Content Marketing Conference: 9 Top Takeaways To Turn It Up (Sans Bullsh*t)

One theme rang true at this year’s Content Marketing Conference: Readers matter more than writers.

Let’s face it. Content marketing can become — and often is — dull and self-righteous, focused solely on communicating to the world how wonderful a brand/product/service is (ugh). Yet when it comes down to it, nobody really cares how wonderful a brand says it is — humans care about the value a brand can bring to their lives.

Whether it’s through the form of concise and bold information, a story that reminds the world that life is still beautiful, or a little hilarity, consumers are far more likely to break from their busy lives to hear what you have to say if it provides value.

Top takeaways to get to that point? Here you go:

We all have a story to tell


Storytelling works. We all know this, right? It’s the latest craze in content marketing — and while the topic has become watered down, the buzz is valid. Why? Simply put, people love good stories. Whether you’re a circus clown, garbage man, podiatrist or content marketer, people will listen (and remember you) if you tell them a story that sticks.

Due to the buzz, there are a lot of content marketers out there trying to tell their brands’ stories — and plenty of them are struggling. Storytelling is ingrained within us, yet it’s still an art that requires study and practice for effective execution.

Enter storyteller extraordinaire Kindra Hall. Here are the tips this content expert divulged at Content Marketing Conference 2016 to break through storytelling obstacles:

As Hall pointed out, stories aren’t high-level theories. Each story has a start, middle and end… and evokes emotion. Emotion is truly one area where marketers can (and quite often do) fall short. Rather than cramming all the information in, provide an opportunity for the listener/reader/viewer to connect with a character. Make it relatable.

Other tips Hall gave for crafting a powerful story:

  • When setting the scene, be vivid! Allow the reader/listener to imagine the situation. Use your words.
  • Draw from emotions humans can relate to. In business, this often includes obstacles and hope.
  • Be specific about the strategies used to help characters overcome obstacles.
  • Close in a way that provides direction for the reader/listener/viewer.

The best way to polish up your storytelling chops? Practice. Even if it’s to a stuffed bear.

Skip the bullsh*t

Get to the point. And do so quickly. That was the message delivered by Josh Bernoff, former Forrester Research analyst and current curator at

(Woah, wait… isn’t that contrary to the whole “Tell Your Story” message? Read Bernoff’s blog post here regarding that supposed rift.)

In the spirit of writing content that is direct, bold and to the point, here’s what Content Marketing Conference attendees learned:

HEY WRITERS, COME BACK DOWN TO EARTH. As a content writer, there is one solid rule that should be followed (which Bernoff refers to as “The Iron Imperative”): Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. OK, that’s a simple message, yet it requires most writers to take a step back and run a personal reality check.

As a former publisher once told me, most writers are divas. What… ? Come on, you know it’s true. 😉 Writers are artists and performers who often enter into the craft because of an inherent love of writing and because they believe they have a great message to share with the world. So, writers: Check your ego and ask yourself if what you’re writing is worth your readers’ time. Or are you just writing content for the sake of content? Give your audience something they (actually) care about.

TAKE A LONG, HARD LOOK IN THE MIRROR. To avoid the bullsh*t trap, Bernoff recommends writers ask themselves four questions before writing:

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. How will you change the reader?
  3. What do you want the reader to do?
  4. What will the reader think of you?

The idea here is that writers should start with the endpoint in mind. By answering those simple four questions, a writer clearly identifies purpose.

THE TIMES: THEY ARE A CHANGIN’. People read differently than they used to. The mediums have changed — and it’s argued that digital platforms weren’t created for deep reading. For this reason, Bernoff suggests writers put the important information at the top (inverted pyramid). Readers will no longer dig for information nor wade through endless mammoth paragraphs… Give it to them straight up and provide a compelling case to read on. Also, Bernoff stands strong against passive voice, jargon and weasel words (overused adverbs). *Writer note: Guilty on all counts. #WriterGoals to strive for…

EDITORS AND WRITERS: TRUE PARTNERSHIP. Speaking of goals to strive for… Find an editor who is a true partner. Even the most seasoned writers have weaknesses. An editor should be entrusted to hold the writer accountable and highlight when weaknesses are showing.

Yet even when a writer sits down and takes a look at edits, Bernoff suggests that one should not simply accept every edit. Feedback should be more interactive than that. Here’s a quote from him that sums this up beautifully:

“Look at each change the editor makes and then ask, ‘Why did the editor do that?’ Then you solve — you solve it in a way that does not remove the soul of the writing.”

Bottom line: Issues highlighted by an editor are meant to be solved.

Be needed!

When content became “king,” a whole lot of material flooded the digital space — and a lot of it wasn’t of use to anyone…

As a result, it didn’t drive engagement, brand awareness or sales. Yet it did provide the opportunity for smart content marketers to stand out.

The tactfully creative Melanie Deziel, former NYT branded content creator and current Inc. columnist, broke down the secrets to rising above the mundane to deliver truly valuable content. Author of the famous Netflix-sponsored Orange Is The New Black native ad investigative piece in the New York Times, Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work, Deziel knows how to deliver content that readers want.

So, how do you know what readers want? Deziel actually prefers to first look at what they need. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?


Essentially, humans all have needs. When a brand can identify what need its services/products speak to, content can be crafted around that need, providing information that is valuable.

Remember, it doesn’t always have to be literal — and it doesn’t have to be a purely promotional piece centered on a company’s product. In fact, consumers don’t always love that… Instead, own your vertical space with content that relates to your industry and create content consumers in that space are after.

Let’s say you’re a high-quality energy health bar company. Lucky you! A brand like that could speak to a variety of needs, including physiological (health), self-esteem, belonging and maybe even self-actualization (Taraksvasana yoga, anyone?). Your market likely includes those who care about physical fitness and healthy living. Fantastic! Craft content on how to best space out meals to maximize energy on long runs, or what not to eat before yoga classes.

This can actually be somewhat of a fun game to play — even the most seemingly mundane B2B companies fit in somewhere on this hierarchy. Deziel did this a bit with the crowd. It was a hit. Keep in mind, you don’t have to stick to just one level of needs.

These top takeaways and a ton more went down at Content Marketing Conference 2016, yet all hit on a very common theme: When crafting content, put the reader/viewer/listener above all else. It’s all about them. And when executed in a meaningful way, SEO success follows, along with faithful consumers who actually welcome your content into their lives.



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