Andrea Zeller (M.C., 2007 | MCDM) is an expert at bringing new dimensions to storytelling. In her current role at Facebook, Zeller works with a variety of teams to craft Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 experiences. Despite the near sci-fi-level mystique that still hovers around these platforms, Zeller insists that her primary focus remains on the importance of words when shaping an audience experience.
“I plan, create and manage content in all forms,” she explains. “Whether I’m optimizing an experience on an established website, or designing a mobile experience, or coming up with a name for a new feature in VR, I’m always a content strategist. The information medium or mechanism may change over time, but my focus on words is the same.” She adds that she navigates the emerging worlds of VR and 360 experiences in the same way she would any other storytelling challenge, by leveraging her skills to put people first.
Zeller earned her undergraduate degree in Film & TV from New York University in 2000, which led her to produce and edit documentary videos specializing in healthcare and international non-profits.
“During one of my first years as a manager,” she says, “I thought that leadership meant that I needed to figure out all the problems; solve them on my own and move forward. And in my head, that meant I was successful. But somehow I forgot about bringing my team along with me. I remember getting that feedback during my review: ‘you’re running, but people don’t know when or how to follow you.’” As she continued in her career, Zeller came to understand that being a good leader was about “bringing everyone along with me for each step, and making sure that everyone is on the same page and are excited about the direction. That is true influence, and it all stems from communication and listening.”
As a content strategist, Zeller adds, an integral part of her job is finding solutions that honor the opinions of her colleagues, while also ensuring that their project goals align. “There are always professional obstacles. Every. Single. Day. Most of the time, I’m stepping into a product team where I don’t have the depth of knowledge that the engineer or product manager does, but it is my responsibility to figure out how to get up to speed as quickly as possible and keep lines open for quick feedback,” she says. “I’ve spent the past 10 years focused on communication design for products and experiences, and I have learned that being able to successfully communicate to the teams that you work with is just as important as doing the right thing for your customers and people who use your products.”
In 2007, Zeller earned her M.C. from the Communication Leadership program, specializing in Digital Media. “My time as a student was amazing, but it was my post-graduate years that really impacted my career and allowed me to grow and experiment with a new skillset,” she explains. “I came back in 2013 to teach the first Communication Leadership Content Strategy class. This was both a challenging and rewarding opportunity.”
“Being able to successfully communicate to the teams that you work with is just as important as doing the right thing for your customers and people who use your products.”
While working as a faculty member, Zeller continued to benefit from the program’s dedication to collaboration. “The strong partnership I formed with Anita and Hanson and our ongoing conversations with each other helped us identify areas where we could empower more people to learn about content strategy. I also formed a really great partnership with Cheryl Lowry of Cohort 8 and we collaborated on a lot of ideas and curriculum concepts.” As a direct result of these discussions, Zeller became a co-creator of the UW Professional and Continuing Education Content Strategy and Storytelling Certificate program.
And the creative partnership continued to flourish. “It seemed like there was always another opportunity,” Zeller says. “We explored experimental class formats for how content strategy and communication design could impact new areas of technology. Those early discussions became the 2016 Content Strategy Beyond the Screen master class.”
As the inaugural recipient of the Communication Leader Award, Zeller’s work exemplifies the four core values championed by the graduate program: Creativity, Leadership, Community and Storytelling. First, as a content strategist, Zeller is constantly flexing her creative muscles by coming up with new ways to solve problems and collaborate with her peers. A communication leader, Zeller practices her skills by helping to figure out what content strategy means for VR while working daily with a diverse team of designers, engineers, product managers and other members of the communication community.
Finally, as a lifelong storyteller, Zeller explains that “I spent the first part of my career finding interesting people and telling their stories through videos. Now I’ve been able to apply those skills to help craft products that are then used by others to tell interesting stories. Being able to scale what I was doing for one story in order to allow more people to tell their own stories is a powerful form of storytelling within itself.”
She also takes pride in having helped to nurture the content strategy community in Seattle. “I remember being at the master class, looking around the room and thinking: ‘there are six of my colleagues here; there are two of my previous managers; two former students turned colleagues; and multiple former students helping to lead this event.’ I just felt this warmth coming from this community that I had helped to build.”