Content Marketing

Write Stories, Not Press Releases: Microsoft and AmEx Reveal How to Win the Storytelling Arms Race

By Amanda Walgrove June 26th, 2014

“The idea of writing a press release—for me—feels like the worst thing imaginable. I’d rather be able to tell an interesting story.”

Those are the words of Ben Tamblyn, manager of storytelling at Microsoft and the man behind Microsoft Stories, one of the most impressive longform brand storytelling projects we’ve seen. At last week’s Contently Summit, Tamblyn joined Carrie Parker, VP of content innovation at American Express, to discuss how to create truly engaging brand stories and measure their impact.

(Full disclosure: American Express is a Contently client.)

When creating branded stories, Parker and Tamblyn both said the first and foremost thing you have to do is identify a goal and an audience for your content. For American Express, that goal was to challenge a sad statistic: Over 50 percent of business owners fail within four years. “That’s totally unacceptable,” Parker said. “The content we create is really designed to change that number.”

This motivated AmEx to launch OPEN Forum, a site focused on helping small business owners succeed that attracts over a million visitors each month. OPEN Forum produces a daily flow of content—including articles, videos, and infographics—that tackles core topics important to business owners. The platform also offers entrepreneurs opportunities to ask questions, offer advice to their peers, and network.

By creating an online destination for this target audience to share their struggles and fine-tune their objectives, AmEx essentially built their own pool of sources for inspiring stories—crucially, being an AmEx card owner is not a prerequisite for joining the community. “Business owners learn from other business owners,” Parker said. “They want to learn through their stories.”

For Microsoft, the objective was a bit different: change the way people perceive the Microsoft brand. “Most people’s perception of a company like Microsoft is kind of confined to things like Windows and Office,” Tamblyn said. “And the simple reality is, almost 120,000 people are working all across the world doing remarkable things.”

That’s why the software company created Microsoft Stories, a site filled with longform profiles of interesting people and projects going on inside the company. For example, their first foray into storytelling was a piece called “88 Acres,” which dives into how sensory information helps optimize energy usage throughout 115 buildings across the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. “On face value, you look at that story and go, ‘Wow. That’s a bit of a snoozefest,'” Tamblyn said. “But these guys were really doing some amazing things with technology and doing it in such a way that we thought we could tell a really interesting and highly visual story around it.” At first, they went the traditional route and tried to pitch the story to a bunch of journalists. “And every single one of them passed,” Tamblyn said. “We thought, ‘We’re going to take a swing at trying to publish this one ourselves and see how it goes.'” The result? In less than two days, nearly 800,000 people had read the article, and it inspired about 15 pieces of press.

Based on this experience, Tamblyn stressed the importance of encouraging other publishers to showcase and share the cool work that your brand is doing. “If we say that through the article itself, we all of a sudden kill our perception.” In other words, write stories, not press releases, because they’re a much more effective way to spark a wave of earned media.

Once a truly dynamic story is conceptualized, completed, and published, the inevitable question arises: How do I assess the reach and impact of these stories? The short answer is that there is no short answer; it’s not easy to codify the full impact of your content. For instance, “There’s no number around brand perception,” Tamblyn said.

Both Parker and Tamblyn agreed that while shares and likes are popular benchmarks right now, they’re also tricky metrics that sometimes let the evaluation of true reach fall through the cracks. “Shares and likes both have to work,” Parker said. “And they don’t always work in the same way.”

But while Parker’s stories are embedded in a community-based platform that takes these stats into account, Tamblyn’s team throws his stories out into world and sees what sticks. For him, sentiment analysis is more important than any social metrics. “For stories shared 150,000 times, that’s all well and good, but are you actually changing the perception of what people think about the story, your brand, and the content?” he asked.

While Microsoft and AmEx’s reasons for creating stories differ, their end goal is the same: creating high-quality content. “A lot of it comes down to, ‘Are you producing things people like?'” Tamblyn said. “And I think from there, the metrics kind of take care of themselves.”

Want your business to tell great stories like this one? Contently gives brands the tools and talent to tell stories that people love. Learn more.

Image by Jacquelyne Mae
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