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Insensitivity 101: A content marketing case study

Posted by Dan Hatch on 18th January , 2022 in The Write Fit
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You can see how it happened. If you’re running a content marketing program for an energy supplier, a blog post called “simple and cost-effective ways to keep warm this winter” is precisely the kind of topic you’d want on your website.

I imagine that’s what whoever ran the content marketing program at SSE Energy thought when they commissioned the piece. The article was originally published in 2020 without much fanfare, but it became the focus of a media storm last week after SSE Energy emailed the post to thousands of customers.

Why? At a time when domestic energy bills are expected to rise by 50% before the end of the year (up to around £2000 a year—around A$3800 or US$2700 or €2400) and customers are literally deciding between heating and eating, SSE’s content provided winter warming tips, including:

  • Cuddle with your pet and loved ones to help stay cosy
  • Eat ginger to encourage blood flow (but avoid chilli, as it makes you sweat)
  • Get moving by challenging the kids to a hula-hoop contest
  • Clean the house
  • Do star jumps
  • Eat foods like porridge which take longer to digest
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks.

Those last two caused one Member of Parliament to suggest the advice was “like some Dickensian nightmare”. Another said the advice was “clown-like”, “depressing”, and “laughable and insulting”.

Within a short period of the winter warmer email going out, the Financial Times had exposed it. It was then picked up by basically every news service in the country, the company was forced to say sorry, and the head of SSE’s parent company went on television to reiterate the apology and say how embarrassed he was.

Many mistakes were made here

How did it come to this? Clearly, it should never have got to this point. But in the spirit of “there but for the grace of God go I”, here’s where I think the mistakes were made, so we can all avoid them.

1.    Clearly the brief was crap

Either the brief was not specific enough about the quality of the tips required or it actually asked for these kinds of tips. Either way the brief was terrible.

2.    The writer wasn’t up to the job

I hesitate to criticise the writer (who needed better guidance), but my guess is the person who wrote the piece was really inexperienced.

As an editor, I understand that “winter warmer tips” is the kind of topic you’d probably give to a junior writer. As someone who was once a junior writer, I can also see how inexperience and boundless enthusiasm could combine to create this kind of dribble.

But a more experienced writer would understand that they were writing absolute crap that serves neither the audience nor Google’s algorithm.

3.    The writing lacked empathy

Telling your audience to keep warm by having a hula-hoop contest with the kids was always going to be patronising and insulting.

Where was the understanding of the audience and their needs? Where was the empathy with people who might be sitting at home, freezing, unable to use the heating because they can’t afford the bill?

4.    The strategy was missing

Either there wasn’t a strategy in place or the strategy wasn’t followed. I find it hard to believe a brand in the utility category would have a properly researched strategy that involved producing content of this kind and quality.

5.    The quality control was missing

This is probably the biggest sin of all. This article should have been thrown out the minute the copy was submitted. To read it, to see the quality of the content, and to post it anyway, is lazy, lazy, lazy. In that sense, it wasn’t just the writer who wasn’t up to the job, it was everyone in the content chain of command.

Content marketing isn’t about posting any old crap. Content should be strategic and it should be high quality. A blog post about winter warmer tips should never become a crisis comms nightmare.

Dan Hatch
18 January 2022

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