Elaine Welteroth: Storytelling for Change

Elaine Welteroth: Storytelling for Change

I recently interviewed Elaine Welteroth, known for leading the evolution of Teen Vogue from beauty and celeb news hub to diverse clubhouse for the Gen Z woman, for the Spredfast Smart Social New York event. My mission was to quickly share her backstory so that I could then ask questions to elicit her advice, experience and stories of particular interest to our social media strategist audience. She was an amazing conversation partner – watching a lot of tape (& Instagram stories!) provided helpful breadcrumbs and she took care of the rest. Truthfully, I could have spoken with Elaine Welteroth for hours, but in this fast-paced world, it was imperative to distill some of the big takeaways from the Teen Vogue relevance revolution and her own social media influence:

Don’t Underestimate Your Audience – It is tempting to simplify your customers into the characteristics that draw them to do business with you alone. But digging into and understanding their full lives and interests when you aren’t around could be the key to deepening your relationship with them. The Teen Vogue revolution really began with understanding that Gen Z’s interests included fashion, celebrity gossip beauty AND politics and the world around them. Removing the either/or proposition gave the Teen Vogue reader more to explore and more reasons to keep coming back. The content was key, but the recognition of the whole person is what drove Teen Vogue to host their first ever summit in 2017 (check out the killer speaker lineup for 2018). Wanting to become a change maker and simultaneously wanting to find the perfect sheet mask is now normalized and empowered.

Own Your Authority – Welteroth stated that brands have authority. Authority needs to be taken seriously – it comes with responsibility to strive for social good and the risk that cultural missteps will spark strong reactions as abuse of authority. Her sound advice here was for brands to be willing to share their platform – and thus authority – with new storytellers. Not only does this show great confidence as a brand, it lends your brand’s authority to the voices that you’d like to represent the future state of the brand. Welteroth actually handed over her Instagram to an attendee at the March for our Lives as she was there as a journalist for ABC. The updates from the first-time marcher would later serve as the perfect complement to her coverage on Nightline.

Insights Aren’t Enough – Every marketer is searching for insights about their “target audience.” If you are lucky enough to actually unearth something meaningful in this search, allow yourself to enjoy the Eureka moment, but recognize that insights get you less than halfway to a meaningful connection with your audience.  THIS is where brands get taken to task over their handling of issues that are admittedly important to modern audiences covering everything from body shape to inclusiveness. The dangers of getting it wrong harken every stock photography cliche known to man including the classic “women laughing alone with salad“. Cliches happen when marketers intellectualize insights they don’t understand and don’t include representative voices at the table. Far from watering down their point of view to appeal to the broadest audience, Teen Vogue dramatically diversified their team including a male beauty director in order to diversify their content and perspectives. In so doing, they increased followership by 600%.

Host the Controversial Conversation – While Teen Vogue may have crossed into the non-Gen Z zeitgeist with the famous Trump Gaslighting piece, that was far from the most controversial topic they tackled. And even when the publication came under fire for cultural appropriation, as they did in a famous cover story about braids, Welteroth leveraged that into a much larger conversation about race, beauty and the fluidity between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Being willing to wade into that and other topics including religion has provided a safe home for the type of conversations not only make the brand relevant, but help drive understanding of topics that may seem foreign or taboo.

Be Bold & Prove It – How do you get a publication at a 107-year-old institution to embrace change? You don’t. Elaine managed to make the first changes at Teen Vogue relatively under the radar and show results that emboldened her and Conde Nast to want to go further. I don’t know if something this stark would have been possible had she been timid and asked for permission – even with the most compelling pitch. Results were the pitch that got Conde Nast into the position of cheering for change.

While the world of publishing may seem a world away to you, the challenge of connecting with an audience you don’t fully represent is one presented to every marketer at some point in their career. Welteroth’s stories convinced me that building deeper audience connections requires, above all, confidence: the confidence to bring representative voices to the table, to share your brand’s natural authority and to go beyond the insights found in the market research room. Do all three, and your brand will see the kind of results that will get you a major following.

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