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Breaking Out of Boring: Tell Unexpected Stories

Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in social media, and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the “Top 20 Female Bloggers,” Ann Handley is a veteran of creating and managing digital content to build relationships for organizations and individuals. A monthly columnist for Entrepreneur, a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and the co-author of the bestselling book on content marketing Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business, Ann shows audiences how to create amazing content and marketing for businesses big and small. Below, Ann writes about people and organizations who reinvent themselves by telling unexpected stories:

What does a brand known as buttoned up and boring do to broaden its appeal? I get this question a lot. One great model for inspiration is LinkedIn, which has become the poster child for a staid brand evolving its brand by telling unexpected stories.

In the early 2000s, UK musician Matt Henshaw was living the dream as the lead guitarist for Censored, a British rock band he had established with a few friends.

Censored became an integral part of the music scene of the East Midlands (a region located roughly between London and Liverpool), releasing some independent singles, opening for some of their music heroes, and at one point being named one of the top five unsigned bands in the UK by the music news site

Then the band fell apart—“burned out,” Matt now says. And so in 2008 he abandoned his music career and took a humdrum job working at a local university as a computer science program research assistant.

Then, two years ago, he started going to a few music shows again, and it struck him, in a kind of this-is-not-my-beautiful-wife moment: “It hit me—I’m one of these people, I’m a musician, that’s MY dream! I had to get back in,” he wrote.

The problem was that the music business had changed since 2008. And it hadn’t exactly gone well last time, Matt told me in a recent email exchange. One big change from 2008 is that social media is now more a factor for musicians; it’s now more than MySpace.

So he turned to an unlikely place to start reconnecting: LinkedIn.

Why LinkedIn and not, say, Facebook? Because wanted folks to take him seriously this time around—not see him as just another “lad with a guitar.”

“Essentially it’s just like Facebook but more professional,” Matt told me. “I only found myself on there by accident really, but it’s a great way of expanding your online network beyond your friends and finding people who work specifically in your area. And it was nice to see all my recommendations and endorsements coming in when I first posted ‘Professional Singer/Songwriter & Musician’ on there.”

Telling a Broader Story

A few weeks ago, I also interviewed LinkedIn’s Jason Miller for my new book coming this fall, Everybody Writes. I wanted to ask him about how marketers can use the platform more effectively.

I just paused for a second as I wrote “platform” in that last sentence—because this thought occurs to me: What is LinkedIn these days, anyway? A professional network? A place to publish new content? Somewhere you can get the pulse (literally!) on what’s new in your industry? Somewhere you can subscribe to columns from so-called influencers, including me?

I suppose the easiest answer is “yes.”

Here’s how LinkedIn sees it: LinkedIn is for anyone with ambition. 

In the past few years, LinkedIn has been developing its broader story—away from its relatively soulless roots as a digital Rolodex, and into something inherently more useful, immediate, and relevant. And in doing so, it holds broader lessons for any brand looking to either grow an existing customer base or to uncover the human stories within a staid business-t0-business brand.

And, in its latest example, LinkedIn introduces something unexpected—the story of how an atypical LinkedIn user rediscovers his passion to launch a comeback. Thanks, in no small part, through the connections he made on LinkedIn.

Here are three more takeaways for content marketers, about why it works:

1. It taps into a broad, universal theme. The story is about Matt Henshaw. But the bigger story invites us all to imagine better versions of ourselves. A gem from my journalism school days is this: Be specific enough to be believable, but universal enough to be relevant.

It’s brilliant for LinkedIn to focus on Matt rather than, say, an accountant or a sales rep or a marketer. Because Matt underscores the evolution of LinkedIn from a platform centered on “professional” to one centered on the more universal idea of “ambition.”

“Ambition” isn’t just bigger—it’s aspirational. And with this content program and others, LinkedIn drives home its effort to help us realize better version of ourselves.

And, of course, it also challenges what we think of when we think about LinkedIn. It alters our conception of it. It does what Don Draper suggested in Mad Men’s Season 3: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

One suggestion to LinkedIn marketing: I might’ve included a hashtag like #LiveYourDream or #MyDream, to inspire others to share their own stories.

2. It puts the customer at the story’s center. The best content tells a bigger story, as relates to actual people—rather than, say, myopically focusing on a company’s own products or services. Paradoxically, your “story” is not about you—it’s about what you do for others.

That’s a subtle shift, but an important one, because it installs your customer at the very heart of your marketing. It’s customer-centric versus corporate-centric.

3. It has a kick-ass call to action. Notice the call to action on that last slide? It asks a question as a kind of personal challenge, “What’s your dream?” and then immediately invites you to realize it with the CTA: Update your profile.

In other words: Don’t just dream it, do it. Here and now.

3 1/2. It evolves SlideShare beyond a place where old decks go to die. Many of us simply use SlideShare as a slide graveyard — a kind of storage plot to host them after a talk. But here LinkedIn uses SlideShare as a storytelling platform in its own right.

LinkedIn owns SlideShare, of course, so it nicely highlights the tool’s effectively as a narrative platform by creating what my friend Nancy Duarte calls a Slidedoc, or a mix of visuals and brief text that together tell a richer story.

Anyway, back to Matt…

About a year ago, Matt leaned into his music career full-time. He left his job at the university—“and things have gone from strength to strength for me doing what I want to do and being in control of my own life again,” he told me.

By Ann Handley/July, 2014