I recently chatted with marketing guru Ann Handley to talk industry shop and get a preview of her new book “Everybody Writes.” You can find highlights from the conversation below, and can pre-order Ann’s book here.
Derek: As you know well, Ann, we’re focused entirely on the B2B marketing space. Very curious to hear your thoughts on how the space has evolved and changed?
Ann: What? It’s changed?! Obviously we’ve seen major shifts in marketing, especially since I’ve been at MarketingProfs and certainly since I was at ClickZ. These shifts have been felt in particular in B2B. Online has become the new tradeshow. We’ve seen all the stats – 54 percent of your buyers will spend time researching online before buying. The buying process is so different now for B2B buyers. There’s a whole dynamic of buyers emerging much later in the sales process than they used to. This has drastically affected the role marketing plays and how marketers market. Marketers today need to understand the role that content plays in this new process. How do we offer up content that’s truly relevant and helpful to buyers? How can we position our solution at the right time and right place in the buyer’s journey, and when it’s appropriate for addressing their problem? This has really pushed content marketing to the forefront for companies.
Derek: Your point on the website being the new tradeshow is so true, and a great way to think about it. We really are seeing marketing carry the ball further down the field. Today’s buyer is anonymous and isn’t looking to be sold. They’re looking to be educated. Companies are more responsible than ever for educating their buyers, and it’s not just marketing but sales too. Sales need to be more education-oriented.
Ann: Truly, I think sales has to become more useful to the buyer than ever before. We sometimes place a lot of the burden on marketing, and sales think they can swoop in and close the deal. Sales really has to become part of the educational process.
Derek: And with all of this, it’s really still best done by a person. I think it is hard – and maybe dangerous – to try to automate that one-to-one interaction and have it be authentic. I feel like we can get lost in the technology side of the equation sometimes and really the technology is best at helping us understand when, and how, to connect. Not to actually do it for us.
Ann: I love that you just said that. All the things we have are just tools to speak to buyers and prospects more directly. But it comes down to people. We focus on the role that technology plays, but the technology is worthless without the people behind it. It’s cliché, but true. It can be easily dismissed, but it’s so important.
Derek: We’re big into data, and I find it can be overwhelming for people. You get focused on the tens of thousands of people versus the one-to-one approach, which is far more successful. But it’s not just a numbers games. Automation can make you think it’s a numbers game – pour more into the top of the funnel and the “machine” will win.
Ann: We see this in the content space too. A couple of years ago, when content marketing become “the thing,” everyone decided they needed it as one of their marketing channels. Marketers started stuffing these pieces with keywords and putting out as much content as they could. You can be much more affective focusing on producing content that’s accessible and has empathy for your buyer’s problems. It’s about quality, not quantity.
Derek: So if you were to give your advice on the single most important thing marketers should be doing, would that be it? Quality, not quantity?
Ann: Yes, focus on the quality of your conversations. Think from your customer’s point of view. Don’t get stuck in the traditional campaign mindset, where you create programs and campaigns to use across your channels. What’s missing with that is the customer and thinking about things from their point of view. Are you answering questions for them? Are you addressing their pain points? Crowd Mics is an example of a company that has done this particularly well. It turns any device into a microphone. It’s solving a problem for anyone who puts on – or attends – events. It produced a video and showed such empathy for that moment when you’re standing up at a conference to ask a question and you can’t be heard. Always think from your customer’s point of view. In fact, I talk in my book about developing a pathological empathy for your buyer.
Derek: What are the other mistakes you see folks make when it comes to content marketing?
Ann: We talked about quality over quantity. There’s also this idea of random acts of content, rather than thinking about content being beyond just marketing. It’s really about considering the story you’re telling across every platform. Tell that story consistently. I always use this Lion King analogy – everything the light touches is content. Companies need to think more broadly about what is content – that could be your social channels, your website, your blog – and have a consistent approach across these channels.
Derek: You talk a lot about storytelling. How do you turn what you want to say into a story people can relate to? How do you find those unexpected stories as a way to help brands come to life?
Ann: I think one of the ways we can do that is looking to analogy instead of example. Look around at the things in your own world as sources of inspiration to create content. Jason Miller at LinkedIn does this all the time. He has a passion for rock and roll music, and he produces a lot coming out of that world with “content that rocks,” using music videos to highlight content. You really need to look at your own life. One of my favorite recent pieces of storytelling was Carl Sciortino. He put out what I think is one of the best political videos. He applies some of the rules of storytelling to a political ad. It’s about rethinking what’s possible. Can we take the rules of storytelling and apply them to an ad?
Derek: The analogy is important but when you can make it a personal analogy it makes it instantly relatable and brings a level of authenticity to it. Part of the reason you read the content is to discover how the person is going to connect the dots – from personal analogy to company story. And then you remember that story.
Ann: I also think using humor is another great way to tell a story. Brands don’t think about using humor enough. Brands will say “we’re not funny; our team isn’t funny.” There are brands that can help you incorporate humor. My friend at Cisco does a great job with this. He positioned a Cisco router as the perfect “forever gift” for Valentine’s Day – talking about how it’s reliable and will last forever. It’s a great way of making a broader point. The strategic goal was to talk about reliability of the router. And this makes it memorable and interesting. Humor is a great way to tell those unexpected stories.
One other example of this – MarketingProfs did a slideshow infomercial for our B2B Forum in Boston. We were thinking of what’s worked in other industries and put it to use in our own.
Derek: Any other brands that stand out to you as being interesting in a way that’s relatable and spot on?
Ann: I think LinkedIn has done a good job in telling a broader story. When it first came out, it was an online rolodex. Now, it’s positioned as a place for anyone with ambition. It really did build an audience first, and then built a business around that audience. It has done a lot of smart things. I’ve often said that long after we’re all gone, it will be LinkedIn and the cockroaches. All the other social platforms could go away. They’re the dark horse. They’ll still be standing when others have dropped off.
Derek: You mentioned LinkedIn. Of course, they recently bought Bizo. I’ve seen this explosion in marketing tech and consolidation from the big vendors (e.g. LinkedIn) and tech powerhouses (e.g. Oracle). What’s your take? Are we heading down a path where marketing tech is delivered through a small set of big companies?
Ann: I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine! I agree that there’s been a ton of activity. What’s that Gartner stat? Something like by 2017 CMOs will spend more on technology that CIOs will. We’re seeing an explosion with marketing tech spend, and we really are seeing the combination of art and science coming together. Marketing is incorporating more data, and that’s making marketing departments a lot more compatible. That’s definitely driving it, but I don’t know what it will look like down the line. I’d love to get your thoughts on that.
Derek: I tend to think the same you do. I agree with your take on where it’s going and why it’s going there. And as a marketer, I think it’s fantastic. Marketing is far more strategic than it used to be. Marketing has historically had a challenge to be relevant, unlike sales and engineering. Now it’s become far more accountable. The marketing function has to be leading and has to be measurable. That’s definitely driving it. A dollar invested in marketing may return higher than a dollar invested in sales. As that happens, people spend more time and focus on marketing technology. And as that happens, the big vendors will (and already have) gravitate towards the market.
Ann: Bottom line – it is positioning marketing to be a whole lot more influential going forward. It’s worth noting that I don’t want to downplay the art side of this. There’s more technology, data and tools to make good decisions. But the creative side is really important in telling those stories to connect buyers to those companies – the technology is what helps deliver those stories. We’re seeing a confluence of lots of great things. Marketing has become a key player in the C-suite. Back at ClickZ, marketers didn’t get the respect they deserved. I don’t think we’re going to say that anymore.
Derek: Alright, so tell me about your new book. I have to say my team is eagerly awaiting its release. Why will it help marketers be better at their jobs?
Ann: Everybody Writes, as the sub-title says, is a go-to guide for attracting and retaining customers through online communications. In our content driven world, every one of us is a writer. Our words matter more now than they ever did before. Words are our ambassadors. They tell our customers who we are and are the cornerstone of how we tell our story. Words are critical.
Writing is something that people have an emotional response to. Based on some trauma they had as children, they think they’re terrible writers. But I don’t believe that. Just like people have to build their knowledge of basic tools, this book gives you the tools to be a better writer. It’s very prescriptive. It’s kind of a call to arms to recognize the power that words have – on our websites, social platforms and across the internet. They’re our ambassadors that say who we are. We need to up our game. Being a better writer is key to that.
Derek: Writing is like math. People either lean in and aren’t afraid of it, or say they can’t and don’t even try. It’s a cop out to say you can’t write. You can speak, so write it down.
Ann: It’s funny that you said that about math. In the book, I compare writing to math. I tell the story about an MIT professor who is a senior editor at The Atlantic. There’s a quote in the book that the rigor of math has better prepared these kids for the rigor of writing. They realized by the end of the course, writing is a lot more like math than they thought. It’s a matter of trying and learning the fundamentals.
Derek: One of my favorite writing books is Stephen King’s On Writing. I guess because I think I’m a writer. But I love this statement that there aren’t writers and non-writers. It takes practice and the ability to fail – the ability to throw away and start over. It also reminds me of Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which has as similar take on writing or any sort of creative process. It’s not about how you write. It’s about sitting down and doing the work and avoiding the attention deficit disorder we are faced with in marketing. I’m sure you went through it with your book. It doesn’t just happen – for anybody. You have to put the time in.
Ann: Funny that you mention On Writing. That’s one of the books I thought about. Stephen King is quoted a couple of times. Also Evie White’s Elements of Style. So why would you pick it up if you’re a writer? This is written for a marketing audience. It’s teaching marketers to write, and framing it from a content marketing perspective. It’s what might result if The Elements of Style and On Writing had a threesome with the Internet. Andrew Davis called it “the new creative resource for a new generation.” It’s geared toward marketers and our world.
Derek: I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for chatting with us today.
Don’t forget to order “Everybody Writes” by clicking here
Ann Handley is a best-selling author, social media and content marketing keynote speaker, the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, and a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine. You can read more from her here.