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Ann Handley

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S: Welcome to Marketing Speak episode #97. I’m your host Stephan Spencer, and I am so excited to have Ann Handley joining us today. Ann is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. She’s also a co-author of Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business. She’s also the chief content officer of MarketingProfs, and she is an amazing writer and marketer. She’s gonna help you become amazing at both, too. So stay tuned. Ann, it’s great to have you on the show.

A: I am so happy that we finally made this happen.

S: Me too. I’m excited.

A: I’ve been bugging you for so long to get on this show.

S: Wait a second. Okay, so let’s talk about writing and marketing because you kind of know a few things about that.

A: I feel like we should start just talking about our random run-in a few weeks ago because…

S: It’s pretty random.

A: It is really random.

S: Yeah. I was there for – this was Portland, which I have only been to twice in my whole life. World Domination Summit was taking place, and I was attending. You were there for something completely different, and this was not at the convention center or anything like that. This was in a juice bar.

A: Yes, it was indeed. It was actually my very first time in Portland – the one in Oregon, not the one in Maine – because I am a Maine person. I feel like I had to point that out.

S: Okay. I thought there was only one Portland.

A: No, there’s two. Anyway, yeah, I was standing in the juice bar with my daughter. I was in town – as I said, the first time ever in Portland, Oregon. I was in town for the Digital Summit Portland, an event across town essentially. Yeah, all of a sudden, we were standing in this juice bar, and I heard this voice go, “Ann?” I was like, “What?” I mean, being in a juice bar in Portland, Oregon, where I think that I don’t know very many people at all, and it turned out to be you. That was such a nice surprise.

S: That was. It was a sign from the universe that we needed to finally do this podcast after…

A: Exactly.

S: I think I’ve been chasing you for a year, maybe more.

A: Yeah, definitely. Because you can’t ignore the juice bar gods. I was like, “Alright, I’m all in. I don’t know how you manufactured this, but let’s do it.”

S: Okay.

A: Just kind of freaked out.

S: Yeah, that was kind of freaky. Actually, I was stalking you for a while, and I figured, okay, we gotta escalate this.

A: Right. You had Find My Friends on my phone, and you knew exactly where I was at that moment.

S: Yeah.

A: Let’s go get a green juice. No, now! Now!

S: I had to book the Portland trip because you were gonna be there.

A: It’s a good thing that Chris did the World Domination Summit that same week. That was really convenient.

S: It was. Yeah. Let’s talk about marketing, and let’s do stuff that’s gonna blow people’s minds. Let’s find some amazing opportunities that everybody’s missing or most people are missing. What would be some of your favorite nuggets from Everybody Writes, which is a fantastic book, by the way. It’s on my reading list. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but it made the cut. Let’s talk about that.

A: Sure. Everybody Writes is my – as I mentioned to you before we started recording here – I’m really proud of this book because I think it represents a lot of what I believe about writing and about marketing, which are truly the two things that I care about the most, aside from all the other things in your life that you care about, like your family and your friends and your pets and so on. It truly represents the perfect mashup of my two worlds, as somebody who has one foot in the love of writing, the love of everything literary – I have an English degree – and then also my love of everything marketing. We are at this point in marketing – and I’m sure a lot of your listeners know this. You certainly know this – when we need to think about creating better content to stand out, and so my book, Everybody Writes, was really my effort to tell marketers, “Writing matters. Your voice matters.” Even in our world of podcasts like this one and video and Snapchat and Facebook Live – even in that world, we still live in a text-based world. I really want marketers – I want businesses everywhere to think about the words that they’re using because I do believe that very often, it’s the first line of defense. Your visitors will come to your website. What do they read? What are they getting from just the words alone that you’re using there?

S: Yeah, that’s where you persuade or not, and yet people are dumbing down writing these days because they think the folks are only interested in kind of a Twinkie diet, when they’re online.

A: Yeah.

S: They’re not going to really partake in something that’s powerful literary prose. They’re going to just scan stuff and make instant decisions and things. We’re being taught to write for the dumbed down audience, the ADD audience, the people who you’re gonna lose in a nanosecond if you don’t grab them with click-bait headlines and keep them there with animated GIFs and ridiculous prose that is essentially just sentence fragments.

A: Yeah.

S: Then “You wouldn’t believe what happened next…” sort of stuff.

A: Yeah, exactly. What I talk about in Everybody Writes isn’t that I feel like we all need to be Hemingway or we all need to be Shakespeare or insert your literary hero here. No, that’s not what I’m saying. I think that bar is ridiculously high, but I think that we can all be good writers. That’s why the subtitle of the book is “Your go-to guide to creating ridiculously good content” because I think we are all capable of being good writers, of being good communicators. Essentially what that means is that you are communicating with your audience in mind – that you do have clarity in what you’re communicating. You have brevity sometimes. I don’t think that short is bad. I think short is necessary quite often, but at the same time, I don’t think that long form is dead either. That whole goldfish stat that we hear all the time, that you only have 8 seconds or that our attention span is less than a goldfish’s. Have you heard that stat quoted?

S: Yeah, of course.

A: That may be true in some scenarios, but at the same time, we will give attention to things that we care about. We’ll give attention to things that have value for us. That’s why I love Twitter. I love Instagram. Short-form content platforms. But at the same time, I love The New Yorker, because I love the longform writing of The New Yorker. They are my muse in a lot of ways in how I approach my content, because they value words so much. I don’t think that the notion of saying that writing matters means that you have to be Hemingway or you have to be this amazing writer. I think that will turn people off more than anything else, so I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is choose the words that you use carefully and know some basic rules, which is exactly why I wrote the book because I wanted to give people some easy and accessible guidelines to: How do you actually write better? How do you actually create content that will break through, that matters?

S: What are some of these basic rules?

A: I teed that up so well, didn’t I? The first thing, as I talk about in the book, is just to regard publishing as a privilege. Really think about your communication with your audience first as a privilege, so that means automatically: not spamming them, not just pushing out as much content as you can, but really thinking about the quality of what you’re talking about – what you’re saying. I think right there, just thinking of publishing as a privilege, of having respect for your audience – number one – and really knowing who they are. I think you can’t really write without knowing who you’re talking to, so really think about your audience at a deeper level. Think about audience personas, as we say in the marketing world, but talk to them. Get a sense of who they are. What language do they use? What are the best ways to communicate with them and ways that will resonate? Just really thinking about things from an audience-centric point of view, from a publishing point of view, and not just about selling more stuff and pushing more content out there.

S: Okay, so how do you develop a persona that works? There are lots of different ways of doing it. We could Google online to see some tip sheets and articles and persona development, but what’s your process?

A: My process – it’s kind of stupid simple. I mean, when I’m thinking about who I’m creating a piece of content for, I’m thinking about one person. I think about one person that I want to help. Depending on the nature of a piece, sometimes it’s me – it’s a younger Ann. Sometimes it’s me 20 years ago or 15 years ago or 10 years ago. Sometimes, if I’m teaching something that I’ve grasped and I wanna share with people, I’ll write to that person, which sounds a little crazy but I think I’m answering questions, in other words, for people, who are maybe not as far along on their journey as a marketer, as a writer, or whatever the topic may be. But I also do a lot of social listening. I do a lot of conversations with my readers of marketingprofs.com. I spend a lot of time just shutting up frankly and just listening – just getting a sense of “What are people’s issues? What are they talking about? What engages them? What ignites them and what doesn’t?”

S: Are you using certain tools for that? Or are you just searching on Google or Twitter search? What are you doing?

A: I’m just participating in the conversation really on Twitter. I spend a lot of time on Twitter just sort of listening. I don’t really use any special tools for that. I think, for me, the best thing that I can do is just stay as close to my audience as possible. Email is actually another great place to mine for: Who are your customers? Who is the persona that you’re creating content for? Who are these people? I get a lot of feedback just on a daily basis. I actually bother to read it, and very often, I’ll respond to it as well because I wanna know what’s on people’s minds. I wanna know what ignites them. What are they thinking about? Reading comments. There’s a million ways to find out what people are thinking about and what’s on their minds and really what resonates with them, what they care about.

S: Cool. You have a persona that you developed for a particular purpose. You’ve identified one person. Have you given that person a name? Have you identified their hobbies, psychographics, not just demographics, but how they think? What’s a comprehensive persona in your mind? Is it a page write-up about how much money they make and what they do on the weekends and stuff? Or does it include visuals? What’s the end product look like?

A: How deep does it go?

S: Yeah.

A: I guess, it depends on what product we’re talking about, from my point of view. If I’m thinking about my personal blog at annhandley.com, I usually have a particular person in mind, and funny enough, it’s my next-door neighbor. She owns a small business, and she is also somebody who struggles with creating content on a consistent basis. She liked my book, and she has it sort of dog-eared. But at the same time, she doesn’t necessarily look at it every day. When I think about who am I writing for on that site, I think about her. In that way, it’s just sort of in my head. On the MarketingProfs side of things, we have a pretty robust number of personas built out for our various products, who are from various companies of all shapes and sizes. That is a little bit more of a structured approach. For me, I go back and forth between the two. On the one hand, we’ve got the structured approach for MarketingProfs, and on the other hand, it’s sort of just my notion of who I’m writing for at Ann Handley that lives in my head. Even when I wrote Everybody Writes – even though I wrote it to all marketers, I sort of always had this sense of the marketer that I’ve been editing for – I mean, I’ve been an editor for 25 years first at ClickZ, and now at MarketingProfs, so I have a really good sense of the strengths and the weaknesses of marketers. When I was writing Everybody Writes, I wrote to that marketer, who I feel like had a need for some guidelines. I thought of them as like bumpers – you know those bumpers they put in a bowling lane, if you’re playing with kids, so they don’t roll gutter balls every time. That’s how I tried to write the book, and I also wrote it for somebody who maybe hadn’t taken a writing course, since college or since high school, and really needed an understanding of how do we communicate in this new world of social media and content marketing. It wasn’t a particular person per se. It was an amalgam of all these people that I feel that I’ve been editing for, as I said, a really long time and having a real sense of their strengths and also of their weaknesses.

S: Are there tools that you suggest every writer incorporates into their reference shelf, like the Elements of Style book? Anything like that?

A: Yeah. E.B. White who is the co-author of Elements of Style. He is probably my hero. It’s so funny that you just brought that up. I just learned, by the way, that his house in Maine – he had a 17-acre farm in Maine. He died in 1985. It’s been sold since then, but it’s now on the market again. It’s on the market for $3.7 million. I’m like, “Wow! How many books do you have to sell in order to be able to afford something like that?” because man, that would be like my dream house.

S: Yeah.

A: Yeah.

S: I think he sold many, many millions of that book.

A: Yeah. I know. I would love to buy that house. Anyway, so your question was tools. Yeah, I mean, I think Elements of Style is a fantastic reference guide, but I’ll tell you, in terms of where I think – some sort of guides that I think some modern writers like us could really use is – an online editing tool, I think, can be incredibly useful, so something like a Hemingway App. Or Grammarly is another one. I kind of like Hemingway App because I like the interface a little bit better, but if you’ve never used either of those tools, essentially what you can do is you can – after you’ve written anything, a blog post or the show notes to a podcast like this one, you can just pop it into their tool, and it’ll give you instant feedback. “The sentences are too long or this is hard to understand. You’re using passive voice here. You used too many adjectives here.” Anything like that. So it gives you a good first pass before you publish. I’m a big believer in running everything that I publish through an editor, but there’s a lot of smaller businesses and sole proprietors who maybe can’t afford that as part of their process. In those situations, I think that even using a tool like Grammarly or Hemingway App as a first pass can be enormously helpful.

S: Yeah. Great advice. Also, there’s a fantastic tool from Search Metrics in their Content Suite called the Content Editor. It is more for SEO than anything else, but it does check reading level, word counts, keyword usage, and things like that. That’s a great tool and fully interactive, so you can write inside of that tool. It will update in real time all the stats and all the keywords that you’re using or not using. It’s all based on you – you go into the Topic Explorer in Search Metrics first. Select the topics that you want to write about or target for SEO, and then all the keywords inside of those topics are listed: the essential ones, the recommended nice-to-have ones, and so forth in different groups. Then it shows green check marks next to each keyword once you’ve incorporated it into your piece. You can also do the Hemingway App or whatever beforehand and then copy and paste into the Content Editor. It will give you all those stats as well. It’s really quite cool.

A: Fantastic.

S: Yeah. Now, let’s say that you’re working at a company, and a lot of the guidelines and rules are not really explicit. They’re not written out. They’re not specified or even decided on. It’s just like, “Well, that was a little too edgy. Go ahead and rewrite that. That doesn’t really fit with our voice.” Do you recommend that companies at the marketing department comes up with a style guide or anything to help make things clear and keep everybody on the same page without a whole lot of rewriting?

A: Yeah. I absolutely do believe in style guides. Sometimes I feel like that word “style guide” can turn people off, because it sounds like not very fun, doesn’t it? It sounds sort of weighty, and – I don’t know – just not that interesting. But I think actually a style guide can be enormously useful, and especially if you publish one in a way that’s incredibly accessible. One of my favorite style guides is produced by a company called Uberflip. Do you know Uberflip?

S: I don’t.

A: Uberflip is a content publishing platform located in Toronto. They published a style guide online called The Uberflip Style Guide, and it’s at styleguide.uberflip.com. One of the things that I really like about it – actually, there was a lot of things I liked about it. But first of all, I love the fact that it’s so accessible. It’s not a book. It’s not a binder. It’s not sitting on a shelf somewhere just getting covered in dust. Instead they put it online, in a way, to make it really accessible to everybody in the company, and also freelancers who are creating content on behalf of the company. I love that, but I also love the way that on the flipside, it kind of makes them accountable to their audience because they’re saying publicly, “Here’s how we communicate with our audience. Here’s what we’re all about.” I think it’s a great model for any company, who’s thinking about putting up a style guide to avoid those situations like you talked about and kind of nail down a little bit about voice, which reminds me that – I think a lot of companies don’t even think about voice when they think about their writing, when they think about what they’re producing, so I think it’s also just a good model to start those conversations internally. “What is our voice? How should we be presenting? Are we more casual? Are we more uptight?” There’s a million ways that you can think about voice. Just to start that conversation internally – I think that the Uberflip Style Guide is a great example to emulate and to follow or at least check out.

S: Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ll include a link to that in the show notes for this episode. I think you also mentioned before MailChimp’s Style Guide as one that you liked.

A: Yeah, I do like MailChimp’s Style Guide. It’s a lot more comprehensive than Uberflip’s, but yeah, it’s another great example of a style guide that go through things in real detail. One of the things that I like about MailChimp’s Style Guide – and Uberflip does this too, although I think MailChimp really excels at it – is they really delve into the mindset of the customer when they come to your site. For example, the way that they say in their style guide, how they’re communicating on, say, a customer service page, where somebody might be there because they’re frustrated with their product or because they have a question or they have an issue that they’re upset about – is maybe a little different than the way they’re gonna communicate in other parts of the site. I know that sounds like pretty basic, and you think that would be obvious, but I just like the way that they specify, they nail it down, they document it. In that way, I think, it’s very much internalized in how people communicate more broadly at the company as well.

S: Yeah. That’s so true, and that reminds me of another episode on Marketing Speak, where I interviewed Ephraim Olschewski. We talked about climbing the wall of context, getting over to the other side, where your customer, your prospect, your visitor is, and what is the world like for them.

A: Right.

S: If they’re frustrated, if they are out of options, or whatever is going on for them – if you really get their world and that would include in your writing, they’re going to feel so much better. They’re gonna feel understood. They’re gonna feel empathized with. It doesn’t matter if you get them. What matters is if they feel gotten.

A: That’s great. Yeah. I love that. That’s really the essence of empathy, isn’t it? It’s just really trying to understand the mindset, to really crawl inside your customer’s skin, so to speak, and really understand: “Where are they coming from, when they’re on this page or when they’re looking for this piece of information?” That’s a big piece of it too. That’s embedded into the value equation from a writing point of view. If you really wanna provide value to your customers or your prospects, then you really want to make them feel like “We get you. We understand you,” or at least, “We’re trying.”

S: For sure. Now how do you manage a situation, where you have ghostwriters, who are writing – let’s say you have the style guide, and you do a little onboarding training for a new ghostwriter. How do you manage this whole process, whether it’s longform content or short-form social media posts and so forth? I’m betting that a lot of our listeners have ghostwriters or writers that aren’t allowed to associate their name with their writing, whether it’s on the blog or in a resource library on the site or what have you. How do you manage these ghostwriters, most effectively for the best outcome for the company?

A: Again, I think that’s where a style guide can come in handy. As I mentioned, the reason why Uberflip created their style guide was in part because they had a lot of freelancers who were creating content for them. I don’t think it really matters, whether they use their name as a straight-up freelancer or whether it’s a ghostwriting situation. I think the output is the same. I think it’s just as important for everybody to get on the same page. But especially if your name is not going to be on it, I think it’s important, and especially if you are trying to capture the voice, say, of an executive or something like that. I think it’s important. It’s key. Or in social media, where you wouldn’t sign a Twitter post for the most part just in terms of capturing the voice of a brand, so I think that’s where a style guide can really come in handy.

S: Besides the style guide, what are some of the other processes that you would recommend or that you’ve seen worked? Like for example, when I interview Chris Rugh – this was actually on my other show, on The Optimized Geek. We talked about building a virtual team. He has all these virtual assistants all over the world, and he has a blog manager overseeing his team of blog writers. They’re ghostwriters. They write in his voice. There’s a blog manager that oversees this whole process. They take content from his book and repurpose it, rewrite it, re-jig it into something that’s suitable for the blog. Then the blog manager oversees and makes sure that everything looks great and reads great before it gets published and is kind of the conductor of the symphony – to use an analogy.

A: Yeah. He’s an editor, right? Essentially, that’s what he’s doing. He’s hired a managing editor to ensure that consistency. This goes back to what I was saying a minute ago, about using an app like Hemingway or Grammarly for example. I mean, what’s embedded in my recommendation there is that I feel like an editor is really important to do all the things that you were just talking about – to ensure consistency of voice, of point of view. An editor just isn’t about grammar and all that other stuff that we associate with a copy editor. Instead, what it’s really about is – the editor is kind of that person, who represents the audience – is how I think about it. The writer writes whatever he or she is going to write, and then ultimately, it’s up to the editor to sort of be the advocate for the audience, to figure out, “Does this make sense? Is this a way that we’re communicating that’s consistent with our brand or with the person writing it?” What you’re describing there is what I would say, in the MarketingProfs world or in my background, is really a managing editor or a publications editor – that person who is the advocate for the audience, so they have one foot in that world, but also they’re working directly with the content ensuring that it adheres to all those standards. Yeah, absolutely that makes sense. That is why, actually, I always take that step of having an actual person, an editor I’ve worked with for years, who functions as that for me, even though I am publishing under my own name. I think it’s hard as a writer to also play the role of editor. In my world – in my experience, I should say, there are two kinds of people. There are editors, and there are writers. I feel like you’ve gotta have an editor, who is – consistency is part of what they do. They’re looking at things across every platform. They’re thinking about things from an audience point of view, but also figuring out, “Is this something that we want to say as a brand, as a company, or as a person? Then is it going to provide value to the people we’re trying to reach?”

S: Yeah. Do you think every company should have an editor, as well as a writer or writers?”

A: Yeah. I would say absolutely. Although every time I say that, people always say, “But we don’t have money.” I get it. I get the budgeting standpoint, but I’d rather see you create less content and invest in actually having an editor who can up the quality of it, because I think that is the primary role of an editor.

S: How do you gauge the quality of the content? “This meets a certain bar or standard or threshold, and this doesn’t.” How do you do this objectively?

A: To me, it’s, “Does this have value for the people we’re trying to reach or not?” There’s no sort of magic metric out there that you can say, “This is quality content” or “This isn’t.” I mean, quality is what has value for the audience, so that to me, goes back to the need for knowing your audience, really having a sense of who they are and what their pain points are, and how you fit into their world, and the context for the conversation that you’re having with them. Then number two, are you actually providing value to them? Or is it just – they’re sort of fluff? I’m a big fan – and if you’ve heard me speak, you know this – of thinking about anything that you produce as kind of training – of thinking about your marketing as kind of training for your audience. Are you actually advancing their knowledge? Are you helping them in any way? Are you making them buffer in any sense? If you’re making them stronger – if you’re thinking about, “Is this actually helping a customer? Is it giving them training in one particular area?” I think those are the questions that you need to ask, and that is really the only metric that makes sense in terms of quality.

S: Yeah. Some marketers would argue that educational marketing is great, and the very best format for that is video. Writing some longform content is not nearly as effective as educating them through a video series or maybe a webinar. How would you respond to that?

A: I would say, yeah. I mean, sure, but I also don’t live in a binary world, where I think it’s either-or.

S: Sure.

A: I don’t live in a world, where I feel that if you agree that video is a great way to teach, then that means that writing is basically like a dinosaur. I don’t think that’s true at all. I do love video. I think video is a fantastic platform. I often share the example of Blue Bottle Coffee, coffee shop based out in Oakland, California. It’s just exploding everywhere in the US right now. They’ve got a couple of international outlets as well. They have a fantastic video program on Skillshare. It’s an hour-long class on how to brew a perfect cup of coffee or an amazing cup of coffee, something like that. It’s a fantastic vessel, and I know because I took the class. It upped my level of knowledge in coffee a whole lot. It’s essentially training for people who are interested in upping their coffee game.

S: That’s awesome.

A: It is. It’s a great example, I think, when content marketing works really, really well. But on the flipside, does that mean that writing has no value? No. There are certain situations that writing is preferable. There are certain situations where video is preferable. I don’t see it as an either-or scenario by any stretch.

S: Yeah. Makes sense. The Skillshare training from Blue Bottle Coffee – is that free for anyone or do you pay for it?

A: I believe it’s free for anyone. Skillshare is an online learning platform. I think you can access any of their courses for $10 a month or something like that. I’m a member, so I’m not sure if that is a free class. I’m thinking that it is. I’m not sure.

S: In any case, I’ll put a link to that in the show notes for our listeners. What do you think about repurposing or repackaging content that might be in one format, and it seems to have legs? It’s being talked about, buzzed about, and you want to further leverage it. Let’s say it’s that Blue Bottle Coffee example. What would be some of the ways that you’d see repurposing that in different formats? Maybe it’s infographics. Maybe it’s a listicle type of article or maybe a SlideShare deck or who knows?

A: Yeah. It could be a million things. You could chop that thing up and give a bunch of 15-second Instagram posts. It’s limitless. Because if you think about what Blue Bottle did in that situation – they produced an hour-long class that has really deep value for the people that they’re trying to reach, which are basically coffee nerds, coffee geeks, people who are willing to think about coffee at another level. That is their customer. Those are the people they’re trying to reach, and so the fact that they produced this class – it’s a great class. It’s got great production value. There’s a million ways that I think they could then repurpose that in all the ways that you just described. They could also just flat out transcribe it and put it on their blog. They can put it out in an eBook. There’s a thousand ways that I think you can think about leveraging a piece of content like that, which I guess is really the real thing that we’re talking about here – is the fact that quality content, something like that – that Blue Bottle class – that takes time. That takes effort. It takes planning. It’s not something that you’re gonna do overnight. Yes, absolutely. Don’t just do a one-and-done. Don’t just let that sit there. Think about all the different ways that you can reimagine it in various assets and various ways because it should never just be one-and-done. You never just wanna create something that’s awesome, and that’s it, right? You always wanna be extending its value, extending its life.

S: Yeah. Of course. What do you recommend folks do in terms of creating video-based content? Maybe it’s some sort of educational marketing, training, or what have you. Should everybody be using Skillshare? Should they use LearnDash or what sort of tool or service would you recommend for folks? “Seems like a cool idea, but…”

A: Skillshare is a platform essentially, so that’s a situation where Skillshare has partnered with various brands to produce these classes. For example, MailChimp has a three-part series on there about email. There’s a bunch of different brands that Skillshare has partnered with, so it’s not necessarily open to everybody but I think the bigger story there is that finding a way to tell your story. If you do wanna do video through something like that, I think it’s great. Basically what they’re doing is they’re syndicating their knowledge through Skillshare, in that scenario, so it’s different than, say, putting something on Vimeo, which is like a – you would shoot it yourself, and you can put it up on Vimeo. I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not really much of a – I don’t think video platforms are really my expertise, but do I think it’s a great way to give your brand a pulse? Do I think video is? Yeah, absolutely. I would say, if you are all inclined to think about video, sure. Why not? Absolutely do it, but I’m not a person who can recommend one platform over another.

S: Okay. Just curious. I’ve had some recent experience with Thinkific. I think that platform is really cool. It’s one of those hosted third-party platforms, and I was just on a webinar for them doing a training on SEO for the Thinkific platform.

A: Cool.

S: I like having a platform that isn’t just about video. Wistia is great, and Vimeo’s great. But something like Thinkific or Skillshare has a learning management system to it, where it will track your progress as a student. It will award you badges for completing things. Maybe even – you could certify people after they take a long test, after they’ve taken your training. There’s capability in there to keep them on track, keep them motivated, keep them moving through the training program. If all you have are Vimeo or Wistia videos, there’s really no accountability there for the student.

A: Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll have to check that out. What are some other ones that you would recommend? I’m just curious.

S: Yeah. My membership site is running Memberium, and that has very rudimentary capabilities for doing video-based training, online courses. I have six online courses, so I’m moving to using LearnDash, which integrates with Memberium. That’s all within a WordPress-based website, so if you’re WordPress-based and you wanna host it yourself, that’s a great platform. It’s LearnDash with Memberium and WordPress. If you want just easy-peasy, just have it hosted somewhere else, have a software as a service manage everything, then Thinkific is a great platform.

A: There you go. Awesome.

S: Yeah. Let’s say that you have a transcript of a long video. Let’s say it’s a 20-minute video or something. Transcripts are not really that engaging. I don’t like reading transcripts. That’s personal though. Maybe you found that to be not the case for a lot of readers that don’t happily read a transcript. If it is the case though that transcripts are kind of boring and not really great reading, how do you turn that into something that’s really engaging and compelling longform content?

A: I think there’s a lot of ways that you can use a transcript. I mean, first of all, it’s great for SEO just to have the transcript below a video or something like that. I’m actually one of those weird people, that I actually do prefer reading a transcript than watching a video. I get super impatient when I’m sitting at my computer watching a video, but that probably is more about me, than anything else. I appreciate the way that I can sort of skip through a transcript and just get to the parts of the information that I’m looking for. I did that actually this morning. I was on ProBlogger’s site. You know Darren Rowse?

S: Yeah.

A: I was on his site, and I noticed that he had a recording from something that he did a couple of years ago. I went right to the transcript. I didn’t even watch the recording because that’s just the way that I process information. Like I said, I get a little bit bored when I’m trying to go through a video. It’s like I just get impatient.

S: I think there are different types of learners. There’s kinesthetic, there’s visual, there’s auditory. For an auditory learner, they might get impatient with a slow-moving video, and what they’ll do is they’ll just put it at double speed. It will adjust the pitch, so it doesn’t sound like Mickey Mouse. You can listen to podcasts that way. I’m sure there are some listeners, who are listening right now to our episode at 2x speed or even 2.5x speed.

A: Right. The other thing for me though is that I think it’s just about how I learn. I need to be able to read it, and so for me, that’s just, again, as you pointed out – we all have different ways of learning. For me, that’s just more valuable for me, but I think what you can do with a transcript is, rather than just publishing it wholesale, you can get (going back to an editor for a second) an editor to chop it up into more manageable sections, run it as a 5 or 10-part series or whatever it is. Have a writer reshape it into something interesting and have an editor publish it in that way. That kind of makes sense to me.

S: That reminds me of a time – ages ago – that I turned some thought leaders’ summits – MarketingProfs had done this – into executive summaries, which were long articles, maybe a couple of thousand words, but then we also had the transcript, which was huge – was a 90-minute teleseminar type of thing. We had eight or nine different speakers or participants weighing in on different topics. The transcript was of some value, and the executive summary I think was of even more value because it crystallized some of the key concepts and really brought those to the forefront.

A: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. I totally have forgotten about that. Yeah, I think the other thing that’s interesting, just as I’m thinking about this, is just – I was amazed at the number of people, we both know, who don’t actually – when they’re creating content, when they’re writing a blog post, say, they don’t actually start with a cursor and a Word doc or a text on their laptop, instead they actually dictate it. I think people, who do that – essentially they write by speaking, and they do it for a couple of reasons. One, it makes their text a little bit more conversational, when they ultimately publish it. Then number two, it’s just a great way – for example, if you’re driving in your car and you have a thought, you can dictate a blog post, then use a tool like Rev.com, which is like a crowdsourced transcription and translation service, but you can use it for transcription. Or use something like Speechpad or SpeechWrite. Any of those will transcribe your audio for you. You can then get it as a single doc, and then again edit it, shape it into something that’s a little bit more readable, and publish it that way. There’s a lot of people, who reverse engineer writing in that way, and I think it’s really smart – if you are that kind of person, who can write and who processes that way.

S: I know you said there are two types of people: the editors and the writers. But Bob Allen, who’s a pretty famous writer – he co-authored The One-Minute Millionaire. Cash in a Flash is one of his books. He sold many millions of books. He says there are two types of people. There are writers who speak and speakers who write.

A: Yes.

S: What you are describing is a speaker who writes. That’s me. It’s painful for me to write. In comparison, the words flow when I’m speaking, if I’m up on stage or I’m in conversation with somebody. If it’s dead air I’m speaking to, it’s just a microphone or it’s a recording device, then I get all perfectionistic and I keep restating stuff and whatever. But if I’m in flow in conversation with an audience or a person, it just comes out. That’s great material to use as a starting point for a blog post, articles, even chapters for books.

A: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s perfect. Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, I’m definitely more of a writer who speaks, so for me, I get a lot of ideas out of my email. As I mentioned, one of the ways that I try to get a real beat on who our audience is at MarketingProfs is through email. When I get a question in an email, rather than just sort of dismissing it or just giving a quick answer, I’ll actually spend some time and craft a more in-depth response, in part because that’s good content for me to then repurpose as a blog post. It’s sort of a similar process, but in approaching it from the other end.

S: Alright. I’m a speaker who writes. You’re a writer who speaks. We’re a good match here for doing this podcast interview. What if somebody is looking to outsource to, let’s say, a speaker who writes, like myself? They want to outsource the writing, dictate into a recording device, or record presentations and have that turned into amazing written content. Where would you recommend somebody go to find awesome people, like ghostwriters or editors or both?

A: There’s a number of platforms that you can look at to find ghostwriters. WriterAccess right here in Boston is one company/platform that I’ve done some work with. They’ve got some great folks there. ClearVoice is another one. Depending on your budget and your resources and so on – those are two services that I think are great for checking out. Another one is – it sounds kind of silly but really just start asking around – just start networking. Find a writer or two, who work freelance, who you can build up rapport with. Because whether you use a service like the WriterAccess or ClearVoice or whether you actually work with an individual, who you find through a network or something like that, I think that the way to really get the most out of that relationship is to cultivate that relationship. Don’t just bounce around – use various writers because you want to really make sure that that person is understanding your voice, is really understanding your point of view. It just makes the whole process a lot easier and also, I think, ultimately benefits the content that you’re producing, and benefits your audience as well. If you want to go outside and find a ghostwriter – you’re just completely allergic to this whole process, then I think that that would be the way to go. Before you get to there though, I guess, I would also just say, like you were just saying – if you give a speech, if you put together a presentation that you give internally or externally – if you have a thought while you’re in the car, dictate it and use some of those transcription tools that I mentioned like rev.com or Speechpad or SpeakWrite. Use something like that to capture your own thoughts, your own words, and then maybe hand that off at that point to another writer or to an editor, somebody who can help you shape it into something. I feel like there is such benefit to just recording your own thoughts, of really taking ownership of your own content, of putting it out there. It trains you to think about things at a deeper level, which I think benefits you, your business, the products and services. It makes you think about your audience/customers first. There’s lot of other benefits to doing it that way as well. I guess what I’m saying is – to make a long answer even longer – maybe instead of going right to the idea that you need a ghostwriter because you don’t think of yourself as a writer, think of a different way to approach that challenge, think of a different way to solve that.

S: Yeah. Maybe look at your identity as actually a thought leader, and whether it’s in written form or it’s spoken form, it’s content. You need to get that amazing content out of your head as a thought leader into a form that other people can digest and utilize.

A: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s just enormous upside to training yourself to think about things from an audience-centric point of view. By audience-centric point of view – I know I keep using that phrase, but really what I mean is thinking about your customers and how are you communicating with your customers. I think that has benefits for almost any part of a business, especially if you are the owner or if you’re in a managerial role there or if you’re in a position of some power. I think it makes a lot of sense just to think about that as part of who you are, as a thought leader certainly, but then also just as somebody, who is constantly in that mode.

S: Yup. Let’s say that you’re using a service. I know you mentioned WriterAccess and ClearVoice, but let’s say you’re using something like Textbroker or Amazon Mechanical Turk. You’re seeing these writers as cogs in the wheel. You’re just getting input, output. What would you tell somebody who’s approaching it in that sort of way? What would be the first thing that they should do to up-level what they’re doing?

A: The best thing that you can do is to – first of all just slow down. I guess, I would say stop and really think about why is it that you are creating what you’re creating. Can you maybe do it with a little bit more intention? Do you need to just be churning out, like doing that cog mentality that you just said. A big part of me is just completely allergic to that approach because the world doesn’t need more content; we need better content. There’s so much content being created all the time, so rather than just adding to the noise, think about what is the story that you’re telling? What are you actually trying to accomplish with the content that you’re putting out there? How are you differentiating? How are you using what you’re creating to either advance your thought leadership or to level up yourself as a person and level up your business and make it more valuable to the people you’re trying to reach. Number one thing I would say is just step back, and if that person was sitting across from me. We’re having a cup of coffee or a beer or something like that – that’s sort of the real talk that I think I’d give him or her.

S: Yeah. “Listen, what you’re doing – not good.”

A: Yeah, right. Just like I do. There is so much stuff out there. I’m a big fan of thinking about quality over quantity at all times.

S: Yeah. I love what you said, “Do it with intention.” So many people are just creating campaigns or whatever, and they’re not really that intentional. Great episode – actually I mentioned Ephraim earlier in our episode, talking about climbing the wall of context between you and the other person you’re trying to reach. He talks about intentionality in a different episode on my other podcast, on The Optimized Geek. It’s all about intentionality, and it’s so empowering. You do everything with intention. You have zero down time. Because down time presumes that you are just vegging out or not intentional, like I’m just going to go sit in front of Netflix, and I don’t know what I’m going to watch. That’s so unintentional. That’s so robotic, and if you have 100% intentionality or is close to it as you can get, then you don’t have down time. You show up more powerfully. I was just in my family reunion a week ago in Michigan. I went with intention. I didn’t just show up, like, “Oh it’s been a year, and it’d be good to see everybody.” No, I wanted to have some powerful intentions to bring with me, and it made for a more profound experience. I’ll drop a link in the show notes to that episode with Ephraim on intention from The Optimized Geek. That’s a great, great episode. He is just a wealth of insight and wisdom, not just knowledge. He charges $100,000 a year for an hour a week of coaching. This guy is high, high performance coach. Essentially you have an hour-long episode with him – it’s worth $2500. That’s his hourly rate, not that you could buy an hour of his time. You pay $100,000 upfront for the whole year. It’s not for everybody, but if you can afford it, what an incredible up-leveling you get working with him. Intention, that’s the key.

A: Yeah, yeah. That’s really fantastic, yeah. I think about something that Seth Godin talks about. I think it was Seth Godin who said this originally, but he talks about the fear of wasting the opportunity. What you’re talking about here is staying focused on the task at hand but then thinking about: how can I get as much out of this process as I can? Your description of going to the family reunion, for example. Rather than just showing up and checking the box, “What am I actually doing there? What do I bring to it, and what do I hope to get out of it?” I think about that a lot in terms of not wasting the opportunity. No, I don’t want to waste an opportunity to express myself or communicate with my customers or grow an audience – all those things that I think are so important to growing a business, maintaining that relationship, and nurturing it over time so that they refer more business to me – like all of those things. I think that the way that you express yourself in writing and online, it plays into that beautifully. I don’t want to waste that opportunity.

S: So true. You had mentioned: ask around to find writers. I was curious if you thought Meetups would be a good place to meet potential writers that could help you? Or would you post to Craigslist, ProBlogger, which we talked about earlier. They have job boards, where you could post that you’re looking for writers and bloggers.

A: Yeah, all of that. I think just another place to go is – as you’re reading in your industry, as you see who’s creating content, and then a lot of times you’ll find writers that way as well. I’m not talking about going and poaching from a competitor, but maybe trade publications or something like that is a great place to look. A lot of freelancers will contribute to trade publications. I was a freelancer for a really long time, and that’s how I used to get a lot of my business, too – is that somebody would be getting the trade publication. They’d get the monthly magazine or newsletter or whatever, and then I would get a call and just asking if I would be willing to write for them as well. I think that’s another great place to look for freelancers. Whose stories do you enjoy reading? Are they freelancers? Are they potentially looking for a longer term engagement?

S: In fact, there are associations of journalists and writers, where you could check to see if there’s a job board there or find some of their portfolios, take a look at their work, and contact them if they seem particularly compelling to you.

A: Yeah. I’m a big fan with hiring for, especially in a role like a writer. I think you want to work with people who you sort of get. You know what I mean? You know it when you see it. When you’re talking to someone, you think we’re sort of on the same wavelength. We’re in the same tribe, or in the same squad. You want to find people that share that kind of mindset with you. I look for people, who have that as well. I mentioned the social prospecting that I do.  Like on Twitter for example, when I see somebody who has a point of view on Twitter, who expresses it in a way that I find personally interesting, then that’s how I find writers for MarketingProfs. It works both ways.

S: Do you ever do focus groups? Even just impromptu ones? I know there is a chapter dedicated to focus groups, impromptu ones that are really inexpensive in Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think. I’m curious, what’s your take on focus groups?

A: Yeah. I have done that. I’m more of a fan of observing people, if you can. Not in like a one-way mirror kind of creepy way, but just getting a sense of how is it that people consume content and how is it that they behave. We have done focus groups at MarketingProfs. I don’t know, I guess I feel like you learn a lot more just by sitting down with a person and talking to them face to face without a specific agenda in mind than anything else.

S: Yup. One of things that you like to advise people to do is to tell bolder stories and to tell authentic stories. What would be juxtaposing inauthentic with authentic, something that people would quickly be able to see the difference between the two, and also something that’s a bolder story versus run-of-the-mill typical?

A: What I mean by bolder story is that – did your people recognize you just through either the content that you create, through the words that you use, through your approach, through your voice, and through everything else. One of the stories that I tell onstage a lot is about a company called Freaker USA. What Freaker USA does is they sell can koozies, like drink insulators for your bottle of beer or your soda or anything like that. It keeps your beverage colder essentially. The way that they describe themselves – the story that they tell is so much bolder because even though what they sell is a pretty pedestrian kind of product, – and you can search online for can koozies, and you can find a million can koozies out there that describes themselves in pretty pedestrian ways, like “We keep your bottled beverage colder longer.” I found one that described themselves as “classier than a brown bag around a bottle of beer,” which is actually kind of a funny way to think about it.

S: I like that actually.

A: That’s pretty good. The story that Freaker USA tells – and you can go to their website. Hopefully you can drop it in below. You can go there. You can read about can koozies in a way that will open your eyes. Why do I say it’s bolder? It’s the words that they use. It’s the story that they tell. It’s the way that they tell it. They have this philosophy that if you are part of Freaker USA, if you were the kind of person who’s going to connect with their particular style of can koozie, they’re not just selling a product. They’re leading a movement. They approach their content that way. Even if you look at their webpage or their FAQs or anything like that, you really get a sense that this is a different kind of company telling a bolder, recognizable story. The challenge that I always give to companies is, “Go to your social pages, go to your website, your FAQ pages, your product pages, whatever,  and cover up your logo. Or print it out – just the words, without any visual identifiers, and then line it up next to your competitors. Do you sound like them or do you recognize you?” That’s a really powerful thing to do with an executive or CEO, who doesn’t really get why you need to be bolder. I think that’s really what I mean. That’s sort of a silly example, but the reason why I love telling that story is because if a can koozie company can do it, anybody can do it. There’s lots of examples out there of companies that really do try to sound different, who don’t sound like everybody else.

S: With Zappos, an SEO client of mine over multiple years – I was really surprised about their culture and how much it was ingrained into everybody. There is a culture book that they produce every year, where the employees contribute to that and tell their culture stories. It’s part and parcel of their organization. Really, really cool, and it’s reflected in the work environments. The conference rooms are really funny and quirky and fit perfectly with the culture. There is this redneck hillbilly-themed conference room. It had the hind end of a raccoon mounted on the wall and other sorts of crazy stuff. I get their world. It’s like I’m immersed in their culture just being on their campus or thumbing through their culture book or looking through their website. That’s really something to aim for.

A: Yeah, you’re right. I love what you just said about culture because it really does come out of that. Look at your culture and make sure that the content that you’re producing actually reflects that. When I talk about bold, and even your Zappos example, I don’t want listeners to think, “Oh, I’ve got to be crazy. I’ve got to do things that are wacky.” That’s not what it is. What I’m saying is, do you differentiate? Are you fully expressing your brand? Because again, I always think about that. Don’t waste the opportunity.

S: Yup. Another example organization that you’d give onstage – greatist.com was one. Do you want to say anything about how they’re different and awesome?

A: Yeah. That’s been a while actually. They really understand, who they are trying to speak to directly. There are a million health and fitness publications out there, but those guys have really differentiated because they really understand who they’re talking to. They know it at almost a cellular level. If you go to greatist.com, and then you pull up like, say, “men’s health” or something like that, you can feel the difference. You can tell the difference. For them, it definitely comes out of their culture, but it also comes out of knowing who they’re talking to – who are they targeting? They’re targeting that sort of millennial reader, who is into fitness, but not crazy into fitness. There’s a lot of things that they do on there to extend that. I think they do an amazing job.

S: Yup, awesome. This would be our last question. If we were to offer a particular book as a resource for our listeners – I know we’ve already talked about The Elements of Style and, of course, Everybody Writes – wonderful book that you wrote. Everybody should go and buy it right away on Amazon or your favorite bookstore or whatever it is, and we’ll provide a link in the show notes, make it even easier. In addition to that, what would be one favorite book that should be on everybody’s bookshelf, if they care at all about writing? I’ll just throw in my suggestion first, and hopefully I’m not stealing your thunder of your favorite book too – but Bird by Bird.

A: Oh my gosh! You actually did! I’m not kidding you. It’s so funny that you mentioned that because I was talking to – I don’t know if you know Nick Westergaard. Good friend of mine, marketer, runs an agency in Iowa. He and I were chatting the other day, and he mentioned Bird by Bird. So just this morning, I kid you not, I actually pulled it out, and I thought, “I haven’t read this in a couple years. I’m going to go back and reread it.” I learned a lot about voice, about tone of voice and about using your own voice as a differentiator and really embracing your own voice from Anne Lamott. Yes, I absolutely love that book. But since you mentioned it, I got to find another one. That’s so funny. I can’t even believe that you just did that. That was amazing. I feel like we just had an extension from that juice running that we had on Portland, Oregon. It’s like – so on the same wavelength. That’s crazy. Actually I have a fun one, that I don’t actually know if you’ve read or if you’ve heard of this book, but it’s called Between You and Me. It’s by a long-time editor of The New Yorker. She was a long-time copy editor of The New Yorker. She just retired. Her name is Mary Norris, and she talks about what it was like working at The New Yorker but she also talks a lot about words. That’s one book that it seems like it’s about grammar, but it’s actually not about grammar at all. It’s actually a lot about life. She just has some really funny lessons from The New Yorker, but also just some funny life lessons in there. She’s incredibly funny and snarky and witty. It’s called Between You and Me, and I would highly recommend that one as well.

S: Awesome. Thank you, thank you so much. This was a lot of fun and educational, too. Listeners, go ahead and go to the show notes and buy the Everybody Writes book. What else? Bird by Bird, The Elements of Style, Between You and Me – all those books, but certainly, if you only buy one book, it needs to be Everybody Writes. Might as well, buy my books too. The Art of SEO, Social eCommerce, and Google Power Search.

A: Awesome.

S: Everybody go to marketingspeak.com. The show notes will be there, and we’ll create a checklist of actions to take as well from the insights and advice that Ann shared. We’ll catch you on the next episode of Marketing Speak. This is your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.