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How to turn a stodgy finance research report into a cracker read

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Beyond the PDF

It’s hardly a revelation, but many of the B2B or B2C research reports being produced by finance brands are a slog to read: they’re fixated by figures and ignore interpretation, context and easy to understand examples. Yet stodgy financial content is hardly a modern problem. The Wall Street Journal reporter William E Blundell, for instance, diagnosed the disorder back in the paper’s 1980s heyday.

“Too many of us remain dependent on a gross excess of statistics,” he preached in his book based on the writing seminars he hosted for his colleagues. “Jettison some of those numbers and replace them with illustrations from life that hammer stories into the reader’s memory.” What readers crave, he added, is a narrative.

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Jettison some of those numbers and replace them with illustrations from life that hammer stories into the reader’s memory.

Finance research reports deliver death by detail

With 76% of buyers suggesting they would hand over their details for a good whitepaper and 63% for an ebook, the extra time spent on writing and presentation is worth the investment. So, let’s examine the good and the bad from three big-name finance brands.

  • Brand Finance, an American business valuation consultancy, released the 2020 edition of its Global 500 whitepaper in January 2020. It ranks the strongest and most valuable brands worldwide. Each year the results are reported by hundreds of publications around the world, and it’s a strong example of effective newsjacking.
  • The Beyond 100 content series of British bank Barclays investigated the economic and societal implications of an ageing population. Shunning PDFs to work across multiple channels, its videos earned close to 200,000 views on YouTube alone.
  • Finally, Australian bank NAB surveys the mental health of Aussies quarterly for its Wellbeing Report, which provides insight into its customers beyond simple numbers.

Research report structure and distribution

The number-heavy nature of finance research can result in hard-to-read reports. The Global 500 created a clear narrative with a simple structure that placed the top-line findings at the start; the detailed figures, methodology and databases at the back; and the main results, broken down by region, vertical and leadership, in the middle. But it served a smarter purpose, too: Brand Finance wrote multiple press releases, each with different headlines and intros that angled the same research to various potential clients – a great example of blockbuster content in action. The result was localised coverage in the Middle East, Singapore and Australia, as well as in niche sectors as varied as gadgets, fashion and automotive.

Channels and atomisation

Think beyond a PDF to ensure your findings and follow-ups stand out. Barclays presented Beyond 100 as a long-form online written feature, which in turn formed the basis of a podcast and four videos. These videos mix interviews and narratives with CG animations to explain complex ideas in an easy-to-digest manner. The 2018 series was then followed up again in 2019 with Beyond Human Limits, which examined how emerging innovations could transform our lives in biotech.

Brand Finance pulls a similar trick each year, furthering the main report with more detailed examinations of different verticals. And don’t forget that atomisation doesn’t only have value online – the report was first unveiled live at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Research can be an excellent basis for a live presentation, so pitch to industry conferences and events six months in advance.

Visuals

It’s too simplistic to see graphics as just a way to break up text, so vary formats and create a bespoke design. Global 500, for instance, told its story through graphs, charts, infographics, photos and pull quotes. Each was conceived to present the raw numbers in the most accessible way. NAB’s report failed here, with charts crammed full of so much data they were difficult to read. Remember, HubSpot’s content marketing statistics reveal articles that contain images get 94% more views than those without, so think harder about what graphics you choose.

Analysis

Firstly, analyse your numbers: suggest why something is happening and what the real-world consequences might be. Brand Finance did this frequently, such as pondering if Apple’s struggles “could be the opportune moment for Google”. Secondly, add additional research and context. We’re not just told IBM’s Ginni Rometty placed well in the rankings, we’re also informed she’s the tech giant’s first female boss. NAB, too, regularly compares its results with previous years to explain emerging trends.

Qualitative

Just because you’re in the numbers business, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace qualitative questions. NAB puts reactions from respondents at the heart of their findings. “I was too ashamed to ask family for money and didn’t want to hear lectures,” admitted one customer when asked why they took out a loan in difficult financial circumstances.” Take Blundell’s advice and place human beings – that’s your potential customers – at the heart of the story.

Audience

Before you commission research, consider: how do your content pillars align with your audience, what issues affect their personal or professional lives, and what genuine insight can you offer? If NAB’s primary aim was to target Millennial or Gen-Z customers, then focusing on an issue close to their hearts, mental health, was a smart move to build trust. Barclays showed off their innovative credentials by talking to tech leaders. And Brand Finance reached big corporations by showing off their services to potential clients continually benchmarking themselves against each other.

The Dubs produces custom research that benchmarks finance brands against their competitors and ranks performance in the market. To find out how we’ll make this the cornerstone of your content strategy, get in touch.

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Adam Thorn
Adam has created content – including events, written features, webinars and podcasts – for 100 major brands, including PWC, Deloitte and Amazon. Previously, he worked as a journalist for 40 prestigious magazines and newspapers in both London and Sydney.