Smart content producers know that we can produce a lot more (and better) content when we collaborate. But collaboration brings its own set of headaches and complexities. Today we talk about a nifty new tool to make it simpler.
Joanna Wiebe, conversion expert extraordinaire, two-time speaker at our live event in Denver, and creator of Copy Hackers, is launching a new tool designed for writers who work in collaborative teams.
In this 33-minute episode, Sonia and Joanna talk about:
- Copyhacker’s new tool for content teams: Airstory
- Why it’s not smart (or even possible) to map an arbitrary process onto your content production
- The challenges of collaboration and information sharing for content teams
- Getting information, ideas, resources, and research to the right people at the right time
- The story behind Airstory’s two years in beta testing …
By the way, Rainmaker Digital doesn’t have an affiliate relationship with Airstory (at least at this point) — we just think it looks very cool, and we’re looking forward to playing around with it.
Listen to Copyblogger FM: Content Marketing, Copywriting, Freelance Writing, and Social Media Marketing below ...
The Show Notes
- Airstory launches October 31! You can learn more about it here, and drop your email to get invited
- I’m always happy to see your questions or your thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone — and of course it’s always great to see your thoughts in the comments.
Announcing: An Intriguing New Tool for Collaborative Content
Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.
Sonia Simone: This episode of Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform. I’ll tell you a little bit more about this complete solution for digital marketing and sales later, but you can check it out and take a free spin for yourself at RainmakerPlatform.com.
Hey there. It is so good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant.
My name is Sonia Simone. I am the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and once in a while I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger Blog. Before I jump in today, remember that you can always get the show notes for every one of the episodes — including links, including free extra good things — by going to Copyblogger.FM, and there’s also a complete show archive there.
I’m here today with Joanna Wiebe, who is the conversion expert extraordinaire, a two-time speaker at our live event in Denver, creator of Copy Hackers, and co-founder of a cool new thing that we’re going to talk about today.
Joanna, how’s your day going?
Joanna Wiebe: It’s going pretty well. I love hearing about the interesting disasters and things that you talk about. That’s always fun. It’s going well, thanks.
Sonia Simone: That’s always kind of a bittersweet moment, when you see something on the web, and it’s like, “Oh, I have to podcast that. I wish that hadn’t happened, but we have to talk about that.”
Joanna Wiebe: Must talk. Yup.
Sonia Simone: We are mostly going to focus on the new tool that you guys have been developing for a super long time now. Before we do, I’m just curious. What was it that led you to create this new thing? What was it you saw going on with content creators that you said, “Ah, there’s something here that could work better, and I think we could build a tool that would help”?
Why It’s Not Smart (or Even Possible) to Map an Arbitrary Process onto Your Content Production
Joanna Wiebe: That’s exactly the thing that brought it up too, was being around so many content creators and being an active content creator myself. All different kinds. But everything starts out with writing. Even if you’re putting a video together, you’re scripting it. And in a lot of cases, content creators do not work in isolation. They send their work to other people. They have those people give them feedback and contribute ideas.
We do a lot of research for our posts at Copy Hackers in particular, posts that I do on other sites, and for the talks that I give and things like that, like most content creators do. The struggle is moving that research into a place where you can actually create with it.
We see a lot of sticky notes, a lot of trying to move things around manually. A sticky note is a good thing because you can physically move it around. There are other ways that you can create notes or cards online, but then trying to move them into a state where you can actually write with them hasn’t been a thing. It hasn’t been a natural thing that anybody can do.
You use a couple of tools together, or you do a lot of copying and pasting. So knowing that moving from research to writing was something that was slowing us down quite a bit, we started talking to some more writers to see if they were going through the same things.
And then we worked with the folks at The Rewired Group. They run something called Jobs to Be Done, which is this methodology where you interview people who you know have this problem, and you listen for what’s called a ‘struggling moment.’
We did that with about … I think it ended up being just about 10 people. They recommend seven, so 10 is a perfectly good number. We interviewed these writers and literary agents too, editors and people from large blogging teams, and we tried to identify the struggling moment in the content creation process.
There are a lot of tools for finding an idea, like BuzzSumo — “What should I write about today?” There are a lot of tools for actually finding research, like even if you use a DeepDive account, or something like that, or Google Scholar. Or go around and read and use Pocket or something like that to capture your notes, or Evernote to capture notes. But nobody was having an easy time getting that into the document.
Copyhacker’s New Tool for Content Teams: Airstory
Joanna Wiebe: That’s where our idea for Airstory was born. How do we get those notes onto the document, moved around, and eventually merged into a document in a relatively seamless way that doesn’t force a new writing process on people?
Sonia Simone: Yeah, interesting. That word ‘process.’ That you say ‘praw-cess,’ you must be a West Coaster.
Joanna Wiebe: Is it ‘pro-cess’ or ‘praw-cess’? I’m Canadian too, so it’s even worse.
Sonia Simone: As far as I’ve ever encountered, all Americans say ‘praw-cess, but East Coast Canadians say ‘pro-cess.’
That word, that interestingly pronounced word, it’s something I think about more and more, because the more content I create — I script podcasts, I write posts, I do teaching content. I create a lot of stuff. I create a lot of content. The more I do, the more process I need.
Maybe talk to me about, because it’s interesting that you say … I would have thought, “Okay, Airstory gives a framework. Puts a framework in place, so that the writer can create the content more efficiently.” It sounds like that’s not quite it.
Joanna Wiebe: Our struggle there is that we want that. We want the ability to have a process in place that will help everybody write faster. But the one thing that consistently comes up in every single interview, and since then with beta testers for Airstory, is that clearly everybody writes differently. Everybody has their own unique process. If you try to shift them out of that, they resist, and they eventually fall back into the one that works best for them.
Each of those processes has similar things happening in it, so there is going to be a research phase. That doesn’t stop, though. It’s not like this: “Oh, I’ve done research. Now, I will move on to the next step.” It keeps happening because writers are always writers.
We’re always thinking. Every moment, there’s an opportunity that we could have a new idea triggered. So knowing that it’s this fluid process, we couldn’t enforce a simple one. But there is the research phase of it, which, again, isn’t singular or isn’t isolated. Nonetheless, it is a real thing.
Outlining is a real thing for most of us, even if that outlining doesn’t look like a bullet list. It’s still a real thing that most of us do in the actual writing phase. And then getting that writing out of your document and into its published, or distributed, or used form. That might be exporting to your WordPress blog, or exporting to a PDF or something else, but you have to get it out as well.
We know that there are these pieces in place, and we know that everybody has independent tools for each of those things. If you’re researching, you might have Evernote, and that Evernote might be on wheels. It might be pretty intense for a lot of people.
Outlining usually happens in a tool like Google Docs or Word, where you do a lot of copying and pasting. We’ve seen people have multiple documents open, where they’ll put a bunch of information or research into, let’s say, a Google Doc, and then they’ll have another Google Doc tab open, where they can pull out the stuff that they’re not going to use in that piece, once they start writing it.
But they don’t want to lose it, so they want to put it in another document for use later, where it probably will get lost, frankly. Because how do you search through to find the right information piece, in what could become, again, a really big document of pasted, unused research?
All of those things, and there’s all of these little pieces at work. They’re not always one, two, three, four, five as a process, but they are in the process.
That’s why Airstory includes those things but doesn’t force you to first do research, then do outline, then do your writing, then invite people to collaborate with you, then go back and finish it off, then publish. It could happen multiple different ways. We do have a process that is pretty standard, but you can skip through the process if you’re a power user and you’re used to your own way of writing.
Sonia Simone: That makes sense. Let’s talk about the rough sketch, the high-level view. Product is called Airstory. In the most broad terms, what does it do? Then, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty in a couple of minutes.
Doing Away with the ‘Blank White Page’
Joanna Wiebe: It eliminates the blank white page, is how I put it. That’s the terrifying thing for most of us: When it comes time to actually write, and you open your Word doc or your Google doc, or whatever you’re using, and you stare at the screen.
You might have an idea. You might have that initial burst of inspiration, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s my headline” or “Oh, that’s my hook.” You write it out quickly, and then maybe a little more flows out. But then you lean back and take a look at it, and you think maybe you need a coffee now, because you’re going to get into writing mode here.
You do all these things, but the reality is that you are facing this blank whiteness. What do you do about it? It’s all been on your shoulders.
Ultimately what you would do in Airstory, in the broad strokes, is look up your research that you’ve created and drag it out of that — what we call a card library — and drop it onto your document, move it around on your document, and then either choose to merge the card, remove the card, or do whatever it takes for you to feel good about where your document is at, and add research or remove it as you need.
Sonia Simone: We’re going to take a break just for a minute or so, and when we come back, as promised, we will get into some of the specific ways that Airstory works to help make our lives easier, better, and more fun and productive as content creators.
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Hey, welcome back. Good to see you again. I am talking with Joanna about their very cool new project. This is a Copy Hackers project, is that right?
Joanna Wiebe: It is, yeah.
Sonia Simone: It’s called Airstory. I know it’s been in development for a long time. I’m going to talk about that in a bit.
We talked about research and cards. I’m curious. I have always recommended, because I always get that question, all the time, “Where do you get your ideas? How do I know what to write about?”
One of the things I’ve always taught is, it’s kind of like starting a flat of seedlings in a greenhouse. You keep a bunch of ideas somewhere you can find them, and when you need to write, you look over your little seedling flat, and you see what looks promising, and you start developing it.
It sounds like there’s some of that rough structure, at least when we get started with Airstory. Does that sound right?
Joanna Wiebe: Definitely. That would be the kind of thing I would anticipate, although you could do it in maybe two different ways. You’d either, every time you get an idea, you could start a new project in Airstory and then make your quick notes in there, and go away until you’re ready to come back.
Or you could do the easy thing, which is creating a new card. If you have that idea, create that card and then tag it ‘idea,’ ‘seedling,’ or whatever it is that works for you. Then, when it’s time for you to write something — you have a deadline — you would go into that card library, search ‘seedling,’ and all of your seedling ideas would come up. And then you could choose one and work with it.
Sonia Simone: We have these things called cards. They’re kind of little segments, yeah? Little atomized pieces?
Joanna Wiebe: Yeah. I find it interesting that when we search for something in Google, let’s say, we get in our results page. You get the full document, or you get the little snippet at the top.
The snippet is always the most useful part, right? I don’t remember what it’s called, the actual term for it. I should know it, but I don’t offhand. The little part at the top, when you’re like, “Oh, how do you convert metric to whatever?” Then it tells you at the top very quickly. You don’t have to go anywhere. Those are the most useful kinds.
Most of the time, we have to click through to search a larger piece of information, like a full blog post, to find that data point or that answer to a question, whatever it is we’re looking for. Ultimately, most of us work in smaller pieces of information, and we build those up into something bigger.
That’s the whole idea behind cards and moving them in, and searching through smaller pieces of information to find that idea that you’re looking for. Not just yours. The good thing, again, about something like Google is you’re searching through the whole world.
The Challenges of Collaboration and Information Sharing for Content Teams
Joanna Wiebe: Something like Airstory, it’s a team collaboration tool as well. That’s the focus of it. It works better and it’s stronger when you invite people to it. When you do that — let’s say it’s your team. I think of HubSpot. They’ve got a content team. They’ve got a bunch of people on it, but they’re all working in different locations, and they’re all trying to meet these aggressive publishing schedules for long and short content.
They each have information that they’ve used in different blog posts, and so on and so forth. If I keep my information to myself, then the person in New York who could use that to help write a blog post today, they don’t get it. Or they have to email me and say, “Hey, do you know anything about X, or do you have any charts about Y?” That’s a manual process.
This way, if they were all in Airstory together and importing their research as cards, then I could search Jenny’s information, her cards and whatever interesting stuff she has that might work to help me write my post today. If I search through all of our team cards, I can pull in her research into my blog posts and write a lot faster, without having to do all that unique research always on my own.
Sonia Simone: That’s really cool. That’s really interesting. How much overhead is it? For example, if I use freelancers. We use freelancers sometimes at Copyblogger. I think a lot of organizations do.
How much overhead does it take in terms of getting their accounts set up and getting them into the system, so they can work in the system, if they might not be there all the time?
Getting Information, Ideas, Resources, and Research to the Right People at the Right Time
Joanna Wiebe: You can invite somebody to a single project. If I’m writing a post called “6 Ways to Write a Headline,” but I want somebody to come in with some unique take on it, so I know it’s going to be that, I invite my freelancer in to work with me on this. Or to fill it with images or whatever it is that I’ve invited that person to do, I could invite them directly to that project. Just to that project, and that’s it. They can just be in there.
If they’re going to be somebody on my team who will benefit from sharing their research/cards with me, and who will benefit from borrowing mine as well, then I would invite them to the account as just a team member. They would work on projects. And that would be the case for more than one project, somebody who’s going to work with me relatively regularly and write from scratch, and things like that.
Just like Google Docs, you can invite somebody to look, to come into your project, and leave comments and things like that, just on a project level.
Sonia Simone: I hadn’t even thought about images. We have a whole team, and we have a fairly complex process for post images. We’ve got the headline of the post, and then we’ve got some themes or ideas for headlines, and we’ve got image choices, and we’ve got formatting. There’s a fair number of people who end up touching that. That’s interesting.
Joanna Wiebe: We’ve seen a lot of people think that they worked on a blog post by themselves, with one person reviewing it. But when it comes down to it, and you see the actual number of people involved in getting a blog post out for most teams — maybe not for independent bloggers, but for most teams — it’s four, five, six, seven.
It really adds up there. And the more reviewers you have, of course, the bigger that team gets. It’s great to have a single space where you can go, and then as soon as you’re done and that person places those images, you can export to WordPress and publish it right there.
Sonia Simone: It sounds like we probably covered this, but this is not only something for creating text content. You can use it to develop other forms. I’m thinking specifically of podcasts, video scripts, outlines, things like that.
Joanna Wiebe: Yeah. It’s a document because I’m a writer, and I love writers, and we live in the world of writers. Like Ann Handley, right, Everybody Writes.
There’s so many people who need this, like product marketers and things like that. It’s there to help people who work in words to get those words on the page faster, and to be able to get them to the point of publishing faster.
I know we talk about ‘fast’ a lot, because that’s the number one outcome here, is, “You’re going to move through this a lot faster than you were able to before, because you’re getting way more efficient with the way you put a post or a podcast or a script together.”
It’s not just about fast, either. If you’re going to script this podcast, and it’s somebody you don’t know. Maybe somebody else on your team, like Brian, said, “Hey, why don’t you talk to this person in your next podcast?” You don’t really know that much about that person, but Brian did or does, and he put cards together over time that are tagged with that person’s name. Then you can look that up and, of course, find it. It’s not just faster. It’s also better.
You’ll create content that’s better than it would have been if you didn’t have access to this stuff. The process is the same. You can outline any of those pieces, move the cards around on your outline, and then magically click a button, and it turns into your document, which is nice and easy. I think it matches the way most of us work when we are already scripting things like a video or a podcast.
Sonia Simone: I think sometimes people gloss over the rule of a good writing process when you’re creating a podcast or a video script. Especially, I think, when we do client work, where the client is like, “Oh, I like to wing it with the podcast.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s why they’re bad. Let’s make those better.”
Joanna Wiebe: Exactly. It’s true.
Sonia Simone: Cool. It sounds like another thing. I came out of a more traditional corporate marketing team, and the good old approval cycle, also known as “Send it to legal for review.” It sounds like it would be useful for that, because that process can be super onerous, especially if you’ve got to do a couple of cycles.
Joanna Wiebe: Yes, exactly. I also come from that background. At Intuit, classically, we had at the end of a document name ‘final 22.’ You’re like, “No, no, no. It was supposed to be final, and we’ve since gone over 22 more times.” It’s a disaster.
Understanding that, we do actually have these settings, which is something that I haven’t seen in any other Word or Google Docs. Admittedly, I’m no longer a power user of Word. I use a Mac, and Word on Mac is a disaster.
Sonia Simone: You’re not a masochist? Yeah, no, I get it.
Joanna Wiebe: Exactly. Maybe they’ve come up with statuses. I don’t know. But ours, it’s one of those little details that I get excited about.
You invite collaborators, and that’s cool, but what if you don’t want the collaborators to work on your document anymore? They can look at it, and you don’t want to remove them from the project because they’ll just email you and say, “Hey, why can’t I get into this project?”
You don’t want to remove them, but you don’t want them editing anymore because you’ve called this “final,” or because legal is looking at it. So you set a status in there, where that status is “under review” or “private,” if you just want it to be for you at this moment, or “final.”
There’s a couple of other statuses in there, but you can use those statuses to tell people that they can or cannot work on the document. Or that, “It’s published, so stop talking to me about it. It’s already done.” Things like that, which is cool, right? These little things that writers need that other tools that aren’t built for writers, they’re not thinking about it. I love the status setting for sure.
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
Joanna Wiebe: Ah, legal reviews.
Sonia Simone: Don’t you miss them? They were so good. That, and I worked for a couple of colorful CEOs who always had lots of creative insights to share with us. That was good too.
Joanna Wiebe: Sure. People who have never wrote a thing before have so much to say.
Sonia Simone: They’re so creative. It’s wonderful.
Something I noticed when we were discussing Airstory and where you guys were with it, you’ve had this robust beta cycle. Do I have this right — has it been two years that you guys have been working on this tool?
The Story behind Airstory’s Two Years in Beta Testing …
Joanna Wiebe: Just coming up on two years. Stunning. It’s so wrong, but it’s good. It’s problematic because the rule is, like, “just ship it.” But some of those things, those rules, have failed me a bit in the past. I love the idea of Lean Startup, and I know that people who do it right get it right. But there’s so much when you’re going to put your product out there. Especially given that Airstory is for writers, especially for writers in particular who publish on blogs.
If I ask you to use Airstory in its early stages, and you don’t like it — it doesn’t work for you, because it’s not thinking the way it ought to yet — then what if you write that blog post that’s like, “Oh, don’t bother trying that,” “I tried Airstory, but I found Scrivener was better,” or something like that? It’s not like we’re sending this out to a world of people who are quiet and will keep it to themselves.
There’s also wanting to get it to a point where it’s right and not just a bunch of assumptions. Where we’re able to say, “Okay, we listened to how writer’s write, but we know everybody is different, so we put this together. Now, here, beta users. Tell us what you think, and show us what you think.”
We were able to see things over the course of the last two years, and make changes to our team as well, to make sure that we’re all aligned with creating something that’s actually going to help writers, period. Again, you don’t have to be a novelist to use it at all. It’s not even made for novelists, but people who write for a living.
We had to make changes to the team. We changed the UI a couple of times to make it feel friendlier, to get to this point where it still stays out of your way. There are little subtleties here that a writer who’s used to writing in a certain environment, if they go into a new environment and it feels off, that alone can turn them off.
I don’t expect that Airstory will please everybody, but I know that it should wow a good number of people. We wanted to get it there, and waiting patiently and working hard on it has gotten us there.
Sonia Simone: I’m curious, is there one really interesting thing that came out of beta that maybe you wouldn’t have predicted or was like, “Huh, okay. That’s very interesting”?
Joanna Wiebe: People aren’t as dazzled as I am by the moment at which you … Once you’ve dragged your cards into the outline, and then you move, you toggle, you click a little button up at the top to switch from outline view to document. Ta-da, suddenly you have a document. You’re 80 percent done, and you just have to go over it, write over it now, and clean it up. They’re not as dazzled as I thought they would be. I love it.
People we have found are way more interested in the outliner side of it. Just the functionality of dragging your cards around and moving swiftly. One of our beta users used it to put a course outline together, and she was like, “Okay, I did all my research. I put my notes together, and then I dragged it into an outline, and it was done in, like, two hours. Now I have a script that’s ready to go.” She was impressed, and a lot of others are. That’s just one exception.
A lot of others are impressed with the outlining, which I wouldn’t have thought is a thing that matters. There’s not that many outliner solutions out there, so that was surprising for me, that the outlining dazzles people far more than what I consider to be a pretty magical experience of converting an outline instantly into a document. And where you used to have outlines on your cards, in the outline, there’s a border around your card and outline, but when you move over, now that border is gone. It’s cool to look at, but nobody else cares as much as I do. So, there’s that.
Sonia Simone: Always the way. You mentioned Scrivener. I’m just curious, what do you see as the big experience difference there? I played around with Scrivener. I don’t love Scrivener, but it’s got its uses for what it does, for what it’s meant to do. Where do you see the big points of differentiation?
Joanna Wiebe: I look at something like Scrivener — and, like you, maybe I haven’t given it a chance — but I think like you and like a lot of people, we don’t have time to give something much of a chance. It feels so different from how and where I work today.
So knowing that for me, being productive when I’m writing is major. I think Scrivener, maybe it’s made more for novelists or people who are willing to spend their Saturday figuring out how to move stuff around in Scrivener.
Airstory is meant for people who, on Monday morning, have to get some work done. It’s a big difference. Airstory looks a lot — the document just looks like a document. It looks like something you would see in Word or in Google Docs. The outline has bullets on it, so you drag and drop things into bullets. It’s not trying to look different.
The cards don’t look like Post-it Notes, and there’s nothing that looks like a corkboard. It looks like a space where you can work. That’s, I think, one of the biggest differences. But I, honestly, haven’t spent much time in Scrivener, because it’s hard to learn. I don’t have time for that.
Sonia Simone: I think it’s in my experience, which like yours is kind of limited, it’s a good tool if you’re writing a book.
Joanna Wiebe: Yeah. That’s what I’ve heard. Great tool if you’re writing a book.
Sonia Simone: If you’re writing a book, it has a lot to recommend it. I know people who do blog posts in Scrivener, and I’m always like, “Wow. Okay. That’s cool.”
Joanna Wiebe: Interesting.
Sonia Simone: “You do you.”
Joanna Wiebe: I wonder who that is?
Sonia Simone: I think you get used to anything, right?
Joanna Wiebe: Yeah, that’s the thing.
Sonia Simone: Very cool. Well, this is lots of fun. I’m looking and noting with amazement that we’ve covered a half hour. This is cool.
I know you guys are coming up on your launch date, so when and where can people … If they’re thinking, “This sounds like fun. I want to try it out.” What’s involved?
Joanna Wiebe: We are coming out of private beta on Halloween. Yay! That will be exciting. Still, even though we’re out of private beta, we still want to be sure that the people that are coming in get a killer experience. It’s not like we’re just opening the doors.
We are offering invitation codes. If you get an invitation code, then you’ll get access to Airstory. That’s going to be for the first few months, so that we can continue to monitor how people are using it, set up quick interviews with new users, and see how they’re responding to it. Which is harder to do if you just say, “Hey, anybody, come on in.” That’s tougher.
So we’ll have invitation codes for the first couple of months. But if you go to Airstory.co, then you can sign up to get that invitation code and start using it as soon as this Halloween.
Sonia Simone: Very cool. Lot of fun. Well, thank you. It’s always fun to talk with you, because you have such a … You’ve done a lot of things, you have a lot of experience, but you still always seem like you’re excited about this stuff, which is contagious. Which I enjoy.
Joanna Wiebe: That’s awesome. Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you too. I love it.
Sonia Simone: Good stuff. All right. The project is called Airstory. You can find out more about it at Airstory.co. Joanna, thank you so much. It’s just been a pleasure.
Joanna Wiebe: Thank you.
As I listened, I was waiting for the comparison with Scrivener (I use it, and agree it is hard to learn). AirStory sounds like the best features simplified, with outlining as an additional feature and collaboration as the primary benefit/feature/solution.
I don’t work with a team, but if/when I do, I will keep AirStory in mind. I can see potential benefit for solo content creation as well.
Sonia Simone says
I use Scrivener as well, and I think it’s a very good (if unwieldy) tool to write books, but this sounded much more practical for creating content.
I also think if you do a lot of commercial writing (say, you’re a freelance writer), this would probably be a fantastic tool even if you work solo.