2015’s been a bumper year for Budgets. The first, a politically terse affair from a Coalition with one eye on the election, failed to spark excitement. The second, a riotous Tory celebration, was one of the most dramatic in recent history.
In both Budgets, financial and professional services companies jostled and harangued for one of the few occasions to get high-profile coverage. On the surface of it, this makes sense: professional services firms rarely make the front pages of newspapers. Financial services companies do but often for the wrong reasons.
The Budget seems a riskless opportunity for companies to demonstrate their expertise in economics, tax, consulting and law.
Financial feeding frenzy
There is one big problem: every other company is trying to capitalise on it too. This leads to a feeding frenzy of content, views, summaries and case studies. Few companies, if any, achieve any real cut-through. Which companies do you recall getting particularly strong Budget coverage? What were they known for? How were they better than their competitors?
This is similar to a curiosity I’ve found in cities in emerging countries. Whole areas are dedicated to just one trade. Outside Mombasa, there’s an entire zone dedicated to boat-makers, a zone for sculptors, a zone for metal-workers. You won’t find metal-workers in the boat-makers’ area. All the competition is in one place.
In the same way, Budget competition is intense, with everybody competing in the same zone. A vast effort is bottlenecked into 63 minutes (the longest budget speech was only 285 minutes) and the immediate days before and after.
Cut-through or cut-throat
There is much debate as to how to get traction in a Budget. Some companies sign commercial deals with papers. Other companies second experts to media outlets to comment on the day.
It would also be unfair to characterise budget coverage as merely commercial. Companies and spokespeople may have spent years establishing their credentials and expertise, building relationships and developing their brands.
As a general rule, however, there are three key ways to ensure coverage:
- Be first
- Be controversial
- Give distinctive insight that adds value
Being first is an attractive, albeit competitive, option. Being controversial may not suit some companies. Adding distinctive insight is the best option, but genuinely challenging – even for excellent companies and commentators.
The growth in digital and social self-publishing has further complicated matters. The Budget was the second highest trending topic on Twitter (the Ashes first Test was first, by a nose), reflecting a social melee to capitalise on budget noise. Getting cut through in such an environment is really tough.
A vast number of companies published summaries on the day. With people receiving so many summaries, the question remains whether they are effective. Research has shown that, faced with an overload of similar content, audiences revert to trusted sources. After all the huffing and puffing, most people probably read about the budget in the FT, the Daily Mail or BBC.
That’s not to say that budget summaries don’t have value. It’s important for many financial and professional services companies to communicate important changes to their clients. In many cases, they may have a duty of care to do so.
Is it worth it?
But the question remains, is it really worth focussing activity around the budget itself? If businesses or consumers can’t recall brands, or their contribution, has budget coverage been a success? Does coverage really support business development objectives?
These questions are important. Allocating resources to initiatives which don’t generate a positive return on investment is futile.
For many companies, the real prize doesn’t come from the budget headlines. The minutiae – little known changes in accounting treatments and obscure tax planning opportunities, or opportunities driven by new government legislation – may well provide the real opportunities.
Sourcing and developing these opportunities involves scouring details and engaging with stakeholders. It means creating insights based on considered and thorough research. It does not lend itself to the rapid fire nature of the budget.
Instead, engaging decision-makers in the “clean air” in the weeks and months following a budget, with well-informed and targeted insights, may be more effective. Communicating these insights using thought leadership, developed through a robust and cogent framework, is far more likely to achieve commercial objectives.
The Budget media merry-go-round isn’t going anywhere. But companies should evaluate carefully whether the real value is in the on-the-day budget coverage. By waiting for space and time, companies can avoid the competition and find their own zone to own and engage their audiences.