Hiring Content Marketers? Try This Playbook to Vet Candidates Better

playbook

I recently wrote a story about how I almost didn't hire the best writer I've ever hired. If I'm being honest, I came close to screwing it up entirely, and the article was my attempt at telling others how to avoid similar mistakes. Based on feedback I received from the post, I wanted to explore two concepts a bit more specifically today: reviewing candidates and assigning them projects as part of the vetting process.

In my post on my near-mistake, I make the case for why businesses should adjust their hiring mentalities and processes away from traditional marketing roles and towards a more creative candidate profile. I go so far as to break down a few common job description phrases and how to tweak them to appeal better to writers. It's the kind of "come to Jesus" advice that often makes stuffier businesspeople uncomfortable.

(By the way, the staunch, suit-wearing, intercom-using, corner-office-having businessman is probably my favorite persona in all of business. As a B2B writer, that guy's always looming, taking himself too seriously as an "all-important" big wig. But he's just so ridiculous. I mean, look at how big his wig is … but I digress.)

In our industry, we seem to embrace that marketing has experienced a massive shift, but we keep trotting out our tired, traditional job descriptions and interview techniques. If the industry has really shifted that enormously, then we need to shift our hiring approaches too. We need to attract and hire people who understand and embrace all this change ... and they probably aren't the same people that were executing the old marketing playbook.

A Better Approach to Hiring Content Marketers

I've had more than a few facepalm moments lately when it comes to watching companies try to hire content marketers. (For context, I work with early-stage startups as director of platform at NextView Ventures, which has invested in roughly 40 startups to date. By night, I run a community group I co-founded called Boston Content, now at over 800 local members.)

One of the most consistent opportunities for improvement that keeps coming up is the process of reviewing and selecting candidates. Sourcing at the top of the hiring funnel is hard, but it shouldn't be the only focus. When there's a good candidate in the hiring funnel, too many companies botch the rest of the process because it's unfamiliar.

The familiar process that doesn't work for content usually runs like this:

  • Write a plain vanilla job description and post to the usual places.
  • Review incoming cover letters and resumes.
  • Review their work samples next. <-- Applicable but not exclusive to content hires.
  • Conduct a phone screen.
  • Conduct a few in-person interviews.
  • Before the in-person interviews, remember at the last minute that someone should screen for culture.
  • Assign the culture interview to the most junior person on the team. (They don't know anything about the actual work or strategy anyway, right? Plus, they seem like the "fun one" who would be unhappy with a bad culture fit, and culture is a squishy, fluffy idea anyway ... right?)
  • For a select few candidates, assign writing samples. <-- Unique to content hires.
  • Review those samples for ... who the heck knows.
  • Make a decision where the samples account for 5% of the reasoning and the brands listed on the resume account for 50%. 
  • Feel okay about the hire and pray this "content thing" works.
  • Pour a stiff drink.

Here’s what I’m proposing instead:

1. Write a more creative job description.

My past post goes into more details -- you can check that out here. For now, suffice to say that your job description should make the role sound anything but plain vanilla. It should emphasize the ability to produce creative, unique work, get bylines, stand out, experiment, and generally have fun with the process of creating content. THAT is the hard part to learn or teach, so attracting candidates who are naturally gifted and work hard to improve those skills can be a huge leg up to fill your pipeline.

Yes, you want to advertise that you’re seeking a rockstar in both content production AND marketing. Yes, you never want to hire an aspiring artist who rejects all business principles. But at least personally, I know I can teach someone how to be a decent marketer much more quickly and easily than I can teach someone to be a decent writer. So I look for writing abilities first, marketing second.

(As a quick aside: It’s also important to test for attention to detail in this role. There are SO many moving pieces in the job of planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing content. And though I don't recommend everyone do this, I often like to insert a bullet way deep down in the job description that says, “Attention to detail test: Use the word [whatever I’ve chosen] in your cover letter.” It shows me they've read the "assignment" carefully and meticulously. As a byproduct, the really good candidates often have some fun with that one. I had one candidate insert the phrase into a video, pause with the word on the screen and audibly clear his throat. Awesome!)

2. Review applicants' materials in the right order.

The order is as follows:

First, look at their work samples submitted via their application.

This is the most important information you can receive from a candidate, bar none. Reviewing samples is also the best way to save time because, almost immediately, you can remove candidates who simply can't produce work. Despite all the "strategy" their resume may tout, you don't want to talk yourself into someone only to find by the end that they can't produce. (Even if they won't be creating content for you, you want someone who has done so in the past. They'll work much better with freelancers, agencies, and teammates this way. Trust me.)

Your temptation will be to justify why you SHOULDN'T make snap judgments based on work samples. I'd urge you: Do it. Make quick decisions. Rule out poor samples right away.

Second, perform a quick Google search for their name. 

Check for two things here: their online presence and their side projects. The latter is proof that they have creative drive and can be potentially prolific, in addition to caring about self improvement and pursuing their passions. The former -- having an online presence -- is decent proof that they understand the basics of digital marketing. Additionally, both their side projects and their online presence combine to help you understand who they are as people.

One thing to note here: I don’t think you should look for massive social following or blog readership from your candidates — though that’s certainly a huge bonus. Instead, this step is to ensure they’re using digital channels you care about in the first place. Are they tweeting? Blogging? Posting videos? Podcasting? What else?

If they have very few tweets, for example, I like to ask why. They're trying to work as a content marketer, so I want to hear their thinking. The same question applies if they don't have multiple types of content in their portfolio. Tons of free tools exist that let you create content without needing an employer to assign it -- why haven't they built a broader portfolio?

If they can articulate their reasons for NOT doing these things, then that's fine. In some cases, however, their answer triggers a few red flags about their lack of drive, disinterest in expanding their creative skills, or inability to produce content with either or both quality and quantity in mind.

For example, I once had a content marketer tell me that several employers had rejected her because she hadn’t created ebooks before. She asked me whether she should just create one in theory. My response, in different words: "!!!!!!!"

Of COURSE she should! The fact that she hadn't done so as soon as the first employer rejected her told me a lot about her candidacy.

Third, after work samples and Google searches, read their cover letter.

Unlike a software developer who ships code, a cover letter is actually a work sample for a content marketer, since they “ship” the written word.

Cover letters would normally be the ideal starting point in the review process -- it's a work sample and a cover letter at the same time -- but unfortunately, college career centers have done more harm than good for most of their students. So I drop it to third in importance. There's just so much miseducation from career centers about how to apply to jobs and communicate with businesses that most people turn in boilerplate cover letters. It's partly not the candidate's fault.

Take my time at HubSpot as the example. In a year, I reviewed about 50 to 75 cover letters for the content team. Despite applying to writing-heavy roles, I'd say 9 out of 10 of these candidates would STILL use the typical boilerplate. Some would start their emails, "Dear Hiring Manager," while others would write opening lines like, "I am very interested in the role of Content Marketer." Boring. Bland. Undifferentiated. Not a good work sample.

(If you can't tell, I had a bad experience myself, and I feel like the HubSpot candidates were all let down by their educators. It's sad. Why on earth do college career centers continue to advise students to do this?!?! These are not legal or public policy roles -- these are business-focused students applying to modern businesses. Teach them how to be unique and human, not bland robo-applicants.)

When it comes to cover letters, great candidates will occasionally understand that these are work samples and provide something more unique. For instance, a good friend who I’ve hired twice now (at Dailybreak Media and HubSpot) once submitted a cover letter that started simply, “I’m afraid.”

Period. Paragraph break. 

WOW! That stood out and totally reeled me in at the same time. I had to know more. What was he afraid of and why was he saying this to me? How did this apply to the job? He went on to explain a worrisome trend in content quality and why, given the chance, he'd combat that for our team.

(By the way, his name is Erik Devaney, and you need to follow him on Twitter. His work is incredible, and he’s going to be a star in this industry.)

Lastly (yes, lastly), review the resume

Resumes are just not that important when it comes to production-oriented roles, including content marketing, software engineering, graphic design, and more.

The only things that matter for content marketer resumes are achievements (like "Grew the blog 50% year over year"), rather than responsibilities ("Wrote and edited blog posts"). I don't care that your resume says you can write. I care that your samples, your Google search results, and your cover letter all PROVE you can write.

By the time I hit the resume, I’m relatively assured that I want to talk to this candidate, since I’ve already learned so much about him or her. The resume affirms that, yes, all that great writing and great work yielded actual results. Even if the resume doesn't list any metrics, there could be a million reasons why, and I'll probably still talk to the candidate.

We're now done with the "review" step and can move onto the interview step.

3. Run the usual phone screen/interview playbook.

A lot of these steps are completely broken too, but it's not my area of expertise, nor is it the main point of this post. So I’ll just add one suggestion for your interview, which is to ask the following question:

“If I handed you a bag of money and you didn’t need to work for the year, but you still wanted to write … what would you write about?"

The great ones absolutely light up at this questions and ramble on and on about their passion area. I’ve had people talk at length about their love for movies and TV and how they’d do a funny spin on critiquing those things. Erik would probably write about Irish music and history, since that’s his personal passion. I’d write about sports just given my background in sports journalism and my love/hate relationship with the circus that is the New York Knicks. 

It doesn’t matter WHAT they say. It matters HOW they say it. You want excitement and clarity. If they hem and haw and struggle to come up with anything, I'd be worried about their love for their craft. Will they want to learn and improve upon it? Will they be prolific? Are they TOO focused on the marketing mechanics and not enough on creating stuff? That could cause them to take shortcuts and yield poor results and not experiment on high-impact projects.

4. Assign a highly relevant project.

This is the final step. You’re just about ready to hire someone or perhaps have two or three good candidates and need to decide between them. This project ultimately helps both the company and the candidate make the right decision and find a fit.

There are dozens of ways to assign a project, but my favorite approach is the following:

  1. Give the candidate three headlines for blog posts you'd probably want to publish yourself, along with a tight deadline. Give no more details. A good writer will figure out the rest by reading company content to determine voice, data, industry trends, etc. They may reply with questions too, but don't offer that window proactively. See what they do on their own.
  2. Let the candidate choose one of the three headlines to write as a blog post. (I like to ask them why they chose a particular post after the draft is submitted. This provides another data point into their thinking and approach.)
  3. Read the draft and mark some notes privately. I say "privately" because, next, you should ask the candidate to edit their own work and reply with those proposed edits. You want to see their edits but also compare to your own.
  4. Along with their edits, ask that they submit 10 ideas for potential headlines, plus their pick for which headline they'd actually publish.
  5. Lastly, in addition to their edits, 10 headlines, and pick for the winning headline, ask that they also reply with an idea (a few sentences of description) for one "pillar" piece of content that could relate to this topic, like an ebook, white paper, template, etc. (This piece would be a call-to-action that would go into the blog post to convert subscribers or leads -- a familiar playbook that good marketers understand.)

To me, steps 3-5 are the most revealing. Do they get content marketing, or do they just like to write? You can do a lot with someone who just loves to write, and we need to embrace that profile much more often in our industry. However, when someone nails all the steps above, you should initiate Step 6: Do a happy dance on your desk.

Why? You've pulled the rabbit out of the hat, my friend. You've found someone who gets both halves of this job: writing/creation AND marketing. They possess the "sight" -- the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, which is the most important soft skill of a good content marketer.

Talent in this field is tremendously hard to come by, given the need to think with both halves of the brain, the recent uptick in demand, and the relative newness of the career path. But if we're indeed riding the wave of a massive industry shift, then it's high time we shifted our approach to hiring along with it.

Posted on November 17, 2014 .

Stories That Spread: 2 Radically Different Tales from 2 Inspirational CEOs

Today's post is a little bit different than my usual. I'm skipping all the snark-and-circumstance in favor of simply presenting the stories told by these two gentlemen -- both visionaries in their own right.

The first story especially was SO moving and inspirational that ESPN found them and featured them in a SportsCenter piece, narrated by someone that you may recognize by his rather distinctive voice.

So without further ado, please enjoy the third episode of #TechItFwd, my podcast. (I'd welcome any feedback you have, good or bad.)

Like the show? If you share it, please use #TechItFwd on Twitter so I can say thanks. You can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Posted on October 28, 2014 and filed under podcasting.

We're So Scared to Talk About Quality in Content Marketing. Why?

For reasons I can't explain, the content marketing industry is scared to identify as a creative field. We all seem to actively avoid talking loudly and proudly about creativity and quality in our work. Some of us may secretly want to address it, but we're worried what superiors would think -- namely, that we don't care about conversions or growing the business. Meanwhile, others may dislike the act of creating content but are forced to do so in this modern era of marketing. These folks tend to seek shortcuts, use bottom-dollar outsourcing options, or over-optimize everything for cheap or incremental traffic gains.

So instead of addressing ideas like creativity and quality along with smart distribution, we by and large obsess over the marketing part alone. The only attempts to teach better production are the occasional look-books of examples, a pile of lists that state the obvious ("be helpful" or "lead with a story"), and of course, the pithy, tweetable-but-ultimately-meaningless guru statements like, "Inspire your audience to embark on an adventure with you!"

Why?

Why aren't we talking tangibly, practically, and frequently about improving our content creation abilities? These are things that can and should be examined, analyzed, discussed, taught, and improved. But a gap exists.

To understand what I mean, just think about the entire content marketing role in four very general stages: planning, production, distribution, and analysis, which then feeds back into your planning, and the cycle continues. Without debating semantics, which are stupid anyway, we can place everything we do into one of those buckets.

Now think about the industry. Almost EVERYONE talks about distribution and analysis, i.e., how to execute your marketing. SOME people talk about planning, which includes the documentation of strategy, editorial calendars, resource allocation, and so forth. 

Practically NOBODY talks about production.

(But a 10-gallon-hat tip to Ann Handley and her war against mediocre writing. As a disclaimer, I have no affiliation other than admiration.)

This should all seem at least a little bit weird, no? Isn't content supposed to be, yanno, THE POINT? I don't know about you, but I'm not a huge believer in polishing turds or trying to force dud missiles to fly.  And I just don't think that approach works anymore anyway.

It's far better to create well and promote well. Both. Together. Always.

Am I missing something?

Oh, right --

"But that's haaaard!"

The "create well" part is indeed hard, but we're not making it any easier by avoiding it.

After all, it's our proclivity to produce that makes this different from, say, programmatic banner ad buying. And I don't know about you, but I've talked to tons of folks in the industry -- including the now 800 members of Boston Content -- who were initially attracted to the word "content" in content marketing. They like to write and create stuff first, market stuff second. They're masters of the harder part and are now learning the marketing part, which by the way, can be taught more more swiftly than teaching good writing.

But instead of a wonderfully creative field, many of us see colleagues obsessing over shortcuts and exerting tons of energy to game the system, all while asking questions like "How many words should a How-To blog post be?" or "Does humor drive more conversions?"

So if nothing else, we all need more creative support and encouragement. The creatively inclined want an outlet and want to improve, while the creative-averse need a swift kick in the pants. Maybe their mentality works with more rigid, scientific types of advertising and marketing, but when it comes to content marketing, there's also a heavy degree of art.

We need to acknowledge that more.

If We Want to Improve, Where Do We Start?

Again, this isn't about the usual platitudes of "being helpful" or "telling great stories" or "taking risks" -- though all of that is worth accepting too.

No, this is about learning the real nuts and bolts of the creative process. Do we all know what a nut graf is and how and when to write one? Do we know how to manage a team using sprints? What kind of mixer works best for a two-person, face-to-face podcast? Are we adept at creating a pillar project before quickly generating a dozen more related works?

Said more bluntly, do we want to be masters over our own production powers or timid takers-of-shortcuts who will eventually crumble when the Big Kids from journalism show up? 

(Trust me, they're coming in more droves given the state of many newspapers and media outlets. And compared to their abilities to produce and tell stories, it's like we're bringing water pistols to a tank fight.)

So, we need to push hard to shift our mentality. I think it starts with removing a small word from our vocabulary too: "just."

As former agency executive Andrew Teman once pointed out to me, our industry likes to say that the key to good modern marketing is to "just create great content." But that's dangerous and wildly short-sighted. What does that actually mean? Who can do that? Have we been trained? Are we all instantly equipped to create awesome stuff that others care about, simply by trying?

(And how many hypothetical, pleading questions do I need to use in one blog post????)

In other words, it's okay to acknowledge that this stuff is hard! We like to talk about it like it's easy. Anyone can blog -- so "just" blog. But if we sell tech solutions in content marketing, this leads to frustrated customers who eventually realize it ISN'T so easy. This in turn leads to higher churn and increased customer acquisition costs, which devalues our businesses on top of it all. I've seen it firsthand. (And lest you think I'm frolicking in the field meditating on creativity too much, let me remind you that I work in VC and plan to launch or work for a startup -- which would be my third -- in the next couple years. I love the business world. We just focus on the wrong stuff sometimes.)

This Matters NOW

One of the conclusions the good folks at Content Marketing Institute drew from their recent B2B research is that the industry is maturing. I'm a huge believer that the next major step forward in this maturation process is to give actual attention and resources to better production powers. Everybody rushed to adopt this stuff (blogging, social, etc.), then rushed to game the systems behind it, then rushed to the next thing (SlideShare, podcasting, etc.), then looked for more ways to game more systems.

Eventually, the only thing remaining, and the only thing that will help us grow an audience and produce better results for our businesses, will be to wind up where we should have started all along: creating better content.

 

...thanks for reading my rant, and here's to improving our creative skills from this point forward.

#CreateBetterContent

Posted on October 9, 2014 .

A Message to Inbound & Content Marketing Execs From the Trenches: We Don't Care What We Call It

Someday in my career, I hope to work my way up to the top of my field, whether as an executive, a founder, or a trusted leader with valuable insights into the business world around me.


But I’m not there yet. So while I can’t suppose to know what goes through the mind of a CMO or one of those Twitter-famous people, I can with certainty speak to what it’s like to practice marketing in the trenches. I’ve been there. I am there. And I’ve dug around in the mud of these trenches to pull out a message to you, the thought leader-slash-columnist-slash-guru-slash-level five ninja wizard warrior. It reads as follows (clears throat)...

Dear Inbound or Content Marketing Leader:

We don’t actually care what we call the type of marketing we do.

Love, 
Your Frontline Marketers

PS: Send more budget. 


If you work in the online marketing world, then you’ve almost certainly heard the debate raging at the top of our industry. One company or pundit calls this modern style of marketing one thing, the other refutes it, a third invents an entirely new term, and so on. Most recently, we’ve seen this post by HubSpot wherein survey responses identified inbound marketing as a broader umbrella that includes content marketing, along with things like freemium products, free apps/tools, technical SEO, and more (and hat tip to Joe Chernov's spot-on concluding sentiment in that post).

So ... are they right? Maybe. They hire very smart people over there. Handsome, too. (Okay, so they hired me before — I couldn’t resist.)

But seriously, are they right?

Is this stuff called inbound marketing? Is it content marketing? Does one roll up underneath the other? Do they sit next to each other with some overlap? Are they enemies? Are they friends? Do they get coffee on weekends? Does one take the other out to a nice fish dinner but never call them again?

Answer: I don’t know. I don’t CARE. I have work to do. I have a business to grow. I have a career to build.

So, while I personally say "content marketing,” without any thought as to why or whether it matters, I will hereby and for the rest of this blog post call it Marketing Wherein You Create Content and Other Things People Volunteer to Consume Instead of Spamming Them with Me-First Messages (or MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM).

Who else is super excited about the future of MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM?

Look, I get it: Labeling things is human, conveys meaning, and furthers agendas.

Owning keywords and memes that you can promote in order to win fans and customers is important. I get it. I really, really do.

I also completely understand the need to sell stuff as a vendor or service provider in the MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM industry. Logically, the more people who use your terminology and view the world the same way as you, the more people you’ll be able to sell and upsell and cross-sell and all the various directions of selling that ultimately lead to way more customers and revenue and a solution to world hunger.

(Ah, that’s right — we aren’t solving world hunger. We do marketing. Anyways, back to my very important rant about very important terms that address very important world problems…)

As someone who PRACTICES marketing, the label of what I do is actually rather unimportant to me. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I think I speak for at least some of us frontline marketers. And it seems as if this debate, while entertaining at times, is starting to get completely unproductive for individuals in the field. It’s also rather like watching a bunch of ants play tug of war with a dead caterpillar. Yes, to them, it’s the most meaningful thing on earth. But to everyone else? ...

Now, as a MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM marketer, I must always include a list in my blog posts, so here are just a few reasons that this debate is rather sillypants:

1. Because good marketers are focused on goals and hit those goals regardless of the tech, tactic, or terminology.

My goals drive everything that I do, whether it’s personal or professional. And my/our goals don’t change one iota if we call something X instead of Y.

Even more importantly, if something you call X yields really great results, great! I’ll try X. And if another tactic or strategy is defined by some organization as part of Marketing Philosophy Y, that’s fine too! All I care about is that it works and helps me serve my audience better.

2. Because many marketers aren’t actually that new to this anymore. They’ve moved past the point where broad definitions matter.

We’re getting well beyond the days where digital and social and content and inbound and (you get the idea) are new concepts to most marketers. Yes, defining and labeling this notion of MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM is important to educate a relatively uninformed, late-adopter audience today, but the industry now includes a large group of online marketers who were early or mainstream adopters and have been doing this for multiple years now. We’ve been successfully educated, and now we want to know how to improve our work and grow our careers.

3. Because it’s better to think of yourself based on your output rather than title anyway.

Now, I don’t mean job titles aren’t important. They’re very important, since they’re often your personal headline to others and can instill you with a sense of pride in your work. They’re also often a proxy for your compensation. Instead, what I mean is that you should promote your superpower and how you’ll help a business, rather than trumpet your title.

This is how you sell products too: Nobody buys a better pillow; they buy a better night’s sleep. So at least personally, I’d rather position myself as someone who can build your company an audience to convert rather than claim to be a “content marketer” or “inbound marketer” or “Jargon Jay” … which, let’s face it, is all non-marketers hear when most of us speak anyway.

4. Because the debate has been raging for years, and we’re still no better off. Why continue?

Marcus Sheridan wrote this post in 2011, which is like a billion years ago in internet time. (I love that he titled his final section, “Semantics Are Stupid.”) Dozens have been published since, and still another one appeared more recently on Business2Community. In this particular article, there are over TWELVE HUNDRED WORDS dissecting inbound and content before the post finally, mercifully ends by asking the right question, the question that we should be asking well before the end of any post on the debate: “What Does This Mean for My Company?”

And isn’t that a hugely troubling sign? Why is that buried? Why do we spend so much time debating semantics when, in reality, all that matters is that question? "How does this matter to my business? To my customers?"

(As a quick aside, I’m also kind of miffed that nobody is mentioning MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM as a viable term to replace inbound and content. That's why I'm excited to announce #MWYCCAOTPVTCIOSTWMFM Conference -- to be held September 8-11, 2015! Because I guess that's the only time you can hold marketing conferences in 2015...)

And now, as I start to hyperventilate just a bit, I need to go outside and look at some trees to remind me that life’s gonna be okay.

I’ll wrap up this post here and leave myself open to whatever criticism the intertubes float my way, should someone happen upon my little blog and disagree. But I’d wager I have some support out there too, and if that’s you, please visit me in Twitter Town, USA.

My final message is simple and actually more of a plea, with palms open and heart all aflutter with a bizarre fondness for this industry niche I call home: It’s high time to stop all this useless, self-important, echo-chambery dialogue once and for all and instead work on being better teachers who are refreshingly creative and genuinely, consistently helpful. THAT is what actually matters. THAT is the type of marketing we practice.

So, can we please, please stop with all our navel-gazing? Because unless you found a bunch of subscribers down there, I’ve got work to do.

Posted on September 29, 2014 and filed under content marketing, business.

Lessons from Hacking a Podcast: 3 Ways to Be Memorable

I recently launched my first podcast, which has been the most difficult and most fun project I've worked on. Over the next few months, I'll post some of the stuff I'm learning here. It's partly because you might find it interesting. It's mostly so I don't hurl my laptop at a wall. So, uh ... hurray podcasting! (Kidding. It's actually awesome, I swear.)

microphone.jpg

Beware the friend who hogs the microphone.

Back in college, I threw a pool party at my parents' house. (I had permission, chill out, chill out...) To make things a little more interesting, we rented a karaoke machine. Now, I don't know if you've ever experienced your friends around a microphone when they're in a safe, judgment-free zone, but suffice to say, weird stuff happens. Holding a mic when their confidence is high just ... does stuff to people.

One of my friends in particular quite literally refused to give up the mic. He sang a bunch, then just plopped down in a chair and began commenting on the world around him. He was our own little Kanye West at an awards show, and just about as welcome. 

And when we asked him to stop, he'd simply shout over us: "I have the mic! I have the power!" Over and over again.

Since launching my podcast, I think about that moment every so often. I'll lean into the mic and think about how much I can or can't influence the resulting show. Is it really all me that makes this episode good or bad, or are there other elements to make it memorable for listeners? How can I give people a reason to start listening? What about FINISH listening? Will people just want me to shut up and put down the microphone?

And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that podcasts tend to gravitate towards one of three distinct ways to attract listeners when they launch...

3 Ways to Create a Memorable Podcast

1. Big-Name Hosts

This is the most obvious reason listeners tune in, but it's also the hardest to replicate as a content creator. First of all, you can't manufacture it. You can't force someone to be well-known in your industry. Second, even if you have a connection to a big name in your industry -- an executive at your company, for instance -- you may not be able to create a great show around him or her. (An executive may be too busy to host a podcast, or they may monopolize the discussion and take too many tangents based on strong personal opinions rather than telling great stories or educating your audience.)

To illustrate how rare and difficult this is, and to avoid any risk of offending others, let's just use me as the example: Nobody gives a flying fig about anything I say based solely on my name. I don't have enough Twitter followers, give enough keynote speeches, or launch/invest in enough companies. I am not "business world famous." I'm also not one of those "famous for being famous" people on Twitter.

So launching my show on the merits of my name alone would fail miserably. I can't win using this approach, nor can most people.

EXAMPLES OF USING A BIG-NAME HOST:

Since most of you are content marketers, I'll just assume you've heard of Jay Baer and Joe Pulizzi.

Each of them host podcasts. Jay hosts SocialPros, and Joe hosts This Old Marketing with colleague Robert Rose. In both cases, the shows take advantage of hosts with big followings and well-known names in the marketing world. And while Jay does bring in some big-name guests (we'll get to that in a second), his show is primarily known as "Jay Baer's podcast" to others. Joe and Robert, on the other hand, currently avoid using guests altogether, choosing instead to talk shop themselves and rely on their names for awareness. And it works.

The Jay Acunzo Show would gain neither initial listeners nor loyal fans in the face of other, bigger-name hosts ... so when I launched, this approach was immediately off the table.

2. Big-Name Guests

Another very common way to win attention and be memorable is to invite well-known guests to appear on your show. While big-name hosts will often use big-name guests, this is still an approach that can stand alone. Back to me as the example to avoid being rude: I may not have a big name, but I could certainly appeal to an audience if I could somehow reach and interview semi-famous guests. And those semi-famous guests, if they're busy execs at my company, are much more likely to appear on a single episode to answer a few questions for 5-10 minutes than they are to host their own show.

Like #1 above, this is also incredibly common in the podcasting world. It's also a tried and true tactic in content marketing across any medium: Find someone with audience (the proverbial "influencer") and interview him/her in order to tap into a larger network of followers.

If you were hosting a podcast on content marketing, for example, and interviewed Jay Baer, Joe, and Robert, it'd be a smart move -- they're known names with big personal audiences.

EXAMPLE OF USING BIG-NAME GUESTS:

There's a great, relatively new show covering Boston's tech startup world called Tech In Boston, hosted by Dave Gerhadt. Dave's a smart entrepreneur and a good host. As a new show and new host -- and as an entrepreneur who lacks the big-name appeal of some others in the ecosystem -- Dave's done the smart thing by bringing on regular guests that people in town will recognize. To date, he's interviewed several well-known Bostonians in the local tech ecosystem, including Cort Johnson, Mike Troiano, Dennis Keohane, and Meghan Anderson. If you're in Dave's target audience (Boston tech entrepreneurs and employees), you either know these names or know their companies.

Now, before I make my larger point, it's worth noting that Dave does a great job with his guests -- the conversations are natural and informative, and you almost always feel like you're sitting with them. That's no small task as a host.

But the danger faced by any show based on interviews is twofold:

  1. Because this type of show is fairly common, audiences can easily compare/contrast your show to other, more professionally produced interviews. If they're used to listening to ESPN and NPR hosts conduct interviews to various epic guests, with both sides participating in a charismatic, engaging way, you're now playing in that same ballpark in a listener's mind. And I don't know about you, but I'm just not that good.
  2. Because an interview-based show's episode headlines are often the name of the guest, it puts the pressure on the host/producer to find well-known guests consistently. That can be difficult, since again, these are busy people pulled in millions of directions.

That brings us to the third approach to producing memorable podcasts...

3. Play with the Format

Listen to almost every business podcast, and you'll hear a similar format. It runs something like this...

  1. Intro music
  2. Hi from the host
  3. Guest interview
  4. Bye from the host
  5. Outro music

Aaaaand scene. Rinse and repeat.

This is "scalable." This is a "best practice." This is [insert jargon-filled excuse that somehow justifies cutting corners and watering down your end result and blatantly not caring for craftsmanship or quality.]

But worse than all that ... this is just BORING!!!

What's glaringly obvious with too many business podcasts is a lack of post-production work and, even more so, a lack of what I call "segment thinking."

Segment thinking is essentially your ability to view a creative project not like one whole but as smaller parts that you can mix and match to create the whole. In other words, you divide the entirety of the project into segments.

I grew up on ESPN shows like SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption, which adhere to this notion of segments. SportsCenter is famous for its game highlights and top 10 plays -- both of which are types of segments -- but they also experiment with their format by inserting emotional stories, graphics and data, talking heads to analyze the news, and more. And in the past few years, they've gone so far as to literally SHOW YOU the segments they're moving through during a given show:

sportscenter

At some point, I'll write a whole post on segment thinking. For now, as a podcast host, just know that you have a tremendous opportunity to take a lump of clay (audio content) and mold it in any which way you so choose. You can plug in stable, longer sections like interviews, then mix and match experiments around that until something sticks. Maybe you end with a bad joke every week. Maybe you open with a similar format. Maybe you do something weird and quirky that loyal listeners anticipate, making them feel like insiders and thereby strengthening that loyalty.

Along these lines, when I launched Tech It Forward, I decided to have some fun with the segments and the content.

In my first episode, for example, I did a basic interview for most of the show. But I also introduced a segment near the end to experiment and also to snap listeners back into the moment after several minutes of interviewing. The segment is a word game which puts my interview subject on the spot. This forces you to pay attention again by changing the pace and introducing a new element to the show, which is particularly important late in the show when you may drop off.

Similarly, in my second episode (which I believe is much better), the show breaks into three segments -- a story and two interviews -- all layered with music, sound effects, and narration over the top. We open with a story about how a creative director had a chance to interview an American legend, followed by advice in theory from the same guest, followed by a second interviewee. In the future, I hope to experiment with more formulaic segments too (i.e. not just interview-based, but playful or narrative ideas like my word game in Episode 1, or maybe something headline- or joke-based. Buzzword Power Rankings comes to mind, for example.)

Here's Why You Should Try This Too

Podcasting is much more wide open and ripe for the taking than other mediums, especially if you're talking business. Podcasting is not only less saturated for content marketers, it's done less creatively (see mini-rant about boring show formats above). Creative tends to be the last seat at the table in any content marketing medium -- a mentality I blame black hat SEO for. People just want to game a system until that stops working, then do it "right."

But if you can genuinely give a crap and focus on your podcast's content from the start -- and leave everyone else to fight over approaches #1 and #2 and eek out a handful more listeners by over-marketing it -- then you'll actually have a chance at turning some heads.

Blunt confession: This is much harder than any project I've ever tackled.

I feel strongly that it's worth doing this show in a different way than other podcasts because I think THIS is how I can stand out. I also don't love the idea of "best practices" when it comes to content. Best practices are for programmatic, robotic, "stuffier" marketing ideas like banner ads and email optimization. Following most best practices when the goal is creating content? That's just doing what everyone else is doing, and that makes your job of standing out much, much harder. Better to find unique practices.

How? You need to be more inventive. You need to pull from inspirational sources outside your own industry. You need to take creative risks. That's hard, isn't it?

But as Rob Go, founding partner at my firm NextView Ventures, likes to say, "The hard is what makes it great." And to me, being great in podcasting means more than just attracting people who listen to my show. It means attracting people who REMEMBER IT.

And shouldn't that be the point of everything we do?

----------

Listen to Tech It Forward, Episode 2: Creativity (with Keith Frankel, Chief Digital Officer, Tablelist and Jeff White, Founder, Rightside Shirts)


Posted on September 25, 2014 and filed under content marketing, creativity, podcasting.

How to Get Free Content Marketing Help in Boston

As my wife would begrudgingly admit, I'm an absolute sucker for pretty much any computer animated film. A Bug's Life? Great. Finding Nemo? Grand. The Incredibles? You guessed it -- it was good. Toy Story? To infinity and my DVD player. Ratatouille? Rat-tat ... uh ... um ... alright, French is kind of where my wit taps out.

HOLD ON I'M GOING SOMEWHERE WITH THIS!

Remember in the movie Up, when the the talking dogs all break from mid-stream conversation to yell, "SQUIRREL!"? (Of course you don't. You're an adult with a life outside animated films. But I LOVE that joke, and you can watch an example here.) Anyways, I could easily be accused of having the same propensity for the furry object sprinting by me. I like the prospect of the new. I like side projects, creative exercises, and pre- and post-work events. 

So it's no wonder that I launched a community group a couple years ago to go along with my already demanding day job. The group is Boston Content, and I'm proud to say (and honestly never thought I'd say) that we have 600 local members.

Enough with the Intro: What's This About Free Content Marketing Help?

As our group grew, it became clear the community members genuinely loved hanging out and learning about content and creativity. So on Friday, September 19, we're throwing a huge creative bash along with Wistia, Eventbrite, Skyword, Hill Holliday, FutureBoston, and VentureFizz. It is, without question, the scariest and most exciting moment in my time running Boston Content with my co-founder, Arestia.

(<plug> BTW, you can buy tickets to #BosCon Bash right here. $20 gets you 2 free drinks and plenty of snacks, plus a night of mingling, creating video together with Wistia and other guests, designing your own creative inspiration which will be sent to your FUTURE self with Eventbrite, dancing to a top local DJ, and a few awesome surprises. </plug>)

Anyways, in support of this event and this community, as well as to hopefully continue to spread the content and creativity love, I'd like to give away some time, effort, and writing and/or consulting. 

To find out how it works, either watch the video or read the details below it.

1. Free Drinks/Lunch & Networking (1+ Tickets & Most RTs)

If you buy at least one ticket AND tweet using the hashtag #BosCon, with a link to the event, and get the most RTs, I'll buy you lunch or drinks at a time we agree on (not the event) and spend an afternoon or evening talking shop or just swapping stories. (To make this reasonable, let's say that the fewest RTs that can win this is 10. And no using multiple Twitter handles you run yourself -- sorry, community managers, let's make this an even playing field.)

2. Blog Post Written for You (3-4 Tickets)

Buy 3 or 4 tickets as an individual or non-sponsoring organization, and I will write a blog post for you or your company. There can be multiple winners here (and for #3 and #4 too).

The post's topic can be anything. It can be in my voice/byline or your company's. If your topic is not in my wheelhouse (which is marketing/tech/startups/writing/creativity), I'll do the necessary research to create the post as I would if I were working for you full time.

3. Blog Post + 90 Min of Free Content Marketing Consulting (5-7 Tickets)

If you purchase between 5 and 7 tickets, I'll spend an hour and a half with your company to help move your content marketing strategy forward. Again, there can be multiple winners here -- it's for anyone who fulfills this requirement.

4. Blog Post + 3 Hours of Free Content Marketing Consulting (10+ Tickets)

For 10+ tickets from you or your organization, in addition to at least a few hugs from me the night of the event (I'm Italian - it's what we do), I'll write a blog post for you and also spend 3 hours consulting your company on your content marketing. This will likely be spaced out over multiple sessions, but we can discuss exact details. For instance, across 3 hours, it's more possible for us to collaborate on a larger project like an ebook/guide or SlideShare, in addition to talking strategy. 

Why Are You Doing This?

Of course because I want to ensure the 19th is an amazing night we all remember, but also because I REALLY enjoy consulting startups and other companies around Boston and talking content marketing. (I suppose you could do this challenge if you're not planning to attend the event, but I'd really prefer anybody who buys a ticket actually experience the festivities.)

Are You Any Good?

That is definitely not for me to say. But if you want to do some digging, a few suggestions:

  • My portfolio is here and, and here's my LinkedIn
  • At NextView, I launched and now run this blog and build resources listed here
  • I used to lead the team behind this blog and the resources created here
  • I've worked in-house or as a consultant with brands, agencies, and startups through jobs at Google, Dailybreak Media, HubSpot, and now NextView Ventures
  • If nothing else, I could draw something for you like this

Okay, I'm In. What Do I Need to Do?

  1. Follow the instructions listed above.
  2. Forward me your Eventbrite ticket confirmation email (send to jason.acunzo@gmail.com). This part's important so I can figure out which tier you're in the running to win.
  3. I'll coordinate with the winners after Sept 19, in order for every participant to have a chance leading up to the party.
  4. Attend the event. Eat, drink, and be creative!

Anything Else?

Yes. If you're reading this and you're either a current or future member of Boston Content: THANK YOU! Arestia and I launched BosCon over coffee to just have more discussions around where our careers and our friends' careers were headed. I never thought 600+ people would join us from around the Boston area. We've hosted more than a dozen events and have shared hundreds of emails and tweets with the community group. It's been ridiculously fun and unbelievably humbling.

So -- without motive or agenda -- thank you! You absolutely rock.

Posted on September 7, 2014 and filed under content marketing, creativity.

How I Almost Didn't Hire the Best Writer I Ever Hired

The best writer I ever hired at a startup wasn't a former journalist. He wasn't a former marketer or a former teacher or even a former liberal arts major.

The best writer I ever hired at a startup didn't have a resume. He didn't have a LinkedIn profile or Google+ account or even a Twitter handle.

The best writer I ever hired at a startup is trying to work at your startup all the time, but 99 out of 100 times, you pass. I should know -- I almost did. And that's why we need to collectively scrap the usual hiring process if we want to bring in great writers to run our blogs, our PR, or our content marketing in general.

Seemingly every startup today buys into the idea of content marketing (so much so that I created a blueprint for executing your strategy as part of my work with startups). Naturally, this leads to more open jobs for in-house writers at startups, instead of your more traditional media outlets, PR firms, and advertising agencies. But the usual hiring process isn't built to source, select, and hire great writers and, in fact, it's practically set up to eliminate them.

To understand just how strange it can be to hire a great writer compared to a more traditional marketer, let's go back to the story of the best writer I ever hired. His name is Jeff, and it was nothing short of a miracle that I didn't screw it up...

It took several years for him to admit this (which is odd because he admits everything bluntly enough to make Louis C.K. blush), but Jeff actively avoided sharing his resume with me during his interview process. This was back when I was director of content at Dailybreak Media, and I was hiring several creatives to build a new team that would grow our audience and work with our brand partners to launch native or sponsored content campaigns.

After he was hired, Jeff revealed that my boss at the time, our chief product officer, had actively advised Jeff against sharing his resume with me. That's because I'd just come from a big corporation (Google) and had a "process" behind reviewing and interviewing candidates, and Jeff's resume basically read two things: high school diploma and bartender, 10 years. My boss knew, and rightly so, that I'd have latched onto those two facts during my process and immediately tossed the resume, along with an excellent and qualified candidate. So instead, my boss shared only Jeff's (utterly great) writing samples and suggested that I meet with him the next day when, oh by the way, he was already scheduled to come talk "career stuff" with us.

It was instantly apparent that his writing talent and personality were perfect for our team, so all that was left to do was complete my process by assigning him a relevant project as a final test. Thus, he'd managed to skip the two steps (resume screen and phone screen) that would have undoubtedly eliminated his candidacy. He went on to absolutely crush the assigned project and even submitted a second piece voluntarily, cementing him as far and away the best candidate.

His resume literally never mattered. But in most cases, it would have been the only thing that mattered -- and not in a good way.

Why We All Usually Botch This Hire

As the demand for writers and content creators increases, more and more companies turn their one-size-fits-all hiring process onto the writer community for the first time. They package job descriptions that sound like any other job. They review resumes like they would for any other function. And the checks and balances designed to pull the best candidates through the pipeline ultimately fail, leading to the hiring of moderately qualified but ultimately not great candidates.

Here's the thing: Most great writers don't look or feel like the typical candidate. Their resumes aren't the best representation of their skills or experiences. Their day jobs are rarely focused on showcasing their writing and creativity, as with Jeff's 10-year stint as a bartender or another ex-Dailybreaker's previous role stocking shelves for a retail company. In addition, a writer's personal projects can often seem too quirky, too "artsy," or too irrelevant to a hiring manager's industry, despite these projects representing a huge source of personal and professional growth and skill development, thus preparing them to be better contributors for your company.

So no, great writers don't often smell like great marketers, and unfortunately, this means most companies are easily thrown off the scent when it's time to hire them.

(By the way, it's important to note that by "great writers," I don't mean a marketer who is now required to write more in 2014 thanks to this style of marketing. I also don't mean a copywriter more adept at slogans or banner ads. Sure, they can be good contributors, but when everyone else is hiring good contributors, give me a truly great writer -- someone who's honestly content writing just for fun, just because, whether fiction or nonfiction, book or blog. These are the kinds of writers who can cut through the insane clutter out there and be constantly and uniquely creative. When everyone else tries to make dud missiles fly by over-marketing bland, boring pieces, you want the upper hand by being great both creatively and in terms of marketing tactics. And I don't know about you, but I can train someone in marketing much more easily than I can train someone to write well.)

Scrapping the Standard Playbook

Hiring Jeff required a warm intro and a few deft moves by my then-boss to circumnavigate my big, corporate-y process. It was a huge learning experience for me personally, and between that moment and my time vetting writers as head of content for HubSpot (I reviewed over 100 candidates in a year), there are a few changes to your hiring approach I'd recommend:

1. Write Unique Job Descriptions, Emphasizing Creativity

This can't be overstated: DO NOT use the typical template for job descriptions. Ditch the standard "blurb + bulleted responsibilities + bulleted requirements" format.

Instead, remove all needless requirements that don't relate to being a great writer (like BA degrees or loads of experience working in your industry, though those might be listed as "preferred"). Then, to really attract the right candidates, focus the job description on the actual process of writing and being creative rather than the marketing function and desired results.

Lest you do a spit-take on that last part about neglecting to talk about results, hear me out. This is all about understanding what motivates a great writer to actually produce results for you.

So many roles in business can be extrinsically motivated decently well. You put a carrot or a goal ahead, and that's enough -- they want to go get it. Sales is the obvious example. They want to hit numbers and perform a task not necessarily because they adore performing the task but because there's a payout somewhere down the road that gets them excited.

Writers, however, must be intrinsically motivated, just like any production-oriented job role (design, video, etc.). Anyone who loves to write and create in general will tell you that they do so just ... because. I write a personal blog not because I want a massive email list but because I like to write and need a place to put it. I design stupid cartoons not to sell them or grow Twitter followers but because I like the act of sketching. Creatives are found creating all the time and just because they enjoy it. How often do you find marketers voluntarily marketing other businesses at night or salespeople picking up a random object in their homes and trying to sell it on the street for fun?

(Note: I'd argue anyone is better off when they're intrinsically motivated regardless of job function, but my point is that writers are rarely if ever motivated by hitting an end result. They admire and want to experience and improve their craft. This can be harnessed for your benefit at a startup, but you need to broadcast the job appropriately to find the right candidates.)

So instead of writing "publish X pieces per week to grow audience" in your job description, you could say "brainstorm weekly pieces and maintain a daily editorial calendar." Instead of "develop buyer personas to focus our content strategy" you should say "research and understand our readers and be their internal champion." Instead of "repackage long form pieces into smaller projects to be distributed around the web," you should say "find creative ways to produce related pieces across many mediums and channels."

These subtle differences focus on the process itself, rather than the end result. Though it's counterintuitive for many in business to think this way, I promise you that one begets the other -- better content builds bigger audiences and drives more results.

2. Review the Right Things About Your Candidates

The first thing you look at shouldn't be the resume.

Their portfolio trumps their past jobs, and it's not even close. Who cares if they're currently working at Costco? What does that say about their writing? Nothing at all. The first thing you start with needs to be their writing samples, plain and simple.

And by the way, if they've written about your industry in the past, that's a huge bonus. But it's still just a bonus, not a requirement. Great writers understand how to research well enough to learn various subjects, and interviewing experts always makes for a great approach regardless of a writer's knowledge.

If you're skeptical about that point, just think about the world of journalism and how many different topics exist to be covered, from sports to tech startups to international politics to the education system and much, much more. Media outlets constantly hire writers who are great at the nuts and bolts of writing, interviewing, and so on, and they then learn to become subject matter experts. To hire candidates who are experts, great writers, and seeking employment at the right time is to hire a bunch of unicorns.

The second thing you look at shouldn't be the resume.

The second thing should be their online presence. Google them! See what side projects they've done, or read their tweets or blog posts. This is all evidence of their skill set. Reading a blog post about sales written by a sales rep isn't proof that he or she can actually sell. But a blog post written by someone who claims to be a writer? Those are actual examples of their work.

As for side projects, don't be scared off by wildly quirky and irrelevant pieces. Making is a muscle, and fun or random side projects help creatives get stronger. (Think of it this way: A basketball coach who wants a shooter understands that, even though the motion of a pushup looks nothing like a jumpshot, the former leads to a better, stronger version of the latter.)

The third thing you look at shouldn't be the resume.

Nope, no resume yet! The third step is to look at their cover letter. Always keep in mind that a cover letter is a work sample when it comes to hiring writers.

The only reason I listed this third and not second is that most of us are improperly educated by career centers and online templates/resources for cover letters. It's unfortunate and sad. They always propose those outdated, formulaic, block-text approaches to cover letters, where being "unique" means changing "I'm interested in your job" to "I'm very interested."

Top-notch writers can and should use their cover letter to stand out, but it's still rare. Out of the 100+ I reviewed with HubSpot, only two stood out: a video someone created as a substitute for a text email, and an impassioned note about the state of our industry which started, "I'm afraid." Wow! Two simple words that stood way out compared to a sea of "Dear Hiring Manager." That great cover belonged to Erik Devaney, who still works at HubSpot today.

3. Assign Projects -- And Do So As Early As You Can

If I didn't think that most candidates want to talk to a company and gauge interest before creating an original piece for them, I'd ditch the phone and in-person screens entirely and just ask people to submit a project. (I might actually try this someday just to find out if it works.)

But if and when you like a candidate, assign them a relevant project. Give them a loose framework and loose instructions, as well as a deadline that feels a little aggressive to see how they perform under pressure.

For example, give them a couple working headlines for blog posts and ask them to choose one and write a draft by the next day. Or give them a half-baked draft of something you're already creating and ask for rigorous edits, both for copy and concept. You can also use editing as a way to further test candidates who are too close to call -- if two writers absolutely nail their assignments and you're stuck, ask for them to self-edit and explain everything in detail.

Make sure the assignment is something you'd actually use day to day too. It's like putting them on the job before you actually make a decision, just to test the waters -- a luxury available when hiring writers and other production-oriented jobs. (It's much tougher to put a marketer or sales rep to work before hiring them, for example.)

Of course, the resulting idea and written piece is the writer's property. After all, even with the same headline assigned, no two writers will produce the exact same paragraphs. As such, I don't believe their assignments are yours, so if I ever published a candidate's piece, I'd pay them regardless of whether they got hired. I'd highly suggest doing the same -- it's just the right thing to do.

Just to Recap

  1. Ditch the standard playbook and mentality. Great writers don't often smell like great candidates for other roles.
  2. Write a great job description by appealing to creativity, rather than marketing tactics and business results.
  3. Spend your time looking at the RIGHT things submitted by the writer. Resumes and past job functions often fall way down the list compared to other roles.
  4. Assign relevant project work under a strict deadline.

Fast-forward from our time together at Dailybreak, and Jeff now finds himself with an amazing job as the first content manager at another startup with tens of millions in revenue, where he's responsible for their entire content strategy (congrats, Jeff!). It feels like a lifetime ago that he was a bartender that I almost made the huge mistake of not hiring.

Today, if you ran his resume through the standard hiring process, Jeff would come out the other side looking like a great candidate. But to get there, he was initially an exception to the "usual" rules.

Here's hoping you make room for yours.

This post was originally posted on The View From Seed, NextView's blog for early-stage startups.

Posted on August 28, 2014 and filed under writing.

[Inside Creative Content] BlogAbout: Built by Intuition and UX

blog-idea-generation-tool

I'd like to sell you on an idea for a new creative project.

First, you should know that it's going to take a long time. Like, a long, looooong time. 

Second, I'm not quite sure any precedents exist in our industry, and if they do, nobody is publishing any information about how effective or not effective this project can be.

Oh, and I'll need some internal design resources.

And a developer. Cuz those grow on trees in the tech world and all...

And total creative freedom -- yeah, let's go with that. You gotta back off for this one, Ms./Mr. CEO.

One more thing to note -- the end result, while fun and engaging for our audience, won't have a nice, neat A-to-B path to ROI. It'll probably take some faith, some qualitative understanding of our prospects, and some complex attribution paths to determine our return.

But I just have a gut feeling. I just KNOW this will work. 

Sound like a project you're excited to pitch?

Me neither. But that's the origin story behind BlogAbout, the interactive blog headline generator built by IMPACT Branding and Design, a top agency in my previous home state of Connecticut.

I had the chance to chat with John Bonini, their marketing director and one of the brains behind BlogAbout (and really, all of their content). As a disclosure, John's interactive app is an example of creative content I plan to cite in my upcoming Content Marketing World talk in early September.

John explains how he and a teammate came up with BlogAbout and why, despite his regular reliance on data, he firmly, utterly, and completely believes in creative intuition and risk-taking in content marketing.

How BlogAbout CameAbout

Mimicking Real-Life Brainstorming

John Bonini: It was a very personal project from me and Carly Stec (content marketing manager at IMPACT). We wanted to create something that helped us, to be honest. I could never find anything truly helpful in the way of blog topic generators. It was the same old "insert your keyword here and we’ll spit out five generic titles for you."

I’ve never brainstormed like that. Brainstorming topics is a lot messier than that. It’s more interactive, there are lots of cross-outs and debates over whether something would would work or not.

It’s not, "let me type the word 'Facebook' and get myself five titles and I’m good to go for the week."

We wanted to create something that lent itself more naturally to the process. I wanted something that was interactive, that let people type in their own things — I’m not going to prompt keywords.

I’m also not going to prompt a form-fill … but a lot of people do complete the form at the end because the process is so enjoyable and useful. 

So the whole reason it came about was to create something that aligned with how Carly and I actually brainstormed, and in doing so I knew what appealed to others that are in the same position.

I just read Youtility by Jay Baer, and it got me off this ebook tilt. I don’t want to create ebooks just to get a form filled. And I wanted to create something that’s worthy enough to be mentioned in a book like that. 

The funny thing about that is that last month, Ann Handley reached out to me -- she’s mentioning BlogAbout in her upcoming book.

Tackling the ROI Question

Jay Acunzo: So how’d you sell it in?

JB: Set expectations. I admitted that this wasn't going to deliver immediate ROI, which is a tough thing to sell anybody on. It’s not just the money -- it’s the time it took. You can always recoup money, but you can’t get that time back. It was a pain point for our CEO, and he expressed that. He asked several times about the ROI.

JA: What made him see your rationale for doing this then?

JB: I told him that BlogAbout would attract a ton of marketers who blog. We didn’t have anything to achieve top of mind awareness for us -- it was all gated material. Nothing would drive organic traffic unless we were adept at SEO. This drove a lot of organic traffic via social and email, but it also did wind up ranking well on search. 

He also just trusted me to make this decision. I believed that if the experience was great, we’d get a lot of forms filled, and we did. We got over a thousand forms filled, voluntarily, not prompted, and I’ve been able to build real relationships with these people.

It’s also really, really heavy rapport building. I know what you’re blogging about when you use our tool, and I can talk to you directly about that. I also know more about what to blog about [on the IMPACT blog] to create future content to help them, because I have this info.

JA: So what was the reaction like from your audience?

JB: The first month we did it, it got the most visits on the website in the entire month. Now it’s the second- or third-most visited page in our site each month. I certainly didn’t anticipate that. It jumped right behind HubSpot on Google search rankings too.

How BlogAbout ShookOut

John was kind enough to share some results with me during our interview:

  • #1 most-visited site page during the first month BlogAbout launched
  • #2 or #3 most-visited page each month since
  • Over 1,000 qualified leads driven (John calls these the "warmest of the warm," given all the information they volunteer about their blogging, as well as the fact that they've filled out a form voluntarily, without being prompted in order to use the tool.)
  • Top-2 ranking for several important keywords for IMPACT's business
  • Improved lead nurturing. Based on blog topic titles, IMPACT can segment their email lists and better convert new clients.
  • Improved lead-to-customer conversion rate. IMPACT is now able to weed out prospects who wouldn't be a fit for the agency's areas of expertise or ideal customer persona. If they're blogging about irrelevant topics to IMPACT's service offerings, they can be automatically removed from future marketing and sales efforts.

What stands out most is not only the voluntary form-fills, but the ability IMPACT now possesses to convert very specific audiences (their ideal clients) in broad fashion. The tool rakes in tons of organic traffic, and IMPACT can then cherry-pick where to focus their marketing and sales based on their preferred persona.

Score One for the Good Guys

Sometimes, when you do a project or anticipate a result as a creative type, you just know something will work, or you feel you know. You're convinced because you can put yourself in the shoes of a reader/consumer better than most -- being creative is in part being highly aware and empathetic to your surroundings.

But others in your organization might need more concrete data and push you for faster results.

Says John, "We’ve all become obsessed with identifying quick metrics and quick ROI and if nothing supports that, scrap it and don’t do it. I knew this would be different and tougher to sell internally because we’re not requiring a form fill. I want to do this for top-of-mind awareness and word-of-mouth marketing, two powerful forms of marketing that are tougher to measure in quick ways but absolutely drive results."

Posted on July 21, 2014 and filed under content marketing, creativity.