Episode 23

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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.

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How agencies can educate their clients
  • The MarketingProfs B2B Forum
  • 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

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Focus on the needs of the customers of the clients.” - @marketingprofs Click To Tweet

Click to tweet: Ann Handley shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!

 

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We’re proud to announce that Hubspot is now the presenting sponsor of the Build A Better Agency podcast! Many thanks to them for their support!

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits to? 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+ years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

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 show that it;s stronger, so you are delivering more value and obviously more profit to you and your team.

Today’s guest I’m guessing is not going to be a stranger to many of you. Excuse me, Ann Handley. Most of you probably know from MarketingProfs, but she is also the Wall Street Journal bestselling 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 women in social media and recognized by Forbes Women as one of the top 20 women bloggers. Ann 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 most 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, so go subscribe to annhandley.com.

Ann actually has always been involved for a long time in digital marketing. She’s 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 Handley:

Wow. That was a longer introduction. But thank you, Drew. That was very generous of you. And I’m happy to be here.

Drew McLellan:

Well you know what, when you’re an overachiever, you get a long introduction. That’s what it is.

Ann Handley:

That’s great.

Drew McLellan:

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. So really where I want to focus our conversation today is what you see on the horizon for our agencies and how they deliver value to clients. And I’m sure we’re going to 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 let’s jump into the trend piece first.

Let me back up. I’ve been in the agency business for eons, and it has 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 going to continue to evolve at that speed, if not faster. Where do you think agencies are headed?

Ann Handley:

Wow. That’s a really big question. From where I sit, and I come at it really from the marketing education side, I think there’s 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 we’ve had that kind of language going on for a long time. But I think where the real opportunity is, and I see it from agencies who really, 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 in a really substantive way. Partly about out how. How do we actually embrace the new challenges of digital marketing to have some business impact? How do we actually use these tools of which there are many to drive our businesses forward? But then also why, but then also the how. Okay, now how are we actually going to do it? How are we going to roll up our sleeves? What’s it on our side and your side? So I guess more broadly though, I really do see a big opportunity in education.

Drew McLellan:

And how do you see agencies, because I think 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 of 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 Handley:

Yeah. I mean just to pick up on what you said a little bit, yes I think that’s true. The industry has evolved pretty quickly, and it is evolving even so. But still, 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, for the customers of the clients. Right? So to really have that audience-centric point of view, I think that’s really, really important.

So I think in my mind, that’s true. 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?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Ann Handley:

I mean, I talk to a lot of agencies. I talk to a lot of client side people too who are just like, “We don’t know what to do.” So I think the role of the agency is to figure out what matters, what doesn’t. What tools can we actually use easily and that can actually 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 through that morass. I think there’s a lot of confusion, and I think agencies can really help with educating and lending clarity to the whole industry.

So the second part of that is where do they find that? I mean that’s kind of a softball question for me because I would say MarketingProfs is certainly a resource that a lot of agencies, thank you for that. So I think just keeping up to date with just subscribe to MarketingProfs. It’s a free subscription, but 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 there’s many others that find one that you connect with, you like their content, pick with it. I mean stick with it, and then use that as basically your own fountain of education to drink from.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I know a lot of your content is free. But you guys also have some offerings, and I think 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 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 Handley:

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 kind of 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 excellent networking capabilities. You’re not in a convention center where you’re constantly missing people. And if you can’t text them, then you’re probably not going to see them at all. So we try to keep it small and intimate, but at the same time big enough so that you can actually … 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. So we want people to have just a really fun time together. Because in my mind, having fun as a group and really forming what we call form your own your own posse, your own squad. Meet your people, come here, we get you. I think that’s really true for B2B marketers.

So that’s the sort of vibe that we try to form. And last year I got to tell you, it was a fantastic event. I think we really hit it out of the park. This year we’ll be in October 2016, again back in Boston. It’s our 10th year Drew, if you can believe it or not.

Drew McLellan:

Wow. Goes by quick.

Ann Handley:

Yeah. So we’re planning lots of great throwback Thursday events, and lots of great sessions to remind us all where we’ve been and light a torch for where we’re going in the future.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think one of the great things about at 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. 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 Handley:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. I mean, that’s partly what I was talking about with the size. Because it’s not like people just sort of swoop in and swoop out. People are there for the two and a half days. They’re in it for the duration for the most part. Speakers, sponsors, attendees, staff. I mean, all of us are there.

So that’s really the sort of cooperative environment that we try to promote. I don’t know. I have such a soft spot in my heart for this event because it’s something that I’ve certainly invested a lot of time in. The whole team at MarketingProfs has invested a lot of time, effort, and energy into it. And it’s truly a very special event.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah I think it’s a do not miss. And the other thing that I think is interesting is there really aren’t a ton of agency 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 sort of hear a lot of things from their perspective.

Ann Handley:

Yeah. Yeah. And actually, one of the cool things is that we found that a lot of the agencies that are there, the smarter ones have sort of clued in like, “I can sort of bring my clients along here.” So we’ve had a number of agencies who will bring their clients. And as I was talking about the emphasis on education and really driving teams forward, driving the industry forward. I think a lot of the agencies who have found us do use it as that, as their own educational process for their clients as well as for their internal teams.

Drew McLellan:

So kind of by default, partially because of what you do and certainly because of the books that you’ve written. I know you talked about 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 a way where they can do that profitably and not lose their shirt. Thoughts about how agencies should approach content on behalf of their clients?

Ann Handley:

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. I’m going to be talking about it as we head into 2016 here too. It’s just the idea that we as an industry, marketing business, we don’t need more content. We just need better content.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Ann Handley:

And I think there’s a real focus or there has been a focus on we have to get much content out there as possible. So I think a really valuable role for agencies is just to learn to say no, you know? 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 our clients then get angry at us, and 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 will take your idea seriously. I think part of your responsibility in a way not to get too moralistic about it, but part of what you’re all about is really just to bring that sensibility, 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 step number one. A lot of the content that I’m seeing not just from agencies, but also from in-house content creators as well is still way too product focused.

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. It’s where it’s a bad relationship. We keep falling into these same patterns. And I think it’s up to us on both the agency side and the client side to say, “Okay no, we’re not do that anymore. We’re going to think about the audience, not ourselves.” Because ultimately if you produce content that’s going to please your audience, it’s also going to elevate your business. Right? It is going to 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 McLellan:

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.

Ann Handley:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

So that’s part of that say no mentality. And oftentimes as agencies work with a CMO or somebody who’s sort of being squeezed in the C-suite to deliver more sales, or leads, or whatever. So the solution is more content and helping them understand that A plus B does not always equal C. And in fact, if we just create more content and more noise, what we’re going to do is we’re going to discourage people from consuming our content, and we actually are going to hurt ourselves rather than get to the goals that you want client.

Ann Handley:

Right. Exactly. So I think saying no to more content and instead thinking about smarter, better content is really the place you want to be in 2016.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So when you look at the two books that you have most recently written, and 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 content. It’s storytelling. And then the whole idea. Because as you and I know, agencies produce volumes of written content. Whether it’s an email, a presentation, or whatever. Knit those together for agencies in terms of some best practices around writing. Because I got to tell you on the agency side of my business, when we get resumes and when we’re interviewing kids right out of school, 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, both verbally and written. So let’s talk a little bit about best practices around that for agencies.

Ann Handley:

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 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 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 I wrote Everybody Writes because I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a book for marketers that was about writing. There’s lots of books about writing for if you’re a journalist, or if you’re on the fiction side of the business, or if you’re just sort of a narrative writer. There’s lots of writing books about that. Some of them are really fantastic, but there’s not much for marketers. 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 was part empowerment and like, “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 wanted to tell them to stop doing some things that I found super annoying.

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. So I was trying to sort of help them lose, sort of shed some of those bad habits and then empower them to just be better writers, because I think that’s the key to being better content creators.

So in terms of what does that mean from an agency side, I mean I think number one, first of all, hiring people who actually are good writers, who enjoy writing. And certainly empowering them right at the start. Like for example, if you’re on a website redesign project, make sure the writer is in the room. Right? Make sure that person who is going to ultimately give you the words that are going to be on those pages, make sure that that person is actually informing the entire design of the website. Because I think it matters. It matters because they have a point of view that may differ from 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.

And the third thing I would say 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 going to be winning.

And, what do I mean by tone of voice? I mean 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, “Okay, so cover up your logo,” right. “Mask any elements of your website that would visually identify who you are and just look at the words. 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, especially for smaller agencies and for your clients.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. And I think a lot of agencies, a lot of the smarter agencies have sort 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 for themselves.

Ann Handley:

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s true. I think it’s really important though for smaller agencies. And maybe you could speak to this even better than I could Drew. But I think with smaller agencies, it’s also a way to both attract clients to you. So 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 going to be good partners for you.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Ann Handley:

And I think 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 don’t have the capacity for that. Instead, you really want to find the right clients who are going to be the best partners for you, that’s going to be a truly symbiotic relationship. 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 McLellan:

And actually, I think the repelling part is actually the more valuable part. Because it 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. It’s so far better just not to jump into bed with them at all.

Ann Handley:

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 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. And M&R employs 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. When you read their marketing, you don’t mistake them for anybody else.

Now, some nonprofits are not going to be very comfortable working with M&R because they’re a bit of a risk taker. And that’s clear in their tone of voice that they’re a little bit edgy. They’re a little bit out there. If you’re a nonprofit that likes to play it safe, you’re not going to 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 McLellan:

Absolutely. And I think that same technique is something we should be using with clients to help them do the exact same thing. Yep.

Ann Handley:

Yeah, exactly.

Drew McLellan:

So I think of Everybody Writes as both an inspirational book and a book that sort of kicks you in the rear end. I think you did 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 Handley:

That’s interesting. The rules that are violated most by agencies. I think the biggest thing that you can do as a content creator 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 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 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 where you 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 at least from a writing point of view, to have some sort of editor taking a look at what you do. So things like the Hemingway App is one of 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 to our production folks, if I were to just run them through Hemingway App, most of the stuff, a lot of stuff would look a whole lot better than it does now. So I think not just leaving it at that, 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. 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, I see so many not just errors, but just lackluster writing all the time. And that’s what’s beautiful about something like Hemingway App, which can really help you with sentence construction. So just that kind of stuff I think is really useful.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it sounds incredibly simple. But if we keep breaking that rule, then we can’t really elevate ourselves to higher level stuff till we get that fixed. We go out into the field every year and talk to CMOs about how they view agencies. And the study we just did this last summer was all about how and why agencies get hired and fired. And one of the things that I find appalling, but I know it’s true is one of the main disqualifiers that … so we’re talking to CMOs that have budgets up to $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. Spell check and somebody doing a little bit of proofreading is all that might have been between you and that client?

Ann Handley:

Right. Right.

Drew McLellan:

So the basics matter.

Ann Handley:

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 they tend to write by committee with the clients. I think that’s a big mistake. So in my mind, I think you want to avoid writing by committee to the degree that you can, it’s possible. And the reason, 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 put together some sort of outline, never circulate the first draft of something for feedback. Instead, I think you want to take it a step back and circulate an outline first.

So just some simple things like that. Set some clear expectations about how many rounds are really going to be acceptable in the approval process. One is great. Four or five, that’s when you start to really chip the way 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 a kind of a huge issue.

And 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. That’s just not useful after a certain point. It’s very demoralizing.

Drew McLellan:

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. I think your point is right on.

So in terms of content circling back around, I think one of the challenges fo