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Content Marketing

A Content Marketing Conversation with Ann Handley and Eric Enge

Eric Enge And Ann Handley Final

Technology makes it easier than ever to market to the individual at scale, but if you don’t truly understand your audience, your content could be perceived as generic and impersonal. Automated personalization helps, but it’s no longer enough. Customers want and expect useful, valuable, and relevant content that feels like it was created just for them. How can you deliver that?

To help answer this, I interviewed Ann Handley from MarketingProfs. We discussed why marketers need to think about content marketing as a one-on-one conversation with customers and the best ways to execute this strategy.

Check out our conversation in the video below, or scroll down to read the transcript.

Original live webinar aired on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at 1:00 PM ET


What is personalization, from a marketing standpoint?

Eric: What we want to talk about today is really personalization and content marketing together, and I think we should start the conversation with an opening question. What do we really mean by personalization? Are we talking about dynamic content optimization, or using data for automated content, or user-generated content, or tone of voice? What do we mean?
Ann: I think that the short answer, Eric, is a yes, right? It’s all of that. I think in marketing over the past few years, obviously we’ve had the opportunity to use data and technology to be able to deliver increasingly personalized experiences to the customers and the prospects that we’re trying to attract.
But as you just said, I think it’s so much more than that, too. I think it’s how we’re communicating—so, the tone of voice that we’re using through our emails, through our social channels, and all across the digital space. But I think it’s also things like, are you bringing your customers and their voice into your own marketing?
And then from a company standpoint too, are you personalizing who you are as a brand? Are you going behind the scenes a little bit? Are you showing your customers and your prospects who you are as much as you’re letting them know that you know who they are? So that’s how I think about it. I think of it may be a little bit more broadly beyond just, you know, the sort of textbook definition of personalization. I don’t think it’s just about data and technology. I also think it’s about being human and really putting the “person” in personalization, from both a brand as well as an audience standpoint.
Eric: Yes, and I think a big thing that a lot of people miss, to put it in my own words, is having your own personality associated with your brand or the people representing the brand. Really projecting that well and giving something that people can attach to is as important as figuring out how to interact with them.
Ann: Yes, exactly. And I think that’s the “person” in personalization—you want to use your personality. You also want to make sure that you’re using personalization to create an emotional connection.
You’ve probably heard this, but one of the biggest problems, I think, with personalization is that it does veer into the creepy lane sometimes. We’ve all had those experiences where we’re shopping for something online, or we’re looking at something on Instagram, and the next thing you know, this thing is following you all over and you’re getting an email that says, “Hey! Did you mean to put this in your cart?”
That’s where I feel, as brands, we tend to go immediately. We tend to think about the technology first—let’s chase these people, let’s let them know, let’s harass them through personalization. But at the same time, I think the opportunity is so much greater than that. Like you just said, it’s really thinking about your personality as a brand and connecting in a very human, emotional way to the people you are trying to attract.
Eric: Yes. One kind of side topic, but I want to bring it up anyway, is that this really parlays itself into nearly every environment you’re communicating in. I did a presentation not too long ago with Duane Forrester about the evolution of voice interactions.  It starts with voice search, but more broadly covers just voice interactions between brands and their customers. You’ve got to project your persona even at the voice level, even if that’s the only element that you have in the entire picture in the communication. This has shown itself everywhere.
Ann: And I guess that’s sort of what we mean by omnichannel, right? I kind of hate that word as much as I love it because it feels so buzzword-y. But really what it means is, are you presenting the same way on social media as you are in your blog, on your website and voice communications—you know, across everything?
And it’s interesting that you bring up voice, because I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory there. We’re really just at the beginning of figuring it out. How do we leverage that channel as part of this omnichannel experience? How do we bring all those touch points together? And so I think, you know, sort of the next challenge for brands is not just in voice, but how do you actually align all the pieces so that it is sort of a coherent, cohesive customer experience, so to speak.
Eric: Absolutely.

Personalization at scale for marketing

Eric: So, what about this though? Is personalization really the enemy of scaling, because everybody wants to scale? That’s what everybody thinks about. You know what I mean?
Ann: I don’t think it’s necessarily the enemy of scaling if you think about just the technology we have available that allows you to scale personalization and that allows you to use personalization at scale. But I also think that using things like our brand voices—that’s something that we can all do at scale. What’s your take on that, Eric?
Eric: One of the things that I like to think about is when people say scaling, my fear is that they’re at the point where they want to be all things to all people, and they’re trying to address every single audience. Here’s a slide just to capture this concept, right? To me, effective scaling and personalization both start with really identifying your target audience and learning how to deliver your persona or your personality to that target audience, which means excluding others.
Design content that is the best fit for your target audience only - not for anyone and everyone
And that’s actually a good thing. If you’re really trying to grow your business and you try to address everybody, you’ll fail. That’s the path to mediocrity.
Ann: Yes, 100%. I totally agree with that. I think there is a default in marketing that we want to get as many people into in the B2B world—the top of the funnel, so to speak. We want to appeal to as many people as possible and then, you know, nurture the heck out of those people throughout our content, at campaigns, throughout our everything that we’re doing right over time.
But I think that’s the wrong approach. I think it is much smarter and more efficient long term to figure out who it is we’re actually talking to. And that’s one way, I think, to do that. One way to figure out how to weed out those people that aren’t going to be a good fit for us is through things like the content that we’re publishing and the tone of voice that we’re using. You’re automatically going to attract the people to you if you know who you’re talking to. You’re going to attract those people to you as much as you will repel the people who are not a great fit for your brand.
So, I think to the degree to which we can figure out who we are as brands and think through our personality and persona, and who we are as a company, and who we are as people, and why we are doing what we’re doing—that is number one. And then, who is the best fit for our products and services, and who are they, and really having a conversation with those people and approaching your marketing more in that way.
Versus just brand to target, I think it’s much more efficient and effective to think about marketing in a human way to the people we’re trying to connect with. So again, it’s putting the “person” in personalization and not thinking about target audiences as much as actual people, because that’s what we are, right? Which sounds so elementary, but I don’t see enough of it really, especially in the B2B space.
Eric: I couldn’t agree more. This whole thing about connecting and having a connection—that really is, sort of, at its heart. There’s this one-on-one aspect to it. Now brands can accomplish it with the right kind of personalization, sometimes operating in scale depending on how you do that, just by understanding who they’re trying to connect with, what those people are like and what they might respond to, and focusing on those things. And as we’ve both said, now it necessarily means you’re shutting some other people out. And that’s actually a good thing.
Ann: Yes, I think so. I was just thinking as you were talking. The spring has been kind of a crazy spring for me, and I’ve been at just a string of marketing conferences and marketing events. A big theme of a lot of the events that I’ve been to recently has been about this customer experience.
Marketers and marketing leaders are really feeling this pressure to really execute on the customer experience, to really put the customer at the heart of everything that they do and that the organization does. Which again sounds super elementary, like, aren’t we already doing that? But I don’t think we are. Like, I think we’re still communicating as brands versus trying to think about what the customer actually needs from us. So, I think that another mandate, as part of the customer experience, is really thinking through your personalization strategy and how you actually connect with people as individuals.
Eric: Absolutely.

Personalized content marketing

Eric: So, what are some things that marketers should change to make content marketing a more personalized conversation?
Ann: So, I’d like to show some tidbit of research from the content marketing study of 2019 that MarketingProfs did. We’ve done it every year with the Content Marketing Institute. I think this is the ninth year that we’ve done it, or something like that.
Eric: Awesome study by the way. Anybody out there who hasn’t looked at this study, you need to go get this data. It’s amazing insight about B2B focus, and you do B2C versions too, for content marketing. It’s just fantastic stuff, but I’m sorry. Please go ahead.
Ann: Thanks for that plug. And if anybody here wants to pick it up, you can go to the MarketingProfs SlideShare channel, and you can grab a copy there. It’s ungated, it’s free. You can pick it up.
But you know, the beauty of the study is that it does give brands a sense of what’s going on in content marketing. It’s sort of the state of the industry and content marketing from a B2B and B2C perspective. And it’s interesting because over time—like I said, this is the ninth year I think that we’ve done it—it does really give you a sense of sort of where we’re at in the industry. So, just pull the numbers up just one more time again so I can just talk through them. Sorry, I went a little too long in the preamble, maybe.
Eric: Let’s look at the data from the study that you mentioned earlier.
MarketingProf research on b2b content marketing shows that 42% of the marketers are actually talking to their customers to understand their needs
Ann: Yes, we were talking about opportunities. So basically, how do you start to think about personalization through your content marketing from a content marketing point of view? What that top step there says is 42% of the marketers are actually talking to their customers to understand their needs—that’s only 42%. I mean, that to me spells enormous opportunity that, you know, so many more of us I think could actually be talking to our customers to figure out how it is that we can serve you better. What information is useful to you? How do you make decisions? Where do you get your information from? All those things, like trying to get a sense of who it is they were actually talking to. Who is it they were marketing too?
And then that second step there is really talking about how only 23% of us are using any sort of audience participation. So, things like user-generated content and really getting your customers into your marketing as part of the conversation. So, I think again, an enormous opportunity there as well. So, I just wanted to share those because I think when you ask where to start, I think those are two really great places to start talking to your customers and really gathering insight on a regular basis.
And it doesn’t have to be super complicated. It can be a survey, it can be a phone call, it can be coffee with a customer—it can be any of those things. I still don’t think that marketers are talking to customers enough. And then secondly, try to bring new voices to the table. Bringing the voices of your customers directly into your marketing, I think, is a super effective way to think about personalization.
Eric: Absolutely. And one of the really neat things that’s happening more broadly, from an SEO perspective and what Google is doing these days, is Google is investing so much of their energy into who they’re sending people to from their search results, around the goal of really what ends up being the best customer experience for the people that they send to a given website. So, if you invest in the right kind of content marketing strategies, not only are you doing really great stuff from a traditional content marketing point of view, but you’re probably also driving the crap out of your SEO.
It’s an amazing amount of opportunity that Ann has just really given us a sense of. Yes, it can be a big investment—we’ll talk about that more in a second. But the fact of the matter is, your competition probably isn’t doing it. That’s how I spell opportunity.
Ann: Right. And actually, I don’t think it needs to be a bigger investment necessarily. I think, like we talked about, it’s thinking about how it is that you are communicating and really understanding and nailing those elements first. That’s not a massive investment.  I mean, certainly the more you dig into the data and the tech side of it and being able to do things like dynamic content and being able to customize customer journeys and all that kind of stuff—that can get expensive. But I don’t think that it has to be, and I also feel like there are ways to do it. There are ways to personalize your brand and personalize who you are as a company that really don’t cost you anything at all aside from maybe a lot of brainpower.
Eric: Right. Projecting your own persona, right, should be fairly straightforward, for example. And I agree, you don’t necessarily have to invest a ton of money to make this work. And also, if you’re a small local business, the way I’m trying to think about it is, am I doing a better job at it than the people I’m competing with? And if I’m a small local business and I’m not competing with some Fortune 200 company, I just have to be able to do something that’s at the scale that works for my size of business and make sure that I’m standing out well compared to the people I’m competing with. So, what’s the coolest example of personalized marketing you’ve seen of late?
Ann: I have a couple of favorites that I pulled ahead of time to share with you today. You know I’m a writer, right? I’m a real content nerd, and one of the brands that I use on a regular basis, I have a browser extension. It’s called Grammarly, and essentially what Grammarly does is it helps me improve my writing and my communication.
Whatever I’m creating, it’s kind of like a spell check on steroids. It’s like a spell checker with an editor kind of wrapped into one. I don’t think it’s a substitution for an actual, live editor because I use one of those, too. But Grammarly is kind of—I think of it like my first pass.
A screenshot from Grammarly insights email show how usage and productivity dashboard of a user
And so, what you’re looking at here is a copy of an email. Every single week, they send me an email with my statistics, right? So, they tell me sort of where I compare as compared to the rest of the Grammarly audience. And again, I’m kind of a nerd, right? So, I love getting this email because there’s something that makes me kind of proud about seeing whether I’m more productive then the rest of the audience or how many different words I use. They give me all these sort of touch points or all these different benchmarks, I mean, just to tell me, like, where I am. And it just kind of gamifies it for me, but the way they deliver it is incredibly personalized. Now obviously, Grammarly has all of this data on me because it’s their own data that they’re collecting, but the way they deliver it is just very fun.
The other thing that they do is that they use my usage of their program to reward me. So, they’ll deliver badges to me. When I do a particular thing, like when I’ve been using Grammarly for so many weeks, I get a badge.
A screenshot of Grammarly badges shows achievements of a Grammarly user
When I’ve used complicated words more than other users of the Grammarly product, I get another badge. So, I’m unlocking all of these badges. And this is so goofy and it’s completely meaningless, but it keeps me engaged with the Grammarly product, because I think it’s fun and I like to see, oh, where am I at? What am I doing? How have I done this week? Super silly, but again, just sort of a fun way I think to keep me engaged with their product and to remind me just how valuable Grammarly is to me on a consistent basis.
Eric: Well, the thing is, you call it super silly and of course, the way they present it to make it fun and so on. But come on, they’re feeding that self-improvement, self-measurement, make-myself-better kind of mentality. An uber-geeky, highly-driven person will just dive in headfirst.
Ann: Right! But they’re using data, and they’re making it fun and accessible because they know that some of the people who use their platform, right, and who use their software are writing geeks like me. And so, I love to see that the words that I’m using are just more unusual than say, I don’t know, 90% of people who use Grammarly. It’s sort of like, yes, it’s silly. But it’s a fun way to keep me engaged.
Eric: Absolutely. So, you’re going to be joining us in a few weeks’ time on May 2nd at our Next10x Conference at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston. Can you tell us a little bit about what you plan to be talking about?
Ann: Oh, yes. When is it?
Eric: May 2nd.
Ann: May 2nd. Fantastic event. One of my highlights of last year. I was there last year. I’m very excited to be back this year. I’m going to be talking about just, you know, sort of what’s new, like some of the opportunities that I see from a content marketing standpoint in marketing but also some things that I think we can safely avoid, at least for right now. So, doing more of what matters and kind of ignoring the rest. Fantastic event. So please join us. And this is completely unsolicited. These guys did not tell me to say any of this, but truly it’s a very special event and it’s just a fantastic experience. Everyone at Next10x just really knows how to make the experience really great for the people who are attending. So please join us.
Eric: Thank you so much for that, Ann. For my part, I’m going to be talking about what I see the biggest opportunities are in digital marketing. There’ll be a little bit of an SEO bed to that but also some content marketing things and leading into some conversations about voice. So, we have great speakers. Chris Brogan will join us, and Duane Forrester, Ben Morris of Google, and Martin Splitt from Google. Ben and Martin are fantastic speakers. So, if you’re interested, here’s the Next10x Conference website.
But now, let’s spend a few minutes and take some questions. So, if you have any questions for Ann or me, you know, please feel free to put those in the chat. We’re a very much looking forward to seeing what those of you out there want us to pontificate on.
Ann: While we’re waiting for questions, I wanted to show you another one of my favorite examples.
Eric: Okay, sure. Let’s do that while we’re waiting for questions.
Ann: So, as I’m talking to you here today, I have a 15-year-old—she’s almost 15 years old—Cavalier King Charles spaniel, a little dog, underneath my desk. She’s, you know, she’s a fantastic dog. She’s my heart. She’s such a great girl, but BarkBox will forever be cemented in my brain as one of my favorite brands, because they do such a great job personalizing their email, right? So, they know that my girl is an old girl, and they send me offers on a regular basis to add to her quality of life and make sure that she’s living the best life she possibly can live, and that we can make it as long as we possibly can.
A screenshot of a personalized email from Barkshop
They know that Abby is almost 15, so they’re detailing that. But, we were talking about tone of voice and how important that can be just from a brand perspective to personalize the experience for your customers. BarkBox does such a great job because the email is hilarious. It’s so well written now. It’s not hilarious for everybody, but for dog people like me especially, you know, older dog people or people with older dogs—yes, that’s what I wanted to say. You know, it’s just, it’s such…it delivered such a great experience to me, like that top photo right there of Carl, who’s 72 years old. The copywriting on there, the tone of voice that they’re using—it just completely grabbed me. And yes, I absolutely did fetch some hip and joint treats for her because it really just spoke to me as the owner of an older dog, not only because they were targeting me through their promotion, but the way that they wrote this email and the voice that they used, not just in this email but across everything. It just…they do such a nice job with it. So, that’s my second-favorite example of personalization.
A screenshot of different persona of Barkbox customers
Eric: That’s awesome. And basically, again, back to the tone of voice and how well they did with all of that. But while we’re waiting for questions to come in, I’m going to actually just expand a little bit on the voice conversation, because I mentioned the joint presentation I did with Duane Forrester a while back. And leading into that, what we did is we did some research into effectively what research has been done around voice and how humans respond to voice. This was actually spawned by the advent of Interactive Voice Response Systems way back in the ’80s and ’90s, and they found things like we’re really wired as human beings to respond to voice.
For example, a baby in the mother’s womb can recognize their mother’s voice, and we know that because their heart rate goes up when their mother talks and the heart rate goes down whenever anyone else talks, which is a really interesting thing. And then there’s other data points that show that people who are introverted respond more to introverted voices. Men respond more to men and women respond more to women.
Those associations have been proven through extensive research for people who want to dig into that more. There’s a very famous researcher guy called Clifford Nass that led a lot of this work. But it is offered because it just shows how the breadth of personalization really impacts us.
It looks like we do have a question here. First question is from Katie Goh. Eric, you mentioned that personalization can boost SEO. How can you leverage SEO within your personalization strategy if Google can’t always read dynamic content? So, on pages, emails, custom dashboards?
Eric: So, I’m actually going to relate that back to what you said in the very beginning and the response to the first question. It’s not really about the level of personalization you saw on the BarkBox example or on the Grammarly example that Ann shared, but more in the way that you appropriately identify your audience, broadcast your personality to that audience, and create a good match between that persona you’re broadcasting and your target prospects. And if you do that effectively, that’s what will draw a good SEO response. The more individualized personalization is at a whole other level, so not something that Google necessarily responds to.
So, this question is from Ateeq Ahmad. Is scale all that important for small businesses? Don’t they need to personalize anyway just even to basically survive? Ann?
Ann: Well, to the second part of that, yes. And I also think that for small businesses, the idea of personalization, especially in how they’re communicating, is a whole lot easier.
I talk to big brands all the time who really struggle with things like communicating in a human way and having a real human voice through all their social channels and all across every way that they’re reaching out to customers. And so, I think that challenge is so much easier for smaller brands. I don’t think you necessarily have to scale, but I absolutely do think that you need to personalize the experience that you’re delivering to customers. And again, I think it’s a lot easier for smaller brands. At least, that’s my take on it.
Eric: Yes. It’s hard for them to find the time, but as I said earlier, if you’re a smaller business and you’re competing with other small businesses, you’re not talking about having to put out content every single day, probably. You take things in a more entry level.
One more question here. What are some of the metrics that Google uses to measure customer experience on a website?
Google has a lot of patents published about potentially measuring and evaluating customer experience and user experience, but there is nothing currently confirmed about what they’re doing, so it’s actually a very difficult question to answer. I think the way I would answer is that we know that Google cares a great deal about this. So even if the only thing you cared about in the world was SEO—and it shouldn’t be the only thing you care about in the world—but if it were, you should therefore still care about customer experience and user experience. It’s an incredibly important part, even if it just plays itself out and is how you get links, how people refer to your content, or how people share your content. That’s reasonable enough. And by the way, it drives conversion at the same time, too. So, there’s just so many reasons to do this.
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Eric Enge

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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