Ann Handley on Why Storytelling Is the Cornerstone of Successful Content

By Juliet Stott  |  August 21, 2015

Overhead photo of computer desk with keyboard, coffee, papers, and pens

Customer-centric storytelling is the cornerstone of content success, says Ann Handley best-selling author, keynote speaker and content marketing expert. She believes words are the bedrock of online communication and should be used with clarity and brevity.

Here she tells Juliet Stott about how to create engaging content and why every company with an online presence is a publisher.

Congratulations on the publication of your second book, “Everybody Writes.” What was the inspiration behind penning it?

The inspiration really relates to my first book “Content Rules,” which I wrote for marketers and business people. I wanted them to pay more attention to content, to embrace the power of content and understand the amazing shift that marketing has gone through in the past couple of years.

Fast forward five years and I realized what was missing in the conversation was that writing is very often the cornerstone of any marketing. So I wanted to create a book that would be a go-to guide about writing for marketers and businesses and not for essayists, journalists or traditional writers.

In the book you start with the premise that everybody can write. Why do you believe that to be true?

I think our online world is a content-driven world. We are all writing. We are all on Facebook, Twitter or blogging. All of those words are the bedrock of our communication—with our customers, our bosses, people who work for us—and so I wanted people to embrace the idea that the words we use matter.

Very often our customers are coming to our website first. They are reading our words—reading what we have to say even before they pick up the phone and talk to us. So I think from a business perspective our words are carrying messages to our customers.

How can novice writers improve their style and technique?

Courses are an option. Marketing Profs, my company, runs courses about writing. We have one based on my book “Everybody Writes,” but with or without a course, you still need to practice. It’s like anything else.

There is this notion that exists that there are two kinds of people—those who can write and those who can’t. I don’t think that’s true.

I think we are all capable of ridiculously good writing but it’s going take some effort. You’ve got to work the muscle, just like any other activity you do. In the book I talk about when I started going to the gym, and hired a personal trainer. When I first showed up I didn’t feel athletic at all—after four, six, eight months of keeping at it, I started to feel more capable. I think writing is very similar.

You talk about engaging content in both of your books. What is it and how do content creators go about it?

There’s no one way to create engaging content. The best content is really content your audience wants. It’s very customer centric. It answers questions for them. It makes them feel like “you understand me”or “you get me.”

I think the most important thing is to write from a customer-centric or a recipient-centric point of view and that’s all that matters. It’s my number one rule.

I don’t think you need to be a particularly brilliant writer to do that, but I do think you need to get inside the head of your customers and make them the hero of whatever it is you’re writing about. Another one of my rules is that you need to tell a different story—not the one everyone else is telling.

Make your content sound different, differentiate yourself. And third, hire people who are storytellers first and marketers second. I think you can teach a person how to be a marketer far faster than you can teach them how to be an incredible storyteller.

There’s a lot of rubbish content being created. What’s the worst you’ve seen and why did you think it was so bad?

In general there are a couple of “anti-best practices” out there. One of them is when the writing is very generic. If you look at content — and there are a lot of marketing companies creating content for service companies that fall into this — a lot of it doesn’t sound any different from anybody else.

For many, if you covered up the logo and read through the content you wouldn’t get a sense of who the company is. I also think that content that lacks tone or voice is another anti-best practice.

Every company should develop a voice and not try to sound like everybody else.

What branded content have you seen lately that you admire and why?

There’s a company called Basecamp. It’s small and it’s never taken any outside funding. It creates all kinds of useful content for its customers. It has a blog called Signal V Noise that’s really great, because it’s useful for its audience. It gives lots of information about all kinds of business issues. Basecamp also publishes a monthly online magazine called The Distance.

What I love about this company is that they are highlighting how a smaller business–that’s been around for more than 25 years and is bootstrapped–can make it their goal to grow a business that will provide a livelihood for its people, provide a service for its customers and make the world a better place.

It’s a really great example of a company using content to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Social media has changed the way brands communicate with their customers. Which industries are getting social right and which have room to improve?

A lot of the established industries like higher education, healthcare marketing and some financial services are still trying to figure out what to do with social. They still have a way to go. Typically this comes out of fear—they’re not sure what to do, how to respond to their customers or their legal teams have told them to run everything through them.

More often than not the barriers are operational issues. But companies that have embraced social media, not as a standalone department, as an integral or critical part of their marketing department are doing a great job.

Look at IBM for example, it is creating really good content for social and telling different kinds of stories that are not just corporate but customer focused.

Brands have started to create innovative content that makes them stand out from the crowd. What’s the secret to their success?

Those kinds of companies have made smart investments. They’ve hired storytellers. For example Cisco hired my friend Tim Washer, who has a background in improv comedy, to create video on their behalf.

Companies that are looking at non-traditional hires and understand that they need storytellers and writers are creating the best kind of content. These are the people who haven’t come straight out of marketing—they may have taken a different path to get there.

This goes hand-in-hand with companies that understand in order for them to get the best stories they can’t control the message too much. The smartest companies are letting journalists and storytellers loose and enabling them to tell customer-centric stories —stories that benefit the audience.

Do you think it’s possible for every company to own their own media?

I think all brands have the capacity to be a publisher—if they have a website or any online presence. For example their blog is their own media, any video material they create is their own media.

But not all brands are going to have a spin-off media company, say on the scale of Red Bull. I don’t think every company has to aspire to do that. But I do think that they have got to pick the channels their customers are and need to have their own flexible content management system as their home base. They need to use their content to connect with their audience on these channels.

How can companies justify their content spend? Does it deliver ROI?

The reason many companies don’t think about content as offering a return on investment is because very often they haven’t attached any sort of goals around it. I see time and time again where companies will launch a blog or do a YouTube series without any idea about how they are going to demonstrate ROI.

Companies should not just do content for content’s sake. They need to figure out what their goals are and wrap their content around those. If they want to grow a database and increase the amount of people their communicating with through email for example—then doing a YouTube series is not the best idea.

If you’re getting into a debate about how content doesn’t pay, you really need to figure out what you need and then create content as an answer to that.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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