The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

Four years ago, I wrote Read This First to help executives understand the role of social media in their businesses. And while much has changed over the past few years, more has stayed the same.  Marketing success in the age of social networks requires a different approach to content creation.

I’ve spent the past few years trying to distill “different approach” into a compact, yet powerful statement–an elevator speech if you will. I found it last month in one of the most unlikely places.

Pigskin Storytelling

The father and son team of Ed and Steve Sabol founded NFL Films in the early 1960s. Their work changed not only the way football games were recorded, but probably influenced the way all sporting events were memorialized. An NFL Film tells the story of the gridiron, where infinite forces clash with immovable objects, resulting in serious consequences for the game’s battle-hardened warriors. Rather than mounting a single camera at the 50-yard line to view the game as a spectator, they used cinematography techniques including multiple cameras and camera-angles to cover a game. But the magic of an NFL Film story occurred in post production, when they added the velvety baritone voice of John Facenda reading perfectly-written voice-over narratives. 

We lost Steve Sabol in September of last year. But it was while I was watching one of his works that I found my elusive elevator pitch. Steve said:

Tell me a fact and I’ll learn.
Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
But, tell me a story, and it’ll live in my heart forever.

The statement hit me with the force of blitzing linebacker, because most companies are great at telling facts and truths, yet fall short at telling stories. Therefore, the role of a content marketer is to transform company facts and truths into in stories.

Rule #5 from Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman’s seminal book, Content Rules says: “Reimagine; don’t recycle.”

Therefore, applying some Sabolization to their rule, we get:

“Content marketers need to reimagine a company’s facts and truths into stories as opposed to recycling them into more facts and truths.”

Give it a try. The next time someone asks what your role is, just give them a little Steve Sabol.


Crab boatRecently, I’ve found myself hooked on the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, the reality television show that features fishing crews working the Bering Sea to find Alaska King crab. While enjoying my new-found vice, I’m struck by the parallels between crab fishing and the business of creating online content.

Crab boat captains are responsible for catching their legal quota of crab within a small window of time. Through the use of sophisticated GPS technology, experience, superstition and a little luck, captains decide where to drop their crab pots–800 pound steel and mesh baited crab-traps. Sometimes, they’ll “set a string” of over one hundred pots, which will lie on the ocean floor awaiting crabs to crawl into them. After several hours “soaking,” the pots are retrieved and the crabs are harvested.

The first pot in a string is an indicator of what the rest will contain. That’s when the producers of the show capture the most dramatic moments, because the first pot sets the morale of the entire crew. Sometimes it’s full of crab. Other times it isn’t. Low crab-counts mean longer times out at sea, and longer times at sea means both increased danger and lower prices at the dock.

*  *  *

Many similarities exist between crab fishing and creating compelling content for our companies. As corporate storytellers, our goal is to create content that attracts audiences in the form of prospects and customers. Sometimes prospects and customers flock to our content. At other times, we pull-up our own empty pots.  When audiences don’t resonate with the content that we’ve spent so much time creating, our morale may wane. We question our actions, defend them to upper management, and question whether or not we’re doing the right thing.

It’s at times like these that we need to learn from the fishing crews of the Cornelia Marie, Northwestern, Time Bandit, Seabrooke, Ramblin’ Rose, Wizard, and Kodiak. Just because one particular blog post, podcast episode, or video piece doesn’t gather the audience that we expected, we can’t stop fishing. Just as crab boat crews re-bait and return empty pots to the ocean floor, we must continue to punch those keyboards, speak into those microphones, and look into those video cameras. Just as the crab boat captains learn from each set-and-retrieve cycle, so must we. With each piece of content, whether it is popular or not, our job is to learn something that we can apply to the next story.

The creation of serial content is hard work. Sometimes it draws prospects and customers to us, and sometimes it doesn’t. The trick is to keep on fishin’. Without doing so, we’ll never meet our quotas.

Photo Credit: Slightlynorth

May 3, 2011

Before executives will consider the adoption of any new technology, they must be convinced that enough value exists to make the change. Asking business folks to move to social media technologies is no exception. The problem is translating that value into terms that senior management can relate with. And therein lies the rub. The benefits that new media bring to an organization run contrary to the collective communication experiences of senior execs.

Take a look at the accompanying chart, which illustrates the circulation of US Newspapers between 1940 and 2009 (Source Newspaper Association of America). Notice how closely it aligns with the professional careers of the Baby Boomer Generation, those born between the years 1946 and 1964. College educated Boomers cut their professional communications teeth during the Golden Age of mass media, when they entered the workforce between 1968 and 1986. Put another way, business leaders between the ages of 47 and 65 have built their entire careers on the principle that corporate communications requires large, centralized audiences whose access is controlled by a few players. Their belief systems, forged during their early-career years, establish that the best way to boost revenues through communications is to get quoted in the Wall Street Journal, buy enough media, or be interviewed by Oprah.

Compare and contrast those assumptions in lieu of audience fragmentation that is occurring due to the massive content-choices presented before potential audiences. Powerful set-top boxes allow them to watch previously-recorded shows or actually pause live programming. Their desktop computers, laptops, smart phones, iPods and iPads offer them even more choices, such as listening to music, checking email, reading blogs, “Facebooking” with their friends, playing games, or watching YouTube videos. And if consuming content didn’t offer enough choices, these same devices can also be used for the creation of content.

The choices available to modern audiences in this age of decentralized media run contrary to everything that Boomers were taught in their formative professional years. No wonder why they continuously look gift horses in the mouth.

The good news is that the Boomers are very smart. They understand change and are willing to make it if necessary. Our goal–those who understand the age of a decentralized media–is to explain the value in terms that Boomers understand. Therefore, instead of blathering on about “community,” “transparency,” and “engagement,” let’s just tell it the way it is…Communications technologies have finally advanced to the point where businesses can speak directly with their prospects and customers. Period.