the digital conversationalist

A word with … Andrea Edwards

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

The Digital Conversationalist on how content can be a disruptive force in business.

After launching her content marketing business over a decade ago, Singapore-based blogger, speaker and consultant Andrea Edwards is known as “The Digital Conversationalist”. She says her role is to help businesses and their executives develop strategies and find their voice as “social leaders”. Edwards wants people everywhere to “find and own their magic”.

Brand Tales: Can you explain how a former Australian Army musician ended up as “The Digital Conversationalist” in Singapore … in 50 words or less?

Andrea Edwards: Too funny! I’m grateful for my time in the Army because, until that point, music was my life. I discovered a passion for people from all walks of life, which led to a passion for communication, which is bringing people on a journey with you. I see it as a love for getting to the essence of what moves people.

BT: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work life today?

Edwards: Before the Army came knocking, I wanted to be a music journalist. I wasn’t a great writer back then and had no idea how to make it happen. So with my Army PR experience, a new door opened to defence, aerospace and then IT PR – which I loved! Tech was exciting in the ‘90s. It still is.

The journalist ambition always stayed with me, which is why I jumped on blogging. Today I write about life, the universe and everything. I love it, and love how much I learn from others reading and commenting on my blogs. The greatest benefit of blogging is you gain so much by crystallising your own thinking. Get asked a question, think about it for days, then write it down. You can go very, very deep when you do that.

The most rewarding aspect of my work today is working with business professionals to unlock the story they want to be known for, and helping them be confident enough to get it out. Once people see their story and get that confidence, it’s truly wonderful to watch them succeed and bask in their own limelight.

There’s a lot of noise and nonsense on social media; we know that. I’m doing everything I can to stop that noise. That’s why my most rewarding aspect is helping professionals see that it’s a place where we can all add value, give so much to our audiences and, while we’re at it, make the world a better place.

BT: You seem to have every social media channel covered. Did this just happen or was it part of a strategy?

Edwards: Definitely not a strategy, although I’ve been strategic in how I separate myself on social media. You can find all of me if you’re looking, but my professional presence is distinctly different from my personal presence. I think it’s important to be specific about how you play based on what platform you’re on. So I’m definitely not “everywhere”.

I think LinkedIn is phenomenal, as is Facebook for different reasons. It took me a long time to love Twitter (which I do now) and I love Instagram but don’t use it professionally. I use Google+ because it’s important to tie yourself to Google/SEO. And then there’s SnapChat, which is horrible – I just can’t get into it. In my social leadership training, I talk about the various channels and suggest we can be champions on any social media platform, especially if we love it! For B2B audiences (which I predominantly work with), LinkedIn is definitely a place we all must be.

We must embrace social media with a mindset of service. I’m always pushing myself to deliver something special to my community. It’s easy to push myself hard because the incredible people supporting me are worth that focus and commitment.

The best way to start moving to a place of value is to become a one-stop shop for your area of focus. In my case, it’s my little piece of the content marketing/social leadership universe. I seek to share the best industry content in the world and hopefully my own content earns the right to sit alongside that. So it’s not channel focused, it’s always audience focused.

BT: What does it mean to be a “social leader”?

Edwards: It’s about being truly excellent on social media. It’s about delivering excellent, valuable information and creating interactions that change lives, inspire communities and help people grow, evolve and more. Average doesn’t cut it. Being a social leader is about becoming a master craftsman in communication on social media. Someone people can’t ignore because you deliver excellence every time you show up. That’s why I encourage senior executives to own their voice, not outsource it to some agency or marketing professional. This isn’t PR, this is the raw you, in all your glory. While getting help is totally fine, we must all be genuinely behind our own voice on social media. How can you shine if it’s not you?

Equally, it’s far too important to be real on social, especially in the age of distrust. Our audiences aren’t looking for sanitised PR messages. They had no choice but to get that for decades and that’s old world now. Our audiences want to know us and uncover what we stand for. Building trust with your audience is not about having the right title anymore. It’s about being you.

Our audience is on digital platforms. Being a champion on those platforms is a key requirement for all of us today. I predict a core leadership skill of the future will be true, authentic social leadership – something not being taught in graduate schools yet. But it is coming.

BT: What trends are emerging in branded content and content marketing in Asia?

Edwards: Like much of the world, the region is scrambling to understand how to be relevant in the world of the customer today. Unfortunately, we see a lot of noise as the focus is on creating content to feed social channels versus understanding the deep shift that has happened to all of us. Who is gagging for branded content today? Who seeks it out? No one.

We seek out value. Meaning. Knowledge. Help. Connection. A brand can deliver that, but it doesn’t come from the marketing team – it comes from the whole business shifting focus and aligning towards the customer and its various audiences.

Those who get it right understand that we’re not talking about an additional tactic on top of what’s already being done. We’re talking about shifting the entire business to focus on the customer, partners, employees, future employees, stakeholders and beyond.

“[Content] flattens hierarchies … It’s completely revolutionary and the cornerstone of business disruption.”Andrea Edwards

All of a business must embrace the philosophy of content marketing – not just push out nicely created stories, written or created by someone who has never spoken to a customer and has no idea what they want or need. Don’t get me wrong, content creators and marketing people are awesome, but we have to go much deeper and bring all arms of a business together to be outstanding and relevant.

To get the entire company to shift, you need all of your talented people out there on social media as social leaders, engaging with relevant audiences, creating their own content, helping customers in an authentic, non-pushy way, and building meaningful interactions and dialogues with their communities.

The problem we have in business is that only the most senior leaders are valued. We all have a voice today. We are all micro-influencers. If you can empower your employees to own their voice, stand for something powerful and act with integrity on social media, the collective power is mind-boggling. I’m hoping to go live with a case study proving this collective power soon – the results are staggering.

Content marketing starts with the employees. Create an army of employee content creators and social leaders, then you’ll not only completely disrupt your business, you’ll disrupt your entire industry.

BT: What’s your definition of great corporate storytelling?

Edwards: I have to talk about Microsoft Story Labs as a wonderful example. I was running analyst relations for Microsoft Asia across the region when it was launched, but I can’t claim any affiliation with this work. My view is completely personal, and it’s work I really admire.

As is the case with many companies, the feeling about the company internally is often very different to the external world-view. I was working on Microsoft’s PR team back in the late ‘90s when the DOJ case came against it. From that moment, Microsoft went from being a media darling to rarely getting positive coverage. It didn’t matter what anyone did, you could not shift media perception. Being part of the comms team, I always found that frustrating. I often wondered how we could get the internal passion and belief in the company understood externally?

That’s why Microsoft Story Labs is so important. When it went live, the very first piece (88 Acres) generated millions in customer pipeline. From day one, it didn’t have to justify its existence. The stories consistently coming out are beautiful and I love it. But the most important result is the shift in perception of Microsoft around the world. The media are, once again, positive towards Microsoft. The images used are often those Microsoft put into the public domain; with visuals being so critical, it has a massive impact.

One of the first things you learn in PR is you can always tell the leanings of media based on the photos they use. Elections are famous for it. Crappy, ugly photo of someone? Yeah, that’s not their candidate. With the Microsoft example, when you think of it from an ROI perspective, they got that with the first story. But it’s the entire global shift in attitude towards the company that I find remarkable. How do you even begin to measure that? Check out the share price from the date prior to Microsoft Story Labs launch until today. That should be the measure. Of course, there is other work at play. It’s a company I admire greatly, but its content platform, for me, is a huge part of its success and re-emergence as a brand darling today.

BT: What challenges do you see in making content marketing a more mainstream part of business strategy, in both B2B and B2C?

Edwards: We must stop thinking of it as a “tactic”. I believe it’s a philosophy that sits over the top of all marketing and communication disciplines. It’s not advertising, it’s not communications, it’s not marketing. It’s a complete 180 [degrees] of how a business communicates with its audience – to be relevant and meaningful when all of us own our information channels.

To succeed it needs to be embraced at the top and right across the business. It flattens hierarchies. It gets rid of silos that serve businesses but not customers. It’s completely revolutionary and, I believe, the cornerstone of business disruption.

BT: Do you have any favourite examples of content marketing in the Asia-Pacific region?

Edwards: There is some amazing work being done in the region. I love the spirit of DHL’s Logistic of Things, which started in Asia. Then there’s Visa’s Solo Traveller, with a huge shout-out to the team at Click2View, and Uber and Canon’s partnership with Hidden Cities.

B2C is moving forward and there are some gorgeous examples. For B2B, you need to flip it and have an employee-integrated approach. You can be real and relevant to customers today through the people who know your customers best and love your company the most – your employees.

BT: Is there one content execution from anywhere in the world that you wished you had come up with?

Edwards: I have to say GE Reports. It’s a wonderful example of B2B content and entirely relevant for an audience. If you like big engines and industrialisation stories, it’s magnificently done. I’d also recommend looking at the company website. It’s all about feeding you the content you love based on a core search function. It’s definitely the future of websites, with content preferences central.

It’s an exciting time for content marketing and social leadership. If you’re a B2B person and can bring your employees into the fold, you will start being able to talk about disruption as you have the courage to disrupt your business from within first. It’s the only place to start.

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