Marketing Content Strategy

Lessons Learned and Unanswered Questions from Content Marketing World 2017—Day 2

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It’s been a whirlwind few days at Content Marketing World, but I’m back home in Boston, putting the finishing touches on my event coverage in the wee hours of the morning. (My ability to pull all-nighters seems to have disappeared post college, along with my capacity for day-drinking.) I’m exhausted, but it was worth it.

While day one’s overarching themes tended towards challenging accepted paradigms about content, day two’s keynotes celebrated the joys of storytelling and content creation. Here are the lessons I took away from day two of Content Marketing World—and the questions that are still unanswered.

How Coca-Cola Infuses the Basics of Storytelling into Marketing—Kate Santore

Coca-Cola’s head of content, Kate Santore, began day two with the sentiment that’s at the heart of a conference like Content Marketing World. “We have a tradition at Coca-Cola of giving away our thoughtware,” she explained. And so she shared the secret formula that drives everything Coca-Cola’s marketing does: Rather than asking themselves how to sell more, they ask, “How do we find space in the hearts and minds of our consumers?”

A Coke Is a Coke Is a Coke

Coca-Cola is a product that hasn’t changed in 130 years. They can’t rely on new news or new features to excite consumers. Instead, they’ve turned that very sameness into a virtue.

What makes Coke special, according to Kate, is that a Coke is a Coke—the one I drink is the same as the one the president drinks. As such, their brand is democratic, inclusive, and relentlessly optimistic, which is what gives them the credibility to tell stories that are about so much more than soda. By casting their product as a character in a larger story, as the embodiment of an attitude or an object of desire, they tell timeless stories.

Coca-Cola Stories, Not Stories by Coca-Cola

When the Content Standard caught up with Kate before the show, she shared that they are embracing the fact that they are no longer the only narrator of their story. That lack of narrative control can turn out to be a blessing, like when fans created this video using the #ShareaCoke campaign as an adorable and creative pregnancy announcement:

What makes a Coca-Cola story special, Kate told us, is the conversation that flows from it—good and bad. When Coke’s 2014 Super Bowl ad met with negative backlash, the company stood by their message, and three years later the spot is still generating positive discussion. “The hate will come first but the love always comes,” Kate said. “The positivity will always come through.”

What Questions Remain?

Coca-Cola’s calm in the face of negative reactions is freeing for any brand hoping to spread a message of inclusivity. But negaphobia is a powerful instinctive response. How can we keep from indulging it?

Inside the Art of Storytelling—Colson Whitehead

Celebrated author Colson Whitehead took us inside his path to becoming a writer, then sat down for a Q&A session with Chief Content Officer’s Clare McDermott.

You Don’t Matter

Colson’s story began with that most writerly of clichés: years of artistic rejection. With self-deprecating humor, he described his childhood ambition to be the black Stephen King, his years as a journalist, and the failure of his first novel.

He minced no words on what he learned. “You’re not even a gnat trying to catch the attention of an elephant. You are a microbe in the ass of that gnat trying to catch the attention of an elephant,” he said. “It didn’t matter that no one liked what I was doing. I had no choice but to start again.” Take your ego out of the equation: When your work doesn’t resonate with an audience, the only logical thing to do is to simply move on.

Learn the Basics Before Breaking the Rules

The novel that hurtled Colson to public fame last year, The Underground Railroad, builds on a classic hero’s journey archetype, a structure that goes back (at least) to the Odyssey.

Throughout his discussion, Colson returned to classic storytelling techniques and the ways in which they could be played upon. In his novel Sag Harbor, for example, he knew that if he took away an important narrative element—in this case, a linear plot—he would need to compensate by creating a character’s voice so compelling that it did the work of a plot in engaging the audience.

“The story should always be more important than you,” he told us. “What kind of tools do I need to fulfill my aesthetic needs for this particular project?”

To Everything There Is a Season

Colson had the idea for The Underground Railroad 17 years before he wrote it, but didn’t think he was a good enough writer yet to tell the story right. If we were older and more mature, he thought, he could bring that value to the material.

There is nothing wrong with waiting until the right time, he told us. There is a time to wait, and eventually there will be a time to bite into the project that scares you.

What Questions Remain?

There’s something wonderfully freeing in giving yourself permission to wait to tackle an idea until you’ve reached the point where you can do it justice. But how do you know when to take that leap of faith and begin?

Hollywood, Media, and How to Collaborate to Build Something Truly Great—Joseph Gordon-Levitt

For the final keynote, Joseph Gordon-Levitt spoke not as an actor but as the creative director behind for HITRECORD, his online community-slash-collaborative production company.

The Blessing and the Curse of the Internet

Joe framed the need for a collaborative creative platform against the backdrop of today’s online culture. While he’s a far from a technophobe, he concedes that there are drawbacks to the Internet that limit our ability to come together and be creative.

The crowd: The crowd can be incredibly powerful for generating big data—terrific for high-volume sourcing of information—or as a way to search for talent, as in open contests. The limitation is that by using contests as our go-to for crowd-sourced solutions, we are putting people in competition with one another, rather than using our skills in collaboration to potential achieve an ever better result.

Free culture: The Internet has ingrained in us an expectation that content should be free. With sites like Google as the mediator between consumer and creator, this model means that when creators generate revenue, they rarely see it. The notion that intellectual property is supposed to be free has killed the music industry, is in the process of killing the journalism industry, and will likely continue on its path of decimation.

Socializing: There are enormous upsides to social networks. However, the major social media sites are hardly conducive to nuance or complexity, making productive collaboration a pipe dream.

What’s the Alternative?

Community: Instead of crowd-sourced, Joe prefers to refer to HITRECORD’s projects as community-sourced. “The difference is that every member of a community is a unique individual,” he said. “It’s not about the quantity of people, it’s about the quality of the interactions.”

Fair Compensation: Joe concedes that members of the community are not on HITRECORD to make money (a good thing, since most projects on HITRECORD generate no revenue). But when a project does generate revenue, like their collaboration with LG for the launch of the V20 smartphone, the creators are compensated fairly as a matter of principle.

Collaborating: Working together towards a common goal is the central premise of HITRECORD. All members of the community are free (and encouraged) to remix each other’s work, turning a drawing into an animation or a short story into a film script. Anyone can issue a creative challenge to the community and organize a series of challenges into a project.

For these principles to work more broadly, “our online culture has to grow up a bit,” Joe said. But thanks to the community of creators on HITRECORD, a passion project has grown into a self-sustaining business.

What Questions Remain?

Joe posed the same question that was on my mind throughout the keynote: How might these same principles be applied to other industries or other contexts?

Click here for a round up of day one.

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Rachel Haberman is a consummate word nerd with a lifelong fascination with all things language. She holds a BA in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Wellesley College. Before joining Skyword, Rachel managed content marketing for an international development and strategy consulting firm. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two cats named after physicists.

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