Melanie Deziel, the founder of StoryFuel, is an international keynote speaker and a lifelong storyteller, recognized as one of the world's leading experts in native advertising and branded content.
As a speaker, she's taught marketers around the globe to think like journalists and tell better brand stories. She is a member of the National Speakers Association, and has graced the stages of industry-leading events like Content Marketing World, Native Ad Days, Social Media Marketing World, SXSW, and more.
She developed the Content Marketing course for Fairleigh Dickinson University's MS in Digital Marketing program, and has taught as an adjunct professor for FDU and Syracuse University.
Introduction: (00:05) Melanie Deziel, the founder of StoryFuel, is an international keynote speaker and a lifelong storyteller. She is recognized as one of the world's leading experts in native advertising and branded content. She's taught marketers around the globe to think like journalists and to tell better brand stories. She's a member of the National Speakers Association and has appeared at Content Marketing World, Native Ad DAYS, Social Media Marketing World, South by Southwest and more. She developed the content marketing course for Fairleigh Dickinson University's MS and digital marketing program and is taught as an adjunct professor for FDU and Syracuse University.
Mary Drumond: (01:21) Today, I am joined by Melanie Deziel, who is a journalist and content producer and speaker and author and tons of other things. Right Melanie?
Melanie Deziel: (01:32) I'm a little busy, yeah.
Mary Drumond: (01:35) So when people ask what you do, what's your default?
Melanie Deziel: (01:40) A really good question. I think like any good marketer, I try to trust the data, right? And I try to customize my response based on what the data tells me they understand. So if I'm speaking to people who are in the marketing space, then I might just say I'm a content marketer or a content strategist, because I understand they have a good frame of reference. They'll know what that is. If they are not in the content marketing space or in the marketing space such that content marketing has any meaning to them whatsoever, I generally say I try to help advertisers tell better stories so that you hate your ad experience less.
Mary Drumond: (02:12) Ooh, well you see, I think even being a marketer, I think I like that second one a little bit more.
Melanie Deziel: (02:17) Well it definitely has has more zing to it, right?
Mary Drumond: (02:19) Yeah. Yeah. Plus, I think it focuses around a problem that has become extremely abundant and has multiplied, I'm going to say, which is the native absolute hatred of any form of advertising, which is probably one of the biggest problems that marketers and advertisers have to overcome at this point.
Melanie Deziel: (02:39) And it's also just kind of upsetting to work in a field where, you know, people hate the things that you make all the time, you know, like no one wants that job. So I think it's kinda nice for all of us to be working toward a better reality where we're making things that people don't just, you know, anxiously await to skip or close out of or you know, report as spam.
Mary Drumond: (02:56) Absolutely. So before we get started, for the benefit of our listeners, can you give us a quick rundown of what you've done and what you want to accomplish?
Melanie Deziel: (03:06) Yeah, absolutely. So my background is as a journalist, I studied journalism. I studied investigative reporting and arts and cultural criticism, and I really wanted to tell stories that made a difference. That was sort of, you know, my mission and my love when I was in school. And unfortunately, you know, we've seen massive downsizing in the media industry the last few years, as everything's been digitized, or more than the last few. And those teams that get cut first are generally the investigative teams and the arts teams, which is unfortunate. But that meant my skills were not in particular demand in the newsrooms where I wanted to be working. So I found pretty quickly that those same skills were incredibly useful in a marketing context where oftentimes the training doesn't tell you how to find sources or how to interview someone in a way that elicits really interesting information, or how to dig up research in a way that is going to allow you to surface new insights. All those things I learned as a reporter were incredibly useful for press releases, for blogging, for all these things we do as marketers. And so I was able to put those skills to use in a marketing context. So I worked at HuffPost, we built HuffPost Partner Studio, which was essentially a brand storytelling team inside of the Huffington post. I then went on and I was the first editor of branded content at the New York Times, so I helped them build a similar team called T Brand Studio that did all of their amazing brand storytelling, creating New York times quality sponsored content. And then I worked at Time, Inc. So they own 35 different US publications, or they did before they acquired, you know, People, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, a lot of really cool, really different brands, doing the same thing there. Helping brands figure out how they could address our audience in a way that was going to make sense and provide value for them. And for the last almost four years, I've been running my own company called StoryFuel, where we teach marketers and storytellers how to do exactly that, how to kind of put the audience at the center and create content that your audience actually wants to enjoy and read and watch and listen to.
Mary Drumond: (05:03) Right. And you call this native advertising?
Melanie Deziel: (05:05) Yeah. So native advertising, truth be told, was a little bit of an industry buzz word. I think native at its core, we know that word. That word has a meaning, right? Like plants are native to a region or you are native to wherever you grew up. So native advertising at the broadest level is any advertising that truly fits the form and function of where it lives. So you think of your experience on Twitter for example. The content you see there is tweets. So what's most native is for a brand to sponsor a tweet that appears in your feed with everything else. When you're talking about the context of a publisher, like a New York Times or a Sports Illustrated, then what's native for us is content. That's what we give our audience. So for an advertiser to fit into that context, they also need to provide high quality content that delivers the same level of value and not just buy a full page ad, although that's wonderful. Please do that. Please support our business, you know, by a full page ad by run of site media. But you know, to truly add value, you want to make sure you're speaking the same language that we do when we talk to our customers and our audience. And that's the language of content.
Mary Drumond: (06:08) Well, I wanted to bring up an example because while I was researching you, it's something that I did find, and it was pretty brilliant, which was the article that you wrote in the New York Times I'm going to say, for Orange is the New Nlack sponsored by Netflix. That was really cool. So do you want to give a little bit of background story just for people who haven't read the article yet like me?
Melanie Deziel: (06:33) Absolutely. So, the good news is it's very SEO friendly. So if you search for "paid post New York Times Netflix," you will find it and you can dive in if you're interested. So this is when I was on that brand storytelling team, T Brand Studio at the New York Times. Netflix and their agency teams came to us and said, look, here's our situation. We know that Orange is the New Black is a show about women in prison. It's based on a true story. It's based on a book, and it represents real experiences and real struggles that female inmates have. We think maybe your audience, because we know that they're politically minded and interested in social justice, they might just think it's kind of a silly sitcom-type show. How do we help them understand that it's real and that it represents real issues? So that was sort of our challenge. How do we tell that story to a New York Times audience? And again speaking that native language of content that the New York Times puts out. So it's got to be well sourced, it's gotta be in depth and it's gotta have multimedia. So the solution we came up with is the piece that you found. So it was called Women Inmates: why the male model doesn't work. It was a long form, so about 2000 words, investigative piece that I did get to use that journalism background and write. But for that piece we interviewed current and former inmates and you know, doctors, sociologists, people who work in the prisons, reform workers, activists, people who could give really expert opinions from all different sides about what that experience is like of being a woman in prison. We also created infographics. There were audio clips, there was a three part mini documentary containing the interviews with many of those same sources to kind of give this really in depth multimedia portrayal of what is it really like to be a woman in an American prison. It allowed us to use that journalistic best practice of show don't tell. So instead of telling the audience, Hey, there are issues inside of American prisons and those issues are represented on this show. We could just show them what that experience was like. We could talk to real inmates, we could share footage from inside the prison and help them see on their own that this is something they might be interested in learning more about. So that when they get to the end and it says sponsored by Netflix, season two of Orange is the New Black now streaming, they can come to that conclusion on their own instead of us having to force it down their throat and say, "you might like this show. You might like the show. We promise." We were able help them, you know, come to that conclusion on their own speaking that language of high quality content that we knew they expected from us at the Times.
Mary Drumond: (09:02) Did it work?
Melanie Deziel: (09:04) It's a really good question. Oftentimes the question that I get, and I liked the way you asked it, did it work? It worked for our goals, right? So our goal again was to get the attention of our audience and to help them see that these were real issues. So we've looked at signals like engagement. We know that the piece was engaged with at an immensely high level. You know, people were reading and sharing it. It actually appeared completely organically on the most emailed module on the homepage of the New York Times. So, you know, listing the articles that were emailed around the most. So it earned its way into that top 10 spot, which tells us our audience liked it, the same level that they like a lot of our editorial content. So that was a huge compliment. I know, again, we had really positive feedback from our audience. We had a lot of coverage in the industry press about you know, what we had created and how it was different. So all of those things signal to us that we were getting attention and we were changing minds and really reaching our readers. So in that way it worked. Sometimes the question I get instead is how many subscriptions did you get? Or how many people signed up for Netflix? Or how many people watched the show? And I'll tell you the truth, I don't know, because we weren't being asked to achieve that. That was not our key performance indicator. It was not our goal in this case. And I think in many cases that kind of strictly conversion-focused goal can really lead you down a path of creating content that your audience doesn't actually want. Nobody wakes up and says, I can't wait to be converted today, or I can't wait to be sold to today. So taking that softer approach of showing instead of telling, I think it just creates a much deeper relationship with the audience, both for the publishing partner you might be working with or on your own properties, if you're talking to them through your blog or your social channels. So we, we weren't aiming to drive subscriptions, we were aiming to start conversations and change minds and drive interest that would hopefully lead down the path of perhaps subscription or engagement with the show. So having that conversation.
Mary Drumond: (11:00) Right, eventually, but not shoving it down people's throats.
Melanie Deziel: (11:02) Exactly. Right. Yeah. So having that conversation up front though, what is our goal with this content is so important because otherwise you could create a magnificent piece of content that achieves the totally wrong goal. So we were really lucky to be aligned on that front when we were creating this piece.
Mary Drumond: (11:47) I've read on your blog, you talking about how marketers need to learn how to court their customers with content. And the example that you gave, which for me was great, was when you're using really sales-oriented content, it's like you're walking around just proposing to people that you've just met on the street. Right? And I identify with that very much. It was great, at least for me as a marketer, I do absolutely believe that one of the main issues we have with content marketing nowadays is that they forget the person who's consuming the content, which is the customer or the potential customer. And that's why I invited you to this podcast. It's about customer experience because the customer experience, lots of people think that it only starts once someone becomes a customer, but it doesn't. It starts way before that. It starts when they begin to interacting with your brand and everything that your brand is putting out there. So if your brand is putting out content, then you have to start looking at the customer experience during the marketing stage as well, during the the branding stage of it. Which means looking at your potential customer or your future customer and tailoring to their needs and to their wants and understanding what they don't want. Right?
Melanie Deziel: (13:03) Yeah, exactly. I think understanding what they don't want is one of those things that's forgotten so often and it's so easy for us to get absorbed as marketers in our own mission, right? This is what I want you to do. What I want you to buy, what I want you to click, and like I said, our customers, our audience, our potential customers, they don't operate that way. Their world is about them. In the same way that our world is about us. And so if we truly want to matter to them, if we want them to pay attention, we'd want them to enter our atmosphere and be a part of our little world, and we need to make sure that we're actually inviting them in the ways that they want to be invited. I'm really big on analogies, as you've heard, but I think the other really good example I give is I remember being a kid and my dad let me pick out my own mother's day gift for my mom and I was maybe six years old and I gave my mother for mother's day a box of rainbow plastic jewelry because that's what I wanted more than anything in the world. And that's lovely, and my mom, you know as mothers do, like patted me on the head and said thank you and all that. But we can't employ that same tactic when we're creating content for our audience. Like they don't want this stuff. Just because we want to give it to them doesn't mean that it's going to achieve what we want it to. And so really, the core of your content strategy needs to start with that question. What does your audience wants and need? Because if you're not giving them things they want or need, then it doesn't really matter what your goal is, because you're not going to achieve it. It really has to start with their wants and their needs at the absolute core of what it is you create.
Mary Drumond: (14:37) So if we could create a quick list of like steps for our listeners, like you need to create customer centered content, how do you do that? How do you start? What's step number one?
Melanie Deziel: (14:50) I mean, I think the first step, and this, it sounds so silly, it's not even really content strategy, you just gotta talk to your audience. We have to learn what it is that they want and need. And my recommendation, you know, there are an endless number of tools you can use and we can talk about those a little bit. But I think the best way to do this is to honestly just talk to your audience and you may be doing this on some level through sales conversations or customer service help lines or you know, some sort of question submission system on your website. But yeah, look to the actual words of your audience. What are the questions that they are asking you? What are the things that they want more information about? What are the things that they don't understand or the misconceptions they have? That's a really good indication that you should be creating content around those topics because your audiences, they're straight up asking you for this information. So any time you create content, it's based on their actual words. And again, you could pull those from from many places. If you don't have access to those kinds of things, set up a focus group or wander around your retail store or whatever you need to do to just get in front of your customers and talk to them. These kinds of things will surface naturally. They all have questions. If you're putting yourself out there as being helpful, they will ask you those questions and you can use that to inform your content. So again, your your customer service team, your sales team, and probably your social team as well. Will be easily able to share with you some of the common questions that they get. The misconceptions and misunderstandings about your products or services, creating content in response to those questions or that direct feedback from your audience is a really good place to start.
Mary Drumond: (16:22) I've heard you make several analogies as well about how creating content is like dating. And there was one that talked about how it's really important to gift your readers somehow, deliver something of value to them so that they feel courted once again. Right? So part of that listening is also understanding what is valuable to them so that you can then act on that. Right?
Melanie Deziel: (16:48) Exactly. Yeah. And that's, that's why I say the first step is, is really listening to your audience. And not to get too deep into our multilayered analogies here, but I guess it's like any relationship, right? Like it's, it's give and take. You have to listen as well as respond. If you're only talking at someone, you're that guy at the party that only talks about himself and no one likes to hang around you for very long. Right. They realize very quickly you don't need them for that conversation.
Mary Drumond: (17:12) Now in your life, what have you encountered to be the number one issue with content strategies out there, that causes rejection on behalf of customers? Like a pet peeve. Like when you see it, you're like, Ooh.
Melanie Deziel: (17:29) You know, I think the one thing that I see a lot that makes me cringe is when someone will put out a press release that it's very clear that the person who wrote that press release might very well be the only person who cares about it. You can, you can sort of tell, right. Where it's like very self-congratulatory. It makes no mention of the customer or the impact on the customer or the audience, whoever the case may be. It makes no case for differentiation, you know, or uniqueness. Why is this special? Why are you putting out a press release about it? There's no mention of newsworthiness, you know, are they the first to do this? Are they the only to do this? It's just like a pat on the back. Look what we did. And there's nothing for a customer or an audience member in there, and it's a little bit like drawing a picture and putting it on your own fridge. It's a little bit weird and self-congratulatory.
Mary Drumond: (18:17) Or having a picture of you on the background of your phone. Whenever I see that I'm like ughh. Someone unlocks their phone and it's them!
Melanie Deziel: (18:28) I have actually not seen that?
Mary Drumond: (18:28) You haven't? Oh it's the worst. It's the absolute worst.
Melanie Deziel: (18:32) It's the same, right? Where it's like you put a press release, "I'm happy to announce that I have launched a new product and I think it's great. Here's a quote from me and here's why I think that this product is amazing. Here's my email, call me so I can give you my amazing product." Like who wants to read that? That that is for you. You fully wrote that press release for you. And there's nothing for anyone else in that whole thing. You've wasted your own time and resources and anyone who reads it, you know, is not going to gain anything from it. You know, talk to your customers, get other people's quotes in there. Let other people say nice things about you., Bring in some stats or something from the industry that indicates a need for this product or service. Just give some outside perspective. Get outside of your own head a little bit because I mean what's the point of putting out something that only you're going to read and only you would take action on? That's not the goal of marketing.
Mary Drumond: (19:21) Right? So then we go back to the whole idea of storytelling, which is content that people actually want to read because everyone loves a good story.
Melanie Deziel: (19:30) Exactly, yeah.
Mary Drumond: (19:30) Is it possible to storytell in a press release? I mean, I've seen storytelling everywhere, but press releases are always so boring. Like I purposely ignore press releases when they're in front of me. Even our own, I'm like uhh, right? So is that actually a thing? Like does the industry accept that?
Melanie Deziel: (19:46) And you know, I can't blame you for that. We've been trained, right? We, when you read a lot of bad press releases, no wonder you've concluded that they're not useful for you. So that makes total sense to me. I think many of our customers and audience are the same way if we continue to put out the bad stuff. But I think there's, there's little ways you can do it. So I doubt that we're going to see a press release winning a Pulitzer anytime soon for feature writing or anything like that. But I think there are ways you can certainly bring a storyteller mindset into those things. So one of the things that I always suggest is finding the human elements. So that's one thing that journalists know how to do really well, bringing in new faces, bringing in different voices, bringing in different perspectives, putting a person at the center of your story. So if we think about launching a new product, rather than just listing off a bunch of features and benefits, which no one's going to copy, paste and write about, if that's your goal. Find a customer who's used that service or product, who it's made a significant difference in their life, who can speak freely and openly and honestly about the transformational impact it's had for them. That's way more compelling than just a list of features and benefits. By having that human story in there, like I said, it may not be a work of art. It may just be a matter of describing this person's business and having them share a few authentic quotes. It's just going to be so much better. It's going to resonate with people so much more because it's a human, and again, not yourself. You are human, but don't use yourself as the human in your stories. Try to find other voices that you can bring in. I think that's one really easy way to do it.
Mary Drumond: (21:17) You know, on this season here on this podcast, we had Mark Schaefer as well. And Mark Schaefer wrote an amazing book this year called Marketing Rebellion that talks about how people have this rejection of everything that is artificial about the lies of advertising, or even the structure that we have today in advertising and how we don't really have a choice. It's changing with or without us. So we better get on board. What's it like to be part of a world that has such natural rejection? Because you know, a couple of years ago, I would say even five years ago when content marketing was super new and everybody was massively consuming that and we just thought it was the absolute greatest thing that had ever hit the planet. And nowadays even that is becoming old or square or kind of just canned and overly used and everything like that. So is it happening, too, that content marketing is being pulled into that world of just artificial, very fluffy content that isn't actually providing value and just wearing people out of even consuming content?
Melanie Deziel: (22:25) Yeah. You know, it's interesting, this is something I actually used to talk about. I found a lot more when content marketing and native advertising were very new, but it's just as applicable today. There is bad everything, right? There are bad movies, there's bad food, there's bad music and there's undoubtedly a lot of really bad content marketing: bad sponsored content, bad press release, bad blogs. I think the propensity for us to make bad content marketing is, it's very tempting because we often exist in our own little bubbles. We're on teams full of people who share the same marketing goals that we do. And I think that when we don't have outside perspective, it's very easy, like I said, to get caught up and continue to make more bad things that don't serve our audience. But I think that we do still love stories. We do still love those things that are good. You know, we see this happen when even a news story, you know, some heartwarming child somewhere makes some amazing feat at a sporting event and the video goes incredibly viral because we love to see a good story. We love a human interest. We love hearing about someone we never knew about who's done something of note. And so I think those principles, you know, the things that make us want to repeat a story to a friend or share it with someone, those things are always true. And so so long as we're sticking to some of those really those best practices of just communication and of storytelling, then whatever form it takes, whether it happens to be a blog post or a piece of editorial journalism or a feature length film, we'll continue to connect with people we'll continue to resonate. But yeah, it's, it's incredibly tempting to just create the same sort of stale sales copy type content. That's not going to help you break through the noise. That's not going to help you connect with people. I think in many cases it's not disheartening to me if only because I think what this has done is given us a few advantages. Actually it makes it number one really easy for me to help make a difference when I'm working with those kinds of teams who feel stuck. And that's, that's actually rewarding just as, as someone who does this kind of work to say, Oh well, well this is a common issue. No problem. We just need some outside perspective and we can very meaningfully change the way you engage with your customers. That's rewarding. But I think it's also the fact that there is so much content of every type, right? There's so many things our audience could be doing. Could be reading, watching, listening to, means that the bar is set really high. And as a creative, as someone who likes to see good work, get made and good work get rewarded, I actually like that. I think the fact that it's hard to stand out should push us all to strive to make better work. And I think the advertising industry, we're often driven by awards or recognition. And so the fact that we can also be driven by the need to make good work to stand out. I think that's a move in the right direction too.
Mary Drumond: (25:16) You're writing your first book, aren't you?
Melanie Deziel: (25:18) I am. Yes I am.
Mary Drumond: (25:20) Tell us a little bit about that.
Melanie Deziel: (25:21) So the new book, actually I don't have a final title to share with you, but actually as we're recording this, I have one week left for my first draft, so I am an absolute crunch time here. But the book that I'm writing is actually going to be a framework, a system for how to generate content ideas. Because I have found that, that is one of the things people struggle with most. They feel this need to sort of feed the content machine. Right. I started this blog. I did what you said. I'm running a YouTube series and it's been three months and I am fresh out of ideas. I have nothing left to say, or I'm not a creative type and this is a very solvable problem. And I think the key thing is we're not given, in the course of our regular lives, a framework for how to think about content ideas. And so this book is going to present sort of a 10 by 10 matrix, a complete system that you can use to come up with hundreds of content ideas quickly and easily and find the ones that are gonna work best for your resources, for your particular audience, for your particular mission or company. And so I'm really excited to get out in the world cause I hope it's going to help people go out there and tell better stories.
Mary Drumond: (26:26) I think I have that framework because I saw you in a keynote talking about it and I actually use that with my own team. So put me on the wait list for that book.
Melanie Deziel: (26:37) Absolutely. Yeah. So the waitlist for the book is, my website is story fuel. That's the name of our company. So storyfuel.co/booklaunch. You can get sort of on the insider list for that. It is supposed to come out in March, 2020, so it's coming soon. I'm really excited to get that out. But yes, that exact keynote that you are referencing is what inspired the book. It was the fact that so many people said, wow, I took this back to my team and it's working and I need more. Tell me more about this.
Mary Drumond: (27:04) I use this with my team. I use this matrix with my team so I can absolutely verify that this book should definitely be purchased by our listener.
Melanie Deziel: (27:14) I love to hear that!
Mary Drumond: (27:14) Melanie, thank you so much for being here today. What is the best way for our people to follow you on social media? What's the place that you're most active or most accessible. Is it Twitter?
Melanie Deziel: (27:24) It is Twitter. Twitter's where I like to spend my time so you can find me there as @mdeziel. There's only one of me. So if you look for Melanie Deziel, you'll find me most other places, so find me where you are most comfortable. You know, we'll speak the same content language.
Mary Drumond: (27:38) Awesome. Thank you so much.
Melanie Deziel: (27:40) Thanks for having me.