Story Telling and Creativity

The Best Stock Photo Sources for Marketers With Small Budgets

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We all know the power of visual storytelling – content that contains visuals is more likely to be opened and viewed than content without visuals. As a marketer I’ve been using more visuals over the last 2-3 years in everything from blog posts to SlideShare presentations to my Pressly cover pages.

Once in a while I will purchase photos but unfortunately, I don’t have a huge budget to do this every time I need a visual. While Flickr is still the gold standard for free photos (requiring attribution), it isn’t the only option. Dustin Senos, a product designer at Medium, put together a great list of stock photo sites and I added some others to create a handy resource for marketers who don’t have big budgets.

Albumarium http://albumarium.com
Little Visuals http://littlevisuals.co/
Unsplash http://unsplash.com/
Death to the Stock Photo http://join.deathtothestockphoto.com/
New Old Stock http://nos.twnsnd.co/
Superfamous (requires attribution) http://superfamous.com/
Picjumbo http://picjumbo.com/
The Pattern Library http://thepatternlibrary.com/
Gratisography http://www.gratisography.com/
Getrefe http://getrefe.tumblr.com/
IM Free (requires attribution) http://imcreator.com/free
StockVault http://www.stockvault.net
Photo Everywhere http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/
MorgueFile http://www.morguefile.com/
Photos8 http://photos8.com/
Imagebase http://www.imagebase.net/

I’ll update this list as I find others. If you have any favourites to add please share in the comments.

Image source.

10 Storytelling Lessons from Google Creative Lab

If you’ve been exposed to Google Creative Lab’s powerful stories, you probably won’t be forgetting them anytime soon. One of their more recent ones, entitled “Reunion”, is so powerful that it brings viewers to tears. Google does more than simply push emotional buttons, though; their stories are not only moving, but also inform viewers about Google products.

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Despite primarily focusing on digital content, Google Creative Lab won a print ad award for one of its stories. If you’re looking to tell better stories, have a seat by the fire and get cozy: here are 10 lessons from Google Creative Lab and its leaders.

1. Educational Campaigns: Chrome Shorts

Your product’s benefits over the competition matter little if your customers don’t understand their value. Often, the first step to demonstrating your solution’s value is to inform the customer. As former Google Creative Lab Creative Director Ji Lee said in an interview with Design Taxi:

Most people buy a computer and they simply click the icon that says “internet” to get online. They don’t really see the need of changing that, or downloading a new, better browser because the current way to get online works fine for them.

To spread awareness of the browser and explain Chrome’s benefits, Google explained the alien concept of the browser using a series of videos called Chrome Browser Shorts. These explanatory clips are presented friendly ways: one clip entitled, “You and Your Browser,” humorously illustrates a browser’s functions through the cat’s actions.

2. Build Prototypes

Although the movement of rapid prototyping has gained popularity in the technology space, Google Creative Lab’s Managing Director Ben Malbon and Executive Creative Director Iain Tait explains to Fast Company’s Co.Create that it’s also extremely useful in advertising:

Truth is, the advertising world has been prototyping forever: Sketches. Previsualizations. Storyboarding. Animatics. Treatments. They’ve all been used to bring ideas to life and give a hint of the emotions a fully formed “thing” might evoke–at least enough to convince a client to stump up the cash to go into production.

While storyboards and sketches still play an important part in the creative process, they’re not able to convey the richness of interactive experiences.

Malbon and Tait suggest three types of creation that help tell richer stories: making a video, staging a performance, mocking it up in Powerpoint or Keynote (my own addition: if it’s mobile, try Invision). Once you’re sure the idea is working, or when you need to refine the story further, build a working prototype.

3. Bake a Broccoli Cupcake

Google’s products aren’t inherently interesting. That’s why instead of giving people information about products, Google Creative Lab wraps an emotionally stimulating narrative around each solution. For example, Dear Sophie is a heartwarming story about a father creating a Gmail account for his daughter and storing her memories in the Inbox. Parisian Love is a romantic tale of an American traveller falling in love with a stranger.

While these emotional themes seem unrelated to Google, the videos are filmed in settings such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Translate, and various other Google tools. As the viewer follows the story, they also naturally discover how the tools are used. The emotional content is the cupcake, and the Google solution is the broccoli. As Executive Creative Director Robert Wong suggests in an interview with Communication Arts, put the education into the entertainment by baking a broccoli cupcake.

4. Know the User, Know the Magic, and Connect the Two

Google’s VP of Global Marketing, Lorraine Twohill, boils down Google’s recipe for storytelling in Advertising Age: “Know the user, know the magic, and connect the two.” They use their understanding of Google products to bake their product into their content. They test their content on the web before moving into mainstream media in order to gauge user reception. Then, they buy extra-long advertisement slots in primetime and iconic shows in order to connect the two.

Re-evaluate whether your content team, from the most high-level editor to the most inactive freelancer, truly understands the magic of your product’s technology. In case your content hasn’t been received well, you need to know the user better. If you haven’t been converting well, you need to understand the magic better.

5. Create a Story Pre-Product

Have you seen this first person perspective of Google Glass? Believe it or not, after viewing an early version of a heads-up display unit, Google Creative Lab imagined this product was finished and created video content for it. Because there were no working units, the team filmed the video through cameras on helmets. A design intern helped mockup the user interface. The story was straightforward; how this nonexistent product could fit in a regular person’s life.

This content helped drive product decisions for the future as the Google engineers viewed it. Google co-founder Larry Page even joked that the team should make a film every week, and Google should build products against these stories. As the video was released, this also gave Google an idea of what product demand was and could gauge users’ reactions to the Glass concept.

6. Get in Touch with the Community

One of Google’s most powerful stories started with a community attempting to empower the next generation. In order to prevent young members of the LGBT community from committing suicide because they were being bullied, Dan Savage and Terry Williams started a project in 2010 called It Gets Better. It was comprised of LGBT adults who uploaded videos on YouTube sharing the message that life gets better.

Google Creative Lab recognized this and decided to bring more exposure to this story. Tying in their products, YouTube and Chrome, they created a video documenting the movement’s success and bought advertising space on Monday Night Football to expose it to a wider audience. It paid off in tons of earned media exposure. It can be difficult to recognize initial ROI; instead, tap into the emotional core of consumers by standing up for what you and the community believe in.

7. Connect with Curators to Increase Reach

Google Creative Lab Creative Director Tom Uglow writes in Marketing Magazine that the world is creating more than it can consume. Instead of reaching our readers and consumers directly, we’re being drowned out by noise from all other sources trying to do the same. How can you ensure your story gets in front of users? Whereas previously consumers would only get their information from newspapers and other types of established media companies, the power has shifted online to a few different curators.

It’s now essential to connect with curators through techniques such as surfacing, getting into trusted guides, and building relationships with editors, stylists, and critics in your fields.

8. Be Your Own Case Study

Client case studies often make for great stories. They also show other prospects and consumers the results that you’ve produced. However, if you want to explore new potential benefits of your product or service, you will have to do this by using them in your own content marketing and campaigns before experimenting on clients.

Google Creative Lab demonstrated their live streaming and partnership opportunities with their YouTube Space Lab initiative. They then made a case study sharing the earned media results and the Google products and services used in this campaign. Similarly, you can incorporate this into your communications plan. It’s a relatively straightforward formula: share how you did it, share which products you used, and what the results were from the campaign.

9. Your Byproducts are Stories

Much like how logging companies sold firewood as their main product and profited immensely off byproducts like sawdust, today’s more intellectual byproducts are stories. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked and discarded. This idea was published by Basecamp founder Jason Fried, who runs a software company and authored a book as a byproduct of the experience. As advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins writes in My Life in Advertising:

“But,” I replied, “others have never told this story. It amazes everyone who goes through your brewery. It will startle everyone in print.”

Google Creative Lab does a great job at this: during the process of creating their HTML5 game, Google Racer, they filmed a set of footage to show viewers what happened behind the scenes. In case you think this sounds obvious, it’s a technique advertisers overlook that companies have been using for years. Enter Hopkins again:

We told just the same story that any rival could have told, but all others thought the story was too commonplace.

Your story is more unique than you think. Share it with the world.

10. Empower Your Consumers

No matter how much creative talent your team has, sometimes the most unexpected stories come directly from consumers and users. Empower them to contribute, curate and aggregate their work, and package it into production quality content.

Google Creative Lab did this a few times: examples include Google Doodle and Androidify. A more powerful and engaging example is their entirely crowdsourced film, called Life in a Day, filmed by users around the world and debuted on YouTube.

Closing Thoughts

There’s the practical scientific solution, and there’s the fiction behind it. Stories often guide the way the world navigates; for example, Tesla and SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk recently built a technology solution he saw in Iron Man. (Coincidentally enough, Elon Musk influenced Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man protagonist Tony Stark.) Use some of Google’s principles to create and deliver better stories; even though you may not win a print award, you’ll still be potentially changing a client’s life.

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5 Content Experiments Marketers Should Pay Attention To

As content marketing becomes a more popular method of customer acquisition, it also grows increasingly competitive. Increasing content marketing budgets also means increasing expectations of ROI. Effective content marketing requires constant vigilance: keeping a consistent eye on storytellers around the world, and how the best are doing it.

Experiment

These exciting experiments can be carried out by journalists, media companies, or other content marketers. If you want to stay competitive, have a look at these five experiments and their implications on content marketing:

1. Multimedia Content Marketing

Much like how traditional print publications are experimenting with all forms of media in order to evolve, content marketers will move from text-heavy content (e.g., blog posts, articles, and eBooks) and get into all types of media (e.g., video, slideshows, infographics).

To give you an idea of how this transition will take place, have a look at one of the most prominent publications to embrace responsive web technology, The Boston Globe. The Boston Globe has an entire team dedicated to creating multimedia content and exploring other avenues of communication. Media analyst Ken Doctor says in an interview with WBUR:

By 2015, 2016, these media companies that survive and prosper will all be multimedia. They may start out as newspapers or TV or radio — it doesn’t matter what the roots are. What readers or listeners or viewers want is what makes the most sense, it could be audio, video or words.

Even newspapers of record, such as The Globe and Mail and The New York Times, are introducing video clips into their content both in order to tell more immersive stories and to create new opportunities to engage readers with advertising. In the case of content marketing, this means more opportunities for various calls to action.

2. Long-form Advertising

A couple of years ago, The New York Times blew up the blogosphere and social media with a new story entitled, “Snow Fall”. The story was formatted like none other in mainstream media at the time; the text was completely integrated with video interviews, animated imagery, and embedded slideshows. It quickly got the attention of readers and journalists.

In response, magazines like Complex have embraced this type of format and explored it with cover stories (here’s one with artist and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams). Complex also took it one step further: they built an interactive long-form piece for their sponsor, shoe manufacturer Converse. They built a story around the shoes and have sections linking to the product page at sportswear retailer Champs, where readers can purchase the shoes.

This type of long-form piece could be the new landing page, or a precursor to a product landing page. Long-form content can tell stories in much more engaging ways, and have opt-in boxes or offers built into different sections of the page.

3. Hacking Charts

A chart can easily explain what passages of text can’t. With all the data out and about on the web, charts could also be an easy method of creating original content based on a source’s raw data. Digital publication Quartz decided to create a Chart Builder for its team’s individual writers and contributors to easily create charts on data they come across online. (Here’s an example of how one of its charts look.)

Quartz uploaded this tool online for all publishers to use. (Here’s The Atlantic using the plugin. Naturally, Quartzz decided to stamp their name on all images produced with the tool.) Now, all designers and writers have the option to use this simple tool to quickly create charts.

4. Adaptive Journalism

Content marketing changes according to the context the content is consumed. The Washington Post’s Cory Haik displays this with his own publication’s attempt at adaptive journalism. He likens this to how “day parting” advertising is done – the practise of displaying different types of advertisements for daytime TV and primetime: “content parting” means displaying different types of content during different times of day.

During the times you know the reader is likely on the commute to work, the story you launch should probably be shorter and snappier, with fewer graphics to prevent a long load time. It should also fit the mobile device screen comfortably. In order to drive this type of shift, Haik collaborated with designer Katie Park and producer Masuma Ahuja.

Much like how adaptive journalism will be how publications engage readers, adaptive content marketing provides new chances to draw readers in, but will also mean a change in the skillset of current content marketers.

5. Brands and Subbrands

Effective marketing requires tailoring your content to more narrow segments of different consumers. This is why microproperties are often more effective than just company blogs. Media companies are also distinguishing between brands and subbrands; for example, The Atlantic separates itself from its subbrand The Wire. Atlantic president M. Scott Havens says in an interview with Digiday, “From a business standpoint to take that next step forward to what we believe can be a definitive news platform, it needs to have its own identity.”

Different types of subbrands, or microproperties, enable companies to deliver different types of content in different types of packaging. While The Washington Post is an extremely credible publication, its young cousin Know More is able to display content that doesn’t exactly meet the editorial standards of the main site. The microproperty also mitigates any collateral damage this experiment could have on the main site.

Closing Thoughts

While firsthand experiments could result in the most lessons, secondhand learning is a much more cost-effective method of acquiring knowledge and understanding the reasons behind certain strategies of tactics. These content experiments being carried out in the world of journalism will be indicators into the future of content marketing, and staying on top will give you opportunities to act proactively and delight your readers and potential clients much more than your competitors could.

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How Behemoths like GE, Adobe, and SAP Tell Their Stories

SAP’s SVP of Marketing also serves as the company’s Chief Storyteller. This is just one of the many pieces of evidence indicating how crucial storytelling is to marketing and brand equity for large enterprises.

We all love stories. We are raised with stories from a young age, and many of these narratives become the pillars of our lives. Companies have recognized the power of storytelling for decades, and are now using storytelling to change how potential clients and stakeholders perceive them.

GE Adobe SAP

Here are how leading enterprises such as General Electric, Adobe, and SAP share their stories:

General Electric and the Image of Invention

Conglomerate giant General Electric faces a challenge that many larger, mature, companies inevitably have to deal with: How is it possible for the company to maintain a consistent image when they provide services for such a wide variety of customers in so many different industries? From appliances to jet engines to financial products, General Electric serves a series of drastically different niches and stakeholders.

As such, their story has to accommodate different types of audiences; conversely, their various content niches and microproperties also need a congruent overarching theme for effective branding. How can they do this while maintaining the interest of all parties with their content marketing initiatives?

Linda Boff, executive director of global digital marketing at General Electric, said in an interview with Digiday: “We are GE, a large primarily industrial company. We manufacture things in both traditional and advanced ways. We are fascinated by technology, innovation, discovery and invention. We have a clear compass as to what it is we find interesting and what our voice is in our space. We have a curious, passionate and optimistic voice.”

They embed these themes of technology, innovation, discovery, and invention not only their own content, but in their social media strategy as well. How can you make these vague themes interesting to the mainstream masses?

General Electric uses its own science-centric visuals, such as graphics from its laboratories, to entertain consumers. For example, their Pinterest board features various photos of interesting 3D printing, installations at GE-sponsored events, or progress on one of their latest projects. They created a mobile game for iOS, called Patient Shuffle, that tells the story of a hospital and helps the user understand the importance of logistics and what General Electric’s products are used for.

General Electric leverages visuals on YouTube: it features content such as visuals of their factory and quirky or unusual science-centric video shorts on blooming social network Vine. By sprinkling the themes of technology, innovation, discovery, and invention in the many types of content they share, General Electric maintains a cohesive theme while still tailoring their content to their many types of audiences.

Adobe and Cutting the Marketing BS

Reminiscent of how 7UP was positioned as the UNCOLA in order to stand out in a saturated market, computer software company Adobe created an unusual campaign to target CMOs and digital marketers for their digital marketing solution.

As Forbes columnist Steve Olenski shares in this article, Adobe’s story for this campaign started with their discovery that global advertising is not effective on marketers. Instead of simply explaining their product features in detail, which is exactly what their competitors were doing, Adobe told a different story in order to cut through the noise. They decided to take the brutally honest approach to appealing to marketers and created a campaign called, “Marketing is BS.” Adobe’s solution to platitude-filled meetings is their product, which helps marketers make sense of data. (For example, have a look at their video titled BS Detector.)

The campaign resonated extremely well with marketers, and the “brutally honest” approach to telling this story paid off. Adobe’s CMO Ann Lewnes said in this article with The New York Times: “‘I think Adobe is not known for being provocative or bold,’ Ms. Lewnes said. ‘We’re ‘a nice software company.’ But in this crowded space, with a lot of competition, the intent is to break through, jolt the market,’ she added.”

Essentially, their campaign was about eating their own dogfood when it came to the advice they were preaching: “The frankness of the campaign also signals that Adobe Systems (and their agency) realized that ‘if we were flowery, overly clever, jargony, the more it would feel like we were doing the same thing we were saying people don’t need to do anymore,’ Goodby, Silverstein’s Keith Anderson also added in The New York Times article. (Note: Goodby, Silverstein was Adobe’s agency for this campaign.)

SAP Powers Sentimentality

Operations and logistics software giant SAP faces an extremely difficult challenge in their marketing. While their solution is extremely essential, and effective, and crucial in their clients’ day-to-day activities, their product is also a background service doesn’t make for the most interesting or remarkable topic. How can SAP make Enterprise Resource Management and streamlining processes more understandable and interesting to potential key decision makers and stakeholders? First and foremost, SAP leverages sites like Forbes to host and distribute their content. On their sponsored column, SAPVoice, marketer Todd Wilms demonstrates the potential power behind the story of SAP. Wilms frames SAP as a service that helps their customers deliver:

  • 72% of the world’s chocolate,
  • 70% of the world’s beer,
  • 82% of the world’s athletic footwear. 

SAP follows the 22nd rule of Pixar’s rules of storytelling: “What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.” At its core, SAP is the service that enables companies in all industries to bring joy to its customers and stakeholders. As such, it’s able to tailor its story to different types of customers by simply explaining its different niches.

“For example, at the New York Fashion Week, we are going to capture people talking about fashion and how it impacts their lives,” said Julie Roehm, SAP’s SVP Marketing and Chief Storyteller in a Campaign India interview. “A world ‘run better’ for them might be their clothes fit them every day and they don’t have to worry about their appearance constantly. What does that has [sic.] to do with SAP? Well, we created technology for Levi’s that helps them to image a person and suggest which Levi’s jean is going to be best for them to put on. So, when people put the right one on without going through the hassle of going through multiple pairs of jeans, they feel good about themselves.”

In order to take their storytelling to the next level, SAP created a mobile app that would share the stories of their various customer journeys. While the primary purpose of this mobile app is likely to assist SAP sales teams during presentations, it doubles as a presentable collection of stories and case studies for any potential clients that are interested in SAP.

Closing Thoughts

With decades of experience in branding and marketing, these companies are industry-leaders in the art of storytelling and how storytelling techniques can be used to increase brand awareness and sales. As General Electric, Adobe, and SAP demonstrate, the greatest stories can be told through content marketing by using imaginative themes, speaking frankly with your customers, and connecting with the sentimentality of your product. 

How a Startup Gained Hundreds of Customers with a Few Blog Posts

How can you bring thousands of readers to your blog and convert them into customers? Here’s how one entrepreneur, without any prior content marketing experience, did it.

Shoplocket Thalmic Labs

Katherine Hague is the CEO and co-founder of eCommerce platform ShopLocket. In early June, Hague launched a new content marketing strategy to replace ShopLocket’s earlier blog initiative. The new publication is called Blueprint, and it investigates the stories behind hardware entrepreneurs. Despite its infancy, Blueprint started off with a bang; its first post reached the top of Hacker News and gained thousands of views within a span of hours.

While Blueprint is experiencing early success and is different from most content marketing strategies, that’s not to say Hague is a veteran or one of those self-proclaimed “gurus”. In fact, she doesn’t pretend she’s an experienced content marketer, which is exactly what makes her story interesting. She is an anomaly.

Let’s have a look to see what she’s up to, how she got such early traction with Blueprint, and what action steps you can take today to change your content marketing strategy’s trajectory.

The First Steps

“It was good content, but it wasn’t really driving any particular traffic and it wasn’t different from anything out there on the web,” says Hague, referring to ShopLocket’s first attempts at content marketing. Previously, ShopLocket’s content marketing was based around its WordPress blog with general themes around customer service and marketing. (The most recent articles titled, “We’ve partnered with Automattic to offer the first ecommerce integration for WordPress.com, starting with Enterprise and VIP customers,” and “The Absolute Hardest Thing to Tell a Customer”). The weekly effort had tapered off with two posts between the months of March and April.

Shoplocket Original Blog

Hague had a problem; her content marketing strategy wasn’t working. She wanted to engage consumers in a different, unique, and interesting way. She knew there was an abundance of interviews around the web with software founders or the next big internet startup but she also observed a knowledge gap for companies building real things and shipping hardware to customers. There remained a silent niche for readers wanting to learn from entrepreneurs who have created hardware products and physical products.

It was time to make a change in that direction. Initially, Hague and ShopLocket started off with one interview and sent it to a few friends for feedback. This sample consisted of customers, fellow entrepreneurs, and people Hague and ShopLocket would want to interview. Hague wanted to validate her idea and gauge: what did they think? Did they think this was interesting? Hague also sent her friends mockups to give her friends an idea of what the blog would look like.

After hearing positive responses to Blueprint, Hague decided to launch it. Prior to launching, Hague already had 3-4 interviews queued up. When she was speaking with me, she advised content marketers to aim for consistency — and shipping content in regular cadences.

Despite not having an entire strategy fleshed out, Hague didn’t impulsively decide to install WordPress and start a blog. She had a very clear idea of what her vision was (articles that would seem like sitting down for a 30-minute coffee with someone) and validated it with different samples of readers before moving any farther. She already had an idea of what the reader wanted even before she started, which put her work ahead of the rest of the content out there.

Checking the Scoreboard

Blueprint’s first post, an interview with Thalmic Labs co-founder Stephen Lake, had clever timing. Hague knew Thalmic Labs was going to be making a major announcement; the day Thalmic Labs announced $14M in funding, Hacker News picked up Hague’s Blueprint post and it became the most upvoted. This led to over 10,000 people reading Blueprint’s first post.

Hague adds that the timing came with the risk that the momentum and noise from Thalmic Labs’ announcement could drown out the Blueprint interview, which wasn’t specifically related to the funding announcement. Fortunately for ShopLocket, the risk paid off.

A large number of visitors reaching the initial Blueprint link also visited ShopLocket homepage. A few hundred people signed up for ShopLocket as a result of Blueprint’s first few posts. Hague points out ShopLocket logo at the top as the most effective one that drives visits to the ShopLocket homepage.

Hague continues to look for feedback. This is partially done implicitly in the metrics: she looks for feedback in newsletter list sign-ups, and Twitter shares and mentions. She also considers more explicit feedback, like e-mail responses. A side perk: Blueprint was a great way to build relationships with people who she was interviewing — who happen to be influential people in their respective spaces. Hague could now ask them for feedback and advice.

Blueprint’s greatest sources of traffic have been Hacker News, Reddit, and StumbleUpon. Hague plans to expand through content syndication partnerships and StumbleUpon advertising.

The ShopLocket Process

Hague does all the interviews, and each Blueprint interview takes around 30 minutes. She does it over Skype, or in-person if she’s around the area. She also sends them a few questions over e-mail that appear in the more candid sections of the interview (e.g., “When and where were you the happiest?”). Hague saves a lot of time and typing by getting the conversation transcribed on SpeechPad.

The interview is transcribed and pasted into Google Docs, which Hague shares in case the interviewee wants to veto anything.

“Cumulatively, it takes us about the collective time of about a day to do an interview,” says Hague. The majority of this is in the hands of the designer, which doesn’t come as a surprise — each Blueprint page is beautiful, and built to delight readers.

Shoplocket Blueprint Interviews

The long-form content remains in an interview Q&A format because Hague wanted to convey the interviewee’s personality through his conversational diction and choice of words. Similarly, in order for the reader to learn more about the interviewee, Blueprint is decorated with graphics that detail the interviewee’s rituals. High-resolution photographs keep the reader scrolling through the post and complement the text.

Hague was careful to build something that ShopLocket could be proud of, and this principle extends to content. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person that’s going to read it,” she says. There are tons of blogs on the very broad genres of social media and the different types of selling. As you’re publishing your post, think carefully: would I want to read something I’m about to write? Often times, Hague notices entrepreneurs and content marketers simply creating filler content to fill up the editorial calendar.

Models

Blueprint was inspired by visually-appealing, magazine-style blogs and publications, says Hague. It’s built on two principles: extremely strong content, and having it be very visually appealing. She mentioned Ryan Holmes’ Work/Life article as an example.

Don’t underestimate design, advises Hague; it has the ability to extend people’s attention spans. Design can be used to hook readers into the interview, and make them curious enough to begin scrolling down. “If you don’t come to something that doesn’t look great, you’ll probably click away,” says Hague.

In terms of models, Hague advised reading blogs that excel at content marketing, such as KISSMetrics, Buffer, and Clarity.

What can YOU do Today?

Content marketing is all about understanding the customer, emphasizes Hague. Instead of reading content marketing books, Hague recommends having a look at Delivering Happiness by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh. It is a book about understanding customers and delivering better experiences.

Fundamentally, Hague believes that content marketing isn’t so much about mechanics of writing content, or designing the blog, but figuring out what your customers want and what would be interesting to them. Align your writing styles and voice, as well as the aesthetics of your blog or content marketing initiative to match those of your readers’ tastes.

If Hague were to give you a crash course in content marketing, she would suggest:

  • Reading blogs that are doing it right (Mentioned above)

  • Talk to 20 of your most active customers

  • Talk to 20 of our least active customers

  • Talk to someone who writes content for a living

  • Talk to someone who does PR for a living

Figure out: what does good content, in your niche, look like? What do your customers or potential customers actually want to read?

Closing Thoughts

“What works for us won’t necessarily work for you,” reminds Hague. That means replicating Blueprint’s strategies and tactics may generate some different results for you and your niche; you have the information now, and it’s up to you to test it, and see what sticks and what doesn’t. The crux of content marketing success is to understand the customers’ (or readers’) desires, priorities, and preferences. If design is a priority to your readers, figure out what devices they are reading from (Blueprint features responsive web design), what styles they prefer, what feelings the design elicits, and what attracts their attention.

You don’t have to be a content marketing expert to deliver content that consumers and customers will love and talk about. Ship content regularly, adapt accordingly, and build something that will make you proud.

5 Crucial Resources for Crafting Better Content

Crafting Better Content

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” said media scholar and University of Southern California provost professor Henry Jenkins. A prerequisite to creating content that actually spreads, and helps you achieve your goals, is to create something that people actually want to read. Simple enough, right?

Good content isn’t easy to create. By good content, I mean: content that has a higher potential of reaching more people and actually engaging them. Content that people will actually read and be informed by or delighted by. The benefits to your business can range between:

  • Increased lead generation

  • More clients retained through engagement and loyalty

  • Enhanced thought leadership

  • Many other possibilities, including using content to form relationships with influential thought leaders, etc.

Good content is also a prerequisite to syndication partnerships, which can help get a lot more eyeballs for your work. For example, have a look at what Scientific American magazine and Business Insider are doing. (Or how Lifehacker syndicates Buffer.)

What are some methods of crafting better content?

1. Polarize

Professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman at the Wharton School of Business conducted an analysis into the variables that could were correlated with articles in The New York Times’ Most Popular list. They discovered that the main predictor of virality of articles in New York Times is high-arousal, whether positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety).

This holds a significant implication: don’t let your fear of other people’s reactions make you try to please everyone. In fact, a simpler rule: don’t be lukewarm, but aim to be strong and polarize. They will either love you or hate you.

As investor Dave McClure says, “Hate is closer to love than indifference—you can’t iterate around indifference, but you can around hate.”

2. Write Stronger Headlines

Legendary ad-man David Ogilvy once said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” That means, theoretically, you should be spending 80% of your time on your headline and 20% on your body copy.

The proof is in the pudding: media company Upworthy raised over $4 million in funding last October, and has gained over 3 million subscribers (even outpacing growth rates of websites like Buzzfeed). One method they use of cutting through the noise on social networks and the other busy avenues of the internet is to make headlines so attractive visitors can’t help themselves. Their technique for headlines is no secret: they write 25 headlines per post before deciding on a good one.

While you may have the resources or desire to spend more than half your content time on your headlines, there’s no excuse for you not to get good with headlines. Here are 101 of world-leading internet marketer Jay Abraham’s headlines for you to model. In case you’re really hungry for more models, have a look at this research done by Econsultancy on effective (and ineffective) keywords. Remember, if you can’t get the clickthrough (and the spread), then your content is dead.

3. Collect Ideas Regularly

A large proportion of time spend on content creation takes place in gathering ideas (or creating ideas). What if you could cut this time down?

Instead of waiting for pitch deadline hour to roll around, collect your ideas through your daily reading. You can do this easily through Evernote (which is a quick solution because you can highlight text, copy it, and organize it within a 20 seconds). Alternatively, you can also use a notebook method to jot ideas down; naturally, it won’t be as fast as copy and pasting text to refer to later, but it could be more effective for brainstorming. Entrepreneur and bestselling author Tim Ferriss documents his method of taking notes meticulously.

Bestselling author Robert Greene uses this method of idea collecting in order to put his books together. He illustrates this further in his Reddit AMA, where he specifies how he uses his index cards and reading methods to gather and organize his ideas and supporting evidence.

4. Read Cosmo

If there’s one thing Cosmopolitan magazine could be respected for, it’s their excellent copywriting. Even if you’re a man, figure out how to get your hands on a copy of Cosmo — it’s worth the funny looks from the cashier at the checkout counter or the friend you plan to borrow the Cosmo from. (It may be more beneficial to your cause to remain silent.)

This resource is what internet marketing veteran Ramit Sethi advocates. You can have a look at the fruit of these expert copywriters’ labour and phrase your stuff similarly. For example, if you were writing for a financial planning publication, Cosmo’s “Lose Weight While You Eat: 9 Belly-Shrinking Foods,” could turn into, “Save Money While you Shop: 9 Wallet-Boosting Tips.”

An interesting sidebar: Cosmo still gets feedback from its audience in order to make sure it stays in touch with evolving changes or changing customer perspectives. Here’s an example of how their surveys look like.

5. Improve Using Feedback

Alright, so you’re thinking: Cosmo has a huge platform to sample respondents from — how the heck can you make use of customer feedback with your comparatively small readership?

Don’t fret, there are still many options. You can A/B test different content; for example, the Huffington Post split-tests their headlines to smaller audiences before sharing it to the general public. That means they can compare initial differences in pageviews, shares, and other types of metrics.

Alternatively, you can find a small sample of proofreaders. It could be friends, potential customers, or current active (and inactive) customers. Bestselling author Neil Strauss reveals in this conversation that he calls a friend over and reads the book aloud to her, and then marks down passages where he notices her attention waning. In that same interview, Tim Ferriss recalls being able to accelerate his proofreading process by finding better thinkers than he is — either other writers, or lawyers and law students.

Closing Thoughts

It’s a matter of effectiveness: if you’re going to be doing content marketing anyway, you might as well do it well. Take a few minutes to analyze the launch of each article or post to reflect on what you did well, and where you need to improve. Is it distribution? Is it headlines? Is it in subject matter and stronger opinions?

It’s all about practise and getting a little better each time. These resources are here and will remain here — come back to this post as you want to improve, and focus on a different aspect each time. Best of luck.

Image Source: Michael Davis-Burchat

 

Don’t wait. Just Begin: The Key to Creativity

start_sprint“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.”
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

The hardest part of writing this blog post is writing this sentence – this one right here, the one you are reading right now. The starting point of any creative task is always the trickiest part, the part that slowly, painfully builds up in you, until you’re about ready to burst. It’s the one thing you keep putting off, escaping temporarily, to peruse your email, to do more research (who are you kidding), and get it “right.”

But the act of finally starting, especially when your idea doesn’t seem perfect, is the most fundamental rule to creativity. It’s not just in writing fiction or blog posts that this rule applies. The act of starting is hailed in all walks of creative and artistic life, as well as in business and the world of the entrepreneur. From the tenets of the lean startup, the teachings of the world’s best writers, to Steve Jobs’ philosophy of “always be shipping”, the world’s most creative and successful thinkers all knew how crucial it was to simply start.

Start and Beautiful Things Will Happen

The idea for this blog post came when I was watching C.C. Chapman, a self-help author and social media buff, speak to an audience in Toronto about how to live an amazing life. He gave some useful advice about how lead the life you want to be living, which he’s written about in his book Amazing Things Will Happen.

But the most memorable encounter of the evening for me was not from C.C. at all. A woman in the audience raised her hand and she said his talk reminded her of an old Goethe quote she’d heard long ago, a quote that had changed the way she lived her life. This was the lengthy, but powerful quote which she knew by heart, and recited to the audience:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

As a side note, there has been some questioning over whether Goethe ever actually said that. But the source of the quote is less important than its message. The fact is, you find fragments of this quote all over the web. It’s stuck around and is so popular for a reason: it feels absolutely true.

What the quote reveals is that when you finally commit your life to a path, only then do the things you need to make it successful emerge. Many of us struggle to make decisions in life. We pain over quitting our jobs, starting a novel, putting things off to a later date when everything will make sense. What this quote strikes you with is the idea that waiting for a better time is a mirage. There is no time where everything will be perfect and you’ll finally start without fear.

Your only duty is to start, and from there, the path will become clear and fruitful. “Providence” kicks in. Connections get made. The path always makes more sense looking back. But you had to take that first big baby step in the offset, or else none of it would have ever happened.

The Ego and The Psychology of Procrastination

“The easiest thing in the world is not to write.” (William Golding)

Previously we talked about Steven Pressfield in our tips to live life more creatively and his discussions of resistance. Resistance, he says in his book The War of Art, is that powerful force inside of you, preventing you from living your true purpose and following your dreams. This resistance can be felt every day, getting in the way of what we know we should be doing. It’s that desire to check emails before starting your real work. It’s the sneaking out for early lunch when really you should have your butt on the seat. Drinking with friends on a Wednesday, love making, yes that too, even putting your family first at the expense of what you want to be doing. Some of these things feel natural to you, and they are all good to an extent.

But much of these distractions come from something inside you that actually doesn’t want you to create what you feel you need to create. The ego.

We are psychologically wired to avoid trying to create, argues Pressfield, because when you finally set something down, you risk rejection, you risk failure. This is the ego protecting itself. We deeply identify with our sense of purpose, so if we screw it up, then who are we?

This is why creation is often discussed as a kind of death. It is the death of your fears and your ego, it is an evolution to a next stage. And that is scary. We seek comfort instead in the temporary retreat of not doing that big thing we should be doing.

But you must keep in mind these distractions will never fulfill you. Putting off your true purpose is one of the most numbing, painful things to live with, but you do it because the fears of the ego are even bigger. Facing these fears is incredibly tough and it’s why starting is so difficult.

Forget about perfect and go

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
(Margaret Atwood)

One way to cope with this constant resistance is to face it directly, and simply try and forget about it – or at least ignore it.  Much of the time, we are too critical of our initial abilities to create, so we avoid starting, waiting for a moment when all the dots will line up.

The truth is, the most successful people don’t think they’re perfect. Shakespeare probably didn’t sit around waiting until the perfect sonnet jumped into his brain. He just began and he didn’t stop. The power is in knowing how imperfect you are, and to run with it anyway.

Susan Cadley, a licensed psychotherapist and writer, discusses on her blog how she faces up to her imperfections right from the start.

I acknowledged the initial feeling of disappointment and the inner critic voice telling me “you’ll never get a creative spark again”. “Thank you for sharing” I tell the inner critic and I let her know that I know better. I remind her that creativity is not always an instantaneous combustion of fireworks and ideas. Some creations take time and mistakes and detours create more layers, complexity and depth. I gently confronted my inner critic and suggested that we “play and see what shows up next.

Instead of giving in to her inner critic, she personifies it, and she tells it to go take a hike. When you’re on a mission to create, you should do the same. Ask your self, are you really just scared this idea isn’t perfect? Then realize it never will be, and feel free to just begin.

The Power of Starting in Business and in Life

“Real artists ship.” (Steve Jobs)

These days, it’s not an exaggeration to say people are in love with the idea of being a startup entrepreneur. From the Holywood blockbuster The Social Network, to the billion-dollar Instagram acquisition, striving to be a software kingpin is the new cool.

It’s interesting to note this entire culture of the startup is completely based on the idea of just getting started long before you’ve ever figured out what the hell you are going to do. The agile or lean startup method was arguably first set in stone by Steve Blank in his seminal Four Steps to the Epiphany. But this methodology was popularized by Eric Ries, a student of Blank’s, in his best seller The Lean Startup. “Lean” has given us a whole new vocabulary, one that gets thrown around in board rooms across the world, and tossed up on whiteboards, in all those fancy new venture-funded startups.

Lean is all about starting with just a hunch and going from there. You set down your hypothesis, then go out there and test it out. You don’t even expect it to be right. In fact, you’re happy when it’s proven wrong because you’ve just learned something. Ego plays a big role in startups, of course. But it’s never welcome when it comes to finding product market-fit. This concept is summarized by Blank when he says “inside the office there are no facts, there are only opinions.” To grow your start up, you need to get outside and you need to make mistakes.

And while Apple Computer certainly seems to believe in perfectionism – Steve Jobs was infamously a control freak – the company also seems endowed with the DNA to constantly be delivering. They have dependable ship schedules for new phones and computers, sticking to incredibly tight deadlines to push out the greatest, world-changing tech. And they keep doing it over and over again. The Steve Jobs quote above, that “real artists ship,” is a perfect summary of this idea. You sit around waiting to be perfect, or the perfect time, you’ll never be an artist. You’ll never create something worthwhile. You need to commit to starting and shipping, and you need to acknowledge upfront that there is no such thing as perfect, only hypotheses that beg testing.

Getting Started

There’s never been a better time to get started on that project that’s been bugging you. In fact, there is no other time. What is important to understand is that the procrastination you face daily, preventing you from beginning your creative task, is deeply entwined in a psychological fear of the ego. But what is clear, from the advice of entrepreneurs and writers, is that starting is the most important act of all. It won’t feel perfect. You might not know where you are headed – and that’s all good. When you finally arrive, all the steps you took will make sense.

To pull once more from the quote above: Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

The Art and Science of Good Story Telling

brain_heroimage_dynamic_lead_hero_imageTelling a good story can be a powerful thing.

Most of us remember being read to as a child, that warm feeling of listening to our parents tell us about magic, imagined worlds. A great film or novel can stick with you for days, and often a lifetime. In business, good stories can land you a new job, or rally your team behind an intimidating new project.

No doubt, for content marketers and brands especially, great story telling makes all the difference. While improving your creativity is all about discipline, the psychology of how your creative efforts are experienced is important to understand and apply to your day to day life. After all, it doesn’t matter what your company is doing, if you aren’t telling your story well, who is listening?

Story Telling and the Brain

To start let’s take a look at what’s going on inside our heads when we are given a story. As Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich points out in his Lifehacker article on the science of story telling, the reason we feel so engaged when we hear a story, read a novel or see a play – whenever we experience a narrative – is quite simple. When we are being told a story, our brain experiences it as if it was really happening to us.

For years, we’ve known the centres for our brain used in decoding language were instrumental in understanding a story. But what gives the story its deeper impact is a wonderful, explosion of additional brain activity, totally unassociated with language or logic. What happens is all areas of your brain that would be activated if the event was truly happening to you, get turned on when hearing the narrative. Your brain lives it like it was real.

In a 2006 study, researchers asked participants to read words with strong odour associations, while they were wired up to a brain scanner (MRI). What researchers saw was the subjects’ olfactory cortexes lighting up. When subjects saw words like “chair” or “table” those same areas stayed dark.  Similar studies showed the same impact when subjects were given phrases that had action in them, such as “John kicked the ball,” the motor cortex associated with “kicking” lit up.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Source)

 

Story and the Power of Motivation

Other studies have suggested the story isn’t just causing additional brain activity – but it is one of the most powerful ways to actually influence thought and behaviour.

In his book, Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, Peter Guber argues that humans aren’t moved to action by “data dumps,” PowerPoint slides, or spread sheets. Rather, humans are moved by emotion. And the best way to get at people emotionally, he says, is to tell them a story.

Science has backed up Guber’s argument in recent years. Psychological studies repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by the story. The more immersed you are in it, the more you turn to putty in the story teller’s hands. What is happening is the way you process information gets altered radically. Your defences drop, and you even ignore inconsistencies that you’d notice in an otherwise less-stimulating story.

This helps explain why “data dump” presentations are so ineffective in inspiring change. Our brains simply aren’t wired to casually accept a message when presented dryly. To the contrary, when we are given those big bullet lists, we become skeptics. We prime ourselves to do everything but whole heartedly get involved with the idea being presented. A good story makes those defenses drop, which is why Guber uses the metaphor of the Trojan horse throughout his book. It’s a way to sneak past the gate keeper.

 

How to shape a powerful story

It’s great to know why we experience stories so deeply, and it’s helpful to know just how powerful they are. But how can we become better story tellers?

While there really is no formula for good story telling – otherwise, Hollywood wouldn’t put out so many costly flops – there are some useful tips and concepts to keep in mind.

One of the biggest culprits in bad story telling is the use of stale, cliche language. Words have the power to elicit emotion, but it’s been shown that certain phrases and metaphors can actually lose their power to do so over time. George Orwell, in Politics and The English Language, famously criticized the use of vague, cliched imagery. Any marketer can attest to this. How many times must we “optimize” something, and “leverage value”. These phrases are tough to avoid in our business. I’m guilty of it, too. But Orwell would point out that by relying on these pre-fabricated thoughts, we’re not just being lazy, we’re losing all the emotional potency that speech contains.

“[No one] seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. [...]  there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” (source)

Another author, Kurt Vonnegut, best known for Slaughterhouse Five, and Cat’s Cradle, had a great appreciation for the art of putting together a powerful story. He outlined, in a much quoted essay, his rules of writing (My favourite, #3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”) But perhaps more interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive, was his rejected master’s thesis detailing a scentific method to creating a good story. Vonnegut put forward the idea of analyzing the story on a grid.  On the Y axis was the continuum of Good and Ill Fortune. The X axis moved from the beginning to the end of the story. Using examples from popular stories, he argued we can actually chart out the shape of stories, and that certain shapes show up again and again in popular culture. He says there should be no reason we can’t simply dump this information into a computer to spit out a good story.


vonnegut_boymeetsgirl vonnegut_cinderella vonnegut_maninholeVonnegut later presented this concept at a talk he gave, captured in this video – which is well worth the watch, if only to see his clever, hilarious ability to distill classic works of fiction down to squiggles on a chart.

 

Whether Vonnegut, in his usual wit, was just being ironic in his view on literature, or whether he truly believed that great stories are fundamentally just great formulas, is besides the point. It is intruiguing to note the emotional power of these basic shapes in stories. It allows you to step back and use this insight when crafting your own stories, speeches, slide show, or maybe just when writing your next email. As you build up your creative habits, understanding the science and art of storytelling is a great complement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to be creative? Grab a beer

“Write drunk; edit sober,” Ernest Hemingway

man at typewriter with beerRecently, there was a great discussion over at Medium, by Michael Cho, about the creative benefits of being a little blotto before you sit down to do creative work. The secret? Alcohol lowers inhibitions, and allows you to connect the dots more freely between disparate ideas. Which is, essentially, what creativity is all about. (That and hard work, which can seem counterintuitive, but might be what Hemingway was talking about in the above quote.)

While caffeine pulls a number on your brain to make you feel like you have more energy, alcohol has its own way of influencing your creativity.

After you’ve had a couple beers, drinking makes you less focused because it decreases your working memory, and you begin to care less about what’s happening around you. But as researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago discovered, this can be a good thing for creativity’s sake.

The article dives deep into the different effects caffeine and alcohol may have on your work. Simply put: coffee is for the hard, focussed work. And alcohol could help with the “new ideas” stage.

Read it all here.

Disclaimer: don’t try this at your office.

 

 

Four Strategies to Make Better Decisions: Decisive Book Summary

cups hiding ball“When it comes to making decisions, it’s clear that our brains are flawed instruments,” Chip and Dan Heath

I’m a pros and cons kind of guy. When I’ve got a difficult decision to make, I pull out a sheet of paper, sketch a line down the center, and start marking down the obvious benefits and pitfalls. It’s a method once prescribed by Benjamin Franklin. It’s one of the most common approaches to solving a dilemma.

And unfortunately, it often leads to the wrong decision, or simply fails to add any real clarity.

At least, that’s how Chip and Dan Heath describe it in the intro to their latest book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.  Humans, it seems, are simply terrible at making good decisions, say the authors, who also co-wrote the best sellers Switch and Made to Stick.

In Decisive, the Heath brothers put together decades of experience and the leading theories and studies on the topic, to describe the “four villains” of decision making, and a framework that can be used to overcome them. Big decisions are something that effect everyone, on all levels, from our romances, to our careers, so it’s crucial to know how to get them right. Continue reading “Four Strategies to Make Better Decisions: Decisive Book Summary” »