Ann Handley Great Content is the Soul of Your Brand

Ann Handley: Great Content is the Soul of Your Brand

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Ann Handley knows content is the secret to a successful website. In fact, she maintains, great content can be the soul of your brand. Her advice: show rather than tell, share insight or solve problems, reimagine rather than recycle.

As she explains, "Good writing and (more broadly) good content strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world… even if it’s just a product description or a blog post or a video or a graphic novel."

Handley is Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, a company that likes to boast it provides real-world education for modern marketers. She's the author of the forthcoming book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content and co-author of the best-selling Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business.

Write On


Handley has a passion for building community, particularly in using new media tools to broaden and build value. In fact, she was the co-founder of, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Before that, she spent 12 years as a business editor and writer for both local and national trade and consumer publications, including the Boston Globe.

Beyond her current role at MarketingProfs, Handley is a columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, a LinkedIn Influencer, a keynote speaker and a mom — and she still made time to share her insights with CMSWire.

Sobel:  You're known as one of the best marketing consultants and authors in the business. How and where did you get your start? 

Handley: Well first, thank you. And second, I started my career as a journalist and editor. Then the Internet happened, and I never looked back. I co-founded ClickZ in 1997, back when “Internet marketing” essentially meant banner ads and brochure-ware websites. Listservs were cutting edge. Funny, but true.

There was no Google, no Facebook, no blogs, no YouTube or Vine or Pinterest or Twitter. There was zero social media and zero mobile marketing, of course. In other words, life was simpler then.

We sold ClickZ in 2000 and in 2002 I joined MarketingProfs co-founder Allen Weiss as the Chief Content Officer.

Sobel: Have you accomplished the goals you intended at MarketingProfs? Where is the company now and where do you see it going over the next few years?

Handley: We originally envisioned MarketingProfs as a place where professors and professionals could learn from one another. Allen Weiss is a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. I shared an early masthead on Twitter the other day.

See that tagline? That pretty much says it all. Fourteen years after that masthead, our business has shifted somewhat.

We still emphasize marketing know-how, but in a way we’ve returned to our education roots by leaning more into the training space. We still publish lots of great content for our subscribers. But increasingly we also are creating in-house training and education programs for corporate marketing teams.

Training and education is the future of MarketingProfs because of our reputation, abilities, longevity, history and brand. We’ve been educating marketers for longer than most, and we’re uniquely positioned to give teams what they need to succeed in an ever-changing world.

I know that sounds like it’s merely marketing copy, but it’s not. It’s simply true.

Sobel: What are the qualities great content marketers should have?

Handley: Training as a journalist. Nose for a story. Digital intuition. Business acumen. Social DNA. A storytelling sensibility. Ridiculously good writing skills.

Sobel: Do your books help promote your business or visa versa? And can you tell us about your current publications (both online and offline?)

Handley: I don’t write books because I’m looking to promote my business. I write books because I can’t not write books. In other words, I have something to say – and I can’t keep mum about it.

Learning Opportunities

Writing a book is terrible and painful and hard. It’s like birthing a Volkswagen. The process is about as pretty as you’d imagine it to be: it’s long and arduous and you sweat a lot, and most of the work is done while crying. No sane person would put himself through it, unless he couldn’t not put himself through it!

I wanted to write Content Rules because I had something important to add to the conversation about making content a cornerstone of your marketing.

Now, I’ve written Everybody Writes, which will be published by Wiley very soon, because I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was looking for a book that was part writing guide, part handbook on the rules of good sportsmanship in content marketing (based partly on the rules of journalism) and all around reliable desk companion for anyone creating or directing content on behalf of brands.

But that said, Content Rules definitely helped elevate both me and MarketingProfs. It helped establish our expertise in content marketing and social media.

Sobel: You get a call from potential clients and they ask you for startup marketing advice. What are the essential marketing steps they should consider?

Handley: This is tough to answer without knowing the specific business and audience. But generally, I’d suggest they establish their bigger story and begin to create content around that on a platform they own – their own site or blog.

Sobel: What is your thought about hiring an independent consultant, like yourself, or bringing someone in-house — maybe a fresh college graduate with lots of enthusiasm but limited experience?

Handley: Is this tough question day? If you're talking about a content marketing lead, I’d say enthusiasm and initiative goes a long way, as long as you add necessary training and mentoring.

Ideally, you want to have in-house content folks working on your behalf, and not rely exclusively on outside consultants or agencies.

Sobel: Beyond MarketingProfs, what resources do you suggest for marketers?

Handley: David Meerman Scott’s New Rules of Marketing and PR changed the way I think about marketing. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to embrace a modern marketing world. Content Rules is a great follow-up resource to that, written for businesses looking to use content more effectively in their marketing.

Another new book I’m excited for this fall is Scott Stratten’s Unselling. Anything Scott does is great, but this one proves to be a great primer for selling more by (paradoxically) selling less.

And of course, my new book, Everybody Writes, will help marketers communicate more effectively in writing.

In our content-driven world, writing is a skill we should all have, just like any good contractor can reliably wield the saw he keeps in his truck.