Cor Hospes, bestselling author, strategist and storyteller: “Make love, not content”

Cor Hospes is the author of several content marketing and storytelling bestsellers, a well-known international speaker, consultant and trainer who helps companies create stories worth sharing. He is the founder of Merkjournalisten, a content marketing agency that works with NGOs, SMEs, multinationals, freelancers and educational institutions, and a partner at Starlingz, Amsterdam. 

He is an authority in content marketing and storytelling. Cor trains, advises and coaches managers, marketers, content creators and CEOs. He has performed on stages worldwide and is the author of several bestsellers including “The power of a content platform” (2019), “Content Bible” (2014) and ‘Making money with social media” (2011).  

Cor is coming to Bucharest on May 26 for WeContent Days #4. He will be teaching a masterclass on storytelling and joining a panel of content marketing experts to discuss “The four essentials for 2022 and beyond.” And he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his career, content lessons and resources. 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Romania or Bucharest?  

A short stream of consciousness: Dracula, Transylvania, Securitate, the brave students of Timisoara, Ilie Nastase, Rodion Camataru, Cristian Chivu, Gheorghe Hagi, Feteasca Neagra and Varza Calita. 

Why did you choose to focus your current activity/career on content marketing and content creation? Please give us the highlights of your journey. 

I was twelve years old when I made my first magazine. Handwritten stories, comics and drawings. Drawn and written on 17 ring binder papers that I threaded together. Available only in one copy. I made it to impress my girl next door who I was madly in love with. Many stories were also about her, but of course I didn’t tell her that. She sometimes read it and said that she really liked the stories and drawings. It taught me one thing very early on. You have to make stories with love, otherwise you won’t touch people. That applies to everything, by the way. People taste that. Smell that. See that.

Make love, not content.  

Three years later, I was writing for a local newspaper. I also made my debut as a poet in a well-known women’s magazine. Later I made the school news with camera and microphone for my primary school. Before we did that on paper. But we were no longer allowed to publish what we wanted, because some teachers were angry at some critical pieces. So yes, we canceled that newspaper. Because we could no longer honestly write what we wanted.  

Everyone should take that in mind. If you’re no longer allowed to write what you want, stop immediately. Honesty gives confidence. Like a sincere poem, essay, film and novel gives you confidence. You notice that from the first page and in the first minutes of the film. The creator whispers it in your ear and says: listen, I know what I’m talking about, I’m going to tell you a story I’m sure you’ll like, trust me, and come with me. You immediately feel that you are in the good hands of that writer, journalist, poet and documentary or movie maker, and let yourself be meekly carried away by his words and images. Because you experience his storytelling pleasure, his love for stories. Because you feel his faith. If he wouldn’t believe in himself from the first seconds or first lines, why should you?

Good stories are about trust. Give your reader, listener and viewer that confidence. Then you know for sure that he will come with you and come back to you.  

I was destined for an artistic education. Wrote sketches for plays and also liked being on stage, but no, my parents didn’t let me go to Drama School, The Academy of Drama and Cabaret or School of Journalism. While my father must have seen that I looked like him; he was on the board of an education union, appeared on stage as a speaker and wrote highly entertaining pieces in the union magazine. That he ignored what I did, yes, there is probably an explanation for that.

I chose a teacher training course to end up in journalism. I wrote for the most famous titles in the Netherlands. A mix of lifestyle topics and marketing/management. During the last years of my journalistic career, I traveled as a food and travel journalist all over the world. I learned all about the tastes, smells, and stories of other cultures. About different perspectives and that one history doesn’t exist. That goes for everything you make. Therefore: stay curious. Approach everything you see and hear with a broad and always open perspective. Don’t listen to yourself, listen with empathic ears. That was always my approach to all the stories I made as a journalist. I wanted to pull masks away from people. Wanted to know why they did what they do. And I still do that. Of people and brands.  

The rise of virals and social media. I went through it all and wrote several books about it. Some of those marketing books turn out to be bestsellers, I immediately have to nuance that a bit. You can quickly get hold of a bestseller within the world of marketing books.  

At one point I was done with journalism. Because it stood still and within many chief editorial teams there was no trust – but rather a kind of disdain – of publishing online. They persisted in their own faith. Because they kept thinking that they had a monopoly in publishing, while the Internet allowed anyone to start their own magazine or television channel. Journalism stood still. I wanted to continue. That’s why I decided to help companies to create stories. That remains difficult, ‘because there is simply no culture within companies for making good stories. Well, there is one for making polished marketing talk and shiny PR images, and that has nothing to do with content marketing. Too many don’t realize that even after maybe more than fifteen years.

How has content helped you personally in building your brand?

I’ve been living my own brand-DNA and brand promise from the start: I provide stories worth sharing. I do this through my books, newsletters, podcast, and blogs, and through my training courses and lectures. Of course, I do that too for the clients from my content marketing agency Merkjournalisten (Brand Journalists). Content marketing isn’t about what I want to say, but what my audience wants to hear. Companies keep forgetting that: audience first. Frame your audience sharply. Make it small. Niche is the new big. The masses do not exist. You also know there is no bank, bed, boat, or book for everyone. Everyone is nobody. Also, online you don’t act like the crowd. Once you’ve found your audience, delve into them. What are their fears, secrets, dreams, and desires? Already based on those four points can you build a relevant content platform for them. 

What is the most important content marketing lesson you’ve learned so far? 

I’ve been making stories for years. So, the most important content marketing lesson is ingrained in my thinking and doing: audience first.  

One important lesson I learned over the years had everything to do with building fans. Content marketing at its core is about building a loyal audience. You’re not going to build an audience while you keep talking about your products. Build an audience with stories and information that they can enjoy and benefit from.  

Until recently – it’s possible again since the corona pandemic has come to the end of its excruciatingly nasty tour, I went to the four-day Noorderslag/ESNS, the best pop festival in Europe. You’ll find stages spread over the city of Groningen with the very latest bands from Europe. During that event, a conference takes place where I was invited to speak several times. I once listened to the marketing manager of the German football club Borussia Dortmund there. He said most businesses want to turn buyers into fans. Shouldn’t you do it the other way around, he asked? Isn’t it much better to turn fans into buyers? After all, what came before? The Walt Disney movies or all that merchandize? Bert and Ernie or all that merchandise? Your favorite football club or those duvet covers, drinking cups, scarves, t-shirts, sweaters, pens, diaries and so on from that club.  

Make fans. Build fans. If they are crazy about you, they will automatically buy your products. It was an insight that I still benefit from today. 

What do you think is a content trend that we need to pay attention to in 2022?  

It seems like people mainly chase content trends, while they just don’t master the basics. Then you can work with the latest tools, techniques, and tricks what you want, but no matter how beautiful they are, a bad story remains a bad story. So please, focus on the basics first. Who’s your audience? And who are you; where do you go and stand for as a brand? If you don’t have the answers to those simple two questions your content marketing will stay meaningless. It’s the mean reason why 96% of all content fails. 

You wrote several bestselling books. What is the book-writing process like? And how does one write a bestseller?  

A ‘book-writing process’. How nice it would be if such a thing existed. But it doesn’t. There is no ready-made recipe for writing a book. Every book is different. Each book requires a different approach. You start over and over again. I often start over again when I have already started.  

True: there is always an idea at the base. An assumption, a thought. But as it goes with any idea, this can develop in all kinds of directions during your writing process. Think of writing your master’s thesis. Based on your assumption you start your research. Along the way you’ll come across new insights based on the things you read, the interviews you do, the conversations you have. Your curiosity takes you through many unexpected backrooms and through thoughts you didn’t know existed beforehand. When I graduated from university, I didn’t write one thesis, but three. The same goes for writing a book. 

Do you ever get the writer’s block (or content creator’s block)? If so, what do you do about it?  

Go for a walk or get drunk.  

Please recommend 2-3 resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc.) you think would help our readers with their content marketing efforts. 

The best content marketing lessons are not found in books or blogs on the subject. Chef Antonio Carluccio taught me in his cookbook ‘Vegetables‘ how you can vary endlessly with one ingredient. The documentary ‘Ants on a shrimp. Noma in Tokyo’ teaches you how much guts and effort it takes to do things differently. Noreena Hertz tells you in ‘The Lonely Century’ why any company should quit social media right away if it really loves its audience. That book is truly a must for anyone reading this interview. 

In your experience, is the content marketing industry different from one European country to another? If so, what kind of differences have you noticed? 

Europe consists of a patchwork of cultures. Each culture has its own beliefs (principles, values, morals, and ways of thinking), totems (clothing, decorations, logos, symbols), rituals (traditions, social norms and values, social rules, and ceremonies) and language (slang, running gags, and inside jokes). Of course, content marketing works then differently in every country. Because the culture is in every country is different.  

What do you think about WeContent’s mission to unite the European content marketing community? Is it doable, and how? 

I’ve never quite understood why European conference organizers always get speakers from America when it comes to content marketing—except for more philosophical and inspirational speakers like Andrew Davis, Jay Acunzo and Robert Rose. America is a very different country. What should we do with all those American examples of companies that we often don’t know at all, so yes, then we’ll just take those stories as sweet cake. It’s a much bigger country too – how many people speak American versus Bulgarian, Romanian, or German – and that makes many American examples difficult to apply.  

As I said before, Europe doesn’t exist either. But all those countries do have good cases from a smaller language area. Therefore, they are much more comparable and applicable. That’s why I’m so happy with WeContent. Because it puts content marketing in Europe on the map. With great European cases and practical insights from European speakers. 

You will teach a masterclass in Bucharest on May 26, during WeContent Days, focused on storytelling. Why is storytelling important and why should people attend this workshop? Who do you think will benefit most from attending the event?  

Why storytelling is important? That question is just as curious as the question of why you should drink water every day. Stories are the elixir of life of any culture. From any organization. 

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