Successful marketing takes more than just running ads, publishing articles, and designing newsletters. With so many moving parts, running a successful marketing program can be elusive. So, use a thoughtful and simple framework to cut straight to the heart of what it means and what it looks like to get consistent results.
Today, we’re talking to Michael Brenner, the CEO of Marketing Insider Group and co-author of The Content Formula. He shares his global perspective and the secret to success when it comes to content marketing.
Jordan: Successful marketing takes a lot more than running ads, publishing articles, and designing newsletters. We all know that, but with so many moving parts, running a successful marketing program can be elusive, I think would be a good word. That’s why I love thoughtful, still simple frameworks, we, marketers can use to cut straight to the heart of what it means and more importantly, what it looks like to get consistent results. That’s exactly what we’ve got for you today with my guest, Michael Brenner.
Michael is the CEO of the Marketing Insider Group. He’s a keynote speaker, co-author of the bestselling book, The Content Formula, as well as the author of more than 1000 articles for huge publications like The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Entrepreneur magazine and more. If you’ve read words of the internet, you’ve probably read some of Michael’s.
What I like about Michael, too, is he’s also got this great global perspective on what makes marketing work because he’s jet setting and speaking all over, meeting marketers from around the world.
My name is Jordan Loftis and I’m really pleased to have you here for this episode and this conversation with Michael.
Michael, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Michael: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jordan: Can you kick us off by telling us more about what you’re working on these days and what you’re up to?
Michael: I am CEO of Marketing Insider Group. We offer content marketing strategy, as I say to help brands reach, engage, and convert new customers to their business, also offer content editorial services, as well, I’m also a keynote speaker and I love travelling the world and talking at events, at organizations about a number of topics, largely modern marketing, digital marketing, content marketing, and even getting now into a little bit more into culture and branding, and how to drive and plea, engage in customer, engaged experiences in the digital world, that’s something we get into maybe, and I’m a writer.
Jordan: Can you give us the cliff notes of how you got into the world of marketing and how you came to Marketing Insider Group. It’s always fun to hear the origin stories of people. We’ve read your articles all over the place and see you talks. It’s fun that I have the curtain peeled back a little bit. How can you get into this?
Michael: I’m going to try to make a long story short because as I mentioned in my speeches,
I actually went back and counted 52 different jobs over the course of my life.
Now, 22 of those were actually before I graduated from college. I worked my way through school and had a job pretty early on to have some money to buy the coolest and latest sneakers that I really wanted when I was a teenager, and gas money.
Since graduating from college, 30 different positions at about 6 different companies. I started my career with no clue what I wanted to do. I took a sales position with the Nielsen Company, I was an account manager, and would’ve never, in a million years, thought I was going to get into sales. I also thought I was going to stink at it.
After struggling for a few months, I found a pretty high aptitude for it, largely just because I felt I was just helping my customers and didn’t look at myself as a salesperson.
I extended that and I joined the marketing organization at my first company, the Nielsen Organization, to help customers at scale, it’s really how I defined marketing. I’ve been in a marketing role ever since, I’ve been in a marketing world ever since.
I was head of marketing for two startups, I joined SAP, and was their first head of content marketing, first head of digital marketing and really just tried to apply all of those things I learned from those first jobs. If you just help your customers or help your buyers buy and answer the questions that they have in that journey, then you can really succeed, and that’s really what I think content marketing is.
After SAP, I joined a technology company here in the content space to build a strategy practice, but found that I didn’t really need them to scale that business. Three years ago, I started Marketing Insider Group and have been doing the speaking, writing, consulting thing ever since.
Jordan: I’m still reeling from that variety of work that you’ve done. You’re no slouch obviously either. I love what you just said that marketing is helping people at scale. Can you talk more about that and let’s transition into the content marketing world here. Why do you say it’s helping people at scale?
Michael: I talk a lot about the counterintuitive nature of life. Without getting too philosophical, it applies very much to marketing. From a business perspective, executives and unfortunately, those of us I in marketing that have been in marketing for a long time, we think that marketing is just about talking about who we are, what we sell, and why we’re better. The joke I always make is, if you ask your mom what marketing is, what is she going to say? Usually, the answer from those people when I ask them that question is it's ads.
In college, I learned that marketing is 4Ps and there’s a lot more to marketing than just advertising. There’s a bunch of different stuff. It’s really about communication, a two-way dialogue between a company and its customers.
We think of marketing in the wrong way and we, as consumers, perceive marketing in the wrong way because most of what marketers do is just advertising and promotion.
In the world that we live in, that’s exactly the stuff that we hate, that we tune out. I think the Advertising Research Foundation now says that sales actually decline after 40 impressions of an ad from a brand.
What kind of marketing then does help or does work? When you look at it, it’s the things that are not selfish and promotional and interruptive. But it’s more aligned to what customers are actually looking for, it’s actually aligned to helping them. That’s why I think selling is helping buyers buy and marketing is helping buyers buy as well, but at scale. I think that’s really the difference between sales and marketing.
Jordan: Where does this start?
Michael: That’s a big question. I keep trying to not get into too deep philosophical state. It’s all about culture. There is lots of research out there. Jim Stengel, the former CEO of P&G wrote a great book that has inspired a lot of my thinking and writing called Grow. What he found was that companies that really talk about their purpose and their meaning in life are the ones that have growth rates that are 4-5 times higher than other companies.
Growth rates essentially are tied directly to the amount of empathy that a company has for its customers, for its employees, and for the world at large. It all boils down to culture.
Jordan: You said, growth rates are tied to the amount of empathy an organization has for people and for the world. How do we take that and say, “That does not sound like my company that I’m working right now, but it sure sounds nice.” Where do we start there?
Michael: It depends on where you are in the organization. If I’m the CEO and I do this all the time, I go to company websites and the claim that’s made on almost every company website is we’re the leading provider of X for X or Y. That’s a completely 100% selfish statement. It’s not a mission, it’s a product claim, it’s an ad essentially. What I want to see is what is your purpose, what is your meaning? What do you actually achieve for the people who you touch?
If you’re the CEO, the first thing you want to fix is your mission statement. What impact do you actually have in the world? Why were you created? Why was your company created in the first place? What mission or purpose do your employees serve and what kind of measurable impact does that have for either your customers or the marketplace at large? That would be the first thing.
Most of us aren’t the CEO though. How do we fix this if you’re even the lowest level person? It’s what’s in it for the customer. What I recommend for employees of any company at any level to start generating this **** that needs to take place in culture, is just ask with everything you’re told to do or everything you think you should do or everything that you’re currently working on, what’s in it for the customer? If you don’t have a good answer, then stop doing it. It’s that simple.
Companies or organizations that have employees and managers at every level that start to ask that question, they end up driving the change that’s needed. If you’re an employee at a company that doesn’t have that mission statement, clearly identify it on your website or in your marketing materials for what your purpose in life and what your impact is in the world. Start by just simply asking that question for the things that you’re working on.
Jordan: In your experience, when organizations, or even people within organizations, no matter where they’re at in the org chart, how does this work itself out into things like their content or whatever kind of marketing program they’re running? What does this end up looking like when it manifests itself?
Michael: There’s a couple of different ways I could answer that. The first thing is obviously, you would do less promotion and advertising and you do more content marketing. Maybe we shouldn’t call it that, let’s call it just education, or helping at scale, or answering customers questions. It really comes down to that.
You would see websites that are devoted to storytelling and to education and less to here’s our latest product and our latest press release, and the next event we’re going to be promoting our where’s at. It forces this complete change in perspective that is visibly noticeable on the marketing materials that you own, your website to start. That’s one way to look at it.
Another way to look at it is really in the form of what’s the amount of integration and interactions that happens across the company. One of the things that is interesting about the what’s in it for the customer question is that organizations that ask that question, they find that they actually need their employees to solve the problem.
What do I mean by that? For example, sales people get asked lots of questions or as we call them FAQs, but the salesperson is usually only answering that question for one prospect. Why not take those answers and expose them out to the world via content marketing, via your website. Or what about customer service? They are literally answering customer questions and concerns and challenges every single day. Why not expose those answers and those solutions on your website.
This is what we talk about when we talk about content marketing, but it’s also a complete rethinking of the way companies communicate with their brands. Step one is ask what’s in it for the customer. Step two is, what’s in it for my colleagues? Or what’s in it for the organizational silos around our company. What we find is that, “Marketing is a job that’s too important for the marketing department.” That’s a quote from Dave Packard from Hewlett and Packard fame.
It’s true. We need sales, we need customer service, we need HR, we need happy and engaged employees because they are the best reflection of the knowledge and passion and expertise that every company has. When that gets published, and communicated, and exposed to the audiences that we’re trying to reach, the impact is magical.
Jordan: That’s fantastic. I especially like hearing you talk about ask sales, ask customer support, get the language people are using in their asking and then spinning that around with what’s in it for your colleagues, too.
I’m hearing though that possible alarm bells going off in a marketer’s mind and say, “I want to be helpful and education sounds great and storytelling is so compelling to me, but what about conversions?”
Michael: That’s the third, what’s in it for the company? I co-wrote a book called The Content Formula. The book is really an answer to that question. What is the ROI of content? What is the ROI of customer focused marketing and selling?
The answer is actually 4-5 to 10-20 to 200 in some cases times higher than promotional advertising. I use example after example to showcase and highlight those different mathematical proof points that a helpful based marketing approach is much more effective than a promotional one.
There are studies that show that empathetic approaches to marketing or emotion based approach or human based approaches to marketing are all more effective than this who we are, what we sell and why we’re better.
The progression is, our companies want to know what’s the ROI, but what we really need to start with is asking, what’s in it for the customer? How do we develop a customer experience that our customers actually want to opt in to? Because those are the companies that really see higher sales, higher retention, higher loyalty, happier and engaged employees, and those are the factors that lead to ROI.
Jordan: That’s fantastic. Let’s dig into this empathy concept because I talked to a lot of marketers all over the world and we don’t hear talk about empathy very much, especially when it’s associated with being a top performing content marketer.
Again, what’s in it for the company? You just asked that, like, “We want to prove ROI.” Can you make this connection for us because I know you’re doing quite a bit of work in this confluence between culture, and empathy, and performance. Start unpacking that for us, if you would.
Michael: Why is the marketer talking about empathy? It’s a good question. It’s surprising to me even still to this day, but like is said, I wrote the book The Content Formula to answer the question. I heard it from hundreds of marketers and lots of CMOs like, “Hey, what’s the ROI when it comes to marketing?”
I went and answered to that question, but then I went back to those same companies and the folks that asked those questions and I found that they weren’t doing effective content marketing. I’m like, “Dude, you know the answer is that there’s a higher ROI? It can prove a return on investment that’s higher than whatever it is that you’re getting today.” Why are these companies still implementing? What I found was it was culture. Where we started this conversation.
Again, back to the book, Grow from Jim Stengel and my own research is just finding this direct correlation between companies that are asking what’s in it for the customer that are making an empathetic approach to the marketplace, that have an empathetic approach to their own employees, they are the ones that delivering success.
Call me crazy, I’m going to write a book called, The Empathy Formula, a play off of The Content Formula. Really get into, if you’re an employee and you’re unhappy in your job, empathy is the answer.
If you’re a customer and you don’t really care about the brands that you’re using. Research shows that 75% of us wouldn’t care of the brands we actually use, the companies we buy from disappeared tomorrow. There’s lots of research about the Fortune 500 and 75% of Fortune 500 that exist today will not exist in a meaningful way in 15 years.
At any level, you’re a employee, you’re a customer, or you’re an executive in a company, empathy is the answer. There’s a formula for success and it’s counterintuitive. It’s our natural instinct as a CEO to want to put a logo on a stadium that talks about how great our company is. It’s the natural instinct of a leader to want to tell their team what to do. It’s a natural instinct of an employee to think that they should be told what to do. It’s a natural instinct of a customer to expect marketing that actually helps them.
All of these things, we have to resist those natural tendencies and just think, “If I were walking a mile in the shoes of my own employees or my colleagues inside my company or the customers we’re trying to serve, what is it that we could do to serve them?” That’s really the secret.
Jordan: How did people start making this pivot? Or maybe, could you just even describe what does that look like for you? Has that changed anything for you having this epiphany and seen empathy as the crux of something really important? Has that changed anything for how you lived and market and work with people?
Michael: Absolutely. In fact I have two things that I try to do every single day. I’ve actually got a sticky note to remind me. It sits on my desk. It’s the letters T and E. I try to be thankful or show some sort of gratitude, I have the best job in the world. I have the greatest boss in the world. I get to work for myself. It’s pretty awesome.
I’m really fortunate and totally grateful for that experience and I’m only able to do that because I have the best family in the world. I have amazing clients who actually give me money. It’s crazy sometimes when I think about it. It starts by having gratitude and being thankful.
The E is just show empathy. It’s hard sometimes to show empathy for people that are being mean or that are making life difficult. When we realize that those are the people that have had a bad day, and we all have them, or life hasn’t gone the way they want, empathy can be pretty magical in this sort of changes. It can engineer in the relationships that we have. That’s really what it means for me, personally, I just try to be thankful for the life that I have and to show empathy for a single individual each and every single day.
Again, why are we talking about daily affirmations here? I think it’s really the secret to success in marketing. Again, my career has led me to this insight. I hope your audience doesn’t mind me sharing it with them.
Jordan: I feel amazing talking about it right now. I bet they’re feeling the same way. Let’s imagine for a second now, let’s put this into some context. Let’s say a listener is ready to map out a new campaign and they have an objective like we all do, but content is going to play a key role to this, so we could call it a content marketing campaign, just to be simple. How would you help them put empathy at the center of all their content and everything that’s going to be a part of this new campaign? How would you coach them to put that at the center?
Michael: The simple answer we’ve already covered, it’s just what’s in it for the customer? Marketing organizations that have the cultural air cover to ask that simple question, they radically change the way that they market overnight.
Typically, what I hear from people is, “Hey, I work in a very traditional culture.” Or “I’ve got a boss that really wants to see our logo up in lights all over the place.” It comes down to having some courage and push back, some people call it the Five Whys. If you just ask why, you’re doing something or why are you being asked to do something, a certain number of times, you get to a point where you can't answer it in a good way and you shouldn’t do it.
Why are we putting these ads out on websites that people don’t actually look at or click on? There’s no real good answer to that question, so you should stop doing it. Why are we creating content that actually helps out customers? Because they read it, they share it, and those readers and the traffic we get from it convert to leads and revenue. Okay, we should probably continue doing that.
It really just comes down to asking in the simplest form is just the question why. Or what’s in it for the customer which is a form of why. What is the impact that this has on the organization, that’s back to—What’s in it for the customers? What’s in it for our colleagues? How is this helping someone internally? What’s in it for the company? How can we measure the results? Just asking those three what’s in it for the customer, the colleague, and the company can really get you to a point where you’re going to end up not doing things that don’t work and serve your customers and only do things that serve your customers and work for the company.
Jordan: I love that framework. Those three questions are perfect. Thank you so much, Michael, for being on the show today. Last question here is where can we find your book? Where can we keep our eyes peeled for The Empathy Formula when it hits the shelves? Where’s our best place to keep tabs on you?
Michael: I self publish The Content Formula up on Amazon, so you can just do a quick search up there. It’s available on audio form as well. You could go to my website, marketinginsidergroup.com where I offer a PDF version for 50% off and just trust that folks won't email it out to their entire email database. I really wanted to help people with that book so hopefully you can find those things there. Amazon, marketinginsidergroup.com. Also happening, I engage folks on Twitter @brennermichael and/or connect with me on LinkedIn.
Jordan: Thanks a lot for being on the show, Michael.
Michael: Thanks so much for having me.
Jordan Loftis is the founder & head of manuscript at Story Chorus. He loves the nitty-gritty on topics like video marketing, copywriting, and waffle making—the latter being most key to his work. When not creating content or breakfast food, he likes to mountain bike, play music, and travel with his family.