Complexity Simplified: A Better Way to Curate Content

complex brain

I’ve had two great conversations with two great marketers in the past week: Ed Thomas of Process Unity, and Jim Burns of Avitage.

I recently moved to Ayer, Massachusetts, and as it turns out, Ed lives just around the corner from me. We met last Thursday for burgers and wine, and in our second glass we made a mutual confession: “strategy” makes our eyes glaze over. When someone takes the stage to talk “strategy,” nine times out of ten, they’re making a grandiose claim for whatever their own S.O.P. happens to be. Worse, that grandiose strategy often has little relation to practical marketing realities. What do we really need? Stuff that works.

By sheer coincidence, I had a call scheduled with Jim the following morning. A casual introductory call turned into a two-hour plus deep discussion about the impact of digital technologies on publishing and marketing. Understand, Jim was a digital guy back when being “digital” meant being able to print a banner of your name (over the course of two hours) with ASCII characters from a dot-matrix printer connected, by a phone receiver in a modem cradle, to a distant mainframe. In other words, back when today’s lords of technology weren’t even gleams in their fathers’ eyes.

Many people say we should “think like a publisher,” but Jim is one of the few who has translated the aphorism into an effective working principle: thinking like a publisher means collecting source material from which you can create MANY relevant content pieces on the fly. Multiplicity leads to efficiency which leads to profitability. In other words, we can’t just think like publishers, we have to think like Henry Ford or Eli Whitney.

In Jim’s mind, the real problem isn’t “strategy” per se, it’s the gap between the overall strategic objective and the marketing tactics intended to fulfill it. The missing piece is PROCESS, an intelligent, digitally enabled way to collect and retrieve valuable source material (video, copy, images) that can be quickly retrieved and repurposed into an almost unlimited variety of relevant content outputs.

I don’t want to steal Jim’s thunder. You can hear it and feel it here in his post, Complexity Simplified  — The B2B Selling Dilemma. In it, Jim takes a deep dive into his vision: why we need better a better way to operationalize our strategies, the consequences of failing to do so, and the core things we need to change before we get there. Please read, learn, share and comment.

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Video: Fundamentals of copywriting, handling the difficult stuff

The good people of Webcertain.TV, all the way from York, England found me in Boston, Massachusetts. We didn’t refight the revolution; instead, we talked about the fundamentals of copywriting, and practical tactics for marketing boring, complex and/or undifferentiated products.

Learn about the advantages of danger, the power of “plumber’s magnets,” and why nothing is ever really “boring.”


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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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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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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
BF Goodrich 1966 Sales Meeting album

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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I’m not a freelance blogger and, in fact, freelance blogging is one of the few copywriting assignments I don’t provide for clients. (Feel free to contact me for direct, web, email, collateral, ebooks, white papers, articles, case studies, etc.) But my friend and colleague, Margie Dana, DOES provide blogging services. And she has a useful blog post, How to Work with Your Freelance Blogger, full of useful, practical advice.

If you choose to work with a freelancer, I can highly recommend Margie: she’s a top pro with tons of bylines to her credit, plus she is completely unpretentious and easy to work with.

If you choose to write your blogs in-house, I can help make your colleagues more effective writers and content creators.

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Does B2B vs. B2C really matter?

"Is this a high-consideration purchase? Or not?"

I found inspiration today from a Harvard Business Review guest blog post arguing that — surprise! — the “modern marketer” must be a skilled analytics person, like an engineer or architect. (Pity the poor modern marketer — this requirement would be, of course, in addition to being social, customer-centric, a storyteller and a content creator. No wonder modern life is so stressful.)

I thought to myself, well, maybe, sure; in some contexts, the marketer as analytics-driven engineer makes sense, especially in the world of mobile marketing to consumers in which its absolutely essential to design automated marketing systems that can respond effectively to behavioral triggers, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Me, I don’t do the kind of marketing that’s so heavily dependent on real-time whatever. And that brings me to the point of this post. For years now, when people asked what kind of copywriting I did, I’d say B2B, with a smattering of B2C in “complex” areas, like insurance, higher education or financial services — in other words, where the ability to translate complex information into compelling pitches really matters.

Now that’s still true, but I think I’ve found a better way of articulating that market segment by way of Adele Revella of the Buyer Persona Institute. In her presentation at CMW last September, she used a phrase that really caught my ear: “high-consideration.” Responding to an audience question regarding the value of doing interviews that dug into the purchasing decision, Adele said they were not possible in “low-consideration” contexts (like buying a bag of chips or clicking on a banner link) because the purchaser had put little thought, or consideration, into the purchase. The investigations become meaningful, very meaningful, when customers put a good deal of thought into what they have to buy.

Notice the crucial distinction: it’s not whether it’s a consumer or business purchase, it’s whether the purchase involves a significant amount of conscious thought.

Bingo! Buying a soda for personal consumption or a box of pens for the office is low-consideration. But buying an insurance plan for your personal estate or a CRM service for your office is high-consideration.

Back to the original inspiration for this story: what do modern marketers need to know? For me, the distinctive skill sets are no longer (if they ever really were) between those for B2C vs. B2B, but for low-consideration vs. high-consideration. If your business is in the former category, then you’ll need more background in awareness advertising, behavioral triggers, POS set-ups, etc. But if your business is in high-consideration turf, as mine is, you’re going to find things like content marketing and lead nurturance much more relevant.

At least, that’s what I think about thinking. I think…

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