Science + Woo-woo = Creation

Something binds weavers, designers, writers, and creators of every stripe. We all think of the end product before we begin. Imagine a narrative that began with no structure, peppered with some fantastic but listless characters, with a confusing plot, and which hard stops at an unbelievable ending. There would be no story. Just words with no weight. Even literary genres like speculative fiction or sci-fi have to be furnished with cultural imagination that is based on some believable fact, relatable characters, and logical sequence of events.

William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his 1984 novel, Necromancer when he needed a hot word for the sci-fi action he wanted to create. He admitted that because he did not know enough about computers he ended up mushing figments of reality and his imagination and invented something that meant ‘absolutely nothing.’ But bada-bong, it caught on like wildfire.

“I wanted that sense of another realm, a sense of agency within my daily life, looking for bits and pieces of reality that could be cobbled into the arena I needed.”

– William Gibson in an interview

Cartography nerds will tell you what a paper town is. Also known as copyright traps, a paper town is a small error or an intended joke on a map placed primarily to protect intellectual property. Often map-makers insert a fake town in their maps in order to deter copyright infringement because then if one fake place shows up on another cartographer’s map, we can be sure that the property is not the original. 

If Tolkien did it first, as word went around, “someone famous put this insanely handy thing in his book,” Google had everybody boggled with its phantom settlement called ‘Argleton.’ Mike Nolan form Edge Hill University spotted it first in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Google removed this ‘innocent mistake.’ Keen-eyed critics note that Argleton is an anagram for ‘Not Large’ or Not Real G’ with the letter ‘G’ perhaps indicating Google. Insanely handy for Google? We’ll never know.

Agloe is another such example but more conspicuously so by virtue of its actual existence today. Agloe is the scrabbilization of the initials of Otto G.Lindberg and Earnest Alpers from the mapmaking company General Drafting Company, originally inserted in their 1930 map.

When Rand McNally, included Agloe in one of his maps a few years later, he was sued for copyright infringement. The interesting thing about the suit was that the odds were in favor of McNally because somewhere in the 1950s, the owners of a General Store saw the name on a map and decided to camp there for business. Visit Delaware County, a few miles north of Ruscoe and you will see a signpost flourish.

“Welcome to Agloe! Home of the Agloe General Store. Come Back Soon!”

And just like that, a paper town took on life. Almost like, the Biblical beginning where God said “Let there be light.” There is power in just charting thoughts out, real or fiction. This may be a scientific version of the occultic New Thought the ‘Law of Attraction.’ Then maybe there’s more of this game that isn’t finished yet. It may be neither magic nor universal ordering. It may simply be a social science. 

Today, map-making is an exciting combination of design, technology, geography and quite obviously ‘innocent jokes.’ Which is perhaps what John Green hits in his third novel ‘Paper Towns.’ If the greatest dream of a storyteller is for her work to live on after her, then it is the dream of the cartographer is for the world to be seen through his point-of-view. Even if it is only an Agloe. 

“Maybe the town was paper but the memories were not.”

John Green in ‘Paper Towns’

The aphorism ‘As a man thinks, so is he,’ is quite an impressive thing that self-help books say in different ways. The gig goes like this: the more one thinks of something, the more one speaks of it and engineers their life around it, this expression dominoes into other people’s imagination and a collective thought that propels people’s drives, calls to life something that plainly wasn’t there at all in the first place. 

Creativity and innovation in technology, content, and the arts similarly involves a whole lot of work that may be measured and can be accounted for. The art of cartography, for example, stretches rigorously to include a painstaking eye for detail, great design, deliberate purpose, ordered intent, out-of-box thinking, unbiased perspectives, and imagination. If all it took was a ‘copyright trap’ to make a fake place real, creating meaningful maps might need more precise math and more such unintended jokes to come alive. Funnily enough, comedian and actor Bill Bailey once said,

“I start with the laugh and work backward from there.”

Whether paper towns are actual depictions of places that exist or a figment of the next person’s imagination, blueprints for goals and maps for a journey are both magically logical and logically magical. Creation, in this sense, is both magic and science. Treat your ideas with proportionate amounts of both the woo-woo and science, there is nothing much that can really stop them from coming alive. 

When was the last time you turned notes on a white paper into reality? Which business idea of yours hit it off? It’s probably the one that gathered your valuable personal attention, effective resources, and the right connections. In other words, the one that you believed in, which other people also cared enough about to invest in it. I’ll quote just one last time and end with this:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Getting the content craft right

“I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

– Rudyard Kipling in ‘Six Honest Serving Men’

The toothpaste tube you squeeze in the morning. The brand of underwear you prefer. The news that you scroll through in rush hour traffic. The timely notifications that hit your phone. The trailers of your Netflix binge. They are all descriptive of your tastes and preferences. But before you make purchase decisions for specific brands, there is always a team that works behind the scenes to create, curate, and carry their unique content which resonates with you.

Spin this another way: you, the consumer with personal preferences and brands, the guys that provide you with the content or product you enjoy. Content is everywhere. But what is it that makes your preferred products stand out? An innovative product isn’t enough, one good copy cannot suffice, putting in the moolah alone won’t do it. The craft of content creation and marketing is complex, subtle, and involves more ingredients than meets the eye.

The Craft of Content Creation

As a business thinker, you probably hope the content you create meets its end, lasts, and is loved. This is the North Star of every content creation and dissemination process. If one may make a study on your content strategy, they would find that anything that you have created in the past can be improved upon. You may also find that it need not be fluff to be pleasurable or really clever to serve its function.

The Honest Serving Six, as Kipling called them, can help you give clarity, direction, and meaning to your marketing efforts. They are the same 5Ws and 1H that news writers as ambassadors of the fourth estate use as guidelines when they create content. There are no universal templates in the content craft. But depending on the what, why, who, when, where, and how factors, you can craft a strategy that works for you. Let’s go over them now and the excerpt at the top of this page may start to make sense.

What?

  • What is your business mission statement in one simple sentence?
  • What is it similar to and different from?
  • What might be affected or changed by your business goals?

With the evolving digital landscape, even a widely respected publication like the Harvard Business Review has had to keep pace with the times. The media house has steadily leveled up its game plan to bridge the gap between print and digital media. 

What did they do? They developed a Customer Experience Management (CXM) strategy that would keep magazine readers happy with a subscription model that was well segmented. Its readership now has three options: digital, digital and print, and a premium subscription.

An analytics review of this model reveals that HBR now has 8 million unique visitors on the site every month with a lot of behavioral data that helps guide both effective campaigns and more intuitive segmentation. The email communications have since then expanded to 40 million emails with a neat variety: new subscribers, niche topic consumers, and website visitors who abandon their carts.

Why?

  • Why are you doing what you are doing?
  • Why does it matter and why should anyone care?
  • Why do the forces of the market affect your business either directly or indirectly?

Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek examines how some of the world’s best brands and leaders communicate. He spells out a communication strategy called the Golden Circle which has the why of your activities at the very core. Clear communication of a brand’s why cements trust between sellers and buyers, politicians and voters, leaders and followers. 

To quote Sinek’s example, Apple did exactly just that. The brand stood out from the noise of other efficient computers and showed people why Apple can ‘think differently’ and why they should care. If you want your message to drive home, you have to start with the purpose of doing what you’re doing. It straightens out your brand strategy so you’re producing more passionate, efficient, and sustainable content that sets itself apart from the competition.

Who?

  • Who is this piece of content for?
  • Who does it affect positively or negatively?
  • Who is involved in the creation, dissemination, and the reach of content?

For instance, Starbucks was rolling out college tuition to help its employees carve out their career paths. The customers weren’t aware of the employee benefits so the company set up an email marketing campaign to notify its customers of its noble vision. Obviously, the customers were delighted with the brand and wanted to support the effort. 

The who in this marketing case scenario covers two sides of a coin: the consumers of the products and the team behind its great service. The campaign became a selling point for the brand. It’s hard to forget an email that impresses you even on days your inbox is teeming.

Where?

  • Where do you plan on getting internal work done?
  • Where do you place brand assets that attract, engage and delight your audience?
  • Where should your content be placed for the desired effect?

Silicon Beach is known for its technological prowess. You can easily rub shoulders with high-profile connections that can step up your influencer marketing game. This was where actor Jessica Alba decided to expand her career and start her business. The Honest Company, founded here in the year 2011, has had a host of brand ambassadors and influencers since then. Alba’s smart choice of location has served the company well ever since. In an atmosphere like that, great synergy is possible, either for talent, or investments, or just good traction.

Not every start-up gets the opportunity to host its company in heavy networth hubs. But where you position your company affects the talent and revenue you attract. The successful guys know that you have got to stay put where the traffic is.

When ?

  • When do you plan on launching the next campaign?
  • Does your when strategically impact your communication reach and other success metrics?
  • When do you communicate important messages to the stakeholders and to the different audience segments?

A recent ad featuring Ryan Reynolds and three brands: the Netflix blockbuster Underground 6, the star’s own brand of alcohol, Aviation Gin, and the Samsung QLED TV. A production staff walks into the screen and clarifies “…you bought an ad for your gin within an ad for your movie within an ad for Samsung?” Very meta but equally hilarious for its unassuming confidence and playfulness. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” Ryan clarifies empathizing with her evident disbelief.

While the ad strings the right identities at the right time, what it excels at is the element of attraction in a spectrum of audiences. You may not find occasions to be meta, but there are creative ways to accomplish the multiple key selling points at the right time for your brand.

How?

  • How does the content you create affect your target audience?
  • How do you create, curate, and disseminate the content you create?
  • How do different roles in the content function of your business function independently, as a team, and as a key stakeholder of your business as a whole?

$3 billion worth software company Red Hat delivers high-value content for marketing, communication, and sales. Global Director, Laura Hamlyn, has transformed the team from a handful of people doing fragmented work into an integrated center of excellence. The integrated team of about 45, has copywriters, journalists, content strategists, librarians, curators, localization experts, editors, and academics.

How do they do it? Laura had disclosed in an interview, “We’ve been given a lot of responsibility at Red Hat. Brands have to deliver consistent value in a consistent voice. The way we do that is with a consistent team.” 

Start now

Predictive questions in content marketing are fuel for putting in consistent effort. The Honest Serving Six help you determine the kind of talent you employ, the quality of plans you draw up, and goals you reach successfully. 5Ws and 1H help iron out challenges, remove blind spots, and make marketing more intuitive, hands-on, and on-point.

You can start now by asking simple questions about your brand and the content you aim to craft. People will only remember you for your unique brand identity. Even 150 years later, millions across the world remember food tycoons like Heinz for ketchup, Coca Cola for soft drinks, and Kellogg’s for cereal. Your content craft has the maximum leverage to do that for you. Even as it does for Ryan Reynolds, HBR, or anyone else who gets it right.

Embracing the weird

“We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.” – Dr. Seuss

“It’s human nature to be weird, but also human to be lonely. This conflict between fitting in and standing out is at the core of who we are.” – Seth Godin

 If you googled Seth Godin you’ll find his website, his blog, and some juicy content on marketing and sales with commendable traction. We Are All Weird is a savvy marketer’s perspective on why subscribing to the mass mindset is not going to sustain your business in the market for long. It is for marketers who want to get a good handle on what to expect from the new, more fragmented society on the horizon. Riding the wave of weirdness is an irreplaceable skill for one’s business and personal life as the market status quo is quaking.

Our civilizations have been established on the ideas of mass cooperation. Economic, political, and cultural systems have been organized around ideas of the mass market – a mythical idea where people desire the same things. These syndicates helped sustain narratives targeted across a large group of people for a particular time period. But with an ever-changing cultural landscape with so many fields of specialized know-how, markets, and demands, the need to understand humans as nuanced beings has never been more critical. This ability to embrace the bizarre and buck the forces of the collective mindset is the need of the hour.

Set in this context, Godin reports the importance of four keywords in the contemporary world: mass, normal, weird, and rich. With the Age of Information and digitalization of access to information, the era wastes no time in introducing no absolute singular truth. Supporting relative needs, preferences and characteristics of human needs become the backbone of a new age. This is far easier than holding an organized argument over a mass market. Catering to niches of weirdness seems to be the game plan in today’s survival of the fittest.

Godin goes on to articulate the inevitable decline of capitalism, industry, and the power of mass, the spread of the bell curve, and something known as the four forces of the weird. The forces of the normal arise from politicians, franchises, and establishments that have largely dictated how the masses respond to what is manufactured for them. The forces of the weird on the other hand are the internet which amplifies the content creation, how putting money into the effort helps the process, and that marketers who can cater to the overlapping weirdness of a large number of people can hit big wins. Marketing, today, is far more efficient at reaching the weird.

Was it not Einstein who once said that he didn’t know what the third world war will be fought with but the fourth will be fought with sticks and stones. Who knows if these ‘sticks and stones’ were metaphors for something Godin would call the forces of the weird in an age where we are clear witnesses to “the rise of the tribes”.

Does the question then arise if the author ignored important aspects of the subject? Probably. He recounts real-life tales of how a pregnant elephant saved a Belgian zoo, and why Wonder Bread isn’t so wonderful anymore, and when weirdness belongs in the classroom; drawing circumstantial insights. But there are no references to socio-economic theories or reports from the experts in the matter. This is probably the modern marketer’s style and is a more effective way to use attention. It does still challenge readers to ask tough, introspective questions and be prepared to put the work in. I recommend it to each of my fellow independent marketers, in any case.

F#ck content marketing, seriously

Psychologists have it that sarcasm is a sign of great mental health. The provocative title of the book, despite what it reads, is about de-cluttering the content mess and re-aligning content strategy to the experience that you wish to create. This is for all content marketers who need to find some calm in the chaos, and confidence in the confusion. Here’s why. Author Randy Frisch believes in the content experience. He explores why brands like Netflix, Spotify, and Facebook have immersive endless scrolls that users keep coming back to.

“Too often we try to make people care about a great piece of content without doing anything to show that we care about them.”

As CMO and Co-Founder of UberFlip, he has been successful in not just creating effective content but generating demand through that content. People are quick to jump into creating content when 70% of that remains unused in B2B marketing. This book is for all marketers in the industry, and anyone who wants their content to reach more people. While digital marketers and lead generators are charged with a mission to bring the eyeballs, Frisch re-evaluates the role of the content marketer in the scene. As important as marshaling technical skills is, the book highlights a realistic perspective on the brand message in a world where content is King and engagement is the Queen.

The train of thought goes on to explore why marketers have to justify the content they create, it takes back a thing or two from the level of personalization that Spotify uses, and re-focuses on why distribution, placement, and other logistics of customer experience are key. You get a balcony view to the larger scheme of things as Frisch warns against getting muddled in the short-sighted field of play.

This said, he encourages marketers to mix it up while creating different content forms. You learn why taxonomies, topic segments, and structure are important and how you map them out smartly across different platforms. Each content piece, in whatever form, needs to stand alone, attractive, fit, and strong for a receptive audience. Spending wads of bucks isn’t quite the best way to create ambassadors for your brand.

It really comes from creating consistent personalized experiences that scale.” 

You can be metaphorical ‘fishers’ of people. It’s simple. You build relationships, and your revenue will follow.

As a content marketer, I wave at the shores of old-school content marketing. There’s plenty to learn in a sea of content that exists on content marketing. I think I’ve just stumbled on one surefire way to do it. [pause to drop the f-bomb]

Storytelling in human society: A small perspective of a big topic

Given the right audience and the right timing, stories are told to influence the human mind and help make decisions. Think of these. Why do stories about greater gods exist? What does the motherland represent for patriots? Why should a revolution dare take a leap in the middle of a totalitarian regime? Why do we strike business deals in the first place? One of the primary things that helped glue societies together was the ability of humans to tell themselves stories and have others cooperate with value systems through storytelling. Stories are by nature human and ever-present in human interactions and societies. The question is, do we tell stories for the sake of telling them or are stories the means to achieve an end?

Let’s take a walk down some of the greatest practices in human society and see for ourselves: Agriculture, religion, and politics.

Agriculture 

Think of the time when humans were transitioning from nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to establish tribal, farming settlements. Food surpluses and food shortages were common. To bring order in the seasons of seed time and harvest, daily functions had to be streamlined so food production could scale and sustain tribes. Humans existed in large numbers and passed skills to future posterity so the practice could continue. Mighty empires and villages came into existence as we fabricated stories around the gods of the elements, communal unity, myths, and legends. In his book, Sapiens, Israeli social scientist Yuval Harari explains how stories have proved useful tools in providing the needed social links that enabled this mass cooperation during the Agricultural Revolution.

Mighty empires and villages came into existence as we fabricated stories around the gods of the elements, communal unity, myths, and legends.

Religion 

Religion has by far astounded the world like nothing else seen or heard. The millennia between a foraging species and an empire-building animal saw a flourish of stories, myths, and values. They reflected the human desire to believe in something greater than themselves. We deeply craved for connection. The golden age of the Roman empire collected taxes up to one hundred million subjects. Stories about the ‘divine right of kingship’ empowered the Pharaoh to take the Egyptian civilization to its golden years. Dynasties across the world carried on legacies on account of how engaging these stories were. People acknowledge a version of themselves until their lives and the lives of their posterity depended on the interpretation of these stories. 

The Quran, the Tripitikas, the Bible, and other sacred scriptures have not only been guidebooks for followers but large chunks of them comprise of stories. Stories that have motivated millions in thought, word, and deed. Believers make references in everyday speak like: ‘What would Jesus do’ or Ram Rajya is coming soon.’ Clearly, all religious stories are linked to being fundamental to the human experience. They reflect how society has evolved with an innate need for social interaction, community building, moral guidance and an attempt to find meaning.

Dr. Francis Clooney, Director for the Center for the Study of World Religious at Harvard wrote, ‘We [often] imitate the characters who impress us most.’ It is interesting that expressions like the mark of Cain, Achilles’ heel, the Draupadi-effect, have become a part of everyday speech. Religion is one such element in the cognitive process. It connects people’s deepest motivation and promotes the desired action. Stories have made it easier for people to make sense of events and characteristics that cannot be otherwise articulated. However, just as these large masses of population collectively bowed down to things they revered, this agreement on a common value has also been rigged towards oppression and exploitation. The next section grazes through a few stories in the political territory.

‘We [often] imitate the characters who impress us most.’

Politics

The power of the imagination has conceptualized nations, wars, and ideals of equality, liberty, justice or the pursuit of happiness. No other species has possessed this capacity of turning such powerful ideas into reality. This mass cooperation for an idea has rarely been egalitarian. Communal and ultra-national stories have impacted us so much that the last century stacked up corpses enough to shock hell itself. 

Think of how Hitler or Stalin or Mao Zedong made deluded plans to accomplish some of the world’s worst genocides. Ledger guesstimates do not arrive at figures that accurately match the destruction they caused, while these statistics cannot replace the individuals’ tragedies they havoced. Military policies were executed with slick propaganda of why ‘they must die.’ However morally misguided these dictators were, one cannot deny that they were excellent storytellers. They played at the insecurities of their audiences, winning hearts in their threatening speeches and ruthless pragmatism. Their message tugged at all the right strings to make histories that their grandkids won’t be proud of. 

The Savarna, to take another example in Indian politic-speak, was not a religious fundamentalist at all, but as Bipin Chandra called it ‘a practicing atheist’ who misconstrued religion to satisfy his political ends. A politics that was based on manufactured ancient wrongs for the spread of hatred, revenge and the larger share of the vote. The caste system in India society was an elitist imagined order to manipulate opportunities, privileges, and wealth. Why do you think Voltaire said, ‘I know that there is no god, but don’t tell my servant that, lest he slays me at night.’ Stories have been monopolized by the uppers and alternate versions that counter-argued were suppressed. 

However morally misguided these dictators were, one cannot deny that they were excellent storytellers.were excellent storytellers.

So?

Sociologists, psychologists, and management professionals have gone on to study why stories hit the mark like nothing else. People process stories differently than non-narrative information. They suspend natural responses to differ when they are absorbed in a story. It links people’s deepest motivations and promotes more radical action. They engage people at every level – not just in their minds but in their emotions, values, and imagination. People can feel the impact of a problem or a solution. We’ll make more references in future posts. The next section explores why storytelling is important to your business mission and messages.

Does your business have a story that sells?

Stories draw on a cultural stock of plots communicating messages associated with these plots. Storytelling gives your business a competitive advantage. Think of how Disney sells more than just merchandize, it sells the stuff dreams are made of. Or how Marriot’s Golden Rule Campaign became a huge success. Could Facebook do it without a yarn to spin on privacy and trust? Marketing researchers, David Gilliam and Karen Flaherty conducted a qualitative study with an extensive literature search to view storytelling in the customer-supplier relationship. They explore the narrative transportation theory, according to which, stories that transport the listener have positive effects. In this case, they help you make those profits by first establishing trust with the people you’re targeting.

Good stories contain a conflict, have evolved characters, and provide solutions. They also strike the right emotional chords. According to Dr. Paul Zak, conflict in a story releases cortisol, the stress hormone in our body. In his book, The Confident Speaker, Harrison Monarth studies how Dr. Zak’s theory relates happy endings to good stories. Happy endings produce oxytocin, the fuzzy-feeling hormone, and dopamine, the optimistic, hopeful hormone, in the brain’s reward center. If you know how to capitalize on these emotions, you’re a great storyteller.

In an age where profits do not need to come before the customer, figuring out the ‘why’ helps salespeople, marketers and branding professionals make it big with innovation, emotional engagement, and desired effect. The average adult, today, spends 20 hours a week on digital media. Think of how you can leverage this for your business. 

Stories that stick are human-centric, powerful, and the secret sauce of business decisions, marketing strategy, and demand generation.

It isn’t enough that you have a great idea, or service or product, or even a great team. The question is, Do you have a story that sells?

If you have that figured out, great, keep building! If you haven’t, I hope this helps. Stay tuned for strategies and more research on best practices in business storytelling.