do.

While these aren’t the only examples – and it’s important to realise that these systems exist in silos – you need to be certain that the option you choose is relevant to the business intelligence you need.


  1. SourcingEvery media-monitoring campaign starts with the need to identify and gather the right results. You’re at the open end of a fat pipe of available media and data, and to manage it, it’s essential that you identify the right data sources to supply your programme.

The criteria? Relevancy. Accuracy.  Trustworthiness. Timeliness.

Via automated crawling and indexing, general search engines such as GoogleBing and DuckDuckGo cast the widest net as they set out to find everything published on the internet. Other “Internal” or “Deep Web” engines focus on internal servers and research databases that fence themselves off from the general search engines.  Other more targeted applications may only focus on postings found in social media feeds like FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to monitor more conversational social chatter.


  1. FilteringNarrowing the data stream to meet the targeted needs of your business intelligence requires a consistent and high level of precise filtering. Those filters need to be updated and maintained according to the changing flow both of daily events and data.

You should strive for results that are consistent each day so that you can follow that evolution of events – yet flexible so that they adjust for changes in the news cycle. You also need to block unwanted repetition, especially when a single outlet may have the same story reposted at multiple URLs – to save yourself from drowning in time-wasting material.

Redundancy, or blocking duplication, depends on your goals. For instance, let’s say you need to track how far a story about a product recall was published. In that case, you want to count all the media outlets that ran an article about the event – even if it’s the exact same story – because you want to calculate overall views. Of course, a human curator would help identify if two stories published on, say, the New York Times website were simply the same or if one is about the product recall announcement and the other a journalist’s first-hand report of the situation.

However, if your media monitoring is designed to focus only on capturing the top news affecting your business or industry, then the filtering needs to remove all those redundant stories. Once you have the story from a verifiably reliable source, the rest are just burning your time and resources.


  1. Analysis: Now that you have found and filtered the content, time to analyse. The key goal here is to generate actionable business intelligence.

You can get this done with a system as familiar as Google’s indexing and page ranking algorithm, or with one of many services such as Cision’s media monitoring package that focus on coverage of online media outlets and social media channels.

For now, general search engines, with their ability to rank the most important articles and filter out duplicates, offer the best technology available for monitoring key news developments and identifying the best stories. While you could draw similar analysis from Internal or Deep Web search, you need difficult-to-acquire access to secure servers and the ability to authenticate across firewall security.

If your goal is to gather analytics or measure sentiment, then social media analysis applications like Crimson Hexagon or Adobe Marketing Cloud are the current go-to tools.


In the next post, we will look at how you can get the most out of this process by using cross-monitoring and analysis.


– post by Tim McGuinness

How to cherry-pick business intelligence among the “fake news”

To bake the best cherry pie you need the best cherries – but how do you identify them? Two obvious solutions: Ask your grocer or ask Google. Of course, ask Google and you get – literally – three million results.

But what if you could combine the grocer’s knowledge and experience with the best information on the internet?

Search filtration, curation and analysis does just that – whether you’re looking for information about fruit or seeking actionable intelligence for your business.

Creative Commons – Matt McGee

Ask Google about “Global Finance Trends,” for example, and you get three million results. That’s right – 3,000,000. The information you seek is in there somewhere. But where?

Search engines’ algorithms – their “secret sauce” that the rest of us can only guess at – analyse and rank results based on complex calculations related to relevancy, popularity and even your geographic location in order to return the most pertinent information. At least, that’s the theory. The reality is the 3,000,000 results.

How can you be sure that the first link, or even the second or 10th, is the cherry on the cake you need?

At the moment, the success of your search is now fully on your shoulders. You must wade through the list of results, filter for the most relevant – and hope you find the information you want. The clock ticks and your work piles up as you scroll through outdated information and repeated stories, while stumbling across irrelevant articles – and suffering the spreading plague of dreaded “fake news” that has managed to elude the search engine’s filter and ranking algorithms.

Can you afford to waste your time?


Why human filters matters

With data being generated at lightning speed across every sector and industry in today’s digital landscape, the need for precise filtration and analysis has never been greater. Efficient search algorithms are a significant foundation, but they must underlie human knowledge and experience – the skilled cherry-picker.

Because technology alone doesn’t solve the problem, we created VitalBriefing, our global network of professional journalists and editors working directly with clients to review and evaluate all digitally-available news and research materials served up by search engines and databases to produce actionable, easy-to-digest, business intelligence on their schedule and to their specifications.

The human layer makes the difference: Our staff know what matters to our clients, reviewing, summarising and fact-checking the information to ensure the veracity of the business intelligence we provide.

We believe the best value is delivered by merging the best technology and journalistic skills. While search-only and artificial intelligence-based solutions get results, they often lack relevance, and leave users wondering if something is missing, either from the overall coverage or within the news itself.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own use of search more efficient and useful. In upcoming posts, I will peel back the technology to discuss how our search capabilities work on external sources to pull in the information relevant to your business. I will also address how analysing internal data enables us to refine results and understand the value of news to clients.

In short, I’ll share our “secret sauce” so that you can be more efficient in your work.


– post by Tim McGuinness

Content Marketing: If the Crowds Are Engaged, the ROI Will Follow

Content marketing pre-dates the printing press, but in this age of information overload and endless product pitches, it’s never been as important – or as effective – as now. That said, the question on marketers’ minds as they consider their annual budgets is as old as the printing press: What’s the ROI?

At the strategic level, content marketing focuses on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and retain well-defined audiences – and to drive them to a specific action. In practice, it means creating and effectively telling a story to illustrate a product or service, but not as intrusive, distracting or irritating advertising.

In other words, as we define it at VitalBriefing, bringing valuable information that helps guide your clients and customers into the decisions they need to make even if it’s not your product or service they eventually buy.

Sound counter-intuitive? It’s not. The point of the content, as Heidi Cohen, author of the Actionable Marketing Guide puts it, is to give customers and prospects “useful information” before, during or after a purchase. The narrative, in turn, should and will drive business if the customers find it truly useful. (A mistake we see marketers often make: placing their product pitch at the center of the content –reinforcing the notion that the source of the content only wants to ‘sell them, not help them.’). If the content is valuable, showing off your thought leadership, they’ll hold you and your service in high esteem.

I love this pre-Internet example (remember those prehistoric days?): In 1982, Hasbro and Marvel teamed up to create a comic book series called “G.I. Joe – A Real American Hero!” with the goal of selling more action toys. As consultant and tech company co-founder Neil Patel points out, seven years later two of every three American boys from ages 5-12 owned at least one G.I. Joe.

Tough to argue with that ROI.

The digital age has brought content marketing to the fore as a marketer’s principal weapon, as savvy professionals increasingly acknowledge. In 2013, a survey of marketers by Adobe and Econsultancy, cited by, found nearly 40% naming content marketing as a top priority – up 10 points from the year before. Since then, a 2016 survey of North American B2B marketers finds a full 88% using content marketing – the “most effective” among them allocating 42% of their budgets to it, and more than half planning to increase that spend in 2017.

How do they measure the value? Three ways:

– Higher conversion rates

– Lead generation

– Sales

Reviewing available literature and studies, the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) points out that “content marketing ROI is higher than the average marketing ROI in every place” they looked. At the Content Marketing World, Kraft’s former senior director for data, content and media said that content marketing ROI was four times greater than their most targeted advertising.

Think about it and it makes sense.

Source: Content Marketing Institut 

With more than 27 million pieces of content shared every day, according to AOL/Nielsen, people are hungry for good content that helps them understand their world, and make solid decisions. In a 2013 marketing survey, 77% of marketing respondents said their content marketing had increased website traffic, 71% said it pushed up their search engine rankings and 70% reported growing public awareness of their brands. “The more you can publish on your site, the better your rankings will become,” content marketing specialist Deborah Bates writes. “It really is as simple as that.”

These are good metrics to set when thinking about ROI as you craft your content marketing strategy. “Shares” are another one – how often your content is passed along via social media. Time spent on your site is also useful.

Calculators such as this one and other statistical measuring tools track ROI through “increased organic rankings as a direct result of earning a diverse, high-quality link portfolio,” according to SEO consultants Moz. But some experts argue – and I agree with them – that the best ROI metric of all is engagement – how and to what extent your audience is involved with the content you create and promote to them.

Source: Fractl

To develop those metrics, you need to have a clear call-to-action that lets you track the performance. These include conversion, scrolling and comments on the piece.

Effective content marketers by far use blogs, case studies, e-newsletters and articles placed on websites as their preferred formats. Their four favorite distribution channels, unsurprisingly, are LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Once you set the metrics and goals, you can start measuring how well your content is performing. If you get it right, you’ll be able to determine the real ROI on the content, as effective content marketers have mastered.

Source: Content Marketing Institute


In the 2017 U.K. Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends Report, CMI found 65% of marketers could demonstrate how content marketing had increased the number of their leads, 61% could show how it increased audience engagement, 54% could demonstrate increased sales and one-third said it had decreased their cost of customer acquisition.

So…what are you waiting for? Build it into your thinking and your budget. And start measuring the results.

Scanning the Tower of Babel

We recently uncovered a reference to one of our clients in a newspaper from the Dutch Caribbean in Papiamento – a Creole language spoken in the region unknown even to Google Translate

For many companies in the financial sector and outside, the disclosure of the Panama Papers documents has been a wake-up call about how critical media monitoring can be. That’s especially so in
the second phase of publication, where a vast array of data on some 200,000 offshore companies has been placed in the public domain, open for anyone from corporate analysts to bloggers to search for and extract information, sometimes in context, sometimes not.

Information about your company can appear anywhere – and in any language.
It’s in moments like those that being able to combine advanced search techniques with a broad range of linguistic capabilities can really pay dividends. You simply can’t afford not to pay attention on an ongoing basis to when, where, how and in what context your company’s name – and reputation – are showing up on the web. And in languages your clients or competitors may understand.

Fintech: The Regulator Cometh

Much of our weekly Global Fintech Briefing deals with innovation in areas such as mobile payments, blockchain technology and biometric authentication, as well as funding deals and new accelerator initiatives. But in the last couple of months one term has cropped up significantly more frequently than in the past: ‘regulation’.

As upstart financial technology firms gain critical mass and start trying to eat incumbent financial institutions’ lunch – or sell traditional institutions the products and services they need to stay relevant – it’s clear that they will have to come to grips with at least some of the regulatory constraints and burdens with which established banks, asset managers and others are wearily familiar. The issue is no longer whether it will happen, but how and when.

The picture’s not all gloomy. To their credit, supervisory authorities are looking at how to draw a line that will protect the consumer but avoid strangling innovators with red tape. Some, as in the UK and Australia, are devising ‘fintech sandbox’ arrangements through which new products can be tested without being subjected to fully-fledged compliance requirements. But it’s an aspect of fintech that will loom larger as the sector progresses. No wonder ‘regtech’ is the newest buzzword in incubator facilities from Mountain View to Mumbai.


Global Fintech Briefing

Why We Love Email Newsletters

VitalBriefing email newsletters adapt perfectly to any device and screen size, critical to maximum readability

I’m reading Gleick’s magisterial survey, The Information, instead of chewing off my fingernails as I usually do in the dog days of summer when everyone else heads to the beach.

I swear that his use of “vital” had no bearing on our choice of company name. But it certainly does now.

Although cutting-edge technology is a key component of how we create our vital information, we’ve chosen the Internet’s equivalent of the Gutenberg Press as the channel for delivering the “blood and the fuel” to our clients.

I’m referring to that timeless workhorse, the email newsletter, a format the late New York Times columnist David Carr referred to as “an old-school artefact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections.”

Yet, that was just the first half of his thought, concluding that the artefacts “are not only still around, but very much on the march.”

I’ve always had a healthy respect for newsletters, possibly because they’ve been a consistent feature of my career. In fact, my relationship with the format goes back to my early life as a journalist about a million years ago.

One of my first jobs out of university was as a reporter on a coal industry newsletter in Washington, D.C. The six-page weekly report, printed on orange paper and sent via snail mail (the U.S. Postal Service), had a highly appreciative industry audience that hung on its every issue. We routinely scooped major media because we were so highly focused on our niche area, subject-expert journalists digging deep to unearth and explore the most important and behind-the-scenes developments in the industry.

Years later, the first digital media company I founded, in Silicon Valley, specialized in creating and producing email newsletters for media clients that were highly valued by millions of their subscribers.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when all our initial product testing for VitalBriefing found that the most efficient and valued way to deliver essential, must-have business intelligence to the financial industry, or indeed to any industry, was via — wait for it — email newsletters.

In this era of information overload, it’s interesting how people respond to the idea of email newsletters. We’re used to hearing this from prospective clients: “Oh, I get a million email newsletters and trash them. But there’s this one that gives me exactly what I’m looking for…”

So when we decided to use newsletters as our main channel, our goal was easy to define: We want to be that one.

We consistently test this with our clients, and what we hear over and over again is just that: “I open my VitalBriefing newsletter first thing.” And it’s gratifying to see that this many years later, the best, most relevant and timely newsletters continue to cut through the noise as a valued means of conveying curated information.

It makes sense. We combine advanced search technology and subject-expert curation to create concise, targeted summaries that our clients need to see quickly, efficiently and in a format they can quickly absorb.

Newsletters, well designed and adjusting automatically to any size screen or device, offer a perfectly organized “wrapping” for that kind of content.

“Newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos,” Carr wrote.

A study by Quartz, a digital news site that sends highly popular general news newsletters surveyed 940 global executives and found that email newsletters were more valued than the Internet and mobile apps as a source for news. Key findings:

  • 44% of executives are more focused on news when they wake up (That’s why VitalBriefing’s newsletters are delivered at 6 a.m.).
  • 77% of finance industry executives spend a minimum 30 minutes a day consuming news and 44% spend a minimum 60 minutes. (Our business intelligence newsletters keep clients on top of everything they need to know).
  • 60% read an email newsletter as one of their first three news sources each day, and 54% of finance executives include email newsletters among their top three sources for news about their industry (which explains why they continue to tell us they prefer email newsletters as our mainproduct).
  • 47% finance executives pay for digital news. (They understand that the best, most valuable content about specific industries has a cost. They pay us to monitor their brand reputation, their competitors and clients, key industry developments – and they pay us for the quality of the subject-specific journalism backing the information.)

Quartz’s conclusion? “In the past few years,” says Gideon Lichfield of Quartz, “we have started to see email as a peer to publishing platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the web.”

Despite the shift of attention to social media, and to the “next next thing,” all the signs continue to point to the email newsletter, that relic of the Internet’s early days, as still the single best vehicle for shipping the blood and fuel to our clients.

Birthday Greetings: We Curate To Save Your Sanity

In preparing for a presentation this week, I ran across this quote from one of my favourite authors:

“The enemy,” Saul Bellow wrote in an essay, “is noise.”

Want to talk about noise? Bellow wrote that long before the Internet.

Do a Google search for any subject and try to sift through the millions of results. Need more noise, literally? Then set some Google alerts and drive yourself into insanity with the cacophony of pings that will leave you with tinnitus. I just got off the phone with the VP of a global financial player whose Google alerts hound him from morning to night.


So much distraction, so little time.

Bellow brought me back to December, 2010, when VitalBriefing was a gleam in my mind’s eye, sparked during a walk on the beach by a phone conversation with a banker friend complaining that he was “drowning in information” and planned to use his entire holiday vacation to try to “filter the noise.”

Six months of intense market research confirmed that my friend was one of the great masses struggling with the enemy…and losing. And that explains our first tag line when we founded the company:

VitalBriefing, the cure for information overload.

At the time, the market was overtaken by the quest for the Holy Grail: algorithmic, automated solutions that could cut out the middleman and get you exactly what you were looking for. Machines over pesky, expensive, non-scalable humans to find exact results.

In other words, machines that would understand meaningYour meaning.

We went against that grain because Artificial Intelligence, smart as it is, just isn’t smart enough to crack that nut.

“No matter what their proponents (and sellers) say, algorithms aren’t intelligent,” writes Jean-Louis Gassée, a venture capitalist, blogger and former president of Apple Products. “They’re dressed up in rich-sounding names and euphemisms such as “Machine Learning,” or oxymorons such as “Affective Computing,” but however they’re decorated, algorithms don’t understand meaning.”

So instead, we decided to use available technology and the algorithms to survey the vast universe of available information on specific subjects our clients needed to follow.

To find the meaning – to beat the enemy – we hired expert human editors, top financial journalists who could create the exact information our clients were struggling to stay on top of. In other words, we would use the machines to survey the universe of available information, while humans would provide the specific and precise meaning our clients in the financial industry hungered for.

A small group of long-time friends from media and banking who believed in the concept joined the visionary Luxembourg Economy Ministry in backing us financially. Meanwhile, dozens of others – rich investors, VC’s and business angels – rejected our concept as “unscalable,” “not technology focused,” “too reliant on humans.”

We went ahead anyway, exactly four years ago this month – cue up “Happy Birthday to us” – and founded VitalBriefing.

And we quickly discovered that we were ahead of the wave. Convincing key financial industry players of the value of humans over machines proved a tough sell at the beginning.

Yet, a brave few among Luxembourg-based financial institutions were ready to start surfing that wave with us. We were gratified to find that our value for them was immediate and measurable: For the CEO and his executive teams, our products resonated as we hoped they would – curated, essential, must-have business intelligence, exactly what they needed to know, timely, reliable and relevant.

The mark of that success was that they soon ordered our products to be expanded first to dozens, then hundreds and in some cases to thousands of staffers.

What had started as “nice-to-have” products quickly became “must-have.” Our clients not only renewed their contracts with us, they deepened them, asking us to develop new services – business-critical information to keep them on top of their industry, competitors, clients, as well as their own brand.

Since then, we’ve evolved from “the cure for information overload” to “intelligence that moves your business: Your job, your clients and your career depend on it.”

And I’ve watched with increasing pleasure as the rest of the world acknowledges what we knew way back when:

“Human curation is back,” writes Gassée. “The limitations of algorithmic curation of news and culture has prompted a return to the use of actual humans to select, edit, and explain,”

“Apple is placing a big bet on human editors with a strong knowledge and a love of music,” Business Insider recently wrote about Apple’s foray into curated music with Apple Music. “The idea is that these human editors, like the radio dj’s of yesteryear, will help turn Apple Music into a great way to discover new music.”

We’re happy to be the Apple Music of financial intelligence – helping our clients around the world to uncover new opportunities while protecting and deepening their existing business.

So I will immodestly wish my colleagues, investors and especially our highly valued VitalBriefing clients a Happy 4th Birthday to us. Many happy returns.

From one human being to millions of others.