As one of the world’s largest software companies, Microsoft has employees and customers all over the world. Microsoft Stories was built to highlight the wealth of happenings inside the company and tell the larger story of Microsoft’s culture. We sat down with Ben Tamblyn, Storytelling Manager for Microsoft’s Corporate Communications team, to learn more about using content to help humanize the Microsoft brand.
What inspired Microsoft to create a story team? What were your main goals when you started this project?
We were certainly influenced by John Branch’s story in The New York Times but the real inspiration came from a meeting Steve Clayton— Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller—had with a guy named Darrell Smith who works on our Real Estate and Facilities team.
Darrell’s team was using data to track everything from heating, air-conditioning and even lighting and get deeper insights into how we could more effectively manage our energy consumption. Our Redmond campus is home to more than 40,000 employees and comprises 125 buildings sprawled across 88 acres. The work Darrell’s team has done helped us save millions of dollars in maintenance and energy costs alone.
We knew there was an interesting story here. And initially we took a more traditional route and pitched the story to a number of mainstream publications. They all passed, so we decided to write the story ourselves. Instead of publishing a simple blog post, we created a multimedia package that combined gorgeous images, slideshows and videos to help us tell the story.
The resulting story, 88 Acres, drew half a million views in just a couple of days, and even generated sales. A number of facilities managers from other large companies saw the story and asked Microsoft to help.
We don’t set out with a goal to create stories that drive revenue. In this instance, it was a wonderful fringe benefit of helping people understand more about how we create smart buildings, and, most importantly, it told a great story. Delivering great content is our primary goal.
How would you describe the ideal relationship between brands and storytelling?
I think of storytelling as a vehicle to help educate your audience on what your brand stands for. It’s easy to think of a company like Microsoft as just a software company, or Nike as a company that makes sports shoes, but in reality we both stand for so much more. My general viewpoint on storytelling is that the best stories in the world involve people, not products. The more we can begin to use people as the front of a story, the more engaging the story becomes.
What makes a good story?
First and foremost, any good story involves people. Think back to your childhood and the stories that your parents read to you. They follow a very familiar pattern by design, making them easier to share.
Kurt Vonnegut explains this better than anyone, and if you haven’t checked out “Shapes of Stories” I’d highly recommend it.
For large companies like Microsoft, you’ve got to be comfortable taking people behind the scenes and giving them a unique view into what you’re doing. It’s really about telling people something they don’t know. It’s supposed to be educational and entertaining.
We also have a checklist that we think through when we’re ideating any story. Any good story should contain elements like heroes, villains, great characters, suspense, tension, personal transformation and a real call to action.
It’s through these lenses that we evaluate all of the stories we write. A good story will always include at least a couple of these elements.
Reading these stories, it seems like they’d appeal to a wide range of people. How would you describe your target audience?
The audience is pretty varied. There’s no doubt that when we began building out stories, our primary audience was technology and media professionals, but Microsoft is a company that does a wide variety of things—whether it’s investing in programs to support returning military veterans, showcasing some of Microsoft’s design talent, or sharing the story of Blitz, the mascot from the world champion Seattle Seahawks. It’s this incredible diversity of people that’s helping us appeal to a pretty broad audience.
Are we writing these stories to try to sell software? No. We’re writing these stories to help people understand more about the company. And I think if you understand the company, you can start to build a viewpoint about what that company stands for and what that brand stands for, and over time you can build an affinity with that brand. If we can continue to tell great stories about people inside and outside our company, you can begin to change the perception of the company in a really positive way.
Microsoft sells to consumers and enterprises of all different sizes. Do you seek to find a balance between B2B and B2C in the types of stories you tell?
Yes, the balance is 100% B2B and 100% B2C. I know the math is wrong, but we just don’t differentiate between business and consumer in this way. People live in a mobile-first, cloud-first world, and on any typical day, we do an amazing array of activities.
We work, play, talk, share, collaborate, research, watch, listen, manage etc. We need to move fluidly between these activities, and across a myriad of devices without changing who we are, from minute to minute or day to day. I don’t think it’s fair to pigeonhole someone as B2B or B2C. They’re just people trying to get things done. That’s who we focus on.
Microsoft Stories is all about highlighting the talents within the company. Has this level of transparency helped you build relationships with readers? How do you tow the line between self-promotion and transparency?
We’ve helped share stories about the people at Microsoft that you wouldn’t necessarily get to see. We’re taking people behind the scenes to show them the heart and soul of the company, so I don’t think of it as self-promotion. I don’t think anyone outside Microsoft can really explain the company’s culture in the way we can. You’ve got to live and breathe it. Transparency is table stakes. People have short attention spans. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just a reality of the connected world we live in. If you’re not willing to be transparent, people will simply move on and you’ve lost them forever.
Design also plays a clear role for Microsoft Stories. Can you walk us through the thought process behind your layout for the main page and story pages?
Anything we do is designed to help immerse the reader in our story. From a design and layout viewpoint we often talk about what I call “the 2 minute rule”. So for every 250-300 words of narrative I think there needs to be something laid out artfully on the page—an image, a video, a pull quote that helps us pull people further into the story. There’s also a fine balance between immersion and distraction which as a team we’re really mindful of. I also have the luxury of working with one of the most creative and talented teams in the industry.
How do you maximize the reach of your content? What strategies do you find most effective for connecting with and expanding readership?
There’s really only one golden rule. The best way to drive reach is to create killer content. Until now, most of the work we’ve done around amplification has been done organically, through Microsoft’s News Center and social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.
What next for Microsoft’s storytelling team?
A lot of the work we’ve done up until now has focused on long form feature stories and profiles.
I believe in the old adage that a picture tells a thousand words and so back in June we launched snaps where we share photographs each week of some of the incredible people, places and ideas from across the company. I think there’s an opportunity for us to explore other storytelling mediums also and we’ll have more to share on this over the next couple of months. I think our ultimate goal is to create a digital magazine akin to Wired that helps to tell the story of Microsoft.
Where do you see content marketing going in the future, both for Microsoft and for all brands?
I think many people are still confused about what content marketing really is. Is it advertising, storytelling, sponsored content, journalism? It’s often difficult to tell the difference. I think it all has its place and as an industry we’ll need to work through this and be as transparent as we can because the one thing you can’t do is piss people off.
Over the next couple of years, I can definitely see brands (big and small) taking more responsibility for publishing their own content. This goes beyond maintaining a blog, a twitter handle, or publishing the occasional press release. Anyone can write a press release, but a story can help people connect in a meaningful way with your brand.
Others will go even further and begin to build out fully functional newsrooms or work with companies like Contently or RebelMouse to help them build this muscle and amplify content. For Microsoft, we’re going to continue to look at new mediums and new approaches to ensure we can keep telling great stories.