The Future of Marketing 2017: Part Two

March 6, 2017 Marcus Varner

In a recent webinar, four marketing thought leaders—Mark Schaefer, marketing author and speaker; Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs; Ian Cleary, CEO at RazorSocial; and Alex Shootman, CEO at Workfront—shared their visions for the future of marketing in 2017. What follows is the second in a three-part recap of the webinar. If you want to watch the entire webinar on demand, click here.

Ann Handley: I’m really happy to be here with you all. Let’s talk 2017 from a content point of view. Content has always been part of our marketing, as Alex just pointed out. But it’s also constantly evolving, as Mark Schaeffer pointed out before Alex. So what does that really mean for content marketing in 2017?

I think a new year is always a great time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. And specifically, I think that now is a good time to challenge what we think we know about content with an eye toward challenging ourselves to create better content, to make it more effective. So each year, Marketing Profs, my company, researches the state of content marketing along with our friends over at the Content Marketing Institute.

One of the more interesting stats to come out of this year’s report was the idea that 72 percent of us marketers are looking to build long term relationships with our customers. We’re not looking for quick-hit wins; instead we want to be trusted, we want to build audience.

I saw this stat and I was like, yes, this is what I’ve been talking about for years; such a victory!

But yet, contrast that with this more sober stat. We still can’t stop talking about ourselves. We don’t always focus on our audience’s needs. Just 32 percent of us consistently focus on making our audience our focus.

So 32 percent of us, said another way, really make the audience the hero of our story. That means we still tend to create the sort of brand-centric messaging and communications instead of focusing more broadly on putting those messages into a necessary context of why should our customers care; will they miss us if we went away?

If three-quarters of us want to create these long term relationships, we need to stop being quite so selfish, I think. I think we need to focus on our audiences 100 percent of the time and not just 32 percent of the time.

To succeed in content in 2017, we need to put our audiences above all. We need to create value for them first. We need to create marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing, as my friend Tom Fishburne says. This research, by the way, is free on SlideShare. If you’re interested in digging into the insights a little bit more deeply, you are welcome to go there and download it.

Okay, so let’s talk about the assumptions that I think we need challenge. There are three big assumptions.

1. The first is that we need to challenge what we think we know about our customers.

In marketing, we have a bad habit of saying what we need to say, or what we want to say instead of what the customer needs to hear or needs to know or wants to know from us. I get that; I understand how it happens. I work with marketers all the time who tell me a deadline is looming, we’re pressed to get something, just anything off of our desks.

And the next thing you know, we’ve sort of embraced what I call our inner yada, yada merchants. It’s how that corporate messaging stuff happens because we’re pressured to put something out rather than thinking about what our audience needs. So I think that’s the worst place to start with any content strategy plans is with this; is with “we need a piece of content for something.”

A better place to start is to think about what does your audience need. This means starting with customer insights and developing real customer empathy. Empathy is one of those words, I'll be honest with you; it’s a little bit for me like those words of transparency or authenticity; those words that are tossed around in marketing. They quickly earn a spot on the buzzword bingo card, I think. Words like that, especially empathy, are sort of overused and often confusing. But I do think it’s the heart of all great marketing.

So rather than starting with a deadline, rather than starting with “we need a piece of content for,” let’s start with our customers. Let’s start with what does our customer need from us. Essentially this means committing to understanding your customer; doing that hard work ahead of time of developing those robust customer personas.

That means talking to them, in some cases. It means doing the sort of slower work of courting social data, doing the necessary research so you can do more than just put yourself in your audience’s shoes; you can really understand their point of view, their pain points, where they are coming from.

So MailChimp honed its customer empathy in a real remarkable way, and I just wan to talk about this story for a minute. MailChimp’s customer base has a really high percentage of ecommerce businesses. MailChimp wanted to understand the day-to-day lives of those ecommerce customers.

So to do that, MailChimp did something remarkable. They actually launched an online popup store in May of 2016 to get some firsthand ecommerce experience and figure out what are our customers’ pain points? They also wanted to discover new ways to make their own tools work better for those people who sell things online.

So MailChimp collaborated with a bunch of their merchants, a bunch of MailChimp merchants to make these sort of cool, limited edition products. Then they patented the collection online; they sold it online through an online store that they created, a popup store. And then they donated those proceeds to certain charities.

Then, the marketing team shared all of their experiences in learning in a sort of ecommerce diary of sorts called “What’s In Store,” that they created on a medium and here’s a recent example of it.

By the time they ended this experiment research and they closed up shop this past January, they had raised over $36,000 for charities. But while the store closed, the content didn’t end and the learning didn’t end. MailChimp has I think 90,000 ecommerce customers and each of them has their own, unique story. So they continue to share those stories through their “What’s in Store” content.

Each week in this particular blog, MailChimp talks with various online sellers to learn more about their own experiences, and they share those good and bad experiences, passing along tips and tricks that their customers need.

So it might not be possible for you to follow a path like this. Maybe you’re thinking in the back of your brain, we can’t open up a popup shop like that; maybe it’s not appropriate for you. But the point is really to get to know your customers at the deeper level. It means approaching your marketing with a deep understanding of your prospects. I believe that that’s key.

2. Which leads me to my second point, which is to challenge what you think is your story.

Understanding your business’s why is another phrase I think I could add to that 2016 marketing cliché that I'd like to choke. But that also doesn’t mean that it’s not at the heart of great marketing; I do believe that it is.

Those of us who are in marketing spend a lot of time on the what and the how, like I was just talking about a few minutes ago. We think about things like should we create an infographic, or a video, or a podcast? Or should we distribute an email or social or whatever?

But I do believe that as brands of companies, we’ve really got to put that why before the what and the how, before we get into the tactics. That means that we need to go upstream a little bit with the rest of your leadership team, or with your clients. Poke around in the brush a little bit. Flush out that why. Figure out what your bigger purpose is. I think this is important because our most successful marketing programs need to find a place within the context of what our customers care about.

As much as I talked a few minutes ago about how you need to know your customers, I also think you need to know yourself. You need to know your brand. I want to tell you a story about my friend, Anders Lagston. In 2012, Anders invented a product that would allow him to replicate in his home kitchen, just in his oven in his house, the pizza crust that he had first tasted in Italy, which he was obsessed with; he thought it was fantastic.

Most home pizza pans or surfaces are made of ceramic stone. Maybe you have one of these stones of your own. But Anders, whose family happens to run a steel mill outside of Boston, used his family’s shop and his expertise about the family business to create this thing that he called the baking steel. It’s essentially a flat piece of metal. But it also creates the best pizza crust you could ever want.

He launched this idea at the Kickstarter; what you’re looking at here is his Kickstarter page. I’m not sure if you can read it but it has this messaging. It says “Create Neapolitan style pizza or artisan breads right at home, without investing in a brick oven. Create the crust you crave.” That was his basic message: create the crust you crave. Anders was hoping to raise $3,000 to launch his business. He actually raised $38,000 to produce again what he calls the baking steel.

That was enough to encourage him to really go all in. He launched his business as a sister business to his family’s industrial steel business. But he had to get the word out. So he did what a lot of us would do; he started creating content. He bought a camera. He started photographing the amazing pizzas that he was making at home, using the baking steel of course.

Then he realized that people were looking for more advice from him, like where does he source tomatoes from? They noticed the tomato cans he was using weren’t something they saw in their grocery stores. So where did he buy his tomatoes? Where does he source flour? Where does he source yeast; that kind of thing.

He took things a step further and he actually built a test kitchen in his backyard. He started hosting baking classes. This is a picture of Anders in that test kitchen. I actually went to one of these baking classes, which is how I got to know Anders. You go to the class, you make pizza, you drink beer or wine with Anders and he shows you how simple it is to create your own dough that ultimately makes your own amazing pizza. But he also shows you how fun it is; how much fun it is to just sort of stand around in this communal style and make a meal together.

So as a result of this content and marketing program; he did this basically to raise awareness about the baking steel. He realized over time that the baking steel story isn’t really just about creating crust you crave; that was his original message.

Instead, it’s really about empowering home cooks like me, like you, maybe, to create experiences with our own families and friends in our own homes. The baking steel story isn’t really a story about honed steel or about the best canned tomatoes or the right yeast. It’s bigger than that.

So specifically the baking steel “why” is about helping home chefs create the best food they can for the people that they love; for their families, for their friends, for themselves. So his bigger story is really this; to create some love. If I were the kind of person who was really into bad puns, I might say that his customer empathy and his bigger story are baked right into his brand. No? That’s the problem with a webinar; I feel like you’d all be laughing right now.

Anyway, this was the message that really resonated with people.

So my challenge to you is really to think more substantively about the bones of your own story, as well, just like my friend Anders did. And that means, again, that you really do need to go deep into purpose and identity if we’re going to ground our marketing and our content strategy into something more substantive so that our programs really can find a place within the context of what our customers truly care about.

3. My final point today, speaking of what customers care about, is to challenge your organization to create squad goals; to have squad goals.

As I think about it, squad is next level community. So it’s that next level up from just community. It’s people who don’t just love your products and your services, but who personally align with the ethos of your brand; who sort of take it to that next level.

I also think that a smaller squad will best a broad audience. Mark touched on this a little bit during his presentation today. Starting a squad to me means not trying to be all things to all people, but really thinking about who is the most important audience for us.

So a company who understands squad goals and really internalizes them I think is Slack. I’m sure a lot of you here today must know Slack; I’m sure a lot of you use it. Slack is a messaging tool. It’s one of the fastest growing B2B applications ever.

And contributing to that, you may not know, is its content strategy and in particular is its podcast. This is “Work in Progress.” It’s the second iteration, actually, of a podcast effort from Slack. It’s called “Work in Progress.” 

What I love about this podcast is two things. First of all, it’s squad goals mindset, no. 1. and no. 2, it’s quality. It’s right up there in terms of quality with some of the best podcasts that I’ve ever listened to, that have either been put out by brands or that have been released by Radio Lab or NPR, even.

What makes this podcast so great, though, is it’s not about Slack. It’s like all good content marketing; it’s not about the technology of Slack, but it’s about how in our world culture, our identity is really closely entwined with our work. So this is the idea that Slack set out to explore. They set out to explore the meaning and the identity that we find in work. Or said in a less, maybe high minded way, they wanted to explore how and why people do the work they do. Why do we do what we do, and what do we enjoy about it?

Slack tells tremendous stories on “Work in Progress,” I love this podcast so much. In one recent episode, I was out for a walk with my dog and I listened to a story about a Palestinian woman who was a brilliant technologist. But the problem was that she lived in Gaza, where opportunities were incredibly limited, especially for her because she is a woman. So on the podcast she tells this story about her harrowing escape from Gaza, how she eventually made it to the U.S. where she recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and now she is working in Silicon Valley.

Her story is amazing. It was really, really great journalism. And it’s wrapped up with that sort of Slack messaging; that work isn’t just something that we do to while away the minutes until we can’t wait for the weekend; we’re not like that. But it’s critical to who we are as people.

As I said, I also love the Slack focus on quality, which is why this is really such an amazing program. The podcast drops every two weeks because every two weeks is the cadence Slack could manage and still maintain the quality that they were looking for.

So in a world of more and more content, I feel like pulling back a little bit is often the very smartest strategy. Julie Kim, who manages this content program for Slack, told me that Slack wanted to create not just a podcast, but the best brand podcast out there. They wanted to create something that they could all be proud of. So they asked themselves, how do we do this in the best way possible? And the answer wasn’t more; it was actually less.

This is my favorite dog picture. Look at that dog. You’ve got this, guys.

In 2017, here’s my prescription for you:

1. Challenge what you think you know about your customers.

2. Challenge what you think is your story or could you have a bigger story? And, 

3. It’s really challenge your brand with squad goals.

To watch the entire "Future of Marketing" webinar on demand, featuring Ann Handley, Ian Cleary, and other thought leaders, click here.

To see Part Three in our recap of the "Future of Marketing" webinar, featuring Ann Handley and Ian Cleary, check out our March 15 post or subscribe to receive our newsletter. 

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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