Ann Handley, CCO at MarketingProfs and Author of Everybody Writes [Podcast]

I love Ann Handley. She is the undisputed (I’ll fight you if you dispute) queen of content. Her books Content Rules! and Everybody Writes are must-reads for anyone trying to tackle content marketing.

She is also funny, charming, and great at dinner parties…

Recently, she interviewed Billy Beane of Money Ball fame on a MarketingProfs webinar. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

I’m always excited when I get to speak to Ann. I know you’ll love her too! In this interview, we discuss the following…

  1. Email Newsletters: Why They Still Matter
  2. Show, Don’t Tell
  3. Empathy in Marketing
  4. Brands Responding to Crises
  5. How to Make Marketing that Matters
  6. Billy Beane and Big Data

Let’s do this!

Digital Transcription – Edited for Readability


Jon-Mikel Bailey: Welcome to the Wellspring Digital Chat where we interview marketing experts like the one I have today and we bring their brains not out of their heads, but within their heads, directly to you and try to break you off some knowledge. So today is Friday and it’s Ann Handley day and she is one of my most favorite marketers and one of my most favorite people.

I quote her in just about every presentation I give, that royalty check is coming. I swear, it’s in the mail. But first and if you want to take a moment, introduce yourself, tell these people what you’re all about.

Ann Handley: So sure, we can do that. Hi, I’m Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs. I’ve written a few books on content, one called Content Rules! with my good friend CC Chapman. And I’m the author of Everybody Writes, which is a go-to guide for creating ridiculously good content. Look at that visual aid right there. Yes, I’m delighted to be here.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, I’m glad you mentioned your books because I’ve read Everybody Writes and Content Rules and they are like my go-to when it comes to content. I read Content Rules while pacing the beach in Ocracoke. I’m going back in two weeks. I’m really excited about that. But yeah, so I was the freak going up and down the beach going “exactly!” to myself and people were looking at me strangely and I didn’t care. And then and then I believe I read everybody writes mostly in the bathtub for some reason. So there’s a water thing going on there. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Ann Handley: There’s a water scene. That’s interesting. Yep. Thank you for that visual by the way.

Jon-Mikel Bailey in the Tub

Jon-Mikel Bailey: You’re welcome. You are quite welcome.

Emails Newsletters and Why They Still Matter

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Anyway. So thanks again for being here. Let’s get to it. So first of all, yes, I consider you and Christopher S Penn to be the masters of the email newsletter both in your own right both in your own unique way. Annarchy, your newsletter, is just awesome. It’s one of my favorites. So I have to ask, are newsletters still relevant today with you know stuff like this the video podcast and regular podcasts and you know, all the different media out there or newsletters still getting through?

Ann Handley: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t see it as a binary choice either. I don’t think that because email newsletters are still relevant that live video or video of any kind of podcasts is not relevant. I think they can coexist beautifully. But yes, I absolutely do believe that email newsletters are, you know very much still should be in every marketer’s quiver, I guess that I really do believe in their power.

The thing is, most brands, most companies, most people are doing them badly. And so when I think about the email newsletters that I subscribe to, there are, I should say, I subscribed to a lot of brand newsletters and the ones that I subscribed to that I love and recommend I can probably count on one hand.

And so I think that my advice to companies of all sizes and stripes is always to think about that email newsletter as an inherently unique and special opportunity. It’s your ability to connect directly with someone in their space, in their inbox. You own that list, you own the platform, you’re not subject to the algorithm Gods at Facebook or an Instagram like. You’re there.

Someone’s choice to listen to you to hear from you on a regular basis. That’s, that’s gold, you know. And I think that most brands are not really embracing that opportunity. They think of their email newsletters as a distribution strategy, right? I talk about how most brands think about what they want to say. They think about the news part of a newsletter, instead of focusing on the second part of that word, which is the letter and why do I believe that’s true? It’s because again, that’s the unique ability to communicate directly with one person who has literally opted in to hear from you. So if we can think about that email newsletter as an inherently different kind of opportunity, I think that’s rich.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s interesting because most people think about social media as the place for where you can make that intimate contact with somebody but you’re right newsletters are really, I mean, it’s a permission. That’s very interesting.

Ann Handley: Yeah, it’s a long term nurturing tool, essentially. I mean, yes, I love social media, I think it’s a great place to respond and engage with your customers, with your prospects, just to engage with your industry. But in terms of actually building those connections, solidifying those connections, and nurturing those prospects and customers long term, I think, an email newsletter is the way to go.

And by the way, I don’t think that it’s only the email newsletter. I mean, I think your podcasts like this, you own this, this channel, right? You actually own the data of the people who have subscribed to you. So anything that you can get people to subscribe to. But the reason why I believe so powerfully in email newsletters is because I speak worldwide to marketers all across the US, the planet and when I survey an audience member…

When we used to have audiences that we could speak to directly look at them, that was a special time. Let’s think back for a minute. Before times, yeah, yeah.

But when I asked them, you know, how many of you have an email newsletter? You know, almost every hand goes up in the room. And when I ask how many of you are proud of those email newsletters? I get a smattering. So it’s just it’s, it’s the reason why I talk about it so much is because of that, because almost everybody has one and because most people aren’t really thinking about it as deliberately as I think they should.

But also the barrier to entry is a little bit more difficult, I think, to produce a podcast but it’s very simple to sign up for an email platform. And so you know, if you’re doing that perfectly well then think about doing all of the other things. But I think an email newsletter is just a fantastic opportunity for most brands and most companies.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I saw Michael Barber give a talk on email marketing. And he used I don’t know if it was an autoresponder or reply to some guy that was just hounding you. And it was. It was classic. I think he wrote a blog post about it too. About you being on parole. Are you going back to jail?

Ann Handley: Right, it was auto. Yeah, that was a sales outreach. But yeah, it was auto-generated, you know, email sequences where, you know, a salesperson gets increasingly more desperate that they want you to respond to them. And somebody just sort of jokingly said, you know, are you in jail? And I think that’s like one of the options that you can pick and some of those sequencing programs, but I don’t think he was writing it. And so I wrote back to him with this whole narrative about I think I wrote from as the parole officer and the correction, it was great.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, the audience was was dying. It was funny.

Ann Handley: It’s funny you brought that up, because he never wrote back to me. So what a missed opportunity, you know? I actually asked them like to send me a cake with a file in it or something.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: you did. You totally did. Yep. That’s just rude. Where’s the love? And sitting there rotting away in prison?

Ann Handley: Yes, I mean anything, you know, a loaf of banana bread something.

The Importance of “Show, Don’t Tell” in Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So you tell a story about Cisco and Grupo Modelo, which kind of sounds like a Robert Redford film. But in your book, Everybody Writes, where you’re, really the point of it all is to show people you know, “show, don’t tell.” Right. And so I was going to read the whole exchange here but it’s really long. So just get the book and read it. Trust me on this one, but can you maybe give these folks the Cliff’s Notes version of this? This exchange this idea of, you know, share, show, don’t tell.

Ann Handley: Tim Washer was playing a waiter in this exchange. It became this like he was the overly friendly waiter and he is waiting on on her. And they ended up having this whole conversation about technology and infrastructure and supply chains and you know, all of these things. And the reason why that was so effective was because, first of all, Tim Washer honestly, anything that guy does is brilliant, he’s hilarious.

Oh, I call him the b2b marketing’s answer to Stephen Colbert there, you know, because he’s just so funny. But in a very real and soulful way, which is why I loved him so much. But the reason why that particular video series that he did was was so effective, I think, is because he had real people talking about real issues, and it was very compelling.

You know, think about a producing a scripted video with a CTO in which he’s engaging in a humorous kind of way with, you know, with Tim or anybody really, as opposed to, you know, just like a one-sheet of the specs of this particular very jargony thing. And so it’s a great example, I think of showing the power of technology that Modelo was using to get their beverages into various establishments. Number one.

And number two, it was a great example of actually having an executive on camera just interacting with Tim and a very fun and accessible way. It gave me a very different impression of the company. Sure. And number three, it was an effective use of humor, right. And so many companies sort of shying away from humor and humor plot in a very unlikely place, right in terms of talking about b2b technology. So yeah, so that’s why I really enjoyed that so much.

Empathy in Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, it was a great little important lesson too. So. So you devote an entire chapter in Everybody Rights to empathy. In the quote I use of yours you say to be “relentlessly customer-focused.” Life could be so much better for all of us if more corporations adopted this approach. And, you know, maybe I’m a cynic, but I just don’t. It just doesn’t seem to want to happen. But if the corporations were sitting here watching you, could you maybe preach to them a little bit on the importance of empathy?

Ann Handley: Yeah. You know, I think empathy gets shortchanged sometimes because we think of it as something that you either have or you don’t, but I actually think of it as more of a practice. So when I think about empathy in terms of a business or a marketing context, essentially, it’s essentially putting the needs and the wants and desires in the heart of your customer front and center in marketing.

We talk a lot about putting the customer at the center of your marketing, customer-centric marketing. We talk about time, but I don’t think it’s effective unless you really go beyond just thinking about the customer and thinking about, you know, peering inside of them a little bit walking around in their shoes a little bit, and trying to understand how is it that we fit into the context of their lives.

Empathy does not mean sympathy. It doesn’t mean that you feel what they feel. Instead, it just means that you think about how is this going to land with a customer. What would be my response? Try to put yourself in the customers shoes. It’s very much what I do in writing. I write what I want to write, you know, I have something I want to say. So I say it, but then I always go back to it.

And in the editing phase, you know, I talked about swapping places with the reader, thinking about things from the readers point of view. And I think that exercise is the exact same exercise that we need to do as marketers in marketing. Whether you are a massive tech B2B company at the hospital, it doesn’t matter anything, or whether you’re a small business or sole proprietor, I think it’ll be, it applies across the board.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Absolutely. You know, you read so many corporate blogs and you can tell that they skip that second step.

Ann Handley: Yeah, we love to talk about ourselves and I totally get it because I get excited about, you know, what I’m doing or what I’m I’m working on or what clipping we’re producing like we get excited about it, I get it. But it’s incumbent on us to then take it to the next step and say, “Okay, we’re excited about this. So why does it matter to somebody else?”

You know, I talked about going through that “so what” exercise. Well, you know, “so what, why should somebody care?” I think so much of our marketing and so much of our world, honestly would be so much better if we just went to that.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Amen. Yeah, preach on.

Brands Responding to Crises

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So just to get a little topical here and a recent post from your blog titled, Why Brand Voice Matters in a Time of Social Crisis, you talk about how brands respond to crises and whether you know, good or bad. It’s definitely worth a read. But there was one little piece in there. It’s always like that one little line that catches me. But that I just absolutely love and the line was “write a picture.” And I read that I was like, oh man that says so much in just three words. So, I wonder if maybe you could explain this concept a bit and, you know, talk a bit about it. It’s important, especially today, and yes, the grin.

Ann Handley: Yeah, yeah. Writing a picture in terms of framing your product or your service in the, you know, again, in the eye of your customer, why should they care? I talk a lot about just the need to make things a little bit more visceral, you know, making somebody feel something. And so that’s really what writing a picture is.

It’s not just telling somebody you know, kinda like the situation we’re talking about a second ago with, you know, Tim Washer and Grupo Mondello. It would have been one thing for them to say what’s what but instead, you know, producing a video was one way to really make that idea come alive.

And I think the very same thing is true in using your voice and writing. Just make it come alive, you know, describe the situation, make your customer the hero. Talk about how is it that your product or your service lives in the world. And I think if you can shift your marketing to that place, it becomes inherently more alive and more visceral.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And that’s the biggest complaint I hear from marketing directors or clients that we work with is “I don’t know how to connect with the client.” Or “I don’t think our blogs are being read,” and I think that’s the point they’re missing. That point of that connection and creating that. Yeah, that human experience for them. So that’s great. Write a picture. I’m gonna get that tattooed on my forehead.

Yeah, I think so.

Ann Handley: And then you can be reminded every morning when you wake up.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’d have to write it backward.

How to Make Marketing that Matters

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So I saw a picture of you and Mark Schaefer out to dinner. And I’m a little bitter that you didn’t fly me in, but that’s okay. I understand. You know.

That’s another thing I should tattoo on my forehead. So, you and Mark are both big advocates of the humanization of marketing. And Mathew Sweezey is out there preaching the Context Marketing Revolution, Mark’s talking about a Marketing Rebellion. So what am I getting at here?

What can a marketing director do with this? How can they put all this to good use when they’re constantly just trying to, you know, prove their worth to their boss or improve the bottom line or show ROI? How can they look at this and go, “how do I make this a reality? How do I actually humanize our marketing efforts?” That’s a big question.

Ann Handley: Yeah, I know. I mean, start with your customers. I mean, that’s really ultimately what humanizing your marketing means. And I think it’s especially so important right now, you know, in this era where we are all on Zoom all the time working out of our home offices. We are all sort of grounded in a way and behind screens constantly.

And so I think it’s so important now to actually you know, to rely on your customers to show the face of your company, but also turn the camera around and show who you are. One of my favorite examples recently and I think it’s a big company and it’s human and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Mathew and Mark and I talked about is the came from Marriott.

So Arnie Sorensen, CEO of Marriott, at the very beginning of this whole Coronavirus, shut down Marriott. Obviously hit super hard almost like overnight all over their hotels had to work is like gone right. Just shut down. And so they had to furlough a lot of their staff, a lot of their associates.

And so every other brand in the world, almost every other brand in the world issued a press release or a letter or something, some statement, right? And it came from PR and you can just, it just feels very different. Right? It’s very, like, you know, here’s what we’re doing. Do they use the word unprecedented? Probably, you know, it’s, you know, “in these times,” you know, those kinds of phrasing.

What Marriott said and again, this, this speaks to the work of what I think the best marketers are doing in terms of leading that revolution and humanizing and empathy and all this kind of stuff is that Arnie Sorenson got on camera, again, turning the camera around, and he spoke directly into the camera spoke directly to their shareholders, their associates, and he just talked about, you know, the incredible changes that were coming about, you know, within his own company, and about Marriott’s response to it and how he felt.

Why it was so beautiful is like yes, of course, PR gave him talking points and he had all of that. But it was Arnie, you know, it was so well done because he got emotional. He felt like you could feel his emotion behind it and you could just feel how he was really you know, he was kind of devastated and I really appreciated that message.

I think of that often because, you know, here it is now months later, but that message stuck with me in a way that no other brand message in response to Coronavirus did. Sure that’s because I felt something there. And so it’s kind of that simple, right? It’s like, and I guess it kind of encapsulates a lot of what we’re talking about here. But that is where you should start, you know, think about telling the story of your customers talking about them, specifically highlighting them, showing what’s going on in their worlds.

And I think there’s a couple of examples of brands who have done that throughout this. But also, your executives, the people who are running your company, turn the camera around, show who you are, speak directly to the people who you want to connect with.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’ve seen a lot more of that locally than I have on the national stage. Where you know, locally, local business leaders are stepping up to the plate and speaking from the heart I think. It absolutely is a different message and more effective for sure.

Ann Handley: Yeah for sure. Yeah very different and I think the language your language becomes different. I just think it’s, I haven’t seen a lot of it not even at my local level so maybe I should just move to your world because sounds like an inherently more empathetic place to be.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: It’s a lovely place. It’s It’s beautiful. It’s idyllic. There are mountains and streams and children and running in the meadows. It’s, it’s lovely. I highly recommend the visit.

Billy Beane and Big Data

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Alright, so I saved the best for last. I have to ask, and I know you’re excited about this. Billy Beane, you are interviewing Billy Beane, and for those of you who don’t know who Billy Beane is, Billy Beane is the guy that Brad Pitt played in Moneyball. And he is also really, I mean, I don’t know if he’s the father of big data by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s certainly only popular popularized the idea of big data because he used it to win a lot of games.

So, so when we’re talking about big data these days, and I’m not somebody who really can say that I’m a big data guy, I’m not a data guy, I’m not a details guy. So talking to someone like me, how can I still you make use of big data, even though I’m not the one like, like a Chris Penn? Who’s going to do a deep dive into, you know, analytics and data and all that? How do I make good use of all that big data? In your opinion?

Ann Handley: I mean, one of the things that I really appreciate about what Billy Beane did was that he didn’t look at the data that everybody else was looking at, right? I mean, when he turned things around for his organization, he looked beyond the data points that every other manager in his space was looking at, you know, so he wasn’t looking at vanity metrics.

I guess the right equivalent in marketing would be vanity metrics. But he wasn’t looking at the number of, speaking metaphorically here, Facebook followers or Twitter followers, or he wasn’t looking at things that ultimately don’t really translate into business success. And so really what he did is, again, metaphorically, looked at email subscribers, the number of those email subscribers who actually become paying customers, you know, he found those data points that actually matter consistently to the business

He was able to find those players and plug them into those roles in a way that I think just made an immense difference for his organization. That’s what Moneyball is about. That’s how you get to have somebody like Brad Pitt play you in the movie.

How that translates to marketing – find those more critical bits of data that are more important to your business, to you and your business, and your organization. That’s essentially what he did.

We started this conversation today talking about email and if you’re wondering “where do I start,” I would look there. Look at your email list, look at your database to figure out you know, probably, those are your most engaged customers to focus on. So start there, tease out the important metrics there.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And if you want some great examples of some different ways to handle email marketing, I already mentioned Annarchy which is available at but also the MarketingProfs newsletter. I love it. I use that as an example in a lot of the talks that I give as a great way to handle email marketing. So I think…

Ann Handley: I appreciate that I will let the marketers are Team now it’d be very happy to hear that.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Virtual hug from me. Well, that is the end of the interview and I absolutely appreciate you being here and coming on to do this. It is always wonderful to see you. So thank you so much.

Ann Handley: Thank you so much. I’m really happy that we were able to do this and thanks for having me.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Absolutely. Bye, everybody.

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