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Herding Goldfish: The Professional Content Marketing Writer in an Age of Digital Media and Short Attention Spans

Thursday, July 7, 2016

This week Byron chats with Gene Knauer, author of Herding Goldfish and a marketing communications writer. Listen in to get tips on launching your writing career and most importantly, what herding goldfish has to do with content marketing.

Byron:                           Welcome everyone to the WriterAccess Podcast, I'm here with Gene. Gene welcome.

Gene:                           Thank you very much.

Byron:                           Let's herd some goldfish, what do you say?

Gene:                           Sounds good.

Byron:                           Your title of your book of course is Herding Goldfish, do you view that as bastardizing your title of your book? Is that like a [0:00:33 fop] on the marketing world to call your book 'Herding', let's herd some goldfish? Are we okay with that?

Gene:                           No, I'm okay with it because it's based on a survey that Microsoft did on attention spans, and they found that the average attention span was actually less than the attention span of a goldfish. Initially, a few years ago it was actually equivalent to a goldfish, but now it's less than a goldfish. Yeah, that's where the title came from.

Byron:                           We're swimming backwards I guess when it comes to our attention spans.

Gene:                           Yeah.

Byron:                           Could we describe you as a technical writer based upon where many of your articles have appeared historically? American Laboratory, Computer World, The Futurist, The Los Angeles Times, The Mobile World Congress?

Gene:                           Yeah.

Byron:                           It sounds like you can dig deep into some technical topics, is that fair?

Gene:                           Right, that's fair but the title isn't a technical writer, writes documentation and manuals that are very … that tell you how to use a product.

Byron:                           Do stuff, yeah.

Gene:                           The [0:01:45 inaudible] I'm a marketing content writer that deals with technology companies, I am definitely a marketing writer and that's the difference from technical writer.

Byron:                           Good to know. Tell us a little bit about your background and what corporate marketing writing you've been doing in your illustrious career.

Gene:                           Sure. Well I started out as an advertising company writer. Right out of school I was writing ads for a big department store, sofabeds, fashion stuff like that. Then I started freelancing in San Francisco and worked for some agencies and really brought writer clients from retailers, hotels, restaurants. And then got into writing for public relations and started working in technology companies, Xerox and some others. Then I went to work for my father who started one of the first contract consulting firms in San Francisco years ago where they would rent a program or rent an analog. I took a detour from writing and help to market consultants, and that's how I got closer to what was happening right now with the technology and from there I became a marketing content writer.

Byron:                           You've written the book from the perspective of the marketing writer if you will, and trying to offer tips and advice and insights on even how to market your services. Where did you learn many of these practices that you're writing about in the book?

Gene:                           You know this is something I've wanted to write for years. It's really all based from my experience. I didn’t have any kind of training except basic, well you had to write. I had studied journalism, and kind of did that for a while and worked as an advertising copywriter as I said, but it's really all based on working with companies and making mistakes, figuring things out, being asked to write few types of communications and never having done so before like E-books, blogs, et cetera. So things that I've learned and I realized I want to pass on.

Byron:                           Tell us a little bit about your thoughts on writing for a company and corporations. How do you determine the right tone and style and voice? Let's start with that, when you're working for a corporate client, say for the first time?

Gene:                           You know it's really important to look at what they've done. To look at who their customers are or what is the market like, because really who are they selling to? Who are they having a conversation with about their product? That's a real good starting point, you know?

Byron:                           Sure.

Gene:                           Understanding the buyer's journey and all that, and how people come to approach a particular product. Let's say you're buying something on Amazon it's very different if you're buying I believe a technical product within a business, business type.

Byron:                           It's funny the phrase 'buying journey' it seems to conflict a little bit with what I call the customer journey. Some great work by Brian Solace, that talks a little bit about that the customer needing to be the center of the universe these days. What are your thoughts on that? How has writing changed in your mind in the last five or 10 years or maybe it hasn’t changed in your mind?

Gene:                           I don’t think it conflicts. I think it's what we call customer journey of our originating and things and people go through a certain process to understand what a product is before they buy that. I think we're in accord there. That was a good question.

Byron:                           Yeah. Well how has writing changed in your mind?

Gene:                           Oh.

Byron:                           We've seen the ads and of content marketing for example which puts the customer at the center of the universe, no longer the products and the services. We can't push the benefits and features of our products any longer. We can't sell to people seemingly any longer, we need to change our approach to what we write and how we write it, and think about different types of wants and needs. Do you agree with all of that, and what's your take on that?

Gene:                           I agree with part of it. I think things have changed, things have definitely changed and that is the internet basically has done that, enabled people to research products and not be as dependent on either salesmen talking to them or collateral being sent to them. Now we have a lot more information at your fingertips. I think still think you need to be sold to and make no mistake as a content marketing writer, you're selling, and you'd better be selling, or else you're not doing your job.

                                        I think that hasn’t changed as much. I think there is this journey now, this multi-phased journey of little different things and different touch points that the customer has within getting interested and then finding out more and then being sold.

Byron:                           Is most of your work as a freelancer working from your home and/or office or you're now in both home-office, or are you actually working physically in a lot of the companies that you're working with and historically as well as currently?

Gene:                           I have been lucky enough to work virtually, which I love. For those companies, some of the ones that I write for really have people all over the world, so I'm interviewing people in different time zones and it really doesn’t really matter where I am, because I'm really focused on the job, the project, the deadline. I could really be anywhere. And I do work from many different places wherever I am.

Byron:                           What are your favorite interview questions when you talk with somebody that's going to try to help and assist you with something? Tell us what your strategy is going to an interview with someone.

Gene:                           I do have questions that I need an answer. I really like to put people at ease and not just fire questions at them, but to get them talking and comfortable with the subject. Then ask them questions based on what they had told me and then I look back and make sure I've covered everything. I tend to not go one, two, three, question after question because I find it works better I guess better content when I just kind of … I put them at ease and it feels more like a conversation. I say that's my job, I'm proud of it. If I don’t understand something, I definitely keep asking until I do. I'm not shy about that, and one shouldn’t be. Yeah, I felt that people will go off on tangents and you really have to pull them back and say, "Hang on a second, what about this?" You really have to take charge of the interview to get what you need.

Byron:                           Do you feel like that communication is an absolutely critical component to you developing the story and the content asset you're creating?

Gene:                           The interview?

Byron:                           Yeah.

Gene:                           Sometimes yes. Sometimes I've given a lot of really great information maybe at webinars and some of these event, or a culmination of presentation, and visiting raw collateral, and it's enough really. Sometimes I do need to interview especially when I'm working at very, very technical communications that I really need to understand. I'm not a programmer so I need to understand something conceptually to write about it. If I don’t, I really get [0:09:05 inaudible] every single time.

Byron:                           Have you seen creative briefs for example that are wonderfully crafted to allow you to instantly tone right into what the needs are, and the goals are for a project?

Gene:                           I have but they are a rarity, to tell you the truth. It's hard. It's hard to do and all these people don’t understand how to write messaging, how to write a client brief, they need help. I do a lot of what I call mentoring upward, helping people understand what is needed and what's missing to be able to develop really distinct, well done communication.

Byron:                           When you look at a sample of something that a client might give you, is that critical and can you really build your asset, your content from that sample in a sense that you see how high the bar needs to be or the tone and the style, and are you trying to reverse engineer the elements of that sample and fuse that if you will, into the piece you're creating?

Gene:                           Sometimes if it’s well done, but often I find, I'm sounding like a kind of preacher, but I found that often things are not well done. A lot of people are very busy, they're overworked, the writing is something they hopefully want to do, they could explain a mash-up of messaging and content and they just come throw it at me. I put it together, or change that. I do triage on it, I ask a lot of questions. I tell them what I need, and they appreciate that, because most of the people I work with are just so busy and they needed help.

Byron:                           Do you feel you have your own style that you continue to bring to the work that you're creating?

Gene:                           Definitely. I kind of capture it in the books. The whole approach, what I think is important and, yeah.

Byron:                           Got it. Tell us about creativity and even humor and how you're infusing that in some of the work you're creating.

Gene:                           I consider myself a creative person and I think you want to write with a specific style or a certain weight and this is very important, sometimes humor is great. I love writing blogs because I think you can write it with humor, a conversational tone. Sometimes humor is not appropriate but always a strong voice that's distinctive, and people just resonate when they reach out they can have a voice. It's just not a bunch of words. Often you read, all of us read things and we're just kind of like, we read a paragraph and our minds goes blank and what was that? And you have to go back. The well-written communications of any type, are just the way to go because people just resonate with them.

Byron:                           What advice would you offer to new writers struggling to launch their career besides prayer?

Gene:                           Find a mentor. Find somebody that you respect and learn as much as you can. Writing, there are certain basics in writing marketing communication. You have to understand the persona you're writing to. You have to choose a way to sell what you're selling. To me the elevator pitch encapsulates all of the elements of a good kind of communication. You're appealing to a customer or somebody that you're with. You're understanding their problem, their challenges, you're suggesting something that will help them with their products or service and then you're going into a little bit about why it's right for them et cetera. You're building actually like all this … the positioning and the content that's necessary. If you can master the elevator pitch as a microcosm then you've got it.

Byron:                           Do you think that writers need to learn to sell themselves if you will?

Gene:                           That's very difficult. I find it very difficult to sell myself. Selling yourself is really different, I find it much easier to sell other things. People always joke with this. Selling yourself is always… I'm much more successful getting work through referral, that is the golden way to get work. I've been getting referrals for years. That really is the way to go. You have to build up a reputation and clientele to get to that place. I've tried all kinds of other things to get work, sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t. It is hard to market yourself as a creative person.

Byron:                           How do you exceed a customer's… a client's expectations?

Gene:                           Great question. What I've seen again is it's kind of the mentoring upward, where you help them do their jobs better. You help them understand what is needed and so then the finished product you know is really great that they can hang their bet on. I love it. I want my customers to get credit for things. I never want to get credit, I want them to get the accolades and customers good words based on the communication that they give you. That's great, because again I'm a ghost writer. If you're a ghost writer as a marketing content writer and you're doing it for the companies you're working for and for your end customer.

Byron:                           Do you ever create work for customers that actually want to use your name with attribution?

Gene:                           Yeah, I have, and I feel strange about that frankly. There are customers that want to put my name on whitepaper, and I told them, "You know, that's really not appropriate." Whitepapers first of all shouldn’t have authors. It is a scholarly paper, they are not appropriate, but a whitepaper really shouldn’t have an author. It's a marketing communication. It's not like a magazine article or a scholarly work. So I say to them, I don’t think… I discourage them frankly.

Byron:                           What are some of the marketing best practices that you talk about in the book, from your perspective, namely the content writer perspective?

Gene:                           There is a whole bunch of them.

Byron:                           Some of your favorites. You're critical elements. You're critical must-to-do.

Gene:                           The positioning statement that is, you know again part of the elevator pitch. The transitioning phases is how you're positioning your product or service vis-à-vis all others out there. All other options and other products, other competitive products, and that should be there somewhere high up in your communication. So that's key.

Byron:                           I have an interesting challenge for you to offer some advice to all the thousands of writers at WriterAccess. Are you ready?

Gene:                           Sure.

Byron:                           The 20,000 customers will just throw that pressure on you as well.

Gene:                           Okay.

Byron:                           Imagine WriterAccess as you know is a marketplace connecting 20,000 customers with 10,000 freelance writers and editors, translators and soon to be content strategists. We're all trying to make this matchmaking world a wonderful one. Customers are trying to articulate what they want and writers are trying to interpret that and create what they want, right. It's very hard to do.

Gene:                           Yeah.

Byron:                           Now we combine that with the wonderful joy of Uber, where everything is simple these days. Customers want to do business with us because it's easy to place orders, it's easy to find writers. It's easy to manage the workflow, so our software has to be crazy simple which is kind of a down-sider too. If you were to study our order form right now, which anybody can do and get a free trial of WriterAccess and just go look at the order form, there's a lot of pieces in there.

                                        There are descriptions, there's creative briefs, there's checklists, what's the tone and styles you want, authoritative, you get the idea. There's like, if you study that form there's probably 150 things you could fill out, imagine 150, so if you were trying to work with a writer in a marketplace, with a customer like ours, what would be most important to you? You mentioned positioning statements right? I know that you're probably going to want to talk about a specific product descriptions or whitepaper, an asset, but think generally with me right now.

                                        Do you think a customer can describe what they want in a paragraph or two and you can hit the mark on that? Say it's a blog post or a simple order, or even a whitepaper, because we have to deal with all these types of assignments, can this be simplified Gene, so you the writer could really run with this and maybe the process doesn’t work like you deliver the entire thing to them, maybe it's more literal process. What would it be designed like from your perspective?

Gene:                           I think it's potentially, this type of approach is/could be very effective, however, I think there is a continuum among customers out there, as just like there is among writers out there, some do really understand marketing communications and the elements, and how to create them and they understand what they're looking for in a writer and in a product, others just not so. There is, again less experienced marketing people, there is a triage that I go through where I'm helping them to understand really what they want and what they do. That's a little, what they're supposed to do with all minds template. I think again, it will probably just because most effectively with more experienced people who can really put down what they need and what they want.

Byron:                           So let me say something really radical at you, you've heard of E-harmony, the dating site where you fill out a profile of your wants and needs and desires and goals and activities and fun things you do and then somebody else fills out the same thing and  technology, Big Data if you will, finds matches. Do you think something like that could work with writers being matched up with clients and the other way around?

Gene:                           That's really interesting. It's funny you mentioned E-harmony because I work, I’m writing something now that deals with that whole world. That's a really interesting approach. Maybe, maybe, again it's all based on input. What people input is supposed to be the client and the writer will base on what their perceptions are of what they want, and who they are. If you're a less experienced marketer you might not know how to best fill out those details. There’s potential, but it's an interesting approach for now.

Byron:                           Yeah. What do you think Big Data can do for that matchmaking process?

Gene:                           I'm not sure. I thought Gardener just came out with a forecast that's saying in a few years like 20% of marketing is going to be written by robots. I know, and I know in a few years, there is a lot of AT stories being written by robots. I don’t know what to make of that frankly. I don’t think robots can create really, I'm probably wrong, but at least it's the one I know, can't create great communication that have style and can have a nice shift or feel about them. I think there's a limit to what Big Data can do.

Byron:                           Yeah. Well, I hope for us research goes out of business with that prediction. I'm with you believe me. Let me tell you what I meant by that because it was a little slightly different angle. One of the real interesting things about WriterAccess that we've been able to be part of with the growth of this company in the last six years is the amount of data that we capture literary with every order that goes through the platform. We know if a customer met or if a customer raided the content that it meet, exceed or below expectations.

                                        We know if writers are… if revision requests are being asked, although that's a tricky one from an algorithm and perspective, because we here at WriterAccess want a customer to actually give feedback to a writer, particularly when they start working with them for the first time. Whereas, if they're perpetually doing that and having problems with orders, that's a different kind of problem. It's difficult for a bot, an algorithm to understand those distinctions, unless it's the first five orders which we can block out from algorithmic rating, you understand what I'm saying.

                                        We're also looking at patterns of what customers are ordering. Are they ordering copywriting or general writing or blog writing, or medical writing, or legal writing? We force customers as part of these hundred things we ask them on their order form. What industry expertise do you want the writer to use this order being placed in? What type of writing do you want? Interestingly enough that often confuses writing because they think that the writer that they want to have work on this project might not get the order, because of filling out the industry specialty or something like that, but there's tons of data we're gathering.

                                        Then we have data on the other side of the coin, where we have writers go through what we call this burdensome questionnaire, where we want to learn all this data about them, how many projects have you completed and these industries and what’s your dah, dah, dah… Right, so Big Data can actually play a big role with the matchmaking process and that's what we're secretly trying to put together and do more with. Do you believe in that as a concept with all this data? And do you believe that because of that data we could maybe find great clients for a writer like you, and does that make sense to you?

Gene:                           Possibly. No, I know that definitely makes sense. I'm the recipient of that because I've been with natural clients already who might be LinkedIn, and I've had some very successful engagements based on keyword searches and all things that are written down. So yeah, I can personally attest to that.

Byron:                           Yeah. The content marketing revolution is in full force I think we can safely say. Right? What does that mean for you? Have you seen your income go up in the last few years? Have your prices gone up by the way and how do you charge? There are like three questions there by the way, my apologies.

Gene:                           Yeah.

Byron:                           But tell us generally about any answers you want.

Gene:                           I think the content marketing thing is very hot now however, a lot of the jobs obviously advertised strangely enough are in low level type of marketing. I don’t really understand that, I think people … There is a lack of understanding of the importance of content writing and I just don’t understand why it's so devalued because it's so important to the bottom line. I'm a little bit, I'm looking at it, and I'm not sure what to make of it frankly. I really think there is … and I know that for a senior writer which I am, and I charge either by the hour, which I don’t really like to do, but I sometimes I find myself doing, usually by the project which comes out a lot better for me, or on a retainer.

                                        I just recently finished like a five year retainer with a company that was then bought by another company which was then bought by a third company. Everybody that I was supporting was laid off, so that's why that ended, but … Now retainers, I love the stability of retainers because they really do have a long term relationship with the customer and to be of much more value for them that way. Projects are much more lucrative, and again as a senior writer, you're coming in … The benefits to the client as you're coming in, just to do the project they're not seeing you all the time. They are not giving you any benefit, they're getting someone that's specifically, that has a specific talent to write a specific key communication that they need.   I think it's a good deal for a customer. Yeah, go ahead.

Byron:                           Let's go back to the goldfish for a second, 'Herding Goldfish' tell us a little bit about herding, what's the underlining theme there that you have for us?

Gene:                           Basically you're trying to capture people with short attention span, and we all have a short attention span these days. I read the New York Times every day, but I rarely get to finish it, the complete article, except for maybe some of these editorials because I get it and then I move on. I get what their article's about and I move on. I think a lot of people are like that. It's a multi-triple and quadruple path and so you really have to write in a really compelling way and make it short or make it sweet and get to the point and strangely enough you, most communication is really not written that way all the time. It's not as effective.

Byron:                           What's the secret in your mind to staying on the top of mind with a reader that long after they've passed you by, something that you've written?

Gene:                           Shorter sentences, speak with some sort of voice and attitude, get to the point what you're talking about. As a journalist you're trained to write that way. Really to write a headline, and a lead-in and a main section that really, what kind of headlines are we talking about whether it's hard news, or a feature article. I think that really is just how communication has involved in marketing.

Byron:                           Final jeopardy question for you, what's the future of writing going to look like? Do you think that we're going to enter an awful terrible phase of writing co-written communication like we're seeing with the kids these days on Twitter or all kinds of different symbols and letters stuck together to transmit some sort of word that they are unable to write? What's your take on that?

Gene:                           You know, to be honest with you I really don’t know. However, both of my sons who are very technologically adept, both read articles. Both of their girlfriends read books. Hopefully the written words will maintain and even long form will maintain its appeal, I don’t think novels are going to go away, and it's great feature writing, I'm hopeful that it will be. Great writing will all, there will be a need for it, whether it's creative writing and/or marketing communication which also is great by the way.

Byron:                           Okay I lied. Two final questions for you which I love ending interviews on.

Gene:                           Yeah.

Byron:                           Who would you like to get a hold of you and how can they get a hold of you?

Gene:                           Who? I focus on technology companies. I'm really good at writing about technology items and I've specifically done a lot with software and networking, understand those worlds really well as I’ve seen them. You can contact me via my email address if you want me to spell it out for you or give it to you now?

Byron:                           Sure or just a website address is fine too.

Gene:                           My website is knauer-inc.com.

Byron:                           Terrific. Gene, it's been a pleasure chatting with you today, thanks so much for being with us.

Gene:                           Likewise, thank you so much. Take care.

Byron:                           You bet. Thanks everyone for tuning in, until next week, I hope I made someone smarter, better, faster and wiser thanks to Gene. Thanks for tuning in.