Humanizing Content: Lessons from Intelligent Content Conference

Are You Ready to Be Experienced?

It’s a strange time to be a content marketer. As we strive to create compelling content that resonates, buzzwords like machine learning, virtual reality, and Blockchain are disrupting the balance between authenticity and innovation. These, and numerous other trends, have turned content marketing into a race.

Seemingly endless amounts of listicles, tips, tricks, and hacks that populate marketing publications can entrap us in riptides of mystifying technology and marketing trends. They’re difficult to get out of and can leave us at the back of the pack. 

Blessedly, we have industry events like Intelligent Content Conference to help us navigate this onslaught of information with intelligence and grace.

Last week, hundreds of content creators, marketers, and industry professionals gathered in Las Vegas for the 10th annual Intelligent Content Conference to find balance, connect with peers, and meet with industry experts who have managed to make it out of the riptide alive and well.

Last Tuesday, I walked into the conference unsure of myself and my content strategy. I was desperate for affirmations. I wanted to know that my content could still mean something in the midst of polarizing tech trends and convoluted social media updates.

I wanted to talk with other content marketers who were in the same boat as me and I wanted some sage advice from marketing pros who made the whole thing look easy.

My first workshop at ICC, a wonderfully engaging four hour session called ‘Unblocking Your Workflow,’ satisfied my long list of wants and goals. AgileSherpas’ Andrea Fryrear conducted her workshop with a palpable energy.

Through abstract and real-world hands on exercises, she taught me, and the rest of my eager group how to identify and mitigate bottlenecks in our workflow, how to rethink the way work is siloed in our teams, and how to deliver quality content without sacrificing the needs of the team.

This agile inspired workshop served as a brilliant launching pad for the rest of the conference’s duration. Fryrear honed in on the importance of putting people at the forefront of the content creation process. She reminded us that the people impacted most by our content are typically our team members, for better or for worse. 

“To Be Remarkable is To Be Worthy of Remark”

This year’s Intelligent Content Conference embraced the Jimi Hendrix inspired theme ‘Are You Ready to Be Experienced,’ but another, more subtle theme spawned as the speakers dived into their presentations. The humanization of content, or putting people and their stories at the heart of branded content, was a startlingly popular and refreshing sub-theme.

Nearly every ICC speaker emphasized the importance of telling stories audiences can relate to. They encouraged us to create content that is both interesting and informative. They wanted us to know that branded content didn’t have to be cold and calculating, it could be strong on empathy and accessibility and still garner engagement.

Tuesday night’s speaker Melanie Deziel perhaps exemplified the spirit of that message the best.


Melanie Deziel entrances the crowd with her keynote presentation “Think Like a Journalist: Using Authentic Content to Engage Consumers”


Deziel, an award winning native ad strategist and journalist, took to the main stage and captured the attention of the drowsy afternoon crowd with a relentlessly inspiring story about how her paid post, ‘Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work’, co-produced with Netflix and Orange is the New Black, became one of the top overall pieces of content read on the New York Times that quarter.

Deziel interviewed numerous women inmates for the promotional piece and used their stories to shed a light on the harsh realities facing them both inside and outside prison walls. She then segwayed into a discussion about how content marketers can tap into their journalistic sides to create branded content that is empathetic and engaging.

As she finished her discussion on investigative content marketing, Deziel said something so impactful I couldn’t help but scribble it down in my notes and cement it into my brain.

“To be remarkable is to be worthy of remark.”

Telling the TRUTH

We all want our content to be worthy of remark. We put in the time, effort, and resources to make our content meaningful but sometimes we still fall short. We fail to personalize our content and we fail to tune into the desires of our audiences to create something that they enjoy reading.

That night, Deziel hammered in on her five step process for telling the TRUTH, a clever acronym for Teach, Reputable, Unique, Tension, and Human Connection; five components that can turn regular branded content into true brand journalism.

As Deziel put in her keynote, “people relate to people.” She taught us that if we want to boost our click rates and social shares, we’d need to think outside the box and hone in on the truthful, non-clickbait, side of branded content.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a well written, cohesive listicle or how-to guide, but there is something wrong with sameness. Every content marketer strives for originality but in an age of bandwagoning and trend-hopping, it can be tough to distance ourselves from the crowd.

By debunking the myth that branded content has to be brand-forward, we can open ourselves up to new methods of content creation.

Putting People First

On Wednesday afternoon, Andy Crestodina, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Orbit Media, taught us all how to get the most out of our content by reaching out to collaborators and turning blog posts and press releases into collaborative works.


His session echoed back to Deziel’s the night before. “People relate to people.” Simply securing a contributor quote for a blog post or adding customer or team member testimonials to every page of your website can give audiences something to cling to. Crestodina lit up the Milan Ballroom with his infectious wit and told us, “if you’re not making friends, you’re doing it wrong.” He inspired us all to tackle our content strategies using non-obvious approaches.

Thursday night’s closing keynote speaker, Pixar animator Andrew Gordon, also advocated for a story-first approach. Gordon’s story of his rise to Pixar fame was remarkably compelling, interactive, fun, and relatable. The stories he shared of his early Pixar days and how he helped turn the animation giant into a behemoth struck a chord with the go-getters in the crowd and the die-hard Pixar fans in the audience (myself included) squealed at his early storyboard animations for Toy Story and Up.


Pixar animator Andrew Gordon with “How to Crank Up Creativity – Even for Non-Creatives”

Gordon miraculously makes us feel a full spectrum of emotions with his stunning computer generated images and he taught us all how to do the same by infusing empathy into our content by going deep whenever we can.

He said bluntly that we shouldn’t underestimate the intelligence of our audience (a vital screenwriting tip, he added). Instead of pandering to them, we should leave our audiences with something to figure out for themselves. He also told us to get the bad ideas out early and to not fear failure, an important tip for content creators who struggle with blocks and looming deadlines.

Gordon’s inspirational and informative keynote served as a bittersweet sunsetting to another wonderfully productive and well organized ICC. I left feeling recharged and ready to share my new content marketing secrets with anyone that would listen.

Final Thoughts

The sense of community that developed during the ICC was astounding. Sharing ideas with content marketers from all over the world served as a gateway to new perspectives related to how content can translate across borders. It was also refreshing to catch up with the ‘influencers’ and ‘thought leaders’ we all follow on LinkedIn and Twitter in person.

The conference was both intimate and large scale and the stories told over networking sessions paralleled the deep dive content lessons shared by the speakers, sponsors, and attendees in workshops and keynotes.

Content can, and should, include people. We cling to stories that make us feel something, regardless of their origin or brand status. This year’s Intelligent Content Conference taught me that humanizing content is more valuable that hopping on the latest tech trend. Technology can be used to enhance great stories but without those great stories to build on, that tech is useless.

It’s a strange time to be a content marketer and with constantly evolving tech trends and shifts, it can be difficult to navigate our industry’s future.  However, events like ICC make that uncertain future seem less perilous. ICC is a marketing event unlike any other and I’m eager to see what the 11th year of the conference holds. If you work with content in any way, you should be eager too.