3 Content Marketing Lessons from Shonda Rhimes (Yes, that Shonda Rhimes)

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If you’ve been paying attention to newspaper headlines, social media and TV lately, you’ve probably heard the name Shonda Rhimes. She is the brain (and heart, some would say) behind hit shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. Her success is such that ABC gave her production company (Shondaland) the entire Thursday night lineup, resulting in the viral #TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday) social media trend.

Now, why bring up Shonda here? Because this talented content creator nailed a formula that has glued millions to their screens. A formula completely worth deciphering and replicating. In this article, we will look at 3 lessons that every brand can apply from her stellar content strategy.

1. Empathize.

Feel your audience’s pains and needs and create content that provides relevant answers to their desires. When creating impactful brand stories, our customer should always be at the center of our messaging.

Our narratives help resolve their deepest aspirations. Don’t know what those are? In-depth interviews and ethnography are agile research techniques that can help you understand what your audience truly wants. Alternatively, try creative research methods like getting coffee with a follower, or hosting a fun meetup with clients.

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“You can’t tell stories and really walk in someone’s shoes and not have a love for them, even if they’re doing horrible things.” – Shonda Rhimes

Scandal tells the story of a crisis management expert called Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Her character was inspired by the outstanding career of Judy Smith, a lesser-known, yet equally stellar, corporate fixer. When Rhimes first met Smith, the rendezvous was expected to take 30 minutes and ended up going on for three hours. Empathizing with Smith’s story helped Shonda Rhimes add depth to Olivia Pope’s character and create a more genuine storyline for Scandal.

2. Speak to real humans.

Now that you’ve figured out what type of content would help resolve your audience’s needs, deliver it in a humane, relatable tone. Avoid talking to the “idea of a customer” and come up with a specific persona instead. Be honest and direct in your communications. If necessary, imagine that you are talking to a particular person with a specific name, age, and personality. This is the only way you will ever overcome the “robotic conversation” pitfall and engage in meaningful conversations that touch real people.

In How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) leads a group of law students in highly questionable activities as they learn how to face and win different murder trials— including one where they are directly involved. The show’s explicit, down-to-earth name is Shonda’s most evident lesson about language: speak to people as if you knew them.  

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“Most of the women I saw on TV didn’t seem like people I actually knew. They felt like ideas of what women are.” – Shonda Rhimes

3. Do, do and do.

Cadence is crucial in content marketing. How often you communicate can send a message about your brand’s authority and commitment. Decide on a specific schedule and stick to it, consistently delivering on your content promise. Sometimes you won’t feel like it, and sometimes you’ll be thrilled to write. At the end of the day, remember Shonda’s words: only hard work makes things happen.

At this point you might think that Shonda Rhimes has a golden touch of sorts; the kind that turns any story into an instant hit. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Her success as a content creator is a result of perseverance and disciplined writing. Consistent, relentless, resolute writing. Want proof? People never talk about Off the Map, Inside the Box, or Gilded Lillys (all rejected or cancelled series), but they should. They should because cadence and regularity are the secrets to her success.

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“It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.” – Shonda Rhimes

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