A content marketing chinwag with Ann Handley
Ann Handley was in town the other week and she was good enough to swing by Velocity HQ to chat about her life in B2B content marketing and her approach to writing.
It was our first Velocity Content Marketing Chinwag. Here’s what went down.
Asking the questions was Velocity creative director Doug Kessler. He made the introductions: Ann started out in journalism before going on to co-found ClickZ.com (do we call it ClickZed over here?); she’s written the book(s) on content marketing, as co-author of Content Rules and author of Everybody Writes; and today, when she’s not too busy being Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, you can find her writing in all good media outlets.
Fun fact: Ann was apparently the first person ever to be called Chief Content Officer. Most people take this as proof of Ann’s knack for prescient trend-spotting. At Velocity, we’ve been inspired more by her decision to invent her own job title. A practice we’ve adopted: we now have a Chief Burrito Officer (Dave), a Canadian Special Envoy to Richmond (Greg) and a VP of Spontaneous Incontinence (Zippy the dog…and sometimes Harry).
Ann spoke about her past life as a journalist, which began at the tender age of eight when she published a neighbourhood newsletter. We’re imagining AB tests on headlines like “Buckeye Season Comes Early” (that’s conkers over here) and “Andersons’ Cat Lost…Later Found.”
No solitary diary-scribbler, Ann always wrote for an audience, so it’s no surprise she built on her beginnings as a writer-publisher.
Next stop was the Boston Globe (a few years later) where, in Ann’s own words, she made “a bad journalist”. One who, when sent to cover a house fire and the disruption it brought to an elderly couple’s life, sidestepped the cold, invasive reporting and took a different tack.
In the half-destroyed house, Ann noticed the couple’s extensive collection of old German books and instead filed a story on how they came to be there, in an old colonial house in Boston.
She may have lacked a bloodhound reporter’s stomach, but she had the nose for a personal story. Her editor recognised this and moved her to features.
When kids entered the equation it was time for a move to business journalism – B2B stories are important and all, but they tend not to break at 3am.
Doug asked Ann about her most recent book, Everybody Writes, a bona fide Wall Street Journal bestseller.
Why write this book?
“There are plenty of books – and lots of content – about how to make content. But there wasn’t much out there about the actual writing.”
How was the experience of writing the book?
“It was like birthing a Honda Civic.”
So pretty tough then.
What was so hard?
“The hardest part was editing it. And the structure! It’s in six parts, and I deliberated for a long time on the order. Should I talk about grammar before story? Style first or structure? Once I got that nailed down it was easier.”
What advice would you give any writers out there thinking about a book?
“Write the book you can’t not write.”
So motivation is a big part of it. But as Ann and Doug discussed, it’s not just the writer’s motivations in play.
“It’s still weird to think that, in America at least, business books are vetted by marketing before editorial!”
With an audience like hers (313,000 Twitter followers at last count), Ann is well equipped to take on the business end of the book business monster and win. But she’s not done yet.
“Everybody Writes is doing nicely, but I’m not retiring yet – I’m still driving a five-year-old car.”
Is that a Civic, Ann?
Doug tried his hand at devil’s advocate: The premise of Everybody Writes is something like ‘Everyone does it, so do it well!’ But there’s so much meh writing out there – shouldn’t some people just…not?
“There’s definitely widespread fear of writing, especially at the C-level. It’s an aversion to risk – of causing offence or sounding different, yes – but also of failing, of writing badly. That’s why I wrote the book.”
Ann then talked about the new B2B voice – and that even the most staid B2B company is starting to let loose a bit.
She mentioned the brand work M+R does for nonprofits. The kind that smashes the client’s brief while retaining the agency’s hallmark. As Ann put it: “If the label fell off, you’d still know it’s theirs.”
Some quickfire questions
What brings you to London anyway?
“I’m visiting my daughter who goes to school here. She’s a freshman but you don’t have that here – she’s in first year!”
We also call it ‘university’ but whatever.
Thoughts on jargon?
“It’s okay when it signals something: that you’re part of the gang, that you know your stuff. But it’s for the later stages of the conversation.”
How do you feel about stealing ideas? (Something Velocity wholeheartedly endorses, by the way.)
“Ha! I’d prefer to redefine it as ‘inspiration’.”
We’ll accept that.
What about grammar?
“I’m pretty liberal. People get so hung up on grammar it stops them even trying. When people say they’re afraid of writing, or bad at it, they usually mean grammar. My advice is write now and edit later. I’m far more interested in hearing a writer’s voice come through.”
Doug and Ann caught up on camera before the main event, for the sake of posterity and, more importantly, this blog post.
London or Boston?
Who should we be following, that we might not already?
What’s next for Ann Handley?
To conclude proceedings, Doug presented Ann with a custom-made Ann Handley Bobblehead doll. Because why not.
— Doug Kessler (@dougkessler) November 6, 2015
The rest is a bit of a blur.
See you next time, Ann.