Zahra Khan on Her Journey as a Storyteller: From Print to AI
Over the last few decades, the nature of storytelling, along with its modes of delivery, has been rapidly evolving. In a conversation with Pepper Content, Zahra Khan shares what it takes to grapple with fast-paced changes in the content space. She also deep dives into how to build narratives for a brand in a unique, while striving to be authentic and relevant to your audience.
1. Please introduce yourself.
I am Zahra Khan, a storyteller at heart. I started my career as a newspaper journalist with the Times of India and helped launched Times Now, the television news channel. Midway through my career, I switched to leading content marketing at a luxury brand. This gave me an early and unique opportunity to conduct thought leadership work with industry advisors globally. I then plunged into the digital marketing space. I gained experience working in fashion e-commerce and F&B brands. I also owned a start-up for a few years a - lifestyle, pop-culture website for millennial women, which I sold to a leading digital company before taking up my current role at Amazon. I now lead owned content for the Asia Pacific region at Amazon, producing and disseminating over a thousand stories each year.
2. You did thought leadership back in 2007. That was extremely new then. How did you convince your superiors to let you go ahead with this?
I didn’t have to convince anybody. The CEO of the company I worked with back then had incredible foresight - he not only had deep industry experience, but also he believed that he needed to connect his employees to innovative exposure platforms to help them navigate a complex market like India. We didn’t have many consulting media firms back then, and he saw this as a meaningful opportunity to bring in both Indian and global marketers and investors. The best way to do that was to reach out to editors and get them to write opinion pieces on the scope of luxury markets in India. We built a readership of 10,000 worldwide, purely through word of mouth.
3. You’ve been in the content space for decades, and you’ve seen its evolution from print to outdoor to digital. Which period of producing content did you thoroughly enjoy?
I’ve always chased my curiosities - whenever I saw an opportunity that excited me, I wondered why I wasn’t there, and consciously went after it. That has been my way to learn and scale up. I’ve seen my colleagues in journalism struggle with switching to different sectors post the pandemic because of a lack of relevant skills, along with a church-state sort of divide in their minds - for instance, the belief that a journalist can only work with newspapers and not with brands. For me, it was always about exploring new and upcoming spaces and opportunities. The only job I remember hating was the one in television news, but each job has been an amazing learning experience. I loved working in the digital space simply because it allowed for tremendous innovation, and were able to direct our company toward what the audience wanted, all while maintaining our core identity. Our learning curve was 200%. I played multiple roles - from being the writer to the CEO to the social marketing person to the email marketing person, to the janitor, to sometimes being all of it.
I’ve always chased my curiosities - If I felt like something was an interesting space for me to be in - why wasn’t I there?
4. An OG marketing question - is marketing an art or a science?
It is both - one can’t look at marketing as purely data-driven, or simply as great content. You can create great content and put it out in the universe and hope it works, but that’s not a strategy, it’s a prayer. You need data to understand whether it will work, who are you targeting, and how can you measure its impact. Hence, it’s a mix of both - one can’t exist without the other.
You can create great content and put it out in the universe and hope it works, but that’s not a strategy, it’s a prayer.
5. Is it possible to engineer viral content?
In my experience, no. And I promise you, I have tried! Things that we thought wouldn’t work well, actually worked phenomenally well, so there is no guarantee that something will go viral, even with the best possible content.
6. You’ve seen and worked with different forms of content. What is your take on the controversial AI debate? Will AI tools like ChatGPT be helpful to marketers, or will harm them?
I don’t think telling human stories will ever go out of style, but the technology to tell stories more efficiently is rapidly evolving. Tools like Copy.ai, and ChatGPT are incredible and can be leveraged to get your creative juices flowing when you have writer's block for instance, but I don’t think they will ever be able to contextualize and weave subtle nuances in stories in the way that a skilled storyteller can do. It’s important to understand that today, there is space for all kinds of creative processes - be they human or AI - to exist and thrive. I sometimes worry that I may become irrelevant. However, it is my job to keep myself constantly updated with new ideas and tools that are entering my industry.
I believe that AI will only replace those who are scared of being replaced. The rest of us are excited about the kind of tech we have to play around with today.
6. How do you go about planning the right content/ marketing strategy for your brand? Do you have a traditional content calendar, with placeholders to mark different kinds of content?
I come from a different school of thought. In journalism, we never created content banks or calendars, the only question our editors asked us was what’s the story? We had to describe the details of the story, and why it was interesting enough for our editor to care. I believe you have to keep the brand’s narrative at the center - think about what you care about so deeply that you want to share it with your audience. What do your customers care about? And how can your brand authentically tap into that care? One can have calendars and placeholders decided, say like a chocolate day, but I think that’s a very inauthentic and lazy way to create content, in my opinion. You’ve got to up the ante, you’ve got to be authentic, and you’ve got to be relevant, in a way that resonates with your customer. I don’t think your customer cares about what this brand has to say on this particular day. It is much more about is this brain authentic, real, relatable, empathetic, and whether is it emoting emotions that I resonate with. That’s what people care about today.
One can have calendars and placeholders decided, say like a chocolate day, but I think that’s a very inauthentic and lazy way to create content, in my opinion. You’ve got to up the ante, you’ve got to be authentic, and you’ve got to be relevant, in a way that resonates with your customer.
7. Is this applicable to all brands? Let’s say there is an F&B brand, that might put out content on Chocolate Day or Valentine’s Day, and it might be important to them.
I have worked at an F&B brand, and we leveraged days like World Chocolate Day, but there was this entire universe of the content we weren’t engaging with. Spotlighting our customers’ likes and interests, along with people that they cared about made our brand different from other F&B brands. Our social platforms had unique and local stories, making them our community hubs. We produced and disseminated stories every day through 23 different outlets. It was a fascinating experience.
8. For my last question, how do you differentiate between ordinary and extraordinary content? Is it about the online traffic it creates, about the meaningful engagement it creates with your consumers, or something else?
It’s subjective to each person. I think you could measure extraordinary content in one out of two ways. One is the kind of content you can’t look away from - something like RedBull, that shocks and awes you and requires massive budgets. I’ve never had budgets like those. Two - Is my content creating engagement with my audience in the way that I had intended it to? Are they commenting and sharing, and having meaningful conversations about it? Are they creating word-of-mouth virality for your content? People are generally vocal - and their opinions teach you about what kind of content you might or might not want to send out in the future.
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