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Bob Fear is Digital Content and Marketing Manager at Virgin, and he recently been involved in the relaunch of Virgin.com. 

He has devised the core Virgin brand’s digital content and social strategy from scratch, and will be speaking about using data to create engaging branded content at our JUMP event on October 9. 

I've been asking Bob about the presentation, and Virgin's approach to content and social media... 

Can you give us a taste of your presentation at JUMP?

Bob Fear, Virgin. We've just relaunched virgin.com, the global site for the Virgin Group and home to Richard Branson's blog, so hopefully I'll have recovered by the time JUMP comes around!

It's been over a year of research, listening, analysing, pitching, selecting, debating and creating.

What we've crafted now is a solid content strategy and a brilliant new platform from which to tell some inspiring, useful and entertaining stories.

I hope to share what went on both here at Virgin HQ and at our agency, Beyond, to take us from feeling like we're drowning in data to having confidence in our content.  

How do you feel about ‘big data’? A useful term or overhyped?

Well I'd first struggle to to tell you precisely what it means to simple content types like me, and I'm a fan of plain English.

Assuming it means something like 'huge amounts of different types of constantly changing streams of information' (?) - the cynical reactionary in me is tempted to shout 'don't believe the hype' but isn't it just a new, collective term for formerly disparate stuff that's been around for ages?

The fact that everyone is suddenly all over detailed insight and analytics, for whatever reason, means that we're hopefully being much more intelligent and accountable and that's the way it should be.

What's scarier than an overhyped term is the thought that no-one was in to listening to and understanding their audiences before. We still have to struggle to prove ROI and justify budgets and the purse-string holders love a meaty bit of science to chew on, so it works for me - as long as someone else does the adding-up.

Go on: now tell me that I've completely misunderstood 'big data'… if so, it's all bollocks. 

Can you give us an idea of your team and where it sits within the business? 

I work within the content team at the Virgin Group's London HQ. We used to be separate brand, press, digital, insight and comms teams but we've just moved in to our lovely new open-plan offices in The Battleship Building in Paddington and now we all sit and work together as one team.

Everyone here gets that content is king and it's part of all of our jobs.

We work really closely with the whole family of Virgin businesses around the world from the balloon flyers in the UK to the mobile phone operators in Chile to the airline in Australia to the rocket scientists in the Mojave desert - and Richard of course, he keeps us very busy. 

How do you use data to inform the content you produce? 

A few years ago we'd keep an eye on Google Analytics, try and decipher why our SEO agency was telling us to do certain stuff that felt counter-intuitive, see how positive we felt after reading people's Tweets and Facebook comments, try to produce a clunky monthly report in Powerpoint and mostly feel like we were always being reactive rather than proactive.

Our agency, Beyond, spent three months listening to what everyone out there was saying (or not saying) about us while our our own brand guys worked on updating the Virgin brand guidelines.

After that we had two things: where we are and where we want to be. So what we're doing is using the data that Beyond gave us to figure out the kind of content we should be producing in order to fulfil the potential that both they and our brand guys identified.

I've hopefully made that sound really simple and just like plain common sense - but it didn't feel like that while we were figuring all of this out, so I guess this process is all good. 

What are the key metrics you look at to assess the success of content

We keep an eye out across all of our social channels and we now have an amalgamated 'share' score displaying on our articles on the new virgin.com so everyone can see what content is doing the job - it feels like we're flashing our knickers to the world.

Our insight experts produce an idiot-proof weekly chart of the best performing content according to Google Analytics, Hootsuite and proprietary social analytics so we shape our strategy as we go according to what's working and what's not.

We have a goal to increase time on page and this feels like a tough one to crack. Hopefully by producing lots of useful and interesting editorial we'll get there, and be happy to show our knickers.

What are the major challenges in your role? 

Personally, I'm pretty lousy at getting my head around analytics. I think I may be dyslexic, but just with numbers (is that a legit form of dyslexia?)

So when I'm asked for proof on why we should invest in content I get a bit blustered and want to say 'because it's good!' Better tools and help from people who understand numbers has been essential.

I'm not an expert in all things and I think that there's still a bit of a dangerous generalisation that digitally-focused people should be IT experts, analysts, developers, designers and writers all in one.

I've been on a bit of a crusade (by which I mean I rant a lot) about the lack of expectation for editors and journalists who work in print publishing to also be experts in binding, printing, subscriptions, distribution etc etc.

It's all about the team work and once you achieve a decent level of success you can grow your team around you. You make sure you have dedicated experts in their fields - all with the common aim of making great content work. That's what's happened here over the past six years and it's been the biggest challenge.

It used to be just me for a short while - now there's a whole herd of us making virgin.com do it's thing. Now we're finally set up like a publishing business and all the hard work (and ranting) has been worth it.

How does Virgin approach social media? Which channels have been the most valuable for you? 

Twitter has undeniably been the most valuable, with LinkedIn being a surprising second, in terms of referrals to our content.

When I joined Virgin HQ we had no social channels running at all and it's been immensely pleasing (or smug) to watch the figures grow and grow.

I remember my PR colleague and I persuading Richard that he should have a go at tweeting. His first tweet was when he was trying to break the world record for sailing across the Atlantic in 2008, naturally.

Now he's been named as the most social CEO in the world and the UK's top tweeter. Richard's led the charge across social and keeps us all on our toes. He's obsessed and rightfully so - we all are.

He's always understood that social channels work as marketing, PR and customer service tools but, more importantly, they bring him, and therefore the Virgin brand, closer to interested people if you retain your humanity.

It has to be personal, warts and all. You can't fake it.

Graham Charlton

Published 25 September, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Comments (12)

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Ali

I really like the strategy and the focus on content but not a fan of the way the new site looks? Seems a bit all over the place IMHO. Maybe its just me.

about 3 years ago

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Tyler Price

As a web designer I do like the top bar with the mobile-like menu option. There are some very nice aspects of the site but it lacks a grid or set structure. I would like to see the wireframe to this design. Also, some of the details of the icons and images are slightly blurred, I would love to opportunity to make this site flash with a great grid and sub pixel detail.

about 3 years ago

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Tyler Price

Looking in to the site a little more I foudn this page...... http://www.virgin.com/discover-virgin ....this is a beautiful page, please set this as the index page haha.

about 3 years ago

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Stephen

Have to admit i'm not a fan of the website at all. It lacks any sense of structure or hierarchy and i don't really get what the website's purpose is on first glance. Maybe i would if i spent more time on it. But if it's for finding and driving content it seems weird they haven't used any decent navigation.

I do like what Virgin do as a brand and how they engage with their customers, but this website really does look like they listened to everyone and then just thrown everyone's ideas into a website and this is what came out the other side.

Why not just have the navigation/menu visible all the time? Bit weird.

about 3 years ago

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sarah hughes, Director and Founder at Datitude Limited

I really like your practical, straightforward approach to "big data", Bob. The interviewer asks whether its a useful term or overhyped.... seems like a moot point to me. There's huge value in business data: we should use it.

about 3 years ago

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Joanna

The site is responsive, probably built for mobile first, desktop second, which is why a lot of you think it doesn't look quite right. But this is the way many sites are going, as browsing on smartphones increases.

about 3 years ago

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Bob Fear

Ta for your feedback. We hope that it'll be the individual pieces of content that draws people in to virgin.com and then they'll navigate through the site reading more and more related articles. The design shows off some of the great imagery and video we have and is fully responsive.

I realised that when Graham asked about 'big data' I'd never had to try and articulate what it means myself before. Ironically it was the words that scared me (as well as the thought of numbers) ... I'm sure I'm not the only one...

about 3 years ago

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Jess

Looks brill on my mobile and my iPad Mini!

I agree with you Joanna - the site appears to have been designed with mobile in mind (aren't most sites nowadays?) I wouldn't be surprised at all if this approach was purposeful and based on data surfaced in the user research / analysis stages which Bob mentions at the head of the article.

I really like it, nice work Bob.

about 3 years ago

Gerry Brown

Gerry Brown, Managing Partner at Cascadia Connections

Your feelings about "Big Data" are refreshingly honest and many (most?) businesses are struggling to come to terms with the the term and how to get at it, if in fact "it" exists.

However, what many companies are also failing to see is the importance of the data right under their noses (small data?) which is much more readily available, just ask your customers, check your web traffic etc, and could significantly improve and "inform your content" to provide more personalized, relevant and timely offers.

I do business with a number of Virgin brands and my overriding feeling, especially when I get a small forest of information every month from Virgin Media, multiple, non-personalized, irrelevant offers from Virgin Money and Virgin Atlantic, is that you haven't figured out how to make an emotional connection and to develop a relationship marketing approach with your customers, that would make them want to share more data with you, as part of a quid pro quo, to get better and more relevant offers.

When organizations make a consistent, open and honest attempt to know more about me, and my wants and needs, then they got a real chance of getting and keeping me as a customer. And my advocacy.

about 3 years ago

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Justin Mlynarski, Digital Marketing Manager at BullGuard

How awesome it must be to have a CEO like Richard Branson.

The bar is very high at Virgin - right from the top!

almost 3 years ago

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Bob Fear

hi Gerry, yes - that is something, at 'group level', that we'd love to get better at and we're definitely working at it. Right now it's about listening to our customers - like yourself - to help us figure out the best way forward. Grateful for your feedback!

almost 3 years ago

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Bob Fear

thanks Jess & Joanna - yes, it is a responsive site. Mobile is massive - it's overtaking desktop and gone are the days when you have a separate mobile site and an iPad app (anyone for WAP!?). Totally anticipating our mobile/tablet views to be 99% very soon...

almost 3 years ago

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