In People We Trust: Here’s How to Make Your Content More Human


Most of the work we do as marketers is focused on the future – predicting it, transforming our businesses to succeed in it, and helping our customers solve their expected challenges.

Yet, the overarching theme at Content Marketing World (among the many takeaways around innovative technologies and practical guidance) sprang from something powerful and ancient – the emotions, experiences, and need for personal connection all humans share.

How can content marketers tap into this desire for connection at a time when people trust other people more than they trust brands? According to many of the CMWorld speakers, the answer is straightforward: Talk with them and treat them as people, rather than prospects.

Here are some of their recommendations for creating those relatable, appealing, and authentically human connections.

Court your audience

Consider the emotionality of your content to convince people to engage with your brands, suggests Sitecore’s Jill Grozalsky Robertson.

“It takes a 10th of a second to form an impression, so there’s very little room for error when it comes to catching a consumer’s eye,” she says. “In that short time, consumers cannot form a logical opinion about a brand. But they can have an emotional reaction,” she says.

A trusting, healthy relationship doesn’t develop instantaneously, it happens gradually, as both parties grow more comfortable with sharing personal details through meaningful, emotional conversations.

She offers these four tips for approaching emotion-driven conversations with consumers:

  • Don’t do all the talking: Listen to what they have to say, instead of assuming what they want to hear.
  • Be mindful of your tone: Avoid using language that might be perceived as inappropriate or out of touch with their life experiences. Also, consider whether the emotionality of your content is consistent with your brand’s voice and the purpose you want to achieve.
  • “Dress” for success: Prepare your marketing operations to enable thoughtful, emotional content. Invest in automation that can streamline your processes, so you can spend more time crafting stories infused with emotion.
  • Treat the customer like they’re your one and only: Research finds that 70% of a customer’s journey is based on how they feel they are being treated. Personalizing the information you deliver will help close an empathy gap, make them feel more heard and understood, and build greater trust in your business.

Start from something familiar, then add your spin

Another way to quickly form a bond with your audience is to build on things they already like, says Content Monsta co-founder A. Lee Judge. That’s why memes, musical mashups, and TikTok remixes work so well. They rework things from other popular sources into something original.

Lee took to the DJ booth on the main stage to illustrate this principle. He sampled different songs, added stories from his time as an international DJ, and blended everything into an experience that amped the audience and made them feel like dancing.

You don’t need MC skills to use this “remix” technique to create emotionally resonant content.  Lee offered the following three lessons to remix in a way that appeals to your audience and makes sense for your brand:

  • Know your audience: Just as a great DJ knows what the crowd wants to hear, a skilled content creator needs to know the people they want to reach. You need to know (and use) their jargon, so they see your brand as “one of us” and not an interloper pushing its agenda.
  • Mix in your unique angle: Understand what’s unique about your brand’s perspective and personality. Make sure it comes through in your source material choices and the way you rework them. For example, if your brand is known for its sense of humor, translate the key takeaways of a technically detailed article into an irreverent cartoon or a parody video.
  • Turn the familiar into something surprising: For a successful remix, Lee suggests starting with something you already know your audience finds familiar and comforting – like a favorite sound bite or a song clip. Add your spin to it and take them on a journey they weren’t expecting.

Her early cooking videos featured ambient sound (in the viral potato video, you can hear her husband teaching a piano lesson in the background) or, later, a piano track created by her husband. As she cooked on stage for the CMWorld audience, she talked about why she doesn’t narrate her cooking steps – people can read the captions and see her demonstrating each step.

Instead, she decided to approach each video as a 60-second dinner party. And what happens at dinner parties? People share stories. So, in each cooking video, Joanne tells tales from her life and about her family (including a particularly moving story about her grandparents and mother fleeing what is now North Korea.)

Her approach touched people. Though Korean vegan cooking may be considered a niche within a niche, she’s built an impressive audience by any measure. More than 3.5 million people follow Joanne across her TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, and other channels. She’s been invited to appear on TV shows and podcasts and been featured in major newspapers. And she has a book (a combined memoir and cookbook) coming out this week.

Next time you think your content is too niche to be popular, remember The Korean Vegan’s success.

Use stories to legitimate doing good

Wieden+Kennedy’s Marcus Collins says  “people trust (other) people more than any form of marketing communication. In fact, we trust strangers more than we trust marketers,” Marcus says.

But marketers have a superpower that can help them get around that lack of trust: the stories we tell. When stories take off, their collective influence sets cultural standards. Marcus points to the De Beers “A diamond is forever” campaign as one of the most famous examples. After that campaign went live in the 1930s, the number of people who received diamond engagement rings rose exponentially. The story De Beers told – that diamonds signify lasting love – legitimated the diamond engagement ring.

And that superpower is effective for more than just sales. When content marketers choose to channel this storytelling power to advocate for the greater good of their audiences, Marcus says, it can reshape perceptions.

“Imagine if we told stories about mental health. Imagine we told more stories of voter suppression … or stopping Asian hate. And not just more stories, but stories told with more empathy … Imagine what those outcomes might be,” he says. “As storytellers, it starts with us – not just as our practice, but also as citizens of this world.”

Change perceptions with proof

Storyfuel’s Melanie Deziel challenges marketers to look inward on the issue of audience mistrust. “We know that our reputation in advertising, and sales, and marketing … we’re not exactly known for being transparent, trustworthy, and honest. It’s sort of the opposite,” she says.

Though this reputation might predate the birth of content marketing as a discipline, it doesn’t mean we are exempt from counteracting it. “The burden of proof is on our shoulders,” Melanie says.

She describes three ways content can provide social proof of your brands’ comparative benefits:

  • Corroboration: This content features statements from experts and other credible witnesses who can testify to the value of your business offerings. Customer testimonials and product reviews are among the most convincing types of corroboration content, but rankings, awards, and honors can also be used to back up the claims in your content.
  • Demonstration: To overcome lingering skepticism, create content that doesn’t just speak to your brand’s advantages but shows consumers how someone just like them has achieved those benefits. Detailed stories, photos, and live videos work best but behind-the-scenes content works, too.
  • Education: Informational content coaches your audience through a process. It doesn’t just provide support for your marketing claims, it helps customers achieve their goals.

Using all three approaches lets you create a body of work that “helps break down that consumer skepticism,” Melanie says. “Your audience is waiting for you to prove your claims. Don’t make them wait too long.”

Free your brand conversations from harmful biases

Audiences may accuse media and marketers of infusing bias into their messages, but as David Dylan Thomas reminds us, biased cognition is something all people are prone to – whether we realize it or not.

David, author of Design for Cognitive Bias, defines cognitive bias as a series of recognizable patterns our minds use as shortcuts to get through the many decisions (large and small) we need to make every day. And pattern recognition is an innate human skill that can serve us well.

“If we needed to think carefully about each of those decisions, we’d never get anything done. It’s actually a good thing that a lot of our lives are spent on autopilot” he says.

The problem, though, is our evolutionary autopilots sometimes get the story wrong. It clouds our judgment, leading us to make harmful and hurtful assumptions.

David points to a few types of cognitive bias that actively impact the way all people perceive situations and make sense of our world:

  • Confirmation bias: You look for evidence that supports an idea you hold as true and ignore any contradicting evidence.
  • Blindspot bias: You think you are acting without bias, and others are acting with bias.
  • Framing effect: David calls this the most dangerous of all biases – you choose an option based on the positive or negative connotation in how they were presented rather than their actual validity. For example, shoppers often prefer to purchase ground beef labeled 95% lean vs. a package labeled 5% fat even though the product is the same.

These biases aren’t always easy to recognize, and they’re difficult to overcome. But as David points out, if you purposefully work to keep them at bay, you can shift society’s perceptions from thing-centered to more people-centered.

David also contends marketers can use some of the same cognitive design principles that help dismantle harmful biases to create more resonant, relatable, and inclusive content. “We need to find a way to redefine our jobs that allows us to be more human … to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative or oppressive systems and recenter the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the (design) process.”

Give people a peek behind the curtain

Most of Pete Souza’s body of work demonstrates how stories can redefine a job – and perceptions of that job.

As Chief Official White House photographer for President Barack Obama and an official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan, Pete captured plenty of posed photographs documenting visits with international leaders, bill signings, and other events for posterity.

Though his job was to visually document the presidency for history, his most moving photographs tell something essential about the person behind the institution (Ronald Reagan beaming on horseback at his Santa Barbara ranch, for example).

4/8/1985 President Reagan riding his horse "El Alamein" at Rancho del Cielo.

Image source

But Pete’s extraordinary access to Barack Obama led to his most revealing and familiar work (plus two best-selling books and an impressive social media following).

“The way he interacted with other people showed what he was like as a human being,” told the crowd. The pictures he shared showed Obama as a leader, sure, but also as a father, a husband, a competitor, an empathetic listener, and a friend (most of the Obama-Biden memes use his photos, Pete says).

President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011.

Image source

That kind of up-close-and-personal content requires tremendous trust between photographer and subject – and belief in the value of producing it.

“We had such a close relationship that he totally trusted me,” Pete says. “I couldn’t have made half the pictures without that trust. I give him all the credit for understanding the importance of having someone document his life in such an intimate way.”

How will you improve your brand relationships?

No matter how you decide to approach your next customer conversation – whether it’s through documented proof, emotional appeal, or a unique blend of both – it’s clear the terms of engagement between your brand and your audience matters. The more you can evolve your content to speak with greater awareness of your shared humanity, the greater your chances will be of achieving content marketing success.

Remember, as CMI’s chief strategy officer Robert Rose, shared at Content Marketing World, your content marketing strategy can only be as good as its ability to change when it needs to. Make this time your time to change and evolve.

This article first appeared in

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About Author

Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is director of content strategy at Informa Connect. She describes her role as a combination of strategic alchemist, process architect, and creative explorer. Jodi previously served as director of editorial content at Content Marketing Institute and spent over a decade developing and managing content initiatives for clients in the entertainment, CPG, health care, technology, and biotech industries, as well as agencies and media brands. Follow her on Twitter at @Joderama.

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