Great content marketing can come from great storytelling. Who better to tell great stories than journalists? Marketers can learn from journalists how to create content that resonates with people through the power of storytelling.
Today’s guest is Ben Worthen, CEO of Message Lab, which combines journalism, data, and design to help organizations create content that resonates with real people. Ben discusses valuable insights for anyone interested in creating content that matters by combining journalistic storytelling techniques with data and design.
“As there's so much choice about what you choose to pay attention to, what you don't want to pay attention to, when you want to pay attention to one thing, and when you get to pay attention to another, it's more important to be able to reach people with things that they care about.”
“People are biologically programmed to want to pay attention to a good story. It's something that goes back to when we all lived in caves and sat around the fire.”
“If you want to broaden your reach, if you want to have more influence, if you want to break out of a sales-only moment in time where you can have a meaningful interaction with someone, stories are the way to do it.”
“When we think about the coolest experiences that we've had, they tend to be experiences that someone has created for us. Those are things that we tend to share with people.”
What Content Marketers Can Learn From Journalists With @benworthen From @MessageLabNews
BS: Hey Ben, how's it going this Friday afternoon?
BW: It’s going great. Thanks for asking. How are you?
BS: Not too bad. I can't complain. Just wrapping up the week with this interview and then I'm out for the weekend.
BA: What we're going to be talking about is what content marketers can learn from journalists. I think that there's plenty that content marketers can learn. I came into the industry from a journalistic background and I know that you did as well. Having spent a number of years actually working as a journalist for places like The Wall Street Journal, is that correct?
BW: That's right, yeah.
BS: You obviously have pretty deep expertise in both fields. To open things up, the first question I’ll ask, why is it important for modern marketers to be skilled storytellers? I think for journalists that question obviously is pretty clear why they need strong storytelling skills. It's a muscle I think marketers know they need to build but sometimes struggle to know how to actually do it. Before we get too far into that, why is it important? Why does this matter for marketers?
BW: I think the answer, at least from my point of view, is a really broad one. People are always people. As there's so much choice about what you choose to pay attention to, what you don't want to pay attention to, when you want to pay attention to one thing, and when you get to pay attention to another, it's more important to be able to reach people with things that they care about.
For instance, just to go back to old school when I was a kid, if we wanted to watch something, we watched the TV, and there were three stations. The show would be interrupted by ads, made us sit there and watch them, and there was just nothing we could do about it. We didn't have a choice. You can flip the channel, but that station could be on a commercial too.
Nowadays, just looking around my office here, I've got about 17 screens. Each one of them is an entry point into a broad range of things I can choose or not choose to pay attention to at any given time. If I happen to be watching TV, which is actually probably the screen I pay the least amount of attention to these days and a commercial comes on, I’ll just take out my phone and I’ll start looking at something else.
It's more important than ever to try to engage people and to capture them when they want to pay attention to. Beyond that, to go back to this notion of storytelling, people are biologically programmed to want to pay attention to a good story. It's something that goes back to when we all lived in caves and sat around the fire. When we were trying to understand [...], we explained what it was through stories. It's a good way to engage people. But even more so and I think what's more important is that you have to go back to this core question of modern marketing, there are so many moments in our lives where we just don't want to buy something.
I try to take stock with this. I would say like, I might want to buy something maybe 5% of the time, maybe 10% of the time. When I want to buy something, it's really helpful and wonderful for me to be sent a message about that product. Whether it's something that I'm searching for myself for the thing that hits me at that right moment. But most of the time, I'm just a person and in those moments, I just want to be engaged. I want to be entertained. I want to be informed. I want to have an experience of something that I just want to do and I want to enjoy.
Modern marketing is going to involve taking advantage of those moments. It's going to involve not interrupting those moments by saying buy our product. It's going to involve engaging with people in those moments. The only way to do that is to give them something they care about. Give them something that’s interesting to them. Giving them something that's meant to be valuable to them first and foremost, that they'll choose to pay attention to. They won't take out their phones that they’ve been away from. But they can lean into and engage with.
Stories are the thing in that moment, and obviously that term in this case can be used really, really broadly to mean a whole range of things. We used to call it like the category of things that are designed to engage about. If you want to broaden your reach, if you want to have more influence, if you want to break out of a sales-only moment in time where you can have a meaningful interaction with someone, stories are the way to do it.
BS: That's a very, very thorough answer that I think makes a lot of sense. What problems might content marketers expect to experience if their storytelling chops aren't up to snuff? I think at least in the world of content marketing, it's pretty easy to go grab some key words, pull some facts together, compile a piece just based on whatever without really giving it much context or really anything that's going to actually resonate with an actual human person. We do this all the time.
I don't think it's because people are trying to do a poor job. I just think that there is an element of storytelling that is often missing. As a result of that, what can content marketers expect to happen if their content unfortunately fits that somewhat negative description?
BW: I think really it's going to come down to missing opportunities and then the corollary around that is wasted opportunities and wasted investment. I think it's worth unpacking some of the things that you mentioned. There are so many things that go into what is a good experience for somebody. We can talk about each of them.
On one hand, let's say you've made something. Someone has to find it or it has to find them, meaning that it has to be searchable to user keywords as an example. As I type something into Google, be brought to it on so forth. For them, are you answering the question that they have? Are you doing it in a way that's providing value?
The one that I think we've all seen lots and lots of times is the thing that starts out like a genuine story well-told. Then by the third paragraph, it’s product, product, product, like the old bait and switch there. That's one way I think to really chop yourself off at the knees. You’ve engaged somebody. You’ve teased them by offering something that’s meant to engage them. Then it's like, look at me. Look at me. Let's talk about me now.
One of the things I think we find really interesting when we look at data is just getting someone on the page is the beginning of it. That's hard to do obviously. It's increasingly hard to do. But then what happens after that? Are you thinking not just about the words? Have you put good words onto the page? Are you creating a good experience?
One of the things that we see is that on average, about half of people are going to leave a piece of content before they reach the 15 second mark. If you’ve—I have done this many times—just run a bunch of experiments where you time yourself when you click a link and see how long it takes to get through just the first paragraph, the first sentence of the story. You can't do it in 15 seconds. You have to wait for the page to load one-two-three, where am I? What is this page that I've landed on? Does it look good? Is this a good experience? Is it where I expected to be?
What’s the headline? What’s this stuff? Is there an image? What’s the image of? What does that mean? All of these things have to take place before you even begin to read this story. In each one of those actions is a point in time or something inside the [...]. The page is too slow, then gone. I'm not going to stick around. No one has the patience to wait four seconds for a page to load.
If the experience, if the home, the blog (let say) doesn't look cool, doesn't look good, it's off putting, people are going to leave. We’ve seen this a lot of times with people who have great content. You have lots of traffic coming in because maybe they rank really high for a keyword, but people don’t stick around. They're leaving because it looks terrible.
All of these things are things that we believe are generally under considered when it comes to the storytelling, if you will. It provokes the listener around “storytelling,” but that is really important. To go back to a question about your storytelling chops and what makes a good story, all of that is part of a good story.
BS: I really like the way that you broadened the scope of that question, to really cover what the total experience looks like or what a complete user experience looks like with a given piece of content, which I think is really important. There is the obvious definition of a plot that follows some story arc within your content itself, but there's also what is the story, so to speak, of just the individual consuming that piece of content. If you were to take all of their actions from discovery, to consumption, to maybe taking an action afterwards, you could consider that a story as well. All of that together (I think) is really important to consider holistically. I love that answer that you gave there.
We've established why storytelling matters for content marketing, but to get more narrowly focused down to the real crux of this interview—what can content marketers learn from journalists—what would be the single most important lesson that you think content marketers can learn from journalists and reporters as it pertains to their craft and to storytelling?
BW: A caveat just by saying I don't think there's anything that's 100% unique to the answer I'm about to give about a journalist. You don't have to have been a journalist to be able to tell a great story. You can write computer code without having a computer science major as an example. But I do think there are hallmarks and tradecraft that you learn as a journalist—in order to be successful as a journalist, you have to know how to do—that would really help marketing in general.
The first one for me is always put the reader first and you're always asking yourself the question why does anyone care? Honestly for me, this is something that got refined over time because I'd come up with the way I thought was a great story idea when as a reporter. I walked down the hallway to see my editor and I was like, that’s a great idea. They’d say like, yeah. Well, what's new? Why does anybody care? What's the angle? You have that beaten into you across 1000 stories. You get pretty good at putting yourself in the reader's shoes and trying to figure out why you care.
I feel when I was on the other side, when I was a journalist, I would often have meetings with professional marketers, professional PR people and they’d come in and they would start pitching me. I would ask in my head, [...], without saying this out loud but, why is anybody going to care?
Again, just to go back to the thing at the beginning about there are so many things in the world someone could choose to pay attention to. A company beating itself on the chest isn't necessarily that compelling. I think the exercise as I've transitioned into content marketing that we do and I think people who have been journalists are predisposed to being able to do is seeing that message of what is it you're trying to say as a company and as a brand and as a marketing team and running into that filter of why does anybody care. There's an extraction and some twisting and so forth. It requires some practice. It requires some thinking. It requires a lot of empathy for the person that you're trying to reach.
BS: I like the word you use at the very end there—empathy. I think that's definitely something that for how long should we talk in marketing about authenticity, we don't also talk about just having empathy for the reader. I think sometimes when we think, at least initially, when I think of the word empathy, I think we think about it, it sometimes gets confused or conflated with sympathy. I think it has, sometimes, maybe a little bit more dramatic content.
BW: Depending on the content that we created, maybe we should have sympathy for the reader.
BS: Yes, exactly. Empathy can be just as simple as just really understanding why someone cares and just not being so me-focused with content. I think that's great.
BW: I had one thing to add to that. Another helpful exercise that we think is as a company, you make a product. Obviously, you're trying to sell your product. But your product exists to do something. It’s there because at some point, somebody saw something in the world that wasn't right, that wasn't working, that was a problem. It was a problem in culture that needed to be addressed somehow. In almost all of the time, the product doesn't fully solve that thing in culture. It’s just a part of it, it addresses it.
Something that I've always done to help me exercise is just go back [...], what is that problem? Because almost always there are more people who are experiencing the problem or who care about the issue, than who care about your product at any given time. If you're able to orient yourself around that idea in the world, it becomes a lot easier to have a conversation with people, and to find that place of empathy as you were describing to really engage and do something valuable for them.
BS: Yeah, totally. To continue down this train of thought, what would be the next most important lesson that you think content marketers can learn from journalists? I know there are a lot of things but if we're just going to throw one more thing, what would that be?
BW: I'm going to dovetail with one of my earlier answers and in my notes I have written down the experience. It's funny because I don't think this is something that the world of journalism necessarily does particularly well. In some cases it is and I think when we think about the coolest experiences that we've had, they tend to be experiences that someone has created for us. Those are things that we tend to share with people.
But there's also so much journalism that it's just like you go to these websites and it’s just pop-up with ads. Terrible experience in your face, close this, close that. For me, I would just say trying to think about that experience more in trying to be again thoughtful of everything someone’s going to encounter when they're consuming your content. To be more like the thing that you most recently shared and less like the thing that you must recently clicked away from.
BS: I think that's a very useful (maybe) framework or mental exercise. I think it’s pretty simple, but I imagine it to be pretty powerful for content marketers to just go through that thought exercise and really drill down into what it is that they're doing or trying to achieve, and what experience are they creating for people.
If content marketers—I think this is going to be at a particularly important question for content marketers who do not have a journalistic background—wanted to begin applying a more journalistic approach to their content, or if they want to apply a more journalistic storytelling approach to their content, where would you recommend they begin? What was the first thing that you would suggest that they really try to zero in on?
BW: I am going to give a strategic answer and then a tactical answer. At a strategic level, there’s a metaphor that we use when we do our work, which is the idea store, meaning you already have a store where you sell your products, whether it’s your website or through some other retailers somewhere, but you know the answer to you what does your store look like for products. If you had a store of ideas that represented all the things your company cares about, roll down the shelves. Again, non product but just things that are cool. Things that you feel need to be in the world. Things that your audience cares about. Just to extend the metaphor a little bit, stock the shelves. Sit down with a piece of paper and you know try to figure out what that store looks like.
A more tactical answer is one I think that distinguishes people who have been journalists. Again it's not unique to it, but it's part of the trade craft of being a journalist, which is just going out and talking to people. One of the things that almost always makes a piece of content better is an outside point of view. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to quote someone in whatever it is that you write. But when you take the time to talk about the ideas with other people and to ask them for their opinion and you take the time to listen to what you're saying, it is a practical step towards asking that question about what do people care about.
Yeah, you might get a gem of a quote and you might learn something you didn't know that's going to prove the piece that you're trying to create, but if nothing else, you're going to get a test case for whether somebody cares. I would say it's an antiquated thing to do these days, but pick up the phone and call someone or Zoom with somebody. You could Slack them or text them or whatever. Circulate your thinking and get other people's points of view.
BS: Sure. I think that that’s super important for one. But that's also something that you can do pretty easily. I think any of us could probably get a customer on the phone or we could find external sources, research, audit, things of that nature. I think that's great. Once content marketers have gotten comfortable with the idea that content should include more than just their own perspective or just their company's own perspective, what advice would you have if they wanted to level-up their storytelling skills beyond that? If they want to take things to a more advanced level, what would you recommend they focus on in that instance?
BW: Again, I guess I haven’t given you all these double-barreled answers, but there are a couple of thoughts that I’ll share. One, in terms of the direction that you go into your content. We've talked to—I don’t know—hundreds of people. Just ask them, like what do you find valuable? These are small business owners, Airbnb hosts, VPs of Engineering at 100-person web-based companies. We ran the gamut of archetypes, and it was funny. I don't know, it's probably around interview 100 that we suddenly realize that everybody was saying the exact same thing about what they wanted and what they found valuable.
Really, they just want to know how people like them solve a problem that they can relate to. They want data and information that's going to help them make better decisions. If you want to really supercharge the step that you're making in such a way where it's more valuable to people, I would say go in those two directions. There are just packaged up stories told by people who are like the people that you're trying to reach. It's another variant of that how-to story, but it's told through somebody’s lived experience. Everybody engages with that even if they don't necessarily have the problem exactly as you might have it
Data doesn't have to be, we did a study of 1000 people. Data could be stuff that you find that's compelling and that your novel addition to it is you found a handful of things that haven’t been combined before you're doing that for them. But presenting that in a way that's credible. People find it and they like it.
The other thing I would say—this goes back to something you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation—there are a lot of different kinds of content that you can make. They all do different things. Some pieces are designed to inspire people. Some pieces are designed to provide tactical answers to technical questions. All these things are valuable.
They just need to be purposeful, meaning you don't want to take a super heavy SEO-optimized piece of content and then hold it up as your “thought leadership.” Similarly, you don't want to start injecting brand new terms that no one's ever heard before into something that's designed to answer a very straightforward question that someone you're trying to reach might have. Just understanding, just having a sense of what's what, this thing I'm making, what is it supposed to do. What does someone do next?
Again, you mentioned this earlier on, too. What's the next thing someone's going to do once they have this engagement with us? Because it's not always going to buy something. That's another mistake that I think we see is that people will have a really entertaining piece that’s designed to engage somebody and then the CTA will be buy now. When you're trying to get someone out of idea world into product world, this is natural. I mean sure somebody's going to click, but it's not necessarily the right thing for most of the people. Also, just being thoughtful about what else we can get people that’s valuable given the kind of mindset and the kind of interaction that they're telling us that they want to have.
BS: It sounds like you're advising people to really get good at understanding what the intent of the user is.
BW: Yeah. Well put.
BS: I think that's great advice. Well, that's all I had for you. Thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing your insight. If our listeners want to find you or Message Lab on the web, where would you recommend they go look?
BW: Go to messagelab.com. Hopefully it needs a URL to type in. We’re all there. You can also find me on LinkedIn, if you type in Ben Worthen.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.