Shane Snow: How Brands Create Content That Stands Out

When there's a surplus of content you have to be extra creative to matter to your customers. Contently's Shane Snow explains how.
Content stand out

What’s the formula for content success? How do you convince advertisers to tell real stories? How do you make your content stand out?

At the 2016 Native Advertising DAYS, Shane Snow CCO & Founder at Contently outlined that nearly 80% of marketers plan to create more content this year than they did last year, but most are doing so without any documented strategy and are not sure what content success really looks like for them.

In this interview, Shane Snow reveals the underlying framework that great storytellers throughout history have used to build relationships through content.

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Below are highlights from the interview which have been slightly edited for clarity.

What great stories have in common
“Great stories have a lot of things in common. They have great characters, they are about people that we can empathize with or non-human characters that are humanized. Great stories have tension, they set up what Aristotle talked about in ancient Greece; they establish what is and what could be and the gap between that is attention — that’s what a great story does.

Great stories are about plot and characters

Great stories also are relatable. They help us to be in a place where we can have that empathy and we can comprehend why they matter to us or to people we care about. Great stories also are what I call fluent which means that you can get through them quickly, that you can not get bogged down in how they’re told and what words are being used or how complex they are so that you can get what really matters which is that plot and those characters.”

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How a brand finds the right storytelling  
“For a brand to find out the right approach to storytelling depends on a few things. It depends on primarily the audience and what the audience wants and the brand’s current relationship with that audience.

If you’re trying to reach new people you want to tell stories about things that you have in common in terms of shared interests and values. You want to reach them where they’re already hanging out; say on the internet or on whatever channels and you’ll get them with stories about things that they care about.

You can’t effectively tell stories about yourself if people don’t already have some interest in you

If your relationship is deeper then you can talk about things that you care about and that you want them to care about. So if the audience already knows who you are and you’re trying to get them to do business with you — or to like your brand more than they already do — tell stories about the people who are working on the things that you’re providing in your company.

You can tell stories about your customers, you can even tell stories about your products and services and why they matter and how you made them but you can’t really tell those stories effectively if people don’t already have some interest in you. So that’s the first thing that I would say.

The second thing about the kinds of stories that a brand should tell is to stick to things that are congruent with who you are as a brand. People talk a lot about authenticity in advertising, they talk a lot about trust in advertising. When brands are telling stories they are in this weird space as an advertiser who’s also acting as a publisher.

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People trust publishers because they know what they’re getting from them and we trust newspapers because we believe that the news is true. We stop trusting the newspaper when we feel deceived. We trust the author of ‘Harry Potter’ because we know the stories that she gives us are fiction, we know what we’re getting. In both cases there’s congruence.

If a brand is telling stories about how we need to care about the environment and is simultaneously dumping pollution in the river that’s going to backfire. So you want to be congruent with who you are and what you’re actually doing because today the Internet has this way of outing people and especially companies that are not doing what they’re saying.”

Why stories are so important for brands
“The reason stories are important for brands is because of the way that human beings build relationships with each other and make each other care which is through stories. Our brains are wired to create empathy.

There’s a neuro chemical called oxytocin that fires around our brain whenever we see someone we care about or someone familiar and that’s the same chemical that fires in our brain when we watch a movie and see James Bond hanging from a cliff and we start sweating because our brain is caring about this person.

It pays off a lot more than having shallow relationships with people who will leave you for someone else

Stories also help us remember things. A story is a way to package a whole lot of information in a way that more of your brain becomes active and so you remember it better. So brands want to do both of these things; they want people to have an emotional relationship with them and they also want people to remember them.

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So that’s the reason why storytelling is so fundamental to brands as marketers because if someone has a relationship with you if they care about you as a brand, they’re going to be more likely to do business with you over a long period of time. It’s an investment that like other investments requires a little bit of patience but it pays off a lot more than having shallow relationships with people who will leave you for someone else.”

How brands create content that stands out
“One of the big problems with this industry now is that it’s very easy to produce content which means there’s a lot of content. So a challenge for brands is how do you make content that stands out? If there’s the same amount of attention but a lot more things to pay attention to that makes things more competitive.

Once there’s a surplus of content you have to be extra creative and you have to be extra good to matter

Regardless of the medium — and that applies just as well to content marketing and native advertising — is that once there’s a surplus of content you have to be extra creative and you have to be extra good, extra high quality in order to matter at all. When music became easy to produce suddenly everyone — including me in college — was making music and putting it on the internet and a lot of it was garbage but then we were able to discover amazing talent that wouldn’t have been discovered before because they were also putting their music online.

So it’s not the easy answer to the question, but the truth is that if you want to stand out, you have to do better than everyone else. A goal that a brand should have is to do five or ten times better than the regular thing that they’re seeing or reading or watching because that’s going to really capture attention.

That way you can stand out in this crazy noisy hurricane of content

The other thing that you can do as a brand to actually be more creative and be better than the regular massive content is to use testing and optimize what you’re creating and where you’re putting it. Companies like Upworthy a few years ago would test 25 headlines before they would send a story to their email list. This sort of thing ensures that the maximum number of people are going to pay attention and that also you’re improving your work constantly.

And you don’t have to just test headlines you can test the formats of content whether it’s text or video, you can test the platforms you’re putting it on, the different channels. You can also test the stories themselves to find out what people are really connecting to and through that process you can use a little bit of science to get better and to stand out and this crazy noisy hurricane of content.”

Convince advertisers to tell real stories by telling stories 
“Convincing advertisers to tell real stories is tough. It’s changing a habit. Advertising has for a long time shifted to talking only about the brands and why you should buy now. So it’s tricky. The most important thing is to show how storytelling throughout history has made a difference and industry case studies of advertisers that are doing really well.

RELATED: Advertisers Struggle to Tell Authentic Stories

In my company Contently, our first customer that really changed the way that we think about content and advertising was a company called Mint.com. Mint was a tool to manage your finances and they wanted to get users. Instead of doing regular advertisements like all of their competitors they started a blog about how to understand your finances with stories of real people and real events in the world.

This stuff does work and it pays off much more effectively than short-term campaigns

So when the financial crisis happened in in America and kind of everywhere Mint did infographics about how to understand what the financial crisis means for you and what you should do and how it’s affecting real people and through those stories, through those infographics and the blog posts that they did they managed to get millions of people to sign up for their company because people really believed that Mint cared about helping you understand your finances.

So that was our first real customer at Contently that convinced us that this was a better path than so much of the rest of the advertising world. Case studies like that I think are really important to help convince advertisers that this stuff does work and it pays off in the long run much more effectively than short-term campaigns.”

More than half of users feel deceived by native advertising
“We did a report about how regular people who are not in the advertising industry perceive native advertising and sponsored content. More than half of people say they have felt deceived by a native ad at some point which is not good.

RELATED: What Readers Think About Native Advertising: 3 Lessons Learned

The reason that’s not good is that there’s a lot of really good native advertisements out there and native advertising is a very effective way to build relationships with people through stories but if a few companies deceive people then people will mistrust the whole thing and we don’t want that to happen.

We’ve done studies like this before that often paint this industry in a less than perfect light and we’ve been asked why would you produce research and content that makes your own industry look bad? It’s because we want this good thing; brands telling stories instead of just annoying people with regular ads to last a long time. We don’t want it to be ruined by a few bad actors.”

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