The Power of Being Human: Personal Storytelling in Content Marketing

Anecdotes are your friend—that’s a lesson I learned 12 years ago in my college features writing class and readily use to this day in my writing. I put myself out there when it’s appropriate because the power of a human story to hook your audience cannot be underestimated. It’s also a key lesson for content marketers. It’s your job to engage your audience and convert that interest into loyalty, and that loyalty into sales, right? Personal storytelling is an awesome place to start because it promotes a concept that’s often missing in business: trust. 

A 2015 Statistia survey shows that memoirs and biographies are the third most widely read category of books in the United States, nabbing 31 percent of American readers. Personal storytelling told by a strong and engaging voice (sometimes warm, other times funny, and maybe even earnest every once and awhile) is a trend that never fades, and it’s a technique that can freshen up your brand’s content and give it legs.

Raising some eyebrows

Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute and the self-styled “Content Marketing Evangelist,” is a leading authority in all things digital content. He’s authored and co-authored four books on the subject, and his 2013 title, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less, provides an eye-opening interview with Marcus Sheridan, the CEO of the Virginia-based River Pools and Spas.

Here’s a brief rundown of Sheridan’s story as presented in Pulizzi’s book: River Pools and Spas was a small business that took a huge hit in 2009, courtesy of the Great Recession. On top of that, Sheridan’s $250,000 marketing budget wasn’t doing him any good, so he threw out his old strategy and focused his attention on blogging. His blog covered any question you could dream of concerning fiberglass pools and installation. And everything was written in a conversational, personal voice. When the web traffic—and subsequent business—started to roll in, he knew he’d struck marketing gold.

Pulizzi points out that Sheridan made a focused effort to build a personal relationship with his audience while also educating them about his product. When you’re willing to educate your readers about fiberglass pools and share details about your life and family in any given post, you’re making strides to “tear down walls,” said Sheridan.

Here’s an excerpt from Pulizzi’s interview with Sheridan to emphasize this point:

People ask me all the time, ‘How did you take a subject that was not very sexy (that is, swimming pools) and get such a huge following?’ First, it’s written in a personal voice. I write like I talk. Second, my blog is opinionated. I don’t live in the world of gray. I live in black and white. We have a dearth of thought leadership because everyone is afraid to take a stand. Now, you have to be respectful. I don’t come out and say, ‘This guy is such an idiot.’ I’ll never do something like that. But I will say, ‘I’m looking at this product, service, or belief, and it doesn’t make sense to me—and here’s why.’ If you’re not causing people to raise eyebrows in your industry, I don’t think you’re going to make it big time. Not today. There’s too much content.

It’s important for you to ask yourself, as a thought leader in your company and industry, “How comfortable am I with being less of an employee and more of a human being in the content I provide?”

Getting to know Wistia

Wistia understands well how to handle the balance of the personal and the professional in their overall content marketing strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with the company, it provides video hosting and performance tracking to businesses, among other things. They’re also a company with a fresh voice and business approach that lines up well with today’s information economy.

The Wistia Blog is an excellent example of what I’m getting at. It’s an exhaustive archive of information, but none of it includes tireless rants of deadening techno-babble. It’s the opposite.

One worthy post to read is “Storytelling Night at Wistia: Fostering a Culture of Growth, Community, and Inclusivity,” which details the journey of Naike Romain, Wistia’s Product Marketing Specialist, to create a storytelling night event for Wistia employees (who are all called Wistians) to share personal experiences based around a single theme, a la the Brooklyn-based Moth.

Another great example is “Behind the Scenes of Our In-House Video Team,” where writer Jenny Mudarri sits down with the Wistia Creative Director Dan Mills. Mudarri explores several topics with Mills, both personal and professional, and the write-up gives the Wistia production team a flesh-and-blood presence. It’s clear the writer wants you (as both a reader and potential customer) to get to know the team behind the scenes at Wistia, and it works. Why? Because I see the people I’m doing business with—not just the name. That’s a powerful thing.

Comfort zone

Since we all haven’t been replaced by machines (yet), personal storytelling is still an abundant resource, though some businesses will be more comfortable than others.

That’s where you need to begin. Is your company comfortable with taking some of its content marketing strategy to the next, more personal, level? If so, by how much and who will lead that voice? And if you’re not, what makes you and your colleagues uncomfortable?

My advice is to be brave and try something new. The first step is simply sounding like a human being in your writing and overall presentation. That’s the hardest thing for a business to do sometimes, but I think you’ll be surprised how well it pays off.


Steven Surman

Steven Surman is a New York City-based content marketing manager and freelance writer. He is the author of “Bigmart Confidential: Dispatches from America’s Retail Empire,” and his website and blog, Steven Surman Writes, collects his past and current nonfiction work. To learn more, please visit his website at: