Behind the Headlines With Ray Hennessey
Ray Hennessey, chief innovation officer at JConnelly, says to create good content you need to first understand what your audience needs and wants. Then, figure out how your brand can solve those problems.
In this interview, Ray discusses what makes good storytelling, why audiences are ignoring brand content and how to provide authenticity in your communication with your audience.
You recently joined JConnelly as chief innovation officer. What are you most excited for? What will your new role entail?
Growth is driven by change. A lot of people have good ideas, but very few actually put those into practice and build businesses around them. What attracted me to JConnelly was the commitment Jenn and the team have to trying new things. That spirit of innovation and change needs to be intentional and from the top down. It has to be part of the culture.
JConnelly wanted to make it such an important part of the DNA at the firm that it created an executive-level position to look at new business models and opportunities, explore new technology that could help clients think through strategic problems in a more creative way. That makes this role, and what I’m doing to support all those things, a differentiator for the firm.
How will your background in journalism give you an edge in this role?
The best journalists aren’t always the best writers. They’re the best reporters. They know how to find a good story and frame it in a way that is compelling and meaningful for the audience.
Audiences are getting much more used to getting news from blended formats, where they are experiencing straight news, native content and marketing messaging, all together. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have really reset the way we consume information, but that makes finding the right story to tell and serving the audience all the more important.
A journalism background – meaning the real shoe-leather, digging dirt kind of reporting – is essential whether you’re writing a news story, crafting a media message or coming up with a marketing plan.
With so much content saturating the marketplace, how can brands stand out?
Well, first, there’s the quality problem. There’s a lot of content out there, but most of it is dreadful. There’s an assembly-line mentality to content development that misses the point: this has to be good narrative.
Narrative is something most brands don’t think about. Instead, they think about what message points they need to deliver. But it makes no sense to do that without a broader narrative.
Audiences have access to more information than ever before, but they don’t have an infinite capacity to consume. We only have one brain, and time is becoming our most precious commodity. So audiences tend to ignore most content that comes in their direction.
Knowing what it is that grabs them, and knowing how to effectively put a compelling narrative in front of them, is a differentiating factor and gets an audience. It really is that simple, but I am amazed at how many brands fear providing an authentic, honest message.
What are the biggest content marketing mistakes that brands make?
I actually hate the term “content marketing.” It puts the focus on “marketing” and assumes that its end result is simply sales conversion. Nowadays, you have to engage with the audience. You have to talk with an audience, not talk at them.
I’m amazed brands are still hiring content marketing people who feel all that’s needed is managing a blog with thinly veiled marketing messages. It’s such a waste of resources. Brands would be best served trying to figure out what their own customers and clients want and need and then providing them with narrative that meets those interests.
You should almost never mention a product or service in true content marketing narrative. Rather, you should be building a community around those themes with which they identify.
Once you build that community, and commit to serve it with deep communication and true engagement, those folks are more likely to have an affinity to your brand and they will give you the honor of giving their dollars. That’s the conversion promise inherent in good content.
It’s no secret digital has changed the way we communicate. What are some of the ways brands need to adapt?
Social media is how we interact with one another, and that’s driven by mobile. Mobile, social-first community-building is not the future. It’s the present, but most brands don’t see that. I marvel at that, since most people ignore how they themselves communicate when deciding how to message and market the brands they manage.
What’s bizarre about this is that conversations are happening in plain sight. You can see in real time what your customers or potential customers are discussing. You can get more data about clients now than ever before.
For the first time in history, customers are practically begging brands to solve their problems. But brands see social media as a way to collect information but haven’t figured out a way to use that to more deeply engage and solve problems. It’s responsive. Brands need to start and manage the conversation and build communities and networks.
How do you envision the future of digital communication?
I would love to adapt the Tinder model to other brands. Think of what Tinder does: It synthesizes a very small, snack-sized message – this is what I look like, these are my interests – and then sparks the ability to continue a conversation.
That self-selected filtering leads to one end: a human interaction. That’s where the value is in digital communication: the human, face-to-face meeting. Information becomes more valuable when it is scarce.
Customers and clients of any brand are getting used to controlling their interests and interactions. Brands that capitalize on the opportunity to provide real, engaged human interaction at the end of that information funnel have the best chance of building the kinds of communities that can be loyal to them.
And storytelling is a key part of that. A perfect romance is someone whose life story complements the story of someone else. Connection for brands comes when their story dovetails into the life stories of their customers.
What advice do you have for brands looking to improve their communication strategies?
Be real. Be authentic. Tell the truth. Consumers are sovereign. Brands aren’t just the sum of the message they are trying to project, but also the perception of the audience they’re trying to acquire. Those audiences don’t like deceit. They want a trusting relationship.
I’ve always felt the best PR and marketing stories come from the perspective of the audience. There’s nothing better than seeing and showing a customer whose life was changed for the better because of a brand’s product.
But too many communication professionals get caught up in enforcing the message the brand wants to project, rather than embracing the authentic way the brands are touching their communities. That isn’t authenticity. And that’s why so much messaging gets ignored. If brands took more time to listen, rather than squawk, they’d succeed more.
Rapid Fire Round
1. My hobbies outside of work include…translating modern books into Latin, cooking and really awful golf.
2. If I won the lottery, I’d…I try to live my life thinking everything I would do if I won the lottery is available to me now, provided I worked for it. So I would be doing exactly what I’m doing.
3. I always thought I’d be…a priest. Really.
4. My hidden talent is…plumbing.
5. One thing most people don’t know about me is…I’m deathly allergic to chocolate.
6. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…a recognition that every day is precious, and we get far too few of them, so you honor life by jumping out of bed and absorbing all a day has to offer.
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