The phrase “Content is King” may not be new, but it certainly has enduring relevance in our digital world where so much of our lives are experienced online and increasingly shared online. In fact, the very essence of social media is found in the ways we create content, share it, comment on it, or simply “like” it (in the new “active” sense of that word). The advent of social media and the growing importance of inbound marketing and internet search in general means that not only is content still king, the empire has grown. A lot.

As a result of these developments, our company (like many others) actively engages in content management, and we’re employing a new content management system (CMS) as a way to help us stay relevant with the communities we engage with. And while the CMS will provide us with many benefits, an equally important process to enable the ongoing evolution of our marketers with exposure to new perspectives and best practices from thought leaders.

One such opportunity presented itself recently with a visit to SAS by Robert Rose, author of “Managing Content Marketing,” a book billed as a “real-world guide for creating passionate subscribers to your brand.” What we learned from Robert is that good, compelling content is very simply one that tells a story.  And while all stories do not begin with “once upon a time,” that’s a better start than a bulleted list of your product’s features quite simply because your bulleted list may be factual, but is it interesting?

Being interesting is easier said than done, but well worth the effort. In my view, being interesting is 50% of being relevant. The other 50% of relevance is utility, so relevance is earned when you can provide content that is both useful and interesting – not one or the other.

Robert presented the challenge of rising above the noise of today’s digital world, in which the typical person consumes information 11 hours per day. Considering the ideal of 8 hours of sleep and some 2-3 hours in transit, eating and engaging in other “daily maintenance” activities, that leaves little time for other engagements. In that context, it’s easy to understand how content presented as a story is effective because first it captivates the audience, and then it engages on an emotional level.

A story resonates in a way that matters to the intended audience, which makes it interesting.
The fact that it's interesting makes it memorable, which greatly increases its utility.

Robert's presentation capitvated me because he presented it as a series of stories - really. That said, here are the 3 biggest content marketing take-aways for marketers that I got from Robert's stories:

Be mindful of who you're talking to
This is as basic as it gets - for marketers and all communicators. Your audience has its own vibe, rhythm and even language. So if you want your story to matter, start by considering who you're talking to and also what they care about and be mindful that it's about them - not you. For big audiences, there's nothing better than customer analytics to get the story from the data capturing their behaviors and buying patterns. For simpler, everyday situations, it's simply a matter of paying attention to your audience over a long period of time and "learning their lingo."

Remember what business you're in
Robert shared that Theodore Levitt, legendary strategist and Editor of Harvard Business Review, once posited in his paper, "Marketing Myopia," that the [passenger] railroad industry declined because they defined themselves narrowly as being in the "railroad business" (a product-centric view) instead of being in the "transportation business" (a customer-centric view). As a result, we might think differently about railroads today had they not remained constrained by the inherent limitations of two parallel rails.

A more strategic view that was focused on the need for people to move themselves and their goods might have resulted in a much different passenger rail system today.  It would have fostered easier interconnections and synergies with airlines, water transport systems and automobile-based transportation . My interpretation from that example gets to the core of solid brand management. It all works well when you tell your customer that you'll provide something that they want/need, and then you follow through by providing it. The bottom line is that it all begins and ends with the customer.

Get to the underlying reasons
For effective storytelling, it's critical to stop and think about "why." Robert cited Simon Sinek's thoughts from his book, "Start with Why," and zeroing in on how important it is for the story to address the underlying question "why." And not simply asking the question once, but asking "why" over and over again with the dogged tenacity of a toddler until you get to the core where the emotions live. It might take 2, 3, 4 or even more "why's" before you get to the real story. Once you're there, that should guide how you communicate.  Robert illustrated his point by contrasting the difference between a mere plot with a story:

Plot:    It tells us what happened. "The king, queen and prince all died."
Story: It tells us why it happened. "The king, queen and prince all died of heartbreaking grief."

Having read those two statements, I imagine the story has you speculating about the situation, and that's the point. "Why" is critical to the story, and it's the core reason why the story is memorable, and it's why storytellling is effective content marketing.

It all  comes down to the idea that a story is a problem that must be solved. And people LOVE to solve problems - especially their own problems or ones that they can relate to. In content marketing, the brand message communicates the problem's solution (the value proposition) at the highest level. And when done right, the story is consistent with the brand in ways that explain the value proposition, and then product messaging translates the story to a granular, practical level in ways that demonstate how to benefit from the value proposition. It's why the story reigns as queen in the kingdom of content (you don't need to ask who's really the boss in the castle).

I'll end by sharing this short video that tells the SAS story in under 3 minutes. It describes the impact of our tagline, "The Power to Know," and it also speaks eloquently to the many reasons why I love working at a company that makes a difference every day. That's my story.

As always, thank you for following and let me know what you think.

By John Balla

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