Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Mark Evans and I'm the principal at Mark Evans Consulting, which helps startups and entrepreneurs tell better stories, also known as marketing. That involves strategic and tactical consulting — everything from messaging and brand positioning, to strategic planning and content creation.
Things seem very confusing when you're starting to think about marketing content. You have your target audiences and within that, at least a few different buyer personas. How do you know what to say to what groups?
It's an interesting question because there are many options when it comes to marketing. What you're trying to do is make the best decisions... but it's not a science. So you can't be sure what you're doing is going to work. There are fundamental things you have to start with and one of them is looking at your product. What is your product? What are the benefits? Who needs it?
Once you answer those questions, the next question is how to reach target audiences. You have to look at the buyer's journey in terms of the type of content they need to move through the funnel. It starts with discovery, then awareness, consideration, and finally the purchase decision. You are looking to create the most effective content that you can for every stage.
Going through the different stages in the funnel, like awareness, consideration, and buying... do you craft different stories for each step in funnel?
The stories can be the same or different depending on the target audiences and where they're at in the funnel. The content will change the most (or can change the most). The top of the funnel could be things like case studies, blog posts, and podcasts. What you're trying to do is get people to discover who you are and what you do and then have them engage with you. It tends to be fairly broad in terms of appeal and as people go down deeper into the funnel, you want to get a little more specific.
Middle of the funnel, you might give them an ebook or whitepaper that takes time to review but provides more details, context, and perspective in terms of how your product can help drive their business. Then end of the funnel, it could be a demo. They’re in the nitty-gritty — the final decision stages — trying to figure out if this is the right decision. They're really going to need a lot of details.
So the channels change, but the stories can stay the same. It really depends on what they need and when they need it.
You were mentioning different mediums depending on where the prospect is in the funnel, the popular ones seem to be case studies, e-books, webinars, blogs, podcasts, whitepapers, etc. I might be missing a couple but would you say that those are the main ones?
I would also add videos and infographics to that mix.
With your marketing mix, you want to take the best shot possible at aligning content with your target audiences during the different steps along the way. In some respects, you're trying to do your research so you can give your audience what they need, when they need it. At the same time — marketing is an experiment — you're taking your best guess the consumer is going to read your content when you want them to. But as we know, that's not always the case.
With any kind of marketing, you have to measure and have metrics so you can tell on a regular basis what's working and what's not. Sometimes, you do something that you think will work but it doesn't work because your target audience is interested in different things. It's a matter of constant experimentation and with enough feedback, you will find the right mix. It's definitely not a one size fits all proposition. There is no way of knowing what's going to work for you until you actually do it.
"The fewer things you focus on, the better chance you have to be successful."
Something I've heard you talk about in the past is prioritization in regards aligning goals with resources. Can you expand on that?
This was something that resonated with me a few years ago. A couple clients saw results that weren't as good as I hoped. I realized they had been so excited about marketing, and I was excited about helping them, that we had put together a lengthy list of things to tackle. We took everything to the 5-yard line, but couldn't push anything into the endzone because there were so many moving parts. It left everyone fairly unsatisfied in terms of what was supposed to be done.
It dawned on me that less is often more. The fewer things you focus on, the better chance you have to be successful. All your time and resources can be efficiently allocated so you can have two or three really successful channels, rather than six or seven that you are average at best.
That's a solid foundation for storytelling strategy, now getting into customer centric marketing. Companies love to talk about themselves and in doing so, they tend to neglect the buyer. What are your thoughts on that?
Inherently, start-ups are product-centric because it's what they do, and that's what they know. You look at early stage startups that are dominated by engineers and developers, and maybe a salesperson in the mix. To them, product is everything. Developing the product and selling the product consumes them. These kind of companies live in a bubble — they are focused on the product 24/7. They don't have a lot of perspective and they don't do enough research into who their customers are. It means they have little knowledge or appreciation about taking a customer centric approach to marketing.
"Startups aren't all happy times."
Is there a time or place that you are able to tell that product story about yourself, or is it really just about focusing on your customer?
I think that you can merge the two. One of the challenges for early stage startups is they don't have a lot of stories to tell about their customers because they don't have many customers.
There is a phase that these companies go through. It starts with talking about yourself and where you come from because entrepreneurs usually have interesting stories about their history and how they came upon the company and these 'founder myths' (that's what I call them). These are the stories you can tell that get people excited about being an entrepreneur.
Richard Branson has a great founder myth story about how he started Virgin Airlines. He was going to the Virgin Islands and he missed a connecting flight. So he rented a charter plane and walked through the airport with a blackboard telling people he was selling flights to the Virgin Islands for $39. I don't know if that story is true but it's a great founder myth story. [Apparently the story is true, read here]
The other way to talk about yourself in a way that is interesting is to talk about your challenges and the hurdles you faced along the way. Startups aren't all happy times. You go through difficulties and challenges. A company like Buffer provides complete transparency about how they hire, how much they pay their employees, and some of the marketing decisions they have made. This interests people because it's a behind the scene look at how a startup operates.
As you get more customers, you can start talking about them and their needs. This can be things such as case studies (which are really success stories), where you put the customer in the spotlight by highlighting how they benefited from your product.
"Unless you're talking to your customers, you have no idea what they're thinking or what they want."
Where would someone look to help discover what stories their customers are looking for?
Any time you can talk and connect with customers, it is going to deliver the insights to be a customer centric company. Avenues to connect with customers can be things like meet-ups, phone calls, and conferences. When you get the opportunity to connect with customers, you're trying to get their story and know who they are.
A good example is a Silicon Valley company, Close.io. When they close a customer, their CEO calls the customer and says something like "Hey, thanks for buying the product. I just wanted to ask why you picked us, what options did you consider, what did you like in particular, etc." What they found is customers will provide a lot of good information that can be used in future decisions, especially messaging. FreshBooks is another example of a company that is very customer centric. A few years ago, their executives went on a roadshow in an RV and stopped to meet customers for lunch or dinner along the way.
It could also be social media, by monitoring what people are saying about your product, your competitors, and your industry.
The bottom line is that unless you're talking to your customers, you have no idea what they're thinking or what they want.
Those are great examples, it really shows that being creative and standing out can really pay off...
There are so many companies trying to get the attention of customers, sometimes you have to think outside of the box. FreshBooks is a great example of a company that got a lot of attention for doing something that isn't your typical corporate behaviour.
Can you single out any other companies that have a successful customer centric approach?
The first one that comes to mind is Airbnb. What I like about them is that we don't think of them as an online service to book accommodations around the world. We think of them as a company that helps us improve our travel experiences and a company that makes it easier to connect with local culture wherever you go. They've done a great job at putting their customers in the spotlight and focusing on the benefits of travel. That's put them in a different class when it comes to selling a service.
I really like what GoPro does. Their philosophy is they're not selling digital cameras, they're selling the idea that you can capture life's experiences and share them with friends and family. Their marketing is amazing because it's driven by their customers. People take amazing videos and submit them to GoPro, which will use them within their marketing mix. There's nothing more powerful than having your customers say how wonderful your product is, or even better, demonstrate the experiences they have with your product.
I think the common denominator among the many companies that do customer-centric marketing they focus on the experience, not the product itself.
What are some useful exercises that companies can go through to make their messaging more customer centric?
One is the Business Model Canvas, it’s a great exercise to lay out the key questions you need to answer. It forces you to be clear and tight about who you are, what you do, and who you are serving.
Another approach is getting all your employees into a room (executives, sales, admin, customer service, account managers, delivery people, etc.). Then, ask them the questions they are getting from customers. The sales team might get different questions than account managers. The delivery people might get different customer questions than the customer service team. What you'll get in a couple hours is 100 questions asked by customers. Those will give you great insights about the content you need to create. At the same time, it gives you insight into what customers want, what they're thinking, and their points of pain.
"The more often you talk to customers, the better insight you'll have."
How often should companies be doing these type of exercises in order to make sure their messaging isn't going stale?
You should be talking to your customers all the time (or on a regular basis). It shouldn't be a quarterly or annual approach. The more often you talk to customers, the better insight you'll have.
In terms of exercises, you can do them monthly, quarterly, or annually, but it really depends on how fast your business is growing. It also depends on how much time and resources you have to go through these exercises. There isn't an exact formula for these things.
Once you've gone through these exercises and crafted all sorts of beautiful messaging that grabs your audience's attention, how do you make sure that it's going to convert to sales?
It's a real balancing act. You don't want to be too slick, but at the same time if you don't ask people to do something — book a demo, visit your store, download content — they're not going to do it. You need to realize you're in business to operate and grow a business. At the end of the day, you need to encourage customers to do something. It's great to create value-added content, but you're marketing for a reason.
Don't be afraid of being blatant because that's the best way of getting your audience to do what you want them to do.
That's awesome advice, it's something that we are going through right now at FunnelCake. We've never been too salesy with our content, but we're at the point now thinking about ways we can increase some conversion rates without having annoying pop-ups or adding page clutter...
There is a right time and a right place. At the end of a blog post, have a simple call to action saying "Want to learn more about this? Download this app!" It's just a matter of getting people to do what you want to do. And that's okay, because that is what marketing is all about.
What resources do you recommend for those looking to learn more? I know I would have a couple of your books on my list...
“The Inside Advantage” by Robert Bloom is a good one. It's a book that I keep on my bookshelf because it's a great reference in terms of making sure to remember that it's all about the customer. One that I read recently is “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan. It's an interesting read because it's about creativity, thinking outside of the box, and doing things differently so you can engage people in a world where everyone is multi-tasking.
Some blogs I like are Mitchell Harper, who writes on Medium. He's an entrepreneur who provides insight on what it's like to run a startup. Neil Patel has a blog called QuickSprout. If you're looking for tactical guidance from someone who's done it before, there isn't anyone better. As far as webinars go, you can't go wrong with Hubspot's content.
Maybe I should plug my own book, “Storytelling for Startups”, which is focused on helping entrepreneurs tell better stories. It looks at the benefits of storytelling and how to make stories happen. It's a prescriptive book - there are chapters about different marketing channels, best practices, and case studies.
Last question (and toughest), what is your favorite 90's dance song?
This one was tough to think of. After a lot of consideration I think I have to go with "You Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer. Tough choice, but I think it's my top pick.
That's a popular pick for this question. You can't get it out of your head once you hear it.
Thanks again for doing this Mark!
Marketing Coordinator at FunnelCake