Ann started as a reporter for the Boston Globe, doing a bunch of news reporting and features. Features are really where her heart was because you can tell a story in Features in a different way than you can with a straight news report. She worked in journalism for a while, then started a company called ClickZ.com, which was one of the first sources of interactive marketing information. In 2000 Ann joined Marketing Profs, a training and education company, and the rest is history.
Today we talk about content writing and everything in between. You should check out her book Everybody Writes.
In this episode:
- What should writers, new or experienced ones, do to get started or improve their writing?
- Why should marketers in their writing focus on the message, and how to do that?
- How can marketers properly communicate and use the specific key points in their email marketing?
- What are the secrets of successful B2B email marketing
- What makes newsletters interesting, and how to tell a better story?
- How can B2B marketers crystallize and internalize the storytelling elements in their newsletters?
- What is the key to getting out of the writing comfort zone?
- What makes writing so important and how it can help thought leadership, and leadership development?
Quotes from the episode:
“We hear a lot of times “leaders are readers.” But I would say that “leaders are writers” because if you can articulate your ideas clearly and in a way that that will connect with others, then it’s an excellent foundation for any great career.”
“We focus on what we want to say and all the amazing things we want to talk to our audience about. But in my opinion, that’s the wrong way to think about an email newsletter. It’s not about the news. It’s about the letter. It’s about that opportunity you have to speak directly to one person at one time, and that’s a very powerful place.”
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To expand your knowledge about marketing writing, newsletter and email marketing, check out some of my previous podcast episodes and blog posts.
I have a fantastic guest today. Oh my gosh, it’s killing me. I was looking forward to talking to her! Seriously, it is Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs. Author, speaker, and the most important title – my favorite title-writer. And she will be talking to us about content writing and everything else. Let’s get started. Ann, thank you so much for coming to my show!
Ann Handley: Oh my goodness. That is the best introduction I have ever had, Pam. I am so happy to be here with you. It has been forever. And I’m so grateful to just be in your orbit for this half-hour or so.
Pam Didner: Fantastic. And I know that you are super famous – literally, everybody knows you in the world of content marketing. But not every listener in my spheres–actually like a content marketer, many of them are B2B marketers in a different field. So can you tell us a little bit, a little bit about yourself?
Ann Handley: Sure. Yeah. Um, so hello everyone. I am Ann Handley. I am Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs. Marketing Profs is a training and education company. I have been in training and education essentially for, uh, for most of my career. Training specifically marketers, educating marketers, helping marketers. So while it’s not always been called training and education, I have always had my love of marketing in my mind and my sites. And my deep need to help marketers figure out how we connect with customers and grow our businesses, um, much more robustly, much more, you know, How do we do this in a way that is going to drive results?
Um, and so yes, I started in my career as a journalist.
Pam Didner: You were a reporter if I’m not, uh, if I am not mistaken.
Ann Handley: Yes, correct. Yeah. I started as a reporter for the Boston Globe. I did a bunch of news reporting. I did a bunch of features. Features are really where my heart was, and it’s specifically because you can tell a story in Features in a different way than you can, you know, with a straight news report.
So I worked in journalism for a while on the internet, and I started a company called ClickZ.com, one of the first sources of interactive marketing information. At the time, it was sort of this brand new thing. This was 1997, so a lifetime ago. And, uh, and then in 2000 I joined Marketing Profs, and I’ve, I’ve been here ever since.
Pam Didner: I know, I know. Marketing Profs is a great platform. So for all the listeners out there, if you are looking for, um, a specific platform to learn everything about B2B marketing, you should check our MarketingProfs.com. They also have a regular conference such as B2B Forum. It usually happens. I think the second half of the year, November, October timeframe, if I’m not mistaken.
Ann Handley: Yeah, it’s funny, Pam, because you know, this year is such the unusual year 2020/2021, such an unusual year for events. Um, so for the first time, we are doing two B2B Forums this year, both virtual. The next one coming up is April 7th and 8th online. Uh, the marketing press B2B Forum, Spring Edition. And then, in October, we will have another event. Um, the Marketing Profs B2B Forum, Fall Edition.
We would normally do one in person, but this year we decided that we just needed a little bit more reinforcement this year above all. And so we decided to host to share this as a way to educate, say, high touch base, just to have some, a little fun. Just kick, kick up our heels a little bit.
Pam Didner: I hear you. I hear you. I’m doing one of the sessions I’m looking forward to. Yeah, I’m talking about a marketing plan. So if anyone is interested in doing a marketing plan, check out my session, a shameless, shameless plug! (both laugh).
Ann Handley: Yes, and by the way, the event I free if you are a Pro member of Marketing Profs, and it’s an investment in you. It’s an investment in your future. And so if you want to see Pam and 50 other fantastic speakers, um, please, uh, please sign up and, uh, and come join us. It’s going to be a good time.
Pam Didner: So now let’s come back to some of the topics we want to discuss. And, one of the things I want to share with everybody is Ann has a book. The book is called Everybody Writes. It is required reading for many business writing classes and English writing classes in universities. So if you want to learn how to write better, that’s a great book to get started.
But before you even purchase the book, Ann, what is one to two pieces of advice that you can share with us from years of writings. I mean, as an author, writer, and reporter, what are one or two things like if somebody wants to start writing or even for experienced writers, what can we do to improve or get started?
Ann Handley: Yeah, I mean, so thank you for that. I wrote “Everybody Writes” because, in my experience, most people, not just marketers, have not taken a writing class or have not thought about improving their writing since college. Sometimes even since high school, depending on what you studied in college.
Um, I wanted to create a guide to writing in a modern content marketing age. And so I wrote, I wrote it for marketers, for content creators for anyone who is writing. And guess what? Like in 2021, that means every single marketer.
Pam Didner: We have to write! (laughs)
Ann Handley: We all have to write. That’s kind of the secret of marketing, isn’t it? It’s like everybody is a writer. If you’re in marketing, you are a writer. Yeah, and I say that not only for like the customer-facing content marketers, but you know, think about your organization—
Pam Didner: Internal communications!
Ann Handley: Yeah. Internal communication. I’m writing an email to your boss, trying to write an email to sales, to let them know what, you know, what new platforms or what new things or products you have that you’re rolling out. I mean, there’s a million different reasons why marketers need to write. And when I talk about, so I guess the first lesson would be, you know, reframe what you think about is writing. Everything we do almost is writing. And the second thing I would say is that when people say that they are bad at writing and I’m using air quotes, Pam and I are on video, so she can see that people say they’re bad at writing. They usually mean that they feel insecure about grammar. Or they feel insecure about writing at all. And so I want to just tell you, like, let that go. Like what writing is, is communicating with somebody, and it’s rallying people around your ideas. It’s conveying something of value to the people who need to read something or hear something. And so it’s, it’s not about the mechanics. It’s about the message. And I think the more that marketers and more than all kinds of business professionals can understand and embrace that, the better off you’ll be.
Um, so it’s, it’s, you know, first of all, reframe everything you’re doing as writing, almost everything you’re doing, uh, you know, social media, email, all of it is writing landing pages. All of it is writing. Um, the second thing, and let that let your fear or insecurity around grammar rules go. Um, and the third thing is, you know, just really think about, what’s the message you’re trying to convey, and how do I convey it in a way that will resonate? That’s all it is.
Pam Didner: That is so true. That is so true. But even with the three simple vies that you just share with us, it does take a little bit of time to simmer, right. You know, that certain kind of framework, and also, especially your third advice. In terms of what do we want to write? What do we want to communicate? There are so many things we want to say in one simple email, but we need to let it simmer and think it through in terms of what are the specific key points that we want to communicate? I think that is very, very important. I learned that over some time as well.
Ann Handley: Uh, I’m a terrible writer of my first. Like anything I write, any first draft I write is spectacularly ugly. (Pam laughs)
Pam Didner: Join the club! Join the club!
Ann Handley: I mean, I think that’s just, you know, that’s just how it is. And it’s because we get excited about what we want to say. After all, we aren’t sure exactly how we want to say it cause we are just sort of blurting it all out. And so I think what I try to do with everybody Writes is to empower you as a communicator. And give you some tools that can help you take that ugly first draft into something that’s beautiful and that people will understand and enjoy. Um, and so that’s essentially why I wrote the book and what the book is.
Pam Didner: Speaking of writing, another topic that comes to mind is email marketing. You are amazing at why you do especially grow your subscribers to about 50,000 in less than three years. Can you tell us some of your Holy Grail, your secrets such as how often you publish and if there is a template, a format that you follow?
Ann Handley: Yeah, I started an email newsletter. Grew it from almost nothing to almost 50,000 subscribers in three years, a hundred per cent organic way. Like I don’t promote it anywhere.
Pam Didner: You don’t do paid media.
Ann Handley: [No, I don’t do anything like that. No, no ads, no nothing. Um, and, but the only I do is I ask subscribers, “if you like this, share it with somebody who you think will also enjoy it.” And that’s essentially how I’ve grown it to almost 50,000. And so I guess there’s a couple of things, like some of the lessons that I’ve taken away after three years of writing and publishing this email newsletter. The first is that I think in marketing, we are missing an opportunity with our email newsletter.
Very often, in marketing, we are focusing on the email newsletter as a distribution strategy. We’re focusing on the news piece of it.
Pam Didner: We treat it as one of the channels. Yeah.
Ann Handley: Yes. Yeah. They focus on the news. We focus on what we want to say and all the amazing things we want to talk to our audience. But I think that’s the wrong way to think about an email newsletter. It’s not about the news. It’s about the letter. It’s about that opportunity you have to speak directly to one person at one time, and that’s a very powerful place.
The other reason why I believe so strongly in why we should use that and respect that space differently is because email is the only place where the audience and not the algorithms are in control. And you know what I mean by that is you can, you can fight with Facebook, you can throw money at Facebook to, you know, to get your content in front of the eyeballs of the people who matter most. Or you can have your relationship that you’re nurturing on your own with your email newsletter.
So as much as I love social media, I also think it’s not the best way to nurture relationships. I think a far more effective, especially in B2B, by the way, is through the email newsletter.
Um, and I think many B2B companies, in particular, are just they’re afraid. You know, it’s like they sort of have this sense of a template, a templatized approach to their email newsletter versus just blowing the whole thing up and rethinking it. So, I’d say for the past year or so, I’ve been on this mission to help B2B companies and B2B marketers think inherently differently about their email newsletter and about the opportunity that I see there.
Um, there’s a reason why so many other brands like, like, think about, um, like Twitter just acquired Review, an email publishing platform–an email newsletter publishing platform. Facebook is reportedly developing their own email newsletter publishing platform. LinkedIn last December quietly rolled out this ability for every person on LinkedIn who’s publishing articles on LinkedIn. They can now basically send that out repackaged as an email newsletter through the LinkedIn platform.
And so why are all these social platforms suddenly so interested in the newsletter space? Because it works because it always has. And so when people dismiss email marketing as old school, it’s like, “Nay, nay my friends.”
Pam Didner: I think they dismiss it more or less. You know, everybody was like, “Oh, because we, everybody got spam. So the conversion is low. Therefore email marketing is not working.” That might be true to some extent, but it depends on the quality of the email you send out. And, uh, I like the way you emphasize in terms of an email newsletter. Let’s emphasize the letter part, not necessary, you know, the news part. And then, uh, the B2B marketing or the company needs to think through, for their email marketing, what kind of content, what kind of communication they want to move forward?
Ann Handley: Yeah. And very often, especially in B2B, we relegate that email newsletter task to the most junior person on the team as the job of putting together the email newsletter – pulling in content from other departments, from content, from sales, you know, from customer care, like all of that. And, you know, I think that even some of the processes that we have in place undermine our ability to use that channel more effectively. And so, yeah, I would just encourage any B2B marketer who is listening to this to look at your email newsletter.
You know, back when we were speaking at events in person and Pam and I would hang out at those events, I would, and I would be talking about the email newsletter in front of a live audience. I would always ask people, “all right, everybody in this audience full of marketers, how many of you have an email newsletter?” And like, you know, like 98%,
Pam Didner: Everybody raises their hand!
Ann Handley: Like you see all these hands. And then, you know, “keep your hands up if you’re proud of that email newsletter” and, you know, basically hands go down. There is it’s pretty rare. Um, and especially in B2B, the opportunity is massive. I can count on one hand the number of the email newsletter, B2B email newsletters that I subscribe to that I think are special or that are great. And why is that? That’s crazy. There’s an opportunity there for, especially in B2B, to do more with that asset. And for that audience. I mean, it’s the audience think about it.
Pam Didner: I agree. Speaking of audience and B2B marketing, I know that agencies, authors, and writers start talking about storytelling. I understand the main objective that is to try to connect with your audience emotionally.
But many B2B marketers are struggling in terms of how to crystallize or how to internalize the storytelling elements of it as a part of their content, as a part of their email marketing. And many B2B companies are very product-centric and product-driven. And do you have any advice for B2B marketers in terms of, “Hey, how to tell a better story?” What are some of the, I would say, key advice or key points and tips that you can share with us?
Ann Handley: Yeah. Um, I understand that impulse. First of all, B2B marketing is very product-focused because we love our products. We think that they add much value to the world, right? Yeah. I mean, we, we want to talk about it, and I don’t fault marketers for that at all.
I was having a conversation with somebody just this morning. And they said to me, “what are marketers doing wrong? Like what do marketers just get wrong?” And I said, “I do not want to be in the position of talking about what marketers are doing badly because, in my mind, marketers are good people who are trying very hard and are often disrespected because everybody, the organization thinks that they can do marketing better than the marketer.” Right? And so I don’t want to be that guy who’s saying that they’re doing things wrong.
But I would say it is to very product-focused marketers, you know, I’m only sharing that anecdote because. I get it. I get why we do that. And I don’t think it’s a fault necessarily, but I think we just need to take it one step further. I think we’ve stopped too short, in other words. So when you think about your product, you get excited about it. You know, it, it contributes great things to the world, to your customers. Then what is that thing? Just take it to the next step. What does it do? What does it do for them? Rather than talking about the product, talk about what the product does for others. And it’s that context that’s where your story lies. That’s where it is. And in my mind, that’s where it’s not that we’re doing it wrong or bad or that we’re not focusing on the right thing. We’re just not going to that one more step, just go beyond, it’s just taking one more step toward the customer. That’s where the story is.
Um, so I’ll give you a super tangible example of a company that I think does this incredibly well. The story that I’m gonna share with you is about a big company, but they have one guy who is their, their storytelling guy. Um, and it’s, uh, it’s GE. GE publishes a site called GE Reports. And if you go to GE Reports, it’s a fantastic content marketing publication, right. They talk a lot about innovation at GE. They report on themselves essentially. So it’s a great PR play. They also, it’s great for investors to find out what’s going on at GE.
There are many different reasons why they have this robust program, but the element that they do super well as relates to storytelling is that they will take an innovation that they’ve developed at GE. And one of the ones that I’ve followed over several years was a new mammography machine called the Pristina. So they sell the Pristina to hospitals, right, and healthcare organizations. But right from the very beginning, they talked about, um, like their first piece on it ran, I think three years ago. And the Pristina is a different kind of mammography machine that doesn’t squeeze the heck out of a woman when it’s delivering an image. They talked about why it’s better than your typical mammography machine. Right. Pretty much straight-up reporting. But they talked about it through the lens of what it will ultimately do for women and why it’s a better approach. It’s a different kind of imaging if the treatment for the patient is different. So they sort of covered, if you will, that story.
Fast forward to two years, it’s installed in the, in the very first hospital. So they talk about how it’s going there. They talked to their customer care person and talk about how she sees it in the, you know, in the healthcare environment and how it fits into the way that the hospital is hoping to deliver healthcare, you know, moving forward. They talked to the engineer who developed it and how excited they are that it’s finally starting to, you know, roll out to the first site. Right. They talk to, um, who else would they talk to? They talked to the engineer. Uh, they talked to, oh, they talked to the scientists behind it who sort of helped to inform what the engineer was doing.
So there were all these different elements that, yes, it was product-focused, but it didn’t stop there. You know, they just didn’t talk about the fact that “here it is, it’s rolling out. It’s amazing. End of story.” Instead, they covered it from different angles, teased out the story always found the human at the center of each one of those–even the story about the engineering miracle that is this machine. They didn’t just talk about engineering. They talked to the engineer, right? So always find a human at the center of your story.
And then ultimately, of course, it starts to roll out, you know, in many more hospitals, um, they did a bunch of like Facebook Lives as they were installed. There are different ways that they covered the story. Still, ultimately it always was about the people at the heart of this, why they did it, why they thought it was important, who it is to help and ultimately how it will improve, not healthcare broadly, but one individual patient’s experience.
Pam Didner: Yeah.
Ann Handley: Yeah. And I’m sharing that with you cause I, yes, it’s a big brand with probably a big budget for their marketing, but it all comes from this one guy, uh, Thomas Kellner, who is the, uh, storyteller at GE Reports. He’s the editor-in-chief there. And he’s the guy covering all these different angles of this one product but in a very human accessible, human-centric way.
Pam Didner: So I love how you are talking about identifying one character, you know, as kind of like a central point, and then talking about that product from that person’s perspective, kind of reminds me of that TV show 24. I think that that’s what I did. It is like they have a specific case, but they are talking about it from a different perspective than eventually.
Ann Handley: Oh, that’s cool. I never watched that show, but, um,
Pam Didner: It’s all right. Don’t worry about it. And I think that’s what that story is. That’s how the story is built. (laughs)
Ann Handley: I always get slightly sweat when people started talking about pop culture things. I feel so out of the loop sometimes, like, “well, God, I missed that, too.” Like here’s an example. I’ve, I’ve never seen the Matrix.
Pam Didner: Oh, come on!
Ann Handley: I know! And that, you know, it’s often rolled out as an example of this sort of alternate universe. And I like, at this point, I’ve sort of heard it referenced in pop culture enough that I got it.
Pam Didner: I got it. Yes. So the last question for many young aspiring marketers out there, given that you being around the corner several times. (Ann laughs) Do you have any advice for them? I mean, seriously, you can make a transition from the reporter to the writer to be a kind of entrepreneur. You know, it’s a very amazing journey. And many people probably will not have that experience, or they don’t feel comfortable getting out of their comfort zones. Do you have any advice for them? Especially, as I said, the young aspiring marketers.
Ann Handley: Mm. Yeah. Um, my daughter just graduated from college, and she is now working in content marketing. And so I, I guess I would just, you know, what I tell her all the time is two things. First of all, always work on your writing because, as we started this conversation, so much marketing is writing. And that’s true, whether you are in content marketing or not. Um, just the ability to communicate your ideas internally is so critical to your growth. And, and whether you decide you’re going to stay in-house, or even if you go out on your own, you’re always going to be, you know, writing will be the core of so much of what you do. And so, the better you get at it, the more successful you’ll be.
Pam Didner: I agree with that 100%. It took me a long time. Yeah. Now I 100% agree with you. I told both of my children, and one of them use an engineer. I say, “writing is super important, especially the written communication part of it.”
Ann Handley: Yeah. We hear a lot of times that you know, “leaders are readers.” But I would say that “leaders are writers” because if you can articulate your ideas clearly and in a way that will connect with others, that is such a great foundation for any great career. Um, so that’s the first thing.
And then the second thing I would say is–and this is maybe this applies more to women than anybody else–but, you know, raise your hand. You know, I have run Marketing Profs for 20 years now. And every year, as we started talking about, we put on this event, and every year I invariably get people in my inbox who want to keynote the Marketing Profs B2B Forum, all of those almost entirely come from men. They’re the ones who are willing to raise their hand. And I want to see more women stepping up and getting on stages and sharing their perspective and sharing their voice. And I am committed to helping as much as I can to elevate those people.
And I say, women, cause I do feel like that. Women sometimes tend to not raise their hand as readily as so many men. And so I, yeah, I mean,
Pam Didner: I can relate to that.
Ann Handley: I can relate to that, too. It took me, it took me a long time too, you know, I didn’t publish my first book until ten years ago, and I don’t know what took me so long because now I feel like I’m just in a mad rush all the time to, to not wait and to not hold myself back. So when I say that, It’s not meant as a criticism because I internalize that, too. I did it for a long time, and I’m, I just, I want to try to help change that.
Pam Didner: Excellent. So you know what? I have to wrap this up. I want to ask one silly question. Okay. And two silly questions, you can pick one to answer. Number one: What is your most useless talent? The second one is, did you have a ridiculous goal in your life?
Ann Handley: The one talent that I am, that I constantly brag about to my friends and family is the fact that I am very, very good at parallel parking, even though (Pam laughs)
Pam Didner: That is not useless. Oh my god, that’s useful!
Ann Handley: No, but here’s the thing I hate driving. I’m never driving. I hate driving, but I’m so good at parallel parking. So it is useless because I’ve never been the person behind the wheel.
Pam Didner: You don’t like to drive.
Ann Handley: I hate driving, but I’m good. Good at parallel parking.
Pam Didner: Excellent. Hey, I’m so happy to have you on my show. Thank you so much for coming to my podcast today to have a lovely conversation with me. So, hey, I would love to invite you again, um, back to my show. Write another book. Come on, Ann! Keep that streak going!
Ann Handley: Wow. Yeah, I know. I’ve been a slacker. All right. Well, thank you, Pam. This has been so much fun. I appreciate it.