The Science of Storytelling: Simplifying Complex Messages Into Actionable Truths

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In March IDG hired Josh London as the first-ever corporate chief marketing officer of IDG Communications.

 

In March International Data Group (IDG), a multibillion-dollar technology media, events, and research company, hired Josh London as the first-ever corporate chief marketing officer (CMO) of IDG Communications. Since then London and his team have been conducting a comprehensive marketing and branding audit—the first step of his mandate to lead a global, company-wide amplification of the IDG Communications brand. London views his literature background as a valuable asset in shaping IDG's new narrative.

What's your marketing passion?
One of my passions is simplifying complex messages into actionable truths. And I'm sort of paraphrasing [MillerCoors CMO] Andy England here. When we're storytelling at IDG, we're making sure that we keep the voice of the customer central at all times.

What is your background in storytelling?
I was a literature major. That taught me to do something before I knew what to call it: taking dots and turning them into lines, if you will. The study of literature is about identifying themes that have emerged across centuries and languages and then determining what commonalities exist. I'm sure this comes as a surprise to my parents, but my literature degree has served me incredibly well in my marketing career. It's really helped me to identify trends and solutions that benefited the companies I worked for.

Can you recall an example of one of those benefits?
One occurred early on. I started my career at an Internet startup in 1994. At that time few people really knew what the Internet was, at least on a mainstream basis. So, we had an interesting issue. We had to come up with solution-oriented marketing without a defined problem. A groundswell of interest in the Internet was just starting to build, but it was still too hard for a lot of people to figure it out. We had to work with people—first to discover their challenges and, second, to talk to them about how the Internet could help transform their personal lives and their business lives. Watching them light up and react to that was really exciting.

You were hired earlier this year as IDG Communications' first-ever CMO. How has your experience been and what have you done so far?
It's been incredibly interesting. I used my first 100 days to get an assessment on what is uniquely ours: What's our heritage and what's our future? We have operations in 97 countries, and we're an incredibly rich and complex organization with so many amazing stories. What we're tasked with, as a marketing function, is crafting these amazing narratives into one cohesive and consistent story to elevate the IDG Communications brand and profile on a global basis. From a tactical perspective, one of the first things we did when I arrived was to perform a comprehensive brand, social, collateral, and marketing audit. The purpose of the global audit is to see how we're talking about ourselves and to learn what our customers are hearing. The difference between those two stories often represents a huge opportunity.

What is the most challenging part of conducting the audit?
IDG Communications has traditionally been a decentralized company. We also have a unique structure where there is quite a bit of independence at the product level and even on a brand level. This autonomy extended to our messaging, as well. So, one of the things we've discovered is that there's a choir of voices in how we represent ourselves—whether that relates to our marketing messages or our visual language. One of the opportunities we have is to think about how strong we can be when we unify our voice. In talking with our customers, we learned that some of them aren't aware of the depth and the breadth of our offerings or the fact that we have these offerings in 97 countries. They were surprised and delighted that they could take advantage of ways to do business with us that they hadn't before. Other customers told us, “Hey, we need you to simplify this because it's a great story but we need you to communicate it more concisely.”

What are some key skills or approaches to conducting an effective global brand audit?
First of all, I try to avoid confirmation bias wherever I can. The best way to do that is through active listening. You need to make sure that you're hearing what your customers are saying. And I use the word “customers” to refer to four customer groups that we in IDG corporate marketing serve. One of those is our internal colleagues throughout the organization. The second is our clients—anyone who generates revenue. The third is our audiences [of online and print publications and event attendees]. And the fourth group includes media and analysts.

It's important that we view what we do through the customers' lens—not just our own. Plus, it's easy to get stuck looking at a certain set of competitors, a certain vertical, or a certain industry. Meanwhile, our customers have the entire universe to choose from. Viewing our business through our customers' eyes builds and solidifies our vision and keeps us honest about what we're doing and why we're doing it. Another important mind-set is to really understand that our businesses all have their unique strengths and rich heritages, and that we need to help bring out their stories.

How are you sharing the importance of simplification with your team?
I'm an exceptionally curious person and a voracious reader, which gives me a perspective beyond our competitive borders. Both with colleagues and on Twitter, where I'm very active, I share what I read and try to expose my team to a wide variety of information and points of view. We're really pushing ourselves to think outside of our industry and outside of our competitive borders because our customers certainly aren't constrained by those boundaries.

Another thing I do is an old technique from journalism, where you keep removing a word from a sentence until the meaning of the sentence changes. I want us to keep looking for the distillate, if you will: communicating what is essential about IDG in how we solve our customers' needs.

How is Twitter valuable to you as a CMO?
It probably helps me as much or more than it helps the team. Obviously, we're not debating internal issues on Twitter. We're talking about the transformation of media in general, for example, or gleaning perspectives on how media companies are reshaping themselves. When you have these conversations in public—and you have to be selective about which conversations you join—it forces you to think through your position and to assimilate positions that are different from your point of view. That's very valuable to me. It also lets me make connections that I wouldn't have made in other media. These connections can be sort of synaptic connections among themes, as well as interpersonal connections. And when you're constrained by 140 characters, you have to be concise, which is great practice for what we do every day.

What is the key to keeping marketing's storytelling simple?
Not to be too repetitive here, but it's really about making sure that we view all of our efforts first and foremost through the lens of the customer. A lot of B2B media companies get into the feature-benefits style of marketing or the speeds-and-feeds style while essentially ignoring the real business needs of a customer or prospect. We need to elevate our conversation so we can solve those real business needs and then talk about how we solve our customers' business needs.

 

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