Storytelling with Greg Roughan

Lifting the hood on storytelling

In Strategies by Peter Gearin

Editor Greg Roughan explains how Castleford produces compelling content for its clients.

Castleford editor Greg Roughan applies a particular “sniff test” to gauge the quality of content marketing. “If you can tell it’s content marketing, it’s probably not any good,” he says.

“When you read something, you can just smell it was written by somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. They use tired old phrases … ‘read on to find out more’ sort of stuff. If it feels like content marketing, you’re probably not respecting your audience or your reader.”

With offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, Castleford is one of Australasia’s most prominent content marketing agencies. At any one time, it has 150 to 200 clients and employs 15 to 20 writers and editorial managers, most of whom are full time.

Auckland-based Roughan’s job is to keep up the quality standards of Castleford’s content executions. He is the company’s “subject-matter expert” when it comes to writing and editing.

“The bar on quality content is constantly lifting, and we need to be able to write some astonishingly sophisticated stuff across a broad range of industries,” he says. “I kind of lead the charge on upskilling and training in-house and I’m teaching people how to write more and more sophisticated content.”

After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, Roughan has been a professional writer for two decades. He is a former feature writer, magazine editor and newspaper subeditor who has also written three novels.

Greg Roughan

Greg Roughan

On his website, Roughan posted a blog setting out his 14 tips for better writing. Intriguingly, something he teaches writers is that “ugly words are your friend”. “Short words with hard, guttural sounds – those with Zs, Ks, Ds etc – are better at snagging attention and delivering impact than their softer cousins,” he writes. “So you can write ‘get’ instead of ‘receive’, ‘cut’ instead of ‘sever’, ‘shrink’ instead of ‘reduce’.”

Roughan has similarly definitive views on superior brand storytelling at Castleford. “Our core editorial values are clarity, immediacy and value,” he says. “Clarity and immediacy are pretty easy to understand. Write clearly and simply as if you’re explaining something to a person and get to the goddamn point. Don’t waste people’s time.”

Great content also offers value. “That’s what content marketing is about, right? It’s not about talking at people. It’s about giving them something of use. To do that, you have to understand the audience.”

One way Castleford does this is by having a thorough “onboarding” process with its clients to understand what they do and who they should be trying to reach. “We create persona docs for each client so they understand who we’re talking to and what they want to know,” he says.

After that, it’s about developing an agreed editorial brief. “That’s where we ask a lot of questions about their USPs and what they read to stay abreast of the industry,” Roughan says. “We’ll ask what their customers ask about them. Speaking to their salespeople at this point can be invaluable because they translate the product the company makes out in the real world. They have the elevator pitch absolutely down pat and know what it is about their product that people need to understand.

“From there, we will start to pitch ideas for the first pieces of content. If our strategy called for a series of whitepapers for gated downloads, we’d spend a bit of time coming up with initial ideas. We would make sure they would be on brief, had the right search intent behind them and were supported by what people were looking for in the marketplace.”

“Apart from crafting half-decent copy, a key skill is being able to learn about an industry and know all the facts about it. The skill is to go out and find out what’s relevant.”

Roughan says client involvement in story-idea generation varies. “Some clients we’ve been working with for years are like ‘we know you, you know us – go do your thing’,” he says. “Others naturally are going to have a much closer hand in things.

“In terms of taking the lead on idea generation, that’s our bread and butter. Coming up with fresh content ideas for our businesses is what we do.”

Castleford has three editorial managers. They have their own client lists and run teams of writers, strategists and program managers. Roughan says content strategists and project managers will stress-test story ideas before running them past the editorial manager and gaining client approval.

“People are a lot more sophisticated about what content marketing is these days,” he says. “Clients understand when they talk to the audience, they’re going to need maybe three, four or five touchpoints before that audience ever picks up the phone. They know they need to tell the story rather than just badger them.”

Roughan says the stories that often work well offer “social proof” – true-life case studies and testimonials. “It’s classic bottom-of-the-funnel material,” he says. “Real trust-factor stuff.”

What does Roughan look for in a good writer? “Well, they need their writing chops – If it’s not there, it’ll never be there,” he says. “Beyond that, I think the biggest skill is curiosity – someone interested in putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. Apart from crafting half-decent copy, a key skill is being able to learn about an industry and know all the facts about it. The skill is to go out and find out what’s relevant.”

Castleford needs its writers to be versatile, too. The agency services businesses and organisations from a wide range of industries: B2Bs, B2Cs, not-for-profits and enterprises, as well as tool makers, yoga studios and travel agencies.

Two executions stick out in his mind as great examples of brand storytelling. One was a long article for a travel client in which the writer researched every sim card needed to travel through Europe. “[The writer] translated German and French sites and compiled all of this highly useful information,” he says. “We created this immensely valuable piece.”

The other example was a case of using comedy to enliven a dry IT topic – managed services. “[The writer] understood the audience because IT people are often into sci-fi,” he says. “It was about fictional organisations that would have benefited from managed services, breaking down the plots from those movies and showing how good data security protocols would have prevented the attack on the Death Star, and so on. There was real pleasure in the writing, and it really came across.”

Which means it must have passed Roughan’s sniff test.

Links & references

The role of a true editor in Brand Tales

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