The Content Marketing Pro: Interview with Ann Handley of Marketing Profs

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Ann Handley, Marketing ProfsAnn Handley is the Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs, one of the most popular sites for marketing advice (and responsible for some of my marketing education!). She has been cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in Social Media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers. She is also the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules.

Ann talks to us about marketing and content. My questions and comments are in bold.

Tell us about how you got involved with Marketing Profs.

I co-launched a website called ClickZ.com 16 years ago, back in 1997, when the notion of marketing on the Internet was a nascent idea. Most websites – if companies had them at all (and many didn’t!) – were little more than brochures. At ClickZ (pronounced click-zee, by the way), we set out to help businesses figure out how to use the internet as a new marketing platform, because there wasn’t a lot about that out there at the time.

My business partner and I sold ClickZ in 2000 to what was then Internet.com, and within a couple of years I joined Allen Weiss, who in the interim had founded MarketingProfs. Allen is a marketing professor at USC’s Marshall School, and I liked what he was doing. I liked the MarketingProfs brand as a place where real-world professionals could receive “how-to” advice both from other professionals and from professors — the former offering experience and the latter offering knowledge.

So, in 2002 I took over the site’s content. We’re broadened our focus quite a bit since then, but MarketingProfs still maintains a strong how-to, educational ethic.

I see you prefer to call yourself a writer rather than a marketer – why is that?

I have an unusual background for a marketer, in that I spent the first part of my career as a writer and editor for newspapers (the Boston Globe and local papers) and magazines (lots of business-to-business and financial publications as well as those magazines in the back of airline seat pockets!).

Temperamentally, I’m an artist – who went to school to study story, writing, and journalism… and was drawn, in due time, to business. My evolution from the world of writing and literature to the world of business seemed happenstance at the time, and now seems lucky and plenty fortuitous. In this new world of marketing and social business, all of us can learn a lot from storytelling, and particularly journalism – which respects the content and the audience above all.

Apart from writing, which of your various roles do you prefer: speaker, blogger, content manager, social media guru?

I would never call myself a social media guru – but I appreciate the compliment that’s implied in your question. Instead, I consider myself someone who has a love for and an innate understanding of the power of social media.

Of all of the things I do – writer, blogger, content creator and manager, author, social media aficionado, and so on – the thing they have in common is this: I really love creating content of any kind (photos, text, tweets, presentations, books) and using them as tools to connect with people and grow communities. At a fundamental level, that’s really what I do, and what fills my heart the most. At least professionally.

Founding ClickZ, being the face of Marketing Profs, being named one of the top 10 social media influencers by Forbes and I’m sure a horde of other accolades I’m missing… what’s the career achievement you’re most proud of?

Co-authoring Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley, originally published 2011. Paperback 2012.) Written with my good friend C.C. Chapman, it’s become the best-selling book on content marketing and been translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Portuguese.)

What’s the biggest challenge you faced as an entrepreneur?

Well, I’ve faced a lot… but the most recent one is this: In a world where every brand is a publisher using content to help sell stuff, what does that means for a traditional publisher who generally has no “stuff” to sell other than the content itself?

For MarketingProfs, it’s meant a shift in focus to two primary areas: professional development (for those who are serious about learning the how-to of marketing) and marketing services (for those who are looking for help marketing their product or meeting their goals).

In other words: We’re tapping into our inherent strengths as the source for the latest in marketing advice and know-how to help brands navigate this new world in two ways:

  • By offering comprehensive and customized training and education for marketing staffs (we’ve been providing online learning since 2001, so we are pretty familiar with how to do this well);
  • And by helping brands plan and implement lead-gen programs that will drive business to them, and by helping them reach audiences and amplify their message in a fragmented digital environment.

The result isn’t quite a pivot of our business model, but it is a refinement and gives clarity to the role we play in the broader marketing world.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give a small-business entrepreneur?

Be deeply obsessed. If you don’t care about your work at an obsessive level, no one else ever will. As Mark Frauenfelder asks in his new book, The Art of Doing,

“If you stopped making money tomorrow, would you still need to do it?”

What social media platform do you personally like best?

Instagram. I’ve always been a writer, but Instagram has helped me hone my storytelling skills via images. I love the way Instagram compels you to notice content moments everywhere – to see the exceptional in what was pedestrian to your unfocused eye.

For Marketing Profs, which social media site has been most effective?

I can’t say there’s been one that’s been more effective overall, as we maintain an active presence on a few consistently. But our favorites in terms of engagement and business development are Twitter, SlideShare, and LinkedIn.

What are your favorite online tools – social media, productivity, or anything else?

Since MarketingProfs is a virtual company, we use a bunch of productivity and project management tools. We’ve found a lot of value in Skype, Basecamp, Dropbox, and (to replicate a water cooler at our virtual company), a private Facebook “Team MarketingProfs” group. That’s where we celebrate birthdays, new babies, good news, and high-fives.

What’s the one thing you hate doing but still force yourself to do every week?

I hate flying. A lot of people say that, but I mean it: I really hate flying. It terrifies me, even though I know that’s irrational. I don’t fly every week, but I fly often enough. Too often, really. And I have to force myself to walk down the jetway and onto the plane. Every. Single. Time.

Right now, there are so many social media platforms and tools that ostensibly make things easier, and there is so much expert advice on what marketing activities a small business should be doing. What do you think is the most important marketing activity a small business should focus on?

Nailing their mission, or their voice, or their point of view. Once you do that, it’s a lot easier to engage on social platforms and to create content as a cornerstone of your marketing. It starts with considering the world from your prospects’ point of view: How does what you sell improve their lives? Shoulder their burdens? Ease their pain?

Remember this: Your value is not what you do. Your value is what you do for others. In other words, don’t talk about your product’s features. Rather, talk about what they do for your customers.

That seems simple enough – it’s Marketing 101, in fact. But for entrepreneurs and owners who live and breathe their businesses, it can be tricky to view the world via that customer-centric perspective. Simon Sinek, author of Start with the Why (Portfolio, 2011), preaches that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. So if you explain not what you do but why you do it, how might that alter your explanation?

Small businesses often struggle to make sense of their data… what’s the one metric they should keep an eye on?

I’ll assume you are keeping an eye on your balance sheet, and that you are talking marketing metrics here? For that, there’s no magic data elixir that applies to all businesses. If there were, I’d bottle it in beautiful packaging and drive around the country, trading it for ounces of gold out of the back of my car.

It’s more important to figure out what marketing metric matters to you: It might be sales, but it might be something else, too: Customer engagement or sharing metrics, or the length of time between a lead generation and sale. In other words, it depends. But at a high level, look at your lead generation, sales, and sharing metrics. Those are ones that will give you a pretty solid sense of how well your marketing is driving business.

What sites – apart from Marketing Profs, of course! – do you recommend for small-business marketing advice?

I write a monthly column for Entrepreneur magazine, and so perhaps I’m biased, but I do think the site and magazine are fantastic. They offer great how-to advice and a potent swig of inspiration: It’s a killer combination.

And that’s a wrap! Thank you very much for doing this, Ann: it’s a thrill to have you here.

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