SSU Closing Keynoter Ann Handley: Slow Down and Mind the Cockroaches

By: Seth Arenstein

May 10, 2019

MarketingProfs’ chief content officer Ann Handley could feel the vibe in the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Atlanta. After 2-and-a-half days of The Social Shake-Up 2019, attendees were primed and ready for her closing keynote speech.

Clad in a light-brown suit adorned with a delft pottery pattern and matching shoes that prompted many attendees to tweet that she was “best dressed,” Handley also proved to be engaging and humorous speaker. She mentioned a shaker earlier in the day asked what time she’d arrived at the show. “It feels like about 14 years ago…event years are like dog years,” she recalled onstage.

Those jokes were a good way to lead into Handley’s main message, one that she’s written about and spoken of often: with so much content being created so quickly and flying at audiences at breakneck speed, one path to success is to “slow down.”


“There’s too much going on already… audiences are inundated,” Handley said. “You know, we have to post on Instagram every day…even if we have nothing to say,” right? At this point one of Handley’s hilarious slides, went up on the screen that showed a sign in front of a Pizza Hut. “We have pizza,” the sign read. Point taken.

More Content, But is it Good?

Moreover, the pace of content creation isn’t declining, said Handley. A study conducted late last year by her company, MarketingProfs, and the Content Marketing Institute shows more than 70 percent of marketers plan to increase their content output in 2019. On the other hand, just 30 percent believe their content strategy is effective.

An issue with brand content, Handley believes, is that too much of it is “corporate-centric” and too little of it provides value to readers. It feels like brands are marketing at you. The goal, she suggested, should be “to produce marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing…it should feel like friends talking” to each other…”peer to peer, not brand to target.”

For marketing content to work, Handley went on to say, it needs an element of “camaraderie…a word you hardly ever hear in marketing these days.” Consumers, she added, have a visceral reaction to brands’ content. For content to connect with consumers it must build affinity with them. They think: “‘Do I trust you?’ ‘Do I like you?’ ‘Do I see myself consistently in your content?'”

Slow-cial Media: The Story

Handley’s suggestion to slow down, a variation on “less is more” that she dubbed “slow-cial media,” is not a call to go slowly for its own sake. Nor is it a pitch to “go really slow” or ditch technology altogether. “That’s not the world we live in…that’s not realistic at all,” she said. Instead, Handley advocates producing fewer pieces of content, but “obsessing” over the fewer pieces. Doing so, she argued, will raise quality and deliver results in the long run.

The first part of content to obsess over, she said, is  story creation. You want to create “a refreshingly real story,” she said, suggesting that creators slow down while telling it. She told of the Bronx Zoo’s Valentine’s Day stunt where people could name a cockroach after a loved one or a “slimy ex.” The Zoo has a collection of 10,000 Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. It’s been mounting this stunt since 2011.

Refreshing The Story

By contrast, the El Paso Zoo, a much smaller venue than the massive Bronx Zoo, loved its counterpart’s campaign. What El Paso has instead of roaches, is meerkats. And to meerkats, roaches are tantamount to filet mignon. So El Paso started “Quit Bugging Me,” allowing people to name roaches after their ex. The roaches, freeze-dried, no less, were later fed to hungry meerkats on Valentine’s Day.

El Paso live streamed the feeding, Handley said. She also reported that 6,000 people, including those from nine countries overseas, joined the fun. One tweeter asked if he could name a roach after his mother-in-law.

Handley liked that El Paso communicators took the story slowly. They teased out the stunt, using Facebook posts, from Feb. 4-18, including creating 11 videos. “The story was strong enough to be told over time…and they were strategic about it,” she said. She also appreciated how El Paso “told a human story [about people not enjoying Valentine’s Day]…although in a light way.”

 Slow-cial: The Voice

Another target for obsession, Handley said, concerns voice. Lose “that marketing voice…make it sound like you,” she urged. When writing,  she’s “constantly thinking” about “the tell,” a term she adopts from poker.

In writing, said Handley, the tell can be gleaned in elements of the writer’s voice. “If someone covers up your byline, they still should be able to know that you wrote” the content…”they should know your voice…I want everything I write to sound like me…on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

A tip for developing your voice: be more specific. Instead of writing “‘a dog,’ write ‘a Cocker Spaniel’ or give the dog a name,” she said.

Handley also urged attendees to use newsletters for marketing, not just as a distribution channel, by slowing down and concentrating on the “letter” in newsletter. She mentioned billionaire investor Warren Buffett, “The Oracle of Omaha” who writes an annual letter to shareholders. The letters are acclaimed for their wisdom, but also for the jokes, lessons and stories Buffett inserts. His secret, Handley revealed, is that he thinks of his sister Doris while writing. “He literally writes to one subscriber,” she said. Not a bad lesson.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein

At The Social Shake-Up