Marketing Content Strategy

Forward 2016, Day 1: Why Content Marketing ≠ Brand Storytelling

9 Minute Read

At Forward 2016, Skyword’s annual storytelling conference, brands from across the country came together yesterday to celebrate the fusion of marketing and storytelling.

Today, enterprise marketers are faced with a unique challenge—interrupt advertising continues its steep decline, and most organizations have adopted some form of content marketing to connect with customers. However, the content space is noisy. People are overwhelmed with the volume of content hitting the web every day.

So what should marketers do?

In the conference’s kick-off keynote, Skyword Founder and CEO Tom Gerace pulled back the curtain on his work with Robert McKee to develop a storytelling process that can be integrated into technology and scaled within an enterprise organization. Gerace noted that story is not content; much of the written content today is listicles, a series of “and thens.” On the other hand, storytelling conveys meaning through a sequence of events that reveals a character’s true self. And the best stories are centered around the decisions a character makes in a period of time. This creates empathy between the reader and the core protagonist.

For this reason, Skyword announced Storynomics, a new series of seminars, systems, and a storytelling framework to help brands breakthrough the noise with stories that hook, hold, and reward attention, and move people to act. As part of this release, Skyword also announced the Content Marketing Continuum, an assessment that marketers can take to understand where they are in their storytelling maturation, and how to move up the spectrum in order to build audience, drive revenue, and establish brand affinity.

In this post, we recap some of the presentations from yesterday on the power of brand storytelling.

Tom Gerace, CEO of Skyword delivers the opening keynote

What “Idea Surgery” Looks Like for Enterprise Marketers: Tim Urban of Wait But Why

Tim Urban, founder of the blog Wait But Why, represents the story side of the fusion taking place in business today. He covers a range of topics, all of which are developed through an immersive process to first understand why something would appeal to his audience, and then showing how that one, unique topic came to be. Urban said the marketer’s primary job comprises “idea surgery”—the process of getting an idea from your brain into someone else’s brain to change their behavior. “It’s kind of creepy,” he said.

Today, consumers don’t like when brands try and implant ideas in their brains. They block ads at an alarming rate, they distrust organizations, and they skip over TV commercials. As a marketer, this creates a sort of existential crisis where purpose comes into question. Many marketers find themselves questioning their work: Do people like it when I’m in their brain? Am I an effective idea surgeon?

Tim Urban, Wait But Why at Forward 2016

For Urban, these questions continued to nag at him during his creative process, and he discovered that unless he was truly clear in what he wanted to do and tell, he couldn’t convey his message clearly in other people’s heads. Surgery became messy. He needed a research and questioning process that allowed him to narrow in with each discovery on the nugget of inspiration that would hook an audience. Today, most brands rattle off several ideas, go out and produce those stories, and hope they perform well. Urban noticed that early on in his blogging career his pieces tended to stagnate because he didn’t put in the upfront work to really understand the topics he was trying to talk about, and through this self-reflection he identified six core qualities to increase the value of every post he published.

Urban’s Process:

  1. Good fiction things: A lot of poorly told stories rely on facts and don’t borrow from fiction storytelling best practices enough. People are so focused on presenting facts, they forget to produce something that’s actually interesting to read. Urban fictionalizes his work by putting dense topics into perspective for the average reader.
  2. Colloquial language: Business professionals often use dressed-up language to convey intelligence or maturity even though that’s not how people talk. Urban uses everyday language to draw readers in and allow for people to empathize and relate to the topics being discussed. That’s why someone without any prior knowledge of artificial intelligence can binge on Urban’s two-part series and stay hooked.
  3. Visuals up the ass: People still read, but they also enjoy visual media. To Urban, using a mixed-media style to tell stories breaks up large chunks of text and gives him the opportunity to tell stories in a way that words won’t allow. And visuals don’t need to be professionally-designed works of art—Urban relies on his own stick figure drawings to keep an audience engaged.
  4. Creative structures: In the same way most content marketers produce content, not story, even more fall victim to a scholarly approach to writing. They rely on a predetermined structure for their stories, and that limits creativity. Urban encouraged attendees to play with format as a way to earn credibility to dive deeper into a topic. When you approach a topic like a history essay, your audience won’t want to keep scrolling. But if you frame a historic event in a way that resonates with the vast majority of people in the audience, starting somewhere in the middle or even at the end, you then earn the right to progress through the story arc in a way that entertains.
  5. Symbols and freshly-coined terms for stickiness: As marketers, we’re told to avoid buzzwords at all costs, but Urban suggested using unique symbols and terms as a way to engender audiences to the stories you’re trying to tell. When you create a common language between readers, something people can rally around, they’re more likely to feel part of the community and tribe. That brings people back time and time again.
  6. Metaphors as a shortcut: Many people discover topics randomly through search or social media, and they don’t always have the necessary context to understand the totality of a topic. Writers can use metaphors as a way to summarize or paraphrase events or meanings and immediately give readers the information they need to understand the story you’re trying to tell. Sometimes you need to produce a longer story to effectively communicate this metaphor, but when you do that research and work to educate your audience, and then take them to a different more timely part of the story, readers remember that. They learn to trust your work, and they come back again for more.

IBM Security Learns What it Takes to Be a News Publisher: Tom Kendall and Pam Jones launched in 2013, generating 250,000 page views via 900 pieces in the first year. However, not every component to IBM Security’s content strategy was pulling its own weight. The site’s news block struggled to generate sustained interest.

The team knew that in order to become a more respectable news publisher, the company had to shift away from reacting to the news and start creating the news. By refocusing’s strategy to publishing 30 articles per month with the IBM Security point-of-view embedded into each story, the site saw its traffic jump 47 percent. A good start, but speed and clear differentiation still needed improvement.

The IBM Security content team starting looking internally for story ideas that would matter to its audience, subsequently on-boarding 150+ contributors from both in- and out of the organization. This gave the IBM Security team the ability to parse large amount of expertise, and identify newsworthy topics, and begin optimizing publishing cadence to capitalize on consumption patterns.

Once the framework had been established, was accepted into Google News, and the site saw over an 80 percent increase in traffic, a 2,400 percent increase in social shares, and a 287 percent rise in organic search. The team also shifted to a Monday and Tuesday publishing cadence that increased search views by 37 percent in one month.

With all of its success, the IBM Security team offered advice to the audience:

  • Find business partners who can contribute relevant news and content to your site, and then cross-link between the two sites. For example, and IBM Mobile Insights often cross-link to add credibility to both publications.
  • Coordinate global events to have news picked up by other outlets. For example, equip your PR and communications team during events so they can leverage mass audience and increase reach and exposure.
  • Use company news announcements as subtle points within general stories, so you can brag a little without compromising brand reputation. This offers a stronger option than a typical press release.

IBM Security also has big bets for 2016 and beyond:

  • Apple News — Will this become a huge traffic driver?
  • Facebook Instant Articles — IBM Security wants to be one of the first brands accepted into the program.
  • LinkedIn’s direct publishing platform and Flipboard curation as a way to increase referral traffic.
  • Globalization — Bringing to new markets.

Finally, Pam and Tom offered day-to-day recommendations to consider:

  • Establish cadence and a pitch process. And, make sure you use reliable sources.
  • Align internal team members—find storytellers across the organization to contribute to the site’s success.
  • Exploit traffic patterns to understand your audience’s reading habits.
  • Embrace the true art of storytelling.

Let Locals Tell Your Stories – Victoria Keichinger, Manager of Brand Engagement, Coldwell Banker

It’s hard to get a few people saying the same thing about anything. Try getting 84,000 people around the globe all telling the same story.

Coldwell Banker, a residential real estate franchise system with 84,000 agents in various corners of the world, needed to find a way to leverage the expertise of its local agents, allowing them to market themselves through storytelling while maintaining a consistent voice.

Through its Regional Blogging Program, the brand is able to showcase its agents’ expertise in the three main stages of home buying: purchasing, selling, and living, by publishing content relevant to local audiences’ lives. What plants are best at fighting drought in Dallas? Coldwell Banker couldn’t tell you, but a local real estate agent could.

And the program has seen great results: Pageviews to regional content are up 60 percent year over year, organic search views up 44 percent, and overall share of brand voice is up 20 percent. But perhaps the most important lesson here is that there’s no ownership in content—but a story always has an author. “Based on who’s telling it, a story can shift,” Keichinger, said. Perspective matters.

Emotionally-charged storytelling from local experts creates memorable experiences, no matter the industry. Marketers would be wise to remember that.

Why Your Brand Needs Storytelling: Introducing the Content Marketing Continuum

Ask a content manager. Ask a search engine marketer. Ask a CMO. Everyone has a different definition of what content marketing is.

Yesterday, Skyword introduced the Content Marketing Continuum (not just marketing jargon you can add to your list of marketing jargon), but a framework to move key employees within companies from bystanders to leaders in the brand storytelling space.

Are you just talking about your products, or is your marketing—your business—fueled by original, sustainable storytelling? Do you fall somewhere in between? Knowing your position on the Continuum will help you understand which steps are necessary to elevate your content efforts.

Patricia Travaline, CMO of Skyword, explained the different stages of the Continuum—Bystander, Novice, Expert, Leader, and Visionary and how brands can move up the spectrum. She also talked about Skyword’s upcoming partnership with world-renowned story craft expert, Robert McKee, to educate the marketplace on the enormous impact great brand stories can have for businesses.

“We are entering into a new information age,” said Travaline, rounding out the presentation. “We can start owning our audiences. Do you want to be part of this new information age, or hold on to outdated marketing methods?”

The Chicken Comes First: Pairing Brands and Contributors for Powerful Storytelling

It takes a powerful storyteller to make a brand’s story sing. As a marketer, that means seeking out creatives who, beyond just being great at what they do, can capture your brand’s essence and elevate it to new heights. And as a freelancer, that means honing your personal brand and showcasing your work in a way that makes you stand out from the crowd.

This panel, driven by the unique insights of Bridget Burns, Tom’s of Maine’s social media strategist, Elizabeth Wellington, writer, editor, and content strategist, Molly Berry, community manager, and Braden Becker, editorial manager, spoke to the arts of both choosing a team of freelance contributors, and positioning oneself to be chosen by a dream client. The panelists offered tangible best practices for everyone in the audience—including Berry and Becker’s advice surrounding the value of blogging to gain expertise.

From a freelance perspective, blogs are an opportunity to develop and share your expertise on a given subject area. (That’s a solution for anyone wondering what comes first: expertise [the chicken] or the opportunity to develop expertise in a professional setting [the egg].) For clients, blogs provide a glimpse at a writer’s unedited work, which can be a hugely valuable perspective for those who are looking for a strong pool of writers with whom they can collaborate.

Every Project Is a Passion Project: Excel Through Collaboration

Brands rely on the expertise of talented storytellers to tell powerful, original, empathetic stories that will resonate with audiences and drive strong results. But in the rush of developing topics and the aftermath of summoning a crew of contributors so experienced in their subject matter that they almost seem too perfect, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of generating topics, assigning them, and trusting those storytellers to intuit their goals and strategies.

In this panel, Kyle Harper, freelance creative, Sree Lenhart, senior content strategist, Peter Kringdon, content specialist, and Katie Van Adzin, editorial manager, shared their experiences working on teams where collaboration is at the center of their strategy. As Harper eloquently stated, for freelance contributors, “Every project is a passion project.” When brands trust their teams with resources and details about their goals and strategy, and when they keep them in the loop with briefing calls and in topic generation, the result is a sharp content strategy that speaks to the real-time needs and interests of audiences—and is born out of that passion.

If your brand isn’t working toward a collaborative approach to strategic storytelling, making the shift could be your next best decision.

Villains Are Heroes (in Their Own Minds:) Find Your Hero

As content strategies evolve to embrace the brain’s (and the heart’s) propensity for story, storytellers and brands alike are diving deep into the science of story.

We might be familiar with terms such as plot and protagonist from other literature we’ve studied or classes we’ve taken, but in a world where we’ve been putting so much emphasis on providing snackable advice and CTAs, some of those terms might seem tough to translate. This panel, which featured Laurie Mega, senior editorial manager, Rachel Wudarczyk, senior content strategist, Jill Taksey, ADP’s senior director of content marketing, and Chuck Leddy, brand storyteller, aimed to define one key element of storytelling as it relates to content: the hero. Above all, one recurring theme in this panel was the need for contributors, creatives, and marketers to be empathetic above all else.

Whether it’s, as Leddy noted, remembering that even the villains or obstacles in a story are heroes in their own minds, or it’s creating an empathetic character that an audience both relates to and roots for, that empathy is the defining element that will make a brand story resonate and set it apart. Once audiences recognize themselves in a story, they’ll want to finish it, which will create lasting connections between brands and readers.

Sarah Hill, CEO of StoryUP

The Next Marketing Frontier: Virtual Reality Storytelling

In Wednesday’s closing keynote presentation, Sarah Hill, CEO and Chief Storyteller for StoryUP, showed content marketers that VR is not a medium of the future. It’s happening now.

For StoryUP, VR is anything in a headset. A still photo, a CG environment, a video of all kinds. In the old way we produced content as content creators, we were outside the video. Now, we’re inside the video, placing viewers inside the story.

Right now, many content creators are using virtual reality, instead of augmented reality or a mix of the two, but the possibilities are (virtually) endless. “The next iteration of media is human media,” said Hill.

Hill reminded us that we live in an ad-weary environment. What kind of tools do we have as marketers to reach this audience? VR video, for StoryUP, is the answer.

Why is VR video better than regular video? According to a StoryUP case study, the average percentage viewed was 28.81 percent higher with 360-degree video, and double the views watched the video to completion.

The resources for VR, can be complicated to assemble. With VR, you need a storyteller, a special effect artist, spacial audio professionals, game designers, and more. We can’t do all of these things ourselves. But to get started, you don’t need a fancy camera—you can do it yourself with auto-stitch cameras.

Hill also emphasized that—despite the technology—a good story is what affects people in the end, and as a VR storyteller, you have to think about how a story arc will differ. Who is behind the camera? Who is on the tripod connecting with the audience? The story is no longer straight ahead; it’s all around you. If you’re not looking where the creator wanted you to look, you might miss the point the author wanted to highlight.

What’s next in VR storytelling?

The technology is also quickly evolving, new software and hardware coming out like Liquid Cinema, which reorients viewers into where to turn next in the VR environment, or Tilt Brush, which gives users the ability to paint in space. Content creators are also starting to integrate vibration into their VR, as well as haptics, Smell-O-Vision, and many more.

Brands can use this new storytelling medium to create a sense of empathy among their audiences. “The internet is no longer flat” Hill said. “It’s morphing into the metaverse.”

Beam me up, Scotty!

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Co-written by Ted Karczewski and Linsey Morse

Register for Forward 2019!

Managing editor of the Content Standard, writer at Monster, Sound of Boston, Trill, and others. Hip-hop producer.

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