Ann Handley interview: Content marketing is still the best way for a brand to tell its own story

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Ann Handley MarketingProfsAnn Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs. In fact, as far as she knows she was the first person in the world with the title Chief Content Officer. She is the co-author of Content Rules and the author of Everybody Writes, which is due out this September. A shorter version of this interview appears on the IDG Connect Marketer blog.

Louis: You and C.C. Chapman wrote one of the seminal pieces on content marketing just two or three years ago, Content Rules. So what has changed or what’s new that it’s time for a new book?

Ann: First, thank you. Second: What’s changed? A couple of things.

Content Rules was one of the first books that convinced people that they need to consider content as a cornerstone of their marketing. And where we’re at right now is a lot of people — a lot of companies and individuals — have embraced that notion. They know that they have to be creating content consistently. But I think a lot of companies are struggling with a few things…

First, how do we do that consistently? How to create content that is not a one-and-done campaign, but is a long-term effort. That’s one challenge. The second challenge is creating the kind of content that their customers want. I think the default for a lot of companies is still to talk about themselves. They tend to favor corporate-centric content rather than customer-centric content.

Our world is a noisy world. So you’ve got to be creating content that is truly helpful to the people that you want to speak to. It’s got to be very useful for them and you’ve got to look at the world through their eyes, their point of view. One of the things that I talk about in my new book is, “Would your customers thank you for that content?”

I don’t think that the world needs another content marketing book. My new book is not the sequel to Content Rules. Instead it’s a book about creating and writing and publishing, from a marketer’s point of view. It’s called Everybody Writes. The idea is that in our content-driven, social world… everybody is a writer. And so I want people to have fun with writing, but also write with integrity and to really enjoy the fruits of their effort, of what they’re putting out there.

And also it’s about some more philosophical things. One of the things that reporters and people who have a journalism background do well is that they see content moments everywhere. They approach content with a “mind like water.” They’ll go into a situation not really knowing what the story is going to be but keeping an open mind to seeing those content moments everywhere.

Louis: Yes, I’m in a field – marketing, sales, revenue generation — that has no lack of things to write about. The lack is in time to write about everything that I want to write about.

Ann: Right. That’s exactly it. A lot of people think that they’re terrible writers and can’t write. I hear that all the time, and usually it stems from some trauma that they sustained in their childhood or grade school or middle school or whatever. There was often some teacher who told them they couldn’t write. But in our world, that’s not an excuse anymore. And I actually think that everyone is capable of producing some really good writing — or at least better writing.

Succeeding in a world with an ever-increasing amount of content

Louis: A huge amount of content is being produced. More and more every day. Can people continue to affordably create original, high-quality content?

Ann: That’s a good question. I don’t think we have a choice. All of us as brands, as companies, as individuals need to be creating the kind of content that fundamentally has value for the customer. So that means answering their questions, first and foremost.

Just because it’s been said before is not a reason to not do it. The key is to offer your particular take on something. Say it better. Say it in a way that creates more value for the people that you’re trying to reach. So I’m not sure that I really buy that argument that there’s a lot of content out there, so why should we be creating more content?

Louis: What about metrics? If you’re at a company, or working at a company, what are the metrics that the content marketers can use to convince management that this is a better investment than, or at least as good as, other channels.

Ann: I think the key there is what are you trying to accomplish? What’s the goal of your marketing? If it is to simply create brand awareness, then you’ve got to measure brand lift, or sentiment. So it’s up to you to really decide what the most meaningful metrics are. But of course you should absolutely put some metrics around it, at least the things that you can measure, to demonstrate value.

One of things that I always recommend when I’m talking to companies is to try an experiment. Put some budget toward creating content and amplifying it. And see if you can accomplish something on a small scale to demonstrate the case. It’s really the only way for you to own your own channels and tell your own story.

Louis: At MarketingProfs, what metrics do you look at? What are most important for you?

Ann: As the Chief Content Officer, I look at a couple things. Time on site is really important to me. I look at all the typical things like traffic, and where our members are going, what’s interesting to them and what isn’t. But I look at time on site to see how valuable our content is to them. How long are they sticking around? What’s their path to conversion?

The other thing that I look at more to get a sense of what resonates on social is to look at our sharing metrics. It’s easy to just discount them as not being very meaningful. But I’ve been watching them for years now so I have a really good sense just from looking at those numbers whether something has resonated in the social space or not. Because as marketing trainers and educators, it’s one way to get a sense of what our subscribers need from us.

How analytics inform the content of MarketingProfs

Louis: Your analytics must have told you a lot over the years in terms of what your audience is interested in, what’s new, what’s fading? How has that affected what you publish?

Ann: Analytics can inform what we publish and how we publish it – for example, we publish a lot more visual content these days — like infographics and embedded slide shows — than we previously did, because our audience responds to them. We also have created shorter mobile-friendly webinars, called Take 10s, which deliver hyper-focused insight on a subject in just 10 minutes. We created those because we noticed that some people sometimes found 60- or 90-minute webinars too long to access effectively when, say, they might be waiting in a car pool pickup line. Or standing in line at the grocery store.

At the other end of the spectrum, we launched our MarketingProfsU as well as custom training and development programs to meet the need for more in-depth training and education. So you could say that our content formats have become both broader and deeper, based on how we see our audience behaving.

But at the same time, analytics don’t drive everything. The editorial sensibility of our content staff — on both the text side and virtual/live event programming side – plays an important role, too. A big part of what we do is help marketers prepare for what comes next – that’s the theme of this year’s B2B Marketing Forum, our annual event we hold in Boston each year, in fact. Our editors and programmers do a tremendous job of keep their ears to the ground and researching leads to discern what really matters in marketing, and what we need to be delivering.

Louis: Are there any technologies that you think are important to content marketing? Or that you use or that you see out there that you think are essential to good content marketing? Do you use much beyond a word processor, a CMS, and a good analytics program?

Ann: In a lot of ways, I tend to be allergic to much of the technology out there, because I think sometimes people – marketers included – think technology is a kind of magic bullet that can transform their content marketing. There is no magic bullet. Technology can help create efficiencies in your content. It can help you manage it and market it. But still you need the fundamentals: A great strategy. A solid plan. A whip-smart chief content officer. And a lot of grit.

But that said, there are some creative content development tools that I really love. SnapApp allows companies to create interactive content that goes beyond blog posts and articles and white papers. (Full disclosure: Ann is an advisor to SnapApp.) I like Instagram, Vine, and a new app I just discovered recommended by Newscred’s Michael Brenner called Wochit. It’s an app that I just discovered the other day that allows you to create video in a more streamlined, far easier way. My bias is always content tools that put magic wands in the hands of content Muggles. (If you’re a Harry Potter fan.)

Using content marketing to engage with customers

Louis: Do you think that content marketing is useful for all industries?

Ann: I hate to answer questions like that categorically — “all industries.” There’s always an exception. Every rule has an exception, that outlier, and I feel like I get letters from people with, “Well, wait a sec what about this…?” (laughs)

I think a better question might be: Does every industry benefit from engaging directly with its customers? I’d say yes. But there are probably industries where it’s easier to think through your story than other industries. I think one of the things that a lot of companies do is limit themselves: their purview is too small. We need to give ourselves permission to think more broadly when we think about our content efforts.

For example, one of my favorite companies that creates great content is a law firm in Illinois called Levenfeld Pearlstein. And they do such a great job when they’re creating content because they’re telling their story more broadly. So their content is not about why their attorneys became attorneys, or what kind of law that they practice. Instead they tell this broader story, from the customer point of view, about what it’s like to work with LP Legal. They’re not just a bunch of shirts, but very human, very accessible attorneys.

So one of the ways that that plays out in their content is on their website, where they have a series of partner videos on their Our People page. There, their attorneys talk about what did they want to be when they were little? And what’s your most prized possession in your office, and why is it so important to you? If you could time travel, where would you go? So that’s the kind of content that it doesn’t seem obvious for a law firm to be creating. But because it’s part of their bigger story and their mission to make legal issues and lawyers more approachable, then it makes perfect sense for them.

I think of how when you think more broadly and you think beyond what you do and what you sell, it really opens the doors to interesting, new things.

The best length for content

Louis: So you and C.C. said something in Content Rules that I disagree with. It was basically: Keep it short. And I’ve seen research that says that long posts get more shares and comments and higher Google ranking. And I’ve seen it on my own blog. These interviews, for example, which are often in the 2,000-word range, get much longer average readership than most of my shorter blog posts. My most shared blog post was over 1,800 words. And I think that often in a professional field people are looking for deep expertise and are willing to invest 10 or 15 minutes for a really thoughtful, well-researched piece as opposed to a tip.

Ann: I don’t disagree with that. The most important thing is rather than looking at a metric like “every blog post has to be less than 600 words” or “the best blog posts are over 2,000 words,” I think that the key there is really to respect the audience. Things like brevity and clarity are much more important than actual word count. So if you’re being very brief and very clear and using an economy of words to express something and it takes you 2,000 words, go for it.

We wrote a book that is very general to any organization out there creating content. That includes bands and churches and non-profits and B2B companies and B2C companies and everybody in between. So ultimately the truth for all of us is we all have to create content that our audience wants. So if 2,000 words works for your audience, great. If 3,000 words works for your audience, even better. The key there is just to figure out what is going to work with your audience.

On my own blog, I tend to write long. My posts are concise but substantive, so my articles tend to be longer than the typical blog post. But it works for my audience and it works for me.

Why Ann has two Twitter accounts

Louis: Why did you personalize the MarketingProfs Twitter account with your name and picture?  It’s for an organization. You have a second, separate Twitter account, too.  But both are Ann Handley accounts with your picture.

Ann: Yep. I believe it’s probably one of the few business-to-business company accounts maintained solely by a shareholder.

The back story: I started on Twitter as @marketingprofs in 2007, when Twitter (and almost all of social media, for that matter) was essentially under the radar. At the time, my friend Jeremiah Owyang encouraged me to check it out on behalf of MarketingProfs, and so I spent most of the first year or so on Twitter simply using it as a broadcast tool, and the avatar was our Jay bird logo. Eventually I realized that that was selling our brand short – because the opportunity of social media is in part to let your customers and clients get a sense of you and your company as real people — with real blood pumping through actual veins, rather than faceless corporate edifices. So I engaged in more conversations there, and as a result personalized the account a little more.

I think my personable approach to building a B2B brand there has helped the MarketingProfs account (and MarketingProfs, by extension) quite a bit – it now has almost 240K followers, and a significant amount of our site traffic comes from Twitter. It also helps me quite a bit in my job: It allows me to prospect socially for story ideas and contributors, speakers and writers to MarketingProfs. More generally, it helped establish us as a leader in social media early on – when many other companies were still wondering what the heck Twitter was even for.

So why the split personality? Because I realized a few years ago that my Twitter presence wasn’t entirely mine. The @marketingprofs ID is a MarketingProfs asset. If I ever left MarketingProfs or decided to abdicate the account for any reason… well, it seemed wise to have another presence that is entirely my own. Now, I like having a place that’s more of a @marketingprofs unplugged. It’s also an account I can use for the writing and life I have outside of MarketingProfs – like my books, for example.

This interview, and interviews with 9 other sales and marketing leaders, is now available in this free ebook:

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2 thoughts on “Ann Handley interview: Content marketing is still the best way for a brand to tell its own story

  1. Chuck Kent

    Two of my favorite smart people talking… what could be better? Now for my two cents…

    I do worry about the impact of the need for quantity of content on the quality of writing (and thinking). Analytics-driven writing, or any manner of content, can be wonderfully accurate to a reader’s need or woefully “me-too”. I suppose, however, that the flip side of content becoming commoditized is that quality (if organizations can invest in it) should shine ever more brightly through the crowd. There’s just that matter of getting clients to pay for it…

    1. Louis Gudema Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Chuck. You mention a key issue in all marketing: the willingness of clients to pay for top work, whether that’s through internal hiring or from an agency. I’ve talked to other people in content marketing who have had clients say things like, “Well, you can get writers for 25 cents a word. This shouldn’t cost much.” That’s why Ann’s comment about creating not just me-too content but content that customers will thank you for is so important.

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