PODCAST: The Power of Storytelling with Tara Clapper
Your company needs a story, a background. How to find one and build the content strategy explains Tara Clapper.
Tara is a prolific content creator and an accomplished editor, having written and edited thousands of blog posts, small business websites, and other inbound marketing content. Tara enjoys blogging about quality copywriting, content management, corporate culture, personal branding, and networking. She runs an online community of women in geek culture and keeps her storytelling skills sharp through LARP (live action role play).
Magdalena: So, Tara, let’s start with the first question. Why do we even need storytelling for our brand?
Tara: Well, there are a lot of brands out there, and no matter what your industry, you’re likely not the only person doing what you do. You’re not the only company doing what you do.
Brand storytelling helps you differentiate yourself from other brands that helps you, kind of, stand out on your own. It gives people reason to be truly interested in your business, and if they are interested, that can build trust, and then, hopefully, that can lead to a business relationship between you and that customer.
Magdalena: So, please tell me, how do we find our story? One that people will be eager to hear.
Tara: A lot of times, the story that people tell about their brands comes from how the company is founded. That’s a great story, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Even if your brand is pretty new, even if your company is brand new.
At Express Writers, we have that as a big part of our brand story, but it’s not everything, right? It talks about how the company was founded, with an extremely small investment of less than $100 from our CEO, and how it’s grown to be a large content agency with lots of freelance writers. But that doesn’t necessarily tell the story of who we are today. It doesn’t talk about our values. It doesn’t talk about the entire team. So, when we tell our brand story, we like to involve the growth of the company and the values that we have, and the business practices that we have, the integrity – that’s a big part of who we are. It differentiates us from other people doing content out there that maybe aren’t on the same page as those values.
So, the first thing is, finding your stories, about more than just how you were founded, how you began. It’s about talking about how you’ve progressed and where you are now. In terms of how to do that, how to really, kind of, navigate that process. I find that it comes from talking about it.
Instead of just getting up there on a stage, telling your brand story like I just kind of did about Express Writers, it’s something that you really have to talk about. Talk about it with your colleagues, with your partner, and the brand story will come out. If you’re still not sure, that’s when you might need to hire a content marketing expert to have a chat with you about your brand and pull the story out of there.
I recently helped somebody launch a kickstarter, and he sells these really innovative toys. And he’s like, ‘yeah, I just wanna go full-time into this toy-making business’.
And I’m, like ‘that’s great, and you have a really wonderful product people are going to invest in, but I need to give them a reason why’.
And I found out that he actually had a big background about it. He has a family, and he wants to spend more time with them. He is a local hero and put his life on the line to make a difference in his community, and I’m, like, ‘well, that’s the story. That’s what people want to see.’
And they’re not just investing in a toy that you sell to bring home to their family, they’re investing in the fact that you want to spend more time with your family and this business allows you to do that. They’re investing in the fact that you are a community example and a hero, and that’s how you find your story.
In his instance, he’s really clear about his product, but he had to call me for help because he didn’t know how to do that. So, just by talking to him – and it doesn’t even have to always be a content marketing expert, it could be somebody, who, maybe you don’t know as well as you know your family or your colleagues – saying, like, ‘hey, can you just help me, kind of, pull the story out of this?’
And that’s how it worked for him. It was all about finding more details, finding the story behind the curtain, because that’s what people want to see.
Magdalena: I think you’ve made a great point, so you said that we should hire some content expert or somebody outside of the company. So, this is because this is a person who has, let’s say, perspective for our business?
Tara: Exactly, yes. They’re not, it’s like, you know, like in my example, with the guy launching the kickstarter campaign and the toy company. You know, I know a bit about marketing games, generally, but that’s not where I live all the time. I live in content marketing. So, my perspective was really helpful because I’m always about content marketing, finding the brand story, and I know how to do that. But I also know a little bit about this industry. My perspective is familiar enough to understand what he’s trying to do, but removed enough that I was totally brand new to his concept, to his company and, you know, that gave me a fresh perspective. That’s one way it can really help to go outside your business and outside your usual circle of friends, and even, you know, different business contacts to really have that story pulled out.
Magdalena: Yeah, I think that a fresh perspective is key here. It’s really good to have that. Since we have the ‘point’ that we want to start from, where should we begin with our content strategy?
Tara: So, now that you know how to find your brand story, you have your brand story. You need to know what to do with it. And content strategy depends upon the goals of your business. Who are you trying to reach? Who do you want to engage? And it starts from there.
First of all, you need to really think about your audience.
Secondly, you need to think about where your audience lives, and that means, like, what social media sites they’re on, and how they’re getting the marketing information that you’re distributing.
After that, you need to think about how your story really fits into that, and what part of your story is going to be the most compelling to them. So, your story isn’t going to be all of your content or all of your content marketing, but it factors in there and gives you a really good place to start.
Your content strategy is going to be based on your goals. It’s also going to be based on some technical stuff, like keywords that you want to rank for, and those are still really good ‘best practices’ to keep in mind. But at the end of the day, your story could really win you some customers and win you some press that all of those technical things might not, or might cost more to do.
You have to really carefully construct it and think about the technical things, like search engine optimization (SEO). Just think really hard about that, but also, you need to consider your buyer persona. You need to figure out where those buyers live and you need to think about your audience in terms of ‘who do I want to reach beyond, just, people who are buying stuff?
At Express Writers, obviously, I love talking to potential customers all the time and I love helping them get the content they need, but most of my time isn’t really spent 1-on-1 with them. I’d say a good half of my time is spent talking directly with them. The rest of my time is spent doing stuff like this. I want to reach a wider audience. I need to also make connections within the marketing industry. I need to make sure that the word is out there, so, hopefully, businesses who listen to you, who want to learn more about branding, are getting the message. That’s a big part of it, too. It’s kind of being out and about and including that in your content strategy as soon as you’re able to afford that time.
Magdalena: So we can say that setting goals is also crucial at the beginning. One part of the content strategy is blogging for many companies, and my question is: do you think that blogging is the right way to create content for brands of all sizes?
Tara: Yes, I think blogging is good for just about everyone. Even if it’s just for pulling in the right kind of inbound search leads.
So, you make a blog about something innovative you’re doing in your industry, or even just about something that you sell, and the idea is hopefully, people will search for that product and they’ll find you.
And when they get to your site, hopefully they’ll see you as an expert on this topic, an innovator. Or, it could be as simple as you having the thing that they want to buy right now and your blog post has led them there.
Even if you’re in, what we call, an ‘unsexy’ industry, like, you’re selling industrial part, or something like that. Blogging is still really helpful because I don’t think a lot of people want to read, like, blogs and blogs and blogs all about industrial parts. I think that people usually just want to buy the part they need to get the job done. But it can still bring people in through that marketing on search engines, that inbound marketing. So, even for unsexy brands, small brands, large brands, blogging is useful as long as you have a web presence, absolutely.
I think there are really different strategies depending on the size of your brand, your marketing budget, your goals – again, it goes back to your goals. If you’re a large company or a growing company, you might need to shift from thinking about what you’re ranking for in search engines and, you know, into more of a ‘OK, how is our brand perceived? How do we interact with the rest of the influencers in our industry? How do we take it to the next level?’
And I got to see that shift really, kind of, come into its own with Express Writers because we started, I wanna say, like, a couple years or a year and a half ago – before I was onboard – they started doing the #ContentWritingChat on Twitter. That was kind of a big move for Express Writers because it signified an investment of time – which, of course, means money – into really creating a larger brand awareness, and, more importantly, really helping the community learn more about content marketing.
Of course, marketing is not only done out of the goodness of your heart to help people, but it should be a driving factor. Of course you want leads, of course, you want leads from #ContentWritingChat, but the primary objective is to help people out.
So, when a brand grows like that, people notice. You know, I’m out here doing different speaking opportunities on behalf of the brand – people notice that. They get in touch and say, like, ‘oh, wow, I thought you were just doing some editing for Express Writers, and I was, like, ‘well, last year, yes, but our brand has grown a great deal and now I get to have a little bit more liberty to talk about what we do and how we’re interested in growing.’
So, blogging – your blogging strategy, yes, it’s helpful for a business of any size. But you also need to realize that your brand will hopefully grow and your needs will change. You need to assess what works, what doesn’t, and adjust your blogging strategy from there. One thing I did on my own website – I have a website called The Geek Initiative about women in geek culture. I used to blog on my site, like, every day, or every other day. Then, I had other writers that, kind of, filled-in. But I stopped doing that. I stopped blogging every day.
Now I blog, about, twice a month and instead of doing, you know, 500-word posts, I’m doing, like, 2000+ word posts that take a lot of personal experience and a lot of thought, a lot of conversation, and a lot of time to create because long-form content and these longer-form blogs are more beneficial to me.
I make a little money on the site with ad revenue. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s more about branding and just what I’m interested in doing, but I find that I’m getting more page views, more engagement, more enthusiasm, and more brand recognition as an expert on the topic with the long-form content.
To do that, I had to re-evaluate my blogging strategy and change it to make sure that my time was valuable, and that the content I was creating was valuable to the community. As soon as I made that shift, I found that people started saying some really amazing things about the content I was creating.
The lesson there is, like, I probably should have evaluated my blogging strategy before I did. But once I made that shift, I saw some immediate success. Re-evaluating your blogging strategy, in some cases, every 4-6 months, is a good idea. There are industry trends that change. Readers expect different things, and that reevaluation is really important.
It was working for me to do those blogs, like, every day or every other day – those 500-word blogs. I wasn’t failing. People enjoyed them. They shared those blogs. But the noticeable difference in success was phenomenal.
So, it’s not necessarily that you’re doing poorly with your existing blogging strategy. But you still need to take a look at it because things change. Your customers change. The type of customer you’re trying to attract might change, and there could be an opportunity to do better.
Magdalena: Wow, what a complex response. It was great. It was all great, but from my understanding, you underlined 3 very important things. Even with ‘unsexy’ brands, blogging can be very useful. We should also emphasize that we’re trying to help people, not only that we have a product or service, but that we want to help them. And this works well for increasing our brand awareness.
What you said was really informative, and I agree 100%, but let’s go back to storytelling. I’m curious, how does storytelling go along with building content strategy?
Tara: So, storytelling is something that you can build into your content strategy. Like I said before, people want to know about who you are. They want to know about that aspect of your brand, and you can build the content right into the rest of your editorial calendar.
It also means, kind of, redefining what your story is every now and then. I just talked a lot about re-evaluating your success with blogs. You know, storytelling is the same way because you might start a business and it’s just you. So it’s all your story, it’s all about how you’re starting your business. Five years down the road, it’s not really just your story. It’s the business’ success. It’s the story of the 3 other people that you’ve hired since you’ve started. So, re-evaluating your story and looking at how you’ve grown can not only help you assess the success of your business but how you can really change your story and input those changes into your content strategy.
The other answer to that is ‘medium’. Sometimes we tell stories through blogs, but now video is considered a better way to tell stories sometimes. One way that you can re-evaluate your storytelling or add more to your storytelling is to show, and you can do that with a video or with a podcast, whereas before, you might have just been blogging.
Similarly, a lot of people just do videos. A lot of people are, like, just on YouTube, and that’s really effective, but a really solid blog post could help them tell their story in a way that also allows for them to get more inbound traffic on search engines.
So, you know, definitely think about the medium you’re using to tell your story and diversify that and include that in your content strategy.
Magdalena: Got it. So, you know, I’ve heard that everything starts with a mission and it’s fortified by the content we create. Would you agree with that sentence?
Tara: The short answer is ‘yes’. I agree that you have to have a purpose and that content really helps you express that purpose, and it really supports your purpose. That’s content done well.
That said, we start – brands, businesses – and we make content for all sorts of reasons. And it’s usually not as simple as ‘well, I’m going to sit down and start a business today and then I’m going to make some content to market it’. By the time you get a really solid brand story and start creating content to support that story, that reflects a lot of thinking, a lot of hard work, a lot of looking at the numbers, a lot of strategy, and so… in its simplest terms, yes.
You’re starting with a mission – you’re starting with your passion. You have your own way of helping people and the content you make really supports that. If you’re a content agency or a marketing agency, you know, it is kind of like a literal expression, right? Like, Express Writers is built on its content so it is literally fortified by the content we create.
So, yes, I agree with it, and I think that really thinking about the content as a supporting cast member, say, in your strategy, is a great way to think as a business. Content is an investment. It’s not free. It takes time to create or to hire someone to create it for you, and if you think about it as this necessary fortification to allow you to be strong and succeed in your mission, that can be a nice way to think about your spend on content, especially if you know that you’re probably not doing as much as you should when it comes to content creation and content marketing.
Magdalena: So, speaking about content, what is more challenging for brands nowadays, in your opinion: to engage communities or create content itself?
Tara: They go hand-in-hand because you want to create content that is engaging, and every brand has its own challenge.
I think I’m going to say engaging communities is a little more of a challenge because content creation is often about sitting down and getting it done or hiring someone to do it for you. You know, the content’s created, the content’s marketed – the engagement is tough.
You can control how you create content. You can control how much money you spend on having someone else make good content for you. You can’t make your community engage with the content you create or with your social media posts. So, that’s, like, a little bit more of a wild card. And depending on the size of your business, you may be the only person both creating content, marketing your content, and responding to all of your fans via e-mail, social media, livechat platforms, or the phone. So, that can be a lot for one person to do.
I think part of that answer also depends on the structure of your business and whether you’re at a place where you can afford to have somebody specifically devoted to engaging communities.
I used to work over at SEMrush, and they’re a pretty big name in marketing. At SEMrush, I was working as an editor on the blog, but I sat next to community manager who made sure that the engagement levels in our communities was high, and so, as a content creator and as an editor, that allowed me to focus on the editorial calendar, on the content itself, on actually proofreading the content and making sure it was high quality vs making sure that I was getting a ton of pageviews.
When I knew I was going to have a piece that was really fantastic, when an influencer would submit a piece to the blog, I could say to the community manager, ‘hey, could you promote this blog and publish it on Friday?’ and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it. We would just work together and make it happen.
But I do find that it’s really a challenge, especially on my own blog, to be the person who really has to focus on creating the content, strategizing, and just making it happen. It’s really challenging for a solo-preneur. I will say that you can’t go wrong with creating good content, but in order to really get the investment of time or money that you put into the content out of it, you do need to make sure people see it. Those are challenges that go hand-in-hand.
I find community engagement more challenging than creating good content but that could vary. For a small brand, I think engagement is difficult because it takes time, sometimes it’s harder to measure the return on investment, and there are a lot of variables.
So, I would say community engagement, generally, but they do go hand-in-hand.
Magdalena: Since you’re talking about how time-consuming it is to create content, I need to ask this question, because I’ve met 2 approaches. One of them said that you should be on all of the most popular social media platforms, because we never know where people are. So, we need to be everywhere. The 2nd approach says that we should focus on 1, 2, or maximum, 3 platforms, so we can just focus on them since, as you said, creating content is very time-consuming. What would you say to the people who are trying to find the best way to perform in social media?
Tara: I gotta say, that’s one of the most frequently asked questions that I get. And I do a lot of 1-on-1 consultations with potential clients and we sell social media services, sell posts and scheduling services, and that’s a huge question I get: which platform should I be on? Do I need to be on all of them?
And the answer is – it’s a complex one – for most people, it’s going to be 3 platforms, like you mentioned. It’s very hard to manage them all, and for most businesses, your target audience probably doesn’t live on every platform. At least not significantly.
So if you’re selling something like expensive mens’ suits, you’re going to want to be on LinkedIn, because that’s where people who buy expensive mens’ suits live.
Do you want to be on Snapchat? I mean, you could do well on Snapchat if you made some really cool ads that appealed to younger, wealthier people. That’s not going to be my primary recommendation unless you’re a huge brand that has some money to put into some really specific tastes and advertising.
It depends on your business and it depends on what you’re making. I usually recommend to start with 3. And then if you find that you have the time, or that your audience keeps mentioning ‘hey, can I follow you on Instagram?’, that’s kind of a good indication that maybe you should think about having an Instagram account.
And it relates to how much content you’re creating, right? Because it’s one thing to put a link to all your blog posts across all your social media platforms, but if you’re someone like me, like, I’m not a good graphic designer. If you ask me to make a good graphic for you, then I’m going to go to our graphic designer at Express Writer and have her make me something good, because I would make you a stick figure, right?
This means that if I’m managing my own Instagram account, and I’m not good at creating graphics or taking pictures, then maybe you gotta consider your resources. If I’m my only resource, that’s not a good place to remain. If I have the resource of a graphic designer and my audience lives there, that’s better.
So, start with 3. As your brand expands and you know a lot about where your customers live, then absolutely, go and expand.
Big brands experiment. Sometimes big brands are the first ones on a new platform. And sometimes they don’t stay. Sometimes the platform doesn’t work for them or they’ve scaled down their engagement. And that’s OK.
Other brands see you experimenting with that and they see you as an innovator. That’s fine. But it’s a balance of time and money because you’re creating content, and sometimes the content is simply for social media, especially when we think about these visual platforms. You really need to consider that in your time and the money you’re spending on content creation.
So, yeah, it’s a challenge. And I think my last point here is: don’t always think of them as separate things. Like, the social media and the content creation, because the right Instagram post, which could be just a picture, could be more valuable in the short term and net you a lot of customers, more than a 2500-word blog post. It all depends on your brand and the audience and what you’re offering.
Most of your content should be about helping people and educating, but if it’s, like, Labor Day, and you’re having a sale – that’s a big sale time for us in the U.S. – and you just post an image that says ‘Labor Day coupon, 25% off’ with a coupon code, that’s going to bring in some customers and that coupon code and that image advertising the coupon code, that’s content too. And you really need to think about that as part of your content creation strategy.
Magdalena: I’ve never thought about coupons as content but it’s also a good idea. So, I would say that we should definitely have a plan, but we shouldn’t keep our eyes closed and limit ourselves. I think we’d be very lucky if our audience would ask us to go to another platform, because they expect to see our content somewhere else. I think that’s really good feedback. It means that people want to see us, hear from us, and so on…
My last question is about the editorial strategy, because as some claim, it’s the nest big thing. So, what is the important thing that we need to remember when it comes to creating an editorial strategy?
Tara: Consistency is the most important thing you can do when it comes to planning content. Don’t overextend yourself to start. People would rather see one blog post a week from you done consistently and done well, than a blog post every day that isn’t great. Or, 3 blog posts one week and no blog posts next week.
Consistency helps. It’s not like your audience is like… like, Moz is a great example. Rand Fishkin does Whiteboard Fridays. His audience is like, ‘it’s Friday! Where’s Whiteboard Friday?’. They expect it. A really strong brand can have customers expecting content on given days. But even if your brand is just starting out or it’s small, consistency will still help you win. It’s gonna give you more consistent inbound traffic, but it’s also underscoring our brand promise to be reliable.
If I show you that I can blog consistently every Friday, then you know you can depend on me to get stuff done when I say I’m going to do it. That’s a huge part of business, especially if you’re in marketing or editorial or publishing – any kind of deadline oriented business.
So, consistency is the single most important thing you can do. An editorial calendar is a wonderful way to do that, especially if you have more than one person creating content. For projects that I’m working on solo, I tend to keep all of that in Trello to keep myself on track. As soon as someone else is involved in the content creation process, I put it on an editorial calendar.
I use CoSchedule, which is also a social media scheduling platform, to manage my editorial calendar for my publication but Julia, our CEO, she recently started using Air Table. She loves it. It actually creates a very simple, easy-to-use, visually appealing content calendar for yourself or your clients. So, that’s another good one to use as well.
Magdalena: OK, so I’ll remember that consistency is a big thing. And the other thing is scheduling our content, right?
Tara: That’s right.
Magdalena: Great, so, that was my last question. Wow, I think you just gave us a huge lesson in how to create content and what we should remember during the process. So, thank you very much for your time and for all of your very, very interesting insights.
Tara: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me on.
Magdalena: Thank you and bye!