The Fab 4 Digital Marketing Skills (Sez I)


I got an invitation from an outfit called, “Tune” to express my opinion regarding necessary skills for today’s digital marketer.

Well, if you ask for my opinion, you’re going to get it. (And even if you don’t ask, you may get it anyway.)

So I wrote, “Beyond Number Crunching: 4 Necessary Skills for Today’s Digital Marketer.” I like the piece, but upon reflection, I’d like to add a fifth, which I will add right here as a special bonus.

Number 5: Embrace a Healthy Skepticism. You can’t swing your elbows without hitting a “solution” that claims to be an “end-to-end” platform for such-and-such, or a disruptive whatzitt that will change lordknowswhat forever.

Leave FOMO to the hasty. Take a deep breath. Ultimately, the quality of your marketing work will not be dictated by the virtues of your technology (per se), but by the intelligence you bring to it. So take the time you need to cultivate that intelligence and try not to be distract–SQUIRREL!

BTW: A call out of gratitude to the good people at Tune, especially Jessica Biber, who invited me to participate. Thank you.

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Up front with lessons from Down Under
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At the latest Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland, I had the privilege of leading the pre-conference workshop on “Web Writing 201.” Joe Pulizzi had pulled me in for the task, and my first hurdle was to think about what distinguished advanced web writing from basic web writing.

So I defined the basics as: storytelling, writing from/to the audience’s point of view, and developing a steady stream of relevant content.

The advanced, 201 stuff? To me, it’s about:

  • Learning how to tease, rather than please (that is, completely satisfy curiosity)
  • Applying strategies to communicate quickly to skimmers/scanners
  • Figuring out how to sustain those regular content streams

Fortunately, I don’t have to tell you more. Because one of the attendees, Peter Gearin of BrandTales in Australia, has done the heavy lifting for me–and for you. In his article summarizing the workshop, “3 Secrets to Writing Successful Content,” you’ll get an in-depth explanation of the 201 concepts, plus the cool kangaroo story (this is that “tease” thing I mentioned) that transformed the way I write copy, and became the justification for the image accompanying this post.

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Love ya’ TechCrunch, but you’re missing the substance of content marketing

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 12.13.09 PMYesterday, Samuel Scott of TechCrunch rolled the golden apple of discord onto the lunch tables of tech marketers everywhere. In the eye-pokingly titled, Everything the Tech World Says About Marketing is Wrong, Scott takes aim at two contemporary shibboleths of contemporary marketing: “inbound marketing” and “content marketing.”

Part of me is gleeful: Scott correctly takes down a great deal of the nonsense that has surrounded both of these disciplines. If what you’re really doing is blasting tens of thousands of email each week, you’re not marketing “inbound” at all. And if you’re just belching promo copy out the wazoo, you’re not “content marketing,” you’re just flooding the landscape with crap (a point I made nearly four years ago on this blog).

Yet Scott’s criticism is indiscriminate, failing to distinguish good from bad content marketing in a wholesale condemnation of the entire practice. (I won’t defend inbound marketing per se, because that’s not my turf.) Part of the fault lies, not with Scott, but with some of content marketing’s biggest stars: too many have defined “content” too broadly: ads, brochures and other promotional materials might be defined (by those with a greater appetite for euphemism than I have) as marketing “assets,” but they are not content.

For the record: content is material that has intrinsic value for consumers or buyers. In the B2C world, content may provide amusement, recreation and/or entertainment. In the B2B world that I live in, content provides information, insights and/or practical wisdom valuable to our prospective buyers. Think of it as a kind of currency: in exchange for your attention, I’m offering expertise worthy of your time: a whitepaper with relevant research, a how-to article, an ebook about effective, proven processes, a video demonstration of an idea in action, etc.

Scott insists that marketers go back to basics. I can’t argue with that. But I can argue that the basics have changed. Traditional direct marketing and advertising have not been merely supplemented by the Internet, but often supplanted by it. The web is not merely another channel, but the primary way our buyers actively seek information. Pushing ads and pumping out emails isn’t enough (or close to enough); you have to intercept buyers when they are seeking answers, and contribute answers they respect.

Content is that means of interception. Content is the vehicle by which tech companies earn credibility and establish authority. Content is what gives your company the power to shape the sales conversation; frankly, it’s the lever that allows your company to get on the short list of companies who will have these conversations with buyers at all.

By all means, master the marketing basics. But understand that properly understood, “content marketing” — in a brave new world where buyers have the power to direct their attention when and where they wish — is part of the basics. If you don’t have great content, you’re just sitting on your “assets.”


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Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products

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Want some practical approaches to marketing the really tough stuff? The boring product, the complex service, the “parity” or commodity product?

In the latest Salesforce Marketing Cloudcast podcast, I articulate the challenges and offer time-tested ways of overcoming them. My hosts, Joel Book and Heike Young, have called the resulting recording, “Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products.” Please note that “genius” is their word, not mine, but I am flattered.

When you tune in to listen, you’ll discover:

  • Why clarity can beat creativity
  • How to apply the “plumber’s magnet” approach to making urgent offers
  • Where “boring” becomes vitally interesting
  • What book you absolutely must read if you want to write compelling copy (aside from Writing Copy for Dummies, naturally)



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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part III: The Complex Service

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One of the paradoxes of my work is this: many of my most intelligent clients have the greatest difficulty explaining what they do. Why? I suspect it’s because, ultimately, what they really sell is intelligence itself, a difficult quality to articulate in marketing messaging. This is a common problem among service providers, like consultants, who sell an intangible service whose value is entirely wrapped in the subtleties of research, collaboration, thinking, and thoughtful execution.

The temptation, in these cases, is to promote your “secret sauce” formula that sets you apart from the competition. The problem? It’s really hard to get prospects excited about reading about yet another methodology.

Remember, they’re not interested in you — they’re interested in solving their own problems. That’s the key to resolving this marketing tangle.

Take a step back with me. We both know that your real value lies in your ability to streamline workflows, uncover new marketing opportunities, resolve internal conflicts, fulfill effective change management, etc. You never let go of the big stuff — that’s what you do and it’s how, in the long run, you make good money.

But don’t lead with the big stuff. Lead with something small, sharp and urgent. Think of this way: What kind of emergency can you address? What customer fire can you put out fast?

Think of the plumber’s magnet. Your local plumber makes the big bucks on new construction, renovations, heating systems, etc. But these are tough sells, really difficult ways to engage new customers.

So they give you a magnet with their name and phone number. Why? So one day when a pipe bursts and you need help fast, you’ll call that number and get their help. It’s not only about the immediate business; it’s about beginning a new business relationship.

If you have a complex service, can you make a simple urgent offer that can initiate your customer relationship? Example: I worked with a huge commercial real estate firm that helped banks maintain, market and sell properties they had received in bankruptcy/mortgage defaults. Selling this kind of big ticket work was hard. But they also offered a 24/7 emergency security service; as soon as a bank got a property, they could call this firm and within hours, the firm would change the locks and take all the other measures necessary to secure the property. This service was not a big money maker. But it was a brilliant way of getting in the door and landing big jobs.

What’s your “magnet,” what’s your emergency service? Target a small urgent need so that you can begin the conversation that brings you the larger, more lucrative work.

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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part II: The Parity Product

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Many years ago when I was preparing Writing Copy for Dummies for publication, I got into a bit of a disagreement with an editor over the issue of the “unique selling proposition.” I had written about what to do when you don’t have one. The editor, a 3rd party expert hired by the publisher to review my content, insisted there HAD to be one — you just had to work hard enough to find it. I held my ground: you can do all the handstands and back flips you like, but there are times when you have nothing distinct to offer.

Cue spooky Twilight Zone music: “Imagine a world in which your products are indistinguishable from your competitors’ products. A world, if you will, of parity.”

Brrr. Scary. But I still hold my ground. Sure, you can make stuff up — many marketers do — but buyers will always see the truth and then the only people we’re fooling are ourselves.

Painful as it is, it’s better to face the truth. But when you do, what can you do? What do you do when your product or service is pretty much the same as the competition?

You give up, collapse into a fetal ball, and weep yourself insensate.

Just kidding.

Here’s what you do. Focus on an aspect of your product or service that may not be distinctive, but has a great deal of meaning or value to your buyer. (Hint: a little research may be warranted here.) Once you’ve found it, “own” it. By owning it, I mean committing yourself to articulating or demonstrating that value more clearly and consistently than the competition. In that way, your proposition may not be unique, but it can be uniquely associated with your brand.

Case in point: I’ve been really impressed with Farmers Insurance’s “Know the Gaps” campaign. They’re focusing on a common anxiety many insurance buyers have: do I have enough coverage? Do I have the right coverage? Is there something missing, a gap, that could open up and bite me in the unwitting ass some time in the future?

Now, we all know that pretty much any insurer or insurance broker can help you figure out the right amount of coverage — they all do it. But it doesn’t matter. By going public with the issue, by giving it a name, Farmers now owns this whole “know the gaps” value proposition, giving Farmers distinction in a commodity marketplace. Today, Farmers is the insurance provider who helps you plug the gaps.

When you’re faced with parity, fight back with clarity. Find the issue that matters most to your buyers and shout it from the mountain tops so that it becomes indelibly associated with you.

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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part I: The “Boring” Product

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I got a call out of the blue (a LinkedIn message, actually — yet another reason LinkedIn is my favorite social media platform for business) from Heike Young, the co-host of Salesforce’s Marketing Cloudcast. She’s invited me to participate (podcast coming soon) and in the meantime, our conversations have got me thinking about marketing.

But not just any marketing. Tough marketing. Marketing the bitch-ugly stuff. The stuff they never tell you about in marketing school. My kind of marketing!

There are lots of ways marketing can be tough, and I plan to write about them in subsequent posts. For this first one, I want to focus on boredom. The dull product. The unsexy service. The thing you think no one could possibly be interested in.

So what do you do with “boring” products?

First step, understand that the problem isn’t the product, it’s you. It’s not that the product is boring, per se, but that you’re bored with the product.

Solution: Understand that for a particular set of people out there, your “boring” product is not boring at all, but essential in some way. Perhaps it’ll never be exciting, but it may be important. As a marketer, your job is to identify who these people are–and then get inside their shoes. Or heads. Doesn’t matter. You have to get inside them and then see the product from their perspective.

Here’s a B2C example: trash bags. Specifically, the thickness of trash bags. Booorrrring. Right? But I’ll tell you this–you’ll save a dime and buy discount trash bags until that one day (and this one day will come, I promise you) when that thin, cheap-ass trash bag breaks apart under your hands. I can’t give you the date and time, but I can guarantee it’ll be when you’re late for a very important meeting and you’re dressed in your best duds.

Second promise: you’ll never buy a discount trash bag again. That’s why Glad ran a successful (and oh so boring) ad campaign that featured burst bags. Because if you’ve ever suffered one, suddenly bag thickness becomes a very interesting topic. “Come to me baby. Whisper sweet gauge figures in my ear. Oooohhh.”

What about B2B? Yup, there are even more opportunities for boring products here. Here’s one I learned about from experience: drill bits. The kind of drill bits oil rig operators use to extract…oil. Most of us lay people don’t know (and don’t care about) this, but there are actually many different kinds of bits designed for many different kinds of geologies and ground conditions.

Are you yawning yet?

But consider this: every day of delay on an oil rig could mean millions of dollars in lost revenues. This is not an exaggeration. Millions. Of dollars.

Once you put that drill bit in context, it’s not so boring at all, is it?

When you’re bored by a product, you’re thinking of it from the wrong point of view–your own. Think of the right people and the right context–think of what the products means in their world–and suddenly, most “boring” products can be pretty exciting things to market.

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Content marketing is hard — thank goodness

In a recent CMI newsletter, Joe Pulizzi challenged marketers to the “content test”: Take your best piece of content, strip it of branding, and compare it with your competitors’ best work. Now step back and take a look. Is your content truly distinct? Would anyone, without the brand clues, recognize it as yours?

Joe goes even further: “What if your content marketing was removed from the planet entirely? Would anyone miss it?”

If you’re not breaking into a sweat, you should be.

Content Marketing World is just two months away, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m looking forward to it. (In fact, I’m leading two sessions there.) I can anticipate, however, that many speakers and exhibitors will be promoting tools, techniques and services that promise to make content marketing easy. Just use this application, apply this methodology, follow this model and–whammo!–instant content marketing. Easy.

Now, I’m all for making marketing easier, given our limited time, limited budgets, and limitless (it seems) obligations. But I think all of us should reject “easy” content.

Easy content is exactly the kind of content that fails the Pulizzi Test. Easy content is forgettable content. Easy content is noise. Easy content fails.

Easy content is what you should gleefully watch your competitors make.

Your content should be hard. It’ll be hard because you’ll take pains to find out what your customers really want and need to see, hear, learn, feel and experience.

It’ll be hard because it’ll reflect deep thought in its conception, and detailed effort in its execution.

It’ll be hard because it’ll reject conventional wisdom, defy common expectations, and reach for surprising insights or ideas.

It’ll be hard because it won’t be cheap–it’ll consume the budget and resources it needs to be truly excellent.

It’ll be hard because, frankly, if it really stands out from the pack, many of the people in your own organization won’t like it. Many of them will be scared.

But you’ll face all these obstacles with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Why? Because by doing the hard stuff your competitors don’t have the will for, you’ll gain the competitive edge. Rise above the noise. And gain the returns your competitors just can’t easily grab.

In any content test you choose, there is no contest: hard beats easy every time.

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What vinyl should mean to content marketers
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Don't you wish you could spin this one for your friends?

The Onion’s A.V. Club recently ran a snarky little article, Vinyl is just a fad, record executives say, to belittle music industry insiders who fail to appreciate vinyl’s surprising resurgence in sales. Now, I love records, and spend probably too much time and money adding more vinyl to the thousands of lps that already line my walls. But, c’mon everybody, of course vinyl is a fad. Recent sales notwithstanding, is it really possible to imagine vinyl as a sustained medium for distributing music? We all know that in a few years, this vinyl resurgence will be one of the things people in decades to come will associate with the whacky 2010’s, like yoga pants or frozen yogurt franchises.

So I’m NOT suggesting that content marketers should add vinyl albums to their content mix. (Although the Rick Springield 45 was a nice speaker gift at Content Marketing World 2012.) But I do recommend that content marketers reflect on what this vinyl resurgence means: There’s a growing, unmet hunger for the tangible, the touchable, the physical in lives that have become waaaaaaaay too digital.

What might this content look like? Well, at Content Marketing World 2014, one of the exhibitors packaged their content ideas into a neat little stitched booklet about the size of a passport; it’s attractive look and feel made it one of the few swag items I carried home with me. I love the way Jordan’s Furniture turns their showrooms into family destinations complete with movie theaters, waltzing waters, trapeze swings and more. One of my own clients, Viessmann USA, runs hands-on classrooms that give heating/plumbing contractors direct experience serving and maintaining some of the world’s most sophisticated boilers.

These content producers operate in very different industries with different markets and purposes in mind. Yet each has found a way to use physical experience as an important part of the way they communicate value. How can you make the 3D world another dimension of your marketing?



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One of Ann Handley’s top tips for creating a writing culture? Training!

Ann says training is a top ten priority.

As you might imagine, I’m tickled pink by Ann Handley’s recent article, 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Writing; there, at the climax of the list, at big number ten, is the concluding tip: Invest in Training.

You know I’m all about training in-house teams in marketing writing and content creation. And I’ve had the privilege of participating in MarketProfs writing bootcamps. But if you’re seriously considering writing training for your own organization, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Customized curriculum: The cliche is true–one size does not fit all. You should ask for, and get, a curriculum tailored to your objectives; your team should be trained in the skills urgently relevant to your company.
  • Hands-on exercises: Passively enduring a PowerPoint presentation is torture, not training. Real learning begins by doing real work. Live. In practice. In the moment. Demand writing exercises from your trainer, not a dog and pony show.
  • One-on-one attention and feedback: The true magic lies here, in the personalized feedback a skilled writing teacher can give to teams, small groups and, best of all, to each participating individual.

If you agree with me, you’ll understand that webinars and most other forms of digital “learning” have limited value; they can point to good ideas, but only direct engagement can actually inculcate effective writing skills. Live, hands-on training equals real learning.

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