Content Marketing Institute’s GM on how brands can infuse storytelling into their campaigns

Ladders recently spoke with Stephanie Stahl, General Manager of Content Marketing Institute, who discussed a variety of topics including how brands and business can effectively apply storytelling to their marketing campaigns, how technology has changed the content marketing field, how marketers can best measure success, and much more. Get to know her below. 

What initially attracted you to the field of content marketing?

Before working in the field of content marketing, I was in the print/digital media business for many years. In all of my years of reporting, writing, and editing, I realized that great content – whether it is from a journalistic organization or an enterprise or an agency or an individual blogger – is worth consuming. So, the idea of creating compelling content that helps companies build trust and relationships with prospective or existing customers was very appealing. After many years of working as a journalist and editor for UBM, I took on a leadership role in the content marketing services business and had the opportunity to help many technology companies with content creation, distribution, promotion, optimization, etc. 

Please tell me a little about the Content Marketing Institute/UBM and your role

I’m the General Manager of the brand, which UBM acquired in 2016. UBM is now owned by Informa and the Content Marketing Institute is part of the Informa Tech business unit. CMI provides education, training, events, consulting and research to help marketers improve their strategies – and their results – through great content, processes and technology.   Whether companies are trying to generate demand, raise awareness of their brand, learn about innovative technologies, or network with a vibrant community, CMI has something for practitioners as well as decisions makers. Our daily blog offers a new article each day to help marketers do something — or do something better; our Chief Content Officer digital magazine offers compelling and provocative content for executives; we have multiple in-person events (Content Marketing World, ContentTECH Summit); webinars; online training; benchmark research; strategy consulting; and more. 

Why is content marketing such a talked about and important field nowadays for brands/marketers?

A decade ago, it was a “nice-to-have” in a marketing strategy…something to experiment with. Today, it is a “must-have” as traditional advertising has become less effective and sometimes very distracting. Look no further than the significant increase in the usage of ad blockers.  Using creative and compelling content to attract the attention of an audience, to engage an audience, to build loyalty from an audience, to ideally create long-term relationships with customers who are willing to tell others about you, to share your content, to share their experiences with you – that’s the goal. And marketing teams in large enterprises, in small and midsize companies, and in start-ups realize the value that great content and storytelling can create in terms of a competitive advantage. CMI’s annual Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research continues to show year-over-year growth and increasing success rates among B2B and B2C marketers who are using content to connect with prospects and build long-term relationships with customers. 

What steps should those brands and businesses new to the field take to apply storytelling in their marketing campaigns?

Storytelling helps humanize a brand and create emotional ties with an audience or community. It also gives customers a sense of beliefs, values, and personality of the brand.  Fundamentally, it starts with an agreed-upon mission statement. It should be clear and direct — tell your readers who you are, what audience you intend to help, and how you are going to help them. For example, “Content Marketing Institute is the leading global content marketing education and training organization (that’s who we are), teaching marketing and content professionals (that’s the audience we are creating content for) how to attract and retain customers through compelling, multi-channel storytelling (that’s how we are going to help them).” Then, you need to focus on hiring the right team and/or agency so that you can set your content strategy – who is your desired audience? what will your workflow look like? what technologies do you need? how often will you publish? what channels should you use? etc. 

Your team should include writers, editors, copy editors, and designers, of course (whether on-staff or freelancers).  But you also need to think about distribution, promotion, audience development, personalization, sales enablement, etc. when building the team to help you get the most out of your efforts. You’ll need to think about what technologies you need and collaborating with IT professionals in your organization. You’ll need to have someone analyzing your content performance and making sure you are getting the ROI you are seeking. You might even consider having a researcher on staff or working with a third-party research team to help with original research, which is a great way to create compelling content. 

What should they avoid? What mistakes have you seen?

For brands that have been using content in their marketing efforts for some time, an omnichannel approach can be very effective. But for those that are just starting out, trying to be in too many places at one time can be a big mistake. It just dilutes the efforts. Get really good at a couple of things before trying to expand. Also, it’s good to experiment with different content types (written, audio, video), but you need to study very carefully what resonates with your desired audience and master what works. 

How important of a role does technology play in the content marketing field and specifically in your work?

Simply stated, it’s critical. Marketers need to first determine needs and proper processes before choosing specific technologies, but there are so many innovative and necessary technologies available today to increase efficiency, to manage content production, to optimize distribution, to improve workflow, to manage assets locally or globally, to manage social media, to scale enterprise content, to make marketers’ lives so much easier! 

What technology/innovation/platform has had the most profound effect on the field of content marketing in the past year or two, and why?

It’s impossible to choose a single technology! That’s not a cop out! There are so many great technologies available today, but it really depends on the organizational size and need. A great workflow platform can be life-changing. An AI-based tool can replace timely, manual processes or help with corporate governance, a content management platform can help a team operate fluidly…it all depends on the need. 

What are the biggest challenges, from a creative and/or business standpoint, that those in content marketing face nowadays?

Well, there is no shortage of content available today. So, the focus really must be on creating the best content. Great content all the time! There’s no room for noise and distractions that have turned people away from annoying digital advertising. Mediocre content will be ignored. Thinly-veiled sales pitches will be ignored. Poorly researched content will be ignored. Most consumers these days aren’t willing to give second chances, so the content must be great, it should educate, solve a business need, entertain, or all of the above. 

How can marketers best measure success with content marketing?

Marketers should decide up front what is the most important result from their content efforts. Is it the number of clicks? Is it time on site? Is it time watching a video? Is it the number of subscribers to a podcast? Is it the number of times content is shared? Is it the number of conversions to a revenue-generating product? Is it brand awareness to help recruit skilled workers? Ultimately, we all want our content to help our bottom line, but how we get there differs among brands. Whatever metric is most important should be measured relentlessly so that smart decisions can be made. And I can pretty much promise any marketer that if their content focuses solely on product pitches and “me me me” information rather than customer needs, there’s no reason to measure at all. 

What has been your career highlight/proudest career achievement and why?

I’ve often consulted with clients about not worrying about creating tons and tons of content just to see what “sticks.” Focus, instead, on creating really great content in the formats and on the channels that matter most to your desired audience. It’s been gratifying to see a single print product or a single webcast lead to some truly amazing results (revenue) for clients. It reinforces the notion that marketers should aim to make every piece of content great and to focus on the channels that work best for your audience’s needs. These are career highlights for sure.  And, yes, of course, it’s fun and rewarding to be able to have amazing storytellers such as Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Henry Rollins join us for Content Marketing World. It’s nice to have influential storytellers give our audience so many great ideas and words of wisdom. I get to work with an amazing team at CMI and our community is awesome.