Optimising PR Outreach with BuzzStream and SendGrid

As a ‘fairly’ new digital business, a large part of what we do relies on reaching out to potential prospects via email. Having spent the last two weeks dealing with Microsoft and Google, it’s fair to say their systems are NOT geared towards helping new businesses in this arena.

Like domain authority, new businesses need to deal with email authority and freshness of your business IPs. Both these properties can affect email sendability. Any potential bounced, blocked, unreachable emails will count negatively towards your email authority and affect your ability to reach mailboxes in future.

We needed a system to monitor and report on email outreach efficiency, which is where SendGrid comes in. By hooking up SendGrid to BuzzStream we are able to route traffic for outreach away from Microsoft and Google servers and have the ability to monitor the efficiency of our outreach and continually improve.

Here are the steps you need to follow to hook up BuzzStream to a G-Suite account and send through SendGrid.

There’s a fair bit of technical jargon so feel free to get a developer friend to decipher!

Integrating SendGrid with BuzzStream

Step 1 – You’ll need to sign up to a SendGrid account and go for an Email API plan – depending on how many mails you send.

Step 2 – Once you’ve signed up you will need to authorise your domain on the account – look for ‘Sender Authentication’ under ‘Settings’.

Step 3 – Go through the setup options and you’ll be served with some CNAME info that needs adding to your domain records – you’ll need to get help from someone who has access to the domain records to do this.

Step 4 – In BuzzStream you’ll have already set up your G-Suite mail that you’re using for outreach.

Step 5 – In SendGrid you need to set up an SMTP relay.

Step 6 – On the next page create a key – any label you want to provide should be fine. Click ‘Create Key’ and you’ll be presented with details that you’ll need to save. In particular.

      • Server
      • Username
      • Password

Step 7 – In BuzzStream connect a new account.

 

Step 8 – Click ‘Next’ and then ‘Click here to associate existing IMAP credentials with this email account’ and then choose your existing G Suite connection.

Step 9 – Click, next and fill in SendGrid’s details you saved in Step 6.

Click save and that’s it. Your mail is now passing through SendGrid’s servers rather than Google and you’ll have access to the monitoring functions of SendGrid to then optimise your PR outreach.

Any questions on optimising outreach and PR campaigns feel free to contact any of us.

As I write this post, connective3 is just four months old.

In the past four months we have achieved exceptional growth allowing us to work with global clients, build a team of 16, receive multiple award nominations, acquire companies and renovate a large city centre office space in Leeds.

Even though we are a new agency we have the approach of a much bigger, more established agency. Our team have decades of collective agency experience behind them and have combined their big agency experience, with the agility of a small start-up approach, which is why, I believe we have been able to achieve such fast levels of growth.

Growing your agency

For new agencies, the most common way to achieve growth and to establish a stable client base is to work with smaller brands initially, until you’ve carved out your market share and established yourself. When working with brands of this size, it’s likely that you’re meeting with a relatively small team, pitching ideas into just one or two people who could be the founders, the SEO team or someone similar. With so few stakeholders to win over, your ideas are easy to sign off and the concepts are usually less important than the links that they gain.

The challenging stage comes once you’ve grown and started to work with larger companies, and you realise that roles and the focuses of the teams that you pitch to have changed significantly. Now, you will have to sell ideas into the brand team, the PR team, SEO and possibly even legal and finance teams. There are more hoops for you to jump through, and there are more eyeballs on the work you create.

In my opinion the above scenario is why many digital PR’s struggle. As an industry we still think it’s the norm to pitch ideas that we know will work for journalists but have absolutely nothing to do with the brand they are designed for. If you want to win pitches, and ultimately achieve growth, for your team and agency then the campaign ideas you think of need to align with the overall business objectives, and work for all stakeholders in the business, and not just the ones whose remit the campaigns fall under.

A relevant approach

Relevancy is the key to achieving this, and it’s not becoming more important, it is already important. In basic terms, if you work with an automotive brand and run a campaign on cars, this will surely be more effective overall than running a link campaign on travel.

Now, I’m not saying don’t be creative, in fact I’m saying quite the opposite. There is obviously a need to be flexible and create content that is maybe just outside of your product offering but remember there is a limit.

You need to understand what works with your audience of journalists, and also what fits in with your client’s brand and tone of voice. If you fail to tailor your ideas in this way then you will always struggle to work with those bigger clients who hold the bigger budgets, and in doing so you will restrict the overall growth of your agency.

To summarise…

Put simply, irrelevant ideas will deliver poorer results and restrict growth. To truly succeed and to grow within the digital PR sector you need to focus on relevance as well as the accompanying creatives.

To see how we at connective3 run campaigns which achieve both the quantity, quality and relevance see our post on strategic creativity here.

Public speaking is something a lot of us fear, and as we found out at the public workshop we recently attended, it is a skill that can be honed. We share our key takeaways from Eximo Marketing’s Public Speaking Workshop to ensure your next speaking engagement runs smoothly…notepads at the ready…

STRUCTURE

When putting together a talk or presentation, there are various ways to structure it and this can depend on the content, the setting and who you are presenting to. Essentially you want to take the audience on a journey with you and tell a story. There are various ways of doing this:

1). The Hero’s Story – think X Factor – this consists of an introduction, emotional pull (in the instance of X Factor, the contestant’s story) which builds momentum and draws the audience in. This then leads to the climax, their performance, by which time you’re so engaged in the story, you’re rooting for them. The audience has been taken on a journey, albeit quite a dramatic one but the essence of this method is what’s important

2). The Story Arc – to summarise, this is when you start building momentum until you reach the crux of your point then you descend. You can repeat multiple times throughout a talk.

3). S.T.A.R. – this approach stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result… so you describe the situation providing context for the audience, then explain the task you had to complete and the action you took to do this. Then explain the outcome of the action(s) you took – the result!

SLIDES

If you’re including slides in your talk/presentation, there are a few key points to consider:

  • Slides should act as visual cues for you, but they shouldn’t be used as a crutch, so know your content
  • Simplify! Don’t add lots of unnecessary wording to your slides, it will distract the audience and they’ve come to see you speak, and not to read your slides after all.
  • Highlight! Again, this ties in with the last point. Highlight the key points. Don’t overcomplicate your slides. Say what you need to say in the shortest amount of words.

DELIVERY

When delivering a talk, it can be easy to race through it so it’s over quickly, but this shows that you’re nervous. When this happens, our voices can also go quite high pitched so remember ‘low and slow.’ If you can master this, it will help ensure that you don’t rush, which in turn will put the audience at ease with your calm delivery. Remember it’s ok to pause and to be deliberate with your speaking,

It’s not just your voice that’s important when public speaking, what you’re doing with your body is also crucial to how successful your delivery is. Move around, don’t stay rigid in the same spot. Tie movement in with how you tell a story for example hand gestures add to what you’re saying but remember not to point at people.

Eye contact is also something to consider. Move your gaze around, make eye contact with people. If you’re presenting to a big audience, look at people at the front then move your gaze around the room, to the back, middle and so forth but try not to focus on one person!

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Whilst some people are born natural orators, even the most experienced practice, practice and practice their craft. Practice really does make perfect in this instance, so stand in front of your mirror and go over your presentation so that you are familiar with your content, what you want to say, and it will become second nature soon enough.

 

Paid media people focus heavily on audiences, in fact more than a few agencies in pitches start by saying they’re ‘Audience First’. It’s common practice to build pools of users who have reached your site and not converted, and to then show them remarketing ads, or to build pools of users that have converted and use them to find lookalikes. We’ve all been followed around the internet by products we’ve been looking at or brands we’ve been investigating. The more advanced campaigns bid based on recency and how engaged someone was with the website, and the product/service viewed. However, how many paid media teams are building audiences off the back of PR campaigns?

Emotion is the number 1 factor in whether we remember campaigns or not. We all remember Skittle’s ‘Taste The Rainbow’ campaign, or the Budweiser ‘Wassup’ campaign because they made us have an emotional reaction. Dollar Shaves’ entire business was built off the back of a brilliant and entertaining ad and the Go Compare opera singer was brought back from the dead because he was so annoying people recalled the Go Compare brand when it came to renewing their car insurance. This methodology is valid whether you’re distributing paid ads or PR content, but so often paid campaigns don’t leverage people introduced to the brand via PR campaigns. They capture users that visit the site but not necessarily visitors to specific PR content that is often housed on the blog rather than the main site.

We know that people who are introduced to a brand via interesting PR content that they have chosen to read, such as the best US state to retire in or why most babies are born on the 26th September (Boxing Day babies), are more likely to engage with the ads from those brands. The humorous or informative content creates the initial connection, which leads to higher ad engagement rates and lower CPAs (by up to 20%), and higher ROAS (up to 50%) than starting the journey purely through sales ads.

So what can you do to maximise the reach and effectiveness of your PR and reduce your CPAs in paid media?

  1. Get your paid and PR teams to start talking  before projects and plans kick off
  2. Build audience lists in Google Analytics from PR pages and share these to adwords.
  3. Start directing sales ads via adwords to this audience (GDN and RLSA) and then follow push them down the sales funnel with standard remarketing tactics.

Audiences are a vital consideration now in joining the dots between all marketing and sales channels and they will continue to be in 2022 when Chrome kills all cookies.  As marketers we will just have to learn to how to best adapt our strategies to capture and activate them.

 

Yesterday saw our second connective3 event take place at Avenue HQ. This time however, rather than focusing solely on digital marketing, we took a different tack, and instead delivered an event on ‘How to grow your start-up’ business in partnership with NorthInvest.

We were joined by nearly 70 attendees, with a mix of business owners, investors and marketers all looking to learn more about how to pitch, secure investment, market and ultimately grow a start-up business. For those who weren’t able to make it on the night, we’ve pulled together our round-up of what took place below:

First up was connective3 Content Marketing Director David White, speaking on securing PR coverage for your brand. David ran through how he has been able to achieve international coverage for brands that are either unknown, or come from ‘hard to market’ sectors. His strategically creative approach (outlined in full here) involves gaining an understanding of what journalist’s interests are and creating relevant and engaging content around this to ensure you achieve coverage for your brand.

Following David was James Dawson, founder of Tea Plus. Having started his vitamin tea business five years ago with just a concept for a brand and no FMCG experience, James took us through his journey from starting out, to achieving a joint venture with Vitabiotics following his Dragon’s Den success. The Tea Plus brand is now stocked in several leading supermarkets and Holland & Barrett stores across the country.

Charlotte Scott from NorthInvest was next to the stage, outlining the power of a pitch deck. She ran through practical examples of how to improve your pitch so that when you do finally get your brand in front of potential investors you are able to sell your business, and walk away with the investment you need to grow your brand. Find out how to build your deck, and how NorthInvest could support you in growing your business here.

After a short break we were joined by Jordan Appleson, CEO of IoT company Hark. In his talk Jordan took us through Hark’s journey from a team of just four software engineers (and a dog), to where they are today with 20 employees. Having successful secured an contract with one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains, Jordan talked through the challenges involved in working with an enterprise brand from procurement, to risk management. All in all, his talk was a deep dive into the input required to win and work with big businesses.

Wrapping up the event was connective3 Paid Media Director Claire Stanley-Manock. Claire’s talk looked at how to get started with paid advertising, the benefits it offers for your brand as an immediate strategy, and how to take your insights from competitor’s activity. Keep an eye on the blog for a follow up post from Claire on this topic.

 

Thank you to all who attended, supported and spoke at the event! Our next event will be announced on the connective3 twitter soon, so watch this space!

 

What is a meme?

The word meme comes from the Greek mimēma, which means ‘that which is imitated’. In the modern sense it has generally come to mean an image with text or video which is shared from person to person. It may change slightly, but the core image will remain the same, hence the name. Memes are nearly always humorous and tap into a cultural trend. Nonsensical and silly? Yes. But worthy of dismissal in the world of marketing? Perhaps not.

What is meme marketing?

Meme marketing is the process in which brands utilise memes to promote their products or services. It involves using an existing meme or trending image and adding humorous text. Brands can adapt a meme already in circulation, or devise a new meme based on a current trend. Naturally, the latter is always going to be more difficult, but both are viable forms of meme marketing.

Does meme marketing work?

Using memes has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the viral-ability aspect of the strategy is a risk: once your meme is out there, there’s no getting it back, and due to the nature of memes, it is easy to manipulate. This lack of control or ownership can cause companies to stay away from meme marketing entirely. Others may worry about the tacky nature of memes; does they look too much like spam to get your brand the results you’re looking for?

However, meme marketing has many advantages. Creating a meme is an extremely cheap and easy process, with your audience doing most of the work for you.  It can increase brand exposure on a tsunamic level, all from one simple image. This is due to the relatability of memes and the ease at which people can share them with their peers – if it relates to them or they find it amusing, they’ll share it, and that’s more exposure for you based on minimal effort.

Examples of meme marketing

One of the main issues with meme marketing is that the brands making them don’t completely understand the humour they are sharing, and it comes across quite like your dad making jokes about youth culture. This naturally comes across incredibly cringey and doesn’t do anything for the brand on social media. McDonald’s made a mistake like this back in 2018:

For those unfamiliar with the original meme, the idea is that you use a picture of someone with a ridiculous or extravagant haircut, and muse at what they could have asked for at the barbers in order to get that particular trim:

Clearly, McDonald’s have not understood the original meme or have tried too hard to twist it into a promotional tweet, leading to a confusing and cringey example of meme marketing. The lesson to be learned here is to do your research on the meme you’re using, and only go ahead with it if it is relevant to your brand and product.

An example of a company who’ve utilised meme marketing successfully are Bark Box, a dog treat and toys monthly subscription service. Taking into account their demographic, they have an Instagram account and twitter handle which are almost entirely dominated by memes. From comparing celebrities to dogs and collaborating with dog Instagram images and editing them with simple, relatable text for their audience, they have hit the nail on the head. It costs them next to nothing to do, with no sophisticated graphics or celebrity endorsements, just some text and some dog pictures.

It replicates content BarkBox knows its demographic are already following and watching online, reeling in the organic engagement whilst promoting their brand passively. The simplistic and cheap graphics which had the potential to look tacky and spammy present a realism and relatability to the audience that is wholly appreciated. This tactic has led them to have 1.6 million followers on Instagram, which isn’t half bad for a niche 2011 start up from New York City.

Is meme marketing right for my company?

Yes, meme marketing worked for a dog treat subscription service, but would it work for your company? Not necessarily. Although memes can be made and shared by older generations, it is usually something that appeals to a younger demographic, so if you’re selling mobility scooters, it’s probably not the right road for you to go down.

It’s also a light-hearted and usually humorous marketing strategy, so it must be used very carefully. It may be a process of aligning the meme usage to your brand, or doing your research, as McDonald’s failed to do in the above example. However, it may also be that meme marketing isn’t right for your brand at all. For example, within the pharmaceutical industry where integrity and sincerity are imperative to a successful brand, memes would not give the intended impression and would most likely be detrimental to sales. For many companies, trust is ultimately more important than relatability, and for these companies, there are plenty of other ways to market products. But if you’re selling lawn mowers, and want to be a cut above the rest? By all memes, give it a go.

 

Having worked in agencies for over a decade, from start up to plc level, I can say without a shadow of doubt the most dangerous period is when you’re doing well, the most worried you should be is when things are flowing and seem to be easy. New business is strong, results are great, and profits are up year on year; it’s around this time you should really start to hustle.

There was a point at Branded3 in around 2016 when performance was special, 5-6 good leads per week, 60% pitch conversion rate, strong profit margins and 30% year on year growth. Moreover, I had a crazy strong management team and each department in the business was delivering exceptional results for our clients. Inevitably the hard times came, turbulent markets, insolvencies, change in direction, personnel and company visions. This all has a negative impact on performance and trying to get yourself and an 80-man team from ‘good life’ mentality to a ‘hustle’ mentality is really, really tough.

Over the years I’ve worked with many businesses that fall into this category, they’re doing well, everyone is happy, they’re committed to investing but only at a ‘safe’ level. New opportunities, investment and markets are in front of them, but the risk is too much, the effort is too much; after all they’re killing it.

Of course, new competitors enter the market who want it more and are willing to invest. Customers change, technology changes and regulations change. They catch these complacent businesses flat footed and trying to change a deep rooted culture of complacency is impossible. The inevitable happens and these businesses struggle and shrink, unfortunately some don’t survive.

We’ve had a very good start at connective3, we’re performing above expectations. However, my message to the team is clear, we need to play like we’re five nil down. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the wins; it simply means we shouldn’t become complacent and sit back. I want us as a business to have a relentless focus on growth, being alert and willing to jump on new opportunities.

I would challenge all businesses out there to do the same, not to hold back because ‘things are going well’ but be open to investing in new opportunities and safeguarding against the next wave of competitors. The hard times always come, but if you keep a ‘five nil down’ mentality in the business you’ll be ready to meet them head on.

With the new year in full swing, we wanted to share our tips for scaling up your marketing in 2020, looking at the trends you should expect from the coming year and how to adapt your strategy to best prepare for these.

Claire Stanley-Manock – Paid Media Director:

As audience pools reduce and become less reliable advertisers will need to change strategy and focus on contextual advertising, using keywords to identify customer intent. Make sure your campaigns contain keyword and domain targeted tactics to ensure your ad is seen on more targeted placements.

Brands own data will become even more important to drive users from awareness to conversion and then loyalty. Make sure you’re creating audience lists from all activity and make sure that those lists are utilised across all acquisition channels. Start by creating audience lists in Google Analytics and make sure these are shared to Google ads for bidding against. Make sure your database is opted in and upload this into Google and Facebook for re-engagement and finding similar audiences.

Personalisation and relevance are the key to engaging people and driving higher performance from lower budgets. Take the time to understand who your customers are and what they care about. As a starter see which Google in-market and affinity audience buckets your converting audience and non-converting audience sits in, then create custom audiences to build a profile such a mosaic segment to target and change the messaging for this segment to match their motivations.

Platforms will continue to become smarter as AI develops. Invest in setting up automation and AI powered campaigns to facilitate more powerful optimisation and to allow breathing room for research, insights and strategy. Set your Google Ads campaigns at a bid strategy of target CPA or target ROAS. Make sure your Facebook campaigns are set-up to the right goal e.g. awareness or lead and use the campaign budget optimiser to distribute the budget across the campaign for maximum return.

Tim Grice – CEO:


I believe in 2020 that we will see more spend being moved onto social platforms and away from Google Search. The high cost of clicks on Google is one of the key factors driving this, and the niche targeting opportunities on social will all contribute to this trend. Brands can start this on the platform they currently get the most engagement on, using as much audience data as possible for initial targeting.

I also think that we will see more no follow linking from journalists, therefore digital PR campaigns will need to be more integrated with social media in order to drive the maximum ROI.  Running paid and organic social promotion of assets and data will allow wider reach and create a more viral impact, this will mean more coverage but also allow you to prospect and create new audiences.

David White – Content Marketing Director:


Link relevance will become even more important for digital PR with relevant links passing more weight than non-relevant links. At present too many agencies and brands are spinning out stories which little to no relevance to the brand. These stories may gain great links, but that’s all it will achieve. As a result, this tactic of creating stories for the sake of links can lead to irrelevant coverage.

Marketers need to get creative and understand what the business wants to talk about, what the customers want to talk about and what the media wants to talk about. Finding a campaign that’s answers all three will allow PR campaigns to deliver links in quantity whilst not faulting on quality or relevance.

Rob May – Senior Search Strategist:

As Google algorithms continue to become smarter, rankings will be geared more towards real world signals which cannot be faked or manipulated. Think less about what ‘tricks’ you can use for your website and think more full-circle, focusing on old school marketing to raise the profile and quality of your brand. The shift we’ve seen in Google patent releases is all about using ‘real-life’ metrics to rank entities/websites rather than focusing purely on links, content, or keyword patterns to decide the quality of the search results and ultimately an entity ranking.

Focus on connecting all entities associated with your brand (both onsite and offsite) together to show Google the relationship between these to have the best chance of driving traffic through organic search.

Some additional quick tips from me include:

  • Internally link to related content wherever possible.
  • Naturally attract external links and deserve to be linked to.
  • Encourage online reviews.
  • Answer customer questions publicly.
  • Focus on rich snippets to drive more traffic as Google moves further towards a self-contained experience.
  • Use schema mark-up to capture zero click searches (have the best content on your subject area and if in doubt, gain featured snippets by providing a better answer that your competition).
  • Align your GMB profile with external directories and provide business information for customers NOT just search engines (include photos, Q&A’s, offers etc).

In short – be a reputable brand that deserves to rank because you are the best. Provoke REAL conversations, Get REAL reviews and provide REAL experiences for users. Take your offline reputation and bring it online for both users and search engines to see.

Alan Ng – Technical Director:

AI and machine learning will continue to dominate the conversation and capture headlines as adoption increases and case studies grow. However, the 2019 NewVantage Partners’ Big Data and AI Executive Survey found that, of the surveyed organisations, only 31% consider themselves a data-driven organisation, with 62% of firms noting measurable results from data and AI investments.

For businesses still yet to become data driven, start by setting solid foundations. The data needs to be reliable, trustworthy and reported/monitored using KPIs relatable to the business. A few pointers to put this in action:

  • How long has it been since you’ve last audited your data assets?
  • When was the last time reporting was optimised/consolidated?
  • Consider using top line dashboards with a multi channel view to help drive strategic planning.

If you’d like further information on any of the above, then get in touch via hello@connective3.com

Following on from our connective expertise event in November, we’re pleased to announce our next event – How to grow your start up business – taking place 5th February 5.45-8.30pm at The Chamber, Avenue HQ Leeds.

The event has been created in collaboration with NorthInvest – a not-for-profit investment organisation facilitating angel investment into tech start-ups based in the North of England. Our aim is to bring together a mix of investors, marketers and start-up business owners to discuss their own tips on gaining investment, marketing a start-up business, and winning business changing deals for your start-up.

As Entrepreneur Coach and Marketing and Events Lead at NorthInvest Charlotte Scott’s talk will outline her best practice tips on securing investment for your start-up. Her day to day role involves working with a variety of startups advising them on the investment process and helping brands to get their investor decks pitch perfect, before connecting them with investors through a packed events programme. As former Head of Marketing & Events at Leeds Digital Festival 2018 and Founder of e-commerce social enterprise, MOTIVATEE, Charlotte has learned first-hand the challenges and opportunities of marketing as a startup.

Joining us from connective3 will be Content Marketing Director David White, speaking on ‘How you can gain national media coverage for your brand’. With extensive digital PR experience. David will run through how to apply his unique ‘strategically creativity; approach to any business to achieve significant relevant press coverage no matter the scale of your business or budget.

In addition to David, joining us from connective3 is Claire Stanley-Manock. As Paid Media Director Claire’s talk will focus upon how to get the most from your paid media spend, targeting the right consumers for your brand, with relevant messaging at the time that they are most likely to convert.

Jordan Appleson is the Founder and CEO of Hark. Along with his team, Jordan has built and introduced Hark’s cloud-based platform to various markets. The Hark Platform is being used to redefine operational efficiency and reduce costs in Retail, Manufacturing, Facilities Management and Life Sciences companies, world-wide. In talk he will how discuss how this Hark were able to win the £1million+ account to deliver real-time energy monitoring for a leading supermarket brand across their UK locations.

As founder of vitamin drinks brand Tea Plus James Dawson’s talk will explore how he came to the idea to create his vitamin infused teas. He’ll talk through the start and scale up period of growing the brand and how he went on to pitch the business on Dragon’s Den , walking away with £75,000 investment from Tej Lalvani and a partnership with Vitabiotics, the UK’s largest vitamin company.

The event is free to attend and all delegates are invited to join us for some complimentary food, drinks and networking post event.

You can register now here.

We’re pleased to say that we have today welcomed two new hires to the connective3 team!

Will Levitt joins as a Senior PPC Manager after previously working at Brass and Google. With over 5 years’ experience in digital marketing Will brings knowledge in all parts of paid media, specialising in paid search and programmatic.

Will said “After the unfortunate closing of Brass I was looking for an exciting challenge in my career and connective3 stood out as the one to watch in Leeds. I’m excited to join at such an exciting time and work with some very experienced people.

Rob May joins as Senior Search Strategist. Having worked in the industry for over 7 years at Branded3 (now Edit), Rob has experience delivering cross-channel strategies for many large national and international brands.

Rob said “I’ve been following the work of connective3 since the launch and have seen the great results the agency has produced in such a short time. I’m thrilled to be joining such a talented group of people at an exciting time in the growth of the business.”

Our CEO Tim Grice had the following to say on our new hires “2020 is going to be a really exciting for connective3 as we add new talent to the agency in line with a fast-growing client base. Will and Rob bring with them a wealth of experience to the business that will help us continue delivering amazing results for our clients. We’re delighted to have them on board.”

Most of us have at at some point either attended, or run a bad brainstorm. Often, they go a little like this…

  • Someone sends out a meeting invite for a brainstorm for X client with no other info
  • Everyone gathers in a rather uninspiring meeting room
  • The person leading gives a short overview of what the client wants and expects instant ideas
  • Everyone sits staring at each other awkwardly in silence hoping someone has a brainwave
  • More silence
  • Someone comes up with an idea and expects everyone else to fall in love with it
  • Discussion about that idea, maybe a few more thrown in
  • One person continues to talk about why their idea is the one
  • Nobody else really dares say much now
  • The brainstorm ends with, at best, around three to five ideas

From feedback in training sessions that I’ve delivered the above scenario is pretty common and the reason a lot of people dread brainstorms. So, it’s good to know I’m not alone.

In my opinion there’s a few things that cause brainstorms to be so painful:

  1. No brief – there hasn’t been a proper brief circulated in advance therefore how can we expect anyone to have an instant idea
  2. People aren’t really in the room – most people when they enter the room are still thinking about the email they were sending, or what they’re going to eat for lunch, or the argument they had with their partner the night before. Whatever it is, they’re not really focussed on the brainstorm.
  3. People feel awkward – often people don’t feel comfortable saying ideas out loud as they’re worried they’ll be judged and people won’t like them. Also, if you have any introverts in the team they’re even more likely to not want to shout up ideas in a room full of people.

Because I’ve been in so many bad brainstorms it inspired me to do some research and find a better way, so I thought I’d share some of the techniques we’ve used to improve brainstorms.

As I said, the reason a lot of brainstorms have a painful start is because everyone’s not really in the room, so the first three of these techniques are aimed at actually gaining everyone’s attention and breaking the ice.

Worst idea first

Pretty self-explanatory, essentially everyone has to come up with the worst idea possible for the brand in question. This one’s especially fun as it removes the worry of ‘what if my idea is bad’, as the whole point is to have the worst idea possible. This one also often gets people laughing and joking around which helps to break the tension in the room.

I’ve run this type of session with the client in the room too and they especially enjoy it as so often they’re constricted by ‘our brand could never do that’ whereas this removes that element.

Sometimes we can also flip the bad ideas into good ideas as well.

Figure storming

For this one you put yourself in the mindset of another person, so we’ve done this with the likes of Kanye or Trump, and you have to think of what that person would do if they were in charge of the ideas. Again, this generally throws up comedy ideas and helps to break the ice. It also starts to get people thinking creatively and not just about the usual ideas you’d throw out there.

Other varieties of this technique include teleporting where you think about how you’d come up with ideas if you were in a different place (real or fictional) and time travel where you imagine you’re at a point in the past or future.

Word association

Everyone’s probably played this game before (potentially as part of a certain drinking game). For this you start with a relevant word to the brand/product/service and throw a ball at someone and they have to say the first word that pops into their head when they hear that word, and it continues. You also have someone writing down all the words that people come up with and then study all the words that have been thrown up and see if there’s a pattern or idea that springs from them.

Starbursting

The aim of this is to generate as many questions as possible about the topic/product/service being discussed.

Think of this like when you have a conversation with a child and their response to everything you say is “but why?” Although frustrating, this actually makes you go a lot further exploring something than you originally planned to which is really useful.

Once you get to the end of one line of questions move onto another and at the end review to see whether the questions and answers throw up any interesting ideas. This is especially useful for content ideas.

Brainwriting

This is probably the technique that improved our brainstorms the most. The method we use most commonly, Brainwriting 6-3-5, needs six people and each is given a sheet of paper that looks something like the below:

Screenshot of Brainwriting 6-3-5 table
View the template

They are then given five minutes to write down three ideas. The sheet of paper is then passed to the person next to them and they have the option to either develop the ideas already there if they have something to add or write down three new ideas. This continues until you receive your original sheet back.

If you had six people for this then you’ll be left with 108 ideas within just 30 minutes – much better than a standard brainstorm, right?

This can also be done remotely or without getting everyone together if you use a Google Doc that can be sent around the team to save getting everyone together at the same time.

Generally, we’ll then use the remainder of the brainstorm to discuss everyone’s favourite ideas and start to whittle these down into the ones we want to develop further.

Sticky votes

At the end of any brainstorm you’re left with a range of ideas and it can be tough to decide on which are the best to progress and develop further.

One way to do this democratically is to lay all the ideas out and give everyone three stickers/sticky notes which are their votes. They can then go place their votes on their three favourite ideas (if they just love one idea they can put all three on that one or two on one), then once everyone’s done, the ideas with the most votes are the ones that move on to be developed.


So, in summary my top tips for running better brainstorms are:

  1. Send a proper brief in advance
  2. Do something to break the ice at the start
  3. Give everyone the opportunity to contribute in a way they’re comfortable with

I’ll start by saying that I am very interested in anything that helps me to do my job faster or smarter. It’s also worth saying that I think a lot of tools that are described as being powered by AI are in fact simply automation tools. However, since they also help with doing work faster, I’m on board.

My first forays into using AI tools were pretty basic; things like social listening tools that use natural language processing to try to determine sentiment (pretty poorly at the time). But things have advanced since then and my eyes have been opened to a wealth of tools and applications of AI, particularly in journalism right now, that make me excited for future uses.

In my opinion the journalism industry seems far more advanced in its creation and application of AI than the PR industry. For this reason, most of the examples are journalistic applications however I believe, as I’ll come onto, that these also have use-cases for PR professionals.

One of the forces behind the ability for the journalism industry to invest in AI applications, especially within Europe, seems to be Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund (DNI).

The Digital News Innovation Fund (DNI Fund) is a European programme that’s part of the Google News Initiative, an effort to help journalism thrive in the digital age.

The DNI has funded a wealth of really interesting projects, some of which I’ll highlight in more detail. I’ll be honest running through them was a rabbit hole mission that I spent way too long on, so be warned in case the same happens to you!

Current applications

Fighting Fake News

The DNI has funded several projects which are aimed at ‘Battling misinformation’, a couple of interesting ones are below.

Full Fact is the UK’s independent fact checking charity which received two rounds of DNI funding. The first round was to support Full Fact’s automated fact checking abilities allowing them to fact check content at a much larger scale.

The second round is explained by its Head of Automated Fact Checking:

“The project will help us develop a set of standards for sharing fact checks and evaluate automated fact checking to ensure that the systems provide results in a consistently balanced way,” Mevan Babakar

From what I can see Full Fact started out mainly fact checking live broadcasts but now also investigates general news and, since January have announced they will now be fact checking Facebook posts:

Here’s a couple of examples:

 

Other projects that fall into the ‘Battling misinformation’ category are around verifying user generated content (UGC).

The Associated Press (AP) received a grant for the project AP Verify which utilises AI to verify UGC based on various criteria to see whether it is legitimate content worth including in a story or there are factors at play to indicate otherwise.

Verifeye Media is a similar project that received funding, journalists can upload photo or video content straight from their smartphone and receive a confidence indicator for whether the content is safe to use or requires further review.

Local news resurgence

Several DNI funded projects are aimed at helping journalists to tell hyper-localised stories, one example is Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR).

RADAR is a partnership between the Press Association (PA) and Urbs Media that enables regional news titles access to stories jointly written by journalists and AI.

This uses open source data to generate localised stories; a journalist will write a template of the article and the AI uses natural language generation (NLG) to then generate individually localised stories based on the template and data set. RADAR enables around 250 stories to be generated from just one journalist-written template.

Driving efficiency

A non-DNI funded project this time, The Washington Post created its AI technology Heliograf which has been dubbed ‘robot reporting’ and writes short form articles and social media messages mainly reporting on sports. Examples of these can be seen here:

The Washington Post are certainly not alone in this though. The AP in the UK developed Wordsmith which has hugely increased their output vs manual efforts:

On another track, a DNI funded project Trint uses AI to transcribe and translate audio or video content. Some of the main benefits of this are:

  • Saving time – it can transcribe a 45-minute audio clip in less time than it takes to play
  • Saving money – it charges a flat fee far lower than most manual transcription services
  • The output is all time-coded meaning you can search within the transcript to find the right parts of the video/audio, click to listen to them, and edit as you wish.

This I see being hugely useful not just for journalists but also for PRs and all other content creators who are working with audio and video. Especially relevant with the explosion of Podcast popularity now.

Finally, news.bridge takes this even further than Trint allowing you not just to transcribe and translate your audio, but it’s AI will also produce voiceovers, subtitles and summaries of transcriptions and translate all of this into target languages for you.

Finding and making the news

Most of the examples in the previous section were utilising AI to produce fairly formulaic content based on data you find yourself and feed in, as opposed to necessarily helping you to find the story. However, there are some examples of publishers that using AI to do exactly that.

Reuters launched Lynx Insight which aims to suggest story ideas to journalists as oppose to write the copy, although it can also help with that. These snippets are taken from a Wired article:

Forbes announced a similar tool last year; Bertie:

BuzzFeed also notably used machine learning to create a story identifying spy planes:

Building bots

Its not just writing the content or suggesting topics that AI is being used for though, it’s also helping to create different formats for content.

The BBC’s bot builder has enabled journalists to transform long form content into more engaging and easier to consume content through in-article chat bots.

It’s not just chatbots either though, Chinese media outlet Xinhua went a step further and has created AI news anchors!

A few days ago, they now introduced the world’s first female AI news anchor as well:

Democratic accountability

As well as the tools I mentioned aimed at battling misinformation which can often be linked to politics and public bodies, the DNI has also funded projects such as Alveteli which has a suite of tools aimed at holding public representatives to account. Examples include:

What’s Google’s play?

If you’ve got to this point you might be thinking; what’s in it for Google? They’re investing all this money in all these projects so there must be something in it for them. As nice as it would be to think they are doing it simply to help the journalism industry, I believe they may benefit in other ways. A couple of examples being:

YouTube

As mentioned, a number of the projects involve video, which Google is very keen to push for YouTube’s sake and as such also has GNI YouTube Innovation funding with 87 projects funded across 23 countries. The obvious benefit for Google here being the more content being uploaded to YouTube, the more views they get and the more advertising revenue they can generate.

Assistant

Google has been heavily pushing its assistant and voice search over the last couple of years and a lot of the DNI projects also support this.

The projects that centre around translation and creation of localised voiceovers are certainly beneficial in this area.

The place for humans

As you’ll see from most of the projects I’ve mentioned, these are not centred around AI replacing human jobs, but complementing the jobs and reducing the repetitive or unnecessary tasks humans were previously performing that can be performed by machines to free up human time to be better spent.

There are certainly some areas that desperately require human monitoring and/or intervention for the foreseeable future.

Ethics

The first of those would be ethics and I think we have been able to see there are some staggering issues around AI and ethics. We definitely still need humans to decide the ethical considerations of the applications of this technology.

One of the most important elements of this is the transparency to consumers of how and when AI is being used.

Last year you may remember this story where a flawed algorithm led the UK government to deport thousands of students incorrectly. The reason for this was a BBC Panorama study that looked at how many students were being able to get study visas illegally, essentially by getting other people to fake their English proficiency test. The government then employed a firm to review these applications and identify ‘invalid’ results which they then served deportation notices to. The problem was the way in which the firm reviewed the test was using voice recognition software which was flawed and incorrectly marked tests as invalid (i.e. faked) when they weren’t. This meant thousands of students were incorrectly marked for deportation when they should not have been and sparked mass legal action against the government.

Editing and refining

As you can see from a lot of the examples that I’ve shown, the content that’s being generated using NLG is fairly basic. Human journalists are still needed for anything more in-depth than simply reporting on facts or figures.

So, the AI might be coming up with the story ideas; analysing data to provide the angles that are interesting, but it still takes a real human journalist and to craft that into a story that is compelling and engaging to read. I think even if we see some of these practices coming over into the PR world, again, it will still take a PR person to really find the right hook and to make it appeal to humans.

The Future?

So, what does the future hold for AI in the context of journalism and PR?

Better AI writing assistants

I think the AI writing assistants that we’ve already seen will continue to improve and I think we’ll start to see them coming through in other CMS, not just in journalism. I see assistants in CMS helping with things like; finding multimedia to insert, finding sources and facts that we might want to include in content, being able to click a button to factcheck in the background etc.  I think that’s going to continue and we’re just going to see more and more features being included in CMS platforms to help people produce content more efficiently.

Improving accessibility

I think we’re also going to see AI helping to improve accessibility in a lot more ways; I mean that both in terms of making content more accessible for people with disabilities and impairments, but also helping people in different countries to access content.

I think we’ll start to see not just recommendations from CMS/content systems on how to improve accessibility, but the ability for the system to just improve it for you.

I’ve mentioned the projects around automated transcription and translation services and I see that as really exciting for PRs and Content Marketers to have the ability to increase the reach of any piece of content or campaign much wider than previously possible due to budget constraints.

Fighting fake news and filter bubbles

I think the fighting of fake news and filter bubbles is only going to become more and more and important and relevant in the years to come. Especially as we have potentially a general election coming up in the next year or so and certainly the US presidential election in 2020. All the work combating fake news and filter bubbles is going to become more and more important and we’re seeing a lot of investment going into those areas, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see some exciting developments happening there.

Creating stories from data

I think we’re going to see a lot more tools being created and applications of AI that help us to find and create stories. Rather than us finding datasets ourselves and feeding them through and it suggesting stories, I think we’ll see AI being used to profile audiences better, understand what they’re interested in and then serve up potential stories based on that, without us having to specify and feed it data sets.

Consumer scepticism

I also think that we’re going to see a lot more consumer scepticism though, I think things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year and all the data breaches and scandals that have can you come out of the news with Facebook and Google have made people very wary of how they share their data. So, I think we’ll see people being a lot more reluctant to share their data which may in some cases slow down AI development and applications if the data is not available to feed the machine.

More data training/hiring

Finally, I think one of the other things it’s going to be so important for the future is going to be more training for journalists and PR professionals on how to find data and transform it into interesting visualisations and stories.

I also think in terms of journalism, but also the PR industry, we’ll see more hires of people that have the capabilities to use data and to develop AI technologies and data visualisation to support the roles that they’re doing.  I think that’s one area where PR is certainly lacking behind journalism right now.

What about PR?

The CIPR has the AI in PR panel who do some really great research into AI applications within PR. They conducted a great study looking at how AI is currently being used in PR and predicting what that my look like in five years.

The two diagrams below are taken from that report looking at the skills needed in PR and mapping against how AI can help.

As someone working in PR a lot of what I’ll be doing is keeping an eye on the tools that are being created and used by journalists and seeing if any of those come out of beta and are available to the PR industry too as there’ll be a lot of helpful cases for those.

For example, having technology that can help us to understand our client’s target audience, the stories that they’ll be interested in and the tools to gather information to generate those stories and angles is hugely valuable as a PR.

If the tools that currently exist aren’t made available more widely, I think we’re at a stage where those operating in the PR industry will have to start creating them themselves. We now know the technology is ready and capable to doing what we need it to do so replicating that for PRs will be key.

The Google DNI publishes a list of open source projects that can utilised so that is a really great place to start for developing our own tools.

This post ended up very long so congratulations if you actually made it to the end! I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re currently seeing AI being used in journalism and PR and where you think the future’s going too.