Before I became a technology marketer, I spent 10 years in the publishing industry running bit-tech.net, where we wrote about bleeding edge technologies as they were being announced to the world. With over 2 million monthly readers at its peak (well before Facebook popped up on the top referrers list), we were a part of the news cycle, and many of our readers – and, in some cases, other publications – were waiting for what we had to say before forming their own opinions.
It was a privileged position to be in because often we’d get our hands on technology weeks (and often months) before it ended up in the hands of consumers. With power came great responsibility.
I look back on that period in my career fondly, as so much of what we were doing day in, day out applies in the modern world of marketing. We built a huge tribe of over 100,000 active members of our community and we took them along with us on our journey through the thick and thin of building a digital publishing business at a time when the industry still believed in print.
What we did brilliantly was to integrate our readership and tribe into the business. The tribe was our product, our reason for getting up in the morning and our reason for working through the night to ensure our articles were ready when embargoes expired – without sacrificing on quality. What’s more, we worked with them when we felt the need to monetize more effectively – every monetization decision was driven by their thirst for more content. We’d explain that we needed to integrate a new ad format and, in return, we’d like to produce more of the content they loved.
What made our content quite different to many of our competitors’ content – and, believe me, we were often writing about the same thing – was that each and every article, review, blog post, news story and feature article was a part of our story, and the journey we were embarking upon. There were occasional in-jokes, forum-pop-culture references and more, which fed our readers’ thirst for more of our story.
At the time, we had built this business with no marketing budget – we spent literally nothing on distributing our content, but instead got great at promoting our story to the wider tech community on the internet. The story resonated with our audience for two reasons: it was consistent and authentic. The staff lived their part of our story with our readers.
All great stories are true, and not necessarily because of the facts. Great stories are engaging, fun, a little risque and often audacious. We didn’t try to be someone else – we were just ourselves, and we shared that with the world through our content and our daily interactions with our community. This built trust with our audience and though we never met 99% of our audience in person, we felt like they were all one of us. Trust is one of the scarcest resources available today.
The team was left to their own devices – we had no rules on how they should conduct themselves beyond having fun, passing the parents test and not damaging the brand. Everything else was fair game. It was all a part of our story, and we wanted the team to work hard, but play just as hard. Establishing these very loose guidelines meant that our story could develop in the moment. Stories don’t run on time-delay; they happen in real-time – especially on the internet.
What’s more, stories don’t contradict themselves. If you’re not authentic and natural in your delivery, it’s very easy for your story to contradict itself as lies cover up lies that covered up lies. If you’re not authentic in your storytelling, you start to forget what was real and what was a cover-up (of another cover-up!). There are many parallels drawn between how we behaved in our community, and how you tell stories to communities via social media today.
In the real world, we don’t all resonate with each other. Sometimes, we just don’t ‘get’ someone we meet, because of a personal or philosophical clash of minds. In fact, these people often offend us and raise our blood pressure. A world where everyone has the same personality would be pretty grey and boring. The same is true when building a brand. If you’re trying to please everyone with your storytelling, you’re actually more likely to be meaningless and be swept away in the sea of mediocrity. The one thing that we didn’t ever try to do at bit-tech – either intentionally, or otherwise – was appeal to everyone.
We knew that a lot of first-time visitors wouldn’t get us. That was fine; they didn’t have to stick around and read our content, but we’d hope that they would. For those that didn’t, there were no hard feelings but we weren’t going to change course and try pleasing everyone.
For those that did get what we were about, they loved the way we communicated our worldview because it matched theirs. As a result, they would no doubt stick around and end up telling their friends about us. We ended up building a huge word of mouth machine without really knowing it!
Many of the things we learned in the early days of internet publishing apply today now that marketing has shifted from interruptive outbound to customer-centric inbound methods. Our story at bit-tech ran for almost 10 years. It’s now more important than ever that brands tell stories that are authentic, consistent and, above all, human.
If your brand isn’t human, you will be found out by your audience. The democratization of publishing means they will share their feelings with the world. In the tech industry, it’s more important than ever for storytellers to understand the company’s long-term direction. It means any subtle shifts in trajectory can be managed months if not years in advance. Storytelling over a period of years can be incredibly difficult – especially when everything you say or share is in the public record forever – but with careful planning and forethought, you can build a story that is so powerful that it literally sells on its own.