As agencies, we’re constantly struggling with how to write and create good solid content for our clients while at the same time, doing it profitably enough so that we don’t lose our shirts in the process. We’re also trying to step up and take the role of helping clients make sure that their content is meaningful, useful and unique. That’s a tall order and sometimes we just don’t have the time or the skill level on our staff to get it done.
This world of content is where my podcast guest, Ann Handley shines. As the Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, she has a handle on what it takes to get all of that accomplished as well as some invaluable strategies and resources to make us all better writers and content officers in our own right.
In my podcast conversation, Ann and I really get down to the core of writing and writing well and why it is so important in content creation and the role all of that has in building your agency. Some highlights include:
- How agencies can educate their clients
- The MarketingProfs B2B Forum
- How to write valuable content that your clients will absolutely love
- Strategies for working on better content instead of lots of content
- Why you need to focus on writing during the hiring process and throughout your agency’s work
- Resources for editing whether you have the budget for a human editor or not
- Why you need to find writers with an audience-centric point of view (and the pros and cons of hiring journalists)
- Tips for creating spaces for creating your best writing
Ann Handley speaks and writes about how you can rethink the way your business markets. Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in Social Media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers, Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a training and education company with the largest community of marketers in its category. Her book, “Everybody Writes: Your Go-to Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content,” is a Wall Street Journal bestseller.
She is a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, “Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, eBooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business.” She currently has 290,000 followers on Twitter and writes about content, marketing, and life at AnnHandley.com.
A pioneer in digital marketing, Ann is the co-founder of ClickZ.com, which was one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary. She started her career as a business journalist and editor.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/ann-handley/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. My goal, as you know, is to bring you folks who can help you build your agency so that it is stronger, so you’re delivering more value and obviously more profit to you and your team. Today’s guest, I’m guessing, is not gonna be a stranger to many of you.
Ann Handley, most of you probably know from MarketingProfs, but she is also a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, she’s a keynote speaker and she was the world’s first chief content officer. So Ann speaks and writes about how you can rethink the way your business markets. She is cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in social media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers, and is the chief content officer at MarketingProfs, which I know all of you use as a regular resource. She also is a monthly columnist at Entrepreneur magazine, publishes all kinds of content, has written one of my all time favorite books that I often recommend, “Content Rules”, and her more recent book, “Everybody Writes”, is a must-read for every agency owner and employee.
She currently has more than…just a few, more than 260,000 followers on Twitter and writes about all kinds of things, content, marketing and life at the highly entertaining, and, again, go subscribe to annhandley.com. Ann has always been involved for a long time in digital marketing. She is the co-founder of clickz.com, which was one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary. She started her career, back in the day, as a business journalist and editor and now is somebody that we all know and follow. So Ann, welcome to the podcast.
Ann: Wow, that was a long introduction, but thank you, Drew, that was very generous of you and I’m happy to be here.
Drew: Well you know what? When you are an overachiever, you get a long introduction. That’s what it is.
Ann: That’s great.
Looking Ahead to the Future of Agencies
Drew: So you interact with all kinds of marketing folks and I know that you interact with a lot of agency folks, and our listeners, as you know, are primarily agency owners and leaders. And so really where I want to focus our conversation today is sort of what you see on the horizon for agencies and how they deliver value to clients, as well as how to write valuable content for our clients. And, you know, I’m sure we’re gonna delve into the whole idea of content delivery because agencies are struggling with how to do that well for their clients and I know that’s an area that you have a lot of passion around. So let’s jump into the trend piece first. Let me back up. I’ve been in the agency business for eons and it is changed faster and more in the last five years than it ever has in the course of my career, and I think that it’s gonna continue to evolve at that speed, if not faster. Where do you think agencies are headed?
Ann: Wow, that’s a really big question. You know, from where I sit, and I come at it really from the marketing education side, I think there is a huge opportunity for agencies to really educate their clients more than ever before. I mean I could say something like there’s an opportunity for agencies to be true partners with their clients, but I think, you know, we’ve had that kind of language going on for a long time. But I think where the real opportunity is, and, you know, I see it from agencies who really are…you know, they know marketing. They know publishing. They know content. They know so much about that world inside and out and I think really where the opportunity is, is to educate their clients more than ever before. You know, in a really substantive way, partly about how, you know, how do we actually embrace the new challenges of digital marketing to have some business impact. You know, how do we actually use these tools of which there are many, to drive our businesses forward, but then also, you know, sort of why, but then also the how, like, okay, now how are we actually gonna do it? How we are gonna roll up our sleeves? What’s it gonna take on our side and your side? And so I guess more broadly though, I really do see a big opportunity in education.
Drew: And how do you see agencies? Because one of the challenges for agencies is for themselves to stay current enough that they can be the educator. And you’re right, they’re out there doing a lot this stuff, but what I did on Tuesday has changed by Thursday and there’s a whole new methodology by Friday. How do you see smart, savvy agencies keeping themselves current?
Ann: Yeah, I mean, just to pick up on what you said a little bit, I mean yes, I think that’s true. That the industry has evolved pretty quickly and it is evolving even so, but still, you know, those fundamentals haven’t changed. And I really do believe that if you start with an audience-centric point of view, which is something that the smartest agencies have known for a while now, to really focus on the needs of the customers, of the clients and less on the client itself. So in other words, to create marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing, as my friend Tom Fishburne calls it. You know, for the customers of the clients, right, so to really have that audience-centric point of view, I think that’s really, really important. And so I think, you know, in my mind, you know, that’s true. You know, that has been true for a while now, so I don’t think that things have changed all that much. I mean certainly, the tools that we use to do that have gotten a whole lot more sophisticated, but the flip side of that is they’ve also gotten a whole lot more complicated, right? I mean, I talked to a lot of agencies. I talked to a lot of client-side people too who were just like, “We don’t know what to do.” And so I think the role of the agency is to figure out, you know, what matters, what doesn’t. What tools can we actually use easily and that can actually, you know, get the results that we want for the audiences that we’re seeking to connect with. So find those tools and then help the clients sort of through that morass, you know? I think there’s a lotta confusion, and I think agencies can really help with educating and lending clarity to the whole industry. So the second part of that is, you know, where do they find that? I mean, you know, that’s kind of a softball question for me because I would say MarketingProfs is certainly a resource that a lot of agencies…
Drew: You’re welcome.
Ann: Thank you for that. So I think, you know, just keeping up to date with, you know, just subscribe to MarketingProfs. You know, it’s a free subscription, but, you know, that’s what we do. We try to help you know what’s important to focus on and what not to focus on. I mean certainly, MarketingProfs isn’t the only resource out there, but, you know, there’s many others that…you know. Find one that you connect with, you like their content, stick with it and then, you know, use that as basically your own fountain of education to drink from.
Drew: Well, I know a lot of your content is free, but you guys also have some offerings and, you know, most of the listeners probably know my bias. A, I’ve written for MarketingProfs, but B, I’m just always confident in your content. And, you know, we were talking before I hit the record button, you have a great event that agency owners need to know about. Just very briefly, give them an idea of that event that you guys do every year.
Ann: Sure. Yeah, so what you’re talking about is the MarketingProfs B2B Forum. It’s a horribly boringly named event, but it’s a really fun event. I see it as kinda the premier event for B2B marketers worldwide. Really, last year, we had about 1,000 folks who descended on Boston in January, to come to this event. And 1,000 is actually a really good size. I mean, we sort of keep it that size intentionally because it’s small enough that you can really meet a lot of people there. It’s, like, excellent networking capabilities, you’re not in a convention center where, you know, you’re constantly missing people and if you can’t text them, then you’re probably not gonna see them at all. So we try to keep it sorta small and intimate but at the same time, big enough so that you can actually…you know. There’s critical mass there, we attract some really great speakers and we’re really focused on education and networking with a side of what we call shenanigans, you know? So we want people to have just a really fun time together because in my mind, you know, having fun as a group and really forming what we call, you know, form your own posse, you know, your own squad, you know, meet your people, come here, we get you. I think that’s really true for B2B marketers. So that’s the sorta vibe that we try to form. And last year, I gotta tell you, it was just really…it was a fantastic event. We really hit it outta the park. This year will be in October 2016 again, back in Boston. It’s our 10th year, Drew, if you can believe it or not.
Drew: Wow, goes by quick.
Ann: Yeah, so we’re planning lots of great, you know, Throwback Thursday events and lots of great sessions to remind us all where we’ve been and sort of light a torch for where we’re going in the future.
Drew: Well I think one of the great things about that conference too is that the speakers are awfully accessible, so it’s not just watching somebody talk for 45 minutes and then they go out through the backstage door and are on a plane, but they’re typically…and I’m sure some of them have to run, but most of them are around for the whole conference and interacting and going to sessions and so you very well may find yourself sitting next to a speaker who you really want to have a conversation with, which I think is unique to that conference as well.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. I mean, that’s partly what I was talking about with the size, you know, because it’s not like people just sort of swoop in and swoop out, you know. People are there for the two and a half days. They’re in it for the duration for the most part. You know, speakers, sponsors, attendees, staff, I mean all of us are there. And so that’s really the sort of cooperative environment that we try to promote. I don’t know, it’s become…it’s like I have such a soft spot in my heart for this event because it’s, you know, it’s something that I’ve certainly invested a lotta time in. The whole team at MarketingProfs has invested a lot of time and effort and energy into it, and it’s, you know, it’s truly a very special event.
Drew: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s a do not miss. And the other thing that I think it’s interesting is there really are a ton of agencies attendees there, so it’s also a great opportunity to hang out with other B2B marketers. I’m not saying you go there to prospect, but you certainly can sit and chat with people who are like your prospects and sorta hear a lot of things from their perspective.
Ann: Yeah, yeah. And actually, one of the cool things is that we found that a lot of the agencies that are there, who the smarter ones have sort of clued in like, “Oh, I can sort of bring my clients along here.” So we’ve had a number of agencies who will bring their clients. And sort of as I was talking about, like the emphasis on education and really driving teams forward, you know, driving the industry forward, I think a lot of the agencies who have found us, do use it as that, as sort of their own, you know, educational process for their clients as well as for their internal teams.
How to Approach Content Creation for Your Clients
Drew: Yeah. So, you know, kind of by default, partially because of what you do and certainly because of the books that you’ve written, I know you talk about content and how to write valuable content a lot. And agencies are trying to step up and take a role of helping clients develop meaningful content and enough content and content aimed at the right audience. And yet they really struggle with how to get that done in way where they can, you know, do that profitably and not lose their shirt. Thoughts about how agencies should approach content on behalf of their clients?
Ann: Yeah, so I mean I think the first thing, and this isn’t unique to agencies, I mean I think this is a problem in the industry and I spent a lot of time last fall talking about this and I’m gonna be talking about it, you know, as we hit into 2016 here too. It’s just the idea that, you know, we, as an industry, you know, marketing business, we don’t need more content, we just need better content.
Ann: And I think there’s a real focus, or there has been a focus on, you know, we have to get as much content out there as possible. And so I think a really valuable role for agencies is just to learn to say no, you know? Saying no to “more” content and saying yes to focusing on how to write valuable content. I do think it’s really important for agencies. They are a respected partner, right? It’s their role to say, “You know what? That’s kind of a dumb idea,” or “No, maybe the CEO wants that, but we don’t want that.” Now I know the backlash of that is scary, right, because you think, “Well, what if we get…you know, what if our client then gets angry at us and, you know, they just really want us to execute on what they want to execute on?” And I don’t think then that that’s probably a good fit for you as an agency then. I think it’s much better to find those partners who really, you know, will take your idea seriously. And I think part of your responsibility, in a way, not too get moralistic about it, but, you know, part of what you’re all about is really just to bring that sensibility, you know, the content sensibility to your clients. So I think learning to say no to too much content and getting better about producing content that people actually want, is, you know, step number one.
A lot of the content that I’m seeing, they’re not just from agencies, but also, you know, from in-house content creators as well, is still way too product-focused. You know, and as you mentioned, Drew, I wrote a book about content marketing five going on six years ago now, and I talked about staying away from product-focused content then because people don’t care. And we’re still struggling with that, right? We can’t get out of that default mode. You know, it’s like it’s a bad relationship. We keep falling into these same patterns and I think it’s up to us, on, you know, well the agency side and the client side to say, “Okay, we’re not gonna do that anymore. We’re gonna think about the audience, not ourselves.” Because, ultimately, if you produce content that’s gonna please your audience, it’s also going to elevate your business, right? It is gonna meet your business goals. So I don’t think this is a small initiative. I think it’s the most important thing that we can do.
Drew: Well and to your point, I think a lot of times part of an agency’s role is to help clients from doing stupid things. That’s part of their…that “say no” mentality, you know? And oftentimes as agencies sort of work with a CMO or somebody who’s sort of being squeezed in the C-suite to deliver more sales or leads or whatever. And so the solution is more content and helping them understand that, you know, A plus B does not always equal C. And in fact, if we just create more content and more noise, what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna discourage people from consuming our content, and we actually are gonna hurt ourselves rather than get to the goals that you want, client. Yeah.
Ann: Right. Right, exactly. And so I think, you know, saying no to more content. Instead, thinking about smarter, better content is really the place you want to be in 2016.
How to Write and Create Valuable Content
Drew: Yeah. So when you look at the two books that you have most recently written and sort of the tie between both of them, the whole idea of creating stories and writing, tie all that together from an agency perspective. That idea of creating content, but again, it’s audience-centric contented story telling, and then the whole idea…because as you and I know, agencies produce volumes of written content, whether it’s an email, or presentation or whatever. Knit those together for agencies in terms of some best practices around writing. Because I gotta tell you, when I…you know, on the agency side of my business, when we get resumes and when we’re interviewing, you know, kids right outta school or even seasoned marketing people, I’m sort of appalled at the writing skill level of many people. And to me it is the most important skill for us as professionals, is that we can communicate clearly, you know, both verbally and written. So let’s talk a little bit about best practices around that for agencies.
Ann: Sure. So yeah, I mean I think the first thing is really, just as you just said, is to really understand that writing really is key to so much of what we do. I think it’s kind of the bedrock of so many pieces of the pieces of content that we’re putting out there. Certainly, even if it’s ultimately not taking its final shape as a blog post or an ebook or something like that. There’s still a whole lot of writing and words that go into both the creation and the marketing process. So, I think really just focusing on writing as a skill that we need to be hiring within agencies so that we can then, you know, transport that same skill to the servicing that we’re doing for clients. I think that’s really important. I think there’s been a tendency in the past couple years, to not think about writing as all that important. And, you know, I wrote “Everybody Writes” because I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a book for marketers that was about writing. You know, there’s lots of books about writing for…you know, if you’re a journalist, or if you are a…you know, if you’re on the fiction side of the business, or if you’re just sort of a, you know, a narrative writer. There’s lots of writing books about that. Some of them are really fantastic, but there’s not much for marketers, and so that’s why I wrote “Everybody Writes”, because I wanted something from a marketing point of view that would talk to marketers in a way that, you know, was part empowerment and, like, you know, you’ve got this, you can do this and this is important and here’s how. I wanted to offer them that kind of advice, but I also wanted to tell them to stop doing some things that I found super annoying.
You know, as you mentioned at the setup, I’ve been an editor for urban editing marketers for 25 years, and it’s like they do a lot of really bad things, and so I was trying to, you know, sort of help them lose…sort of shed some of those bad habits and then, you know, empower them to just be better writers because I think that’s the key to being better content creators. So in terms of, you know, what does that mean from an agency side? I mean, I think number one, first of all, you know, hiring people who actually are good writers, who enjoy writing, you know and certainly, you know, empowering them, you know, right at the start. Like, for example, if you’re on a website redesign project, make sure the writer is the room, right? Make sure that person who is gonna ultimately, you know, give you the words that are gonna be on those pages, make sure that that person is actually informing the entire design of the website, because I think it matters. You know, it matters because they have a point of view that may differ from, you know, the guy who’s doing the actual design work, right? So I think just making the writer as important as anybody else in the room is really key.
You know, and the third thing I would say on creating valuable content, I think, is really thinking about from your client’s point of view, really thinking about giving them some advice and some structure and some way to define their tone of voice. I think tone of voice is vastly undervalued by most companies, especially in the B2B world. And I think the smart agencies who can really jump on that and help their clients develop a strong tone of voice, are really gonna be winning. And just, you know, what do I mean by tone of voice? I mean, you know, do you sound any different? Do your clients sound any different? Does your agency sound any different? And when I’m talking to audiences, I always ask them, “Like, okay so, like, cover up your logo,” right, “mask any elements of your website that would visually identify who you are and just look at the words. You know, do you sound any different? Does your agency sound any different than the agency across town, or do you sound just like everybody else?” And I think there’s real power there to sounding different, you know, from a…especially for smaller agencies and for your clients.
Drew: Yeah and I think a lot of agencies, a lot of the smarter agencies have sort of wrapped their heads around creating avatars or personas, or using tools like that to help really begin to define voice for both themselves and for clients. And what’s interesting is I find that they do it much better for clients than they do it for themselves.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s true. You know, I think it’s really important though for smaller agencies and maybe you could speak to this even, you know, better than I could, Drew. But, you know, I think, you know, with smaller agencies, it’s also a way to both attract clients to you, so, you know, if your marketing material is putting forth a certain tone of voice that reflects your brand, that reflects your business and so on, I mean it’s a way to attract people to you, but at the same time, it’s a way to repel those who are not gonna be good partners for you.
Ann: And I think, you know, there’s a couple of agencies out there that do this really well. And it’s important because you don’t want to just accept any clients, right, you just…you don’t have the capacity for that. Instead, you really want to find the right clients who are going to be, you know, the best partners for you. It’s gonna be a truly symbiotic relationship. And so I think tone of voice is a way that you can do that, to both attract people to you as well as repel.
Drew: And actually, I think the repelling part is actually the more valuable part because it, you know, helps you avoid getting into bad relationships that typically end up costing you both time and money. At the end of the day, those aren’t profitable relationships and so far better not to jump into bed with them at all.
Ann: Yeah, right. I mean, one of my favorite examples of that is a company called M & R Consulting. And what M & R does is they offer, well, digital marketing advice to nonprofits, essentially. So they’ll help you use digital tools, particularly social media, to amplify your message. And the clients that they’re working with are all nonprofits. An M & R employee’s tone of voice really well, just for that reason, as you just said, they’re a little bit quirky, they’re a little bit weird. You know, when you read their marketing, it’s definitely…you don’t mistake them for anybody else. Now some nonprofits are not gonna be very comfortable working with M & R because they’re a bit of a risk-taker, you know, and that’s clear in their tone of voice, that, you know, they’re a little bit edgy, they’re a little bit out there. If you’re a nonprofit that likes to sort of play it safe, you’re not gonna be a good fit for them. So they almost weed it out immediately. They just rule out those clients because they never even pick up the phone to call them, you know? So I think that’s a great example of really thinking about your tone of voice to repel as much as attract, as you just said.
Drew: Absolutely. And I think that same technique is something we should be using with clients to help them do the exact same thing.
Ann: Yeah, exactly.
Drew: So I think of “Everybody Writes” as both an inspirational book and a book that sorta kicks you in the rear end. So I think you did sort of both, like, “Look, you can be better and here’s ways to be better.” And it’s sort of a how-to manual in some ways, but it’s also a, “You know what? Knock it off, you’re better than that.” So of the rules that you have in that book, which one do you think is violated most by agencies?
Ann: That’s interesting. The rules that are violated most by agencies. I think the biggest thing you can do as a content creator, you know, as an agency, is to think about having some sort of editing process. And I’m saying this now mostly as an editor who reads a lot of work from agencies, who are submitting, you know, articles and content on behalf of their clients to MarketingProfs. A lot of them seem to just have not used an editor in anything that they’re putting out there, and there’s kind of no excuse for that, I don’t think. Because, you know, I mean certainly, you can hire a human editor, which is probably preferable, but if you’re a small agency, who really doesn’t have the ability to do that, I think there’s lots of…or you don’t have the resources to do that, and I would argue that you don’t have the resources not to do that, but setting that aside for a minute. I think there’s lots of online tools that are free, that can offer you the ability to just, you know, at least from a writing point of view, to have some sort of editor taking a look at what you do.
So things like Hemingway App is one my favorites that I think probably if I took most of the articles that get submitted to MarketingProfs and before they got to our editorial team and to our, you know, to our production folks, if I were just to run them through Hemingway app, you know, most of the stuff that would be…a lot of stuff would look a whole lot better than it does now. And so I think, you know, not just leaving it at that, you know, but then really thinking about it from a readability point of view, which is really what those apps do. So Hemingway App is one of them, Grammarly is another one. You know, even just turning on some editing functions in Word is better than nothing. I know that sounds like a really pedestrian sort of thing to offer, but honestly, it’s like…I see so many not just errors, but just sort of lackluster writing all the time. And, you know, that’s what’s beautiful about something like Hemingway App, which can really help you with sentence construction, you know? So just that kind of stuff I think is really useful.
Drew: Well, and it sounds incredibly simple, but, you know, if we keep breaking that rule, than we can’t really elevate ourselves to higher level stuff until we get that fixed. You know, we go out into the field every year and talk to CMOs about sort of how they view agencies. And the study we just did this last summer was all about how and why do agencies get hired and fired. And one of the things that I find sort of appalling, but I know it’s true, is one of the main sort of disqualifiers that… So we’re talking to CMOs that have budgets up $10 million. One of the main disqualifiers for them in terms of hiring an agency is typos in the proposal. And I think, “Oh my God. Seriously? Spellcheck,” you know? And somebody doing a little bit of proofreading is all that might of been between you and that client. So the basics matter.
Ann: Yeah, I mean that’s one thing. I mean, another thing is, and I hear this a lot from the agency side, it’s like, you know, they tend to write by committee with the clients. I think that’s a big mistake, you know? So in my mind, you know, I think you want to avoid writing by committee, you know, to the degree that you can, it’s possible. I mean I guess some of the tips or some advice just how to do that is to really get the sign off or get some kind of sign off on the bones of something before you start writing. So, you know, put together some sort of outline. Never circulate the first draft of something for feedback. Instead I think you wanna take it a step back and circulate an outline first. So just some simple things like that. Set some clear expectations about, you know, how many rounds are really gonna be acceptable in the approval process. You know, one is great, four or five, that’s just…that’s like that’s when you start to really chip away at the integrity of a piece because too many cooks have been in the kitchen, you know? So I think really just avoid writing by committee is just a…is kind of a huge issue. And when I have done freelance work for agencies, and I tell you, it was just such a nightmare for the writer too, right, because it’s like you don’t want that kind of feedback. You know, that’s just not useful after a certain point. It’s very demoralizing.
Drew: Well I think a lot of times, from the agency perspective, you put together some really great piece that’s really well written, and by the time it’s all said and done, all of the sharp edges have been sort of ground down. It’s a pretty gray piece, there’s nothing to it anymore. Yeah, I think your point is right on. So in terms of content, circling back around, I think one of the challenges for agencies is they don’t really know how to structure or how to staff or how to find the right staff or content. They’re so used to hiring copywriters, and they’re used to hiring people who are great with headline, or, you know, cutlines or things like that, or they’re great conceptors. Is that the same person who should be writing content, or do you think there’s a different skill set around content?
Ann: It depends on the writer. I guess there’s no…I feel like it’s hard to just make a blanket statement that you need an entirely different crew. I don’t think that’s always the case. You know, I’m a fan of hiring journalists to create content because they have that audience-centric point of view, you know? Journalists are the only people in my mind who really have that audience-centric point of view and that’s why very often they go into journalism. The downside to hiring journalists is that they don’t always have that marketing sensibility, right? And so I think there is a little bit of a new breed of writer that’s emerging increasingly and that is somebody who has a love of writing, who maybe wanted to go in journalism, or maybe spent some time in journalism, but decided for whatever reason, that they just…they weren’t a good fit, or, you know, whatever the case may be. Or it could be a copywriter, you know, who’s really thought about…who does have more of an audience-centric point of view. My problem with copywriters is that very often they have a product-centric point of view, which is fine, but not really ideal for content. So I think finding somebody who has that audience-centric point of view, who really does love to write, but that also has an appreciation and at least some knowledge of, you know, the marketing side of things, I think that is the best hire you can possibly find. I think it’s a hard thing to define. And I can’t say, like, you know, you should hire somebody who, you know, came out of business school or came out of journalism school. I think what you’re really looking for is the sort of person who has, you know, one foot in each camp.
Drew: Yeah. I see a lot of agencies hiring journalists who have either been downsized or have decided that the…oddly enough, to all of a sudden working in an agency is less risky than working in media, but…as a journalist. But, you know, I think a lot of agencies are sort of moving in that direction where they’re identifying sort of that ability to ferret out the story and then tell the story is a skill set that they wanna have on staff.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s true.
Educating Your Clients on Valuable Content Creation
Drew: In terms of thinking about the whole idea of educating clients on how to write valuable content and all of that and really thinking about content in this audience-centric way, I think agencies sort of sometimes get in their own way, and they sort of are so busy trying to make clients happy, that somehow they find themselves, as you say, creating stuff and not being able to say no. But I think the other challenge for them is the time crunch that they’re under. You know, as you and I know, it takes a while to write well and to create good content. And I think a lot of agencies are under such time constraints either because of budget or just because of workload, that they have a hard time carving out the time. And, as you know, agencies are chaotic, loud places and that’s not always conducive to great writing. So, are there a couple tips that you can offer for the folks who are listening who happen to be the ones who are charged with creating content, about sorta best practices for either creating an environment or an opportunity to write to their best ability?
Ann: Yeah. I mean, that’s interesting. I mean, you know, I built a writing shed in my backyard…
Drew: Yeah, I know.
Ann: …not too long ago. And so, you know, I can’t get anything done. I don’t even work at an agency. I should say I don’t even work in an office. So, you know, I work out of my house and out of my home office, and MarketingProfs is a virtual company, so we all work out of our home offices. There are, like, 42 of us nationwide who sort of, you know, work out of our homes. I was so distracted just, you know, in my own house, that I completely…
Drew: By yourself.
Ann: …have empathy for that. Yeah, well, you know, with kids coming in and out and, you know, life happening around me, it was just too much and it didn’t even compare to the din of an agency. So what I did is I literally built this, you know, tiny writing house in my backyard. I call it my “tiny house” although technically there is no plumbing. So it’s really just a shed with an Internet connection and electricity. So, you know, that’s where I do my best writing, but I think metaphorically, you know, it’s about creating those spaces for yourself, you know, the sorta sacred spaces that you can write in. Some people actually function well with that sort of din. I’m sure you’ve seen, like, these apps where, you know, it’ll create this, like, coffee shop sort of background noise, you know? So that folks can … because that’s a productive environment for some people. That would drive me crazy, I can’t tolerate that. I need complete silence to produce my best work. But, you know, I think you need to find your own metaphorical, you know, “tiny house”, your writing shed and just go to that place, you know, whether it’s in a coffee shop or maybe whether it’s in a certain, you know, cubicle, or area that’s set aside within the agency for writing, you know, almost like the study carrels that they have, the library, you know, in college or something like that. But I think you need to find that space. So that’s certainly…you know, certainly one best practice is just to identify, you know, what kind of writer are you and then finding that space that you’re most productive in.
Drew: Well and I think too for agency folks, I think it’s also sort of recognizing you can’t write well in 5 or 10 minute bursts. You also have to find a place where you can kinda have a little bit of time to just block everything else out, whether you do that with headphones, or you are in a new place, or, you know, or again, as you say, you surround yourself with, you know, Starbucks noise, you know, to be able to actually think for 30 minutes or an hour or 2 hours. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for agencies, is that they’re just…or agency employees are constantly interrupted. And so it’s hard to find that quiet space. So one of the things I talk to owners about is giving their people the freedom to get out of the office and go find that space wherever that may be, because sometimes that’s the only way they’re gonna be uninterrupted, is if they’re not there.
Ann: Right, right. Yeah, I think that’s true. And also, I mean, this is not specific to agencies, but I think it’s just specific to professionals, just feeding other parts of your brain. You know, this morning I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who…you know, friend/colleague, who came by and I was telling her as I was telling you before we started this podcast today, just how crazy the holiday season was and just, you know, delivering my daughter to school and all this. I was feeling very depleted. And she said, “You know what you need to do? You need to, like, go to this poetry slam with me on this coming Wednesday night.” And I was like, “Why would I do that?” And she said, “Well, why not? Because, you know, it’s just a way that you can sorta shake up your brain a little bit.” And so I’m a big believer in, you know, getting out of your own industry and just getting inspiration for, you know, yourself, but as well as, you know, content inspiration for your clients just from other parts of life. I think it’s easy, you know, as a…in marketing, you know, and to fall into this notion that, you know, “Let’s keep tabs on what’s going on in our own industry. Let’s look at what our competitors are doing. Let’s see, you know, what the trade magazines are publishing.” I think all that’s important, but I also think it’s just really important for us as creative people, you know, as professionals, to get out of that bubble and to really, you know, give yourself permission to be inspired beyond that.
Drew: Yeah, I think one of the great things about being on the agency side of the business is you sorta have to have a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things. And so I think agency folks sometimes get sort of quagmired in the, “Okay, well our agency specializes in XYZ industry, so I’m gonna stay focused there.” But I think you’re right, I think having the mindset of, “I have to be curious in general and I have to be open to different things,” and not just the written word, but all kinds of different creative things. Because you just never know when one thing’s gonna trigger another thing and off you go with a great idea.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, right. That’s so true.
Drew: So are you going to the poetry slam?
Ann: I am, as a matter of fact. I’ve never been to one, so I’m really excited about it.
Drew: I suspect it will breed a blog post.
Ann: It’s possible. Yeah, it could happen.
Drew: So as we sorta wind down and as, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about sorta sharpening the writing skills and how to write and create valuable content that matters, and I that’s…I hope that that’s a trend that really takes hold in 2016, that agencies can lead the charge in helping clients scrutinize the content that they want to create and really make sure that it matters. So if an agency really wants to sorta up the game in terms of content and now thinking about even their own content, because I think one of the challenges for agencies is…you know, back, you know, 10 years ago, 5 years ago when social media was sort of all coming into its own and people were trying to figure out what a blog was and all of that, I think agencies could sell those kinds of services into clients without doing them themselves. Because clients were so sorta confounded by it all, that it didn’t occur to them to look at the agency and say, “Well, you’re telling me it’s really important, but you don’t do it.”
And I think today, I think clients are getting a little more savvy and they’re going, “Okay, hang on a second. If content is, you know, the second coming and if we have to do this and that and all the other stuff, and I’m looking at your website and it’s not even responsive yet, I’m kinda struggling there.” So I think agencies probably the best place for them to start in terms of upping their content, is in their own content. So we talked a little bit about finding their voice, which I think is absolutely vital. Are there other things when you think about the content you see agencies producing, if you could wave a magic wand and help them get better, are there a couple things that you might suggest the listeners think about and infuse into their own content efforts for their agency?
Ann: Yeah, I think tone of voice is huge, I mean I think that’s really great. I think producing the kind of content that is really going to be deeply educational for clients is really useful. And I think there are a number of great models for that. MailChimp is a company…I’m pretty sure is MailChimp. I’m just trying to think. Is it MailChimp?
Ann: Oh okay. So no, I know there is a email marketing company called…email provider called MailChimp, but I’m trying to think if they’re the company that does this. But anyway, they’re using a platform called Skillshare to educate businesses on essentially, how to make emails suck less, right? And so I think…and it’s a great program. I think that’s the kind of deeply educational program that agencies should be thinking about in terms of positioning themselves as a leader in the industry generally, but also something that’s deeply educational for their clients and kind of helps, you know, evolve the industry, helps bring the industry along and really bring it into the future. So I think that kind of stuff is really key. So I guess in terms of, you know, what should an agency be doing to produce content, I mean, that doesn’t mean that you have to be producing all kinds of content, that you have to have a blog and, you know, and a webinar strategy and all these different kinds of components, all these different tactics that you should be using. I think you should pick one or two and do them really, really well. And I’m a big fan of doing things that are substantive. So, you know, the Skillshare program that I was just talking about is an example of that, of really providing true value and not just, you know, content for content’s sake.
Drew: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I think agencies, you know, think that they need to have an Instagram account and a Pinterest, this and a that, whether it makes sense for their agency or not and whether or not they have the manpower to actually produce valuable content for all of those. And I think you’re right, I think, you know, narrowing down to a few and rather than going a mile wide and an inch deep, really being able to drill into a couple and add great value I think is a much better strategy.
Ann: Yeah and really walking the walk too. You know, it’s like…so I don’t know if you know Doug Kessler, he runs an agency called Velocity UK in London. And what I love about what they do is, you know, they don’t have a ton of content marketing that they’re doing on behalf of their own agency. You know, they are a content marketing company for B2B companies, a content marketing agency for B2B companies, but what they do really well is all the content that they produce on behalf of their own company, so their own content marketing, in other words, is really, really well done. It’s really…it’s very forward thinking, you know? So an example might be, you know, every once in a while, every couple of months or so, they come up with a fantastic SlideShare. And Doug kind of pioneered the idea of a SlideShare file not being used just as a place where PowerPoint goes to die, right, not just like a PowerPoint repository, but he actually used it instead as a storytelling tool, right, so as a way to sort of bring to life a story that he wanted to tell both visually as well as using words. And so he has a bunch of SlideShares that Velocity has put out, which are really great examples of that.
So what I love about that in particular is that he’s using something that we all know, you know, PowerPoint, but on SlideShare, but he’s using it in a different way. And I think, you know, that’s an example of using content to show leadership. So you sort of get a sense of, “Oh, this company does some different things.” You know, so, as a client, if I were to see that, I would think that was, like, pretty freaking cool, right? I would be like, “I want some of that. I wanna tap into that.” And in fact, that’s what they do for their clients now. So I think, you know, figuring out what you’re good at, you know…well first of all, backing it up for a second, figuring out what your tone of voice is, you know, what it is that you wanna say, what’s unique about you as a brand, as a company, as an agency and then figuring out the right mechanism to tell that story. And then telling it, you know, over and over and over again, and in as many ways as you can. Because I think the third point there is that content is not one and done for your clients and it’s certainly not one and done for you, so you’ve gotta figure out ways to sort of, you know, repeat those same themes in a really interesting and different way. And agencies frankly, you guys have the creative manpower, right, you can do it. I think you’re so far ahead of the game as relates to most companies that I talk to, you know? So you guys, you’ve got it, you can do it.
Drew: Yep, I agree. This has been awesome. I know how crazy busy you are, so I am very grateful for your time. Thank you so much for…
Ann: Yeah, thank you.
Drew: …sharing your expertise. If folks wanna track you down, if they’re not already following you all over the Interweb, how is the best way for them to find you and to keep reading what you have to say?
Ann: Well, you mentioned my website, annhandley.com, at the start of this. You can also find me on Twitter @MarketingProfs or @annhandley, I have a little bit of a split personality there, and then my company is marketingprofs.com.
Drew: All right. And we will also… Is there an active link yet for the B2B Forum or are you guys are not there yet?
Ann: Yes there is, actually. It’s mpb2b.marketingprofs.com.
Drew: Great, we will put that in the show notes. Ann, thanks very much, appreciate it.
Ann: Thank you, Drew.
Drew: Everybody, thanks for joining us for another episode of Build a Better Agency. Hopefully you have subscribed so you don’t miss anything. I will be back next week with another guest to help you build a bigger, better, stronger agency for both you and your clients. If you need to reach me, you know I’m at [email protected], and I will see you next week.
That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency on how to write valuable content. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free e-book and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency, that makes more money, attracts bigger clients and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.