Brand Storytelling Lessons and Unanswered Questions from Content Marketing World 2017—Day 1
Marketing Content Strategy

Lessons Learned and Unanswered Questions from Content Marketing World 2017—Day 1

10 Minute Read

It’s raining and I’m looking in the back of my closet for my jacket. What does that mean? That’s right: It’s September—time for Content Marketing World 2017.

CMW, the world’s largest content marketing event, draws thousands of marketers from over fifty countries to the city of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie for over a hundred sessions and workshops from the best in the industry.

Here are the lessons I learned—and my unanswered questions—from day one of Content Marketing World.

Welcome to the Content Marketing Revolution—Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), kicked things off with a quick history lesson.

Back in September 2011—at the time of the first CMW—interest in content marketing was nowhere near what it is today.Google trends—content marketing

However, “today,” Joe explained, “content marketing is . . . the most important thing going on in not only digital marketing but marketing in general.”

Consumers can now simply ignore advertising. So we content marketers created more and more content, hoping to sell more products, services, advertising, subscriptions.

“But what if what we know and what we’ve learned about marketing is holding us back?”

The Star Wars Merchandise Story

Back in 1976, Fox Studios thought Star Wars would be a flop, so they let George Lucas pass up a massive chunk of his director’s fee in exchange for merchandising rights. Why would Fox executives do such a foolish thing? Because they only thought movies could make money from ticket sales.

And how does this relate to content marketing?

You Need an Audience

According to CMI’s latest research, 90 percent of companies who think they’re succeeding at content marketing say they’re focused on building audiences.

These brands, Joe argued, are starting to think like George Lucas and are part of an emerging business model. To make this model work, “you need a loyal and trusting audience.”

What Questions Remain?

So we need to build audiences. But how? Now, I didn’t expect Joe to solve every problem for us in ten minutes. In fact, I congratulate him for setting the tone for CMW 2017, and leaving us eager to attend sessions to find out how to build our audiences.

Imagination at Work: Lessons in Storytelling from GE—Linda Boff

According to Linda Boff, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer, GE tells stories to communicate strategy, to sell, to inspire, and reach audiences. “We’re not precious about how we tell those stories” as long as you “find a way that’s engaging, inspiring, and memorable.”

Here are a selection of her lessons on storytelling:

Know Who You Are: To tell your story effectively, “you have to figure out who you are. What’s your DNA? What does your company stand for?” Can you say who you are succinctly and with simple language? “Sometimes that’s the hardest part in storytelling, getting to the simple idea.”

Know Your Secret Sauce: Once you know who you are, how are you going to bring that story to life? For GE, a company which is 125 years old, there’s a constant fight to reintroduce yourself to the world and stay relevant. At first glance, GE might seem like a boring industrial company. But in fact, if you look at what they do from a child’s perspective, it is truly magical.

There’s a Right Way to Make a Statement: How do you convey an idea? According to Linda, GE is committed to diversity and equality, as are many companies. But how do you make that statement? With a press release? Maybe. But why not use the opportunity to tell a great story?

Stories Are Right Under Your Nose: Finding stories can be the hardest thing even though they are “right under our nose.” Once found, you still have to tell them in way that’s relatable. One way they did this was partnering with Adam Savage on Mythbusters. You can see an example of the collaboration in this video.

What Questions Remain?

This was a fascinating session, but I couldn’t help wondering how smaller brands in other spaces might apply those lessons to their content creation.

Be the Exception: How Brilliant Marketers Find and Follow What Makes Their Stories Different in a World Full of Average Content—Jay Acunzo

Be the Exception

Image attribution: Kelly Kingman

Recently I was talking with a colleague and we agreed that there’s way too much average content out there. Jay Acunzo—former digital media strategist at Google and head of content at HubSpot—agrees.

“This world of stories . . . is flooding with advice—advice that we can access in an instant. But so can everybody else.”

Too Many Sheep—Not Enough Shepherds

“We all face a big, big problem as content marketers today. It has never been easier to be average.”

Since so much content blends into the background, what does it take to be exceptional?

Trust Your Intuition

Many of us are missing “the willingness to trust our intuition.”

Mike Brown was struggling with his coffee business. The experts blamed the coffee bean, but Mike followed his intuition. He realized his customers often wanted the strongest coffee possible. So he articulated an aspiration.

“I want to create the world’s strongest coffee.” And he called it Death Wish Coffee.

Ask “Why?”

Mike moved from data to insight by asking “why?” People want stronger coffee. Why? More caffeine. Why? More energy. Why? To work hard. So they don’t really want stronger coffee, more caffeine, or more energy: They want to work themselves to death.

What Questions to Ask

To help you get started, Jay gave us questions to ask ourselves:

Questions about you: What are your aspirational anchors? Aspirational anchors give us a framework to vet advice and they give us a reason to use our individuality in our work—the “one thing our competitors can’t access.”

Questions about your audience: According to Jay, “First-principle insights are basic but hard-to-reach truths about your audience.” You have to ask why over and over, just like Mike Brown, to reach these insights.

Questions about your resources: Any creative knows that constraints are your friends. So ask yourself honestly, “what are my constraints?” And “how can I expand?”

What Questions Remain?

This powerful keynote resonated with the entire hall. We were on board with Jay’s rallying call to trust our intuition even when it flies in the face of accepted best practice. But so many of us are answerable to senior decision makers—CEOs, boards, etc. How do we convince them to trust our intuition too?

Building Genuine Connections in a World of Declining Empathy—Tom Gerace

Tom Gerace, CEO of Skyword and co-author of the forthcoming book Storynomics, took us down to the negative floor, reminding us that despite the death of interrupt advertising “we don’t yet, as an industry, know how to replace that traditional method of connection.” So what are we to do?

Building Genuine Connection

Instinctively, we all know the importance of connections in our lives. But building connections is harder than ever. We don’t trust each other. “We don’t love one another like we once did.”

And it’s actually making us unhappier.

U.S. Happiness Score

The World Happiness Report found that once you solve your material problems, there is little relationship between economic growth and happiness.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in institutions is in decline. Customers and citizens are beginning to say “you don’t share my values.”

The Good News

It turns out businesses have the best opportunity to earn back our trust. Here’s how.

  1. Commit to the truth: “We have to be able to talk to customers in a way that acknowledges the real world in which they live.”
  2. Find your brand purpose: Giving back is not just right thing to do but the right business thing to do.
  3. Genuinely care about your customers: We need to do something that shows we care about our customers, that lifts them up. B2B and B2C brands like Colgate, Anthem, IBM, Northrop Grumman, and Hologic are already showing they care by producing important content for their audiences.
  4. Build connection through story: Creating content is not enough. You have to learn how to be brand storytellers.

What Questions Remain?

Tom’s session was timely for B2B and B2C brands. Some attendees may have wanted more details about building connection through story. Luckily, he provided us with information about his forthcoming book co-authored with Robert McKee, Storynomics.

Becoming an Audience Company: Moving Beyond Media in a Post-Digital World—Robert Rose

As the chief content adviser for the Content Marketing Institute, Robert Rose gave a rich and pertinent keynote divided into clearly numbered parts about measuring the value of audiences. Following from Joe Pulizzi’s introduction, Robert continued with the revolutionary theme. As he told the Content Standard, marketers must “create content to build audiences that we can reach—independent of third party media companies.”

Part 1: Attention Built an Industry

He began with a brief history of the audimeter and the Nielsen Radio Index, which become the standard to measure radio and later TV attention in audiences.

Part 2: Technology Killed the Content Star

Media companies have built on the idea of “content as product” because the distribution and production was hard. But over the last 17 years, this model has been disrupted and there have been winners and losers.

Part 3: Audiences Reinventing the Idea of Media and Marketing

Some media companies are realizing that “content can be monetized in different ways.” He gives the example of LEGO and the new media companies: Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. What these companies are doing is monetizing “an addressable audience.”

Part 4: Talent and Trust Are the Battleground of the Future

Old media are launching products and services for their audience’s needs, and product and service providers are edging into the media space. “Why,” Robert asked, “would it be so weird if Starbucks was going to launch a CNN-like news service?”

If two of the four tentpoles of traditional media—production and distribution—are readily accessible, then talent and trust are what’s left to fight over.

Part 5: Audiences Are the Business Model of the Future

In content marketing, we have to take advantage of the entire audience that we’re building. Addressable audiences have value beyond purchase power because their engagement is inherently valuable.


Echoing Joe’s opening session, Robert asks “what if everything we know about measuring attention as the sole means of value is what’s holding us back?”

What Questions Remain?

This was a dense but informative keynote. The question that remains is: Who will it be that creates the next trillion-dollar industry?

How to Build a Dominant Media Brand One Day at a Time—Casey Neistat

I was a fan of super vlogger Casey Neistat way before CMW and was looking forward to his keynote.

He opened with a story about his childhood. There was Nickelodeon and MTV. That was it. Because of that he “would tolerate whatever terrible [expletive] commercials came on because I had no choice.”

We Are Inundated with Content

Because we are drowning in content, we have agency over what we consume, and our bullshit detectors are extremely refined. As marketers, our job is to “penetrate that bullshit.”


Frustration was a big part of Casey’s early life. It was only when he discovered making videos that he found an outlet. One day the battery died on his iPod. Having discovered that Apple’s policy was not to repair, Casey created an ingenious protest video. The video went viral, and this was before the YouTube era.

Casey became a successful filmmaker and entrepreneur, but something was missing. He went back to his roots, creating YouTube videos, building his audience. Nike asked him to make some videos. On the third video, Casey took an unexpected and unique approach.

Cut Through with Authenticity

The Nike video stood out due to its authenticity. And Casey is not alone, as evidenced by his recent video, “Do What You Can’t,” which showcases the work of many YouTubers.

What Questions Remain?

My only remaining question is: Will day two be as good?

Click here for a roundup of day two.

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Michael Box is a professional business editor and writer with a background in storytelling and language teaching. As Content Marketing Specialist at Skyword, Michael writes about brand storytelling, marketing trends, creativity, technology, social media, consumer psychology, and advertising. Michael enjoys creative writing, reading, photography, chess, electronic music composition, and classical guitar.

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