“Bigger, Bolder, Braver”: Ann Handley on Creating Content That Resonates

“Bigger, Bolder, Braver”: Ann Handley on Creating Content That Resonates

When you think of successful content, what first comes to mind? Is it a case study example where there are a bunch of impressive numbers and results linking to revenue increase?

Or is it campaign you recently saw or experienced that just jumped out at you, made you lean forward, and put down your phone for the duration? Maybe it even lingered in your mind for some time afterwards.

The former, of course, is a necessary measurement of “success,” but I’d imagine the latter is what actually leaps out on initial reaction.

Given the amount of content an individual is exposed to on a daily basis (the average social media user sees roughly 285 content pieces per day), a truly strong piece of content is one that actually stands out, one that strikes a chord with a person.

The increasingly difficult challenge for content marketers is, of course, how do we make that content? What are the ingredients to resonating with an audience?

Enter the Tuning Fork – our weekly expert interview series designed to help answer these exact questions.  

This week’s interview is with Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs and author of the bestsellers, Content Rules and Everybody Writes.

When looking for insight into creating personal and powerful content for your audience, there’s not many better people to ask than Ann.

Forbes Magazine named her one of the 10 most influential people in Social Media, and she is recognized as one of the top blogging voices when it comes to writing for business.

Read on to learn how Barbie, GE, and being bold can help you create and distribute resonant content that moves your audience.

1. What comes to mind when you think of the concept of resonance, or resonating with your audience?

What I think about is something that’s a full and deep connection with somebody. That notion of resonating with somebody, it applies at a deeper, almost soulful level – a sense of really being understood, as well as just connecting with that other person at a deeper level past just understanding.

2. Is that something that you think marketers can achieve? That it’s not just a buzzword, that marketing can do this?

Absolutely. I think it’s hard, but in some ways, it kind of represents the Holy Grail, doesn’t it? When I think about the most successful content pieces that I’ve seen of late, the ones that I most react to are the ones that really resonate with me. I’ll just give you a B2C example right now. I don’t know if you guys saw this, but what Barbie did recently – I guess it was a commercial, but it was like a minute long. I think it was called “Imagine the Possibilities.

It’s a commercial where a bunch of little girls are suddenly finding themselves as the boss. So for one, this little girl is a soccer coach, and she’s coaching this soccer team to raise their knees high – “like a unicorn,” I think is her quote. Super cute. The reason why it works is because it’s sort of this theory about little girls playing these various roles, and then at the end, it pulls back on this little girl who’s sitting there with all of her Barbie dolls. The whole message is empowering your kids – or, your girls, specifically – and giving them leadership qualities through Barbies.

It was really brilliant because it sort of reframed Barbie in a whole different way. It’s away from the bimbo Barbie which I think our generation associates with her, and more towards something that has real resonance with parents and things that they want for their children.

3. Do you think that B2B campaigns can achieve that kind of reaction? Can they get away from the “boring” reputation?

Yeah, I think it’s possible in B2B. I don’t think of B2B as boring at all. I think that even in B2B, the products of B2B ultimately do touch people in some way. I think the challenge for B2B marketers is to draw that connection. And there’s a bunch of brands who I think do it well, and there are various ways that I think that they can do it.

One of the brands who I think does it really well is GE. I don’t know if you follow their GE Reports at all. It’s probably what I think of as the best brand journalism site out there. It’s really amazing. It’s on my mind because I spoke this week to a group of, essentially, science marketers. I took a lot of time on that site. I was so blown away by all the things they do there. Because GE, to me, really do frame all of their B2B products in a much different way. They actually show how they improve the lives of the people – ultimately how this technology, or this solution, or whatever, helps.

4. How do you think the narrative has changed around content? Do you agree with the “content crush” problem – that because of the large scale production of content over the past few years, marketers now need to approach their craft differently to get through the noise?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve seen me speak in the past year or two, but I talk about telling bigger stories – putting your products or services in the context of people’s lives. Talking about why they should care, not about your dumb product. Bigger, bolder, and braver are my three words that I use.

Bolder in the sense of telling bolder stories with a specific point of view, and not just sounding like everybody else. And then braver – paying attention to your tone of voice, and not just the story you’re telling, but how you’re telling that story – whether it’s through something written, whether it’s through video or podcasting or anything. So the bigger, bolder, braver thing is kind of my mantra to get to – ultimately, to get to resonance.

5. How do you actually get to being able to tell those stories? What do you need to know as a marketer, or what do you need to do to create those stories?

Well, I think it really starts with your audience, right? It starts with getting to know your audience. Who are you actually talking to? And then figuring out – developing, in marketing speak, your “personas” – but really thinking about your customer as your first stop there.

I think most marketers – and I put myself in this category too – we tend to think more about what we try to say versus how we want to be heard. And so I think that not thinking about your products first, but thinking about your customer first, thinking about your audience. I know a lot of marketers say that, but, in my experience, a lot of them actually don’t practice it. They still think about, “What’s the message we’re trying to get across?” as opposed to “Why should the message matter to those you’re trying to reach?”

6. Exactly, I think a lot of people say “audience first, audience first, audience first,” but they don’t actually get there. Or, very often, one person has gotten there, but they can’t figure out how to communicate that out to the rest of the organization.

Yeah, I think so too. And I don’t think that marketers have thought of that as a real pain point. They think, “Yeah, yeah, we have our personas, we know our audience.” But I don’t think that they’re matching the content development or content creation to that as much as they are matching it to amplifying their content that they’re creating. You know what I’m saying? I feel that they’re creating this stuff, but it’s like, “All right. Well, we know we have to share it on LinkedIn because we’re B2B and that’s where our audience is.” But that’s not what I’m really talking about. I’m talking about something that gets to moving your customer at a deeper level, and really, why should they care about what you’re doing? I just feel like most marketers still don’t really answer that question.

I think more often than not, if your content isn’t resonating, then that’s where you should go, is go back and say “Okay. Do we really know who we’re talking to, and more importantly, do we really know why they should care about what we’re talking about?”

7. It seems like this is a universal challenge for all B2B marketers right now – would you agree?

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I don’t know if you’ve seen the bit of research that we’ve done with the Content Marketing Institute over the past six years. But we ask marketers every year, “What’s your biggest challenge?” And number one is engaging content – how do we produce engaging content? They still can’t quite figure out how to do it. Then one of the next top challenges is measuring the results of your content marketing effort. So – yeah, it’s not just my impression, I mean, it’s the reality of B2B.

8. Coming back to the GE example, do you think the ability to create stories and content like they do is tied to budget size? Can resonant content be made by smaller teams, smaller programs?

I don’t think that creating resonance is tied to budget at all.  Some of the examples that I just gave you, like the Barbie stuff, – obviously, that had budget behind it.

But I talk a lot about companies who I think are really killing it at a much more modest level, and, as I always say, engaging content is always way more about brains than it is about budget. I feel like we tend to think, “Oh, we don’t have the money to do that,” but ultimately, if you know who you are and you know who you’re talking to, you really are creating the kind of content that’s differentiating your company.You don’t sound like everybody else out there, and  you have some sort of element of surprise in the way that you’re speaking with your customers. I think that it’s completely, completely doable.

Bigger, Bolder, Braver

Whether you have a larger marketing budget or a smaller one, the important ingredients to making your content connect is an understanding of who your audience is and the goal to provide them something that really connects.

Look back at content examples that truly stood out to you and consider the different components of them that explain why you had that reaction. Did it hit a particular emotion? Was there a unique pointview that went against the grain on the subject? Did the message reflect more on people’s lives than on the particular product?

Applying these findings is a big step to telling bigger, bolder, and braver stories with your content. The kind of stories that stick with an audience and generate actual action and motivation, which is, afterall, what good content is all about.

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