Fast Forward Friday: Content May Reign but Storytelling Will Never Die

From the pre-historic drawings of cavemen and the dawn of the printing press to today’s blogs and videos, telling stories is inherent in our DNA. Yet, in a world where the average attention span is less than a goldfish, we now have to be far smarter about how, when and where we share those stories.

For those of us who have been around the proverbial block more than once, it’s been an interesting evolution to witness. In fact, when I began my career as a journalist 20 years ago (at the outset of the dot-com boom and years before LinkedIn changed how we network), there were very clear sandboxes for content creation between journalists and marketers.

After all, my charge wasn’t to make the story—it was to report it. And never in my wildest editorial dreams would I have imagined inviting readers to take a video on a cell phone (a fraction the size of my Motorola brick that cost a dollar a minute to use)—and then using said video on my magazine’s website and calling that content, “news.”

Around the dawn of the new century, however, as I began moving into higher education marketing and the Internet chomped away at the world of traditional journalism, the tables seemingly turned overnight. Stories were no longer something we reported—but rather created.

Now, in the haze of channels and data points, many of us are left wondering how did we get here? And better yet, where in the world is this whole content thing going?

The Evolution of Content Marketing

Given where we’ve arrived today, many organizations have confused these ideas of content and content marketing. Content includes all of those broad-brush buckets of the words you craft and share about your organization—from sales and employee content to advertising and investor content.

The purpose of content marketing, however, is far more focused and intentional. While there are varying definitions of content marketing, the heart of content marketing is about educating and engaging targeted audiences with very specific, non-branded content that ultimately invites them to take sequential steps toward an action (ideally a profitable one).

Many marketers point to John Deere’s magazine, The Furrow, which was launched in 1895, as one of the earliest examples of content marketing. John Deere created the magazine not to sell farming equipment, but to educate farmers on new technologies and ways they could be more profitable—with the intent that Furrow readers’ success would ultimately enable them to buy more John Deere equipment.

Similarly, more than 130 years later, organizations are finding their strides with general content production, as well as more targeted content marketing efforts, according to the Content Marketing Institute. In their 2017 reports on B2B and B2C Content Marketing Budgets, Benchmarks and Trends, marketers across the board indicate increased success over the previous year relative to content creation (85 percent for B2B; 77 percent for B2C) and in establishing a content strategy (72 percent for B2B; 71 percent for B2B).

The key to winning at content—and content marketing—going forward will continue to rely on several key things...

Differentiate Your Story Better

Despite Kelly Wenzel’s argument that storytelling isn’t a strategy, I believe the power of storytelling should not be overlooked. I would even go so far as to say that storytelling isn’t the strategy or the tactic. Storytelling is the connector.

In a recent presentation, Don Osmond Jr. of Austin-based OzComm, contended that storytelling is a 15,000-year-old marketing strategy for a reason—because storytelling works. Osmond contended so many organizations are focused on the tactics that they forget to get ask “why.” For it’s at the heart of that why (why you do what you do and why you do that better) where organizations can truly define their unique value proposition. 

In a world riddled with noise through every possible channel, app and space, successful content marketing will come down to sharing a unique, differentiated story with the audiences who care and can benefit from your why. And this is where I agree with Contently's Wenzel: we must learn to not only differentiate our content, but to also scale that content across multiple channels—​and of course, measure its efficacy over time.

Give Your Content Time to Mature

Having played on both sides of the journalism/marketing fence, what’s stood out most is that many organizations fail to remember that engaging audiences is like engaging the date across from you at the candlelit table. You don’t blab about yourself the whole time, nor immediately ask them for a second date before they get to know you.

Because just like in dating, if you are truly concerned about developing a relationship to create brand affinity—and ultimately sales—you have to give your content program time to mature. This includes not only maturing in terms of defining powerful topics and nailing that production process—but also in becoming more sophisticated over time in how you measure and monitor your content's performance.

Now, I understand this isn’t something the C-suite wants to hear (nor do some of my clients). But would your exec walk into a networking event, give the 30-second elevator pitch and then ask (really loudly), “Now, who wants to buy from me?” In the same way, we shouldn’t toss out a month-long content campaign and expect the holy grail of leads, new customers or new LinkedIn followers to ultimately double the quarter's earnings.

Diversify Your Content Mix

Just as we don’t always like to hear the same story over and over again, nor do we want to hear it told exactly the same way—it’s critical that we continue to engage audiences through a diverse arsenal of channels.

For many, this includes stepping beyond the bounds of just blogging or social content to encompass video, podcasting and more. According to a recent benchmarking report by Vidyard, 85 percent of businesses now have dedicated internal resources for video creation—and more impressively, 43 percent of people surveyed indicated they would rather see more video content from marketers.

What we know about audiences today—just as audiences from the decades and centuries before—is that they not only want to be informed and entertained, but they truly seek to be involved. If you can give them a compelling reason (hence your “why”), they’ll saddle up and go on the journey with you. Ultimately, they want to be part of the action. So look for ways you can make your content more interactive by adding some element, such as a quiz, poll, survey, calculator or guided self-assessment.

It’s anyone’s guess where this whole content train will go, but just as I learned in journalism school decades ago, a great story is a great story. And it’s up to us a marketers to step back, listen to our audiences, relinquish the innate tendency to self-promote and truly seek to return to our storytelling roots. Because channels will come and channels will go, but at the end of the day, it’s the story that they'll remember. 

An award-winning writer, Lara Zuehlke is Director of Content and author of the 2017 Brand Storytelling Report. She regularly works with B2B and B2C clients in shaping and sharing their unique brand stories through messaging frameworks, communications audits, integrated campaigns and training.