Content Marketing, Storytelling, and How to Find Everyday Inspiration: An Interview with Ann Handley

 

Introduction:

Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, keynote speaker, and the world’s first Chief Content Officer.

Ann speaks and writes about how you can rethink the way your business markets. Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in Social Media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers, Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a training and education company with the largest community of marketers in its category. Ann delivers over 40 engaging keynote speeches a year and she has shared her insights and her acerbic wit with audiences at content marketing conferences all over the country including, Content Marketing World, Content Marketing Conference, and Inbound.

She was a long time monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, is a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley, originally published 2011. Paperback 2012.) The book has been translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Portuguese. Her most recent book, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content (Wiley, 2014) is a Wall Street Journal bestseller.

She currently has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter and writes about content, marketing and life at the highly entertaining AnnHandley.com.

A pioneer in digital marketing, Ann is the co-founder of ClickZ.com, which was one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary. She started her career as a business journalist and editor.

Ann is based in Boston, Massachusetts.

We were fortunate enough to chat with Ann about her roots in content marketing, her thoughts on the latest trends, telling good stories, and how to find everyday inspiration.

Interview

When did you know you wanted to get into content marketing?

I read my friend David Meerman Scott’s, ‘New Rules of Marketing and PR’ 10 years ago. In it, David talked about the idea of publishing information to meet the needs of the people you are trying to reach. Instead of broadcasting and shouting at people by buying or begging for media, marketers should be attracting people to them through content. I’m not even actually sure he called it “content” in 2007, but maybe he did…? LOL

Anyway, at that moment I realized that Marketing and Publishing were moving closer together. I realized that the tools and platforms were only going to expand (and they have – into video, social media, podcasting, live-streaming, puppet shows, picture books, and so on). And I realized I was uniquely suited to the “new rules” of Marketing, because I’d worked for years as an editor and journalist.

Plus I had co-founded a Marketing website (ClickZ) and was now Chief Content Officer of a second (MarketingProfs). I don’t know that I’d still be in Marketing had I not read David’s book when I did.

As the French say – voilà! There you have it. By the way, David’s New Rules is now on its 181st edition* or something… it’s still as relevant today as a primer on modern marketing as it was 10 years ago.

* Actually, I just checked. It’s on its 6th edition.

As the chief content officer at MarketingProfs, an author, a mom, and a renowned keynote speaker, how do you juggle it all?

I have a day planner and a label maker.

I’m kidding.

I have a lot of help on the MarketingProfs front. I have terrific partners and we have an entire team of whatever the marketing version is of Navy SEALs: highly trained and talented human specimens who are also the finest people I know.

You’ve been listed as a top content marketing influencer by the Content Marketing Institute and LinkedIn. What influencers have influenced you?

One great thing about our industry is that so many of us so-called marketing influencers have literally come into our own as “thought leaders” during these past several years. So people like Ardath Albee, Joe Pulizzi, Jay Baer, Lee Odden, Robert Rose, Andrew Davis, Pam Didner, Andy Crestodina, Doug Kessler and so many others have become friends but also a kind of collective mentor to me. As they have evolved their thinking and expertise, they’ve both inspired and challenged me to evolve my own, too.

Who needs one or two influencers when you can have an entire industry? Outside of our industry, I’d say: Avinash Kaushik. Because his brain works 100% differently than my own. (Or at least 90% differently.) Yet I love reading his stuff because he makes it accessible. Also, he’s a wonderful, spirited writer. You can hear his voice when you read him. And Seth Godin. Because I respect the heck out of his ability to always push himself (and us) forward, and I love his commitment to write and publish every day.

And finally: My mom and dad. E.B. White. My college professor Sean Gresh, because he told me that learning to write well would give you a leg up in life. And my editor at the Boston Globe, Dick Powers. I wrote about Dick here

What are some of your favorite social media platforms to use?

Love: Instagram. Twitter.

Still trying to figure out: LinkedIn

Love/Hate: Facebook

Fallen out of love with: Snapchat

Technology is always changing and one of the latest trends that content marketers are just starting to explore is virtual reality and augmented reality. Do you think this type of tech will stick? More importantly, how do you, as a communicator, adapt to changing tech trends?

Yes to both. Although virtual reality feels like it has a ways to go. It still feels more novelty to me. I haven’t yet seen anything that makes me go WOW… now THAT has legs and is poised to ignite (from a marketing POV). I can see greater application currently for Artificial Intelligence from a content marketing perspective. For example, look at this from the American Heart Association Even if, in its current iteration, it’s not 1000% useful or as great as it could be… you can see the potential for broader adaption and adoption.

We’re living in a pretty hectic world and sometimes we find ourselves ‘skimming’ content. How do you keep people engaged in a world that just won’t stop? Do you think short-form content will become the new norm?

The key is less content, not more content. People skim what we are less interested in; we invest time in things we want to read. I don’t think we’re skimming because there’s so much to read. We’re skimming because we don’t know if it’s valuable or not. So the takeaway for marketing? Be valuable to your audience. Publish less. But publish with more integrity and intention and empathy for the audience. My friend Andy Crestodina publishes an annual blogger survey that backs this up, if you need stats to take into your boss’s office.

I’ve noticed that a lot of brands are so focused on pushing out endless streams of content that authenticity is lost and writing quality slips. What tips can you give to content marketers who are struggling to tell stories that matter?

I have two thoughts:

1 – Slow down. I talk about that here.

2 – Be bigger, bolder, and braver. Ideas for that here.

Creating content is easier said than done and as content creators, we all fall victim to writer’s block every now and then. How do you fight the dreaded writer’s block demon on the day-to-day?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Doing so would mean that I buy into the mythology around writing: That it is somehow magical or divine or supernatural.

Writing isn’t any of those things. Instead, it’s a skill – and you can learn to be better at it in two ways: 1) by training at it and 2) by surrounding yourself with plenty of every-day inspiration.

So by “training” I mean write every day (or at least most days. Level-up your skills. I know a fun book that might help with that. I also happen to know an excellent training course that can help you or your team become kick-ass writers.

As for “inspiration,” tune your eyes and your ears to moments you can riff off or use later. Write them down someplace. Keep them in an online swipe file. Hunt and hoard them like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter.

What piece of advice would you give to young writers who want to get into content marketing?

This past fall I spoke at an event for freelance writers – it was one of my favorite events of 2017. The message I gave them was this: DO IT. Marketing and business needs you. In a world in which there is so much opportunity to create content – so many platforms, so many real chances to talk to our customers directly – businesses need writers like you to help them do it.

Connect with Ann Handley on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram

 

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