Brian Solis on how to tell better brand stories without brand journalism

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Terms like content marketing and more recently “brand journalism” have captured the attention of B2B marketers for some time. However, many people talk about brand journalism but nobody’s doing it. At least nobody’s doing it very well. That could be one of the takeaways  from last week’s Content Marketing Summit at LinkedIn, presented by Ragan Communications and PRSA.

For the first time, the popular Ragan Communications marketing and PR workshop and conference series made an appearance at LinkedIn headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., July 30-31. Before a small but engaged audience of 100 or so professional communicators, event keynoter Brian Solis, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group and author of noted business communications books such as his most recent release, What’s the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences, expounded on how the priorities of storytelling have changed since the 1990s.

Pause and reconsider

With the process of brand journalism so bound up in the chase of new shiny objects, overly scripted content marketing calendars and connect-the-dot, Shake ‘N Bake case studies, Solis sees the need to pause and reconsider. “Take a step back to start from scratch,” he said. “Your role as a communicator is more important than you think.”

In this brand culture where everything has started to move too fast to keep up, pro storytellers must change their approach, according to Solis. No longer can they spend time thinking deeply about the subjects upon which they need to connect with their audiences. “(You) can’t write with poetry and narrative (anymore),” he said. “That’s both wonderful and sad.”

Echoing other marketers, Solis advocated stopping the chase of new shiny objects, which take the form of ever-increasing social networks. For example, he mentioned once-hot social network Ello. Any number of people may have asked Solis what their companies’ strategy should be on Ello. According to Solis, he told them to wait. “You may not need a strategy.” If your audience is not there, you don’t need to be there either.

Not every social network is a case of Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams: just because you build it, they may not come. Even networks that seem like sure things may not always be relevant. For example, when was the last time you checked in on Foursquare, Solis asked.

While you are at it, also stop operating a content calendar and stop following case studies of other people doing “great content marketing,” Solis said. “Innovation starts here,” he said gesturing to his heart. “Because only you understand what you’re trying to do.”

Things have changed since you were in school

The world has evolved since the late 1990s. Solis said that if he had not changed his approach to communications since the 1990s, when Wikipedia suggests he came up with many of the principles of digital and social media marketing, he would not be relevant today. As he found the need to change since then, so must the rest of business communicators change, according to Solis.

Much of this has to do with the new window on the world, that small piece of real estate known as the smartphone screen. “You are writing for the phone screen,” he said, as opposed to the PC screen that dominated the pre-browser Internet 1980s, World Wide Web 1990s and early broadband 2000s.

‘Your brand is what people say about you’

From there, Solis went on to quip that brand journalism is the “worst” term. “Brand journalism was a way to get content together on a hub,” he said. This goes to the point that brands are not necessarily what their companies say they are. “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room. Businesses are no longer the sole creator of a brand; it is co-created by consumers through shared experience and defined by the results of online searches and conservations.”

This is a case of brands falling prey to “mediumism” as Solis coins the term where companies prioritize the attraction of new social networks or other platforms over their customers’ need and goals. To illustrate this idea, he discussed the situation at Airbnb. Solis relates that Airbnb wanted to improve the perception of the customer experience at the properties they list. However, the company needed to realize that the customer experience does not start when customers get to the property.

The customer experience begins when the customer does a curbside checkin at the departing airport. If Airbnb marketers waited until the customer got to the property there would be little or no chance to shape her perception. “Airbnb reinvented the company with storyboarding,” Solis said.

Airbnb is not competing for the moment but competing for meaning. By storyboarding the customer journey, Airbnb gained empathy for the customer. It changed their perspective. “The cure for mediumism is your perspective,” one of Solis’ slides read. “Meaning begets connection.” It was how Solis helped Airbnb get beyond their obstacles.

What matters

In the end content does not matter if it can’t connect with people and get them to take some action, according to Solis. For example, take any headline on a BuzzFeed article. Who could resist clicking on an article headlined “9 Signs Someone You Love Is Hiding Something”? But beyond that, could you resist sharing it with someone? If you answered “no,” you know why BuzzFeed is so successful at what their editors do.

The people you are writing for are the only ways you can get something shared, according to Solis. “Sharing of ideas is what made Silicon Valley special and different,” Solis said.

Understand the last mile of engagement

To engage with B2B customers, you must understand the last mile of engagement, Solis advised. All social networks have cultures. For example, think about the correct format of pictures for each network. What works on Pinterest will not be right for Instagram. Also, format your writing for each network.

“If you don’t optimize for each network, you are just broadcasting,” Solis said.

Marketing is spelled R.R.S.

Today, marketing comes down to three letters. R.R.S. stands for relevance, resonance, significance. If you design for relevance and resonance (cultural resonance), you will earn significance—the new branding, according to Solis. “Use the work of others to inspire you,” he said. “But in the end, this is your space to define. You know your audience. You should be the case study.”

PR doesn’t have to be behind the scenes, noted Solis on the propensity of public relations practitioners to stay in the B2B shadows. “You are the gatekeeper of why your company is important.”

Photo via Flickr user JD Lasica

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).