Russ: Welcome back to the BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today, Shane Snow, Journalist, Geek, Co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Contently and Author of Smart Cuts: how Hackers, Innovators and Icons Accelerate Success; Shane, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Shane: Thanks Russ, great to be here.
Russ: You bet. Let’s start with this content area, tell us about Contently.
Shane: So it’s a company that I started with 2 friends about 4 years ago – 4 ½ years ago now – and the premise was there are a lot of freelancers out there that are paid professionals – high paid professionals – in the media space that are being laid of their jobs and being forced to be freelancers and at the same time there’s a high demand for writers, photographers, videographers from commercial brands that want to use those skills to tell stories themselves. So now that we have the internet big brands can talk to people and be publishers directly through social media, through blogs and other means but they need talent and tools to manage that talent. So we built Contently as a software company that partially brokers talent, people who’ve been laid off from their journalism jobs, and partially provides software for people – for companies that want to be publishers.
Russ: Okay, real interesting. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that all content was produced by newspapers, magazines, books, media, television, radio – today it’s everybody. How can you possibly sort of distinguish yourself in that world?
Shane: It’s – I mean this has happened with so many types of media too, right? And the thing that happens is what happened in music, for example, is happening now with what we consider written content or video; with music, as soon as everyone could suddenly produce their own music and distribute it on the internet it became much more of a meritocracy where the best music could come from come kid in Iowa in his basement and become nationally well-known and it was harder for highly produced but mediocre acts to really make a splash or to make money and so there’s this great democratization but there’s this sort of hits-based thing that occurred.
And so now same thing with publishing; everyone is a blogger, every company is competing against media companies in some way your attention, you know, on your Facebook feed, and so the best content still stands out, there’s more of it, but there’s this pressure – sort of the opposite of a race to the bottom I guess. A lot of stuff happening at the bottom of the internet but there’s this race to do content people will actually share and care about, which ends up being very positive for people in my former line of work whose job is to make the words and make the pictures and make a living doing that.
Russ: Okay, so you say it’s a meritocracy now, the way you guys do it.
Shane: We’re part of – it used to be if you wanted to be a good publisher you needed talented people to find stories and to tell them, you needed a printing press and you needed trucks to get the paper to people’s houses. Now the internet is the printing press, social media are the trucks and we’re providing the tools and the talent to help anyone access the kinds of folks and the kinds of I guess structure that you need to produce good content.
Russ: Okay. I spent enough time researching you to discover you’re championing the cause of being a good story teller right up front; tell us about that.
Shane: Well, so I love stories. I grew up not playing Nintendo and reading books instead and one of the stories I love telling is how my mom cleverly orchestrated a competition between my brother and I – this brother who we were so close in age that we hated each other but did everything together – and the competition was every summer who could read the most books. And so we, of course hating each other, tried desperately to read hundreds of books and so I grew up loving stories and having that really appreciating good books and good stories and I think that’s helped me as a writer certainly but also in my career.
What we find is that stories are this powerful way that humans connect with each other and we kind of intuitively get this where we don’t think about it very much – when you’re making a friend the thing you do with that friend is tell stories. You tell each other about your lives or you go and you sit down at coffee or at lunch with an old friend or an acquaintance or someone you’re making friends with and that’s what you do is you reenact the comedies and dramas of your lives through stories. And this is how we have loyalty to our country, for example, if you’re patriotic because you grow up hearing these stories about George Washington and his men in Valley Forge and not having shoes.
And these stories tie us together to each other and evolutionary battle just say that this was how we were able to survive as tribes as we told each other stories so we could survive together and convey information. So I nerd out on that idea a lot but I think it’s true, I think a good story makes an idea stick and they make us happy too. I mean we spend more of our time watching stories or telling stories than we do almost anything else.
Russ: You know I agree but don’t stories probably violate the brevity law on the web?
Shane: You know, I mean stories can be told in a lot of ways bit there’s certainly – you know, it depends. There was this movement for a while there, this kind of common conception with the internet that less was more and I think in a lot of cases less is more but that in content it was about the micro content. It was because of Twitter, because I was so clever in helping us to get more people publishing because it was so easy and short and all that that people just have no attention span and they click on everything and what you’re seeing now though is a return – I mean we still – despite that people are watching more Netflix than ever and those are really long stories, right?
Russ: Right, right.
Shane: But you’re seeing this return to an interest in long form content in a way that people didn’t predict a few years ago; these sites like Longreads or Pocket. A lot of it is because of these devices here right? When you’re in line you can read – I have a friend who read War and Peace on his phone, right? And it’s actually easier to do that so people are appreciating stories in all forms still.
Russ: Right, well I was juts impressed about, I don’t know, 6 months, a year ago with Medium and there was all this emphasis and care put into making sure that the reader knew wow, you’re almost at the end and this is not a long story.
Shane: Yeah, yeah it’s good. And when you know what you’re getting into, when you click on a Medium story it says this is going to be 15 minutes.
Shane: If you have 15 minutes you’re going to do it.
Russ: Right, right.
Shane: But it also puts an emphasis I think on the creative people it puts an onus on making every sentence count so that every sentence is a slide to the next sentence. Used to be newspapers, there’s the headline and then most important information at the beginning and then if you didn’t make it to the end of the story…
Russ: Then you had to go to D3 to find the rest of the story.
Shane: Exactly, exactly. On the internet because you have so many options it’s harder to make people stick around for a longer story, but that means if you can that the story is hopefully that much better.
Russ: Okay, so Contently provides its services for commercial customers, right?
Russ: And you’re helping them with your talent that you’ve recruited out of the space to write good content and I guess the focus there is starting with stories often?
Shane: Yes, absolutely. I guess the idea is with the internet we had all sorts of new forms of advertising, right? And a lot of that was incongruous with what people wanted on the internet. You know, a radio advertisement is often a good one is a disc jockey who’s the guy that you know or the girl that you know talking about some product with some amount of passion. That’s less intrusive than being on the internet and clicking on a story you want to read and having some thing pop up in your face and you can’t click out for 15 seconds. And so what a lot of brands are realizing is what they want to do is build relationships with customers. And just like building a relationship with a friend over coffee, if they can be the thing that you click on because you want to read whatever it is brought to you by Starbucks, that they want you to care about sustainability like they do and they want you to know that they care about that, then they can write stories about sustainability and both of you can have a good experience rather than shoving a coffee ad in your face.
So that’s primarily what our customer are after but as a corporation there’s a lot more content than that so we have ended up building tools to help different departments throughout a company to share content with each other, to produce content for different divisions so internal communications – just as much as marketing, just as much as P/R – those all involve some sort of content creation and editing and libraries of content. And so we’ve expanded beyond just that sort of core idea as the company’s gotten bigger but it’s all around this idea of stories are a more powerful way to get people to care and get people to remember than sort of begging I guess – or selling.
Russ: Okay well now this might be old fashioned now but I thought it was pretty nuveaux at the time when everybody was making these thought leader vignettes and that sort of thing, is that old fashioned now?
Shane: I mean I think it’s 15 years ago maybe if you didn’t have a website then you were behind the curve and now it’s just a given that everyone – if you don’t have a website now you’re really behind or you’re deliberately doing something to sort of shock people with well we don’t’ have a website. I think it’s the same thing where now, because there’s more information, we have more ability to choose between products and places we want to go or businesses we want to support than ever else; there’s almost this pressure to be publishing thought leadership and to be talking about what you care about as a company because people are making more decisions based on more information and research.
Anytime I think probably either of us goes to a restaurant or goes to pick a product we want on the internet, we look for it – we look up things about it and so businesses more and more have this sort of push on them to be publishing content about what they care about or the stories of their products or why you should choose them over others. And often it’s coming down to, especially with younger generations, the values that a company has and whether they are vocal about those.
Russ: Okay, so what do you like to do most with your time? I mean, spend time helping commercial customers of Contently, writing for Forbes, you even wrote for Mashable – we had Pete Cashmore on the show one time, quite a guy – and then you have your book too. I mean what’s your preference?
Shane: Well, so I got into the business because I loved writing and I was journalist and a couple years into the business I realized I hadn’t written anything substantial in a while and we’d hired enough people that we could go home at a reasonable hour and so I went home and I started writing kind of my nights and weekends as a hobby really. And so I mean, I think both are the things that sort of dovetail into each other; I’ll write and often I’ll write about the media industry and so that is beneficial to the business. But I also have a piece coming out in Wired soon about hover boards and so sometimes I just write about things that I am interested in. I think for me that’s the real answer to your question, what I love the most is indulging my intellectual curiosity. I like learning about things and teaching other people about them. I think in a Meta way that’s what we’re helping our customers do at the business and we also – and we use Contently to publish about the brand publishing movement so we have our magazine and so there’s a lot of kind of layers of sort of Meta I guess information sharing going on. But yeah, I think it all kind of wraps together.
Russ: Okay. Tell us about Smart Cuts, I mean just the tagline about what people that ascend real quickly in their careers have in common with hackers; that caught my attention for sure.
Shane: Well in the old days – I don’t know how old of the old days – but the term hacker originally meant someone who used a tool – appropriated a tool for a purpose other than its intended use; so sort of like the McGuyver thing.
Shane: And then it turned into in popular culture people who steal your credit card numbers and your identity and now there’s sort of this return in popular culture to hacker who is someone who is clever and can use duct tape to build an airplane or something. What I was interested in when I started working on what become the book is the pattern of thinking behind those kinds of people who will diffuse a bomb with a paperclip or repurpose a tool for something else than its intended use.
Russ: So we’re talking about disrupters really?
Shane: Exactly. We’re talking about people who find alternate paths than what’s sort of conventional and what I noticed in my research is that businesses that make breakthroughs, that change the industry that they’re in or artists or scientists that make breakthroughs, they often think in that same way; when everyone else is zigging they’ll zag and a lot of times that doesn’t result in anything but sometimes it ends up changing the world. And so I wrote a book about the patterns of how do you teach yourself to think in ways you wouldn’t think of. So how do you learn to think counter intuitively and to find smarter ways to do big things.
Russ: Okay. You know, I did that once and it evolved into a lot of lawsuits, I have to laugh too sometimes.
Shane: Yeah, one of the main points – one of the titles that my publisher proposed was Short Cuts and I said that makes me uncomfortable because that conveys this sort of like amoral idea, right? I like the idea of finding smarter paths that provide more value in the long run rather than shorter paths. And often the smart cut is not the short way; often it’s just a way where there are fewer people standing in line. But yeah, I think you’re right; buildings fall down when architects cut corners is what I always say, so there’s some danger in that but also the world never changed by people doing the same thing that they’ve been doing.
Russ: Right. Well Shane, thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us today.
Shane: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Shane Snow, Journalist, Geek, Co-founder and Chief Content Officer with Contently. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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