In today’s episode, I sit down with Tara Clapper, the Content Development Specialist here at Express Writers – yes, I have the honor of employing this wonderful woman! Tara has an impressive background in content marketing. She’s the founder and senior editor of The Geek Initiative, a community for women in geek culture, and worked as the Blog Editor at SEMrush before she joined my team last September. Tara knows it all when it comes to creating great content and the industry of content marketing. She’s edited, written hundreds to thousands of articles, hosted webinars, and even Twitter chats, to name a few things.
Today, Tara and I are talking about brand storytelling, and how you can weave the elements of story into your content marketing to create impactful, audience-engaging brand content. (Learn more about Tara’s storytelling process in her recent blog on LARPing!)
The Write Podcast, Episode 18: From Freelancer to Content Development Specialist- Talking Life, LARPing and Practical Brand Storytelling with Tara Clapper Show Notes
Tara started her career in content marketing just after graduating college. She struggled through the experience of getting started in the industry in a tough economy. In fact, she persevered through having the same job outsourced from underneath her…twice! At 35 years old, Tara says she “grew up when the internet did,” and learned to create a web presence from the ground up early on. One of the first pieces of content she created was an email newsletter for a community of Beatles fans in an online community. She went on to work in various agencies, write hundreds of content pieces, and worked at SEMrush as their primary Blog Editor before finding a home working in my agency, Express Writers.
Tara’s unique skillset for today’s discussion actually comes through LARPing, or Live Action Role Playing. She’s even created her own LARP game and started writing and marketing it on her own, which became a foundation for her career, rooted deeply in content marketing and collaborative storytelling.
In this episode, we discuss the following:
How Tara started The Geek Initiative. And how her experience working as an independent contractor with sites like Yahoo! helped her hone her skills and develop her voice.
Why it’s so critical for marketers to understand that content is a long haul. While it’s tough for some marketers to see why content is a long-game approach, understanding this is critical. Tara talks about how long it took her to achieve her own marketing goals.
How to find a story, mold it, and tell it in their content. Tara says you should practice storytelling without thinking about your brand or company. When it comes naturally, it feels more authentic.
Why it’s so critical to tell the stories you want to tell. And how marketers can make their brand storytelling stronger by practicing creative writing and developing stories with other people.
The importance of routine for freelancers. Freelancers seldom have solid, set schedules. Tara talks about how routine can help freelancers keep their work, quality, creativity, and storytelling strong.
Why Tara advocates working on the idea as soon as you get it. Tara talks about her process of bullet-pointing content, and then sitting down and writing it. This keeps ideas and content fresh.
Like most writers and many content marketers, I’ve been a natural storyteller my entire life.
Over the years, I’ve practiced my storytelling skills in a variety of ways: by earning an English degree some people branded ‘useless;’ through active participation in theater groups as an actor, crew member, and playwright, writing collaboratively with others I trust, and by creating and participating in LARPs (live action role playing games).
Even as a recent college grad at a self-publishing company, I realized the thrill in completing and marketing work – especially when a long-term success pays off.
It’s not just about having a story, but selling it.
Each media – theater, collaborative writing, formal scholarship – has taught me something new about storytelling, but LARP is the culmination of these skills. The medium itself is also flexible enough to warrant explanation and innovation. Scroll past the infographic for the full story by Tara!
What is LARP & 7 Ways It Made Me a Better Brand Storyteller (Infographic)
What is LARP?
LARP stands for “live action role play.” In this interactive medium, participants create a story collaboratively while representing a character in the LARP, sometimes to a very immersive degree. LARP covers a variety of genres such as medieval fantasy, sci-fi, western, and post-apocalyptic. Some games include boffer or ranged weapon combat; others focus on personal interaction and emotional intensity or a combination of the two. Styles vary greatly depending upon genre, region, and participants’ preferences.
Like a consultant might encourage participants to role play sales and customer service scenarios, LARP is also a very effective educational tool. It’s used heavily in schools in Scandinavia and it can be very similar to military combat simulations. Depending on the LARP, you might do something similar to Model UN – or you may feel like you’re in Lord of the Rings.
Young LARPers explore their creativity as they portray characters in a cyberpunk LARP. Photo by Matthew Wright, courtesy of the Wayfinder Experience.
There are several ways in which LARP helps participants hone their storytelling skills:
You drop any pretense of the ‘real world’ (except for physical and emotional safety). As adults, we’re often encouraged to focus on reality. LARP sparks your imagination and allows you to focus on building a story with others. This is not unlike how a marketing team can function at a brand of any size.
As in real life, LARP worlds and scenarios often feature problems and solutions. Innovation helps you get things done, complete objectives, and reflect on your progress – almost like a more natural agile marketing process.
LARPs do not always have a beginning, middle, and end format, but they can. Participants often reflect upon their role in that story. LARPs may provide the opportunity for you to be less rigid and confined in how you tell your story – and that’s a great lesson to take into the business world.
By portraying someone else, you can become more empathetic (deliberately or not). Imagine if you could understand your readers this way – or your customers!
Through LARP, participants can discover unexplored sides of themselves by portraying characters. Photo: Joshua Heath: Vampire: The Masquerade Grand Masquerade: Blood and Betrayal 3
I’ve been an active LARP participant for a decade – that spans most of my career in publishing and marketing. I’ve participated as a player, non player character (NPC – a scripted character who helps the game master tell the story), and as a game designer, marketer, and staff member.
7 Major Lessons for Brand Storytelling from LARP
When it comes to storytelling, LARP has taught me seven major lessons that I deliberately apply to business:
1. Just Provide Setting: The Secret to Community
Successful marketing brands like HubSpot know that building a community around your brand requires a long-term strategy and an investment of time and money. They do it because it works.
This LARP takes place in a cyberpunk setting. Photo taken and edited by Mark Chadbourne for Oblivion LARP.
While brands can and should provide spaces for enthusiasts and customers to discuss their brand, ultimately the community usually works best with guidance instead of harsh motivation.
At Seventh Kingdom IGE, a medieval fantasy LARP in New Jersey, a small staff handles the logistics of events. But with extensive lore and an ongoing story, players also take responsibility by taking on leadership roles in game. In the real digital world, existing players are to credit for a great deal of recruitment, which usually happens by word of mouth and by players posting about their positive experiences on Facebook.
While players love the game and its brand, what they crave most is the ability to be the hero (and villain) in the game world – similar to a video game or a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons.
2. Customers Invest in Experiences
When you sell a LARP ticket, what are you selling? The game may include basics like lodging and meals, but people are really investing in the story and in the experience – and, if your LARP is particularly impactful, in a person’s transformation and education.
“Endgame,” A LARP by Hans Olai Martinsen and Anne Marie Stamnestrø – Run for The Art of Storytelling Through Gaming group. Photo by Aaron Vanek.
Experience means you’re selling them the experience; transformation means you’re flipping non-fans into fans or even altering their worldview with their product. As LARP can be a very social and personal experience featuring high levels of immersion, participants often enjoy both the experience and the transformation.
As internationally renowned professional game designer Claus Raasted said, “I’m not only an experience designer, but a designer of transformations.” That’s storytelling full-circle.
What would change about your business and how you market it if you took this approach?
3. Play Your Own Story
We all know that employee engagement is necessary and enthusiastic employees are the most productive advocates – but what about the management? Are you playing your own story?
A LARP could be a week-long epic battle scenario or a two hour experience at a convention. One thing I’ve learned about successful game masters and game designers is that they play their own story.
Sure, this happens out of necessity sometimes – just like a business, the game can be short-staffed or someone calls out sick and upper management needs to fill in. However, I advocate for intentional insertion into the game world (or business) you’ve created. With a small investment of time, you’ll possibly learn more about your LARP (or business) than you would by conducting various customer experience surveys.
Here’s a LARP example of how that can work:
At New World Magischola (a LARP about being a student at a magical college), the game designers recently participated in their Yuletide events. The Yuletide events took place in a smaller area than the usual college campus the game requires, and it allowed the designers to more actively participate in the game.
This allowed them to not only gently guide scenarios and pay attention to safety (like when we were outside in the snow) while still allowing players to make decisions, but it showed they were a part of the community. They were also able to experience their game design first-hand.
As a former staff member at a fantasy boffer combat game, I’ve also noticed a wider gap in communication between players and staff when staff members aren’t out there on the field fighting on the same side as the players.
If your customers don’t see you fighting alongside them, they might not hang around for any rough transitions you face. Do they view you as a partner, or someone potentially fighting against them?
4. Your Goal: Innovation
If you’re a successful marketer, you understand that your brand needs to offer something that your competition doesn’t. You’ve probably worked on your USP (unique selling proposition) and have determined how to express that as your brand. Once you’ve established that, then what do you do?
Like business and entertainment niches, LARP is centered around innovation that is quite literally game changing. Through online communities and by supporting new game designers, innovation is an intrinsic part of the LARP community. From new hobbyists to professional LARP studios, getting involved means giving and gaining a great deal in terms of how you impact the hobby as an influencer.
While this may look like a charismatic and engaging leader conducting a business meeting, this is actually a LARPer contributing to a collaborative story. “Unheroes” by Joanna Piancastelli run in Hilton Hotel restaurant in full public view. Photo by Aaron Vanek.
Related to that are the LARPs themselves. Most LARPs involve problem solving, creative thinking, and portraying a person who is different than yourself. These are the cornerstones of collaborative storytelling as the character is the basis of a LARPer’s interaction with the game environment and other participants.
If you didn’t have the restrictions of the real world, what kind of spell would you cast? What kind of fortress would you build? Who would you be? Deliberately embodying this way of thinking by regular LARP participation has changed me as a person and as a professional.
Similarly, we constantly adapt and innovate to serve our customers better at Express Writers. The other day, a customer asked me about a service we don’t offer. After speaking with our CEO and expressing that I am able to execute this product, we built out the service and quoted the customer. This took less than 48 hours.
That’s not just agility and teamwork, it’s innovation that only happens through:
Trusting your employees
Listening to your customers
Analyzing budget and ability
Responding to customer needs.
5. Most People Crave the Opportunity to Be Loyal
It’s clear that LARP has allowed me to identify and pursue changes in my life – and applying that to business development skills has been especially useful. After LARPing for so long, I’ve also noticed that the wide variety of characters I play have something in common: they crave loyalty.
People love to belong to a group. I enjoyed playing a member of Maison DuBois, a group in New World Magischola. Photo: New World Magischola / Learn Larp LLC.
It’s not just me, either. Many LARPers enjoy portraying people who are devoutly loyal to various factions, religions, political causes, corporations, families, and school affiliations in game worlds. This is an appealing aspect for people to explore without the ramifications of expression real-world political beliefs – and if you can figure out how to provide rewards for that craving, you’ll have loyal customers for life.
6. Creativity is Worth Something: Money
The arts are spectacularly undervalued. Earlier, I mentioned how I was told that pursuing a degree in English wasn’t the best plan for my life, and this lack of value for the arts certainly relates to why many people feel that way. I feel vindicated now that ‘storytelling’ is such a marketing buzzword, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem of society viewing the arts as a waste of time or education.
That’s stuck with me. Like other writers and artists, sometimes I still find it hard to believe I deserve compensation for my work, even though I do – while other writers are tough on people like me for allegedly lowering the value of content based on rates.
Fellow LARPer Kathleen Burns (right) works at SEMrush. We make a great team in part due to the leadership roles we take on in LARPs. Here we are celebrating Halloween as our LARP characters. Photo: SEMrush.
In LARP worlds, the arts are generally valued. Who else will create songs and epic poems about the adventures and exploits of tavern-dwelling townfolk? Who keeps a detailed chronicle of the events that transpired? And who relays news and tells songs and stories at feast? In most LARP settings, bards in some form are appreciated – and often compensated – for their work. I try to internalize this as often as I can.
In LARP communities, artistic talents are extremely valuable. Costume creation and customization, boffer weapon creation, propsmithing – most LARP communities need these talents, and most other players will pay for them.
Storytelling in practice at Mystic Realms. Photo: Mystic Realms.
In my role at Express Writers, every so often I’ll get into a tough spot with a prospective client: they don’t want to put value on high quality content. I dislike having to justify the exceptional work of our vetted writers and editors – and sometimes I find that it’s best to leave this potential business relationship on the grounds of incompatibility.
Quality content has value – and if the customer isn’t willing to pay the full price, they’re not worth the investment of your time.
7. Embodiment is Empowerment
People want to transform their businesses and themselves. Through LARP, it’s possible to learn more about yourself by portraying various characters. If you’re able to genuinely appraise your experiences in this way, you can really grow as a person. LARP has enabled me to feel more confident in sales and public speaking and to continually sharpen my storytelling skills across a variety of genres in unique ways that set me apart from many of my content marketing peers.
That’s me on the left. I’m creating a collaborative, magical story with three talented friends who also support my personal and career development in the real world. Photo: Darren M. Fitzgerald Photography.
In business, that level of empowerment isn’t something you find by hiring one full-time content writer to handle all of the work your business or agency requires. Instead, invest in the labor of a subject matter expert to ensure your message clearly captures your brand’s expertise and enthusiasm.
Bring a Little LARP into Your Content Marketing
Most content writers can tackle the basics: SEO-friendly copy, proper grammar. We know all about how this helps your search engine ranking. However, human-focused content now takes the lead when it comes to search results.
I recommend adding the LARP BASICs to your content marketing. Always remember how you can be:
Whether you’re out killing goblins in the woods or taking a more active interest in imaginative play with your child, keep these tips in mind when you want to create a more engaging and adaptive marketing strategy.
All LARP photos used with written permission of copyright holders.