Byron White: Welcome back to the WriterAccess podcast, everyone. I’m here with Shama. Shama, welcome.
Shama: Thank you so much for having me.
Byron White: Well, great for you to be here with us. We really appreciate it. Yes, we’re going to talk about your new book, Momentum, which is ironically out today, the day we’re recording this, so congratulations on that.
Shama: Thank you so much.
Byron White: Tell us a little bit about the premise of the book. Tell us what your mission was and how your book hopefully helps us propel your marketing and transform your brand. That’s a big responsibilty. Tell us how you came about that.
Shama: It is. I take that responsibility very seriously. I think to be able to tell you about my current book, I’ll just have to take a step back and tell you about my first one which makes sense in just a second. When I wrote The Zen of Social Media Marketing, which is now is going into its fourth edition this fall, it was one of the first books on social media. It’s one of the best sellers in the category over four, five years. I wrote it because it was just a hunger for understanding all this sort of newfangled ideas, right, with Facebook and Twitter and I’m trying to understand how social media marketing really worked. After the success of that first book, I had a lot of people say, “Well, when is your next book coming out?” That’s how it works. You write one and then it does well. You kind of get hounded for a second. I didn’t want to write something until I felt the time was right and something new needed to be said. I’m a big believer not adding junk, right? Or adding fluff to the world. I knew that if I wrote something, I wanted it to be something that people needed, not just something that I felt like I wanted to say, which I think works in fiction, a little less in non-fiction. After a few years of The Zen and looking at how overwhelmed people were and not just figuring out social media, per se, but marketing in this new digital ecosystem where it’s not about the tool, it’s just about this broader environment that we live in. Then Momentum was born, and it really was born from this place of seeing that overwhelm, ensuring that from clients.
Every time I gave a keynote talk, the questions would be the same. You could see how people were really struggling to get a grasp of this. I thought I wanted to write something that was broader, that was more strategic in nature and only focus on five paradigms and five principles of what it takes to market successfully in this day and age.
Byron White: We’ll get into that. But let me ask you a couple of questions prior to that. Momentum is an interesting choice of word. I think there are people out there that are struggling to get traction, not to mention momentum. What would you say about your title? Where did momentum come from?
Shama: A really good question. There’s people always on all levels, right? People were struggling to get traction. But a lot of the people that I spoke to, a lot of people that I connected with, again, different industries, different executives saw the same thing. They were so stuck, right? It’s like, “How do we get to that next level? How do we start building that momentum rather than spinning our wheels?” I think the antithesis of momentum would be stop spinning your wheel. Or being stuck, if you will. That’s a lot of the sense that I got from people feeling stuck, feeling like, “There are so many tools. I don’t know where to start.” Or, ‘Do we know if we’re doing the right things as a company? How do we get more attention from our customers when it’s getting noiser? Do we keep doing more? How much is enough?” All these sort of broader questions that I think have been… I think have gone unanswered or at least there’s nothing that I’ve seen that would serve as a guide to helping people through that.
Byron White: Is there a one-off formula that you’re suggesting or a strategy that you’re suggesting in the book, that will help people make sure they’re doing the right thing with the right customer or prospects, at the right time and get the best ROI for their investment? Is there a formulaic approach to things from your perspective?
Shama: I want to say there’s a formulaic approach as much as there is a framework that would allow one to do that, right because it’s going to look different based on your industry and company. But that’s where I came up with these five principles. The companies that I see doing really well, the brands that even we going to do work with that I feel like, “Wow.” We’re seeing great traction for them, if you will. They are those brands that are really following these principles that are working within that greater paradigm, if you will.
In that sense, yes, there is a method to the madness. But it’s not as formulaic as in, you know, there’s a plug in each hug answer.
Byron White: I have some questions for the wonderful writers that are listening in. But before I do, give us a hint with one of the principles. Take your favorite principle of your five and give us a hint and a description of what that principle is and why it’s relevant and important.
Shama: One of my favorite principles in the book is customer focus. What I mean by customer focus is not the old school customer focus which I think when people hear that, they think, “Oh yes, the customer is always right” or “The client should come first.” But this is different. This really goes to the heart of something that has shifted in the last few years. Here’s the best way I can put that. If you go back to the Mad Men era, if you think back to newly traditionally, it’s all been about what does our brand see that… speaking of the company, if I’m an entity I’m looking at and seeing what does our brand see about us? What do we want to be known for?
Now the question has really shifted. The question isn’t so much what does our brand about us, it’s what I’m doing business with us allow our customers to say about their brand. It’s not even a subtle shift. It’s a big shift because it’s understanding why people engage with certain brand, why people are attracted to doing business with certain companies over others, and it’s less to do with what the company says they keep standing for. It’s more, what if you allow that person to say about themselves as they engage? If that makes sense.
Byron White: It does indeed. Tell us a little bit about the challenges for content creation. No matter what your principles are, I guarantee you content is probably the centerpiece of just about everything you need to do with marketing these days. You need great content, right?
Shama: We do. Absolutely.
Byron White: Tell us how you go about creating all of this great content we need for content marketing success. How do we engage to our customers? How do we learn to do that? What are the secrets that you’re offering in your book and recommend; even to your existing customers you’re working with, clients you’re working with? What is the secret to creating great content?
Shama: Boy, that is…
Byron White: [Crosstalk] No pressure on you there.
Shama: [0:07:41 inaudible] I’m happy to explore it. I would see… I’ll answer it in two parts. Okay? Really great content comes from understanding your audience and understanding demand. Not writing because you feel like there’s something you want to say. There’s a time and place for that, but I feel like the content marketing that does really well is understanding what are people already searching for? How are they searching for it and then catering to that? One of the principles I talked about in the book for example, is to content duration because there is a sense that more content duration creates more and more. There was a place for… obviously you need good content. But it’s also becoming the source of wisdom for your customers, and that’s a shift. That’s going from… Providing just data because there’s tons of data. There’s no lack of information on the internet, right?
Being that source of wisdom, being that distilling filter, good writers I think good content marketers know that, know the difference between providing data and information and being that source of wisdom and helping people take actionable or giving them actionable insights. I think there’s a difference. A great example of this is the real estate market. For years, real estate companies have been a big part… They’ve done a lot of keynotes for various huge real estate companies and speaking to realtors. Probably the fear for the last few years have totally been unfounded. There’s always that fear of, “Well, technology is going to displace us.” If you think about it, technically, that could be correct, right? In the sense that someone can buy a list of home without needing a human being now. I mean we know there’s plenty of sites that let you do that. You can saerch, you can bid, you can… all of it. Yes! Over 90% of people still like working with the realtor. They like working with an agent. The why is really the big thing, right? The why is because that is what gets them that wisdom. It’s what helps them make a decision. It’s not just data. It’s what tells them, “Hey, you know what, this house…” for example, “This is a great value because they’re building a park here in the next two years.” That’s not disclosed anywhere, right? Things like understanding or the neighbors are great, or this is an interesting neighborhood because… Or whatever it may be. It’s helping people make those decisions based on who they are.
Maybe the family has a childhood disability, and that’s not something that’s going to come up in just data, right? But it’s understanding what that family needs and what would be the right fit for them. That applies across the board in every industry. It’s not just about more and more information, it’s about strategic information. It’s about helping customers, readers, prospects, make those intelligent choices that are right for them.
Byron White: Fascinating. I’m so glad you brought up the real estate example. I’ll tell you why in a second. My question for you is how can we better listen to the wants and needs of our customers, which is paramount to content marketing success? Let me now tell you why I want to ask you that question. It’s funny you bring up real estate brokers. My wife and I enjoy actually looking at properties. We’ll go travel somewhere for the weekend, maybe. [0:11:13 inaudible] Maine or Nantucket or wherever it is. Every once in a while we’ll have some fun and imagine buying a second home in that community. So we’ll go out and look at a couple of homes and see what’s going on.
Every time we meet with a real estate broker, we are dumbfounded with how little they want to know about us, how very few questions they ask us. It’s remarkable to me. We always get the same questions from no matter what the broker is. “Are you visiting town? Where do you live?” Not, “Do you have kids? What are your patterns? What are your vacations? What kind of amenities do you look for? What are your favorite styles? What are your favorite colors? Do you like landscape lawns?” Nothing. We get, “Where are you from and when are you buying? What price range do you want to work in?” Right? My question for you is, how can we better listen to our customers’ wants and needs? What tools are you using to listen to what customers may or may not want and need as they journey through the experience of your products and services?
Shama: Sure. I think you get on something so key which is asking the right questions or having that interest because so many people are interested in hitting that homerun, right, closing the sales, getting the customer that you sort of forget that you have to go through the basic. I mean once in a while, yeah, you may hit a homerun and someone may say, “This is what I need, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. This is the price range. Go.” Everything else doesn’t matter. That’s so rare in any business. What’s much more likely is that you build this relationship, you nurture this relationship. I think even if you listen and use these tools, you should bear that in mind. I mean one of the reasons people feel with social media, for example, is they look for those homeruns or they’re frustrated when it’s like, “Well, that tweet didn’t get me anything” or you know “Man, we’ve got zero customers from our Facebook page.” They have to be able to understand, which is why I think The Zen was such an interesting book and this picks up in some ways where that’s less off. It’s not just about the one tactic or that one post or that one… It’s that consistency, right? It’s not even about answering that one question, it’s taking that hollistic view.
I guess there’s really two things that I’m trying to say; one, with content and listening to your customers and showing them that you’re listening. It has to be done consistently. It’s not a magic bullet. You could’ve one blog post, right, that doesn’t do anything for you. It’s that consistency that helps you build your audience. The second thing is you can get tools at your disposal.
One tool that I’m a big fan of and we use across the board for our clients is Google keywords and seeing what do people search for. It’s a great way to figure out exactly what we’re searching for and more importantly how they’re searching for it. I’ll give you a great example of this. It’s such a funny thing because we think we know our customers, but I think we all can be a little myopic sometimes or have our technical googles on. Right? Here’s a great example and the reason why every project that we take is content-related. It starts with keyword research because for the longest time, airfare industry or I guess airline industry were going after keywords, low airfares, low airfare. Everyone thought, “No, low airfare.” They wrote in terms of that, they’ve spoke in terms of that. Until one day someone said, “People don’t really look for low airfare. They look for cheap tickets.” It’s such a shift because certainly when we talk with our friends or family, we don’t say, “Oh, I scored great low airfare deal.” They say, “I found a great cheap ticket.”
Byron White: Yeah. Right.
Shama: It’s even these sorts of things that can help. It can be the difference between an article that gets found and read and searched a lot versus an article that flounders in obscurity. All based on a few terms.
Byron White: Did you have any interesting conclusions about digital marketing as a whole? A lot of people think that better ads are outdated and content marketing has gained. But hang on, ad walkers are going to ruin everything and digital marketing is therefore dead. How do we need to think about digital marketing? Is digital marketing something that is in fact just really marketing, maybe? Everything is digital these days. Maybe digital is a word that doesn’t even express what we now do for a living in the marketing industry. What’s your take on this difficult thing, if at point, we’re in right now?
Shama: Yes. It looks funny because some of the things we’re talking about fall right into the principles, which again I feel like I‘ve seen that happen a lot and it makes me feel good, serendipitous, thinking that, “Okay, good.” The book is really hitting some of these questions, right, that people have been curious about. One of the principles of the book is immigration. It’s really based on this very concept. Bain Consulting coined a term that I’m a fan of called Digital. It’s this idea that the physical and digital merge more and more.
I think that great marketing these days happens on both levels, the physical and the digital. The more one feeds into the other, the better the stronger, right, your overall marketing is. It’s this idea of a really being able to leverage and connect everything. I mean think when was the last time you saw an offline add that didn’t have an online component. Right? I mean let’s take one of the most iconic traditional, not even just working but advertising platforms, Superbowl Sunday. The last two, three years almost every single ad has had a hashtag, has had a call to action. I mean we’re all forget the second device. It’s like third and fourth device. While we do things, we have our smartphones. This is something retail store space. People walk in the retail location and are price chopping on their smartphones.
When we sit down we work. It’s so second nature to us now to have the tablet going, the laptop, the cellphone. It all flows and we don’t even think twice about it. But as marketers I feel like a lot of companies still struggle with that, keeping things different or saying, “Well, that’s digital and this is traditional.” I feel like that merge is happening more and more. Specially now, I mean in the next ten years mixed reality comes to play where literally, and I use that word very specifically. Literally, it’ll be hard to differentiate between the virtual and the physical.
Byron White: Let’s go back to writing for a second. Our writers are really looking for some guidance and help. When you’re working with freelance writers, how are you tuning them in, no pun intended, to the style and tone that one of your clients may be looking for with content that they’re creating?
Shama: Sure. Whenever we work with freelance writers, a couple of things that we look for… Well, the biggest thing I think we look for is how quickly can they pick up on the client’s tone and style. In some ways that we do that with our clients too, we have a questionnaire that we start with to get the good sense from them of their brand and what they’re trying to convey, what is their audience like. Then we try to pull a few good examples and give the writers that to start with. I think with almost any client, there is back and forth initially to get it just right. But I think the difference between good writers and great writers are that great writers can pick up on those nuances very quickly and be able to pivot and perfect that tone and voice. In some ways, it’s not that different than being a good actor, right? A good actor performs and I think the great actors can find those nuances within a character.
Byron White: Arguably a good actress is only as good as a director. I think you’d find that to be interesting.
Shama: Sure. Yeah, that’s very true.
Byron White: Yeah. I think we’re toppling the million mark right now of the number of orders that have gone through WriterAccess. I’ll throw a couple of things out at you that we’ve learned over the years with so much back and forth. Number one, the writers of WriterAccess have gotten what we call creative briefs, phrase that you’ve used I’m sure as well. It’s a typical agency world. When we work with agencies, we actually have a creative brief, a white lable creative brief that we can have the agency send to their customers that offers these very questions that I’m sure you’re asking. Tell us a little bit about your company, give us an example of your work, what’s the tone and style you’re looking for, authoritarian versus journalistic. We’re diving into to creative briefs deeply.
The other thing we’ve learned that we’ve been doing a lot more of recently, is what we call a writing contest with our bigger customers would come in, we’ll have a new writer, a new customer particularly, will actually take the came order and send it to three different writers, under the condition that they’ll give each of those three writers some revision notes and some feedback on their order, so they can then get a second version back, a final version, to see how they’ve done. We found that to be extremely successful both for the writers interestingly enough as well as the customers. That feedback becomes imperative and it’s almost like I wish I could show the other writers which the winner was. But what’s interesting is our account team members have done such a good job in selecting three writers, the customers will oftentimes use all three of the writers for work and they will have a hard time picking between the three.
But what we find perpetually is that there will be some tone and style differences. Writers are approaching problems in different ways. They’re looking to pick up on the samples and follow those as a guideline. Many of them are reverse engineering the elements of what that sample looks like, you know, the tone, the rhythm, its approach, the sentence structure, lots of things I talk about in a book I wrote on the Professional Writing Skill and Price Guide, which is a cool free book that people can download. But yeah, what’s your take on that? How important is feedback to a writer in your mind and onboarding a writer to the needs of the customers? How are you bridging that gap? When you’re the agency in the middle, how was that feedback getting back to the writers?
Shama: Yeah. I mean the feedback is really crucial. Again, I think it’s great for the client and for the writer in question, right? With us, we have an inhouse content team. Because we work with so many diverse clients, we do bring on freelance writers often for different niches. To that degree, we tend to be very transparent. I think a sign of a good writer is one that doesn’t take the critique personally because it’s not. If the quality of writing wasn’t up to par, they wouldn’t have even gotten past that place. It always is… The writers who can again really see that for what it is for… Maybe it’s technical feedback. Maybe it’s just tone and style. I feel every writer has their own voice, sometimes it’s just a matter of matching that. But we tend to be extremely transparent in sharing whatever feedback we have from the client.
Sometimes I’ll say helping bridge that gap like clarifying what the client means because we have more experience with that client. Sometimes clients can be vague and say things like, “This read is too technical for me.” What they mean by tehcnical may not be, “Oh, you’re using technical terms.” It may be that they define technical as, “This read’s a little dry,” or whatever it maybe. So knowing the client certainly is very helpful. They think the writers that we also end up tend to working or prefer working with… Or people we’re familiar not just with that industry and client, but I’ve made an effort to get to know us and agencies, right?
It’s not an ego thing, it’s really knowing, “Okay, this…” they do their homework. Writers who have [0:25:11 inaudible] then, who are familiar with the momentum like they… I think it’s helpful because then I feel like they also understand our philosophy for our clients and have that broader underlying framework for how we work. I think that makes it easier to work with writers as well.
Byron White: I want to ask you about your own background because you’ve been named one of the top 25 entrepreneurs under 25 by Business Week in 2009. Yes, that was a little while ago, but heck, it just keeps going. Top 30 under 30 by Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes top 30 under 30, Movers and Shakers in 2015. You are on a roll.
Shama: I think.
Byron White: You’ve also… Talk about momentum. This book should be about your own momentum, right? You’ve also been to the White House. You’re honored at the White House and the United Nations as one of the top 100 young entrepreneurs. No pressure on you here as you continue to win these awards. How did you get in this circle? Was the book the catalyst for you really finding your way on this list is remarkable recognition.
Shama: Thank you for that. I have been… I will tell you, being a young entrepreneur, I started my company at 23 and so forth, it’s been a very exhilirating and humbling process. I mean a lot of these recognitions and things are what… It’s great because most days like most people are clickety clackety away. It’s not like that. I think what seems like, “Oh my God, this is great. Congratulations.” It’s not overnight, right? Like the thing, the old adage is the overnight success is 10 years in the making. I’ve certainly put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it and gladly because I love what I do. Content has played a huge part in it for sure. I think consistency is a very, very important. A lot of the principles that I talk about in Momentum I follow religiously, if you will, in building my own platforms and my messages. It’s been interesting to see how that’s evolved too. I mean even clients we market for, really anything. Today, I feel like it takes twice the effort with digital or really marketing in general to get half the results that you did maybe just two to three years ago. It’s true across the board for AdWords, for social, for email marketing. It’s just as noise increases, it is… You have to try harder and to get feedback.
Byron White: Right.
Shama: That’s just the way it is.
Byron White: What advice do you have for the fabulous writers at WriterAccess that are trying to advance their career and to connect with lots of customers at WriterAccess and to produce great work, of course, which is their goal everyday? What advice do you have about their writing and their career? How can they advance themselves?
Shama: Great question. I think a lot of times writers tend to… Just the nature of writing. Sometimes they tend to be introverted or... It’s funny because while they’re happy, they let their client shine. I think some of the best writers I found tend to be shy about promoting themselves. I think some of this is mindset issue, right? Making sure that you feel good about what you’re putting out in the world and creating a name for yourself in whatever industry is there. I think there’s a lot to be said about personal brandig. Even if, for example, you read the book Momentum and not thinking about it as a whole business, but even as an individual, there’s a lot of concepts that you can look at and say, “How does this apply in me?” Being able to be your own curator, keeping your best work, putting your best foot forward, sharing what inspires you, what writers were you excited about, are there… I think in that way writers can be very supportive of each other. I think sometimes that world can be a little siloed and like isolated. But it doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of room to cross promote each other, especially if it’s someone who writes in a different niche or genre than you do. I feel like some of the best writers have built up their books by referring business back and forth to each other. It’s so funny because the final principle in the book is about crosspollination and how you can start looking beyond just the boxes of these are my customers, these are my competitors, these are my vendors and start looking for more opportunities where you can cross-promote or you can do things with each other.
Byron White: Interesting. I want to share something with you about how we here at WriterAccess internally are trying to help our writers advance their careers and get your take on it.
Byron White: It’s funny, you’re a visionary strategist as it’s called in this write up that I’m looking of you right here, which is quite interesting. The leap to strategy is an important one. You even mentioned keyword research and some of the many tactics you’re using to try to get under the skin of the target audience and find out what they’re searching for. We’re about to launch content strategy as a freelance service that you can hire at WriterAccess. We’re very excited about it because a lot of our customers frankly need a strategist on board. They need somebody to help them with topic selection and keyword research and content plan development. Just keeping the workflow going, making sure the tone and the style is appropriate with all of these freelancers that you’re working with. That’s going to be something very exciting.
I believe that there a lot of freelance writers out there that can take that next step up, that have the interest and the passion for both content marketing and content strategy to dig down deeply and say, “Hey, I can do more. I can do more for these customers I’m servicing.” That’s going to be a very exciting future of us. That’s not billed by the word like it is right now ranging from two cents to two dollars a word. That’s billed by the hour, ranging from $35 to $125 an hour is what the customer is charged. Then, of course, talent in our world is always paid 70% of whenever a customer is paying us. What’s your take? What’s your advice on that leap from content creator to content strategist? How have you done that yourself? You’re an author of a couple of books. You’re doing strategy for customers. How do you define that leap?
Shama: Sure. I’ll say that I think for some people one comes easier than the other. Not for everyone. I will say that for me a lot of my writing comes from being a strategist first. That’s what I started with, if that makes sense. I’ll be the first to say that I’m not the best writer in the world, far from it; I mean there’s excellent writers, but I do believe because of my strategy background and more so practicing with clients and actually figuring out best practices. I write as I speak. My writing is very reflective of that. I would have a hard time, for example, if you said, “Hey, I want you to write in this tone or this voice.” I would struggle with that because I’m not… I wouldn’t say that I’m just… To me a great writer can do… Has a lot more with the bandwidth, right, in that way or has a lot more scope in that way versus I write about what I know. I have a very specific tone and voice. I think that’s great. I think to be able to get your… I think in an ideal world, every writer is a strategist to some degree, right? It’s a skillset that can be improved upon.
Even for me as a strategist, what that means is I’m constantly looking at tools that can help me do a better job. I’m looking at things from a different perspective. A lot of times it’s just about being observant and observing things from a different angle, which of course good writers do. Then there’s the actual process of putting it on paper, if you will, right? Or typing that up or being able to transfer that knowledge into a way that’s understandable for others.
Byron White: Two final questions for you, Shama. Who would you like to get a hold of you and how can they get a hold of you? Besides Obama, who I understand is probably already gotten a hold of you.
Shama: I would love to hear from really any of your listeners who are interested in exploring anything in terms of good questions on the book. One of the things that I love doing on Twitter, engaging with readers of the book and being able to chat with them and answer questions that they have. That’s always been such a fun thing for me. Yeah. I’m very active online, as you can imagine. I’d love for your audience if they would like to connect with me. There’s the usual suspect, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. There’s obviously my own site, shamahyder.com. If they do that, the I would say definitely sign up for the newsletters, because I tend to share some of my best work more exlusively with people, the subscribers. Yeah. I’d love to hear feedback. I think for any author, the most important thing that you can have for any writer, right, is an engaged reader. There’s no greater gift you can give an author than an engaged reader.
Byron White: Yeah. Right. So much fun being with you today. Great to have you here with us.
Shama: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on.
Byron White: Indeed. Best of luck with the book. We’ll be rooting for you and hopefully buying some copies with some listeners that will tune in.
Shama: Much appreciated. Thank you.
Byron White: Thanks again for being with us, everyone. Until next week. Hope your life’s a little smarter, better, faster and wiser and more enligtened things to Shama and Momentum. Thanks for tuning in. Bye bye.