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A good message is based on meaning

You sit at a table. The top has been carved from a solid but elegant material, with a marble sheen and a cold smooth touch. It reminds you of a shell you found once as a child on a beach on a family holiday. It makes you feel something you haven’t felt in years.

You put your coffee on the table. The whole structure immediately keels over. As you regretfully watch your latte sluice the cold ground, you realise the pretty table only had two flimsy legs. And that’s not enough to deal with the real world around it, notably gravity.

It looked like a table. And it looked really beautiful. It actually pushed some buttons deep down that you couldn’t quite explain, but it felt right.

And yet, ultimately, it wasn’t a table. It wasn’t built right, despite millennia of table-building that came before it.

This is the feeling I get when I look at a lot of branding and messaging.

Just as the construction of your table needs to obey reality, the construction of your story must host a consistent and robust idea at its core. It needs to be reinforcing, not contradictory.

If your “vision” suggests one thing, but your “mission” doesn’t logically lead to it, that’s a broken table.

If you use a metaphor in your tagline that revolves around DNA, but your mission evokes a different metaphor from engineering, that’s a broken table.

If you invent a new descriptor for your category, then put it at the crux of the metaphor in your messaging, that’s an upside down table. A new idea is most convincing and easily understood if you orient it in a map of traditional ones.

None of these work — not for subjective reasons, but for cognitive ones. The way you build ideas matters. It has a direct effect on how easily they can be remembered, associated to concepts you desire, and shared.

The way we read meaning

Our brains are a constellation of memories and ideas. When you read a sentence, the only way to cognitively draw any meaning is for the brain to reference all its previous associations and feelings about each word.

You read the sentence: “I ran”, and your brain sweeps together its memories you have of running.

If you’re a marathon runner, one of those serious Lycra-packed over-quadded lunatics who squeezes in rich slugs of glucose every 200 steps, it will hold different meaning to those who bought their last pair of running shoes before the Millennium.

Now, as you continue to read the sentence, your brain continues this process.

 “I ran”

….

“him over”.

Your brain is used to a sentence continuing with the most common associations, the nearest neighbours and strongest links. Instead, it swerved into a different and dissonant possibility, in this case dragging you toward an extreme: tragedy.

(Sidenote, tragedy and comedy, often lumped together with the smiling and crying masks in theatre, revolve on the same dynamic. In comedy, you face a twist but are rewarded with relief because it’s not really happening. In tragedy, you have to reconcile the twist and accept the new, unexpected reality.)

This swerve is why stories can feel surprising and shocking and unnerve us so effectively. Equally, if you don’t swerve and instead continue to the cliche, it’s why they can be numbing.

Getting the balance right, or using each tool as and when you need them, is harder than it sounds — but we all have an instinct in our brain for it.

When meaning is missing

People have a remarkable capacity to react to things if they resemble a familiar form, even if the core is missing. For example, if a standup tells a joke, in a comedy club, to a warmed up audience, everything in the context means you will likely at least give a small chuckle. Because that’s the expected behaviour in the context.

This is the same instinct that makes certain brand, messaging and pitch work sounds like it’s the real deal, when it’s hollow at its core. It sounds like a pitch. So it must be a pitch.

However, if the idea isn’t build properly, when they then look back to share what they have heard, or they continue with their life and encounter a situation that is supposed to be directly related or connected to that story, it won’t be as effectively situated or accessible in their mind.

There is something about a consistent metaphor, connected to the right conceptual neighbours that makes it more memorable and more accessible to your audience, and therefore more valuable to your business.

And further than that, if your central mission, or the story about your business, isn’t robust, your actual culture and potential will be limited.

Ideas are the reality of your mind

This isn’t subjective. Meaning is substance, and the signal that should inform all the material you produce and harness to reach people, both inside and outside your business.

Scrutinise the idea behind your messaging and make sure it’s more than the sum of its parts. Again, this isn’t subjective. It’s like building anything — the pieces either join together consistently to create something robust and functional, or they are unrelated, disconnected, and will collapse with ease.

Here are a number of ways to be sure your shiny new branding work isn’t sabotaging your ambition:

1. Look for the metaphors. Anything in the branding which draws on the meaning of real world concepts (chemistry, engineering, family) should be consistent throughout.

2. Don’t be beholden to structure for the sake of it. If you have a system that hosts Mission, Vision and Purpose, but actually one in particular is doing all the hard work, simplify. Don’t allow the others to dilute what really seems to matter.

3. Remove empty signifiers. If it says something anyone else could say, ditch it. If your brand value is “trust”, ditch it. Again, these will dilute the things that really matter and make you stand out. If you really want to include the generic stuff, maybe put it in a “declaration” or something else that allows you to colour it with more specifics and character. But if you create generic values, you will become a generic business.

4. Don’t let your advisors drown you in Kool-Aid. If you’re paying someone a lot of moolah for the work, they are going to sell you hard on it. They will equally be ready to prepare and integrate feedback from your thoughts, that might seem humble — but be under no illusions, they have a mission to secure your belief in the big idea. Because with this kind of work, often there’s little else there.

5. Meaning lives throughout your business, but the ultimate editor must be clear. The institutional knowledge and culture of your business can only be found by tracking it bottom up. Sometimes the best ideas surface this way. You should always start by polling for hidden gems like this — and gather feedback along the way. But be clear that leadership is equally about then making a choice and being able to describe why it’s the right one. The timings of this is not always clear, but is crucial to avoid resentment by making sure you aren’t “coming down from the mountain” to tell everyone what they believe in.

For all of the above, Augur tends to focus on one area where brand and meaning all collide nicely: the pitch.

If you can explain from a cold start what your problem is, why this solution is interesting and how that helps the world, that gets you a long long way.

The art of “brand” in this, is often how you do it and where you place the focus. It is brand as verb, as the implicit that comes through what you are actually doing, not how you want to make people see you.

At the end of the day, that’s always what will define you most.

A better taxonomy for Comms strategy

I get the idea of owned, earned, paid (and people add shared, but how is that not earned?) However, it feels like it’s phrased so tactically, and without a relationship or journey between the different elements. They are just smushed in a single hierarchy.

In practice, this means it can feel a clumsy way to outline a strategy, sitting each in their silos and making choices about where ambiguous elements must sit.

Instead, we’ve started to use a different taxonomy:

  • Meaning
  • Material
  • Reach
  • Systems

These four areas not only cover the general categories of strategy we put together, they also relate in a way that feels more engaged and relevant.

Defining Meaning can stretch from mission/ purpose, to simply clarifying the pitch or the key themes you want to beat the drum for.

From this source, you can then develop Material  (not “content”, never “content”) which explores those ideas, and captures them in a way that is useful to your strategy (and your audience.)

Having put all that work in, it’s nothing without ensuring subsequent and growing Reach, by developing the audiences and relationships that bring in eyeballs — from mailing lists, to sponsored social, to a handful of valuable influencer relationships.

And underneath it all are the Systems that make it work. For us, principles like Objectives and Key Results, evaluation with Google Analytics and automatically updating dashboards, things like “founder therapy”, which we use to generate interesting article and commentary ideas on a regular basis.

If you want to work strategically, you need to set out your toolset and approach in a way that inherently serves it. This feels like a way to do that, which matures the PESO categorisation for our own purposes. It allows us to think better — and demonstrate more clearly to companies we work with, how and where we will provide real strategic value.

B2B can worry less about its Cambridge Analytica moment

There are many reasons I chose to focus Augur on “unsexy” tech. But one of the key ones is that I believe the nature of PR and marketing is a really good fit for the B2B market.

The incentives align better

In consumer marketing, brands try and reach “most people”. They want big publicity splashes. And most people just want to get on with their lives.

The best they can offer is sometimes a glimmer of light entertainment. But 99% of the time, they are still interrupting normal programming to get it in there.

By contrast, our clients help other businesses make more money. Most of the time, anyone running a business wants to improve how they do it. However, if anything, they are often too busy to make it enough of a priority.

When we target, it’s most often by characteristics like job title or industry specialism. It’s not because we think you are vulnerable to coercion, it’s because we know you’re looking at e.g. translation to help your business grow, and we work with a company that fundamentally does it differently.

We lead with content and insight

B2B Tech really means B2B innovation. It means what’s next. It means the new way of doing things and a potential source of advantage over the competition.

That also means that it’s a constant process of keeping track of where the tech is going next, if you hope to use it to help your business.

We help this happen. And what it means is, if we do use paid or targeted in strategies, it’s almost never to just force information in front of an audience — it’s to surface insightful material that others found useful, for more people.

The time of B2B decision-makers is more valuable than consumers. So you have to use it even more wisely. If you don’t directly hit a need they have, and if you aren’t producing material that strikes that need anyway, you’re in trouble.

The rewards make sense

If one of our clients wins a new customer, that can be worth many multiples of our fees per month. Deals of hundreds of thousands. Pipelines of millions, partnerships that open new territories and opportunities

If we produce any kind of asset that helps bring in more of the right kind of lead or close them once they are already in the process, the impact can be enormous.

In that context, where lifetime value is enormous, our fees make sense very quickly as part of customer acquisition costs.

If instead, you’re relying on some obtuse relationship between coverage in the tabloids and downloads of your app which then convert through in app purchases for 99p, then probably don’t renew, you’re getting into a mess of causality that, frankly, I’m just not interested in.

Where privacy matters

Now, with GDPR coming in, this doesn’t mean privacy is something you don’t think about in B2B. It just means that, if you’re doing it right, you should be ticking most of the boxes of the new policy anyway.

Every incentive aligns to give you good reason not to try and reach everyone but to create great material, that is of ultimate relevance to your small and specific audience — then attract them toward it.

More than consumer, and more than ever, B2B marketing just makes the most sense to me.

Augur Unbound at Web Summit

They say it’s bad form to turn up to an occasion empty handed.

So for Web Summit, as well as supporting Lisbon superstars Unbabel, we wanted to bring a little extra with us.

For the first time, we’ll be bringing our Augur Unbound programme to Web Summit.

Free PR

The idea of Augur Unbound is that “unsexy tech” companies pre Series A shouldn’t be wasting their time thinking too much about PR.

And at the same time, our real service for ongoing clients is much more than just emailing news to journalists.

Therefore, if we meet a company that has an interesting story pre Series A, we’ll share it with a handful of the right influencers for free.

And if it’s not a story, we have the perfect incentive to tell you honestly.

Why do we do it?

  • There’s no better source for journalists than a story shared without financial incentive. It sets the precedent for everything we share and helps calibrate our awareness of which stories help.
  • Helping the right companies thrive earlier on benefits the entire ecosystem.
  • Our mission is to re-engineer PR and Comms for fast-growing tech companies. By “giving away” what people think of as part of the main proposition, it helps us concentrate on the areas that really provide value over the longer term.

Why listen to us?

Augur’s founder (or, me, as I like to call myself), has experience in this space and the honesty to dispense it concisely:

  • Worked briefly at Wired and has written about tech and culture for Quartz, TechCrunch, the Guardian, Telegraph, tech.eu and more.
  • Led comms from Series A – C for Tradeshift, a now $750M+ valutation B2B tech giant
  • Ran a community of 3500+ tech journalists and PRs, with members from Apple to the Economist

Who and How?

As you may have noticed, our specialism is “unsexy tech” — think Fintech like GoCardless, Tradeshift or Pleo, omnichannel tech like BookingBug and Birdback, devtech like Pusher and SaaS like Apperio or Glofox.

This is the sweet spot and really the lens for our experience and advice.

If you’re just another consumer app, crowdfunding permutation or (god forbid) a Transferwise ripoff (what’s with those), you might be better off seeking help elsewhere.

If you think you have a story, get in touch and we’ll let you know.

Augur: Desert Island Podcasts

I feel like podcasts can be one of the most convenient ways to stay up to date on what smart people are talking about today.

As a result, a lot of our thinking is informed by this channel, playing to our interest in areas like writing, strategy and modern workflow.

It seemed about time we assembled some of these recommendations for anyone else looking to expand their selection.

Exponent

Ben Thomson and James Allworth host this weekly session discussing the latest news from the tech industry, from what I’d call the “MBA” perspective.

That means considering areas like bundling and unbundling to create value, digging into the real incentives behind decisions made and just generally taking the analysis one step deeper than most other sources I find.

The Talk Show

John Gruber continues his deep look at Apple from Daring Fireball — I think he describes this podcast as a kind of Director’s Commentary to the posts there.

What’s great about Gruber is I can’t think of many other writers who so fully get under the skin and mentality of a business. That can extend a little too far, to the point where he really can’t quite conceive why a company like Google takes a different direction — but that’s fine, because he doesn’t claim to be a journalist, he’s just a guy sharing how he sees the world.

Also a good pick because the podcast has timestamps throughout, letting you jump to the sections you are most interested in.

Startup

Each series has explored slightly different aspects of starting a business. Series 1 was the story of the company that publishes the podcast, it’s attempts to get funding and its eventual success. Series 2 mapped another business in a similar way. Since then, they seem to have moved into shorter series focusing on a wider variety of entrepreneurs.

Recommended for its easy listening tone and its acceptance that the startup world is not at all glamorous.

How I Built This

Like startup but each episode interviews a different founder, and across a broader range of industry.

The Ezra Klein Show

Interviews with thinkers, generally toward media and politics. Ezra seems as interested in process and productivity as we are — and interviews with the writer of Deep Work have provided recent inspiration for improving our workflow.

Longform

If you truly care about how editorial is created and where great writing comes from, this is a masterpiece. It speaks with some of the most influential and prolific writers of modern times, about the challenges of what they do, how they consider and piece together narrative.

Account Executives cranking out press releases, it is not.

Start the Week

A Radio 4 classic, but if you’re not familiar, a kind of magazine show that focuses on a particular topic each week with experts from the area. This is the kind of source that gets us thinking about tribes of “I vs We” in PR.

Page 94: Private Eye

Politics is only ever a small hop from the PR world, and Private Eye continues to balance fearless scrutiny with casual humour as it considers the area. I find it a good reminder that the truth is not as far beneath the surface in society as it can sometimes feel.

Chopper’s Brexit Podcast

I’m desperately trying to get outside my bubble and hear views that conflict with my own. I tried some Breitbart podcasts, but couldn’t bear it after a certain point — by contrast, I feel the Telegraph is just pro-Brexit enough to give me a taste of the other perspective without driving me mad.

It’s a useful reminder of the importance of seeing both sides.

BONUS App recommendation: Overcast.fm

This is my preferred podcast app, created by Marco Arment of Tumblr/ Instapaper fame.

Its SmartSpeed function accelerates a podcast by removing the silence between words, meaning you don’t end up with everyone sounding like chipmunks.

Apparently it has saved me 148 hours, so just excuse me while I decide what to do with all that spare time.

Image credit Gizmodo

There’s no need to define PR — we must do different things.

From Max’s recent piece for Influence, the official publication of the CIPR:

Augur exists to focus on strategic plans and implementation – above all else.

Everything we do is designed, and redesigned toward that priority. For us, it’s a more important core competency than any specific hands on skill or specialism, and that means there are many types of work and projects we choose not to do.

That means, despite the fact I’ve written for all sorts of publications and our team includes members trained by the BBC, we choose not to sell our time writing. Instead, we use that experience to be a great editor, and consider how an editor would generate great material.

That’s the thinking behind Augur Edits – instead of developing ideas that imitate journalists, we brief them and invite ideas they would normally pitch to top tier editors.

Similarly, we don’t believe the future of this industry is in high-pressure ‘sell-ins’ where you claim your value is being able to smash your way into the news agenda and justify every call and ‘did you get my press release?’ Instead, Augur Unbound is a programme by which we will pitch good stories to influencers, for free, from anyone who really needs it.”

Work at Augur

One of the reasons I founded Augur is because I believe too many agencies take really talented people and completely waste their time.

They squeeze them dry on hopeless, demanding clients, shackled to ancient inefficient processes and force them to crawl across coals just to be rewarded fairly.

We can do better.

Augur is growing and we are looking for the people who will become new cornerstones of what we build.

We believe the people who make agencies thrive are the hard workers that short-circuit bureaucracy and prioritise ruthlessly to make things that matter happen.

We don’t believe everyone has to be a jack-of-all-trades. We believe there is one core unit of success in this business: getting shit done. If you get that right, you can involve your specialism alongside it, whether that’s data, creating material, delighting clients, or anything else.

Benefits of working at Augur include:

  • Unlimited R&R days
  • Quarterly bonus scheme
  • Company iPhone and MacBook
  • Gym contribution
  • Mobile working kit

Here’s what we’re looking for — but, if these ideas resonate with you, we should talk anyway, regardless of anything you read below. Email augur+jobs@augur.london.

Strategists

LAZPD131103_MG_4119

This is the primary unit of Augur. Our Strategists make things happen.

If you have a few years of experience and are looking for an environment where everything is designed around delivering strategy, measuring it effectively and iterating on it for clients, this is for you.

It includes:

  • Campaign management and execution
  • Campaign iteration: suggesting strategic, creative campaigns that grow the business
  • Development of skills inc. attention to detail and refining systems
  • Market awareness, including new channels and industry trends

This is a sketch. If you think it sounds interesting, fill in the blanks for us by emailing augur+jobs@augur.london and let’s have a coffee to improve it together.

Incubation and Acceleration

Duckling
The future of Augur will be built on finding fresh, raw talent that we can nurture and train before other agencies get their grubby mitts on them.

The focus of our Incubation programme is similar to the startup world: We invite intern-level individuals to pitch us an idea for a project to work on across 3 – 6 months. We will then commission the best ideas, and support them to achieve it, while they learn about how we work.

The project should relate roughly to areas where our interests overlap — for example:

  • Delving into Google Analytics, measurement and evaluation in excruciating detail
  • Writing every single day, including regular features ideas that will help them learn about our industry
  • A video project that gets under the skin of our clients’ challenges and produces an episode a week

They will have to justify this endeavour against their wages, building in a mindset that is aware of the value of the work we do, against the effort we put into it.

If they thrive in this unique opportunity, we will move their project into Acceleration, providing more resources or learning from it to integrate it into Augur’s processes.

This project is an experiment, and will be driven by the success of the first participants.

To take part, contact augur+jobs@augur.london and tell us how you would use the time.

Augur talks to Notion Capital about SaaS PR

Notion Capital asked us what makes great PR for B2B Software-as-a-Service businesses.

We tried to break it to them gently that most shouldn’t even think about it until they reach the right stage.

Listen in to learn more.

Notes + Quotes: Fintech Investor Forum 2017

We recently attended the London Stock Exchange’s Fintech Investor Forum 2017, where Ahmed Badr from GoCardless was involved in a panel on Infrastructure.

Sometimes it’s just nice to have a brief selection of notes, quotes and highlights. Read on to see what caught our attention.

Are larger investors switched on to thriving fintech opportunities

Juan Lobato, Ebury

“The reality is that even some very successful fintech cos have been going for 8 years or so and even then, it’s not clear enough that it’s a safe bet.

The company needs to be stable before you get institutional in. For many B2B finetch cos, it’s not there yet.”

Jon Prideaux, Boku

“Big investors aren’t even necessarily desirable from the startup side either. A 5% change in meeting your target can have real consequences. And you may see that if a customer ships just slightly late, which can easily happen.”

Difference between B2C and B2B fintech

Todd Latham, Currency Cloud

“Customer acquisition is substantially higher but when you get it, is more predictable, sticky, margin rich. Businesses will pay for value.”

Ronni Zehavi, Hibob

“It’s B2B2C for us. Had to build the ultimate experience for B2B with the employer. Then also handle large old-fashioned systems of suppliers. And then consumers.”

Ahmed Badr, GoCardless

“You attract different types of individuals at a B2B fintech.”

“Also, scale has a completely different meaning. 20000 customers may be poor for a B2C play, but for us that would work very well.”

Challenges

Todd L, Currency Cloud

“Competitors can become ambiguous. Look at ClearBank. They can compete but also be a partner.”

“I worked at Microsoft when Linux became a thing, and you could position against them. You don’t have that luxury here — it moves to fast and you have to be nimble.”

“It’s also too easy to get wrapped up in any single piece of news. You should drive and execute your plan. That’s where success lies.”

Juan L, Ebury (re. Brexit)

“On a beautiful day like today, people want to be in London. But we have people interested in living in Paris, in Madrid. And these cities are giving you amazing tax breaks.”

“These cities will attract talent and I don’t think it’s a bad thing out have talent spread out. And the reality is, London can only cope with so many people.”

How Augur Works: Pitching vs Planning

We get it. Everyone in our business wants to be Don Draper.

Big pitch day. Stand up, leaf through the cards, standing ovation.

But then reality strikes. You do the kick off meetings and start trying to implement things, only to find that the “big idea” in your strategy isn’t possible for another year (if at all.) Or that the founders’ real passion isn’t “OPPORTUNALISING ENTERPRISE SOLUTION BEST EXCELLENCE”, but something rooted in the reality of their industry and experience.

For a couple of years now, we’ve been trying a different approach to the traditional pitch. And it’s based around a simple question:

How can a company who hasn’t spent any time with you write a realistic plan that reflects your true strength accurately?

So here’s what we do.

Phase 1: Discovery

After gathering a few top line details, we’ll talk on Zoom or Skype. Having written up interviews for places like tech.eu and Wired, we like to think we know how to ask the right questions.

The idea is to really listen carefully, pin down the specifics of the next challenge and determine what we think might conquer it. It often gives you an opportunity to learn more about us and our experience too.

If we don’t think it’s a match, we can help you find someone who is. Remember, Augur is designed for one thing: companies at Series A upwards, in “Unsexy” tech categories, looking for integrated comms against business challenges.

Alternatively, we might suggest we help out with Augur Unbound, our free service to share great stories from younger companies with key media.

Once we have what we need, we’ll start on the Strategic Spec document.

Phase 2: The Strategic Spec

This is a very simple one pager, designed to take the minimum time possible to create a first outline of what we might recommend, based on our previous experience.

It’s a starting point for you to provide feedback, to start the conversation going, instead of disappearing for weeks in Powerpoint with only the occasional question.

It includes:

  • Diagnosis — what is the problem, as we see it?
  • Guiding Strategy — what is our topline mechanism to tackle it?
  • Example Objectives and Key Results — what’s the goal and deliverables?
  • Estimated Timelines & Resourcing — how long will it take, and cost?
  • Next steps

Beat it up, tell us what you love or hate, tell us what you think of our measurement and evaluation suggestions, or how it may need to fit into other plans.

The result is designed to give you an estimate of how the plan might look, at the top level, if we start working together.

It establishes an agreed rough outline, so you know what to expect if you go ahead with the next step: The Planning Project.

Phase 3: The Planning Project

Now this is the big difference.

Augur will come to your office, spend time with you, interview key members of the team and really dig into what makes your company great. It’s about finding what you believe, holding a mirror up to your most talented people, helping identify the insights you may not even quite be aware of.

We try to find the signal in the noise.

Instead of going away and making up ideas by ourselves, we look to your strenths to build our plan. And we work with your team to identify what’s practical and possible for the first phase and further down the line.

We worth together, with just a little of your time, to flesh out the skeleton of assumptions from the Strategic Spec.

We deliver on questions like:

  • What is your pitch and key campaign ideas you will keep coming back to?
  • Who should you be introducing the company to?
  • Do we have a customer pipeline for case studies and other stories?

Once we’re done, the planning document usually looks about a dozen pages long, full of everything you need to hit the ground running.

It literally gets everyone on the same page with what to expect in the first episode of activity.

And it’s yours. In the past, we have actually recommended to one company that they take the Planning document and run with it themselves. Because it is a paid project, we are not incentivised to try and close you on a long programme, just to justify our costs on the pitch.

The resourcing costs for this project tend to be about half the anticipated monthly total we expect to end up at.

We think it makes sense, and our clients agree.

Don has earned a rest.