Interview with Mark Johnstone

Content Creator and Inspiring Minds Speaker

We interviewed Mark Johnstone, Content Creator and the host of our next Inspiring Minds session on his career to date and how to create killer content.

Please share a para on your career to date – specifically talking us through the high points. What is your primary focus? 

When asked this question, in some ways, it seems true that you never forget your first. I remember the first piece of content I did that got any attention online, the first piece of content that went ‘viral’, and even just the first piece of content that got over 100 tweets. These were all big milestones and breakthroughs at the time.

Beyond that, I was proud of the team that I built at my former agency, Distilled. I now largely focus on training and consulting teams on coming up with creative ideas. This has been particularly rewarding. I distinctly remember one person telling me that ‘she just wasn’t creative’ and she’s now considered as one of the most creative people in a rapidly growing agency. And there’s a presentation I gave that still circulates a lot online. I think some of the insights I came up with in creating that presentation propelled me into my current position, sharing concrete actions you can take to become more creative.

What’s your favourite platform/profile/publication/person for keeping up with digital advancements?

A lot of my work focusses on presenting content/data/information in novel and insightful ways, so I spend a lot of time following people in the data visualisation community. My favourite person to follow is Andy Kirk from VisualisingData, in particular, I love his monthly round-ups of the Best of the Visualisation Web. My favourite site to follow for a similar reason is the Information is Beautiful Awards.

I actually find Linkedin the easiest social platform to follow what’s going on these days, and what they’re up to. It used to be Twitter, but it’s become very noisy. The level of content on Linkedin has improved and remains a lot more focussed.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

Time? Not particularly original there. But maybe something a little more interesting, I guess, is the fact that a lot of people believe ‘they’re just not creative’ or that ‘everything has been done’. I appreciate both perspectives, but they’re really that, just perspectives. It’s amazing how people continue to innovate, whether that’s in technology, business, advertising or content, etc. It would be easy to think surely everyone’s thought of everything by now, but that continues to be disproved constantly. Once you dig a little deeper into things, you’ll start to notice loads of opportunities for good content to cut through.

With the internet being so saturated with all singing/all dancing content – how do you make content that cuts through it all to deliver a message? 

Continuing with that metaphor, sometimes, when you really listen, you’ll realise that underneath the song and dance, they’re really not saying much at all. There’s still a lot of opportunity for something of substance, something with insight, something of depth. If you can truly reveal information or insight that wasn’t previously available (like which cities have the most diverse food scenes) or something in a way they couldn’t previously see (like the history of rock genres), there’s still plenty of opportunity. A lot of people think bigger and better and flashier is the way to stand out, but often that’s just gloss. Think about what you’re trying to show people that they couldn’t previously appreciate.

Being so active on social in your day job, do you use social media yourself or tend to stay away from it in your personal life?

I use Facebook to keep up with friends, and I’m weirdly curious to watch the ads I get served on Facebook, and screen grab any I think are particularly good. I use Linkedin (and a private Slack group) to keep up with industry colleagues. And I drop in and out of Twitter too. I don’t find myself posting much on social channels these days, but I do drop on daily just to see what’s going on. I don’t spend too much time on it though. I prefer to spend more time creating than consuming.

What makes an impactful content marketing strategy that resonates with millennial and Gen Z consumers?

I don’t think you can quickly answer that question. Clients often ask me ‘what type of content should we make’. I never offer a quick, off the cuff answer to such questions. In any industry, for any target group, I like to do research to really understand what they’re already engaging with, and then look for what hasn’t been done that we can bring to the table. I’m not sure it’s useful to lump all Gen Z in together. There’s a process to coming up with ideas, or engaging specific target groups. I’d follow that to come up with an answer.

How can small businesses create a strong social strategy that resonates in an oversaturated market?

Don’t be put off by the assumption that it’s over-saturated. And look at what people are doing in different markets for inspiration. See what you could take from elsewhere and bring into this area. And be prepared to put in a serious investment, whether that’s of time, money, or effort. It’s competitive now. You have to dig a little deeper to come up with gold.

How has the explosion of digital technology impacted marketers?

A lot. One thing I’m conscious of is the distraction of new platforms, new trends, new techniques. And there’s value in pursuing such things, but I wouldn’t pursue them at the cost of learning things that will be a little more timeless, like how do you come up with a good idea, regardless of platform or trend. If you never truly learn that, then you might be rushing around chasing things without ever really managing to connect.

What's the next big thing for you?

Well, I keep saying I’m going to put my creative course online, but I haven’t gotten around to doing it yet. So maybe that will be the next big thing. I’m continuing to invest in and grow my in-person training courses. And have even moved away from production work to focus on the training. So one way or another (in-person or online), continuing to develop my workshops and courses will be the big one.

Which social media platforms do you feel are the most effective in terms of building a brand?

I think context is important here. Pinterest could be the right platform for certain brands, especially in fashion and home design, for example. Reddit can be popular for certain topics too. Instagram is becoming huge, even in industries you might not expect. My local gym gets a lot of its business through Instagram. I think Facebook advertising is very powerful, and I think Linkedin is pretty good for organic engagement. I work with an engineering firm, and Linkedin is virtually the only platform their users use. There’s some activity on Twitter, but that’s about it. So it all depends on the market.

Get inspired by Mark at Inspiring Minds on Tuesday 24 September at Whitespace. You can book your place here