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Storytelling is one way to grow your business. It piques the interest of potential customers, draws them in, and is sometimes the catalyst that converts interest into a sale. You probably have your own story to tell, but you also likely have the stories of others that could hold an important position on your website.
Today we are talking to Lelia King, the communications director at The Iron Yard, a software development school for adults. Lelia knows how to collaborate with others to find the stories that will inspire people to sign up for the programs. You can learn to harness the power of social proof to help your potential clients envision themselves finding success just like others have done. This is one episode you are not going to want to miss.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Nathan: Tell your story, they say. But what if your story really isn’t about you? Sharing the stories of how your customers have been successful can attract a new audience who wants that same experience. That’s why you and I are chatting with Lelia King today on the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Lelia is the communications director at The Iron Yard. That’s a school that helps adults learn software development.
She’s found that sharing the stories of her students’ success attracts more prospects like their best students. You are going to learn how to collaborate among multiple different teams scattered throughout tons of different locations to find those stories. You’re going to learn how to harness that power of social proof to help your prospects envision themselves being successful with just a little extra help from you. I’m Nathan from CoSchedule. Let’s check this out.
Hey Lelia, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Lelia: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Nathan: I’m glad to have you. I think you’re doing a lot of things interesting with storytelling which is what we want to talk about here but I was wondering if we could begin by you telling me the story behind The Iron Yard.
Lelia: Sure, great place to start. The Iron Yard is a school and we teach software development to adults. Most of our students are people who want to launch new careers as programmers or people who want to level up their skills. We started in Greenville, South Carolina in 2013. Now, we have canvasses in 15 cities across the U.S. The Iron Yard was actually one of the first national level code boot camps in the U.S.
Nathan: That’s super cool. I can say from experience here at CoSchedule, we nerded out when you guys started using CoSchedule because we have some people on the team that worked with Girl Develop It and they were just all over the Iron Yard. They were really excited to see you guys join.
Lelia: We love Girl Develop It, what a great partner.
Nathan: Lelia, what do you do specifically at the Iron Yard?
Lelia: I am responsible for communications and content, which includes everything from blogging and social media to media relations, copywriting, really just the gamut of all communications. I think of myself primarily as a writer and I service part of the marketing team, it’s a pretty broad and fun job.
Nathan: It sounds like it. You’re writing, you’re doing marketing projects. What kind of content or projects does your team take on?
Lelia: We create tons and tons of different kinds of content everyday. When it comes to sharing really good stories, our foundation for content is our blog. I think of that as our home base for what we’re sharing on our social media channels and that sort of thing. Our blog is really where we publish stories about students and graduates. It’s where we share news. We can post leadership pieces. We highlight team members. We talk about our instructors. But of course beyond that, we are creating tons of a marketing content and just the everyday stuff that a marketing team does.
Nathan: You mentioned that you have a team. I was wondering how big the team is?
Lelia: Right. It’s not very big. Our marketing team right now as a whole is about six people. I’m really the primary person responsible for creating and sharing content but of course we’re always collaborating on that kind of thing. Our company as a whole, The Iron Yard as a whole just has about a little over 100 employees.
Nathan: Right. You’re producing a ton of content it seems that for a relatively small team. I was wondering how does planning come into that? How far ahead do you plan your content at The Iron Yard?
Lelia: That is a great question. It really depends on the type of content that we’re talking about. If we start with the blog, for the blog I usually plan at least two or three weeks in advance. I use CoSchedule’s editorial calendar for that. I also will often schedule social media content for the weekends and other days when I know that we’re not going to be publishing a new blog post. I’ll go ahead and schedule that stuff up to six months ahead of time.
There’s a really cool feature I know you’re familiar with called Top Content. I use that a lot when I’m thinking about what are some stories that we’ve already published that people may want to read again or that people may not have seen yet that I know they’ve been really popular so I’ll schedule those in advance.
But we also plan specific campaigns, for example on Instagram or even just an ad campaign really a month or two in advance so that we give ourselves plenty of time to think through the entire campaign, think through what else is going to be going on, what else are we going to be sharing around that time, what are students going to be doing, all that kind of stuff in advance.
My team and I meet weekly to go over all of that upcoming content. Make sure we’re up to date on our editorial calendar and to figure out what are our content priorities for the couple weeks ahead.
Nathan: I love that. You mentioned two to three weeks ahead just for normal content on the calendar. Six months ahead for social and sometimes you have campaigns scattered a month or two from now. Why is planning like that, just getting ahead of the curve? Why is that helpful?
Lelia: It’s helpful for a ton of reasons. But several things I would want to point out. First, I like to make sure that we include a good variety of content every week especially on the blog so we have a good mix of stories, news, features, some of the contributed content that we’ll publish, long form pieces, short form, just making sure that we have a good variety.
Scheduling in advance helps us make sure that we have enough content so that we can make changes really easily. If we’ve got news that comes up or a new idea that we think of, it’s super easy to just move content around and insert a new post or a new idea. Luckily, CoSchedule makes that pretty easy. It’s a really easy to use editorial calendar tool.
Nathan: Something I wanted to ask you Lelia was just, we know that you’re planning ahead. How much content do you have completed at any given time?
Lelia: Today, I probably have six or seven stories at some stage of completion. I wish I had more but some of them might need polishing, some might need an image or some might be completely ready for publishing. But as a whole, our marketing team is always working on content projects.
For example, right now we’re working on an Instagram campaign. When it’s finished, we will have at least 30 Instagram posts that’ll be ready to be scheduled in advance and so we’ll be good to go for several weeks which will be really nice. We can focus on seeing what sort of feedback we get from our customers.
Nathan: That makes a lot of sense. You talked about all those different types of content too: news, features and some other things too. I wanted to pick on that newsworthy stuff just a little bit. How do you layer newsworthy content into what you already have planned?
Lelia: When we know that we’re going to have an announcement of some sort coming up, we like to set placeholders for that within the editorial calendar but of course we don’t always know when exactly news will hit so having that content planned in advance means that we can really easily move things around to make room for news, anything that’s time sensitive or newsworthy.
Let me give you an example. A couple weeks ago we launched this big initiative with a bunch of different partners called the Yes We Code fund. It’s a project that involves a ton of different partners working together. It’s pretty cool. The goal of the partnership is to provide $100,000,000 in diversity scholarships over the next five years. Pretty awesome thing.
We’ve been planning to announce it for months and we’ve been working with all of these different partners. We know it’s something that’s coming up but we’re not sure until pretty much the last minute exactly when we’re going to be able to announce this huge fund. I think that’s really common for any news that you’re going to share that involves a bunch of partners. Not something that’s totally out of the blue for a lot of marketers.
We went ahead and we got a blog post ready at least in a draft form. I went ahead and had it in the calendar as a placeholder. Every week, when we would meet for editorial meeting, we would talk about how it is going with getting this published and getting the news out. When we were finally able to publish, all we had to do was just move over a couple of stories around to make room for the new and it was not a problem at all.
Nathan: Sounds like being agile is a big part of your strategy that way. Why is something like that important for your marketing strategy?
Lelia: It’s important really for anyone’s marketing strategy to be really flexible when it comes to creating and sharing content because you just never know when something’s going to come up.
My background is in PR. I wish I could control everything that happens and plan for everything that happens. But the key really is just to be prepared. That’s a lesson that I carried over from my experience with crisis communications is just if you’re as prepared as possible ahead of time, then you can handle any kind of change really well. That’s really just a basic truth for all communications and marketing strategies.
Nathan: It’s almost like it helps you take advantage of opportunities as they arise too.
Lelia: Absolutely. In a creative field like most of us are in, you don’t want to be stifled by, “Oh, we have to stick to our plan and we have to stick to our calendar. This is what we’re doing next.” You want to make room for new ideas that come up and just be able to easily shift what you’re doing and make something new work. That’s something in a start-up environment is really common.
Fortunately now, we’re a little bit past the whole start-up phase but my team and my company as a whole, we experience that all the time. We’re always thinking of, “Is there a better way to do this?” “Is there a different way to talk about this?” “Is there someone else we need to talk to who can help share or story in a new and different way?” We like to make a lot of room for that kind of change and that kind of new thinking.
Nathan: I love that Lelia. Let’s just say that you have this newsworthy content, you’ve got your stories that you’re telling, the things that you’ve planned out in advance. Just looking at a typical week, how much content are you shipping in a week?
Lelia: We typically publish four or five blog posts a week. I also try to make sure that we have tweets scheduled to push out content everyday, whether or not we publish a new blog post because we have tons of existing posts and stories that are worth reposting. Beyond that, it really depends on whether we’re pushing hard on talking about a new course or that sort of thing or if we are just focused on telling student stories. But if you go back to our Bread and Butter, which is our blog I try to do four or five posts a week.
Nathan: How did you end up with that amount? Why does that work well for The Iron Yard?
Lelia: We do have a really small team with a ton of different responsibilities and we also know that we have a ton of awesome stories to share. It’s just is something that’s important to us, to keep sharing those stories on a regular basis. For me, publishing that regular content on our blog, it keeps me accountable and it keeps my team accountable for gathering and sharing stories of the people who really matter most to us. Those are the people who’ve graduated from our programs.
Nathan: How many locations does The Iron Yard have?
Lelia: We have 15 locations and our headquarters is in Greenville, South Carolina.
Nathan: You mentioned to me last time that you really like to gather and share student stories as a really core part of your strategy. Just tell me about that. Why is that important for The Iron Yard to share your students’ stories?
Lelia: People see themselves in stories. There are theorists who are much smarter than I am, who have explained it in this way, that humans are essentially storytelling animals and that stories help to make sense of the world and help us figure out who we are.
To me, the cool thing about the stories that I get to help tell is this, I get to talk to people who have made a huge decision that is a life changing decision for many of them. People share with me these really honest reasons why they were not happy with their lives or with their careers and why they made a big leap of faith to take 12 weeks and completely immerse themselves in an educational experience. It’s just really powerful.
We now have thousands of graduates and every single one of them that I’ve talked to has a really unique story. There are people who are 10, or 15, or 20 years into their careers and they, for one reason or another, have just decided to refuse that they are unhappy in their work. They decided to do something about it. People who haven’t been able to finish college for example or people who just really decided they’ve hit a limit on their career go after something that they love rather than selling for something that they tolerate is just really inspiring.
I think about it in this way, I’m not a programmer and that is not my background. If all I did all day was share content about programming, frankly that is only going to be interesting to a really limited audience. It wouldn’t be interesting to me because that’s not what I do everyday. But I think sharing people’s stories, that’s where the fun is. That’s where the real, honest truth is.
Nathan: It’s interesting for you because you’re trying to attract people who could maybe envision themselves in those shoes. Is that why storytelling works so well for a company like The Iron Yard?
Lelia: Exactly. Because it’s really not about learning to coach, that’s what we’re doing but what it’s really about is understanding the idea that you can take charge of your career, you can control in a way your destiny. You can do that. Anyone can do that in a number of ways. Luckily, at The Iron Yard, I get to work for a place that helps a lot of people do that in this one specific way which is helping people launch careers in technology. But the message of the stories that I get to share is about a deeper thing. It’s about helping people understand that they control their own destiny in a way.
Nathan: I absolutely love that. It sounds really emotional and inspirational too.
Lelia: It really can be. I prefer to talk to students and graduates one on one whenever I can, whenever I have the time to do that because developing that very brief but small relationship with someone as they’re telling me their story about why they chose to do this, it can get really emotional because you never know why someone has decided to make such a huge change.
Honestly, very often, is that they were unhappy or they needed to take care of their family better or it’s these real reasons that are just very confirmative of your human place. That is where I just get passionate about sharing these stories.
Nathan: I love that. Something we say at CoSchedule is, “Love what you do.” I can just hear that ooze out of you so that’s a lot of fun.
Lelia: Absolutely. That is what makes your work life and your “real life” mesh to one thing where you can really find a lot of satisfaction with what you’re doing everyday, which is pretty cool.
Nathan: I think that’s pretty cool too. Lelia, something that you’ve mentioned that I want to pick on is that you have about 15 locations at The Iron Yard and you like to gather stories from the students. That seems like a challenge. How do you actually find or gather those stories with just a distributed team?
Lelia: That is a great question. It is not easy but I’ve gathered my own channels together to find good stories. Internally at The Iron Yard, we use Slack to communicate. We have a couple of different channels where I can ping the campus directors who have relationships with students at their campuses about stories that just stay top of mind as they are meeting new students and hearing about what our alumni are doing in the local community. That’s a pretty easy, quick one.
But I also find students and alumni often on Twitter, or on LinkedIn, or other on social media channels when they share about their Iron Yard experience. I use Feedly to keep a running our assess feed of student blogs and alumni blogs which I’m lucky at that because part of what we encourage students to do when they are trying to launch a new career is to keep a blog and share about the things that they’re working on. That is helpful to me too because there’s a ton of rich content on what they’re sharing on their own blogs.
We’ve had students reach out to us directly, sometimes years after they graduate, to share just about a great promotion or a new job which is awesome to hear and I’ll follow up with them. To tie it all up, I keep a running list through our project management tool which we use Asana of the stories that I’m working on and things that I hear about as I gather that stuff, I’ll put it into that project management tool to make sure that I’ve always got some story to go after next.
Nathan: You guys give really good advice on students keeping a blog. I can tell you that the reason why I’m at CoSchedule is because I kept a personal blog about marketing. That’s really great advice and something that everyone should do.
Lelia: Absolutely. It’s difficult for a lot of people to think about doing something like that if it’s not something they’ve ever done before. It’s really cool to see students, maybe they’re even forced to do it at first and they may not like it and then some of them really take to it. That’s very cool seeing them blossom on their own blog and maybe even discover a new passion for writing is pretty cool for me too.
Nathan: I love that, Lelia. Something that you mentioned that I want to pry a little bit deeper into is your process. What does your formula or your process for storytelling look like?
Lelia: I will be honest that I don’t always keep to my own formula but always keeping that little bit of room for change. But at the core, storytelling for the Iron Yard it usually looks like this.
First, I set up a one on one interview if possible, with the person that I’m going to feature because getting their story firsthand is critical. I usually will record that interview and have it transcribed and then use the transcription and then any other media that they may have put out there. If they have written a blog or if they write on social media or anything like that, I’ll use some of those pieces to start to put together the story.
Sometimes, I’ll also gather perspectives from other people, whether that’s someone’s instructor or their employer if they’re already out in the working world. A couple of times I have reached out to a family member which has been really, that’s always a fun, different perspective to add to a story. It’s pretty simple, I’ll send the draft story to the person for final edits and approval and the whole process. And of course great photos always helps.
Then, I’ll schedule the story and usually before the story is going to be published, I’ll go ahead and create several social media posts around that story while it’s fresh in my mind. It usually makes for better, more rich post. I use the social template, I’ve got a specific template for a new student story that I’ll go ahead and pull out quotes or just interesting parts of the story. Get it all scheduled and it’s pretty much automated from there which is really nice.
Nathan: Something I want to circle back just a little bit is you mentioned that this is a process that you follow loosely. I think that’s really important for people to know, is the idea that you have a framework to follow but every story that you’d be working on would be different so you’d have to approach it differently. Am I right?
Lelia: Completely right. That’s the beauty of storytelling, is that there are tons of different ways to capture stories. While it is really nice and also important to have a foundational process for gathering and writing stories, we’ve done a ton of other things too.
If we’re traveling to one of our campuses and we’re going to be there one on one with students, why would we not grab one and sit down and put our computer in front of us and hit record and just talk to that student? It may not be the best quality but it’s also very raw and authentic. It could be a very cool way to tell a story. I try to remain open to any kind of storytelling.
Let’s be honest, as marketing people, we all sometimes have a week where it’s completely impossible to spend any time doing what you really want to do. Telling a story by quickly having someone email you, answers the questions you ask them, can sometimes be a completely legitimate way to tell a story as well. I totally think that being flexible with how you tell a story is the key.
Nathan: Lelia, it sounds like you are agile in a lot of different ways over there at The Iron Yard. I was wondering, let’s just say I’m new to this or I’m looking into this for the first time, what’s some of your best advice for someone looking to add customer storytelling into their marketing strategy? Where should they focus first?
Lelia: My best advice is to make telling their stories a priority. If you are not talking to your customers directly, then you really need to be. It’s very easy for us as marketers to get bogged down by these latest trends and there’s the ever present need to stay on top of all the different marketing channels that we have available to us. But at the end of the day, it’s really about understanding the people you’re trying to connect with.
Storytelling can help you do that so much more than just jumping on the latest trend bandwagon, if that makes sense. People are generally more than honored to share their experiences with you if you reach out and ask. I also think that people really like knowing that you are a company made of people and not just a brand.
For us, I have just found that to be true so often that we’re not a huge education factory over here. In fact, I’m a one person who’s really interested in what you have to say. People really, 99.9% of the time, will just open up and share with you and I love that.
Nathan: Lelia, I can say I love that too. Thanks for sharing everything that you shared today about planning ahead, telling stories and how you work to grow The Iron Yard. This was awesome. Thank you.
Lelia: Thank you so much. It’s been really fun.
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