Some pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.
In the classic E.B. White novel, Charlotte’s Web, these simple yet impactful words save a life and make another better. And for prolific writer, marketer and speaker Ann Handley, these words also make the title character the best content marketer in the world.
“In just four [phrases] she had to make her case. Wilbur was her product.” Handley passionately told Content Marketing World attendees last Thursday. “I mean she was looking to save this pig’s life people. … And Zuckerman was her audience.”
Handley’s passion for Charlotte’s marketing abilities stems from her “literary crush” on author E.B. White. She even attempted to purchase his Maine estate where we wrote 12 of his 14 novels, including Charlotte’s Web.
As a result of her extreme fandom, in her presentation, she revealed five insightful content marketing writing “secrets” from the pages of Charlotte’s Web.
#1 – Be a writer first and a marketer second.
According to Handley, the worst content strategies usually start with “We need a piece of content for X.” Instead, we all should begin by asking ourselves: “What does my audience need?”
“Charlotte figured out what would make [Farmer] Zuckerman feel better about himself,” Handley said. “[And her words] made him feel like he had something special. It made his life better. It elevated his status in the community. It made him feel like he was a better vision of himself.”
#2 – Hoard ideas like a fat rat.
Charlotte’s marketing initiatives were so successful because she had help from her research assistant, Templeton the rat. He would go to the dump and bring Charlotte back scraps of paper to inspire her web writings, in return for hoards of food, of course.
“The difference between creative and desperate is an abundance of ideas,” she said. “Always collect ideas. … And write every day.”
#3 – Observe like Fern.
Fern Arable, the young girl that’s the first to save little Wilbur’s life, is a big background character in the book and paints the full picture of what’s happening in the story.
“She observes,” Handley said. “She hears, smells, tastes and touches.”
Essentially, make your audience feel.
#4 – Write to your Zuckerman.
While most content marketers are working off personas or look-alike audiences to craft their content, Handley challenged us to find the one person that can be helped by our content and write to them.
“Who is your audience of one?” Handley asked rhetorically. “ [Think about it as] one goal to one person at a time.”
#4.5 – Find the axe.
At the beginning of the session, Handley remarked that the opening lines of Charlotte’s Web is perhaps the best of all time.
‘“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
This is when Fern discovers the runt of the litter is about to be slaughtered, which was a problem she felt compelled to solve.
“Find the axe,” Handley said. “Every story has to have a problem. So surface the axe.”
#5 – All you need is less.
It’s certainly no secret that we’re living in a world of content abundance. But if we want to create content that really resonates and makes our audience feel something, we need to remember that less is more.
“Think of how Charlotte was able to save a life with just [a few] words,” Handley challenged the room. “How can we use our words more intentionally? How can we make a difference?”
Be a Friend & a Good Writer
As I wrote this post, I felt compelled to remind myself how Charlotte and Wilbur’s story ends. As it turns out, it bolsters everything Handley said. The final line of the book reads:
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
For me, this means you can be a true friend to your audience and leave a lasting impression when you commit to being a good writer.