Hannah Smith spent 7 years working in offline marketing (they just called it ‘marketing’ back then) until her fairy godmother told her that the internet was the future. Not one to ignore such sage advice, she made the switch to online in 2007. By day she’s Head of Creative at Verve Search, and by night she dreams of owning a bookshop. Her work for clients has won multiple awards, and she’s spoken at numerous conferences, including MozCon, SMX, SearchLove, and BrightonSEO. She can be found being somewhat professional on LinkedIn and markedly less so on Twitter.
Hello there. My name is Hannah Smith. Right now, I work for a company called Verve Search. It’s actually my third week there. Prior to working at Verve, I worked at a company called Distilled. And in both jobs at both Distilled and at Verve, my team’s job was to make things that journalists wanted to write about and people wanted to share. That’s my job.
And over the course of time, I’ve made a lot of content. I have been guilty of making some really, really bad content as well. Sometimes we nail it, right? And this is kind of what… Oh! That’s what nailing it looks like. This is a piece called the “Festival Playlister.” And it all started with a tweet actually. A journalist from the Mirror put out a tweet that said, “Is there an easy way to create a Spotify playlist and rank artists’ songs by popularity?” And it’s the internet, and a bunch of people just answered, “No.”
We got in contact with that journalist, and we were like, “Why do you wanna do that? What are you actually trying to do? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” And she was like, “Well, all these festivals are coming out, and I wanna know whether, over the course of time, these festivals have become more mainstream or less mainstream.” And we were like, “Ah, that’s really interesting. That’s really, really interesting.” And that’s actually what this tool does.
So if you go to Festival Playlister on the Expedia site and you type in any festival in the last 20 years, so like Glastonbury 2016, what it will do is it will pull you back a playlist. So you get a Glastonbury playlist, which is quite cute. You also get to see how mainstream, or otherwise, Glastonbury was this year. And of course you can compare and contrast them, and it’s delightful. What it really is, though, and I kinda didn’t realize this until I started reading some of the coverage around it, there was a journalist at the NME and he said, “This is a time machine.” And I was like, “I never thought about it like that.”
I thought it was a useful tool, a useful utility. And I thought it was quite cute. And I thought we could get some headlines out of it. And indeed we did. But actually, what this piece really is is a time machine because if you go to that playlister and you type in the festival you went to when you were 18, you get a playlist back. And you’re transported immediately back to that 18 year old where…you know? I don’t know about you. I was younger, thinner, better-looking, more adorable, generally. And music is incredibly nostalgic. It takes you right there. So this isn’t actually just a useful tool for journalists. It is in fact a time machine, I think.
And as I mentioned, this got a whole bunch of coverage, a whole bunch of places. The Mirror, who we…kind of who started it all, the journalist at the Mirror, loves this piece so much. She’s featured it like 10 times. She just keeps on featuring it in everything. I love her a lot. And it sent 450,000 visits to the client’s site. So the client is happy, right? Everybody’s happy.
But things don’t always go down like that. This is a piece I made last year. It’s about Candy Crush, and it got just 31 Facebook likes. For the sake of clarity, I’d like to highlight at this point that I have more than 31 Facebook friends. Even people who liked me enough to be friends with me on Facebook didn’t like me enough to like this content because it was terrible. So I know what failing feels like. And I know that it really, really hurts. I also know just how hard this stuff is, which kinda leads me to the question, you know, like if all this stuff is so hard, why the hell do we do it?
Well, there’s a bunch of reasons, actually. From an SEO perspective, we do it to gain links, coverage, and social shares. Why do we do that? We do this because links from highly authoritative sites increase the authority of our clients’ sites. And over time, this translates into stronger organic rankings. Stronger organic rankings, most of the time, mean more money. More money normally means happier clients. But it’s not just about organic rankings, right? Because ranking first doesn’t mean what it used to.
Wil highlighted some great examples in the travel space whereupon ranking first might mean you’re way beneath the fold. So you still rank first. You’re ranking reports look great. Your traffic reports look like crap, and your sales are down. That’s a problem for my clients, right?
But actually, it’s not… the sorts of content that we create deliver so much more than organic rankings, right? Coverage on high-authority sites builds trust and credibility and over time increases brand recognition. Social sharing of the content we create offers similar benefits. But it offers even more than that. Ultimately, I do what I do to help build meaningful brands.
And I think it’s important at this point to kind of just stop and think about what we mean by a brand because we have a tendency to use the term company and brand interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing at all. What does “brand” actually mean? Well, this is the dictionary definition. Brand means to impress firmly, to fix ineradicably, place indelibly. That’s what a brand is.
Therefore, I think a brand is not a brand unless it leaves a lasting impression, and it needs to be a favorable impression. I believe that companies need to build brands that mean something to people and that content is a great place to play from that perspective. Because if you create content people love, then, by extension, you’re creating a brand people love and a brand people remember.
So I’m unapologetically passionate about this. This is the thing that I really get excited about, this sort of content. And I wanna do fucking great work. Like good is not good enough. Okay is never okay. But unhappily, as I highlighted, my work isn’t always fucking great. And that makes me feel fucking awful.
It appears I’m not alone. I speak at conferences like this a little bit it. And often after I speak at a conference like this…let me switch the slide…I get an email like this. It says like, “Hey, Hanna! We made this thinger. We think it’s really great. We’ve gone to 200 journalists. No one’s picked it up. We’ve seen no social shares. Any idea where we’re going wrong?” I get emails like this all the time.
And the next slide is gonna sound mean, but believe me when I say I’m delivering this with love. When I look at pieces which aren’t working, I will typically feel one or more of these things. I will look at it and I think, “This is shallow,” or “This is patronizing” or “This is so ugly. I think my eyes are bleeding.” Sometimes I think, “You’ve promised me something and haven’t delivered,” or “This isn’t something I care about,” or “There’s nothing I can identify with here.” The toughest one is “Yeah, I think it’s cool, but so what? Meh,” right.
Now, for the sake of clarity, I feel things like that about my own work, right? My work isn’t always fucking great. But if we want to get better at this, and I do desperately, then I think we really need to look at this stuff. Who in here has failed like me? Please put your hands up if you’ve created… Oh! Yes, that makes me so happy. And who wants to get better? Put your hands up again. Oh, I love you, all of you. And it’s real love, not like social media sort of love where you’re hugging but just checking Facebook.
So let’s start with the basics. It can be useful to think of…I’m so clicky…It can be useful to think of creative content in terms of three components, right? You have the content. You have the execution. And you have the hook. I’m gonna deal with them each in turn because they’re abstract concepts and a little bit odd. This will become clearer as we go on, I promise.
So we’re gonna start with content. The content… I’m gonna use some examples from Verve as we go along. This piece is called the “Billionaires’ League.” And the content for this piece just literally comes from the billionaires rich list from Forbes, okay? So the content in this instance is data. The content won’t always be data, though. Here’s another example. It’s a piece called “Historic London.” And actually in this piece, the content is a collection of images from the 1900s.
So execution. So we’ve dealt with content, execution. The execution is just how we display the content. So for the “Billionaires’ League,” we’ve just played the content as graphs. Some people might like to call this data viz. I call them graphs because I’m not pretentious. For “Historic London,” what we did was we overlaid the photos from the 1900s onto Google street view, so you can see the then and now, okay? So that’s the execution.
Moving on to the hook. Hooks are tricksy. What is a hook? Well, a hook is something that captivates. And like I said, they’re tricksy, because hooks aren’t immediately apparent, which when you think about it, it’s sort of the point, right, because if the fish could see the hook, it wouldn’t bite. Therefore, I think when you’re looking at pieces like this, like creative pieces, it’s worth thinking about the hook typically being what’s underneath the piece, what lies beneath the piece, so thinking in terms of explicit versus implicit. Again, I know this is getting a bit abstract. Stay with me. It’s gonna become clearer. Explicit, what the piece is, implicit, why the piece matters or why it resonates. That’s the hook, the implicit message.
Now, I’m gonna shoot straight to some art. Who’s seen this before. It’s a piece by Banksy. Do you like it? You do. Does it resonate with you? Yeah, right, wicked. So what is this piece? Well, explicitly, it just depicts two children playing with a “No ball games” sign, right? That’s all the piece is. But what does it really communicate? What does it really mean? What’s going on under the surface? Well, it depends on your point of view, ultimately. I think there are kind of two…there are two ways you could interpret this. One, the piece depicts how children are impacted by the urban environments we’re creating. So in London in particular, were guilty of this. We shove kids in concrete jungles, and we stick them in high rises. And there’s very little green space to play in. But the little bit of green space there is will stick a “No Ball Games” sign right on it so they can’t play there. Awful.
But perhaps that’s not how you see the piece. Perhaps that’s not how you think the piece is really communicating. Here’s another view, right? It could actually just be a celebration of the healthy disregard children show for authority and show for regulation, right? It might even be a call to arms, “Should we rise up?” right?
There’s a great quote from Oscar Wilde. “It’s through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and rebellion.” Should we all rebel? Feels, right? That’s what resonates. That’s what makes the piece speak to people what it really communicates underneath. So feels, an intense emotional response. Right in the feels, just an indication that something has deeply affected you.
Now, I don’t make street art, right? Clearly. But nonetheless, I think these are important lessons for us to learn, right? Strong hooks provoke intense emotional responses. They get you right in the feels. And I wanna flip back to my previous examples again. So for “Billionaires’ League,” well, explicitly, this piece is just a bunch of fun facts and stats about billionaires. But what’s going on underneath? Why does this resonate? Well, I think it resonates because we’re all kind of fascinated…well, many of us are fascinated by billionaires. We seek to find the things about them which are kinda like us because we think that means that we might make it. So I’m always delighted when I see college dropout billionaires because I don’t have a degree. And on the quiet, I feel a little bit vulnerable about that. And so I love it when I see people who also don’t have degrees doing really well, because I think that means I can still do well, right?
So “Historic London,” I think the implicit message here…so explicitly, it’s like old meets new. But implicitly, it’s about the London we’re in danger of losing, right? Our streets are becoming globalized like there’s a Carphone Warehouse and there’s a Snappy Snaps where once there were independent stores and family businesses. I think that’s a shame, right? So I think maybe that’s what’s going on here.
Now, the three components, content, execution, and hook are not discrete units, right? They work together. In an ideal world, all three components should be strong. But interestingly, I think a strong hook can make for a successful piece even when other components are weak. This next piece is not a piece I created, but I found it fascinating. This is every country’s most popular beer, and it’s really, really ugly.
So you might be surprised to learn that it’s got coverage on over 500 sites. It came out last year. And we talked about it. I was still at Distilled last year, and we talked about it a lot. Why the hell? What’s going on? And VK, he’s a data journalist at Distilled, he was like, “Daily Mail, Mirror, Business Insider, Refinery29, Washington Post, Economist, these have all covered this. We could’ve made it, but I don’t think we would have done.” Will’s comment is my favorite. He’s the CEO of Distilled. This probably wasn’t his finest hour in terms of showing off his smarts. “I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about except, you know, beer.”
And I was like, “I don’t think beer is quite the reason.” That piece wasn’t popular because beer, right? Here’s what I think is going on. So I think, implicitly, what this is really about is how this maps to our own personal preferences and worldview. So some people look at this and they’re just like…my friend Mark was like, “What do I take from this? The whole world drinks insipid piss.” That was what he took from it. And I would tend to agree.
I’m a bit nastier than Mark. So when I first saw the piece, I thought this, “America, land of the free and the home of the Bud Light drinker.” And I was delighted by this because I’ve got a friend called Shelly Wilson. He’s American, and he’s like all about the craft beer, and he bores me a lot about craft beer, and he’s just busy being a hipster all the time. So whilst other people just saw this as a map with some beer logos, I was like “This is something I can torture Shelly Wilson with.” And that’s promptly what I did. I shared it with him, and I was like, “Ha ha, your country is crap.”
Incidentally, it’s Carling for the UK, but we’ll just gloss over that. Bud Light is worse than Carling, right? Definitely.
So all of this makes me suspect that the hook is the most important component. And my most successful work evoked like intense emotional responses, and the work which failed did not, right? Remember this? What’s this really about? Well, the issues are tough to deconstruct because we don’t see creative pieces as their component parts, right? We see the whole. But I think that each issue can be tied back to problems with either the content, the execution, the hook, or a combination of the three. And I think it’s here where it starts getting interesting, right?
Issues with content probably look like this. So if you look at a piece and you feel like it’s shallow, patronizing, or there’s nothing new or different here, it’s probably a content problem. Issues with execution, ugliness, sure, “I don’t think this shows what you’re claiming it shows,” confusion, “You’ve promised me something and haven’t delivered.” If it had been executed in a different way, you might have been able to solve for some of those problems.
Where it gets scary is this. Oh look, issues with the hook. These are all… almost, apart from ugliness… issues with the hook, right? And I’m gonna keep bleating on and on and on about the hook because the hook is what the piece suggests or evokes. The hook is why a piece resonates. If you create something which doesn’t resonate, people don’t feel anything, right? When we don’t feel anything, we don’t do anything. We just move on.
So I believe that finding a compelling hook is paramount, and, hopefully, I’ve convinced you of this by now because I’ve been bleating on for about 19 minutes. And all of that is obvious, right? You’re probably sitting there going, “Yeah, it’s really, really obvious.” Yes, I’ll just keep doing that.
No one sets out to create content without a compelling hook. So where are we going wrong? Right? Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ve identified what I think are the three of our biggest problems. Problem one, we rarely take the time to truly understand our audience. I wanna tell you a little story at this point. It’s about my friend. He’s called Matt Beswick. He started out making apps on Facebook. He’s adorable.
Snowball Throw was an app that he made. It was very, very popular back in 2008. And the app just let you throw a virtual friend, so virtual friend, a snowball on Facebook or even a virtual snowball at a friend on Facebook, so gloriously simple, right? Within a week of launch, nearly a million people had thrown snowballs. That not snowballs thrown. That’s people throwing them. That’s crazy. I was like “What?
So I said… I asked Matt, I was like, “Why do you think your app was so popular? That’s incredible. Like what do you think was going on?” And he was like, “People like doing dumb shit on the internet.” And I was like… And I was like, “Matt.” He’s so smart. He’s so much smarter than that, but we’re all guilty of this kind of non-thinking, right? What he’s really telling me there is that he just hasn’t thought about it that much.
So I started thinking about it. And it’s true, throwing virtual snowballs does sound pretty dumb. But if that’s the case, why did nearly a million people throw them, right? Why do people do what essentially looks like dumb shit on the internet? So I started trying to think about what throwing a virtual snowball might really mean. And here’s what I came up with. I think it could mean “Hi.” I think it could mean “I’m thinking about you.” That’s a bit more interesting, isn’t it?
So we know that throwing a virtual snowball at your dad probably means something different to throwing a virtual snowball at that person you just met in a bar. And actually I think the way that we use Facebook feeds into this, because in some contexts, we favor transparency, but in others, we favor ambiguity, ultimately. Most of the things we do on Facebook are, to some extent, public. They are. But you don’t always want your intentions to be that transparent, that’s the problem, which actually makes virtual snowballs a pretty useful way to communicate, right? You could use a virtual snowball to communicate any of these things which is lovely. Plus, virtual snowballs, chucking them back, low effort, potential for virality is pretty high.
Now, all of this might still sound like people doing dumb shit on the internet. But I suspect we’re getting closer to the truth here. And I think there’s an important lesson because, ultimately, “People like doing dumb shit on the internet” shows an alarmingly shallow and dismissive understanding of people’s motivations. And I think that that sort of non-thinking can cause you big problems, because if you fail to understand the people that you’re trying to engage with, you’re in danger of creating something that leaves them feeling one of these things rather than like a positive emotion, right?
Let’s move on to problem two. Problem two, we never quite got around to finding the hook. This happens more than I think we’ve realized. Sometimes you think you have a hook, but what you actually have is a red herring. What’s a red herring? Well, it’s something that’s just misleading or distracting. Red herrings might sound vaguely plausible, but they don’t actually bear scrutiny. We’ve already encountered a couple of red herrings today. Can anyone remember what they were? Beer. Beer was not the reason that thing worked, that beer map. And also “People like doing dumb shit on the internet,” also a red herring, right? These are red herrings that we encounter.
I’ve got a couple more for you. We were talking about making a game for a client. And I was like, “What’s the hook?” And someone responded like this. “Games get links. People love games. People love challenging their friends, social proof, blah-blah, virality…something.” A game is a format, not a hook. It’s really important to remember the difference, right? If making a game equaled guaranteed success, then no game would ever fail, and games fail all the time, as do quizzes, as do any other format you might care to name, right?
So here’s another one. We were making something about music. It was the vocal ranges piece that we did at Distilled. What’s the hook? People love music. They’ll always share this stuff. Really? Really? No, absolutely not. Music is a topic, not a hook. It is important to have an understanding of what topics are hot, what sorts of topics people get emotional about. People get much more emotional about music than toothpaste. Yes, that’s true. But still music isn’t enough of a hook just in and of itself, right? If making a piece about music equaled guaranteed success, then no piece about music would ever fail, and they do all the time. I’ve made some of them. I’m sorry.
So problem three, we lose sight of the hook. This is maybe the most common of all. For any of you making content right now, have a think if any of this sounds familiar to you, right? So we spend days coming up with an idea. At this point the hook is front of mind. We pitch the ideas. Then we wait. And then we wait some more. Still waiting. At this point, we have forgotten what we pitched, never mind what the hooks were. It’s getting a bit awkward. But finally we hear back, and the boss kinda likes this one idea, but he wants it tweaked a little, tweaked.
We just quickly agree, right? Let’s just get going. And then stuff gets really exciting because we’ve got the idea signed off, and we rush headlong into production, and we spend five days pulling together content. And the hook’s there, kind of, sort of-ish. Five days on design, and now it’s really exciting because things are looking lovely. And then we shoot into dev, and 10 days on dev and Q&A. And we’ve now got shiny things that move to distract us. We eventually get the thinger signed off, and we’re ready to start promoting it, and then someone’s like, “What was the hook again? What was the thing we were trying to communicate again?” It’s really easy to get lost in all of that.
So bad news, and I think it’s to do with hooks not being immediately apparent. Because they’re not immediately apparent, they’re easy to lose sight of. It’s easy to kid yourself into thinking you’ve got a hook when actually you haven’t. You’ve just got a format, or you’ve just got a topic. And you might get away with it. Sometimes you do get away with it. But I think it’s more likely that you’ll wind up back here again. And that’s just bad news for everyone.
To round up, I’ve got a few bits and pieces that we can do to combat these problems. So, one, take the time to truly understand your audience, right? People don’t just do dumb shit on the internet. You really want to understand their motivations, right? So stalk them, nicely. Don’t follow them home. You need to have an understanding of what it is they’re interested in, what they’re already sharing and indeed who influences them.
Now you can… most of the time, you can do this manually if you want. Most people’s Facebook profiles are still public, and you can go and have a look. You can also…again, Twitter profiles are pretty public. Or there’s this, which I really, really like. Demographics Pro is a paid-for tool, but you don’t actually have to have an account. You can just use it to run a report. You will need to be working for a company that has a reasonably sized Twitter following. This analyzes the Twitter following. And it just offers fantastic insights around the topics that this audience is interested in, who influences them, what publications they read. It’s really, really great.
You should also talk to your target audience or, failing that, people who just kind of could be your target audience. If you’ve got an idea for a piece of content, sound people out. This is something my dad says to me all the time, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them in that order.” I don’t listen to him enough actually. But this is really important to remember. You have to be careful of what you ask.
When I was at Distilled, we were toying with the idea of doing a grammar quiz for a client. But we didn’t ask, “Should we do a grammar quiz?” We didn’t ask that. Instead, we sent an email around to everyone at Distilled, and we said, “What are your pet grammar peeves?” We asked this instead. And as you’ve just seen, it was the longest email thread in the company’s history. And what we took from that actually was that’s a really strong reaction. Not everyone at Distilled is as emotional about grammar as me. I’ve been described as a grammar pervert. I get actually upset when I see misplaced apostrophes. Like it makes me feel a bit ill/cross. Not everybody at Distilled feels like me. But the people who do feel like me feel so abundantly and loudly. So, yeah, and that piece worked.
Two, really think about the hook and beware of red herrings, right? If your hook sounds like this, “People love format. People love videos,” shut up, “People love infographics.” Like even when you say it, it sounds dumb. You ever catch yourself saying stuff like that, just, I don’t know, hit yourself or something. No, don’t do that, but just don’t say things like that. Or “People love…” topic, “People love ‘Game of Thrones.'” Yes, they do. They do love “Game of Thrones.” But you can’t just stick any old shit out there about “Game of Thrones” and expect it to gain traction. Ridiculous.
Think like a journalist. This is a very quick one. This is the “Star Signs,” the most common star sign among billionaires featured in the Forbes Top 100. Aquarius is the most prevalent star sign. What does this mean? Well, it means if you want to have a billionaire baby who’ll take care of you in your old age, you should have sex in March. That’s what it means. That’s the underlying message in that piece, not Aquarius. Like what even is that?
So anyway, practice taking ideas apart and putting them back together again. Review successful pieces, trying to figure out what worked and why. Read the coverage. We’re all guilty of just collating coverage reports but not actually reading what the journalist said. That’s dumb. It’s all there for you. Read the comments. What are people saying? Somebody has once said about one of my pieces that, “This list is emblematic of the decline of Western civilization.” I was delighted. Someone else said, “Whoever made this is mentally ill.” I was less delighted. But it’s still an emotional response, right? Read what people said on social media even when it hurts.
So remember this? Most importantly, when it comes to the hook, beer is rarely the answer. So bear that in mind. Also don’t be lazy. All those tools that we’re so fond of will tell us what was successful but not why. And knowing why it’s infinitely more useful. This is how you get ahead, by knowing why.
And finally please keep the hook front of mind. So when you next start working on something, focus on the hook and concentrate on making people feel something, not one of these things. Revisit this constantly throughout the process. Cheeky? If the answer is yes, try and fix this stuff. Try and find a way to fix it, right? You may not be able to fix all the things, and that’s okay, but do the best you can, right? Launch things, learn things, and seek to continually evolve and improve.
Good luck out there. And that was me. Thank you.