Charles Doyle: Content marketing and the incredible, shrinking attention span

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Charles Doyle
Chief marketing and communications officer, Jones Lang LaSalle

Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) is one of the oldest companies in the world. First established in 1763, JLL has grown to employ more than 52,000 people in 200 corporate offices around the world, offering a wide range of real estate professional services in 75 different countries .

With that vast reach and scope, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Charles Doyle is grappling with a decidedly modern challenge in a traditional industry. As the steward of a major content marketing operation – JLL publishes and distributes more than 3,000 research reports a year on all aspects of the real estate market – Doyle is working on new approaches to develop and deliver information to audiences that have an abundance of information, limited time and an increasingly short attention span. Here, Doyle spoke to us about the ever-changing nature of content marketing in the digital age.

What kind of changes is the commercial real estate business experiencing?

In comparison to the world of technology and IT, there is much less change in real estate because the physical assets—buildings, offices, hotels, shopping malls, warehouses and factories—remain consistent from year to year. They are changing incrementally rather than being transformed by technology—smart buildings, green buildings, intelligent communications infrastructure, virtual offices—but relative to other industries, commercial real estate is quite stable.

However, our industry has been transformed by becoming global. Real estate had, traditionally, been very local in nature. That has changed. It is a global asset class now, largely because of the globalization of capital markets and the financial services industry. As a result of that there has been a globalization of real estate investment. Also, the globalization and expansion of companies, supply chains and the services that support them have changed the whole nature of the commercial real estate market.

There is also some disruption coming in the form of cloud-based services. In the residential market, many realtors in the United States have had to change their role as a result of wider online access to real estate market data and real estate Web sites. U.S. residential realtors used to bring big folders of paper to clients describing the demographics, schools, amenities and comparison sales in the area. That’s all now available online. You can see your house value on a weekly basis, and everyone else’s home in your area. That kind of disintermediation through technology and information has been slower in the commercial real estate marketing because the data and the nature of the transactions are more complex. However, already the signals are clear: information is no longer in the hands of the exclusive few. In the old days you could only speak to a handful of key operators in the major cities that really knew how the market worked, where all the deals were, who the buyers and sellers were. They controlled critical information. Now information, even in the complex and less public real estate market, is getting increasingly transparent—at least in many of the mature economies.

What are the key differentiators for JLL? How important is content to that differentiation?

In some ways, we are very similar to any other professional services company, in terms of our marketing—we differentiate through our client relationships backed up by expert content. I have traditional marketing responsibilities for brand stewardship, communications, public relations, services and geographical marketing, etc. However, one area that is unique for us is our content, or research, marketing. I oversee our research function, too. We have more than 350 professionl researchers around the world and they produce more than 3,000 research reports on all aspects of commercial real estate annually. We are effectively a big publishing house. We cover the core fundamentals of the economics of commercial real estate—like rent rates, supply of stock, gross and net absorption, stock availability, leasing rates, yields and much more more. We also study cities, urbanization, industry sectors, demographics, services, technology and other asset classes.

The research team is about the same size as our marketing and communications team. And the reason it’s my responsibility as CMO is that research is as near as we get to having a tangible product. Research supports our service packages for clients and is a significant brand carrier. In fact, our research publications are one of the main drivers of our brand, which is one of our major strengths as a company.

We also have responsibility for sourcing, handling and analyzing all the data that the research function uses for its publications, including storing, accessing, analyzing, packaging and distributing the data and information. We’re even responsible for the style in which it’s written.

It’s been said that all companies are publishing companies, but you’re actually bigger than most publishing companies.

Yes, except for the fact that our publications are not commercialized. Also, all our authors are in house and not contracted. So we make no publication revenue, although we do sell some of our top research reports to exclusive investment clients. But in terms of production, packaging and distribution, we are just like a publishing house.

Content marketing is becoming a far more difficult business than it used to be: now its way beyond the house magazine, the quarterly journal and the well crafted white paper full of two dimensional charts Why is this? Audience attention spans are shortening, and will continue to shorten. If content can’t get attention, the details of the content go to waste. But those days are gone. And the replacement formula is not obvious. There is no one single answer or alternative model. People have so many choices for receiving, sharing and absorbing information now, and they’re using them. And this passes through all the generations, even those who were raised on reading from the printed page.

So how do you cater to these people?

To be in tune with changing mindsets, we’re trying to change our own mindset. We’re trying to better understand the human brain and how it absorbs and shares information. We are trying to stop thinking like information producers, who just research and write good content, then blast it out through channels, online and offline, trying to get as many hits as possible, and hope someone will be influenced, intrigued, persuaded then start buying. It doesn’t work that way anymore. We need to think more about the audience itself and how it consumes content—and what they use it for—then work back to a production and publication agenda. In the early 2000s many people thought that self-assembly magazines and newspapers from multiple online sources would be the way forward—but that didn’t work either. It required too much effort. Attention spans were too short for that, too.

So one of the things we’ve learned is that multimedia—particularly online video is highly effective for content marketing. When we insert a video into a high-level piece of content, the open and reading rates go way up. This method is still effectively an old-fashioned broadcast—no user-generated content, no crowdsourcing, no two-way interaction. But ours is still a relatively traditional audience—with higher expectations of content.

We’ve learned that the format is as important as the content itself. I think content marketers are obsessed with the distribution aspect of their content, because of the vast range of social media formats and channels. But I think we’re neglecting the format, and how important that is to connecting with an audience with a short attention span in an attention-based economy.

Sounds like you’re willing to aggressively experiment with your content marketing efforts, and really push the boundaries. How does that go over with the finance folks?

We’re lucky, because our CFO is very open to marketing experimentation—and sees marketing as a strategic investment rather than just a necessary cost. I think the marketing profession obsesses a bit too much about CMOs connecting with CFOs—and trying to reduce all marketing programs to financial ROI and KPI—so that we can all appear like practical accountants rather than ethereal dreamers. That thinking came from a time when you could see direct measurements for marketing investments—such as a television ad campaign on consumer goods. However, there is one important cable that connects the finance and marketing functions—which is quantifying and valuing the brand. And that refocuses the role of the CMO from an internal service provider, a cost center to a manager of an intangible asset that is one of the primary influencers of revenue generation. This is especially true in the B2B world where brands and reputation are very intangible and services are usually consumed at the point of delivery.

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