#NaoTalks: Ann Handley & The Influence of Quality Content

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Ann Handley is the definition of the modern day Renaissance woman.

She’s the Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs, a columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, a mother, and most recently, the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.  It’s safe to say Ann Handley does it all – and not only does she do it all, she does it all well (in chic librarian glasses).

We had the honor to have a chat with the queen of content marketing to discuss the importance and the influence of writing quality content.

Nao Media: “Content is king” has been the phrase of the last several years for digital marketers and content creators. How true do you think that statement is today?

Ann Handley: There’s nothing more true. I’d edit it slightly to be “Quality content is king.” Because we don’t need more content; we need better content.

How much focus do you put into being intentional with every piece of content that you create? Is there absolutely no room for writing content (creative or not) that has no value within a content strategy?

I’d ask.. value for who?

Anything you create should have value for the customer or prospect. I’d think less about the value for the organization, and I’d think more about the value you the organization is creating for the people it is trying to reach.

In other words, the best content should please your customer first… not your boss or your client or your CEO.

That sounds paradoxical — but it’s not.

Content that has value for customers will, longer-term, make your boss or client or CEO happy, because your customers will rely on your company. But the inverse isn’t true — content that pleases only the boss but doesn’t thrill the customer is useless.

Writing is no longer optional for the modern marketer.  Your book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content  is the perfect mashup of how-to-write and what-to-write rules.

Thank you for that.

As communicators, what’s the importance of taking it back to the basics through writing?

Writing is often seen as something reserved for a chosen few — those gifted with words. But I don’t think that’s true. Writing is simply a tool anyone learn to wield competently.

What’s more, for marketers: Good writing is really a reflection of clear, customer-centric thinking.

Our words are our emissaries — our ambassadors. They tell our customers who we are. They are also the foundation of any content we create — whether that’s a blog post or ebook or white paper… or the interview you’re reading right here, right now.

There’s a lot of content out there… there is no lack of information. So that means you have to learn to write well — and communicate with clarity, brevity, and simplicity. You have to learn to tell true stories well.

You state in the inside flap of your book that, “If you have a website, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. And that means that we are all relying on our words to carry our marketing messages. We are all writers.” In this digital age of marketing, do you think communicators need to focus on being writers first?

Yes. Because all the tools in the world can’t make a weak story more appealing.

As content distribution platforms continue to mature and innovate, which distribution platforms or methods excite you going forward?

The ability to engage directly with our customers still thrills me — that’s a huge, exciting opportunity.

It’s a massive shift for marketing, and for businesses in general. So I like any platform where my audience is — where I can interact with them directly.

So I love Twitter, Instagram, and my blog because I see them less as channels, and more as exciting opportunities.

That might sound hopelessly squishy. But there you go.

What has been the biggest risk you’ve taken professionally and how has it paid off?

Hmm. I don’t know that I could articulate a “big” risk. I think of a “big risk” as doing something dramatic, and I’m less about drama than I am about experimentation. So I think my career has been a series of small risks.

Which isn’t to say that even those small risks weren’t scary — many scared the bejeebus out of me.

Leaving the Boston Globe and starting ClickZ was a risk. So was joining MarketingProfs at a time when we made no money and had a handful of subscribers. It felt risky to launch my own blog at AnnHandley.com.

It’s scary to share your ideas and thoughts; it’s a little like exposing your soul.

It’s easier to stay under the radar. But at the same time, putting your ideas out there is thrilling.

So publishing my first book (Content Rules) was scary. Publishing Everybody Writes was even more terrifying, because it’s an inherently more personal book, and it takes on a subject that hasn’t gotten a lot of respect in marketing in recent history.

Would people scoff? Would they laugh? You never can be sure, can you?

And I think that’s a good thing, because the fear can either paralyze you or motivate you.

You’ve inspired professionals from of all backgrounds to want to be better writers. Who was your mentor when you first got into the industry? What was some advice someone gave to you?

I just paused at this question for an unusually long time. This feels like a softball, but it’s a deceptively hard question, because so many people have inspired me and other continue to inspire me, in so many ways.

I can’t say I have had one mentor — but collectively I’ve had a committee of mentors, I suppose. They include EB White, Barbara Pym, Tina Fey, Seth Godin, David Sedaris, David Meerman Scott, my mom and dad, Arianna Huffington, and cartoonist Roz Chast.

The best guidance I ever got came from a college professor, who told me, “Those who learn to write well will be successful, whatever they do.” He said it in a kind of offhand manner, as an aside.

It’s funny how the random comment can feel like a kind of scripture, to the right ears. And that day, the ears belonged to me.have you seen as the biggest change in content marketing within the past year?

The gap between the awesome and awful has widened — the gap between content that’s marvelous and content that’s meh has never been bigger.

There are many people who are producing truly amazing stuff — and there are many people who are producing truly mediocre stuff. And there’s not a lot in the middle.

If 2014 was the Year of Content, what do you predict 2015 to be?

The Year of Quality Content. Because we don’t need more content; we need better content.

Which is exactly where we started this conversation. How fitting is that? 😀