The Insight Track with Carla Johnson: Storytelling in Content Marketing

July 23, 2019

Carla Johnson on Storytelling

Content marketing is an incredibly broad and dynamic discipline. There are endless different ways to do it well, but one foundational element is almost universal: storytelling. That term itself encompasses a wide variety of styles and formats, but in general, stories provide the informational structure and sequencing that help content capture a reader, viewer, or listener and leave a lasting impression.

As a keynote speaker, author, and business leader, Carla Johnson has been preaching the vital importance of storytelling in content marketing for years. In the latest installment of our Insight Track series, we wanted to explore her expertise on the subject — where it originated, how it has evolved, and how today’s marketers can do it better.

Along the way, we also tapped Johnson’s thoughts on traveling the world, essential leadership qualities, and a hidden talent you won’t read about on her LinkedIn profile.

Carla Johnson Shares the Insight Scoop On Storytelling

You’ve long been a vocal proponent for the importance of storytelling in content marketing. For those who aren’t familiar, what’s your story, in a few sentences?

I grew up in a storytelling family that has a love for travel. I know the history of my family for generations because of the stories I learned as a kid. In college I started out as an electrical engineer and ended up with a Master’s in history. One of my first jobs in marketing was working for architects—the ultimate storytellers, but through physical manifestations. This is how I grew my ability to blend experiences with storytelling and content.

Are there opportunities for storytelling in B2B marketing that you feel are being widely overlooked?

I see B2B marketers getting better at telling a story in a single piece of content, but most still don’t understand how to tell one over a longer period of time. That doesn’t mean just telling a brand story, but moving into the value that you deliver to customers. It doesn’t matter how great your brand story is if you don’t ultimately make a difference in the lives of your customers. We need to be able to answer their, “what’s in it for me?” questions.

What are some of the main ways you see technologies like AI helping create deeper and more satisfying customer experiences in the near future?

I love what Duolingo has done with AI with its language-learning platform. They’ve built a native chatbot in the app to help users learn conversational skills and practice what they learned. They know how to program in risk and reward to the experience that customers have through gamification. I think there are a lot of opportunities for gamification that marketers don’t think about.

You travel all around the globe for your work. What’s something you’ve experienced that those of us who remain more stationary should know?

Expect the best from people. Wherever you are in the world, the news is negative. That makes us forget what people are really like, and assume that someone’s always out to get us. But overall I see more people willing to connect than criticize. People have a genuine respect for others, and they care about doing great work that has meaning.

What are some cross-cultural marketing goofs that made you cringe?

It always centers around assuming what works in one culture will naturally translate into another one. Whether it’s laziness or arrogance, the worst mistakes I’ve seen happen when brands don’t take the time to get to know their audience.

From your view, which effective marketing tactic is most overlooked or underutilized in the profession today?

Face-to-face conversations. With all the focus on technology to make marketing more efficient, and in measuring all that we do, we’ve forgotten the soulfulness of talking to people and looking into their eyes. One of my first bosses taught me that nothing can replace building a relationship with customers and having heart-to-heart conversations with them in person. While marketing is supposed to bring the voice of the customer into organizations, we are terrible at personally building human relationships with other people.

You’ve held a number of leadership positions throughout your career. What advice would you give to others who are moving into such roles or aspiring to do so—especially fellow women?

Volunteering has been the one best things that I’ve done for my career. It gave me three critical gifts. First, practical, hands-on experience in areas where I needed real-life exposure. Second, leadership experience, especially speaking to large groups of people. And lastly, access to incredible mentors.

Many people decline to volunteer because they think it will take away from their day job. I found that it made my regular work more meaningful because of the people I met and what I learned from them. Building this network, expertise, and exposure is especially important for women to create their personal brand and stand out in the marketing world.

What’s one hidden talent or fun fact about you that might surprise our readers?

I am absolutely fabulous at cartwheels. Is this an Olympic sport yet? I know my time on the global athletic stage is coming one of these days.

Who’s an up-and-coming marketer to watch, and why?

There are so many unsung heroes in marketing. I just finished teaching digital marketing classes at an international university in Barcelona, Spain, and I would consider every one of them to be up-and-comers to watch.

Instead of a person, I’m going to name a skill of these marketers to be on the lookout for: curiosity. I would pick a curious young marketer over a talented one any day, because it wouldn’t take long for the curious one to make up ground and sail past talent. Truly curious people are lifelong learners. That’s not a mindset you can teach.

What is a recent marketing campaign that’s caught your attention?

Emerson’s “We see…” campaign. CMO Kathy Button Bell has transformed the perception of the company—both inside and out—over the last 20 years. In just the last decade, she’s used storytelling to accelerate transformation within the company and create one emotionally cohesive organization.

“We see…” is how she’s taking the brand’s internal purpose to the outside world, giving life to their value and igniting employees through a noble purpose.  

Telling the Stories that Matter

A master of storytelling and (apparently!) cartwheeling, Johnson knows what it takes to make content land with our audiences. Make sure to follow her on LinkedIn, where she regularly shares important articles and great longform content.

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