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.
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 Dexter, Mad 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 awareness—and millions of dollars—for 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 repetitive—not 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
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!