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

Bob Fear, Virgin. We’ve just relaunched, 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 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 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.