00:00:00 Emily: Where do ideas come from? If you’re just gonna regurgitate what someone else has said or what someone else has done, readers are gonna see through that. You can’t do what worked 20 years ago to then expect it to have the same impact. The internet is new every single day. You don’t want people to be opening a bunch of pages [less than a second]. Data isn’t actually direction, it’s listening. What did well and why? What didn’t do well and why? What was the most surprising thing in the data beneath that don’t work together and don’t collaborate effectively, can’t be successful because then you have resources competing against one another and you can’t have an ego. You’re never gonna run outta ideas. Make sure that you are open to inspiration in every aspect of your life.

00:00:53 Tommy: Tell me about your content marketing philosophy and how has it evolved over time?

00:00:59 Emily: Well, I think for content marketing, I think it’s bigger to think about content in general, and then we go even bigger and we think about storytelling. And when you’re in a content marketing position or a writing position, you need to think about who you are telling the story to. What do they need in their lives? How can you help them? And then once you figure out who your audience is and how you can help them, then you should create the story. Then you should look to the medium. Because at the end of the day, stories can have many, many different expressions, especially in the internet where I primarily work in today. It can be a podcast, it can be a photograph, it can be a video, it can be a written article or it can be an infographic. So you can figure out what expression that story should have based on who the audience is, where they are, how you’re going to reach them, and how you can help them.

00:01:56 Tommy: We hear a lot about, know your audience, find your search intent, all of that. But a lot of that… I know this from experience, a lot of that can be made up. It’s imaginary. And we say that we know our audience, but we don’t. So tell me about how you’ve gotten to know your audience and, I’m especially interested in the neuro elements of this and starting to reverse engineer what you see. 

00:02:29 Emily: Well, I have to caveat again, I started college studying neuroscience. I did switch to English, which is a very strange transition. But I still think about organic chemistry and how I moved from studying the brain to studying language. But I think they’re actually obviously pretty interconnected because language is effectively the math that we use to store and share knowledge. If you think about it algorithmically the structure of an actual sentence,  you can sort of think about an atom could be a subject or a verb and like how they mold together, but just getting pretty nerdy in there. But when you think about audience, distribution and all of that, it definitely can feel pretty witchy. There are trends that move so quickly from radio is dead to podcasts, a 20 billion industry, to nobody reads email anymore to newsletters are the hottest thing.

00:03:30 Emily: And there are unicorn companies that are now focusing on email. And so I think when it comes to studying your audience, you do really just need to think about where they are now. And you can answer that question through conversations. So if you’re targeting a real estate industry, talk to people in the real estate agents in the industry, talk to the leadership there, find out what they read, find out what they care about, do some data studying, look at market research. And then as we talked about previously, the most important thing is to remember the human being at the end of the strategy that you’re trying to reach. Sometimes when things are missing the mark, for example, in a content strategy that I’ve worked on, I’ll just go back to the basics and I’ll ask my team, okay, looking at this, looking at this, looking at this, we’ve done all this research, all this reading, what is our reader’s name? What did they have for breakfast? What are their hobbies? What’s their wife’s name? Do they have a wife? What are the things that they care about? And when you can imagine the person, when you can really see the individual in the audience, you can figure out how to help them. And then the audience distribution, like the distribution strategy can follow.

00:04:56 Tommy: Now we were talking…  I want to pick on the data element a little bit more because we were talking about this in the pregame. And you’ve got this really interesting approach where you’ve talked about you look at the data, you’re self-proclaimed data nerd. How does that influence your approach and the philosophy on how you’ve created and lead the people that you’re creating with?

00:05:22 Emily: I think data is one of the coolest evolutions of media from the 18 years that I’ve been in media. It used to be whatever’s on the front page of the paper, depending on how many newspapers it sold. It was a good story or not. Like, that was sort of the only metric or circulation, how many people signed up for it after that month. Now we can see data as granular as like, when did people stop scrolling down the page? What did they click on? How did they get there? What was the action that they took? How long they’re not only on that page, but also in that session. There’s all of these engagement metrics that we can look at. But I think it’s really important to understand that data isn’t actually direction, it’s listening, right?

00:06:13 Emily: It’s inspiration. So you’re having this conversation every single day where you get to put something out there in the world. And then there’s this democratic process where the world will tell you if they liked it or not. And you can then take that information and say, okay, I’m gonna do 50 more stories about that. I’m gonna transform it into a video. Cause I want people to stay on the page longer. I’m gonna get this on social super fast cause I know that people are engaging with this story and I’m gonna maximize this piece and make sure it’s told in every different medium to every different audience member because it’s doing well. But that could be entirely wrong because it’s doing well on the website and in the written form. It doesn’t mean that it’s supposed to be told in other forms and other mediums. And so making sure you’re not only looking at the data, but also asking that question and asking those smart questions.

00:07:13 Emily: And one of the things that I think is also really important is for storytellers to really learn and think about the metrics that add value to the work that they’re doing. So if you’re getting input that you need to create multiple page views for a website, for example, you don’t wanna create those page views by increasing your bounce rate. You want people to spend time on those pages. You don’t want people to be opening a bunch of pages and spend less than a second. That’s actually not valuable content and that’s a misunderstanding of the data or the destination. I think that part of data analysis in particular is looking at what did well and why, what didn’t do well and why, what was the most surprising thing in the data? And where are you inspired? Where do you think you can learn from this? Or why are you not gonna move forward? When I have workshops, I love to start with data and ask these questions because everyone has a different answer. Everybody sees this differently. And only through that collaboration in many ways with the reader, you can come up with these steps forward.

00:08:31 Tommy: Alright, so two questions that kind of come to mind for me on that is… so how are you taking the strategic bets based on the data that you’re seeing? Because there’s obviously a collaboration process, which you’re kinda hinting at when you’re talking about talking with both your readers, but then also your internal stakeholders. So that’s one. And then two, how are you avoiding creating sort of more samey samey content based on what you’re seeing? Because we both know that it can be very challenging for businesses who want to take risks if it’s not broke, don’t fit, try and fix it, right? So what’s that evolution look like?

00:09:14 Emily: Well, I think whenever you’re creating a content strategy, maybe it’s 75% meat and potatoes, that’s what I would call it. Let’s make sure that we’re providing the protein that runs the business that we know the audience really loves. But then you also need room, any good meal for an appetizer and a dessert. And if you think about making sure there’s always room for 25% at least experimentation and risk taking, then it’s going to be healthy. And then the new patterns are gonna emerge. It’s also important to remember that the internet is new every single day. You can’t do what worked 20 years ago today on the internet and expect it to have the same impact. You can… I’m sure recall when quizzes were the hottest form of content on the internet. And it wasn’t just about discovering what type of Disney character you were, it was also about discovering your management style.

00:10:16 Emily: And you could take this quiz and people could not get enough of it. But then, because people couldn’t get enough of it, the trend… it was a flash in the pan. And now if you’re going to do a quiz, it’s not just a guaranteed bet that it’s going to work. It’s gotta be the right way to tell the story. If a quiz is the truest, most successful expression of that story and something your audience will engage with, then yeah, go for that quiz. That’s one of the tools in your arsenal. But you can’t expect yesterday to work today or tomorrow.

00:10:49 Tommy: It’s interesting you bring up quizzes because Buzzfeed comes to mind for… cuz obviously they were like the big quiz, sort of thing. And what a lot of people don’t know is that their data… that they were collecting through those quizzes helped them create segments for when they started to deliver further content to, and they were using that information to create the profile and understand what somebody ate for breakfast, what Disney character they were, and then from that say like, oh, 10 problems that only so and so has or such and such understands. And using that to create this cycle of content that was always gonna resonate and then share. And then Facebook changed their algorithm cause they were taking over too much. And that’s a whole different story. And cuz things that worked yesterday don’t work today. All right, let’s break into the next section here where I wanna learn about your process for creating content from ideation to publication. And,  moreover, what does that team structure look like? 

00:11:58 Emily: I’m gonna start with ideation. Where do ideas come from? And honestly, my content strategy for this comes from my thesis advisor in college. When I graduated, I said, I was like, okay, I’m gonna write a novel. That’s gonna be the thing that I do after college. That’s what I’m super passionate about. And when I went to my professor, he was like, that’s really great, but you have not lived your life yet. Like, what are you gonna write about? You know, the first, the first part of writing is living, and it’s also reading. Have you read all of the books that are going to help inform that novel? And so I think that that’s a really important part of the content strategy is have you read enough? Do you know enough? Are you an expert in this? Can you actually add to this conversation and add value?

00:12:52 Emily: Because if you’re just gonna regurgitate what someone else has said or what someone else has done, readers are gonna see through that. People are really smart and you can’t underestimate that power. And so one of the things that I love to do with the teams that I lead is we have an article club, and once every two months, once every month, everybody brings an article that they’ve read that they found inspiring or interesting for… from a personal standpoint. And when we all talk together about all of the different interests, the diversity of experiences, the diversity of ideas, it naturally creates new types of content that we can tell for our given audience and our given purpose. You have to be ready to be inspired by anything. If you’ve hit a wall, if you’re not inspired, go for a walk, go volunteer somewhere, make sure that you are open to inspiration in every aspect of your life and the content will follow because then you can apply the strategies, apply the listening, apply the business objectives, and begin to sculpt that seed of an idea, that seed of inspiration into something that’s really useful.

00:14:09 Tommy: So when I was at Shopify, we did this… I with my teams every week we’d have our weekly standup. And I would always ask, what was the one thing that stood out to you this week? What was your… what was the one thing that inspired you this week? And it got people on the team really thinking about trying to keep that in mind to like be inspired by something. I think that goes beyond just, you know, the work that we’re doing. It really gets people engaged with it. That’s what we found. One of the other things we did was I would put a stock image of just some random person looking like they were doing some kind of job and say, gimme five minutes and tell me what this person’s doing. Like why did they do it? And then we’d have everybody vote with emojis to say who they thought the best interpretation was. And then they get like a $10 gift card. Let’s talk about the information exchange that happens between the different parts of the org when you’re coming up with the ideation.

00:15:10 Emily: I think it’s really important to understand the goals of the organization and also to understand that the goals will change. You might join an organization and the number one thing that they’re concerned about is converting, and turning people that come to the website into subscribers or people that create an account or people that sign up for a product or people that follow social media. What is the actual objective of the business? And once you find out what that objective is and who the audience is, like who do you want to take that action, then it’s all about aligning those ideas with your collaborators. Because I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to develop a website. I don’t know how to  create a site navigation bar, like I don’t know how to do the data science in particular.

00:16:08 Emily: And it’s important that you are working on an idea that has come from that collaboration and come from that sharing of knowledge that you can all move in unison. Because companies that don’t work together and don’t collaborate effectively can’t be successful because then you have resources competing against one another. And the content team or the editorial team, we’re the tip of the spear. So people are gonna read that content, they’re gonna see that content, and that’s in many ways that the top of the funnel, that’s where we’re gonna move them down and we’re gonna turn them into champions, advocates, customers, whatever we need as a business. And you don’t work in isolation and content. You’ve gotta know who you’re passing the baton off to and are you giving them what they need to be successful? Because content doesn’t exist on… like, in isolation, we’re always part of an ecosystem.

00:17:05 Emily: So understanding what your cross-functional stakeholders need to be successful and make sure you’re not fighting against the grain. Like there’s gonna be stuff that you try that doesn’t work, but there’s also going to be stuff that works well for you, but not for your other teams. And you can’t have an ego about that as a creator. That’s fundamentally what content is. We’re creating things, we’re storytellers, we’re never gonna run out of ideas. You can’t be afraid and you can’t be precious that something that you really wanted to do or something that you really believed in isn’t going happen or isn’t helpful. You’re gonna have thousands more ideas, you can let it go and focus on the ones that help the business. 

00:17:20 Tommy: And you’re the most frequently published arm of the company so being the tip of the spear, it’s important to represent everybody, holistically. Now, when you’ve structured your teams, because that’s what a lot of our audience kind of thinks about, what does that look like with the teams that you oversee? And this is more broadly not just applying to [Asana], but with the teams that you oversee and then those relationships with the out external stakeholders. What’s that look like?

00:18:25 Emily: It’s similar to the internet. It needs to be able to change, it needs to be flexible. I’ve been in positions where a print team was separate from a digital team and they never spoke to each other and they never worked together. How do you bridge the gap between those things and point out where they align and where they can help each other? I’ve worked at companies where we had 11 people on the editorial team and grew it to 65 and four departments. How does that happen?  I think especially when it comes to–

00:18:58 Tommy: How does that happen?

00:18:59 Emily: How does that… really hard work and really smart people, which is is the second part of it. As a leader, you not only have to understand what the business needs, but also what your employees need, what your teams need, what are their passions, and make sure fundamentally that people are not only working for the company, but also working for their careers. Are they doing the work that they’re gonna be the most proud of in their careers? Because that’s how you’re gonna get more engagement. That’s how you’re gonna get better ideas from your people is remind them that when they’re working for this company, they’re also working for themselves. And when it comes to like a reorg or a team development or something like that, if you know what people are passionate about, you can put them in a place because you know that Venn diagram of their passions and the business’s needs and people’s passions change. People want to explore different things. So can you align the right resources with the right results? And then you can really change anything, develop anything, evolve anything.

00:20:06 Tommy: And as a leader, making sure that you’re paying attention to the change that needs to happen and letting that happen sort of organically. We talked about that just a little bit before the call. I would love to talk about that a little bit more, but we need to break into the next section here. We could go on forever. I could have this conversation for forever. But let’s talk a little bit about your pregame before you get into an edit, right? You’ve gone through the ideation, you’ve had the conversations with the stakeholders, piece of content has been created. Now it’s time for you to take a look. What comes next?

00:20:42 Emily: Well, the first thing is, it’s really important I think when you’re working with me or when you’re working with any editor, is that editors are gonna edit. It doesn’t matter if the piece is perfect, if you follow the instructions, no matter what, if you absolutely nailed it, if you show an editor something, they will find suggestions and they’ll find edits. And so thinking about it from that collaboration aspect is really important. I am there… just like we talk about how a writer is there to help the reader. An editor is there to help the writer and to help the story, and both sides of it are absolutely necessary. But before I go into an edit, I really wanna understand what the goals of the piece are. 

00:21:30 Emily: So that question, who is it for? How does it help them? Where is this content going to be sent out? Does it align with the brand mission and values? Is this person who’s writing about it an expert? Do they have authority on this topic? and is the answer that is the most important in there, which is so what? So what, right? The number one question that gets to the best story is you work with a writer and they say, this is it. And you say, so what? And then they say something else, and then you say, so what? And you keep going and you keep going until there, that there’s that moment where the idea becomes the first form and it’s really centered around, this is what I’m going to give the world that the world has never had before. This is the so what.

00:22:26 Tommy: And it sounds like… because everybody’s… if you’re engaged as an editor, it’s about everybody pushing each other’s skills a little bit further and a little bit further. Nobody should be content with the first draft. 

00:22:45 Emily: No, I mean, the first, the first draft is really about did I organize these ideas in the right way? Did I talk to all of the right people to make it really strong? Did I take care of grammar and punctuation? Because those are true distractions for any editor. An editor doesn’t wanna have to edit grammar and punctuation. They wanna be able to edit ideas. And so that’s really, I think, important in a first draft is you have to not only know, it’s not the last draft, but also present your work in a way where you feel it’s complete. Because if you’re an editor and you’re reading through a piece and you say, “hey, like, I’m not sure what this means,” and the writer says, “yeah, I don’t know what it means either. I wanted you to figure it out.”

00:23:33 Emily: Like, that’s not gonna work. I want you to try your absolute best to complete this draft so that way I am working at a way that I actually can push you forward. Because if I’m in minutia, then I can’t even see the ideas to help you edit those things, because there’s a wall between the ideas and the expression, which is sort of the medium right? Like, you wouldn’t ever edit a show someone a blurry photo. And be like, “do you like this photo?” and then the person would be like, “I can’t see it.” Don’t let the technical stand in the way of the ideas.

00:24:15 Tommy: I’m gonna ask you a question I’ve never asked on the show before, which is how are you sharpening your skills as an editor?

00:24:24 Emily: Reading, reading is really, really, really, really, really important. Also, I love getting edited as well. I think that I luckily most of the people I’ve worked with in my career I think are fantastic and amazing. And so when I’m writing an email… cause… or an Asana task. Cause people are like, “oh, what do you write?” I’m like, “emails, Asana tasks.” I don’t really write stories anymore, but boy do I write. But talking about did I write this well? Did I abide by the things that I hold dear? Also seeing how other people edit and looking at the things that they notice from their point of view. The other thing you can do is get outside of your brain and ask yourself, “okay, this pass, I’m only going to look at the subheads” and I’m gonna ask, “I’m not gonna read anything else from the story,” and I’m just gonna ask myself, “were these subheads effective?”

00:25:25 Emily: Did they push me further down in the story? Were they captivating in some way? And to sort of break down the content and sort of a deconstructed way where you can think about each piece of it as its own entity. Because you can never expect that someone will read everything in the way that an editor reads everything. But if you can look at each piece and then look at it as a whole, or look at as a whole and then look at each piece, you can see how all of that aligns. But being edited, being open, also getting things wrong is really important. When I started in content marketing, I didn’t necessarily understand all of the ins and outs and the technical aspects of editing this type of work, but I did know that I can make any stories stronger, and that’s really what I focused on, which is what I asked from other people. What is your expertise? I can make words better. So that’s what I focused on.

00:26:30 Tommy: Nice. I was actually just talking to a newer freelancer yesterday, and that was actually a big part of the conversation. He asked, “how can I get better?” and it was like, let’s focus on individual technical pieces and really just zone in on that. Zero in on those areas, look at what happens right after the sub header. Look at your closings and really just try to nails that. Because in aggregate, that’s what ends up making a piece great. But can’t really know how to do that if you’re trying to do everything all at once. So, cool. Let’s jump into the edit.

“The internet is a living document.”

Originality in content creation is vital, as the ability to constantly adapt to remain in the game, if not be ahead. That means you have to be willing to take what you know about your audience’s behavior and take an informed risk.

In this episode, Emily Anne-Epstein joins me to discuss the importance of originality and adaptability in content creation and the need to understand and be attached with the audience. She emphasizes the role of storytelling, data analysis, and collaboration to achieve successful content. Emily also deals with the importance of editing and having room for feedback to constantly improve the quality of the content. We stress that there should be alignment with the organization’s goals and values and to always aspire for improvement. Overall, the episode provides insights and advice on how to create effective and engaging content in the ever-changing landscape of the internet.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of originality in content creation and the need to constantly adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the internet.
  • The role of data in content creation and the need for an effective analysis. An understanding of the metrics should be observed as it adds value to the work and to regularly check out what did well and why.
  • Ideation and inspiration include the significance of reading and being an expert in the topic, possessing an open mind to inspiration, and making a diverse team to bring about new content ideas.
  • Understanding the business goals of the organization and making sure its alignment with the ideas of collaborators to move in unison towards success.
  • Adapting to the ever-changing internet and never expecting yesterday’s strategies will work today. There should be experimentation and risk-taking in content creation.

These were our favorite quotable moments:

– “It’s inspiration so you’re having this conversation every single day where you get to put something out there in the world and then there’s this democratic process where the world will tell you if they liked it or not and you can then take that information and say okay i’m gonna do 50 more stories about that.”

– “You can’t expect yesterday to work today.”

– “I really wanna understand what the goals of the piece are so that question who is it for? how does it help them? where is this content going to be you know sent out? Does it align with the brand mission and values? Is this person who’s writing about it an expert? Do they have authority on this topic? And is the answer that is the most important um in there which is so what? So what right?”

– “Being edited, being open, also getting things wrong is really important. You know when I started in content marketing, I didn’t necessarily understand all of the ins and outs and the technical aspects of editing this type of work, but I did know that I can make any stories stronger, and that’s really what I focused on, which is what I asked from other people. What is your expertise? I can make words better, so that’s what I focused on.”

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