Behind The Storytelling Edge: An Interview with Contently’s Joe Lazauskas

Introduction

Joe Lazauskas is a world renowned author, keynote speaker, journalist, native advertising expert and the Chief Content Strategist at Contently, named one of Fortune’s 25 best small and medium workplaces in New York. For over four years, Joe has been the ardent leader of Contently’s award winning editorial efforts including, The Content Strategist, The Freelancer, and Contently Quarterly (print).

He has delivered impassioned keynote speeches at marketing conferences all over the world including Content Marketing World, Web Summit, and Collision, and provides consulting, workshops, and benchmarking to hundreds of Contently’s enterprise clients. He is the author of two books, three widely acclaimed and cited native advertising studies, and thousands of articles, podcasts, ebooks, videos, comics, and quizzes.

Joe’s latest book, The Storytelling Edge, co-written with friend and Contently Founder Shane Snow, dives deep into the history of science of storytelling. It’s a timely book that taps into the power of compelling storytelling and bridges the gap between marketing and true audience connection. Lazauskas uses the full breadth of his journalism, technology, and marketing know-how to help business leaders and marketers become better storytellers. The Storytelling Edge, released just a few short weeks ago, has received rave reviews and is available wherever books are sold.

Lazauskas is also the co-author of “Content Methodology: A Best Practices Report” and “The Ultimate  Content Strategist Playbooks, Vol. 1-5″, which were downloaded and shared over 50,000 times in 2015.” He attended Sarah Lawrence College where he received his Bachelors in Journalism and Creative Writing. 

Interview 

Let’s talk about your background. What inspired you to pursue marketing as a career? 

It’s a tale as old as time—I’m a journalist who accidentally became a marketer.

In 2010, I was running a news site called The Faster Times. CPMs from display were tanking. We were really sick of only eating dollar tacos for dinner and squatting in a Park Slope coffee shop, so we partnered with an ad agency and launched a branded content studio. Before I knew it, I was writing Facebook posts for Showtime and trying to figure out how to make millennials like banks.

I got into it pretty quickly. The idea that businesses needed great stories to build relationships with their customers just made a lot of sense. And it really sunk in when I came to Contently as our Editor in Chief and built a big, vibrant community of content marketers through our blog, The Content Strategist.

Before I knew it, I owned several blazers and was giving presentations about content’s role in the customer journey.

Can you tell us a little more about what you do at Contently?

About a year and a half ago, I hopped into a client-facing role and started our content strategy practice. We take a data-driven approach to figuring out what kind of stories our clients’ target audience craves, and then put it into action.

I’m still a writer at heart, though, so I still write a lot for our blog and make videos. I also just released a book with our co-founder Shane called The Storytelling Edge. It’s an Amazon #1 new release. I mention that because I want you to buy it.

What is your favorite quote?

“Courage is grace under pressure.” (Hemingway) It’s a ridiculous quote for a neurotic Jewish boy from Jersey to love, but it helps me not totally panic. Sometimes.

What’s your favorite book?

Pretentious answer: War and Peace by Tolstoy.

Unpretentious answer: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Do you have a memorable keynote you’ve delivered or an enlightening

‘aha’ conference moment you’ve experienced?

When I was 26 and first starting at Contently, I gave a 7-minute keynote during social media week in which I rapped the theme song to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, except with different lyrics. Amazingly, it didn’t go over terribly? All I know is that I got a lot of free champagne afterwards.

Your book ‘The Storytelling Edge’, co-written with Shane Snow, was just released and it’s already getting rave reviews. Can you give us a little synopsis? Long after readers finish your book, what is the one thing you hope really sticks with them?

We wrote the book for business leaders who want to up their storytelling game. There is so much CONTENT flooding the web from brands, but very few good stories. The book dissects the timeless art and surprising new science of storytelling, and how to create a culture of great storytelling inside your company. We want people to remember that stories are the key to every relationship you have—with every colleague, every customer, every prospect. Great stories take time and care, but they’re not rocket science. They’re an essential part of being human, and the greatest tool that we have. 

Who are some of your favorite storytellers?

David Sedaris, Jessi Klein, Toni Morrison, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy. Tina Fey—her memoir is ridiculously good. We talk about filmmakers a lot in the book too, but I’ve got to give my favorite authors some love here.

Tech like Amazon Alexa and the recently announced Apple Homepod are really blowing up. Do you think content marketers should start exploring AI and machine learning in 2018 and beyond?

Whenever this comes up, I feel like an old man yelling at everyone to eat their vegetables and get off my lawn. I guess that’s what happens when you turn 30. But truthfully, most marketers aren’t ready for an Alexa strategy. Alexa is still a VERY secondary channel. Most marketers aren’t doing a very good job of telling stories on the channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Email, Search, etc.) where their audience spends most of their time.

If you’re killing it at the fundamentals, then sure, I like the idea of developing short-form shows for Alexa, like Digiday TLDR. But chances are, it’s not where your time is best spent right now.

Also Read: How Google Ruined Content Marketing

More broadly, AI can be extremely helpful from a creative perspective. We have AI baked into the Contently platform, like an integration with IBM Watson that analyzes the voice and tone of every piece of content so you can see whether you’re writing in the tone that your audience performs best.

‘The Storytelling Edge’ breaks down the art of storytelling and teaches content creators how to make storytelling a key part of their business strategy. The way we tell stories has evolved and technology has played a massive role in the way we consume narratives. How do you predict technology will impact storytelling five, ten years down the line?

To address the terrifying mechanical elephant in the room, I don’t think that robot writers will replace human writers—for the most part. Robot writers are getting pretty good at recapping box scores or financial reports, but they’re not very good at telling stories. Particularly the personal, engaging kinds of stories that build relationships between people. Robots can’t tell a first-person story.

I do think that technology will continue to make us super-powered storytellers. The tools we have today are incredible. We can get deep insight into what topics our target audience is talking about, and then create incredible videos, interactive data visualizations, Snowfall-style essays, etc. with just a laptop, phone, and a few hundred dollars a month in subscriptions.

That being said, you can’t just throw a lot of flashy iframes at people and expect them to be wowed. You still need to focus on the timeless art of telling a good story. What’s the journey you’re taking them on?

What video marketing trends do you think content creators will be latching onto this year?

For brands, social video is quickly moving away from being a broadcast medium to an experiential medium. Through Instagram and Snapchat, we’re starting to make daily documentaries of our lives. How do you create experiences that invite people to make your brand a part of their documentary? This is why something like the Taco Bell Speakeasy is so brilliant.

Let’s talk about Facebook’s latest algorithm change. It’s certainly left a lot of marketers in a state of panic but do you think the change is as apocalyptic as some may think? How do you think content marketers can best adjust to the change?

Facebook already nuked brands years ago. Facebook is a fantastic paid content distribution platform. No one can match their combination of targeting and cost efficiency. Engagement from paid Facebook traffic is still super high. Marketers should use Facebook to grow awareness and drive people to their site; then, serve them a story so good that they can’t help but sign up to your newsletter. Then, you’ll have a direct line to your audience and not be at the mercy of the algorithm.

What are your best native advertising tips and tricks?

Most publishers are just buying traffic from Facebook and Outbrain to native ads and marking up the cost a ton. Just create your own content and then target their audience on social with paid Facebook ads. You’ll get the same result at a fraction of the price.

We live in a pretty hectic world and it can be hard to find time to sit down and read long-form content or watch 10+ minute videos. How do you keep people engaged in a world that just won’t stop?

I reject the idea that people have suddenly developed drastically shorter attention spans. They just have access to millions of stories in their pocket at any moment, so if your story sucks, they’re going to go somewhere else. Make sure that the first five seconds of your story is awesome. That the first sentence of your story is awesome. And then keep that going until your story is done and you leave them breathless.

People don’t owe you their attention. You have to earn it, and if you slack for a second, you deserve to lose it.

The debate over whether or not writer’s block exists is something creators have butted heads over for a long time. Do you ‘believe’ in creativity blocks? If so, how do you personally get out of them?

We’re definitely more creative some times than others. But if you only create when inspiration strikes, you’ll never get anything done. Personally, I go for a long run to relax and amp up the serotonin in my brain. This usually leads to me thinking up the lede to a story in the shower, and then sitting on my bed soaking wet for two hours, typing like a crazy person.

Last but not least, what piece of advice would you give to young professionals who want to get into marketing?

Learn how to get people to tell you their story. It doesn’t matter what you think, or what you want. It matters what your audience wants. And the best way to figure that out is to hear the story of their lives.

Buy The Storytelling Edge Today! 

Connect with Joe on LinkedIn and Twitter 

More on Contently

Contently is a technology company that helps brands create great content at scale.

They provide enterprise companies with smart technology, content marketing expertise, and vetted creative talent—journalists, photographers, designers, videographers, and all things in between. They are a software business built by content creators, and they work with some of the best content marketing brands in the world. Their impressive clientele includes Aetna, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Dow Jones, Hilton, Uber, Humana, Barclays, and many more.

They were ranked the #1 content marketing platform according to Digiday, #100 on the 2015 Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies, and #29 on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500™ list of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America. Entrepreneur magazine named them one of the best entrepreneurial companies in America  in 2015, and Crain’s named them one of the best places to work in New York City. They also recently received an ASJA award for investigative reporting. They were also added to Fortune’s list of 25 best small and medium workplaces in New York City.

Contently was founded in New York City in 2010 by Joe Coleman, Shane Snow, and David T. Goldberg. They have offices in London and San Francisco.

Follow Contently on LinkedIn and Twitter and check out The Contently Foundation

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