19 October 2022 |

Your company needs a narrative or you’re set up to fail

By Tracey Wallace

Most content marketers begin a blog post with a brief. And briefs are typically made based on SEO research. The really good ones also pull in other content the company has published on the topic or related topics, as well as quotes from customers, partners, folks to interview, etc. 

But often, the number one thing that I see briefs missing is an opinion on the topic at hand. 

I doubt that I am waxing poetic to you, as a reader of this newsletter, in saying that content marketing has gotten a bit too obsessed with SEO over the last several years. In some ways, I feel I’ve been a big part of that. I haven’t been quiet about the success we saw at BigCommerce––the vast majority of it SEO-driven. 

But the digital teardowns folks do when they look at companies like BigCommerce or even Shopify––my biggest competitor at the time––leave a lot of the nuances and detail out. After all, you can’t do a real  teardown of how a company built something if you weren’t actually there, building it. 

Can you learn a lot from analyzing a website? Absolutely. But rarely are the logical jumps anyone makes to explain how something got built based on its current outcome the real story. Just look at Tommy Walker’s recent tweets about how he built the Shopify Plus case study program:

[Please read the whole thing for better context, pulling out a bit here so you don’t have to jump around]

We also found the standard format for case studies was, “Company X works with Company Y, and sees Z result.” This had its place, but not at our stage in the journey. 

Knowing all that, I asked myself, “how can we do case studies and lead gen in a completely unique way?”

First, case studies.  Because everyone was doing, “X,Y,Z” I said, “What if we treat these like Rolling Stone interviews?”

So we’d tell their story. 

We wanted to find the common spark of those who “made it” and focus not on the company but rather the people doing the work…

An example, in one story, the X,Y,Z approach would have been, “CTO calls founder at 3am to say ‘the server room’s on fire’, they switch to cloud, now they can sleep easy.” 

But our approach found that it was 3am… On the night of his bachelor party.. 

Very different setup.

Shopify Plus’ case studies are an industry best, in my opinion. To Tommy’s point, and because of Tommy’s work, they tell the real, human story behind business success and how technology (specifically Shopify) helps people sleep better and live their lives more fully, with less stress, less anxiety and more success. 

He landed at that format because Shopify Plus’ GM at the time had a hunch that “too many features were actually weighing people down, leading to longer, more expensive dev cycles.”

All the competitors were flaunting their product features (including BigCommerce). None, until Shopify Plus, were talking about reduction and simplicity and ease of use. And the reason was, ultimately, that companies like BigCommerce thought that the enterprise consumer wanted more features (to justify cost) and that “ease of use” was something only the entrepreneurial set was concerned with. Enterprise orgs can hire experts, and by hiring experts, they grease the wheels of a partner ecosystem. You get paid twice in that model as a SaaS company. 

But it’s flawed thinking, as Shopify Plus proved––and I argue will continue to prove. People who work at enterprise organizations are still people, just like entrepreneurs. And, even more than entrepreneurs, they aren’t necessarily passionate about their job above all else. Getting things done well, cost-effectively and quickly means they can be successful, keep their job, and hang out more with their friends and family outside work hours. 

Isn’t that what we all want? And hence…Shopify Plus’ case studies became some of the most successful in the industry (They also only spoke to the most household name brands, which is another incredibly smart strategy in and of itself). 

Tommy turned this “hunch” about reduction and simplicity into a point of view, an opinion held by Shopify Plus that he could imbue into every piece of content they produced. It later showed up in lead gen content:

From that same thread:

Remember how I said everyone was flaunting their features? Yeah, we didn’t have that, and we’d lose if we tried going toe to toe there.  

So to research, I consumed every white paper, ebook, and webinar from competitors, agencies, and adjacent spaces.

But if we couldn’t compete on features, we’d compete on knowledge. 

Since our customers wouldn’t have to worry about tech getting in their way, we created a series of 8 industry reports, roughly 100 pages a piece, that projected out the next 5 years of each category. 

And…They weren’t just bland PDFs, they took cues from high end fashion magazines and were highly editorialized. Totally not scalable in this format, but enough effort for people to take notice.

The research led to the premise, which led to the mediums, formats, and platforms. 

And they were distributed through our sales teams, email lists, agency partners, an in-person event, and more.

The reduction and simplicity in technology angle bleed its way into not just what Tommy published, but how it was published, why it was published, and the ways in which it was distributed. I remember these guides. I still reference them at Klaviyo to our execs about how smart they were (Shopify Plus has since redirected the landing pages these white papers lived on to their newer research project, Future of Commerce, which shows how these things can grow and take on a life of their own overtime). 

Even at BigCommerce, we had an opinion––an operating narrative––that was imbued into all of our content. This took shape especially as Shopify began to grow in leaps and bounds, and really leaned into their simplicity message. 

I remember reading, and have laughed over coffee about it with Tommy, a blog he published on the Shopify main site years ago about how to start a business in a weekend. It was a damn good blog. It was detailed, and fun, and inspirational. The problem was––as someone in the industry––I knew it wasn’t true. 

You couldn’t start a real business in a weekend, not on Shopify or any platform. And, being the competitor I was, I was irritated that Shopify even wanted to make it seem like you could. I viewed it as a sort of “lying,” and I got to work. From that moment on, I decided, all BigCommerce content would be open and honest about how to exactly start a business, the nitty gritty not pretty details included. 

I later would publish the “How to realistically start an online business” piece, and even launched it as a Skillshare course

Now, to be fair, technically you can start a business in a weekend on Shopify, but you need to have a few things under your belt––like knowing what product you’re going to sell, for instance. My guide walks you through all of that so that when you do set up your store, you aren’t wasting any time. 

Either way, neither of the approaches is wrong. Instead, both are informed by the company’s narrative, their point of view about the world and their product and the industry and their place in it. 

Your company needs a similar narrative, and it needs to speak through every piece of content you produce. This matters so much more than you think, because so much of that awful “SEO content” we read out there is lacking just this––the human element of a simple opinion that makes one piece of content different and more relatable than others like it. 

SEO is, as I’ve mentioned many times before, a distribution channel only. Once you get people to your site, though, you need to convert them to your point of view (and to a lead if you can!), which means that without a narrative and the inclusion of that narrative in your content, you’ve technically lost. 

How do you imbue a narrative into all of your content pieces? Well, you include it in your brief. You layout what your company’s point of view is for this content piece, and for this topic in general so that the writer can weave it in and take that stance. Make it bold. Make it interesting. Make it different than your competitor’s. 

And then, when you do your strategy edit (before your copy edit), it is this narrative you are looking for. Did it come through? How sriong is it? Do we need to rewrite this whole thing to better address and position the overall opinion? 

You aren’t writing just for SEO or just to educate. You are writing to educate in a specific way, to help build a world view of your industry for your readers. 

Shopfiy’s POV was that it is simple. BigCommerce’s was that it isn’t as simple as people make it out to be. 

And both of us put our copy where our beliefs were, and it made the two companies fantastic content marketing examples for the industry. 

Yet, no online teardown on how either company managed to get their current SEO status for their content pieces has uncovered it. Because they can’t. Because they weren’t there. Because this is great content marketing for the long-term.

It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is about thought leadership as an outcome or goal, never a type of content. 

It is about positioning and storytelling and above all, it’s about people.