Episode 149:

In our industry, storytelling is one of those words that is so overused, it can lose its meaning pretty quickly.

Great stories stick with us. My guest, the co-author of The Storytelling Edge, Joe Lazauskas, understands that good storytelling gives you an edge. In a world where content can be all-but-meaningless pablum, it can also tell a story that moves a customer and makes a connection with them.

As a writer and storyteller myself, I always soak up any time I can spend with someone who’s as passionate about this subject as I am. Joe gets into the brain science of why stories are so powerful – they are a way to understand each other and ourselves better. He takes that knowledge and helps brands tell better stories.

For agencies and our clients, stories are how we build trusted connections with customers. In an era where there is pressure to churn out content, Joe helps us take a step back and understand why story is so important, and the key ingredients and tactics for telling good stories.

Joe Lazauskas is an owner and the director of content strategy at Contently. If you’re not familiar with Contently, it is a content strategy practice. It offers a dashboard, but they also help big-brand clients create stories and content for those brands.

Joe was also one of the founding editors of the New York Egotist. After that, he became a tech and marketing journalist for FastCompany, Digit Day, and Forbes, among others. He joined Contently in the early days of their formation and in the beginning, he served as editor in chief.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How the brain engages with story, and how you and your clients can benefit
  • The four elements of good storytelling
  • Why content without a story is missing something
  • Key tactics for good storytelling, and how to apply them in your agency
  • How to help clients have less fear about sharing the gap between what is and what could be in their business
  • Discovering what the customer is interested in, and telling compelling stories around that
  • Educating clients about the power of content that tells a story. It’s not checking off the “wrote a blog post” or “sent out some tweets” box
  • The companies doing storytelling content well, and how you can scale it
  • Implementing editorial boards and newsrooms to get strategic about using content to tell stories

The Golden Nuggets:

“One thing I’d recommend for any agency is to have storytelling workshops for your clients.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “The brain science tells us that when we hear a good story, our brain lights up at five times its resting capacity.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Building relationships with people should be the ultimate goal of putting content out there.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Your salespeople, your accounts people, HR – these are like reporters for you. Tap into those resources. It’s creative firepower for telling your stories.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “We become really grounded in a story when we can relate to the narrator or the protagonist in some way.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “The vast majority of content that is done well is really storytelling.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Our brain is attuned to pay more attention when there’s something new or novel. It’s a Venn diagram between relatability and novelty where something is familiar, but with a new or novel twist – that’s how people get locked in.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet “Bringing staff together regularly in some systematic way is a great way to gather stories. And people are glad to be there, because it’s fun.” – @JoeLazauskas Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today’s topic is storytelling, but before I get into that, I want to remind you of a couple things that I think are super important, that I think are of benefit to you. So, the first one is please make sure if you haven’t done it already that you go over to agencymanagementinstitute/podcastgiveaway, and that you sign up for the drawings that we do. A lot of our guests are super generous. They give us signed books. They give us courses. We’re giving away workshop seats. So, we just gave away a seat to our advanced AE Bootcamp in March a few weeks ago. So, somebody got to go to that workshop for free. So, we’re giving away some pretty cool stuff and some very valuable stuff, and I’m a little baffled that all of you have not gone and put your name in the hat. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care if you are on an outer island in some foreign country. I don’t care if you are my next-door neighbor, we will get the gift to you. So, again, agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway. Please go and make sure that you take advantage of getting even more of the smarts that our guests offer and some of the things that we offer at AMI.

So, with that, let’s talk a little bit about storytelling. So, when I think about my own career, my own path through marketing, and advertising, and agency life, the truth of the matter is I’ve been a storyteller and a writer my whole life. That’s sort of how I self-identify in terms of my skill set. I’ve done other things. Obviously, I’ve owned my own shop for the last 20, almost 25 years. So, obviously, I’ve had to learn a lot of other things about agency life, but at the core of my skillset is storytelling, and I do believe that stories are the way that we change minds, the way that we change behavior.

And by the way, I think this is equally important. We don’t talk about it a lot in the interview, but I want you to listen from two perspectives to my conversation with my guest today. I want you to listen to it in terms of I’m an agency that is producing content, and by the way, content is pablum compared to storytelling. So, I want to elevate my content to really telling stories that engage someone. But also, I want you to listen from the perspective of an agency owner or an agency leader who is trying to create culture inside your organization. And I believe one of the most powerful ways for you to create culture inside your organization is to be mindful of the stories that you tell about the agency, and the agency’s history, and the founding, and the mission of the agency, and why you exist, and the good fight that you fight on behalf of clients, and we don’t do enough of that. We don’t share sort of that tribal knowledge and that tribal pride inside of our organization. So, as you’re listening to this episode, I’d really love it if you would listen from sort of both perspectives.

So, let me tell you a little bit about our guest. So, Joe Lazauskas is now one of the owners and drivers of Contently. So, if you’re not familiar with Contently, it is a content strategy practice. It is a software as a service. It’s a dashboard. But they also help clients, big brand clients create stories and content for those brands. So, Joe started a new site called The Faster Times with one of the first branded content studios back in 2010, and then he was one of the founding editors of The New York Egotist. So, he then became a tech and marketing journalist for Fast Company, Digiday, Forbes, and some others. He joined Contently in their early days of their formation, and in the beginning, he served as editor in chief. And so now, he is really driving the storytelling for that organization.

And Joe just wrote a book with his co-author, Shane Snow, and the book is called The Storytelling Edge. It is a great book. So, the first part of the book sort of explains how and why stories work, why they’re effective, and the second half of the book talks about how to build stories, very much from a brand and an agency perspective. So, what I love about the book is it really does help us understand the elements that make up a good story and gives us sort of a mental checklist, or if you want to you can create a checklist, but a mental checklist of what we need to make sure exist in the stories we’re telling on behalf of our agency when we’re trying to get prospects or recruiting a new employee, and the stories that we’re telling on behalf of our clients in terms of trying to attract prospects to their business and/or make them even stickier to people who already love their brand.

So, as you know, great stories, they stick with us. They change our mind, and they drive us to action, and the book is packed with stories about, no pun intended, of how stories have influenced people, both on a… You can tell these guys are sort of geeky nerds. A lot of the stories they tell are Star Wars stories. They look at the Star Wars story arc and use that to teach us. So, whether it’s how it moves me in a movie theater or how it moves me in a grocery store, the stories are at the core of that. And so, I really am excited to introduce you to Joe and his thinking around stories so that you can very quickly absorb it and weave it into the way that you tell stories for both your shop and for your clients. So, let’s get to it.

And so, with that, I just want to welcome Joe to the show. Before I actually welcome Joe to the show, I want to warn you that I have a great cold and Joe has a sinus infection. So, we were laughing before we hit the record button that we sound a little bit like a commercial for DayQuil. So, if you hear us coughing a bit or sniffling, we apologize in advance, but we wanted to make sure we got this conversation in no matter whether we were sick or not. So, Joe, welcome to you and your sinus infection to the show.

Joe Lazauskas:

Thank you. Yeah, it’s about the 12th podcast for me about the book, but the first for my sinus infection. So, it’s a little bit nervous right now. Hopefully, it won’t act up too much, but I appreciate everyone bearing with us today as we power through.

Drew McLellan:

So, as I said, I’ve been anxious for this conversation because I read the book and I love the book. And I know, as you know, the listeners of the show are agency owners and leaders in small to mid-sized agencies, and there’s so much pressure for them to help their clients define actually what good content is and what storytelling is in relation to content that I just knew we could not wait until you and I were healthy to get this recorded. So, I appreciate you jumping in, even though you’re not feeling a hundred percent.

Joe Lazauskas:

And I’m super happy to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So, let’s start with that. So, storytelling is like our industry has a million of, but storytelling and content marketing, all of those buzzwords swirl around. How do you define the difference between content and storytelling, and talk to us a little bit about the critical indifference of our ability to help our clients tell stories? Later on, I want to talk to you about what do you do when a client doesn’t want to tell their story because they’re afraid, but for now, let’s just define storytelling, how is it different than content marketing.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, I think right now, if you look at the industry, there’s a lot of brands creating content, maybe not a lot of brands telling great stories. There’s this study back in last year that found that 5% of all branded content is getting 90% of all engagement branded content. So, there’s basically a few brands out there that are doing a really good job of telling their story, and then there’s a lot that are pumping content out there. They’re putting out white papers and blogs, but it’s not actually having an effect. It’s not building a relationship with people which should ultimately be the goal of putting content out there. Right? It’s to deepen your relationship with your target audience, your prospective customers, your current customers. And as our head of content strategy at Contently, this is something I see a lot, and a lot of it I think is because we have a lot of business people. We have a lot of marketers that have sort of been tasked as content marketing has come up in this tidal wave, right, over the last seven years with you have to go start a blog, you have to do content now, but they never got a chance to actually understand what makes for good stories, what makes for good content.

A lot of folks who especially come from a more technical SEO or digital marketing background didn’t necessarily go to school to learn how to tell stories. And so, much of what we wanted to do in this book is really explore the art and science of storytelling. How do stories actually impact us in our brains on a neurological level? What are some of the key tactics that have made for great stories throughout history, and how do you actually apply that to your own business? So, that’s a roundabout-

Drew McLellan:

So, define for me what a story is that content is not.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, that’s a roundabout way of saying is that I think that all good content tells a story. If you have content without a story, it’s probably that it’s something lacking, right, or it’s something that’s very solution-oriented or tactical or just a product one sheet, or just say an ROI calculator. But I think the vast majority of the content we create, even if it’s not top of the funnel should have elements of story in it. Your case studies should actually be really provocative and intriguing stories about your customers that have tension between where they are and where they could be. Your story about your brand, about who you are should include a story about what your mission is and what your brand cares about. It shouldn’t all just be a dry memo one sheet. In fact, a study that your brands put out should not just be a lot of dry statistics and findings on a page, but tell a story about where your industry is and where it’s going on.

So, in my mind, the vast majority of content when done well is a story. Certainly, there are some tactical, pure utility pieces of content that there’s not as much of an opportunity to tell a story in. But I encourage us with our team internally with the clients that I work with to search for the story whenever possible because as human beings, it just helps us absorb information in such a deeper way. When we hear a good story, our brain lights up at five times the capacity. Neurons fire at five times the capacity of when we don’t, and stories trigger the release of this empathy drug called oxytocin where we feel closer to the protagonist or the brand or person that’s telling us the story. And when you get those two things fire together, you’re going to have information recall and a connection that’s much deeper than when you don’t. So, there’s just such an advantage to finding the story whenever you can.

Drew McLellan:

That gets to what you refer to in the book as sort of the witchery of story which is sort of the science of how we react to the stories. So, what I heard you just say was, A, our brain reacts, our brain chemicals react differently to stories, and, B, that it actually engages more parts of our brain. So, if I’m reading a fact sheet versus a story, my brain actually reacts in a different way and connects me to the story, and if I just heard what you said correctly, it actually releases a chemical in my body that creates an emotional connection. Yes?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. This is sort of the new science of storytelling that’s come out over the last 10 years is we always knew that oxytocin was a thing. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

We knew that mothers release it in their brains when they’re near their babies. We knew that hugging or being near a loved one can do it. Dr. Zak Hawkins is this neurologist we’ve worked with a lot on this. My co-author Shane’s actually had himself strapped up to measure his oxytocin levels when he watches or engages with different stories. They had an awesome study come out, all the Superbowl commercials that are going to be ready in about this week where they measured oxytocin levels, and we actually see that oxytocin spikes when we hear a story. And this is the way that we always built connections with each other as human beings.

When we were ancient human beings, we were sitting around campfires in prehistoric times. Before we had written language, the way we passed our lessons of where to go to get food, or what berries to avoid, or how to stay safe was to tell each other stories to pass on that information. And that feeling of oxytocin in the brain is how we built connections with people, how we knew someone was part of our tribe. And when we hear someone’s story, we come to associate them as part of our tribe. It’s how we feel closer to someone. It’s why you might feel a connection with your favorite celebrity that you hear their story over and over again, right, or when you watch a documentary about someone that you never knew before, you feel close to them after hearing their story. The same thing can be true of a brand like Dollar Shave Club that tells their story of why they started their business in a funny and provocative and interesting way. There’s just so much opportunity to build those stronger connections through stories.

Drew McLellan:

And for you, storytelling is really made up of four key elements that make up a great story. Can you walk us through what those elements are and how we as marketers can think about those elements? Because when you’re writing a children’s story or a fiction story, you can sort of see how it would be easy to bake all of these elements in. It’s a little harder when you’re writing about an auto repair place. Right?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

So, can you tell us what those elements are and how as marketers we can look for ways to bake those into our content?

Joe Lazauskas:

Sure. So, there are four main elements of storytelling. Relatability, novelty, tension, and fluency. So, the first and the key one is relatability. Our brains will reject any story or scenario that seems too out there. We come really grounded in a story when we can relate to the narrator or the protagonist in some way. So, if you think about this in fiction, it’s when we see part of ourselves in the main characters, the protagonist, or the situation we’re in. But even if say you’re writing about content marketing or about an auto repair shop, it’s about bringing in the reader or the viewer with a lead that makes them see themselves in you. So, for me with say Contently and everything I write for our blog, it’s about talking about my own experience as a content marketer to bring people in challenges I face, scenarios I found myself in, and that creates that connection with the person that is reading or watching something.

But the next thing is novelty because if something’s relatable, but it’s boring, it’s not new, it’s the same story we’ve heard over and over again, it’s not going to capture our attention. But when we hear or see something new, once we’re locked in via the relatability factor, our brains actually light up. Our brain is naturally attuned to pay more attention when we’re seeing something that’s new or novel or learning something new or novel. So, there’s sort of this Venn diagram, right, between relatability and novelty where something can’t be too unfamiliar, but if you bring and lock someone in through the relatability factor, you then can make things a little bit different and more novel and more new because they’re already locked in. This is why say like something like the first Episodes Four through Six of Star Wars work really well because although it was a far-off planet, it conjured a lot of 1950s Americana. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

The spaceship looked like cars of the 1950s, a lot of the fashion evoked nostalgia of the late fifties, early sixties, whereas something like the first three Star Wars movies were just so out there and weird that our brains didn’t get locked in in the same way. This is the same case that if you’re not… As if you’re telling a story that isn’t really related to the challenges or needs of your brand, if you’re not bringing them in in a way where your reader can see themselves in the piece that you’re writing, you’re going to have a hard time locking them in. But then you need to tell them something new.

And the way you tell them that that story needs to be really fluent. So, a lot of times, especially in B2B and more technical industries, we conflate being smart and professional with being verbose and complex. We see these reading level scores and we think, “Oh, I want to reach a CMO. I better rate it at a 12th-grade level or a college level.” That is the wrong way to go. The best storytellers throughout history have always written almost always at an elementary school or middle school level. They break down that barrier to entry for you as a reader or a viewer as much as possible. They make it as easy as possible for you to get absorbed in the story.

Everyone from Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Stephen King to J.K. Rowling do this. The best storytellers, the storytellers we love do this. In Star Wars, George Lucas does this through quick, fast action shots. Right? Make it really easy to follow the story along. And this is the biggest thing that I think we need to fix a lot in our industry is that we conflate the two being dry and boring and jargony with actually telling information in a way that people are going to absorb it.

Drew McLellan:

This is a place where clients often insert themselves when you show them copy that is tighter and shorter and more in sort of common man language, and then the client’s like, “No, no. We have to add this or that or whatever.” So, being able to talk to them about these elements of story and that fluency, being able to move someone along in the story is critical to being effective, is a tool agencies can use to help combat a client’s need to want to word-stuff a piece of content.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah, absolutely. A good test is honestly to give it to someone who doesn’t know anything about your industry and see if they can understand it.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

I think probably the greatest accomplishment of this book is that I was able to… We really strove to write in a really easy-to-read fluent way, and I was able to give it to my mom and dad, and they finally understand what I do after eight years.

Drew McLellan:

There you go.

Joe Lazauskas:

But the last element is I think also equally important and sometimes tough with clients is tension. So, Aristotle said that the key to a great story is establishing what is for the protagonist, and then what could be, and the job of the storyteller is to move you along by closing that gap. So, create that gap between what is and what could be, and close that gap, and then immediately open it up again, and close that gap, and open it up again until you hit the climax of the story.

And this applies, I think, to a lot of brand stories and is probably the biggest thing that I try and keep in mind. If you’re writing a case story, set up what the current state of existence that was dissatisfying was for your protagonist, the client you’re writing about, and what they saw could be, and then show how they tried to close that gap, hurdles they came into along the way, and try to close it again. If you’re trying to write a piece of thought leadership, think about that in terms of your industry what’s the current state, and where’s the place that we as the protagonists in this story can get to, and bring us along how we’re going to close that gap.

It’s a really simple formula, and it’s something that a lot of brands are afraid of. I won’t name names, but we once had a client who was an adventure outdoor clothing company, and they wanted to tell adventure stories, except they had a big rule in their brand style guide which is that no one could get wet.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that’s sort of a problem.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah, they were selling outdoor gear and they wanted exciting stories, except no one could ever get wet or be in any sort of danger. Kind of makes it hard to tell a story. And these are the hurdles that we really need to do a lot of education to get people through that if they want to actually make a difference with content and not just check a box of having a blog or posting things on social, they need to embrace these elements of storytelling.

Drew McLellan:

So, that’s a great example of we want to do what’s right for the client, and sometimes that client is their own worst enemy. Using that example, what did a conversation around the fact that you are asking us to get people… Your audience are people who are adventure seekers. Your audience are people who are taking risks outside, doing activities that where they need your kind of gear and clothes. But if we show them in perfectly calm, dry, perfect weather, the water is still sort of situations, we’re going to disconnect with them because that’s not actually what they’re interested in, nor is it what their life is like. What does that conversation look like with them?

Joe Lazauskas:

So, I found in general that the most effective tactic is to ask a client like, “What are some publishers that you really admire that’s reaching a similar audience, or who are some competitors you think are doing a really good job of reaching your audience?” Because usually if they’re at that state, they know that their content isn’t doing everything it could. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

And then you get that from them and just do some analysis. Use tools like Similarweb, BuzzSumo, et cetera. Do some analysis on which are the top-performing stories that these brands have had, and then analyze those stories. Pinpoint out what those stories have in common they’re doing really effectively. Usually, you’ll find these elements of storytelling in those stories, and then walk the client through… We walk the client through them and we say, “Here’s what’s working. Here are the topics what’s working, but more or less, if we really dig into these stories, here’s the voice that’s working. Here’s how they’re using first-person narration. Here’s how they’re using quick, short-form animation or cuts on social. Here’s how they’re setting up actual tension in the story. And let’s compare that to what we want to do and the performance of your stories currently, and let’s look at what this gap is and how can we find that middle ground where we can get a little bit closer to this ideal.”

And I think you can also position it that way to make it feel like it was the client’s idea that they wanted to look at these publishers and you’re just doing the analysis for them and then you’re like, “Yeah, you were totally right to look at these guys. I think there’s a lot we can learn from them here.” That’s a good way to spin it because as we all know we have sensitive clients who don’t just want to hear that they’re screwing up in some way. They want to hear that they’re a big part of finding the solutions to the problem.

Drew McLellan:

So, you talking about that reminds me of the whole notion of discernment that our brain also sort of rejects when something doesn’t feel accurate or true, which I think sometimes clients want to paint such a rosy picture that I think the reader or the listener, however they’re consuming the content, sort of their BS meter goes off a little bit. Can you talk about how the brain does that?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, it ties in almost fairly closely with the relatability factor. I mean, I think you can see both as sort of an… And I hate this term, but like an authenticity meter for stories. So, if something doesn’t seem real, if it doesn’t actually feel like a real relatable challenge or protagonist or problem that we’re reading about, if it’s just the equivalent of walking through a trade floor and just a bunch of rosy jargon about the real-time, 360-degree technology that’ll help us leverage our customer insights to transform the way that we do business in the digital age, we’re going to turn off because that is just meaningless words, or if it’s just writing about things were great, and then things got better. If that’s the arc of your story, it doesn’t feel relatable to us as what we experienced as human beings. It doesn’t feel like a real story. And our brains are built to discern. We’re built to know when we’re being deceived, when a story doesn’t actually feel relatable to the core of our own human experience and who we are.

I think what’s great for someone like me building our audience for a few thousand people to hundreds of thousands and building subscriber-based or print audiences, the biggest key was just talking about what we were going through. You know, a lot of times the people you’re trying to reach are going through similar challenges, and if you can just write and speak really honestly about how you kind of messed up or what challenges you faced and what worked for you, that can just be the easiest thing to build that connection with an audience and tell the stories that are real.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You know, that whole idea of being willing to sort of share your foibles and the challenges that you have and the problems, I want to dig into that a little bit more, but let’s first take a quick break, and then we’ll come right back.

I get that sometimes you just can’t get on a plane and spend a couple of days in a live workshop. And so, hopefully, our online courses are a solution to that. Lots of video, hours and hours of video, a very dense, detailed participants’ guide, and all kinds of help along the way to make sure that you get the learning that you need and apply it immediately to your agency. Right now, we’ve got two courses that are available. We have the Agency New Business Blueprint, and we have the AE Bootcamp. So, feel free to check those out at agencymanagementinstitute.com\ondemandcourses. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

All right, we are back and we are talking about storytelling, and before the break, we were just talking about how our brain sort of has a BS meter when the story’s too perfect, when there are no problems, which made me think about, Joe, the whole idea of building out content on like a story arc. And I know probably a story arc that most people are familiar with, even if they don’t know the phrase, is the Hero’s Journey story arc. And in the book, you talk about how that can be a really great framework for brands to tell their story, but it requires, I think, a brand to be brave enough to admit that they don’t know all the answers, they aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. They have fears, whatever that is. So, I’m curious, walk us through sort of what that Hero’s Journey arc looks like. But also, I want to talk about how do we help clients get comfortable talking about the fact that they’re not perfect and they don’t have all the answers.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, I think you need to embrace more than anything… The Hero’s Journey in its full arc is kind of hard to walk through without the full diagram in front of it. So, I’ll talk about a few key elements from it which is first really embracing that sense of conflict in a story, and this is the hardest thing to do. Right? Our instinct, our brand safe instinct is for no one to ever really feel that or they’re not to be a real challenge that’s faced or a sense of some adverse elements coming into our path, but that is ultimately our human experience at its core. Right?

If you want to tell a story that feels real to people, everything can’t be like the Kylie Jenner Pepsi commercial that got destroyed because it painted this alternate universe that is so outside our sense of what real authentic conflict looks like. No real story gets solved by popping open a Pepsi and giving it to the cops, and suddenly, all of this tension melts away. It’s an inauthentic story. We have to think about the real conflict that comes into play. One of my favorite examples of a brand that does this is GE or GE Reports. I don’t know if you ever check them out.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, they’re cool.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. One, I like this just because it’s not a big money, super expensive operation. It’s run by Tomas Kellner, this former editor from Forbes who works a little bit with Group SJR on it. And they basically just tell incredible stories about the innovations going on inside GE. They go viral on Reddit all the time by breaking these stories. But they talked about these new emerging technologies and it’s not just in a rosy way where every story is, “And this technology is here and it is going to change the world,” like it’s a press release. It talks about the challenges that the scientists had in developing the technologies and the story of the different impediments that came in their way, the limitations of the technology that we have today, and what might come tomorrow. So, it whets your appetite for how GE could transform our planet and our economy through solar energy or through hydrogen batteries, but it doesn’t make it this perfect rosy picture of what the world is. It says there’s still work for us to do.

I was at Google X a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco talking with their chief storyteller, and that’s so much of the storytelling there as well. Right? Google X is this offshoot of Google that’s set up to just do these moonshot technologies. They call themselves the moonshot factory. And in there is an inherent gap between where they are in their development of the technologies and where it could be, and so much of their job to get people excited, to get funding, to get interest from investors or other companies is to talk about that gap and what they need to do to close it. We need to embrace those gaps because that’s what makes people interested in what we’re doing. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Joe Lazauskas:

We need to accept that our brand doesn’t always have to have all the answers. They can come from ideas from our readers, from other people where we’re trying to reach. The best question that you can ask is to say, “I don’t know how to solve this problem. What suggestions do you have?” Do you want real engagement with people? Ask that question on LinkedIn. Ask it on Twitter. Ask it on Facebook. Ask it in a Facebook Live chat. That’s the thing that I love more than anything else is being able to have those conversations with people, the conversation that we’re having right now because that actually makes your audience part of your team, part of the problem you’re trying to solve.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, I think what you’re saying is pulling the audience in to the process rather than… Because the reality is for every one of our clients, they’re reinventing themselves every day, whether it’s how they communicate their solutions, what their solutions do, who they serve. They are reinventing all of that. And rather than presenting it as a done story, what I think I’m hearing you say is present it as an ongoing story, and be honest about where you’re at and where you’re hoping to go, but that there’s still work to be done.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah, absolutely. And then you kind of get people hooked in that. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

They want to know what’s happening next. They’re like, “Wow, these guys are figuring something out. Let me keep following GE Reports so I can actually be up on what the latest innovations in solar energy are going to be, or how they’re developing this much more fuel-efficient jet engine that’s going to make travel faster, more on-time, better for the environment, et cetera.”

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that I think great storytellers in terms of brands do better than most is that they don’t force themselves to talk about what it is they actually sell. So, they talk about things that their audience cares about that may be tangential to what they sell. It’s not the, “I want to give you a bullet-pointed list of features or benefits.” In your work at Contently, how do you help clients understand that part of their content can’t be about them and what they sell, but instead has to be about either the lifestyle or the challenges or the joys of the audience that they’re trying to reach?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. The simplest way we do this, we have this thing called the content strategy waterfall that we show how the different elements of content strategy cascade. It’s one of those content strategy diagrams that there’s a million different versions of, but it starts with the audience. And we always make our clients start there. We always tell them, “It’s not about what you want to say. It’s about what your audience cares about. We have to start there. What are their challenges? Where are their interests?”

We think about data-driven content strategy. It’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot. There’s actually a really great opportunity right now to leverage all this search and social data that we have access through myriad platforms to understand what different target audience segments are actually interested in. We can understand what they’re searching for, what questions they’re asking on Google, on Quora, on Reddit. We can understand what topics they’re sharing content about the most, where are those emerging social conversations, and we can use that to really pinpoint about what they care about, and that starts to give us a space to play in, to understand okay, here’s the things that our audience cares about then. What’s the overlap between that and what we actually have unique ideas and perspective on? How does this relate to what we really believe in what we’re building when we go out to happy hour with our coworkers and start talking about what we’re excited about. Right? Where’s that overlap?

And then looking at the overall competitive landscape. Where are there gaps where there aren’t a million other people talking about this same thing that we can actually lead the conversation in? And that’s the sweet spot. Right? And once you go through that process, you are so far away from talking about your product that you often don’t even come back to it. In terms of the UX of your site, you can certainly think about in interstitials, where can I plug related products on the side in a non-intrusive wave to let people explore it. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Lazauskas:

Where can I have solution-oriented content in the nav to give people an opportunity to explore more? How can I optimize my article pages to give people the option to opt into newsletters so they get into the funnel and we can eventually serve them more product-related content as they engage with our stories more? But if you want to start off as selling them something on those classic metaphorical first date, we know that’s not going to work. There’s a study that came out two years ago that showed that trust in branded content drops from 27% the first time you hit them with a product flood in an article. 73% of consumers actually are inclined to naturally trust branded content when they engage with them and it doesn’t plug the product, but as soon as you plug that product, you’re dropping your trust score significantly. But if you start from an audience-centric point of view about what they really care about, you’re going to be so far from being inclined to plug those products that I bet you won’t even have to worry about it.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah, one of the interesting things I think that is hard for us to help clients understand is that if we just continue to be helpful and interesting that sooner or later the brain of the reader or the recipient goes, “What is it you do again, and how can you help me?” Even if we haven’t talked about what we do and what we sell, they’re inclined after they have a connection with us to want to know more about us, which leads them to our products or services.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. You don’t want to make it hard for them to find that out, to explore that.

Drew McLellan:

No, of course not, yeah.

Joe Lazauskas:

And that’s why I encourage mixing in different product offers in modules and elements of your page in the UX design, but you don’t want to push it on them too much. I mean, it’s something that we’ve… At Contently, I started there as their editor in chief as one of our first head employees with the job of just telling stories about the content marketing industry, building this affinity and relationships with our audience, and so much of what we see still is all these clients who… We’re an enterprise technology solution for brands at a certain maturity level, or when they need a more robust technology solution to managing their program. And so many of the clients that come through to us are folks who have been reading our newsletter magazine for years, and when they finally get to the point where they have their need, they raise their hand and say, “Hey I’ve been reading you guys for years. You’ve helped me so much with getting my program off the ground. Now, when I need a technology platform and to tap into a big network of freelancers and all of the services you guys have, you’re the first people I think of.”

I think there’s a lot of value in that relationship building that you just have to have faith in. You can’t expect that it’s going to deliver this miraculous ROI within the first three months of your program. You need to look for indicators that you’re engaging that audience and that they’re signing up for your newsletter and that you’re building a relationship with them. But we always say this is a marathon, not a sprint. It is true that you have to be committed to it for the long run, but have KPIs along the way. They’re going to tell you that you’re seeing success, that you’re on the path to building those types of meaningful relations.

Drew McLellan:

Right. One of the interesting ideas I thought that the book pulled out was this idea of building sort of a brand newsroom. So, from an agency’s perspective, how could they apply that idea inside their agency on behalf of their clients?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. So, I think there are a few different models that we see. There’s the physical brand flashy newsroom. So, this is something like Marriott’s M Lives. So, when you walk into Marriott’s headquarters but that was the Maryland, you go into the lobby, and it looks like a Marriott Hotel lobby. And you’re like, “Oh, this makes sense.” And then you turn, and there’s this big glass-encased studio with all these monitors, monitoring all of their real-time social feeds, and their whole content calendar, and everything they’re publishing, and their blog, Marriott Traveler that we do for them that has four dozen different additions all over the globe, like local travel guides, different cities. And that’s one model.

The thing that I think is actually useful there, and that is that it brings together teams from all these different silos inside the organization. So, there’s a chair for PR, there’s a chair for creative content creation, there’s a chair for the media agencies so that they can all get aligned, right, so that as soon as they see an opportunity to create a story that aligns with maybe something that’s popping off right now, they can do it, and then they have the media agency there to actually promote it. So, they can jump on these opportunities. See the same thing in like Reebok’s newsroom has this too, where they have social, PR, content, digital all in one room. What we see a lot is also virtual newsrooms. So, using platforms like Contently to bring together all these different teams with shared calendars, workflows to pump content out really quickly, get all the content created in one place, push through approvals, and then pushed out to different social channels or CMS.

The biggest concept I would take away is not whether you’re physically in one place or necessarily what specific technology you’re using, but have some mechanism for bringing all of these different teams together in an aligned way to use content for every advertising and marketing initiative because we’re never going to break through and get people’s attention unless we’re using content in a really strategic way. We’re telling great stories that are going to bring people in and capture their attention, but we need alignment and mechanisms for creating that content in a way that’s going to serve every different line of business, every different marketing group inside an organization.

This is really hard. It’s probably our biggest challenge that we have right now as a technology company like Contently as an agency, as an in-house brand person who’s trying to use content in a strategic way is make sure that there isn’t just one group putting up content on the blog and that it’s not getting used by anyone else, or that content isn’t being created in a way that’s aligned with the different marketing or advertising initiatives that your company has. So, explore a way to bring everyone together, and it could be that physical newsroom that you’re building. I think the way that that benefits is that it’s this kind of golden temple for a content side of the org that says we’re serious about it, or it’s a technology platform where everyone can come together and get alignment and visibility, and you can track efficiency. But whatever way you do it, look for those solutions because it’s not just about putting out one video or one article or one ebook. It’s about having a systematic way for creating and optimizing content over time.

Drew McLellan:

Well, one of the things that I was thinking about as I was sort of pondering, “Okay, how does a small to mid-sized agency do this?” It may be as simple as acknowledging with your client look, we need to have a seat at the table for R & D. We need to have a seat at the table for sales. We need to have a seat at the table for customer service. We need to have all of your departments, HR, whatever it is, all the departments represented, and let’s come together once a week, once a month, once a whatever, and talk about the stories that are happening inside the organization that we can then gather, and then also, let us tell you the stories that we’re producing so that you, HR, could use them for recruitment or you, customer service, could drive someone to when they’ve had a similar problem.

So, now all of a sudden, you’re getting content ideas from all over the company and you’re sharing the content so everybody knows. Because I think a lot of insight, a lot of clients, they dismiss content as that’s a marketing thing. That’s not a tool for me. It’s not something I really use. So, it’s really about getting the entire organization thinking about content down the road and also using the content that you’ve created on their behalf.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah, this is something that Chase did really well. So, they wanted to get alignment with content with all their different lines of business, small business, home and mortgage, auto, travel with Sapphire, et cetera. But that’s really tough inside a big bureaucratic organization like any large finance company will be. So, they created an editorial board where they got different stakeholders from all those different lines of business to come in for a regular bi-weekly meeting to talk about what stories would help you. What would be awesome for you to have, and then we’ll go out and make it for you, and that gets people invested and excited.

One thing that we do that I’d recommend for any agency to do is have storytelling workshops for your clients. This is a really good way to also get access to other lines of business that you wouldn’t normally that’s outside of your core point of contact is to have a storytelling workshop where you’re going to come in, we go through a lot of the lessons that have ended up in this book around the key formulas for building an audience, for telling great stories that will engage people, and then I just bring these different groups through exercises to come up with stories for their line of business and different initiatives that they have, and it gets them really excited. And then you have these story ideas that they feel ownership over that they’re excited to go out and produce, and then we put together in that workshop a whole strategy for getting it out there, what channels can we leverage internally or through any paid opportunities that we have, how are we going to measure success, and then they actually go out and do that, and they’re excited because it’s fun.

This stuff that at the end of the day, when you do it right is a ton of fun, and then they’re amped to go out and do it again and again. These are just the things we need to take the time to do that we don’t always do, right, with our clients is get them excited because this is cool. This is why we went into this work. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I love the idea of the editorial board because from an agency’s perspective, one, what every agency tells me is every client wants content, but we can’t get stories from them. We have a hard time getting the information. Well, that’s because usually, the marketing person is the one tasked with going back into the organization and drumming up these stories, and they’re in a million meetings and doing all this stuff that they’re doing. But if we had an editorial board that was representative of the entire organization, and maybe you do maybe the first meeting of that board as you take them through some storytelling exercises and you help them, now all of a sudden, they’re thinking about stories and they’re helping you source stories that actually you could put into the framework that you talked to us about earlier, and now I’ve got the raw materials I need to actually help our clients take their content from being just pablum content to true stories.

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah. Another cool thing you can do just within a marketing team is something that a Reebok does. Three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, they have an hour story brainstorm inside their kind of brand newsroom area. So, they always bring in everyone from PR, social, marketing, comms, but then they also invite people from other parts of the org to come in and sit in on it and participate, and they have to come with story ideas. And so, even outside of the formal editorial board, that’s kind of how they get people involved and get ideas from other parts of the organization. And if you bring people into a structured environment like that, where they can mimic the activities and the things that they see other people doing, they kind of get into it. It’s a way of bringing people into the group. I find that works really well.

That’s something that we do with our own editorial meetings at Contently is we just always invite people from different departments to come in. We have sit-downs monthly with different departments to get ideas from them because your salespeople, your accounts people, these are like reporters for you. They’re talking to clients. They’re talking to people in your industry. They’re paying attention. They’re seeing what’s happening out there. They know what would be useful to them. Tap into that. That’s all intellectual firepower that you have and creative firepower that you have inside your org that you can use just to get all these free ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. So true. You know what? I feel like we just have barely scratched the surface of all of these ideas and all the things that you talk about in the book, but unfortunately, I need to wrap this up. So, tell folks how they can find out more about you, how they can track the work that you’re doing, the book, all of that. Where can they find everything that is Joe?

Joe Lazauskas:

Yeah, thanks for the opportunity to plug. As a story-first person, I like to put that off until invited.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Joe Lazauskas:

But yeah, I mean, you could find the book at all major retailers or on Amazon. The book is called The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming Into the Void, and Make People Love You. Find us in Barnes & Noble. If you want to learn about more freebies we’re giving out when you order, as well as our fun movie-style trailer for the book, you can go to thestorytellingedge.com. Find me on Twitter @JoeLazauskas, LinkedIn, Joe Lazauskas, personal website, joelazer with a z.com. Sign up for my newsletter there. Lazer’s what everyone calls me because they can’t pronounce my last name.

Drew McLellan:

Makes sense, yeah.

Joe Lazauskas:

And [email protected] if you want to shoot me an email, ask any questions. I have a monthly ask-a-content-strategist mailbag. So, always looking to find out what your questions are, the challenges you’re facing so I can answer them. But appreciate everyone listening and checking out the book as well as your time as well. It’s been an awesome conversation.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it has been a great conversation. Thank you. I have another page and a half of questions, so we’ll have to have you come back because I think this is a topic that is, A, super important for agencies to wrap their heads and hearts around and, B, not going anywhere. So, it’s going to be an ongoing conversation, I’m sure, so I’d love to have you back sometime.

Joe Lazauskas:

That’d be fantastic.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. All right, gang. Thanks so much for listening. Hopefully, you were inspired by the conversation today to go on behalf of not only your clients, but by the way, this is about the content that you put out for yourself as well. I harp on the if I see one more blog post from an agency about the new Pantone color, I’m going to cry. Your content needs to be storytelling too, and you have some great stories to tell. So, take what Joe was talking about today and apply it both to the work you do for clients, but also, and equally, if not more importantly, for yourself.

In the meantime, I will be back next week with another guest to help you build a bigger, better, stronger agency. In the meantime, you can always track me down at [email protected], and I am super grateful when you take the time to swing out and leave a rating or review. That’s how folks find us. That just makes me feel good and warm and fuzzy inside, and I promise, I read them all. I take them to heart. When you have suggestions, I try and incorporate that into the show as well. So, I’m grateful for you and I will be back next week. Talk to you soon.

All right. That wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Can’t tell you how much I love spending this time with you. Thanks so much for listening. Hey, speaking of thanks, another way we want to give thanks is we’ve built a new tool that I would love you to check out. We’re calling it the Agency Health Assessment. And basically, you’re going to answer a series of questions, and based on those answers, the tool is going to tell you in which aspect of your business maybe you need to spend a little extra time and attention to sort of take your agency to the next level. We’ve identified five key areas that really indicate an agency’s health, and we’re going to help you figure out where you need to spend a little more time. To get that free assessment, all you have to do is text the word assessment to 38470. Again, text the word assessment to 38470, and we will send you a link so you can do that at your leisure, and hopefully, that will give you some new insights and some direction in terms of your time and attention in the agency.

In the meantime, as always I’m around if I can be helpful, [email protected], and I will be back next week with another great guest and more things for you to ponder. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 1:

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Built a Better Agency, brought to you by HubSpot. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t miss an episode as we help you build the agency you’ve always dreamed of owning.