Kirstin Benson has worked in media her entire career, whether as a digital content creator, presenter and/or producer.

As senior director and executive producer of entertainment strategy services at Getty Images, Benson is keenly aware of the powerful roles compelling storytelling and captivating images can play in helping companies and brands engage more deeply with customers.

From Customer to Content Builder

After being “an avid Getty Images customer for years,” Benson joined the global digital media provider in June of this year. “The opportunity to bring the skills that I learned in the newsroom and help build the very content that I once licensed daily as a customer was a fresh challenge that I was thrilled to tackle,” she said. Her appointment in a newly created role is part of the visual images company’s ongoing strategy, known as ‘Getty Images Everywhere,’ aimed at identifying and building out new, more consumer-focused content monetization opportunities.

Benson was previously co-founder and editorial director of Instant, Time’s all-video, mobile platform dedicated to covering digital celebrities drawn from YouTube, Instagram, and other social media. She’s also worked at WhoSay and ConnecTV. Since 2013, Benson has been a producer of the Primetime Emmy Backstage Live! Show.

Born in California, Benson grew up in Montana and started acting professionally at the age of eight. She studied theater and communications at the University of Southern California, gaining two bachelor degrees and then added a master’s degree in communication management in the entertainment industry from USC Annenberg.

Benson will be speaking at CMSWire’s Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit taking place Nov. 13 through 15 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. She will give a session titled “Storytelling in the Digital Age” on Nov. 14. We spoke with her about the keys to successful storytelling and digital content personalization.

Great Storytelling Doesn’t Happen by Accident

CMSWire: In working with digital content, what are the benefits in having a background in acting and experience in front of and behind the camera?

Benson: For as long as I can remember — dating back to age 4 when I was hosting fake talk shows with stuffed animals and my younger sisters as guests — I’ve had a passion for learning and sharing people’s stories, and then understanding how those stories resonate with audiences in real time.

Though my platform shifted from performing in front of audiences to shaping stories behind the scenes, the lessons that I learned from the theater more than 20 years ago continue to drive my work ethic today. For example — contrary to the stereotypes — divas aren’t tolerated in theater. You have to drop your outside baggage at the stage door every night (the art of compartmentalization!), and accept feedback (good and bad) with an open mind and zero excuses. Those are two learned skills that have helped me endlessly in business.

CMSWire: In today’s digital experience world, we talk a lot about the importance of storytelling but less about the mechanics of the process and how to do it well. In your opinion, what makes for successful storytelling?

Benson: The democratization of storytelling is a beautiful thing, but there’s a widespread misconception that just because someone spends an endless amount time on Instagram, Facebook or any other platform, they are an expert. However, anyone who’s peeked under the hood of some of the most powerful social accounts — such as Time, National Geographic or even Taco Bell — knows there’s strict adherence that goes into effective communication on social media.

The best social media teams operate much like a traditional newsroom and incorporate careful planning and storyboarding, an understanding of their audience, and most importantly — a clear POV (point of view). In other words, great storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.

CMSWire: What advice do you have for businesses looking for ways to attract customers’ curiosity with compelling content and then engage with them?

Benson: If you truly understand your audience and your marketing materials are driven by story, the engagement will come. To that end, I advocate that every marketing team hire at least one person with an editorial background to help shape its stories.

Learning Opportunities

An editorial-first brain will become your team’s secret sauce — after all, native content has proven to be exponentially more effective in engaging customers than traditional ads.

CMSWire: What can traditional content creators learn from what’s working and what’s not working in the world of entertainment and pop culture?

Benson: At this point, there really shouldn’t be a delineation between “traditional” and “digital” creators — those lines have blurred. What remains true, however, is that creators need to understand a platform (be it on social media or otherwise) in order to use it effectively. For example, you wouldn’t create a television show or a commercial without ever watching TV.

I always encourage people to immerse themselves in an ecosystem before making content for that platform. This can be as simple as downloading a particular app and spending 10 minutes to observe how content is shared and how the community interacts. Otherwise, you’re flying blind!

CMSWire: In terms of digital content personalization, how should companies think about finding the right balance between what’s useful to individual consumers versus being overly intrusive?

Benson: For me, personalization is most effective when it’s subtle, but accurately speaks to my taste. For example, I find myself engaging when brands curate items based on my preferences (and don’t feel a need to beat me over the head with the fact that they made this list for me).

When personalization is shallow and overt — “Don’t miss these deals, Kirstin” — it’s off-putting.

CMSWire: In your career, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with a lot of celebrities. Who was the most fun to work with and why?

Benson: It’s always a pleasant surprise when a mega star that you’ve admired is actually as delightful in person as they seem on screen — George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Taylor Swift have been a few of my favorites through the years. All three are consistently poised, kind and magnetic beyond belief.  

Editor's note: Learn more about the DX Summit here.