How to Tell Stories Your Readers Crave: Ideas From a Content Powerhouse

stories-readers-crave

Unlike other companies that struggle to create compelling stories, Autodesk’s content marketing team wrestles with prioritizing an abundance of exciting topics to write about at the intersection of design, technology, and innovation.

Go behind the scenes at a content powerhouse.

Autodesk sells 3D-design, -engineering, and -entertainment software. It provides the tool kit that designers, architects, engineers, developers, artists, and even hobbyists use to create masterworks in their respective fields. Given this, Autodesk is in the enviable position of having not just one or two exciting topic areas to write about but many dozens of possibilities. From futuristic automotive design and sustainable urban infrastructure, to 3D-modeling and digital special effects in the entertainment industry – it’s an editor’s dream of compelling content topics.

And therein rests the challenge: With so many ideas ripe for exploration – not to mention so many distinct industries served by Autodesk products – the company needs to tame the complexity and impose order on so much possibility.

Getting started

In 2012, Autodesk asked Dusty DiMercurio to lead a new initiative focused on Autodesk’s very small business (VSB) segment, a key strategic market in the company’s transition to a subscription business model. One of the immediate challenges: The needs of VSB audiences were diverse and many. These customers straddled multiple industries, were difficult to target given their size, and had unique needs compared to the larger businesses that Autodesk was used to dealing with. Dusty decided to start researching to better understand VSBs.

The research uncovered common needs and pain points among VSBs regardless of industry; and these were challenges that had less to do with using an Autodesk software solution, and more to do with the struggles of running a small business. Dusty and his team knew the best approach to attract and engage VSB audiences was to address these challenges by providing content to help small firms succeed.

With research in hand, Dusty convinced leadership to let him hire the company’s first content marketing manager: Kylee Swenson, a long-time journalist, writer, and magazine editor. Together the duo launched a digital publication called Line//Shape//Space. The publication was aimed at supporting the “little guys,” giving small businesses access to knowledge and inspiration to achieve success.

“Initially my leadership was curious why I was looking for someone with a journalism background rather than marketing,” explains Dusty. “I told them that ultimately you want a bit of both, but if I had to choose I would lean more toward the journalism side. Journalists are more empathetic toward their audiences, and often have a better sense of how to get into their heads and tell engaging stories.”


Journalists know how to get into the heads of their audiences to tell engaging stories says @dustycd

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Before one year ended, the site was gaining major traction with Autodesk’s VSB customers, as well as attracting new audiences. And the publication was winning serious media recognition. Line//Shape//Space was a Webby Awards honoree among tech media giants like The Atlantic, Mashable, and TechCrunch. (Line//Shape//Space has received this accolade every year since its launch.) It also has racked up other awards, including Digiday’s Best Brand Newsroom in 2015 and several content marketing awards – including a nomination for Content Marketing Awards Project of the Year in 2015.

autodesk-screenshotWith the success of Line//Shape//Space, Autodesk’s leadership soon recognized the ethos behind the publication as a valuable strategy across the business – regardless of company size or industry. After all, to solve the planet’s toughest design and engineering problems, small and large businesses would need to collaborate rather than compete.

Within a year, the pilot program was expanded and Line//Shape//Space became a thought leadership vehicle for the organization. Explains Dusty, “Autodesk has an incredibly interesting and rich story. Our technology is being used in mind-blowing ways, like 3D-printing organs out of DNA – stuff like that. It’s totally science fiction-esque but in the present tense. Autodesk is really at the forefront of the future of making things. That’s the story we’re focused on telling with Line//Shape//Space.”

Taming complexity

With so much to write about in the field of design, engineering, and entertainment, Dusty saw the need to impose order to the whole – tools and tactics to organize the vast universe of potential editorial topics but also to inspire the team to create innovative content. Plus, these tools could guide the dispersed content teams working in other divisions inside the organization.

The result was a content “key” of sorts, one that divides the team’s content efforts into three broad categories, which the team describes as Head, Heart, and Hands:

  • Head content is thought leadership, often authored by the company’s top executives, about futuristic, inspirational themes in technology and design.
  • Heart content is stories from Autodesk’s customers. The focus is on innovations and successes, as well as the complex challenges encountered along the way.
  • Hands content has a practical bent. Hearkening back to Dusty’s initial findings about designers and engineers who must also solve business problems, Hands-themed content offers pragmatic advice to help people – and their businesses – thrive.

The team also crafted an internal-facing editorial mission statement: “To build awareness, preference, and trust for the Autodesk brand and solutions through highly relevant content and owned media.”

Explains Dusty, “There are so many teams at Autodesk that create cool content; we created our internal mission statement to help other Autodesk teams understand what we’re trying to do as a team – which is to operate like a media channel but focus on telling the story of Autodesk and our customers.

The group also developed what it calls an “audience framework,” which highlights key attributes of audiences and personas to guide content development, and what Dusty calls a “simplified buyer’s journey” – a stripped-down version of the buyer’s journey that helps them contextualize the content to ensure that it reaches audiences at the right time in their journey.

Content as a unifying activity

While the content marketing team creates stories that span audiences and industries, the company’s industry teams each have their own content resources, producing content particular to that niche. For example, the popular DIY blog, Instructables, is led by Autodesk’s Consumer Group. Area, a cool content site about computer graphics, is managed by the media and entertainment team.

autodesk-instructables-blog-screenshot

Dusty says that while this type of distributed model is important for a complex company like Autodesk, the content marketing team behind Line//Shape//Space weaves together a singular narrative across industries.

As content on Line//Shape//Space becomes more popular at Autodesk, the content marketing team is working with more groups across the business. Says Dusty, “There are people telling stories across the organization; we’re just one of those groups. I think our journalism experience, and our use of personas and customer pain points to connect with audiences in a meaningful way, has helped us get invited to collaborate with many different content teams.”

In other words, while the organization as a whole doesn’t have a centralized approach to content creation, the content marketing team acts as a force of collaboration and cohesion within the organization.

Dusty says that, going forward, his biggest challenges relate to content measurement, attribution, and distribution. “Measuring content in order to optimize it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: You can create great content, but if your distribution is off, your metrics will suggest your content is not good – when really the problem may be your content didn’t find the right audience.”

Dusty continues, “Another challenge we have is bandwidth: We work with so many groups across Autodesk; there are often opportunities left on the table that we just can’t get to. High demand for our services is a very good problem to have – but it’s still a problem.”

For other content marketers, Autodesk’s challenges (e.g., too many great topics and too much demand for its services) may seem like a luxury; but for Autodesk, the “problems” are well-earned.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

The post How to Tell Stories Your Readers Crave: Ideas From a Content Powerhouse appeared first on Content Marketing Institute.

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