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Feature
10/14/14
Ann Handley, all-star content director, on finding human stories, the bottom line and the role brand journalists play in the process
Oct 14, 2014

In the world of branded content, there might not be anyone at the moment whose buzz exceeds that of Ann Handley's.

The Boston-based Handley recently released Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Writing Ridiculously Good Content (Wiley), setting into motion a bit of an old-world press whirlwind, occasioned by book signings, B&N window displays and WSJ best-seller rankings.


“There’s an inherent tension in marketing: Marketers want to talk about the product they sell…”


Part writing-whisperer (“Tell how you'll change the world”), part Strunk & White grammarian (“Ditch weakling verbs”) and part digital strategist (“On Facebook, target by niche, not by numbers”), Everybody Writes and the buzz it's created, through social media and otherwise, speak to not only Handley's writerly gifts of clarity and voice—hard earned over 20+ years at the task—but to the gobs of goodwill she's accumulated in the industry (16 book blurbs, folks).

She's earned this reputation through her role for the last decade as Chief Content Director at Marketing Profs, for whom she hits the speaker circuit with rodeo regularity.


“…But customers want to hear about what the product can do for them.”


Her point of view, at her talks, on her blog, in conversation, is rooted in journalism, in “reader benefit.” And as a former business newspaper journalist, she detects no ethical conflicts nor sees any violation of Fourth Estate standards when journalists “jump ship” and apply their craft for brands.


“Journalists are the only people, in my mind, who put the needs of the audience (vs. the company) first.”


“I love this question about brand journalists being 'sell-outs,'” she says. “I suppose because it implies that journalists are virtuous, and brand journalists, or writers who create content for brands are anything but virtuous. They are hacks. Shameful sell-outs. And they’ll die friendless, pitiful, lonely deaths.”

She quickly follows up with “But is that true?”

“I’d argue that even traditional news journalists have a bias,” she continues. “Is the coverage of an issue on NPR the same as the coverage on Fox News?”


“[Brand journalists] are helping people make decisions, just like a traditional news journalist does.”


To Ann, the goal of any good content is to serve the reader—not the publisher. “So a brand journalist working for a company who groks that idea isn’t selling out by any stretch—they are helping people make decisions, just like a traditional news journalist does.”

She's not implying that the two are the same. “A ‘brand journalist’ is not a traditional journalist,” she says. “But in my mind, brand journalism is a kind of journalism, even if it's clearly not impartial.”


“I want to know the story behind the facts: Don’t give me only facts and numbers—don’t tell me that sales have increased 35%…”


She cites the example that a brand journalist wouldn't produce anything negative about the sponsor company, while a journalist working at a traditional publisher would.

“Both have a role, and I'm not suggesting that brand journalists stand in for traditional news reporting. They are two different things. We need both in our world. But journalists are the only people, in my mind, who put the needs of the audience (vs. the company) first. Paradoxically, that serves a company's needs far better—because the content they create is customer-driven vs. corporate-driven.”

This she attributes to a journalist's innate understanding of audience. “Every time they sit down at their desk to create content, there's always a little voice in the back of their head reminding them, Nobody has to read this,” she says. “That kind of pressure on your content-creation efforts can only benefit your brand.”


“…Rather, tell me about how Armen in the shipping department and his wife, Sonia, were able to buy a house this year because of the company’s expansion…”


We asked Ann how brand journalists can best bring a reporter’s sensibility to content—an editorial approach to building a brand.

“This skill is especially useful when we all need to place the needs of our audience first and rise above our corporate-centric messaging,” she says. “There’s an inherent tension in marketing: Marketers want to talk about what they do or what they sell; but customers want to hear about what it can do for them.”

She offers the following points:

“Make the customer the hero of your story. The story isn’t about your product or service. The story is about what that does for others. It’s a subtle shift, but a critical one.”

“Tell the human story. I want to know the story behind the facts: Don’t give me only facts and numbers—don’t tell me that sales have increased 35%. Rather, tell me about how Armen in the shipping department and his wife, Sonia, were able to buy a house this year because of the company’s expansion.”

• “Then tell me how the company is helping the city rebound from a tough few years. Give me the details that make the story pulse with life.”

“Look to analogy instead of example. I love how the technology company Hubspot is inspired by People magazine to tell the story of its growth and year.”

If creators keep focused on information important to their brand's customer needs, and always listens to the voice that asks “What will they thank you for?”—metrics, says Ann, will follow.


“…Then tell me how the company is helping the city rebound from a tough few years.”


“That's what is at the core of what we do for brands,” she says. “Because helping their customers make decisions is good for the bottom line.”