How To Develop Editorial Values That Improve Customer Success With Gregory Ciotti From Help Scout [ACM 016]
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Publishing great content that makes your clients successful is the real challenge of marketing. Having editorial values that help your team stay on the same page while creating customer-focused content is the key to success.
Today’s guest, Gregory Ciotti, content marketing manager of Help Scout, can help your team create your own set of editorial values and find the connection between content marketing and customer success. Learn how to make your customers more successful, which, in turn, contributes to your success!
Some of today’s highlights include:
- The lowdown on Help Scout: What it is, what they’ve been doing, and Gregory’s role as content marketing manager at the organization.
- How Gregory defines great content: something that solves a problem, something that contributes to business goals, and content that serves as a positive representation of the company.
- The elements of Gregory’s editorial values, including strategy, tactics, and examples. Gregory suggests some objectives to consider when creating content.
- What Gregory means by “vivid writing.” Being clear and imaginative is a challenge, but necessary to make you and your customers successful.
- How to use content to provide context between prospective customers and your product or service.
- Methods for gathering customer feedback to help you better understand what to cover in your content.
Quotes by Gregory:
- “We believe in shared execution, but we all have specialties [at Help Scout].”
- “High standards for writing contribute to how others see us as a company.”
- “Perception is about identifying ideas that are tired and worn out… it’s gained through experience and thinking.”
Nathan: How can you publish great content that makes your customers successful? Isn’t that the real challenge of marketing? It’s a question Greg Ciotti and the marketing team at Help Scout have been working really hard to answer. Greg is Help Scout’s Content Marketing Manager, and he along with his team have developed editorial values that help everyone stay in the same page as they develop amazing customer focused content. And to top it off, Help Scout has been working to connect the dots between content marketing and customer success.
Hey, I’m Nathan from CoSchedule and today on the Actionable Content Marketing Podcast, Greg is helping you create your own editorial values and he’s going to help you make your customers successful at what they do. Let’s learn together with Greg.
Hey Greg, thanks a lot for being on the podcast today. I’m really excited to get your take on creating content that’ll make customers even more successful.
Greg: Awesome. Thanks for having me on, Nathan.
Nathan: We are just super excited. I guess getting into it, Greg, I just want to know, could you give me the lowdown on Help Scout?
Greg: Sure. Help Scout is software for creating better customer experiences, right now we have a suite of support tools which include our help desk, docs which is our knowledge base software and Beacon which is an embeddable tool that you can install on any page. That’s where customers can search and read through docs content or review feedback and altogether, these tools help our customers provide better experiences for their customers.
Nathan: I’ve really admired what Help Scout had been doing. Specifically, some of the content that you’ve been publishing lately. Just to fill everyone in on your role at Help Scout, what do you do there?
Greg: Sure. My official title here is Content Marketing Manager. To get a really good sense of what I’m responsible for, it will probably be best to give you a brief overview of our content team. We believe in shared execution on a lot of the most important stuff, but we certainly have specialties.
We are a team of four. Devin is our director of content and she’s definitely primary responsible for process goals, keeping the whole ship afloat. I’m not giving her enough credit, she really keeps the whole operation running. We have Matt, to understand his role, he’s somewhat middle of the funnel. You’ll find him on all of our webinars, he was actually the customer service team leader or our campaign monitor and through that experience he writes a lot of–he’s kind of our up-close for support managers who are curious in how do I switch to a help desk, how do I grow a support team and all that great stuff. Emily is our lead in terms of best in class support content. Just the other week, she released a guide on building your career in customer support and I was able to sit back and get some of the glory from people who thought that I contributed when in reality it was really brought to life through all of her work and interviews and all that stuff.
I also contribute to the blog and probably my area of specialization is a little bit of organization, a little bit of promotion. When we had our content audit for a search back in August, I took the lead on that project. I’ll often work with syndication partners and things like that.
Nathan: I’ve been reading a lot of your guy’s contents at Help Scout, those names are standing out to me, actually. I’ve read also some things on your personal blog. That’s the whole point of why I wanted to get in touch with you. You’ve written a blog post that you’ve titled “Great Content Is Still The Biggest Hurdle.” I want to know, how do you define great content?
Greg: There’s a lot of small traits that I think make up three big things you have to continually revisit or continually hit with each piece that you publish. At first, I would say it’s something that solves the problem for your customers or something that gets them to ask better questions. I’ve since added that second part because I feel like, lot of people say the first, you’re often in a situation where dictation or prescription advice really isn’t the best answer, it actually is the better opportunity to just get your customers, to get your readers to ask better questions and therefore find the better answer for the distinct problem that they have.
That’s, in summation there I would say, the first trait is something that is content that solves a problem for your customers or gets them to ask better questions in a compelling way, which is important. The second part is the content that contributes to business goals. You are not in publishing business when you are a content marketer, you’re in the product business in some sort, whether it’s software or services. You have to have content tied back to business objectives.
Third for us, this is for us personally but a lot of people will agree. Content that serves as a positive representation of the company, some of what we do in terms of quality is built around this, we definitely feel that the highest standards for writing contributes to one and two but it also feels like high standards for writing contributes to how people view us as a company and that matters to us for tangible things like recruiting and hiring and also just for how we project ourselves to the world.
Nathan: I think your philosophy on great content naturally ties back to the things that you publish at Help Scout. I’ve seen you use the term ‘editorial values.’ I was just wondering if you could explain how you developed those editorial values at Help Scout.
Greg: In particular, we have three that we continually come back to. That’s concentrated, incisive and vivid. The genesis of this was actually a retreat that we had. Emily and I were giving a presentation on how we sell team writing, possibly, work in the future. The saying is like the best way to learn something is to give a presentation on it. The anxiety of having that crystal clear keynote helps you form your own ideas.
In giving the presentation, I wanted to address the push and pull for team writing. What motivates people to do it and what might help you on the tracks, what anxieties were there. In terms of what helped people up, I definitely noticed that we needed to demystify the editing process. It’s rough to have your thoughts put to page, you spend a lot of time on them, you send it over to somebody and lo and behold what comes back is a lot of green lines in Google Docs where your ideas have been deleted, replaced or modified. It’s something that people who do not write often, I don’t say struggle with it, but it’s a new thing for them. If you can break down that barrier a little bit, we felt people will be more responsive to editing and just feel more encouraged to contribute and not feel so afraid of just getting some incredible feedback to make their ideas better.
I consider it a success if I can summarize our values in the slide. I was like that’s the goal, if I can get it into a slide leaving some room for nuance through the explanations, I probably did a decent job. I ended up with this venn diagram and it contained the three traits I kind of created just thinking about what do I constantly do to my own pieces, how do I edit guest pieces, where am I constantly fixing things and what things am I actually fixing? The values end up being concentrated which is this idea that you might capture big ideas in a small space with no words wasted. It’s a very particular word that we use instead of something like concise because we think that shallow or basic ideas can be express concisely.
The next one is vivid which is the tricky blend of being clear and imaginative. Whether that’s connecting the dots between what an experts knows and what the reader knows through analogy and metaphor, making things a little more approachable, or whether that’s just cleaning up the sentence, turning an accurate statement into a timeless statement. I often go back to what my dad always says, exercise improves everything, he’s one of those guys who bodybuilding changed his life. That’s kind of a killer quote in some ways, it’s a lot more meaningful than exercise really improves a lot of stuff. Both are very clear, but one has much more punch than the other, right?
The last one is incisive. This is definitely the trickiest one. It has more to do with thinking than it has to do with writing. It’s a mix of perception which is knowing how to carve out a nice, complete idea. Not biting off more than you can chew. It’s also perception in terms of knowing what ideas are tired cliché, over covered.
Being able to pierce into the heart of an issue. One way that I see content get really close, it’s that they’ll carve out this nice, unique idea, something that I haven’t seen and have wondered about myself. But then because it’s difficult to dig in deep and address something, the author will tiptoe around the issue. You’ll get a 50,000 foot overview when you wonder a ground level look, I really want the nitty gritty. Incisive is a really, really tricky one. It tells about how you think about the problem and that’s our last and most important value.
Nathan: Honestly, those traits are probably why you have really stuck out to me as publishing some really interesting stuff at Help Scout. I want to explore those elements of your editorial values a little bit more deeply because I think other marketers can start implementing something similar in their content programs. I guess my next question for you is how do you ensure what you publish is concentrated at Help Scout?
Greg: There is the strategy and the tactics for this. The tactics are things like how many times can you eliminate the word ‘VAT’ in a piece of writing, I must control that ‘VAT’ and see how many times it appears. Another one that is tactical is reducing the number of adverbs that you have. Again, something that I call back to is the phrases Hulk-Smash not Hulk-Hit-Angrily. One has a little more punch than the other. There’s kind of strategy which is simply like the overview of asking does this need to be said or does this support the article, does it support the thesis.
One kind of exercise we do behind the scenes, but as I shared before, I also think it makes for a fantastic introduction in many cases. Identify the author objective and reader incentive. The objective is what am I trying to say with this, why does this piece need to even exist? The best way to do that is to use strong, plain language versus an outright statement. Let’s not start it like a third grade book report. “The reason I wrote this blog post is because,” let’s not do that. Just a very strong plain statement; you’re playing your flag, you need to defend it throughout the rest of the article. The reason I think that makes a great introduction is because it surfaces your point at the very top and you have to support it until the last sentence.
I also encourage people to think about incentive too. And again, it’s not about outright standing, it’s more about the implication of why you should care. Even if you don’t use this in your introduction, having the objective and the incentive right up top in your draft or just top of mind, it just really helps you keep focus on that piece and it helps you draw the line instead of being dragged around by it in terms of letting your post get too lined with everything you want to include instead of just supporting the objective and incentive.
When you have those in hand, you can continually ask who cares? Like who cares about this, why is this here? That strategic approach ends up killing a lot of fluff. I won’t say it’s much more important that the tactical edits that you do, the copy edits for concentrated writing.
Nathan: Another editorial value that you’ve mastered at Help Scout is incisive. I’m wondering if you can define what you mean by incisive content?
Greg: I don’t know if I would say we’ve mastered it but we try. Incisive really comes back to perception and like I said piercing into the heart of the issue, not toying around something. A couple of notes about perception, like I said, one is really understanding the scope of your piece and being able to carve out a perfect slice of an idea. Whether this is through life long experience or recent projects, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly people want to hear versus what I see most people do which is a brain dump on the topic which I think is really productive for the author. For the reader, you have to match what they care about. That usually means carving out a kind of specific angle.
One example I give is say you go through a new product launch, it can be tempting to write about everything that you learned and in some cases, for the newbie maybe that is helpful, but it’s often better to carve out a really strong angle, something specific about maybe the project launch that you really picked up a lot of information on. That can be messaging, could be the organization, could be the follow up, could be customer feedback. Owning an idea down to a very sharp, keen edge usually results in much sharper thinking from you and therefore better content. That helps with that second part of being incisive which is really digging into the heart of something which is really getting into the dirty details that those people would leave out, kind of staying away from that 50,000 foot overview which is hopeful in some instances but more often than not writing games potency through precision and not really the breadth of what you’re explaining.
The other thing that we think about too is the relation of your idea versus what’s already out there. Perception is I would say if you recall early writing assignments in maybe middle school, those cheesy poems. I’m sure some dark brooding teenager poems about the icy hot heart, those other stuff.
The reason something feels cliché or cheesy is because the person usually doesn’t have enough experience to know that something is cliché, tired, and cheesy, right? That’s what perception really is, it’s about identifying ideas that are already tired and worn out, and have already been addressed or that have just been so well covered that you know internally that you can’t bring something new to the table. That’s definitely gained through experience but not exclusively through experience. It takes experience and it takes some thinking as to what have I seen that’s out there, what do I feel is an idea that’s already really complete. Or if an idea is very popular and well covered, what is my spin on this, am I covering an idea that already has an established audience, good, that’s actually a good thing, but I actually have a unique take on it, some sort of spin that’s going to make it stand out and referenceable from here on out.
My last point to that idea of being incisive is maybe SEO in a former life, things that are referenceable, yes they do get you links but I also think it’s a good quality judgment of content. It’s like when people reference this for any reason and not just the back link, just in general, why would people reference this individual piece versus what’s already out there? It’s the same as a fantastic new piece of research gets a lot of citations because it broke some new ground somewhere. If you can confidently say why a post would be referenced or cited possibly even years from now, then you probably learned it on a winner.
Nathan: I love that. It’s like the idea of even if something’s been covered, you’re taking this unique perspective that you’re sharing something new with the world that hasn’t been out there before.
Greg: Right. I read something recently. I don’t know how recently the post was published but it was from Jason Lemkin and he was talking about net promoter score, NPS. That has been covered to death but Jason’s take was initially he had thought NPS was a terrible metric and he had actually come back around to view it as a really valuable whole company metric that people could analyze. That right there, his personal experience going from a doubter of NPS to someone who uses it, encourages it to his portfolio companies, that’s a unique take on NPS rather than just the same old what it is, what it does. That kind of stuff can usually be picked up to your own personal experiences and apply to a topic as a whole.
Nathan: The third thing that we mentioned with your editorial values are vivid. Could you describe what you mean by vivid writing?
Greg: Sure. Like I said, vivid is just mixing being clear and being imaginative. Clear is often hard enough, it’s very difficult to express your thoughts clearly. I often say that your brain is very forgiving, it’s like a fuzzy extraction where an audience definitely is not. Writing helps you force your hand in some ways and helps you bring clarity into your own thoughts. That is a very difficult step one, but if you want to take to the next level, it’s really important to be imaginative.
One of my personal heroes here John McPhee, he says that you cannot land smoothly on borrowed vividness. This basically meaning you cannot expect references, lingo to do your writing for you. You have to bridge the gap and know how wide the gap is between either yourself and the reader or the subject matter expert and the reader.
To give you a unique example of this, I was working with Steven, he was our illustrator, visual designer on a post that he wanted to do on our blog illustrations. He’s a very clever guy and he told me right off the bat, he was like the last thing I want is for this to be a tutorial. Our job there was to not only make his thoughts very clear on the matter, but also fill in the gaps for people who didn’t need to know everything about how illustration is created from scratch, all the design terms that he would use, but also include just enough information that you could bridge the gap between what Steven does behind the scenes and what you see as the end product. A lot of ways you can do that is through analogy, metaphor, bringing an idea back to shared ground. You don’t know the specifics of what I’m talking about but here is something that we both know about that you do understand. We can make that connection, and therefore you’ll more readily understand the specific part of my topic.
That’s the first part to me of being vivid. The other part is just trying to refine your sentences. That they have punch, that they have feeling behind them, that they are polished in a way. The binary thing that I use is the difference between accurate statement and a very kind of timeless statement. An accurate statement says something that’s true and it’s clearly understood whereas your timeless statement is what we think of when we think of quotes. Not only did somebody say a very deep truth, but they put it in a way that it’s like I wish I had thought of that myself, it is perfectly distilled or very well distilled, keening for perfect. We can end for very good.
That can often mean taking a thought and heightening the idea. There are a number of ways to do that but I think the best way to learn how to do that is actually to study quotes and well written sentences. I don’t think writing a good sentence is something you learn through tons of frameworks, I think it’s better learned by example. It’s better to read fine writing than it is to read about fine writing, right? Something like osmosis. I would definitely encourage people who want to sharpen their abilities to come up with a zinger, or a great one liner, to just simply immerse themselves in good writing. I think that will really rub off on you.
Nathan: Now that we know how to create great content, I’d like to hear you connect those dots to helping customers be successful. How do you use content to provide context between prospective customers and your product?
Greg: Sure. I borrow this idea heavily from Kathy Sierra. I recommend everyone check out her book Badass: Making Users Awesome. She has this seminal work in terms of successful customers and making customers successful. In terms of concept, I really rely heavily in her idea that the compelling context will help your current customers and prospective customers see the value in your product; she calls it HD perspective. Because when you’re a beginner, you simply don’t understand the need for advanced tools because you don’t understand how any of that works. Whereas education and experience gives you a heightened sense of perception.
It’s kind of similar actually to what we were just talking about, experience gives you the ability to understand what really works and to cut through the shenanigans and surface level information that everybody starts with. As a product company, you can provide the tools and training instead of just the tools. That’s where the content and customer education can come in.
Instead of doing it in an antagonistic, you have to teach these goofy customers how this works, it’s more of a productive you can help expedite the learning process. Customers know what they are doing often times more that your own team in some senses. You have very experienced customers that come in and buy your products, but there are a lot of people who it’s helpful for them to get information and education because it expedites their learning process. The more you teach them, in our instance about the compelling context which is providing great support, the more they understand how your product can help them get those results. If you’re just teaching about the product itself, they’re missing the why there. Why would I want to reduce the number of bad context versus productive context with my customers? Why would I need to understand how people are using my knowledge base, what’s the point of that? If you can answer those questions, then the tools you already have available to help solve those problems, it becomes obvious. It’s like not knowing the rules of the game, it’s trying to sell people equipment. You need to understand the why first before the tools really become valuable, before the tools really fit into their world. That’s how we sit in terms of connecting content and customer education.
Nathan: I think that that’s really great advice. In order to do that, you need to know a lot about your audience, I would think. What methods work best for gathering that customer feedback to know what topics to cover in your content?
Greg: There are a number of inputs and they probably vary by company but they all come back to just listening. I don’t mean that in a trite way, I mean that in a very pragmatic way. It’s just about listening; it could be listening to an internal team. For us, that might be listening to sales at what they’re hearing from customers, which is what they’re struggle with. It could be from our own support team, what our own support team is currently working on, and they use our products every day, all day every day. They’re a great source of learning in terms of what to address and what we can go out and research and cover.
It could be listening to the community. One of our favorite communities is support driven which is a community of support professionals. Many leaders, many managers, many representatives, customer success coaches and everything in between. What’s been uniquely valuable for me is they actually have a newsletter where they send out some of the most pressing questions from the community that week and that’s a fantastic source of learning.
I would encourage everybody to check out CMX and the work of Sir Jud Welch from Loyal. I would encourage content people specifically to research this idea of community and community management. If only for the research process, because you can learn so much from the communities that already exist, versus trying to have these red face debates about what readers want in your own personal content meeting. Just meet them where they are.
Lastly, something I’ve relied on, and another I have to give credit to the support community there, stereotypically helpful, who would’ve thought right? But I also rely on individuals which is like I will just have a short interview with the support manager and just oftentimes not even with a highly specific agenda, just a few questions that are on my mind. I often don’t know what I don’t know, I let them share what they are working on, maybe a recently completed project, maybe something they’ve struggled with or have looked for but haven’t found great answers for.
There’s a number of ways to put your ear to the ground. For us, it all comes back to listening to people. I think our best serve is the mediator between great ideas. Connecting problems and solutions versus standing at the podium and dictating how things should be done. You just want to connect a good answer that somebody has come up with a problem that your customers and your community have.
Nathan: I think that you’re just validating assumptions, you’re not going to the content assuming that people will like it. You go into it knowing that what you’re creating will help solve that deep level problem.
Greg: I often try to remind myself creativity is so hugely valuable but creativity can also have you answering questions that nobody is asking. When you do that, you, by the very nature of it, will not have a base audience for it. You come up with this noble solution to a problem that people don’t have. This is a recurring topic in the product community because there’s such dramatic consequences for getting it wrong. Say a big new feature that you ship and nobody wants it and you’re like, we’re in trouble.
With content, you have more chances at that. You can take some risks, you can swing wildly every once in awhile. That principle stays true, you really need to build your strategy not around cult classics but around answering questions that exist. Perhaps if not questions, then problems that exist. If people don’t know how to frame the problem as a distinct question, then at least you can figure out a problem that exists and try to answer that. Because then you’ll know the audience will be there for it versus try to make guess work work as your strategy.
Nathan: That’s just super eye-opening, Greg. With that, I think our time is up. I can’t believe it. It went really fast this time but I want to say thanks a lot for helping me learn a lot about your editorial values and connecting the dots between content and customer success. Thanks.
Greg: I hope people find it useful and it was awesome talking with you.
January 10, 2017