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Calling their BLUF: tips for thinking like a content creator… or an intel analyst

Published by ESOMAR 2

by Mary Mathes

This article originally appeared in Research World

“Think like a content creator” is a suggestion I keep hearing as we at Alpha-Diver continually look for ways to make our insights more actionable and easier for clients to digest and disseminate within their organizations. Personally, as a longtime quantitative researcher, I’ve found this advice a bit frustrating and admittedly confusing. “I’m a data analyst, not a ‘creator’! What does that even mean?”

So, I started researching how exactly one can think more like a content creator. In doing so, I realized this mindset has a lot of parallels to my previous career, in which I thought like an intelligence analyst covering national security and foreign policy issues for the US government in Washington, DC. In that role, I wrote for and briefed some of the busiest people in the world (federal officials and policymakers) facing some of the toughest questions.

It turns out the ways to do that job well mirror a lot of the ways to be a good content creator. “Think like an intel analyst” as an analogy comes more naturally to me, and I believe it can help us in the insights space, both agency and client side, achieve similar results as good content creators.

“Thinking like a content creator” first requires a deep understanding of:

  1. Your target audiences (both your client and their target consumer),
  2. What they’re focused on (Omni ChannelDigital activation? etc.),
  3. How they like to get their info (PPT deck? Workshop? Email?).

How do you get a deep understanding of this?

You can’t shortcut this part. Listen more than you talk, ask pointed questions, and learn over time what the audiences, both internal and external to the organization, are focused on or worried about. If you’re the supplier, recognize that your main client contact is likely fielding questions from colleagues in different parts of their company, hoping to learn something from your research. Do you understand who the ultimate “customer” for your findings is? What questions do they need to answer to succeed in their jobs?

If you’re the brand-side insights lead or marketing manager, do you know what issues other teams in your company are wrestling with that your projects could inform? Have you conveyed these to the supplier team?

Listening to and researching stakeholders so you can deliver content that establishes your credibility, teaches them something, and earns their trust is key to audience-building in the content world, and it’s key to being a good insights professional.

Next, are you paying attention to what kinds of messages and delivery formats best resonate? Did your client or manager rave about that pithy email you sent summing up the key points so they could share in their next meeting? Do they always want a call to talk through the deck? Or do they like to see it ahead of time so they can formulate questions first?

Once armed with this intel, content creators bring their audiences compelling, actionable insights and adapt as needed when targets and technologies change. The content creator mindset also means not being afraid to say the same thing multiple times in different ways, assuming it won’t always stick the first time. (In other words, they don’t just deliver one PPT report and consider the message “sent”).

Policymakers are Content Consumers Too

Thinking like an intelligence analyst has so many parallels to this approach. You need a deep understanding of the same three things. You absolutely need to have credibility and build policymakers’ trust that you know what you’re talking about. And, given your “clients” are busy people following fast-moving events, there can be a fair amount of reporting similar information to them more than once and in more than one format for its import to really land.

Supporting policymakers involves a combination of delivery mechanisms. Intel analysts deliver in-person briefings, written “finished” intelligence products of varying formats and lengths, and in some cases show the “raw reporting” (such as a piece of signals intelligence) that informed the analysis so the decision-maker can see it with their own eyes.

In our world, “raw reporting” might be that unvarnished open-end quote from an unhappy respondent or that video diary that beautifully sums up what the user thinks. These data can supplement your polished PPT report, just as follow-up emails or a quick highlight video can solidify the insights delivered in your presentation.

Flip the Script Through the Power of the “BLUF”

Another key to delivering effective analyses for policymakers is the “BLUF”: the Bottom-Line Up Front. This means condensing the key message into (ideally) one sentence that opens your piece that conveys the what, the why, and the implication.

The BLUF is the exact opposite of how most of us are trained to write in academia and market research. We start by explaining our methodology and what we already know from past research/literature, then dig into what we found in the new research. Then, at the very end, we get into what it all means and what to do about it. (That’s if you haven’t run out of time and are rushing to summarize/hoping they read the rest later).

In intelligence analysis, you’re trained to assume your customer may not have time to read the full report and to write accordingly. If they can only read the first sentence (the BLUF), will they get the crux of the issue? If they can only skim the first sentence of each paragraph, will those add additional context that enhances the BLUF?

Turning the traditional approach to how consumer insights analysts report data around by “thinking like an intelligence analyst” is perhaps a more relatable piece of advice for us analytical types than “think like a content creator.” But the results can be summed up similarly: know your audience, know what they care about, and then give them the BLUF more than once in more than one way.