How Contently Redefined Storytelling and Became a Global Brand
Elisabeth Brier, Shane Snow and Joe Lazauskas

As the founder of Contently, Shane Snow and the company’s Director of Content Strategy, Joe Lazauskas put it, Contently quickly transformed, “from a startup sharing half a floor with two other companies to a global tech company with over a hundred employees.”

Founded in 2011, Contently has redefined brand storytelling through innovative tech and tactful marketing.

Both Snow and Lazauskas sat down with TechDay to breakdown their unique strategies for the company’s success and share pearls of wisdom all entrepreneurs should utilize.

One of Contently's primary missions is to help the modern marketer master storytelling. How does Contently go about telling it's own story? How has the strategy changed or evolved as Contently continues to grow?

One of the reasons we believe in the power of storytelling to transform businesses is because it transformed our business. When Contently started as three people in an incubator, Shane was just a 26-year-old recent grad from Columbia’s journalism school— not a veteran content marketer. But he built an incredibly strong brand for Contently by telling amazing stories in keynote speeches, and writing about the coming content marketing revolution.

We believed so much in the power of storytelling that we did something that no one does—we hired an editor-in-chief (Joe) as one of our first dozen employees, and tasked him with telling our story. Telling stories—about the industry, our own content experiments, and how the most forward-thinking brands were using content to drive business results—is how we grew our business. We built a blog with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. We launched an award-winning print magazine. It’s how we went from a startup sharing half a floor with two other companies to a global tech company with over a hundred employees.

From our storytelling perspective, we’ve evolved with our audience. In the early days, we focused a lot on basic content marketing education. As our audience grew more sophisticated, so have our stories. We’ve gone from talking about the art of great brand storytelling to the art and science of it. How to use data and technology in sophisticated ways to incorporate storytelling into all aspects of your business. That’s a lot of what our new book, The Storytelling Edge, is about—how to tell great stories, and use those stories to grow your business.

As a company that relies on a two-sided marketplace (freelance writers and those seeking their services) how did you solve the sort of "chicken or egg" problem before Contently's launch? What were the main value props for brands and advertisers as well as for journalists and freelancers?

We really had the right idea at the right time. The recession and accompanying media apocalypse had left a lot of really talented journalists looking for work. At the same time, traditional advertising—TV, print, display—was failing. Social media and search had broken down the wall between brands and consumers, but brands needed something to say to get their attention. Brands needed storytellers; Storytellers needed work.

The biggest thing that’s evolved for us is on the tech side. We’ve listened to our clients and adjusted to meet their needs. Our platform has gotten so much more powerful, incorporating AI to help brands optimize their content and to help us match the right freelancers with the brands we work with. It’s a constant journey, but an exciting one.

To what extent has the growing prominence and legitimacy of freelance work aided the Contently brand? How do you feel Contently is supporting this trend and do you foresee it persisting far into the future?

Empowering freelancers to tell great stories has always been a core part of the Contently mission. Humans have told each other stories since we lived in caves and huddled around campfires. We told stories to remember. We told them to survive. We told them to build relationships with each other and make people care.

There’s a mural on our office wall that says “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” That’s never been more true. From the beginning, we established a code of ethics that would empower our freelancers to tell stories that they were proud of, and that would help our clients tell real stories, not just display ads in sheep’s clothing. We’ve always ensured that freelancers get paid fairly for their work, and pay them immediately upon submitting their first draft. We launched a blog, The Freelancer, to serve that community. And we built a strong reputation in the freelance community as a result.

We like to think that we’ve been a part of legitimizing freelancing for brands—by showing that brand work can be really rewarding, and by proving to large corporations that freelancers can bring ideas and angles they just wouldn’t think of otherwise.

The gig economy is obviously growing. We think that tech platforms like ours that make it easy to incorporate content from freelancers into every part of your marketing operation, and we’ve already seen it become an extremely popular model for brands. This is just the beginning.

How do you curate your team of freelancers to ensure brands they are getting the most talented and experienced people?

Our solution is two-fold. There are hundreds of thousands of freelancers in our network, and they all have a Contently portfolio. We use a smart algorithm called Talent Recommendations that scans those portfolios for expertise and the quality of their clips to match freelancers with brands, based on the content strategy we develop with our clients that lives within the Contently platform.

We also have a white-glove creative network team that trains all of the freelancers we work with and ensures that our matches are a fit. The majority of our clients also work with a Contently Managing Editor who serves as quality control for all the freelance work, ensuring that every story is high-quality, on-brand, and aligns with their content strategy.

What was the thinking behind offering Contently as a subscription service? How does this support both sides of the sharing economy?

Contently doesn’t work without our technology platform. It’s like Salesforce for content. So software-as-a-service (SaaS) was the logical model.

That technology provides a lot of value to our clients, and empowers them to become better content marketers with tools that support best practices. It also helps them easily work with freelancers and makes it really easy for freelancers to work with brands, which helps ensure that our freelancers are paid well while doing the work they love.

What's the next move for Contently? What changes, next steps or partnerships can we expect to see?

Brands can’t make content for content’s sake. It needs to drive business results. In order to do that, you need a data-driven content strategy and the ability to optimize your content continuously so it gets better and better over time.

We’re investing a lot in offering more content strategy services, while also building content strategy tools within our platform to help brands optimize their content against KPIs, across every stage of the customer journey. We truly have developed a data-driven approach to content strategy that no one else can match.

For example, our integration with IBM Watson allows brands to optimize every piece of content for the optimal voice and tone based on their audience’s preferences, and our SEO optimization technology helps brands rank for their target keywords.

Our clients know that content is the atomic unit of marketing, and that great content drives successful campaigns. According to the CMO Council, 32 percent of a B2C marketing organization’s budget and 28 percent of a B2B marketing organization’s budget is spent on content. That’s sure to continue growing: According to SiriusDecisions, over 80% of B2B organizations plan to increase those budgets in the next year. It’s no wonder that content is being considered the fuel to digital marketing’s growth engine.

If you could offer budding entrepreneurs a piece of advice in 280 characters or less what would it be?

There are a million good ideas out there. Someone will try to copy you, but they can never replicate your story. Lead with the story of why you’re doing what you’re doing and you’ll inspire customers, investors, and employees. That’s the difference between winning and losing.