Q5: In a remote world, comms is king — Browning-de Villiers [interview]
by Carey Finn. Sarah Browning-de Villiers, Machine_ chief content officer, talks about the challenges lockdowns and remote work have posed to communications for companies, and possible solutions — including the agency’s StoryStackr tool.
Q5: Tell us about StoryStackr: what exactly is it, and, in concrete terms, what does it do?
Sarah Browning-de Villiers: StoryStackr is an immersive digital storytelling experience — an experiential tool that offers rich, interactive and personalisable content across devices, via a simple link. It was built and is owned by Machine_ in partnership with our Publicis Data Sciences practice. We designed StoryStackr to integrate with third-party platforms and applications, so that our clients — who typically have significant existing investments in data and storage systems, and CRM and sales platforms already — can easily integrate StoryStackr into their ecosystem. For example, we’re creating a content marketing-led onboarding experience for a loyalty programme client. Members will experience StoryStackr from the day they join. This integrates with the client’s existing CRM platform, Marketo, so that the onboarding StoryStackr experience is automatically delivered on the most relevant platform for that member: via DMs on social channels, email, WhatsApp or SMS.
The onboarding StoryStackr experience can interface with existing apps like the client’s customer service chatbot or sales bot. So, you start creating this rich content marketing experience that doesn’t feel, to the member, at all like a heavily branded product experience; but it’s feeding into the brand’s overall insights and systems. It improves the quality of the experience on the members’ end while arming our client with a much better view of how to best service and understand this new member moving forwards. As part of this, clients receive access to a live StoryStackr analytics dashboard, and we facilitate remarketing implementation.
For me, the real power of StoryStackr is in the content marketing strategic smarts that are applied to it. We’re using StoryStackr with clients to bring alive everything from onboarding and training experiences to always-on CRM content marketing and more. As part of this, we’re reimagining these typically transactional or hard-sell customer experiences into content marketing ones: where the content has distinct value from the brand or product. We strategically position clients as experts in areas relating to their target audience or offering, and then craft content marketing stories around these to build meaningful engagement. We don’t lead with the brand or the product; we lead with the added value. That’s how sustained, authentic communities and customers with deep lifetime value to brands are built.
Q5: Did you have StoryStackr in the works before the lockdown became a reality, or did you create it in response to the restrictions caused by the pandemic?
SBDV: We’d been working on the idea of StoryStackr before the covid-19 pandemic hit in response to our internal frustration that our content marketing smarts weren’t necessarily being distributed via the best tools or platforms. As part of Publicis Groupe Africa, we had the talent between Machine_ and Publicis Data Sciences to dream this up ourselves, and the backing of our Groupe to create it. It’s been a passion project for many of us involved, including my colleague Franco Hanekom, who manages analytics at Publicis Data Science and who poured many weekends and evenings into this!
That said, covid-19 was a significant catalyst for StoryStackr because it necessitated quickly taking us out of beta-testing and into go-live. At Machine_, we work with Sanlam on [its] internal communications, and that went into overdrive as lockdown hit South Africa. We quickly had to think about how to break through email fatigue, as well as how to launch a new internal magazine, known as Sanlam Connect, during the pandemic. The answer was StoryStackr, and Sanlam trusted us to become our launch partner.
I think one of the things that was most powerful about it was that the launch issue included an interactive staff survey, which had a big uptake internally at a time when feeling connected to a business the size of Sanlam’s was a real challenge for the internal communications team. There was a lot of engagement and honest feedback coming back into the business via the StoryStackr interactive survey about how people were feeling, what they wanted to hear more of from the business, and so on.
Q5: In what other ways has Machine_ adapted to the pandemic? What is your approach to team communications and remote working?
SBDV: I think Machine_ pretty quickly adapted logistically to working from home, but it [has been] tough to take a creative agency that thrives on collaboration, and move that into a virtual space. Collaboration via Microsoft Teams or Zoom just isn’t the same! We’re also really proud of the partnerships we build with our clients: a lot of that is down to the amount of facetime we put in — many of my team typically hot-desk at client offices a few days a week — and that has been put on hold.
But Machine_ has always been really good at culture; we have continued this during lockdown, holding our internal inspirational talk series, Spark*, close to bi-weekly. We do e-working meetings, where everyone logs onto Microsoft Teams for a few hours each week and simply works away individually while in a virtual meeting room. It’s not the same as sitting next to your colleagues at the office, catching conversations and laughs in between your focused work, but it goes some way in replicating this. We’ve also ramped up internal and client-facing status meetings, to stay as close to one another as we possibly can in this new reality we face. Turning on your camera during a VC is a key component of this.
Machine_ is currently still working from home, but we do have access to our offices in Joburg and Cape Town, should we need to make use of them. The offices are, however, limited to Machine_ employees only, which means client interactions are still taking place via virtual meetings. Our WFH/office policy will continue to shift in line with [national] legislation.
Q5: Let’s talk about digital content for a minute. How do you see it changing in the coming months?
SBDV: On one side, we’ve certainly seen digital content consumption in general increase. It makes sense: we’ve been stuck at home, bored, seeking out entertainment, education and up-to-date real news from the one device we all have: our phones. Watershed activism movements have only heightened how glued we are to social and digital news channels, as we follow these incredibly pivotal and historical moments online. We do also know that everyone is demanding more of brands — they can’t just sell you something; they need to stand for something, authentically. This isn’t just about an esoteric brand vision, a CSI initiative or a diverse board committee; it’s about the kind of content a brand is creating for its customers, outside of its need to sell or convert. To me, it’s about the kind of content marketing brands are investing in, where they intentionally choose to invest in creating content that adds value to their customers lives and their interests, distinct from their commercial objectives.
According to Edelman’s 2020 report, trust has never been more critical for brands: 80% of respondents believe[s] it’s a brand’s responsibility to help them solve their problems and 64% expect[s] brands to be a reliable source of information. Perhaps more impactful are the stats that show real brand trust cannot be bought: 59% agree[s] that brands build trust through industry experts and “people like themselves”, presumably by creating content marketing that reflects this. Nearly seven in 10 put strategies in place to avoid paid media strategies by using things like ad blockers — a sure sign that brands need to be more native with their marketing approach. Digitally, to me, that means increasingly adopting a content marketing approach.
We’ve all seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs triangle and we all know the human truths that re-emerge in times of crisis: safety and security matter most in uncertain times. Consumers tend to revert back to the brands they’ve known and trusted for years. Consumers remember not just the cheapest, fastest, flashiest product but what the brand behind it stands for, and whether or not it was there to empower, inform and educate them (for free) when they needed it most. I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time for brands to invest in a content marketing strategy that puts down far deeper roots for them among audiences and customers than this quarter’s special offer and campaign.
I do think it’s also worth mentioning here something else happening in South Africa, too. We’ve seen some of the most iconic print media titles buckle under economic pressure: Media24 announced its intent to take historical titles like Drum to digital-only, while publishing houses like Caxton and Associated Media Publishing have folded completely. There is a real vacuum being created in our country around strong, editorial print media, and I think this is going to enforce a nostalgic rebirth of niche, luxury print media. I honestly believe that the brands [which] can deliver a premium print content marketing experience to their customers will have the opportunity to create a powerful touchpoint that will deliver long-term loyalty. I think it’s worth remembering this, even in digital content discussions (or, perhaps, most especially in digital content discussions). As always, an omnichannel approach is likely the best; being digital-only isn’t necessarily the way of the future, oddly.
Q5: Do you think lockdowns have made screen fatigue more of an issue for consumers? How can content strategists work around it?
SBDV: I certainly think screen fatigue is real but the hunger for and enjoyment of relevant, value-adding content I don’t think will ever fade. The key is to be delivering this, which is a content marketing strategist’s role for their client. Again, relevancy of content often means delivering something that has authentic meaning in a user’s life (ie content marketing), and is delivered in a relevant way (right channel, right time) and via a relevant experience (eg StoryStackr). Getting that full circle right is becoming increasingly critical for sustained success.