In this Rethink Podcast, Act-On CMO Michelle Huff interviews Ann Handley about the role of content marketing throughout the customer journey, from Brand, Demand, to Expand.
Michelle and Ann also touch on trending topics for modern marketers, and the concept of being “Bigger, Bolder, and Braver” in differentiating yourself – and your content – from your competition. Finally, Ann shares some advice for marketers wanting to take the next steps in their careers (Hint: Start today).
This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
Michelle Huff: Thank you so much, Ann, for joining us today on the podcast. For those who might not know who you are, maybe you could just take a few minutes to tell us more about yourself and MarketingProfs?
Ann Handley: I’m the chief content officer of MarketingProfs. I’m a book author. I’ve written two books. One is called Content Rules, the other is called Everybody Writes. Everybody Writes is a Wall Street Journal bestseller.
What Are Trending Topics for Modern Marketers?
Michelle: MarketingProfs is a resource for marketers. You’ve watched the trends in marketing over the years. What’s going on recently? What are some of the in-demand topics today? What are you seeing as being the most interest to marketers?
Ann: We think of our audience as what we call “aspirational CMOs.” And that may not be a literal CMO, but it’s definitely somebody who cares, who wants to do well in their industry. And maybe that’s to ultimately become a chief marketing officer or maybe it’s just to ultimately become the king or queen of their own domain, their own consultancy, and so on.
The topics we’ve seen over the years, the consistency we see, is that marketers always want to know about lead generation ‒ always. It should be no surprise to anybody listening to this that that’s always a perennial topic.
But I think the tools we now use to engage around generating leads, around demand gen, has definitely changed. It used to be all about the database, and how we get more names in a funnel. It still is that, but now the way we engage those people to sort of become part of our own ecosystems at our own companies, those things have changed.
And that we now have content certainly is a big piece of that. We have social tools, we have social selling, we have storytelling. So, all of those things are now part of the lead-generation process in ways that we really haven’t seen as heavily before. Yes, those elements have always existed. But I think obviously they’ve come much more to the forefront in 2017.
Michelle: When you take a step back and think about marketers today, what do you think are the most important skillsets for them to have? And does it differ from B2C or B2B?
Ann: We recently ran a piece in MarketingProfs that looked at the skills that B2B technology marketers say are most valued. So, B2B technology leaders, when they’re hiring marketers, what do they most want? And it’s interestingly a lot of those soft skills, like good communication, people management, interpersonal skills. Those are the most valued in the tech world. Which, I thought was really interesting. I can’t quote the number off my head. It was like over 80 percent of the people who responded to the survey.
But then, right below soft skills [are] writing, content marketing, data analysis, email marketing. Those are all the things that are valued in the B2B tech world. And I read that today and I was like, “Wow.” I mean, those are pretty consistent skills. Think about that for a second in a broader lens. So, what is that about? Ultimately, what does that mean? It means being able to communicate well, both to your audience and to your customers, as well as internally, is key for marketers. Always will be, always has been. Writing, both externally and internally. So, again, it’s that clarity of communication. Content marketing, certainly it’s sort of an extension of: How are you telling stories that engage, or are you telling stories that engage?
MarketingProfs/CMI Annual Survey
Michelle: Is it quality versus quantity? And what are the keys to producing great content? Is it having a lot of it? Or is it just having a few [pieces]? Or is it trying to find that balance? What’s your take?
Ann: The way I answer the quality-versus-quantity question is really with a “yes.” You can’t have the best, highest quality – you can’t hire Neil Gaiman to write a blog post for you, and pay him $100,000, and then run one blog post a year. I mean that’s just ridiculous.
Obviously, you need a certain quantity to be relevant, to be communicating with your audience at a cadence that makes sense. But I think you also really need to think about quality. And I think that’s true now more than ever. MarketingProfs every year does a survey with the Content Marketing Institute. And every year we ask marketers what their plans are aspirational for the following year. We started doing this eight years ago. And every year, consistently, the number of marketers who say they plan to increase the amount of content they’re producing is going up.
And anybody listening to this: You know this, I know this. We’re all out in the world, we’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram. We see all the content that’s being created. And it’s increasingly difficult to break through. And to me that means you really need to step back and ask: What are we doing to move the needle here?
Bigger, Bolder, Braver
We need to have a great story we’re telling. We need to align around that bigger story we’re telling. And we need to be a little bit bolder in the story we’re telling. We need to think about how we’re going to break through. We need to tell a story that hits on specific challenges that your audience has, but that nobody else is talking about in the right way for that certain audience. And I think we need to have that gutsier, braver tone of voice.
So those three things ‒ bigger, bolder and braver ‒ are all things I think can be a differentiator for a company from a quality point of view. The quantity piece, you sort of have to figure out on your own. I mean, it’s sort of like you need to be doing enough to engage the audience, but not too much to overwhelm them. And that answer is gonna be different for everybody out there. But in my mind, you need to focus on quality first and foremost, and then figure out cadence.
If you’re producing content your audience does not care about, then that’s why they’re not engaging with it. They’re not engaging with it, not because it’s too long or because it’s requiring too much of them, but because it’s not meeting their needs.
What is the Role of Content Marketing?
Michelle: At Act-On, we use a framework we call Brand, Demand, Expand and [talk about] how you market from the awareness stage through demand and the sale to when your prospects are now customers and how you keep and grow their business. How does content marketing fit in?
Ann: I think there’s a temptation to think about content marketing only as a top-of-funnel approach. But it’s not that. Somebody asked me a question not too long ago: “What do you think the future of content marketing is?” And I said, “I think that it’s not content marketing … it’s marketing.”
I think with the notion of Brand, Demand, Expand, content is inherent in all aspects of that because content is sort of integral to all aspects of starting a relationship with a customer, nurturing that relationship, and then furthering that relationship. So, content to me is not some sort of special thing that’s siloed over here in some corner of the office. Instead, it’s integrated throughout the entire ecosystem of marketing. It’s integrated throughout the entire business, really.
I don’t see content as: This is what we use on social media. Instead, it’s everything. If you’ve ever seen me speak, I sometimes will show a graphic of a scene from The Lion King where Mufasa is sitting there with little baby Simba, and looking out over their kingdom, and he says: “Everything the light touches is content, my son.” And sometimes I will sing that moment from The Lion King. I’ll just belt it out on stage.
But I think that’s absolutely true. Everything our customer touches is content. Everything that expresses any aspect of our business is content. Everything that extends our brand is content. It’s not just the thing we in the marketing space tend to only think of as content, like the things we own ‒ things like the brand or the FAQ page. It’s everything. It’s the product page, it’s your social channels, it’s the minute that anybody picks up a brochure anywhere. All of those things. It’s everything.
How Do You Use Content Marketing to Differentiate?
Michelle: How do you think you should use content to succinctly differentiate yourself from your competitors? Because you’re trying to drive these things, but you want to make sure. How do you be bolder? How do you have that voice? How are you thinking about using that content differently?
Ann: I really like the way you articulated brand, demand, and expand. Because you said in far fewer words just my philosophy about content ‒ it’s throughout the organization. So that’s fantastic, number one. But number two, to me, it starts with the brand. It starts with your story. Who are you? Why do you do what you do? Why are you in business? What is your founding story? Why do you exist?
And to me, when you ask: “How do you succinctly differentiate?”, you start with your story. Who are you? Why do you exist? And why should customers care about you? I think it’s important to really think about your story and not just talk about the products you sell. But really think about it a little bit more deeply than that.
What is the Difference Between Content Marketing and Advertising?
Michelle: Some people equate content marketing to advertising. What do you think the difference is?
Ann: There’s probably a million different ways you could answer this question. But to me, it really comes down to the fact that content is customer-centric, and advertising is brand-centered, in general. I think to me, content answers the questions that customers have, so it has real utility for customers. It’s helpful to them. It has a more creative approach to answering those questions. Sometimes not. Sometimes it does.
But it has a very customer-centric point of view. It’s really what marketing should be focusing on these days. We should be focusing on our customers 100 percent of the time. I’m absolutely not anti-advertising at all. But to me, that’s much more brand-centric. So, you’re just talking about yourself. You’re just sort of talking about your attributes as opposed to what you can do for customers. So that, to me, is the more interesting part of marketing ‒ really thinking about things from your customers’ point of view. I challenge myself with it all the time. That’s how I would differentiate. Content is customer-centric and advertising is brand-centric.
Michelle: I like the distinction.
What Advice Do You Have for Aspirational Marketers?
Michelle: One of my last questions is, as well-known as you are, we often overlook that you’ve been a leader for most of your career. Any advice for people who are listening that you have for being a leader in marketing or in business, or any advice you have for other women aspiring to leadership roles, or people who are thinking: “I just should jump out and start my own business and company, or maybe I should author a book”? Any words of advice?
Ann: Yes. Just do it. I see a lot of people ‒ and not just women, but younger people too ‒ holding back. Don’t hold back. Start creating content. Start exercising your voice. Start figuring out: How do we get those skills that we need? How do we be better communicators? How do we be sharper communicators? How do we be better writers? All of those things are so key. And so just start using your voice, number one.
And then number two, start building your audience. You want to write a book, say. Well, you don’t start with sitting down at your desk to write a book. You start with building a platform first because that’s the way that works.
And you asked me the question earlier: What did I learn from writing my two books? And part of what I learned is that you can’t market in a vacuum. I have this notion that, “Oh, I’m going to be a book author, how sort of high-minded will that be?” Well, you know what? It’s not. It’s about sales, right?
It’s like you think you’re a writer ‒ you’re not, you’re in sales. And the only reason why those books did as well as they did is because I had the audience in place first. I had the platform in place. So, if you have aspirations to write a book, to be a leader, start to improve those soft skills, start to tell your own story, poke your nose out, start telling that story in ways that have relevance for the people you are trying to reach.
And number four, build your audience. Start thinking about your bigger platform beyond your current job or your current role. What do you stand for? It’s not unlike what we were talking about as the heart of content marketing. Where do you start? You start with your story. And I think the same is true for individuals, too. What do you want to be known for? What do you stand for?
How Can We Learn More About MarketingProfs?
Michelle: I love it. How can people listening learn more about you and MarketingProfs?
Ann: You can go to MarketingProfs.com and sign up to get our daily newsletters that will keep you in the know about all things marketing. We also have our annual B2B Marketing Forum, which is a heck of a good time, in October, in Boston. Those are the two best places to connect with us.
I should mention, too, that after all this talk about soft skills, I feel like I need to mention, we also have our own training programs at MarketingProfs on writing, on storytelling, on content, and on lead generation, as well as a host of other resources for basically anything you want to know about marketing.
Michelle: Perfect. Well, I love it. I think no matter where we are in our careers, we can always do better in improving on those different skills. I think it’s just something you’ve got to focus on and take the time to just keep getting better. I love that you have it and I really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much for being on today.
Ann: Thank you, Michelle. It was fun. It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.