Kevin Spacey Wants You to Tell a Better Content Marketing Story #CMWorld2014

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Kevin Spacey Wants You to Tell a Better Content Marketing Story #CMWorld2014

On September 10, 2014, actor Kevin Spacey appeared as a keynote speaker at Content Marketing World 2014, an event sponsored by the Content Marketing Institute, in Cleveland, Ohio. While the actor best known for playing Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards may sound like an odd choice for a keynote speaker at a content marketing convention, Spacey had an important message for content creators and marketers in attendance.

“The story is everything,” he said, “which means it’s our job to tell better stories.”

Spacey knows a thing or two about storytelling. The guy is, after all, an Oscar-winning actor, film director, screenwriter, and film producer.

After joking with the audience that he could give them 45 minutes on the ROI of effective SEO, and smiling for a picture with an adoring fan, Spacey explained that stories have always been important for humanity. “Building a story comes down to three things: conflict, authenticity, and audience,” he said.

Content Marketing World Expo

Content Marketing World Expo. Image courtesy of Used with permission.

Spacey quote


Conflict, Spacey said, is what creates tension and builds engagement with a story. “The best stories are filled with characters who take risks,” he said, citing a move to London to work in theatre after filming American Beauty as a past conflict in his own life. In the world of advertising, conflict can be about taking risks and “going against the settled order of things”.


Good stories often receive praise because they’re authentic. “I think it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind what makes something feel absolutely genuine to an audience,” Spacey explained. When something isn’t authentic, viewers have a tendency to “turn off,” and he credited the success of grittier shows like DexterMad Men, and Game of Thrones on the complexity of the characters they offer. Spacey advised marketers to “Stay true to your brand voice, and the audience will respond to it with enthusiasm and passion.”


In order to draw audiences, Spacey said, marketers and creatives alike must create content worth sharing with others. These days, however, the market is a lot more competitive when it comes to attracting an audience. Viewers want control over the ads they see or the TV shows they watch (or binge watch, thanks to House of Cards producers, Netflix).

Content Marketing Doesn’t Have to be Elaborate

Spacey told the crowd that these days “Anyone with an Internet connection and an idea can develop an audience.” The Internet has helped “democratize” the ways in which people reach audiences, thanks to social media platforms and other popular strategies.

Spacey also pointed to Buzzfeed’s successful content marketing strategy, which pairs lists like “11 Babies Who Played So Much They Tuckered Out” with sponsors (in this case, Pampers). If the content is worth sharing, then there’s an audience.

What does Spacey’s message have to do with the content creation and advertising techniques so many agencies use? The ultimate takeaway is that personal stories will rule. Marketers looking to reach wider audiences need to give their campaigns a personal touch.

Spacey mentioned the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in his speech, and no doubt plenty of advertisers paid attention to the viral video campaign that raised awarenessand millions of dollarsfor amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Another example is MetLife, which recently began a social media campaign using the hashtag “#WhoILiveFor” to get people talking about life insurance. The company also released several short vignettes featuring young adults who share personal stories about everything from having children to coming out.

Audiences are “dying for stories,” Spacey concluded. Give them what they want and they will talk about those stories and share them, resulting in word-of-mouth advertising for a brand. You don’t have to do anything extreme to get that attention, either, he said, but give your story a personal touch and the audience will react.

Go Forth and Tell Your Story

Seriously, what is easier than coming up with a spectacular, never-before-thought-of idea and writing an authentic, engaging, thought-provoking story that will make people take notice and become devoted fans and followers of your brand?

Kidding! It’s not always easy.

In fact, it is rarely easy.

Start by paying attention to brands that have proven to be good storytellers (like the aforementioned MetLife) and follow their lead. Can’t think of any others off the top of your head? In April, Advertising Age honored the world’s best brand storytelling at the fifth annual Viral Video Awards in New York City.

Big companies with big budgets for sure, but you don’t need a big budget to write a story!

Take a look at Marketing Week‘s article, The Top Storytelling Brands, and accompanying infographic, for more inspiration.

Your content has to be good. Garbage and nonsense don’t get shared, unless someone posts your content as an example of bad content. Don’t be the brand that becomes the poster child for bad content marketing! On second thought, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? (Probably not the best content marketing strategy, though.)

Many businesses trip all over themselves to come up with content that ends up being dull and repetitivenot much different from what others in the same industry are doing.

How many landscaping companies write Tips for Preparing the Garden for Spring? How many moving companies write Tips to Make Moving Easier? How many websites are going to share rehashed, worn-out content that’s already been written a gazillion times and posted all over the web?

Now, if you write Tips to Make Moving Easier and incorporate a story about a real-life “moving day disaster,” then you’re getting closer to writing a good content marketing tale.

Take Mr. Spacey’s advice: get inspired by the businesses that have figured out how to tell a great story that just happens to promote their brands.


Featured Image: Krasimira Nevenova via Shutterstock

Ellen Gipko

Ellen Gipko

Content Marketing Specialist at HubShout
Ellen Gipko is a content marketing specialist at HubShout, a US based white label SEO reseller, website reseller and web marketing firm with offices in... Read Full Bio
Ellen Gipko
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  • Scott J Camp

    There is no better way to engage your audience than to tell them a story they’ve never heard before. If you run a “main street business” that works with the public, you’ve probably got dozens of great stories that you tell your friends over the holidays …and those are the stories you should be sharing!

    I would also advise you change the names of the participants (to protect the guilty)!

    • Ellen Gipko

      Change the names! Thanks for pointing that out, Scott!!

  • Madeline Schoeck

    I couldn’t agree with Spacey more: in the Age of Information, we have so many opportunities and so much data with which to create better, more innovative stories with our content. Tell better stories, as he puts it.
    That being said…there’s no way “House of Cards” is his best-known role.

    • Ellen Gipko

      TBH, I’ve never watched “House of Cards.” And I agree, it’s not his best-known role, but the one for which he’s most well-known at the moment. How’s that? 🙂

  • Eric Rohrback

    Nice piece Ellen. More and more it’s not just about building links or just throwing pages up on your site because Google says there’s keyword demand for it; you really need to be true to the audience. To really connect with a real audience comes from genuine content. This is the same thing people have been trying on social media for years and have been seeing results. Give people content they want to read and not just “SEO writing” and you’ll see some positive gains (just look at Buzzfeed).

    • Ellen Gipko

      Thanks Eric!

  • Matt

    Great Stuff. Ellen and Kevin Spacey know their stuff.

  • Ryan H

    Inspiring, but not really surprising, advice from a great storyteller himself. It really seems like common sense that stories (especially personal ones) are what matter. Who has ever said to themselves “Man, I sure would love to read about something generic to which I can’t relate.” We now live in a media saturated world where everybody is trying to tell their own story. The trick is getting your story heard through all the noise.

    • Ellen Gipko

      It’s not easy to break through the noise but there are so many places to share content now. Onsite blogging and social media are the obvious places.

  • Alex Zamorski

    Storytelling is so, so important no matter your industry or the type of information you want to share. From selling to teaching to platform building, if your goal is to provide content that is memorable and easily shared and understood, there’s no better avenue than storytelling. Whether it’s explaining a product or service or describing a new tool or tactic, packaging the information inside of a story provides context that the reader can more quickly absorb, understand, and act on. Thanks for a great article, Ellen!

    • Ellen Gipko

      Thanks for your kind comment, Alex!

  • Andy

    awesome story ellen

    • Ellen Gipko


  • Jen

    I think this is a great lesson for all content marketers. And even though it seems odd to have a celebrity deliver this message, I think it’s great that it doesn’t come from someone in the industry. It almost seems more effective hearing it from someone who isn’t actually concerned with the ROI of SEO!

  • Alyssa P

    I agree that most audiences enjoy stories that have a personal touch. We’re all human after all, personalizing anything will always get more attention.

  • Nick P

    Well said! Its funny how simply “good content” can mean the same thing across industries!

  • Michelle

    This article does make a good point about content marketing. The ice bucket challenge was huge. The buzzfeed example is also good way of engaging readers. It shows it’s not hard to do so hopefully more companies will embrace it.

  • Ashley

    Great article!! You provide very valid points and examples, such as: “The ultimate takeaway is that personal stories will rule. Marketers looking to reach wider audiences need to give their campaigns a personal touch.” I definitely agree with this point, you can spot a generic story from a personal one from a mile away! Personal stories help to attract the attention of the intended audience and if these stories are written well, they connect people, which might even lead to them taking action! Generic stories are not exciting and most people see through them, lose interest, and continue to move on with their day.

  • susana

    This is great. Stories are what we all remember. It’s a way to stand out, at the of the day, that’s what sticks with us.

  • Terrance

    I think the audience should be first and if you know the audience you are targeting then the story should come naturally because it’s the audience that you know will get the most or even understand what you are trying say. Don’t tell the everyday basic story. Be creative and engaging.

  • Zach

    Spacey is a great story teller. Who better to give advice on capturing your audience. Nice Story.