- Posted by marysastevens
- On March 28, 2019
- 1 Comments
For several years I have contemplated going back to school for a master’s degree. Unfortunately, with my husband’s Army commitment, deployment, and new baby, it never felt like the right time or location for me to start.
I was looking for a program that could help me keep current with the times while I am sidelined from corporate America. I am a freelance writer and have dabbled in marketing and web projects, but working in isolation has left me feeling that I’m missing out on the latest strategies, technology, and trends for the marketing and PR industry.
After participating in several informative master classes, I found the perfect fit for me, a three quarter, nine-month-long professional and continuing education program, Storytelling & Content Strategy at the University of Washington. For clarity, it’s not just storytelling like writing a book; it’s telling stories through branded content for companies, organizations, and non-profits.
Choosing to sign up for this program was not just a financial investment, but I also needed to balance motherhood and my husband’s work schedule which often has him working overnight at the hospital. Classes are online, every Tuesday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. central time. I asked myself if I could balance these late-night courses and assignments along with my roles at home. The last time I was in school I was single and in my early 20s with no one depending on me. Now I have a husband, a 19-month old daughter, clients, a dog, a cat, and a mortgage. I knew that if I was going to participate in this program, I had to use my time wisely and give it all of my attention and focus. My time is more precious than ever.
The first quarter just finished, and we are on a two-week hiatus until the next course begins with a new professor. I attended all but one out of 11 weekly classes live because we had company visiting. I listened to the recording of the class later in the week while doing laundry, and I felt caught up and on track. My daughter went to bed before class would start and she never disrupted my focus. The biggest complication were the nights when college basketball overlapped with class, but I was able to multi-task by participating and still watching my alma mater play (very important).
Our final assignment was a group project with four team members randomly assigned. We worked together very efficiently utilizing Google Docs and two Sunday night conference calls. Since it’s a certificate course grading is largely based on participation and completion of assignments, but unlike going to undergrad classes, my motivation wasn’t based on grades and my GPA. I truly wanted to learn as much as I could and felt that I was grading myself on either a pass or fail scale.
Here are five key takeaways from Content Creation: The Power of Storytelling with Professor John Messerall.
Me – as a consumer
“Brands are defined by their behavior, not their messaging.” (Rosenblum and Berg)
To be a good storyteller you must be empathetic or use personal experience to help you connect with the audience. A surprising lesson I learned was one about me. I studied myself as a consumer, which brands I gravitate toward and why. There are several brands that I view as transactional, meaning they offer the right product at the right time (Rosenblum and Berg, pg. 43) Emotional brands, or passion brands, have customers who ignore the other brands and are considered evangelists. An obvious passion brand for me is my Apple iPhone. I will never even consider another brand of phone because of the vast ecosystem of products that increase the quality of experience, making me fully committed to Apple products.
I also have become a more conscious spender and look to brands that I feel align with my values. We addressed consumer values and often spoke about brands that try to take on today’s most pressing social and political issues (the new Gillette ad was our prime example). I try to spend my money on brands that share similar values with me such as being eco-conscious (Patagonia) or empowering women (Thrive Causemetics). I became enlightened about my decisions to choose brands that help me feel empowered, improved and purposeful.
My job as a storyteller
At the beginning of one class, I wrote down a question I wanted to ask at the end of the lecture. But as luck would have it, our professor proposed and answered my question nearly verbatim. I told him at the end of class that I wrote this down, and we laughed at how cool it was to have been on the right track.
“Is it our job to make sure we tell a compelling story or is it our job to tell a sales story that will convert to ROI?”
This question has sat with me for years. I have a BA in journalism but have spent my professional career working in corporate and non-profit marketing and public relations. At my college, public relations is part of the journalism program which trained me to be ethical, factual, and analytical in our information-driven marketplace. I have always felt that my background in journalism made me a strong marketer because of my training in hard news and investigative writing.
Many industries just don’t understand public relations and marketing when compared to sales where you can see a true return on investment. Making money is the number one goal of any business, so employers aren’t wrong for looking for these results. However, delivering on that data isn’t always black and white. Today it’s easier to show marketing ROI with hard data, such as clicks on a social media ad that converted to sales or calculating marketing spend for customer acquisition and retention. Marketing’s science is rooted in analytics and research, but storytelling is the art. The value of marketing and PR is cutting through friction in consumer’s lives to empower them, not just interrupt.
Simply put, the answer I learned is: “We empower consumers to make those decisions.”
How would I answer a non-marketer’s question about marketing and PR’s ROI and worth?
We empower consumers to make financial decisions through connection, empathy and compelling stories. This power is the goal of every marketer and PR professional and connects directly to a company’s bottom line.
Emotions & meaning in content
I want to write stories that create change or invoke emotions (a great story does both). It is possible for a brand to connect on an emotional level with a human. I’m inspired to write for my audience as though they are partners with my story, not as passive consumers of generic marketing
When I write a story I want to look at how it can change the reader and their journey; will they embrace the change, and if they have the tools need to drive the change. This concept seems abstract, but it’s what we see in every day messaging all around us from fast food billboards to direct calls to action for social or political issues. Taking a step back to look through the lenses of emotion and meaning will help create a stronger story with a greater purpose.
The dark arts of m
In Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he wrote a wonderful chapter on the dark arts of marketing. We discussed this in class and ended up in a fascinating conversation about waste and overconsumption. Part of the dark arts include psychological ploys to influence consumer behavior; the dark arts of marketing emphasizes the act of consumption as the highest human purpose (Sachs pg. 83).
“While it was once assumed that the fate of our world would be written in holy texts or constitutions, it now appears that it will be written, at least in part, in marketing campaigns.
The most serious threats we face as a species – climate change, resource depletion, species loss – are crises of overconsumption drive by – guess who? – marketers.” (Sachs, pg. 31)
As a marketer how do I maintain my values and convictions to eliminate unnecessary consumption while also continuing to do my job? I believe that as an employee and member of society we can help businesses and organizations center themselves in discussions about crafting better futures. While it is difficult when many products and services hold the power of extrinsic values – the care for social status, material wealth, admiration, and power – believe we can break free from soul-crushing work and stand up for what we believe in while also being a part of a healthy, free-market, capitalistic society. We can sell products in more environmentally-friendly ways. We can help inspire our audiences to be smarter and healthier. We can empower others to embrace their role as responsible citizens.
Making my words matter
My existential struggle with being a marketer and writer is based on our content overloaded world. The average American sees more than 10,000 messages a day. Think of everything you interact with daily – social media, TV, the back of a cereal box, the brand name of a car – these are all stories in some form. From visual concepts to blogs like this, being a storyteller has never been more competitive and challenging in our connected world.
I never want to feel like I am writing words that would go to waste. At times, I feel stuck on a hamster wheel of content with no end in sight. But with new insight from this course I have begun to think about stories in a more purposeful, in-depth, and audience-specific frame. I have seen change in how I view myself a productive contributor of content and over the next six months I’m excited to add more knowledge to my new philosophy.
[Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg, Friction: Passion brand in the age of disruption, (powerhouse Books, New York, 2017