Don’t Publish a Press Release. Create a Product Story Instead
88 Acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future…
It reads like the title of an award-winning magazine feature. Should’ve been, really. In 2014, Microsoft pitched dozens of journalists a story idea about how a group of employees were analyzing sensory data to revolutionize the way the company used energy across its 500-acre campus.
All of them passed.
So Microsoft’s communications team decided to cover it themselves. Jennifer Warnick, the lead writer of Microsoft Story Labs at the time, put the article together. Forty-eight hours after it went live, 800,000 people had read it. To this day, it’s arguably one of the best pieces of content marketing ever created.
“88 Acres” is the platonic ideal of a product story. A Microsoft employee wrote about other people at Microsoft using the company’s products, and it didn’t come across as self-promotional.
When companies write about themselves, we usually wind up with dry, hollow press releases. However, the typical press release machine has become somewhat outdated. Why put an update on the wire hoping a journalist covers it when you can tell your audience directly? Microsoft’s story shows what happens when a brand controls its own narrative.
Over the years, brands have gradually warmed up to the idea. SEMrush uses its own features to analyze its content on a regular basis. Salesforce has dozens of webinars about how it uses its own products. Then there’s Typeform, which walked us through a more unusual example earlier this year. When Paul Campillo, head of brand and communications, was working on a story about chatbots, he wanted to insert one so readers could ask it questions about the article. Only problem was, Typeform didn’t have a chatbot. So their dev team built one.
“The article was a huge success,” Campillo said. “Now it’s one of Typeform’s three offerings.”
Marketers have this tendency to sugarcoat everything. But we’ve heard from clients that they liked learning about our trials and errors. They could relate to our challenges and follow each step as we worked to overcome them. At Contently, we think of ourselves as our best case study.
That’s something anyone can do, regardless of whether or not they have a tale as rich as “88 Acres.” And since product stories appeal to both new leads and existing customers, the content can help with onboarding and retention. Think of them like Help Center assets that customers can use to solve problems on their own—only with more creativity than the usual instruction manual approach.
For software companies, these stories can be integrated throughout the product. We’ve started doing this ourselves with a new video series called “Contently In Action.”
When customers reach a certain part of our platform, a short tutorial pops up and explains how we use a given feature for our own marketing efforts. This helps with product adoption, adding in a real-world example that you don’t find on newswires. Now, the series has become a staple of new product releases.
As brands aim to bring more attention to their solutions and help their audiences, the lesson here is simple: Write stories, not press releases.
How to take advantage of this trend:
- Compare a press release and an article side by side while noting the differences in tone and creativity
- Sort through the most popular Help Center articles or tutorials to discover good product story ideas
- Write about your own experiences using your product like an investigate reporter, highlighting challenges and solutions