You’re a company with a brilliant product that improves the lives of your users.
Those users have incredible stories to tell and if you can find the right ones, you’ll fill up your content calendar for the next decade.
In this guide, we break down how businesses can create user focused content marketing that tells powerful stories, solves business problems and helps your company grow.
Why listen to us? Over the past 10 years we’ve created content for some of the biggest brands in the world including Intel, Kraft Heinz, Microsoft, Autodesk and Samsung.
Our focus is telling human stories that audiences find valuable and connect with.
We guarantee your company has these stories and right now, we’re going to teach you how to find them, tell them and push them out to the world.
The first step of every successful marketing campaign is building a strategy. Here are a few key things to focus on.
First and foremost, identify your target audience (and get specific). It’s best to focus on specific user groups within your broader audience. The more narrow your audience, the easier it will be to reach them and create content that speaks to them.
In example from Autodesk Sketchbook (A digital sketching application) we were challenged with telling the story of power users in several of their key verticals including comic artists, graphic designers, architects and more. This particular episode is directed at industrial designers with a focus on motorcycles and automotive.
Where does your audience spend their time and are most likely to interact with your brand?
Are they looking for inspiration on Instagram? Tutorials on YouTube? Are they promoting their work on Behance? Are they already advocating for your product? (Hashtags are your friend)
A well-planned production can yield effective assets for multiple channels, which expand your reach and improve your ROI.
Set quantifiable goals. If this is a marketing initiative, impressions, engagements or activations can be your target. If it’s recruitment, than you might look at applications. No matter what your goal, attach a target to it.
Next, set an ‘emotional goal’. This entails determining how you want your audience to feel when they watch your content. It cannot be stressed enough that you MUST create something of value. You are competing against an avalanche of content and if you want your audience to take action, make something they will actually care about.
Budgets & Timelines
Have clearly defined (and realistic) goals for both your budget and timelines from the beginning. From an executional standpoint, these determine everything.
The budget is going to determine who you can look at as a potential subject (and how they will be compensated), where the story will be told and the level of polish involved in the final output. Items like sound design, colour grading and custom animation can have a big impact on how your piece looks and feels.
Timelines can vary but you should plan for a 6-12 week turnaround from first conversation to final delivery on a shorter doc style piece of content.
Knowing the budget upfront is key because it allows you to determine what kind of subject you can work with (and how they will be compensated) and where the story will be told.
Once you have a solid strategy in place, it’s time to implement step 2 which can be the most critical.
2. Find Your Subject
A great subject will make or break your content. Who they are and what they do is important, but how they fit into a story matters most. Awards and accolades mean little when there isn’t subject matter that connects them to your audience.
Charisma and personality are huge. Experience on camera can be helpful but not required as a good director can make magic from a rookie.
Before you go to the web to find that perfect person, take a look around you first. Some of your most avid users or most interesting stories come from your own employees. Internal stakeholders can be especially useful when your goal is recruiting.
If an external subject is your focus, look back at that awesome strategy document to see where your users (and potential subjects) spend their time.
Instagram is your best friend in this stage. Designers, artists and creatives want to share their work and Instagram gives them the platform to do so, but also acts as a great curation tool for them to find inspiration and connect with like-minded people. If your brand or product plays a role in their workflow, they are likely already talking about you. Leverage that.
Finding your subject on Instagram also gives you early insight into the kind of reach they have in the community and their ability to share your content with their followers in the future.
Using these tactics will help you create a short list of potential subjects. It’s during the next step where you’ll decide who just might be a perfect fit.
3. Do the research
It’s research time! Take your short list, go to the web and find out everything you can about these people.
Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Behance and Linked-In can teach you a great deal about your potential subjects. It’s where you’ll find your story thread.
This could be past projects they’ve been a part of. Maybe it’s a drastic career move. They might have an incredible workspace or have just won an industry award. Think outside the box and note what till be interesting and valuable to your audience.
It was by following these tactics we came across Reid Schlegel, a brilliant industrial designer who had recently worked on some iconic New York projects.
We tasked him to Re-Design the NYC hotdog cart using a suite of Autodesk products.
This next step is like a first date. It’s all about impressions.
Before you reach out to your potential subjects, have a plan. Draft an email or message that is concise, to the point and clear. Introduce yourself, tell them what you admire about their work or story, provide context, and outline your proposition.
If they are interested, set up a call, Zoom or if possible, an in-person meeting. This is where you talk about the potential project in more detail, share relevant samples and get their honest feedback about their connection to your brand.
These types of projects need to be highly collaborative and you need to see each other as a truly invested partner. If they don’t genuinely admire your products or company, they are not your lobster.
This is also the time to discuss compensation. This could be a project fee, their day rate or in some cases a non-monetary arrangement. If your company has a significant social following and you will be promoting this person through those channels, that’s notable. On the other hand, if they are the ‘influencer’ with a following, that certainly needs to be priced into your offer.
5. Discovery Session
Congratulations! Your subject is on board and you’re both excited. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty.
The whole point of using real people is to connect to your audience through meaningful storytelling. Authenticity and transparency are everything. This is a story about their relationship with your product/service…not a shameless testimonial.
While you don’t need to nail all of these elements in a short doc piece, consider a typical story arc structure when you’re chatting with your subject.
This includes an opening that builds curiosity, a middle that has some level of rising action (ie stakes are accelerated by some internal or external force), a climax that reshapes the character’s perspective or position and a hopeful, inspiring or otherwise redeeming denouement or ending.
A great way to build structure in your story is to uncover events that may be taking place in your subject’s life during your production window. Are they speaking at an event or presenting work to a new client? Is it their first week at a new job?
Find something that sets that day or time period apart from the rest of their life.
This discovery session will help you nail down what their story is and how you will frame it. Now you need to communicate these elements in a way that will put all the projects key stakeholders on the same page.
If you aren’t the primary decision on this project you are likely going to need some folks to sign-off on it. This is where a number of creative documents can be prepared.
First and foremost is a creative brief or treatment. This is an overview of what the finished product should look and feel like. It should also include all the story elements and key messages. It’s nice to include sample references in this document.
Because this is likely a documentary style piece, items like scripts and storyboards aren’t relevant. What is most important is all the stakeholders generally understand and agree on what is being made.
If you’ve already worked with your production company on this type of project, you will have a level of trust that they can execute the noted vision. If you’re working with a new company, make sure they have relevant work on their portfolio.
If safeguarding your reputation is a major factor, it’s also great to see if they’ve done any controversial videos in the past that might hurt you just by association.
You’ve got your story. Now it’s time to secure the people, places and tools to tell it properly.
At this point your production company or agency will do most of the heavy lifting. Crew, equipment and a production schedule all come together in this step.
In terms of crew and gear, that will be determined by your budget. For doc style shoots we like to keep our crew small (5-8 people) and always shoot on a cinema camera like an Arri Alexa or Red Camera. Shooting in 4k isn’t essential but recommended.
Location scouting is also a vital step at this time. If the production is local (or out of town and the budget allows), an in-person scout is best. If in-person isn’t possible, photos and videos on the locations can suffice.
Things you’ll want to note are parking (and load in options), power sources and light sources. If permits are required for any of your locations, now is the time to acquire them.
The time has finally come. You’ve got an all-star team, a great locations and the perfect story to tell. Let’s roll cameras!
The plan is there to give your shoot and your story structure. It’s important and should be consulted, but like any good road map, it should have room for pit stops and diversions.
The art of documentary storytelling lies in instinct. The most magical moments are often those that are captured on the fly and can’t really be planned for.
The bulk of the storytelling will come out in your interview with the subject. Make sure you cover all of your talking points and any particular questions you identified in discovery, but have a conversation. You’re more likely to get authentic and intimate responses if you keep it conversational.
When capturing your footage, make sure you take your time to get the shot. You can ask your subject to do an action over again if it means getting a better result. Make sure you capture lots of extra footage of the location, the tools and the establishing area.
When filming in NYC with Reid, we spent an entire day capturing b-roll of Manhattan. While we only used a few choice clips from that, it gave our editor plenty of options and flexibility. It’s always best to shoot more than you need to, within reason.
Plan for the unexpected and make sure to leave time for diversion and extras. A great filming opportunity might come up and the last thing you want to do is say “no” due to time restrictions.
Pro Tip: Flexibility is key. Have a Plan B, and a Plan C. Some external factors are beyond your control. Whether it’s inclement weather, a change in availability of your subject, or minor disaster, you always need to be able to carry on with your project.
While shooting a piece in Denver, we were struck with what felt like a minor disaster when our hood mounted camera ended up under the wheels of our vehicle. Luckily we had backup cameras and were able to get all the shots we needed.
In the doc genre, the magic really happens in the edit suite. You’re taking all of those great shots and interview moments and putting them into a cohesive narrative.
While you uncovered the story in discovery, it gets reinvented and shaped at this stage. All of those unexpected elements you captured during production weave themselves into the story and make it richer and more interesting.
The key to this stage is patience. A doc edit will often see a few iterations before the right story takes shape. Work with your editor to establish a timeline that allows for exploration but also meets deadlines.
The most laborious step in post-production is making selects. Your editor will have hours upon hours of footage to sort through and will meticulously pull the best moments. This usually starts by reviewing the interview footage to create a rough storyline is then brought to life with visuals, the right pacing and sound design.
When communicating revisions to the post-production team, clarity and organization are key. Many content management systems like Wistia and Vimeo allow you to make time-coded comments right in the video player. This let’s the editing team see exactly what you’re referring to and gives them a clear outline of what they need to work on.
Especially during the revision process, it is crucial to set expectations and deadlines on both ends. Give the editing team specific deadlines for 1st, 2nd and final cuts and also give yourself cut-off dates for notes and feedback. As always, be sure to maintain clear communication throughout. This means picking up the phone or meeting in person. E-mail usually won’t cut it.
On projects of this nature, we typically produce several cuts of various lengths and aspect ratios (built to accommodate different channels of distribution). A pro tip is to start with the long cuts and finish with the shortest ones.
It’s time to add some extra sizzle to your steak.
Colour grading will make your footage pop and will give it a cinematic look and feel. A professional colourist will be able to bring out sharp details and can really drive home the tone and mood you want your piece to have.
Sound design is an incredibly important part of post-production, but one that is sometimes pushed aside or rushed through. Don’t make that mistake.
Good sound design is subtle but extremely visceral. Here is an example of how sound can play a major roll in a doc piece.
Finally, things like final titles, animations or branding can be fine tuned at this stage. If your content is multi-episode (most campaigns are), its crucial that there is a coherent look and feel across all content.
11. Seeding & Distribution
You have a beautiful piece of content and now you want to share it with the world. More specifically, your focused target audience. It’s distribution time.
There are three major ways to do this: paid, earned and owned channels.
This the most traditional form of distribution. Here, you spend money to earn eyeballs (most likely social channels or an ad network). Over the past few years, it’s become easier to narrowly focus your target by selecting age range, location, gender and other attributes about your ideal audience.
You can also pay influencers to post your content on their channels but be very careful how you spend your money here. Earning lots of eyeballs won’t help you if their audience isn’t people you would likely do business with.
Using a paid approach can be a quick, successful way to distribute your content but it should only be seen as part of the puzzle.
Earned (Organic Seeding)
There is a whole world of publications and channels that would love to share your content with their audience (for free). They just need to know it exists.
Organic seeding is a labour intensive, but highly effective way to promote your content. It consists of finding blogs, sites and social channels with a relevant audience and pitching your content to them.
The key here is value. They will be far more likely to share your content if they deem it valuable to their audience. Send them a short, friendly introduction to the content and explain why their audience might enjoy it. If they agree…victory.
Seeding can have a profound impact on the success of a campaign and if just a few significant channels share your content, your content can go “viral” (assuming the algorithms don’t bury it…but that’s a different conversation).
Our Ken Lashley doc for Autodesk was featured on the Imagine FX Magazine Facebook page which earned 100k+ highly relevant organic views (and counting).
This is where you post your content on all the channels you and your partners control. Your websites, blogs, social channels and even via e-mail newsletter are a good place to start.
There are hundreds of portals and directories where you can list your company and often some content. Find the ones relevant to your industry and audience and post that content. This can be labour intensive but once those channels are built, you can share future content with the click of a button.
Pro-tip: Hammer distribution hard from the beginning and encourage engagement as the algorithms tend to push that content more.
12. Analytics & Optimization
Once your content has been put out into the world, you can start to measure its success and then find ways to improve.
On which channels is it having the most traction? What kinds of comments are people leaving? Who is liking it? Where is it being shared? All of this data is useful and should be logged and monitored regularly.
Use this information to make tweaks to your distribution strategy. Try changing things like the video thumbnail, its placement on a page and titles/descriptions. Add different hashtags and SEO keywords.
Maybe you even need to broaden the scope of communities you’re asking to share your content. If the 30 second cut is doing well on Instagram but the longer cut isn’t performing on Facebook, try bumping the short version up the page and linking to the longer cut.
The more specific you can become with your optimization, the better. It will not only help you achieve better results on this specific campaign but give you valuable insight into what’s working (or what’s not) for your next project.
Look to your users for stories. They are the people who use your products everyday to enhance their lives. If you know where and how to look, you will 100% find amazing things that you can turn into powerful content.
Whether you take it upon yourself to find and develop these stories, or work with a partner like us, the thesis is simple: Tell authentic stories that bring value to your audience.