Episode 9, Season 3
Why AI is Not Coming for Your Job, the Control Freak Buyer Persona, and a Bias for Specialist Agencies
Every marketer has been asked (potentially even haunted by) the question, “Is it measurable?” Our guest Joe Zappa and host Kriste Goad dive into the measurability of content marketing, AI for marketers, when to choose a specialist agency over a generalist one, winning the “War of Ideas,” and much more on this episode of How It’s Done.
Content is king, but what does it take to stand out online, and how can you measure the impact of your content? Joe Zappa, Founder and CEO of tech B2B marketing agency Sharp Pen Media, shares insights from his transition as journalist to freelance content marketer to strategist leading marketing, content and PR programs for Ad Tech, Martech, and B2B Tech companies.
In this episode we discuss:
- The importance of an agile and industry-specific marketing agency
- When you should hire an agency vs. freelancer
- Why ChatGPT is not going to take your job, if you’re good at it
- The leading indicators of content success
- Why agencies are truly more flexible than freelancers
- The true value in content marketing and content strategy
- How to measure the quality and impact of your content
- The beauty of balancing creativity and strategy in content creation
- Why a holistic marketing strategy is needed before quality content can be created
- Generative AI tools can be useful, but they are not a replacement for strategic thinking
- The value of repurposing and maximizing the lifespan of content
More From This Episode
( 3:25 ): Joe talks about the importance of a strong strategy in content marketing
( 6:00 ): Joe and Kriste compare freelancer vs. agency and when to use one vs. the other
( 10:04 ): Joe describes why you should never work with a generalist marketing agency
( 15:04 ) Joe explains why spending on an agency can be more valuable than hiring in-house
( 16.20 ) Joe and Kriste dive into the important role content plays in B2B marketing (and why it can be difficult to see how it is helping)
( 21:01 ): Kriste details the challenges of standing out in a crowded healthcare market and the need for a multi-channel strategy
( 26:11 ): Kriste talks about the importance of answering the fundamental questions first and the role the C-Suite has to play
( 28:09 ) Joe discusses the suboptimal nature of a limited communication between agency and client (and why an agency that is able to speak to different levels at the company can deliver the best results)
( 29:19 ): Kriste asks Joe what the best means of measuring content effectiveness and if/what leading indicators he sees. (The answer will surprise you)
( 32:13 ): Kriste gives insight into repurposing content for strategic marketing purposes
( 34:41 ): Kriste and Joe discuss dark social and how to measure it (along with the importance of anecdotal evidence)
( 40:35 ): Joe and Kriste discuss generative AI and why it can’t replace good marketers (Hint: It has to do with the audience and a sprinkle of nuances of marketing)
( 49:58 ): Joe explains why thought leadership is his favorite form of online media
[00:00:04.410] – Kriste Goad
Hello curious marketers! Today’s guest is Joe Zappa, founder and CEO of Sharp Pen Media. Joe is my favorite kind of people because Joe is a content marketer. He’s a journalist, an academic who spearheaded content programs for dozens of businesses. He was editor of the Martech Trade Pub Street fight from 2018 to 2023. He’s also way smarter than me. He earned his BA from Brown and a PhD in Comparative literature from Cornell. I am in awe. Welcome, Joe!
[00:00:50.810] – Joe Zappa
Thanks so much, Kriste. All I’ve ever wanted is those plaudits, so thank you.
[00:00:55.570] – Kriste Goad
You are so welcome. Thank you for that script you sent me. Kidding. Seriously, though, I’m super excited to have you on, Joe. I love this topic of content. We’re going to talk about a lot of really very interesting things. Obviously, as you know, our audience is made up of Curious Marketers, so I definitely want to cover off on the value of content. What is content? Content strategy. Should we be worried about generative AI, really, all the things, how do you measure the quality and impact of content and then for sure want to cover off on. You and I are both in agency land. We’re trying to sell our services to clients. And I definitely want us to talk a little bit about how should our clients be looking at how to hire an agency like ours? What should they be looking for? So I say we dive right in.
[00:02:02.780] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, that sounds great. Where do you want to start?
[00:02:05.670] – Kriste Goad
Well, how about we start with at the top, which is, tell us a little bit about Sharp Pen Media. What is it? What do you do?
[00:02:13.130] – Joe Zappa
We do marketing strategy, content and PR, mostly for Ad Tech and Martech companies, also for some other B2B tech companies. So I’m a journalist by training, as you mentioned. I moved from journalism to freelance content marketing, and I was writing for a bunch of companies in our space. So I basically went from writing about the companies to writing for them. And then I started this agency when I had too much work to do myself. Very natural freelancer to agency owner path. Originally, we were really in content, and I was freelancing with a bunch of PR agencies. We do both now. And the reason we got into strategy, as I think we’re going to get deeper into, is because, as I’ve discovered, and I know you’ve seen the same thing, a lot of companies, especially earlier stage companies, they want content or PR, which is great, but first they need a content strategy. Or communication strategy, but even more fundamentally, a holistic marketing strategy to understand whom they’re targeting, where they’re going to reach those people, and then how content fits into it. So we’ve sort of become a strategy led firm to supply that before rushing to creating content for our clients.
[00:03:25.500] – Kriste Goad
I love that journey. So you never really set out to start a content agency. It just sort of organically happened.
[00:03:35.780] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, two years ago I was finishing the aforementioned PhD and I was freelancing and I thought, oh well, maybe someday, maybe in five years I’ll have an agency. And then it took off faster than I had anticipated and by the time I had like seven or eight clients I was like, well I can’t possibly do this all myself. So you start outsourcing the writing or account management or project management, whatever it is, and then you find yourself as an agency. So I think if any freelancers are listening, that is always my advice to freelancers in our industry is like, I don’t know, do it yourself until you get to the point where you organically are having trouble fulfilling. Because a lot of people will ask that, they’re like, okay, well, should I keep being a freelancer or should I have an agency? And I think part of the beauty of marketing is that you can kind of naturally grow into having an agency. But was that your experience?
[00:04:32.150] – Kriste Goad
That was exactly my experience. To be honest, I never set out to have an agency, that wasn’t my childhood dream or anything. And yeah, when I left my last agency, I was just an independent consultant and then in very short order, I had more work than I could do myself. I was partnering with other freelancers and it was a 1099 situation and then it just kept growing and I’m like, okay, well, I’m going to have to be an agency I guess and hire folks. And I think any agency that I’m aware of, of any size never stops outsourcing in some form or fashion with freelancers or partnering with other agencies. So that was absolutely my experience.
[00:05:20.970] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, I think that’s true. I think also most agencies don’t at some point decide that they’re going to go completely full time or freelance. Right, you’ll keep using freelancers for a long time just as you were a freelancer. But to me that’s a benefit that’s a great part of marketing agencies. You don’t need to go out and take out a $500,000 loan or something like that to get it off the ground. You can bootstrap it in freelance and then shift when needed. And then I think relatedly, and maybe this is like a natural next thing is companies like in house marketers might often wonder, should I hire a freelancer or an agency?
[00:06:00.530] – Kriste Goad
That is a big question. I get a lot from clients when I’m in those early stages talking to them and a lot of times I’ll tell them, okay, you’re not ready for an agency yet. Even a smaller boutique agency. Yeah, freelance sounds like the way to go for you. Or sometimes the answer is, hey, there’s room for both. Especially if you’re looking at, you need help with strategy. A lot of times you may or may not find that in a freelancer. If it’s a freelance writer, in my experience, not very many writers are also doing overall content strategy. The answer is sort of like it depends, but definitely every freelancer also doesn’t want to then go on and start their own business.
[00:06:44.910] – Joe Zappa
Oh yeah, that’s very true. But yeah, other people in business love when they hear that from marketers, right? It depends.
[00:06:50.570] – Joe Zappa
But I think for me it’s like two main things in terms of if you’re choosing between a marketing freelancer and a marketing agency. The first is do you need a strategy? Right? So you and I have talked a lot about that. There are some independent senior consultants out there who could help with the strategy. But generally speaking, especially if you’re in the content universe or the PR universe, a freelancer, they might be good for the tactical stuff like emailing reporters or writing content, right? But they’re probably not going to talk to your CEO and understand what are the high-level business goals and then how do we create a strategy to achieve those objectives. The other reason you might end up working with an agency instead of freelancers is some people just get really burned out on the unreliable nature of a lot of freelancers. So again, I was a freelancer, I love them, I championed them, but there are a lot of freelancers out there.
[00:07:51.610] – Kriste Goad
[00:07:52.730] – Joe Zappa
That miss deadlines or maybe they’re just not available. And that’s fair. When you’re a freelancer you don’t sign up necessarily to be available every time the client asks for something.
[00:08:03.080] – Joe Zappa
But sometimes if you’re like an in house marketer and the entire reason you’re trying to tap an external resource is you’re like, I need this done and I need it done now. You might not want to email five different content freelancers and see who can write the article. You might just want to know like, I have an agency there, their entire business is to satisfy this need and they’ll be there when I need them.
[00:08:26.930] – Kriste Goad
That’s such a great point and that is a big part of the value proposition, right? It’s like, well, we have not only people on our team that have different skill sets and we know who to tap for what, but we also have people in our network that we know who to tap and we’re going to get it done because you’re our client and we’re here to please you. And it’s a much different relationship and along those same lines, and I’m sure you experienced this as well. Another reason to start my agency was I might have all the right freelancers lined up for a project, but by the time the client pulled the trigger and signed the contract, they may have taken on other clients and I couldn’t blame them for that. They’re there to make a living as well. But when you’re a freelancer, you go where the work is. And if someone’s dragging their feet on making a decision, when that person comes back to you, you’re a party of one. So you just might not be able to do it. Whereas an agency, you’re going to have a lot more resources.
[00:09:33.600] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, and I think I’m going to add that to my list of flexibility or rather reliability strategy are two reasons to go with an agency instead of a freelancer. The third, to your point, might be flexibility. Right. So when you work with a freelancer, generally they have, as we all do as individuals, they have a narrow set of capabilities and you’re like, I have this need and they fulfill that need. Part of the idea of an agency is that what you end up doing with them isn’t always what you thought you were going to do with them.
[00:10:04.320] – Kriste Goad
[00:10:05.510] – Joe Zappa
Yeah. And so having that flexibility of like, they have a team and they have a network of people with various capabilities, I think that can be really helpful because I know as a content agency, we have clients where it’ll start and it’s like, we’re going to write two thought leadership bylines a month. Right. And that’s it. It’s just executive ghost writing. And then it might turn out that it’s like, well, we need like a full fledged content strategy engagement, or like we need people to do media relations and pitch us for stories.
[00:10:37.690] – Kriste Goad
We need a headshot, we need a video.
[00:10:40.320] – Joe Zappa
We need design.
[00:10:41.470] – Kriste Goad
We need a website. All the things absolutely, that happens all the time. Let’s also talk a little bit about specialization because subject matter specialization is something that you specialize in. Adtech, Martech, I’m over here specializing in healthcare, B2B, those are very distinct areas. Talk to me about who are your clients. Why is this area of specialization important? Why is that an important distinction for your clients? For any client that’s looking for an area of specialization? Because every freelancer, every agency is not right for every need.
[00:11:25.880] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, well, we both have these very industry specific agencies, so obviously that’s the correct way to do it. And you should never work with an agency that’s not doing what we’re doing.
[00:11:36.130] – Kriste Goad
Why would you ever work with a generalist agency?
[00:11:41.010] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, so I think that there are huge benefits. Obviously I think this to working with an agency that specializes in your industry. The reason is that every marketing agency will tell you we’re going to study up on your industry
[00:11:41.010] – Kriste Goad
We’ll get smart.
[00:11:59.770] – Joe Zappa
We need to know your industry as well as you do to do good work. And I think that’s pretty much true. But if the agency doesn’t actually specialize in your industry, it’s not possible for them to get to that level. Now I think there are marketing tasks for which you don’t necessarily need quite that level of expertise. Like we have one client that’s in the HR space, they are very sophisticated and put together. What they really just need is like someone to synthesize data and work off their outlines and their ideas and produce reports. So I don’t think you need someone with deep HR expertise to do that because the company is so mature and they have past examples of the work and really detailed briefs and all that.
[00:12:56.140] – Kriste Goad
And sounds like internally they really have a great team that knows what they’re doing, which is a huge benefit.
[00:13:03.380] – Joe Zappa
Exactly. They have a marketing team of 10-ish people. They have a VP of marketing and a comms person specifically who’s closely working with us. In that sort of situation, I think having a superb writer who can comb through the data and find the interesting points and put together a story is more important than the vertical expertise. If you do not have that, if you’re really going to depend on your agency to come up with ideas and to develop a narrative and to think about how you fit into the industry conversation and how to hijack the discourse. It is very hard to come in as a marketing agency person who does not know an industry at all and just start reading some trade publications and figure out how to position the company in that industry. So I think it goes back to the strategy. Tactics divide, right? If all you need is tactics and you have a sophisticated marketing team, it’s probably just more important to find someone with the marketing and writing capabilities. But if you need that strategic help, if you need to understand what’s our narrative and how does it fit into the industry, then I think the industry expertise is extremely valuable.
[00:14:17.820] – Kriste Goad
That’s a great point. I like to also tell my clients it’s the difference in I mean, we’re living and breathing your industry every day, and we have other clients in the space, so you have the benefit of that knowledge. We’re immersed in it every single day, and so we could bring different points of view and ideas that someone who’s not living and breathing it every day, whose client base is, say it’s like restaurants and hotels and, oh, let’s throw in a martech company, you’re not going to have that depth. And then you can spend more of your time really diving deep on your clients business. Do you find yourself doing that?
[00:15:04.690] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, I think so. I think another thing that struck me as you were speaking is that the vertical expertise is often where it becomes clear why you would spend, let’s say, $10,000 a month on an agency and not on an in-house person. Because if you’re just doing tactics, it can be hard to say, why spend $10,000 a month on an agency when we could pay a full time person $90,000 a year and it works out to $10,000 a month with all the bells and whistles. And that person will write an article every day because they’re a full time employee. But if what you’re looking for strategic insight and industry expertise, that $90,000 per year full time employee probably cannot rival an agency that might have two or three people on the account who are senior marketers in your industry. And so I think that’s an area where you want to look at not only the industry expertise of the agency, but also specifically who’s going to be on the account. Because different accounts call for different talent. Like if it is a tactical engagement, you don’t need those two or three senior people.
[00:16:20.680] – Joe Zappa
But if you want someone who’s going to develop the narrative for your company, then you better make sure that not only is it in a healthcare agency, but that someone actually doing the work, not just the person selling the work, has years of healthcare marketing experience.
[00:16:37.950] – Kriste Goad
Yeah, well, let’s pivot just a little bit and talk about what’s the point of doing content, period. What is the value to brands, to focusing on content?
[00:16:50.580] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, I was explaining the other day what I do to someone who doesn’t know anything about marketing. And sometimes that can be a clarifying exercise. And what I was saying to them is in B2C, it’s often about impulse, it’s about design, it’s about look and feel. In B2B, when you’re selling, especially if you’re selling like six or seven figure contracts, it’s really a war of ideas. Like you are trying to convince your buyer, who can probably choose between three to ten similar products, why you are the best fit to solve that problem. And that largely comes down to influence and the perception of expertise. Content is how you build that perception. Of expertise, which is also called a brand. Right. So often the way these decisions are going to be made, and you can tell me if this is the same in your industry in healthcare, but in ad tech it’s like, let’s say you’re a major agency and you’re looking for a media buying platform like we call demand side platforms or DSPs. There are dozens of them out there. So if they just go on what they’ve heard and you are not producing content and you are not participating in the industry discourse, it’s very unlikely you’re going to get chosen. And then even if you are participating in it, the job of content and communications is to figure out what within the thousands of companies looking for DSPs. What is the specific slice of that group of companies for which we want to be perfect or are perfect, and how do we communicate that with content, so that our ideal customers actually know who we are and know we’re the best possible fit to solve their problems? And I think if you’re not establishing that awareness by getting out there to begin with in front of your customers, and then if you’re not differentiating, it’s very hard to win that battle because this isn’t Facebook, right? It’s not like viral product dynamics where someone joins up and then eight of their friends join up and so on. You have to be present in the conversation and you have to differentiate. But is it the same in healthcare?
[00:19:27.130] – Kriste Goad
Yes, it is very much the same in healthcare, especially healthcare B2B, the space that I’m in, because there are so many people, companies, brands out there selling things to a fairly limited audience. Like at the end of the day, there’s only so many hospitals and health systems. There’s only so many health plans or health tech, but there’s new companies and brands coming on every single day. And especially with AI, there’s this influx of digital solutions, and there’s only so much that this limited audience of decision makers. If everything sounds the same, then who knows how they’re going to make their decision? But you’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to have a differentiated point of view, a differentiated value proposition, and you’ve got to be out there with content that is showing up in multiple channels. You can’t just rely on a single channel because you never know what channel those buyers are going to be tuned into. So you have to really have a strategy that I think crosses a lot of different channels. Sometimes clients don’t have the budget to do that and then we help say, okay, here’s the ones that make the most sense for this audience.
[00:21:01.490] – Kriste Goad
Here’s where we know this audience is. And so, okay, let’s invest there. But yeah, it’s absolutely the same.
[00:21:08.630] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, maybe I can provide really quickly, a specific example. So a collaborator of mine, Paul Knegten, he was the CMO of Beeswax, which exited for well over nine figures to Comcast. It was an ad tech company a DSP. And Beeswax’s problem, as Paul tells it, they were in this sea of DSPs, like this sea of media buying platforms and technologies, and they were having some issues with churn. And they just like many companies, they were having success and they’re getting a lot of attention, a lot of pitches, but they hadn’t yet figured out who exactly is our ideal fit. What they ended up figuring out was that the clients who stayed the longest and with whom they had really successful relationships and whose business they won, it wasn’t necessarily a firm graphic. Like, it wasn’t something you could tell on paper, like, oh, it’s like companies from this industry or with this many employees or something like that. It was, as Paul puts it, control freaks. Beeswax had this very sophisticated technology and they worked really well with media buying teams, whether it was in house like an Uber, or agencies who really wanted to get into the data of their media buying, like get into the nitty gritty of the process. And other companies were repulsed by this. Right. You could imagine if you just want a really easy experience, you don’t want a platform for control freaks that you might be like, those people are wasting their time. So it took some internal selling, but they needed to ultimately align on this narrative. And then how do you communicate that to the industry? Like, how do you say to all the agencies or brands or whomever you’re targeting, we are the platform for control freaks? You need to go out there.
[00:23:12.580] – Kriste Goad
Oh, my God. For me, I’m like, just say it just like you just did. That will get a control freak’s attention. Right. So did they do some audience research to come up with this control freak persona?
[00:23:27.740] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, well, I think that’s a great question because the question for a lot of companies is, okay, this sounds good. Yeah, I want to find my version of the control freak narrative and find the ideal customers and communicate directly to them. But how do I do it? And this is where, as you and I have talked about, offline strategy and the research that informs strategy is essential because a lot of companies is completely understandable. You have a lot of stuff to do, and it gets to where you’re sort of going through the motions, like, you’re doing content, you’re doing the daily work of comms. But usually hiring an agency is a good time to do this. It’s worth stepping back once a year or whatever it is, and reevaluating the fundamentals. Like, what is our version of the control freaks? To whom should we really be speaking? How do we reach them? All that so, you know, what Paul will do with us is he will interview the executive team. He interviews the marketing team. He does like a half day workshop with them. He interviews three to five customers. It’s through that sort of research driven work that you’re going to be able to unearth, what do our customers actually care about?
[00:24:42.970] – Joe Zappa
And then you can deliver a marketing narrative based on that.
[00:24:48.240] – Kriste Goad
So that sounds like another situation where you’ve got a really great partner on the inside of the brand that you’re working with who’s really doing a lot of that strategy work, that legwork that goes into strategy and giving you something really great to work with. Is that accurate or you’re part of that strategy work too?
[00:25:11.430] – Joe Zappa
Well, we are driving the strategy work. So the way we think of it is, like, Paul in that situation is operating like a short term fractional CMO. So usually those are companies that they probably don’t have a CMO because it’s so that person would see the strategy work as their role. They either don’t have a marketing leader or they have a more junior marketing leader who probably has a strategy on their own, but might benefit from a partner who can think it through with them and come up with some additional insight. And so some of the companies with which we do this, we work directly with the CEO. And generally the CEO is going to want to be involved in this level of thinking because it’s not just like, where are we going to put the content? It really is fundamentally like whom are we targeting? And that’s like a C level and board level issue. That’s not just like marketing tactics.
[00:26:11.040] – Kriste Goad
Right. And what are we saying to them? That’s very much CEO in my experience, does want to very much be a part of that.
[00:26:19.870] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, for sure. And it’s funny because in business these are the fundamental questions and in a way they sound perfunctory and it’s like, yeah, well, they are the most basic questions and the most basic questions are the most important and the people who answer them get paid the most money.
[00:26:36.350] – Kriste Goad
And I don’t know if you found this, but they’re the basic questions that oftentimes are not answered. And so when you set out to create a content strategy or a marketing strategy or any kind of strategy, it seems like those questions would have been answered at some point along the way. But that’s just not always the first thing when you’re starting a company or growing a company, that’s not always the first thing that you’re doing
[00:27:07.290] – Joe Zappa
Well, it’s also that I agree and it’s also that the answers to those questions evolve. Like as you evolve, as your market evolves,
[00:27:15.600] – Kriste Goad
[00:27:16.190] – Joe Zappa
You get more data. We’re marketers, but we also are CEOs, the owners of our own agencies. And I’m sure you’ve seen, as I’ve seen my ideal customer and what I think about them is constantly evolving. Probably the evolution slowed down at some point the older the agency is, but it’ll never stop. So that’s the other reason it makes sense to sort of check in on this on at least an annual basis.
[00:27:41.500] – Kriste Goad
Yeah, we’ve started doing quarterly business reviews to really try to get that out of our clients and hey, what’s going on? What are you hearing if you’ve got a salesperson involved in those conversations because they’re the ones they’re getting something new every single day, right? And they’re testing messages every single day. Inevitably in the modern world, a lot changes in a quarter.
[00:28:09.670] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, for sure. And the other thing you just said there is really pertinent as well, which is that it’s very common in agency relationships that the agency hardly talks to anyone outside of their point of contact who might be like a VP of Marketing or a VP of Comms. And that is definitely suboptimal.
[00:28:31.650] – Kriste Goad
Suboptimal is a key word.
[00:28:37.990] – Joe Zappa
Yeah. It’s probably an understatement, right? At least in the beginning. Have to have that direct download with maybe the CEO, maybe the head of product, maybe the head of customer success customers because that’s how you develop a full fledged understanding of the product and what the customers think about it. And if you don’t have that understanding of how are we perceived now, and how do we want to be perceived, and how are we going to traverse the gap. If you’re just working on limited assumptions or the status quo, you can get all the placements you want, but you’re not going to achieve business level objectives because you’re just raising awareness of what’s already happening. You’re not changing anything.
[00:29:19.890] – Kriste Goad
That’s a great segue into how do you know when your content is effective? How do you coach your clients on quantity versus quality versus some other measurement? Talk to me a little bit about that.
[00:29:36.560] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, I think measurement is an infinitely tricky thing in content and comms, but I think the important thing for marketers to remember is that ultimately, what the CEO and the board care about and they hold the purse is revenue. So we need to be able to tell the story of how our work ladders up to pipeline or sales opportunities and then revenue. At the same time, there are a whole bunch of leading indicators that can indicate whether what we’re doing is working well before it gets to the point of a sales opportunity.
[00:30:17.460] – Kriste Goad
Talk to me about a leading indicator, Joe.
[00:30:20.270] – Joe Zappa
Revenue closed. So, like, if you’re doing social, obviously engagement follows these things. People get mad about them because they’re like, it’s vanity metrics. And I’m like, well, it’s a leading indicator. It’s a sign. Is your social content resonating with your target audience or is it not? I would say the thing to focus on to make sure that it’s not just vanity, is your audience actually showing up? Because, for example, you can do HR stuff. You can talk about basic workplace issues like remote work, and your company may have nothing to do with that, and you’ll get a lot of attention. But the leading indicator in that case that would really matter is if we want to sell to adopt professionals. Are the adopts professionals actually showing up for our content or like, SEO? It’s the same thing, right? Where it’s like, are we getting some conversions? Are we getting traffic? Like conversions might be the thing you ultimately want for someone to book a demo call or something like that, but you might not see those within a month. But the SEO people I know and trust will always say, like, okay, yeah, it’s true.
[00:31:34.190] – Joe Zappa
It might take six months for your SEO strategy to start really making a big impact. But within two months, you should start to see leading indicators that it’s having some impact with bylines or like, the PR type content. Those are like, the hardest possible thing to trace from placing a byline in an industry trade publication to opportunity. But you should still be able to say, are we getting these placed? Are the placements desirable? Are we saying something that no one else is saying? So I think these are some of the leading indicators that can assess whether content and comms work is effective or what do you think?
[00:32:13.560] – Kriste Goad
I would definitely agree. And especially on social media, if the right people are engaging, following, sharing, that is a leading indicator. Is your audience growing? Are you reaching the right people? But then it’s also so tricky because so many people it’s anecdotal. There’s so much anecdotal evidence out there that may or may not ever trickle down to your ears. So that’s something that we do, is we try to proactively if we can get the salespeople and the marketing people, or at least get the marketing people to ask the salespeople, hey, what are you hearing? Is there even anecdotal evidence that people are seeing our stuff? Even if they’re not commenting, even if they’re not raising their hand? Because there’s a lot of that that’s out there happening. We used to call them the lurkers. It’s sort of like you run into a friend and you hadn’t seen them in years or months or whatever the case may be, but they know everything about you because they’ve been following everything you’re putting on your social media channels. Right. And they’re like, oh yeah, how’s your kid? Oh my gosh. And you’re like, the only way they would know this is they’ve seen my posts and the same thing is happening in business.
[00:33:37.580] – Kriste Goad
And believe it or not, when we straight up ask for that kind of input, we almost always get at least one good anecdote, oh yeah, I actually had an email from a guy just the other day, and that’s really hard to measure.
[00:33:53.040] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, I think that’s a fantastic point. It’s a tactic everyone who’s investing in content income should be leveraging is, do you have some systematic way when you bring in prospects, and especially when you bring in prospects like close or customers to understand some of the touch points? Beyond the touch points, you can easily measure because that is where measuring the dark social phenomenon or PR really comes into play. And I think in small companies, I see that all the time. In my own agency, right. It’s very common that someone will say to me as the salesperson and the evangelist, I saw your stuff, or whatever, but the bigger the company is, the easier it is for that to get lost. So I agree. That’s great
[00:34:41.690] – Kriste Goad
Absolutely. The other thing that I think is really important is internally on the client side, making sure that either we’re coaching our clients or they already know or you built it into your plan or your strategy, that when we do create content or we do get a media hit or whatever the case may be, that it doesn’t end there. That’s the starting point for that piece of content. And then it’s about what else can you do and should you be doing with that content to get the absolute most out of it? Because it can have a lot longer life than just that one act of creation or one act of publication. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen. But especially if it’s a smaller client, we’ll make sure to be like, hey, this piece of content got published. Or hey, we got this hit in the media. If you haven’t already, here’s some content for you to post on social or be sure to share this with your team and sales team. It can be an excuse for them to reach out to their prospects either coldly. Usually it’s people they’ve been talking to as a way to keep that conversation going and move them further down the funnel.
[00:35:56.030] – Kriste Goad
Hey, I didn’t know if you saw this, but it can also be just a conversation starter and just help keep that content working for you.
[00:36:04.340] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Content repurposing content is a way underutilized tactic and sometimes a story is so big like you should be leveraging it constantly. Maybe it’s even worth putting on your home page. Like I know a company, a collaborator of mine, they’re an education company and they basically got this huge ProPublica investigation of their sector and the investigation revealed all these shady tactics by their competitors and basically upheld them as the speaker of integrity. And it’s like that’s the kind of PR work like you milk forever that’s foundational.
[00:36:44.770] – Kriste Goad
You can’t buy that kind of marketing or PR.
[00:36:48.720] – Joe Zappa
[00:36:49.700] – Kriste Goad
That’s awesome. So as we were talking offline preparing for this podcast, you talked about something that I thought was really interesting that I would love for you to speak to our audience. But that’s basically as marketing leaders inside companies, how should they be thinking about hiring an agency? Marketing agency or a PR agency or content partner? You said that you really like to encourage people to look at three things… process, people, and audience. Talk to us about what that means and elaborate on that a little bit because I really love that.
[00:37:28.060] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, for sure. So, three factors to consider when you want to hire external content or comms help process, people, audience. The first thing is what we were talking about before. Do you need a strategy? Do you need tactics? If you want outcomes? Like if you want, like we want to increase revenue or pipeline or MQLs or whatever, you probably want strategy because you’re looking for someone to have a business results level impact. And that means that unless you have a very refined understanding of what that entire process looks like and you just need people to pull the levers, you’re probably actually looking for a partner who has senior marketing expertise and who can work with you to say, okay, we know the goal. Let’s work backwards from that and figure out the strategy to achieve that goal. Or again, maybe you want someone more tactical. Maybe you have a very sophisticated understanding of what you need and you just need a great writer. And in that case, going out and finding a freelancer could work. Unless again, you want to consider the flexibility or reliability pieces that we talked about earlier. So that’s process. People.
[00:38:33.440] – Joe Zappa
What I would stress here is once you understand the level of help you need and the process you might want in an agency or a partner, you need to evaluate. Not just is the agency like when I go to their homepage, do they look like a good fit to solve this problem, but in the sales process, who are the people on my account team? And do I actually believe that these people can solve that problem? Because agencies like the two of us, they’re always founded by someone who was able to found that agency probably because they had senior expertise in their industry and they could solve a problem at a high level. But then often what happens is the actual account teams are cheap labor.
[00:39:19.190] – Joe Zappa
[00:39:19.490] – Joe Zappa
So it’s just really people without those expertise and again.
[00:39:24.230] – Kriste Goad
Not at our agencies.
[00:39:25.820] – Joe Zappa
No, of course not. But there’s always a place for that. It’s not like everyone on your agency team needs to be this heavy hitter who’s making $300,000 a year.
[00:39:37.550] – Joe Zappa
It’s just that
[00:39:38.510] – Kriste Goad
Right and they’re not as old and wise as me yet.
[00:39:42.200] – Joe Zappa
Right, exactly. But the thing is
[00:39:44.890] – Kriste Goad
They’re certainly not as old as me yet.
[00:39:47.530] – Joe Zappa
If you have a strategy problem in particular or you have strategic or results level need, you need to make sure at least one person on the account has that strategy experience and can say like, I’ve owned revenue targets or I’ve owned comms programs or whatever. So that’s something to keep in mind. And the last thing is audience, and we touched on that earlier. Does the agency understand your audience? Are they going to try to get up to speed on B2B healthcare overnight? Or have they been in that industry for years and years and they know it as well as you do? Because again, every agency is going to say that it’s probably not true unless they have a demonstrated track record of working with companies in your industry.
[00:40:35.370] – Kriste Goad
So speaking of track record and experience and knowledge and just good old human ingenuity, can we talk a little bit about because everybody’s talking about the impact of generative AI on content development and oh, I don’t need any of these people. I don’t even need someone on my team because I can just go to AI and come up with what I need. Would love to hear your perspective on that because I am guessing that you get asked about that. And with your PhD background, you’ve probably done a lot more deep dive into the topic than I have at the academic level. So I’d love to know your thoughts on that.
[00:41:18.910] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, so it was the only question I was getting asked by anyone I met in marketing from, I don’t know, when was it? February until June. I think it’s starting to slow down a teensy bit, but I think that the obsession with Chat GPT and with Generative AI is reflective of a broader problem in marketing, which is that we tend to be obsessed with tactics and efficiency and we lose sight of what has the biggest impact on our business, which is what we were talking about earlier, which is strategy. Like, the three components of strategy are narrative differentiation, go to market, like where are we putting the content, how are we reaching our customers? And measurement. We touched on all three of those things. That is going to have a far bigger impact on your team and on your company than implementing a tool that is ultimately intended to increase efficiency. Like Efficiencies are great, they are not going to fundamentally change your business or your marketing performance. So I think Chat GPT and other generative AI tools are mainly useful for two things inspiration, like if you want to come up with ten possible headlines for an article or education.
[00:42:42.930] – Joe Zappa
So if you have never written an article about location data, and you want to get a sense of what would a blog post like this look like, and you have a specific prompt, I think chat GBT can be somewhat more useful than Google for that because you can engineer the prompt and get a specific blog post that speaks to your clients needs. And then you can go off and either iterate on that blog post or write something yourself with the information you’ve gleaned from the tool but like my fundamental thing with Chat GPT and generative AI. And the reason that I think there’s a bit of a collective hallucination going. On around it is that
[00:43:26.770] – Kriste Goad
Collective hallucination. I like that.
[00:43:29.060] – Joe Zappa
Yeah. I think it’s Scott Galloway who says like mass hallucination all the time, like there’s absolutely a mass hallucination with generative AI. It’s like this is like the Messiah, right? And this is going to make this massive impact on our marketing performance. I don’t think it’s true, at least in the immediate future. I don’t think it’s like fundamentally changing marketing or making marketing teams tremendously better. I think for some of the tactical content and comms needs, especially if you’re playing a quantity game, like if you are just trying to churn out commodity blog posts, chat GPT might save you some money and that’s fine if that’s the game you’re playing. But fundamentally the success of B2B marketing in particular will come down to do we have a unique story? Are we laser targeted in terms of understanding who our customer is and how we’re speaking to them? And Chat GPT is not going to answer those strategic questions for you.
[00:44:36.520] – Kriste Goad
I 100% agree and I think that as long as humans are the ones that are in charge of companies and running companies and making decisions, there’s going to need to be humans on the other side, creating the content and writing the story and coming up with the sell because then it also comes down to conversations. You’re actually still talking to humans at the end of the day and nothing can really replace that. But just like any tool, the Internet, for goodness sake, makes things a lot more efficient, faster. Now we have the world at our fingertips, but it’s only created bigger opportunities rather than anything opposite or closed down. I mean, sure, it’s impacted industries, but some industries die, new industries come up, everybody else evolves.
[00:45:35.840] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, well, and something I love in the way you said that is that I do think the human dimension of marketing is important to remember when it comes to the impact of generative AI. But I think where some marketers go wrong on that front is they start talking about emotions. And it’s not that emotions aren’t important because they are and they’re a dimension of marketing. But I think when as marketers, we talk about emotions and why we can’t use chat GPT because of them, other business people think we’re being really wishy washy and annoying and not persuasive. And I don’t think it’s fundamentally or mostly about emotions. I think the reason chat GPT is insufficient is because it’s creating commodity content, which is a synthesis of everything else out there that it’s vacuuming up. And therefore it’s not based on this very fine nuanced understanding of the humans to whom you are marketing. And that’s what I like and what you said is that it is about humans and it’s about your customer being very complex. And again, you want to market to that, whatever the analogy is for your business of that control freak and that level granular understanding about your customer is not something that a tool that costs $100 a month can do for you.
[00:46:56.070] – Joe Zappa
That is where the money is made in marketing. It’s a very strategic thing and we’re going to have to keep relying on humans to do that one.
[00:47:05.750] – Kriste Goad
Thank goodness. Love me some humans. Hey, so unfortunately, we are going to have to start to wrap up this podcast because I could talk to you and talk about this topic all day. So I’m curious, as a content guru, do you have a favorite kind of content that you personally just love to create or produce or even consume?
[00:47:37.210] – Joe Zappa
Yeah, especially within the marketing sphere. I would say the thought leadership byline is probably my favorite form of content. I loved ghost writing them for other people, I love writing them for myself. Why? Because I think it tends to be fairly high level. It’s not promotional, it’s not directly about your product, but it’s more like the work of what we’re doing here and then you can consume it in like four minutes. Right, so I think that I consume a lot of podcasts, I consume a lot of columns because they’re both doing that intellectual work of making an argument about the space. And again, in B2B marketing. I think that’s what it’s all about, it is a war of ideas, and it is convincing someone that your take on their problems is more inventive and more impactful than your competitors.
[00:48:28.270] – Kriste Goad
I love the way you just explained thought leadership, because throughout my whole career, I have spent so much time explaining what thought leadership is to so many different people. It’s almost like I used to work at this company and we had this ongoing battle, well, what’s the difference in PR and marketing? I’m like, oh, my gosh, are we really having this conversation again? But the way you just described it’s a war of ideas, and that immediately sort of differentiates marketing speak or marketing content from a thought leadership piece in my mind. I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but love the way that you explain that.
[00:49:20.530] – Joe Zappa
No yeah, I do. I mean, I think you can have marketing content that’s about your product, or it could be SEO content. There is marketing content that exists just to pull people in, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, yeah, that’s not the content I’m most like creating, of course, because the kind that’s really fun to create as a senior marketing person is the ideas stuff. It’s like, what is our thesis on this space and why does it matter? And why should people work with us and not our competitors? And the reason may be because we understand their problems better than our competitors. And that’s a fun enterprise to be involved in.
[00:49:58.770] – Kriste Goad
It really is. Okay, a final burning question. Joe, what’s your current obsession? It could be Barbie. You’re a Barbie guy, I can tell it you’ve probably seen the movie three times now. It could be a streaming series, a book, a blog, a podcast, an album. Go.
[00:50:17.270] – Joe Zappa
I am currently watching The Wire, which I know is 20 years old, but I have just gotten around to watching it, and I’m in the middle of season four, and it is very good.
[00:50:30.040] – Kriste Goad
Is it still as good as it was when it was first produced?
[00:50:33.060] – Joe Zappa
You know, I couldn’t possibly say, given that I was embarrassingly young at the time. But It is a very engaging watch, and I think it holds up.
[00:50:45.500] – Kriste Goad
I’ve never watched it either. Well, I maybe watched the first season, but there’s like a million other seasons I might have to go back to it. You know, this also reminds me of something I say a lot about content and about repurposing content. If someone hasn’t seen it, it’s new. So as long as there are people out there, if it is still quality content, as long as there are people in your audience that haven’t consumed it, keep putting it out there.
[00:51:15.100] – Joe Zappa
And you know what’s wild is even if they have consumed it,
[00:51:19.070] – Kriste Goad
They’ve probably forgotten it.
[00:51:20.540] – Joe Zappa
It’s still probably new.
[00:51:22.560] – Kriste Goad
It’s still probably new if you’re like me. Yeah, I’m like oh, did I read that last week. I don’t remember. Yeah, I love it. The Wire. Okay, well, Joe, is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you’re just dying to cover?
[00:51:36.980] – Joe Zappa
No, I think we’ve covered a wide gamut of vital issues.
[00:51:43.810] – Kriste Goad
Content is king. I didn’t go into the brand journalism, but we really didn’t have time, so it’s no big deal. Nobody cares about brand journalism anyway, Joe.
[00:51:52.780] – Joe Zappa
We essentially covered it.
[00:51:55.870] – Kriste Goad
Alright, Joe, listen, this has been so amazing. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts and all your insights. Before we sign off, will you share with listeners the best way to get in touch with you?
[00:52:09.790] – Joe Zappa
Yes. There are two ways. One is to go to podcast.Sharppenmedia.com, and the other is to just find me on LinkedIn, which you know is just search Joe Zappa Sharp Pen Media, and you will find me.
[00:52:23.730] – Kriste Goad
I don’t know if I’d said how cool your name is before, but Joe Zappa? I mean, come on, that’s awesome. Okay, well, that wraps up this episode of How It’s Done. My guest today has been Joe Zappa, founder and CEO of Sharp Pen Media. As always, we’ll include links and background in our show notes, so be sure to check those out on our website, growwithfuoco.com How It’s Done podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Thank you, Joe. I’ve really enjoyed our time together.
[00:52:58.540] – Joe Zappa
Thank you so much for having me on.
[00:53:00.350] – Kriste Goad
[00:53:01.210] – Kriste Goad
That’s it for now. Thanks so much for listening. We’re looking forward to keeping great conversations coming your way as we grow this podcast. There’s even more great content from our conversations on our blog. Be sure to check it out at growwithfuoco.com. That’s growwithfuoco.com. Stay tuned until next time, and no matter what, stay curious.
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