Mark Schaefer, Keynote Speaker, Marketing Consultant, and Best-Selling Author [Podcast]

Today we have one of my favorite authors and thoughtful marketers. He is another one of my very favorite people, bloggers, authors, speakers, marketers, and educators.

He’s written many of my favorite marketing books, all of which I recommend, such as Content Code, Known, Marketing Rebellion, and his newest must-read, Cumulative Advantage.

In this, we discuss…

  1. Human content
  2. Artisanal marketing
  3. Countervailing processes
  4. Finding the seam
  5. Digital marketing is a long game

Digital Transcript (Edited for Readability)


Jon-Mikel Bailey: Hi, I’m Jon-Mikel Bailey and welcome to the Wellspring Digital Chat, where we go out into the wild with a tranq gun, we find a marketer, we, you know, it’s painless, they don’t even know it happens, we tranq them, we take them back to our camp, we remove their brains, we extract all the digital knowledge, all the great knowledge, all the facts and tips, and everything.

And then we put it back in and we release them back into the wild. They’re fine, they don’t, well, we tag them, but they don’t know anything’s going on anyway. Today we have one of my very favorite authors, and what I like to call a thoughtful marketer. He is another one of my very favorite people, bloggers, authors, speakers, marketers, and educators. Mark, please go ahead and introduce yourself to these wonderful people.

Mark Schaefer: Oh, thanks, Jon-Mikel is great being with you again. I was wondering what that strange numbing pain in my neck was. And yeah, that’s okay. Yeah, thanks for using the anesthesia. It’s such a humane manner. I think you did a good job with the introduction. I mean, I really thrive on helping people with marketing strategy. I’m really proud of the work I do as an educator at Rutgers University.

And, you know, hopefully, as the pandemic subsides, I’ll be able to be that keynote speaker again. You know, we’re hoping on that soon. And I love you know, writing books, I’ve had a lot of fun writing books, Cumulative Advantage is number nine. And, you know, who knows if there’ll be another one, I got to have another big idea. But it’s been a great experience.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, Known, Marketing Rebellion, Content Code, and now Cumulative Advantage, and I struggle with that word. So bear with me.

Mark Schaefer: You’re not the only one.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: My mouth doesn’t work that well. They’re always, you know, those books, the three previous are always on the top of my list. And now Cumulative Advantage is going to be on the top of the list. They’re all great books. There, they’re all relatively quick reads. And I don’t mean that to sort of discount them, I just mean that in the sense that they have really well-written flow, and lots of great stuff in there.

So I think a lot of people are gonna get a lot out of this. No pressure to you, of course. So let’s do this.

Human Content

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So in Known, which I will put a link in here, to that book, you talk about human content, which I don’t think there’s simply enough of. Specifically, it is content that you say is “vulnerable, personal, bold, unguarded, generous, and confident.” But how on earth does a marketing director pitch this concept to their boss?

Mark Schaefer: Well, anytime someone says, “I need to convince my boss of something,” that’s always a red flag. And because I think that leaders, great leaders, and progressive leaders, they’re open to new ideas, and they, they want to be at the forefront, they want to keep moving ahead.

I mean, anybody that’s made it in business today knows that you’ve got to change and you’ve got to change fast. And to me, the idea of really, human content is intuitive. I mean, I think if you went to your boss and said, Okay, here’s our latest press release. And here’s a bit of content in our industry that that went viral that we think is particularly well done and interesting.

For me chances are, there’s something special about that content, and we’re all human beings. And intuitively, we like content that’s entertaining, that has some sort of human story that has some emotion behind it. And that’s hard for a lot of companies to grasp. Because we’re sort of, you know, legal-lead instead of human lead a lot of the time and that you know, and that and it’s nothing against the legal profession. I mean, we need those people to keep us out of jail.

They’re our friends, right, but at the same time You know, I saw a study done by Buzzsumo. And they said that the word most associated with content that goes viral is all awe. It’s like you’ve seen something you’ve never seen before. There’s a magical quality to it, there’s something entertaining about it.

And most of us, in marketing don’t sit around thinking, how can we be more entertaining today. But that really is kind of the idea, right? We want to have good content that people will not only enjoy, but they’ll eat, maybe even pursue it, and they’ll subscribe to us and then want more of it. So you know, it’s not going to happen everywhere.

Because really, that is led by the culture of your company. Some company cultures just aren’t going to get there. But, you know, I’m optimistic, I think a lot is changing because the world is so competitive and to compete, you’ve got to have a new view, of your content.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I think it’s to the point now where, well, it’s getting to the point, in my opinion, where some companies don’t have a choice, but to sort of humanize their brand and humanize their content if they want to succeed. You know, some fight it tooth and nail, but I hope, I’m optimistic like you, I hope we’re gonna see more.

Mark Schaefer: I think the word sort of has been kind of bastardized in some ways. I wrote a blog post maybe a year or so ago, saying that the human content is kind of like a grape lollipop today. So, if you think about a grape lollipop, it’s really not grape. Someone in the industrial food complex, decided one day that this is going to be what a grape candy tastes like.

And it has this bizarre purple color. So that signals it’s going to be grape. And you’ve been conditioned to think, “oh, this flavor of my mouth is grape,” but it really isn’t. And I think that’s the same way marketing is kind of with human content these days. Is that just because we slap someone’s name on the top like we think it’s personalized now, that that makes a human. And it’s really not as grape. Yeah, it’s industrial grape.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Agreed, definitely a different thing altogether.

Artisanal Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: But continue on this that in Marketing Rebellion, your other book, you talk about artisanal marketing. So you describe it in the book as “marketing that is so compellingly authentic, believable, and natural that people want to carry your story forward.” So can you further define artisanal marketing and talk about why you think it’s so important today?

Mark Schaefer: Well, I think one example of this would be, let’s take a look at an Instagram feed. And so Instagram has a certain feel to it, you expect human pictures, and you know, sunsets and dogs and food. And that’s kind of the organic experience of Instagram. And it’s normally really, really easy to see the sponsored content, because it’s an ad, right?

Now, the people doing the thing, oh, we’re on Instagram, but you’re not really on Instagram. It’s an ad, you might as well take out an ad on TV or a magazine. Generally speaking, people are going to flip right through it because it’s so obvious. It’s not organic to the experience. And I think the best type of content for a company on Instagram or anywhere, is content that’s organic to the experience, right?

It’s something that you expect, it fits in the flow, it fits in your community. It’s not a surprise. It’s not easy to skip over, because it sort of says, Oh, what’s this? So I don’t know if artisanal is the best word. A lot of people don’t like that word. It’s another one of those ones that have been over overused.

I couldn’t really think of it maybe I should have called you, Jon-Mikel, here’s a word to come up with a better word than artisanal. But it’s something you know, today, there’s this huge, huge trend toward appreciating things that are local and handcrafted and real.

So you know, it’s just traditional advertising is just so counter to that it’s counter to everything people want, everything they expect today, and I think there’s a way to create marketing content that seems like it fits that it just fits in my life. It fits in my style. It fits in my community, and It’s something that it’s kind of accepted.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’m kind of really loving how some of these podcasters like the, you know, Dax Shepard, or there’s one called Smartless. And they do their ads, but they do their ads in the same way that they’re doing their podcast. It’s them, it’s, they’re using humor, or they’re using, they’re personalizing it, and it doesn’t feel as much like an ad. And that to me is it’s almost, it’s almost like going back in time where ads were more. Not so trying to be so clever, maybe? I don’t know. It’s interesting.

Mark Schaefer: I mean, we do that on our podcast, too. I have a show called the Marketing Companion. And we have sponsors, and it’s almost like the radio days. You say, “Hey, you know, you’re speaking of that, well, you know, I found this out, because we use this product.” And it is organic because I don’t promote anything that I don’t use.

And I don’t believe in fact, there was an advertiser, we kicked off the show. Because they were doing some things we didn’t believe in and we were getting some bad feedback. And we didn’t want to be part of that brand. In fact, like maybe a year later, they’ve even come back to us, they said, “Are we still in jail? And the answer was, yes, you are because it’s just it has to be organic, it has to be something that we believe in.

So we curate advertisers just like you would curate content, we create our promotions, just with as much passion and as much thought as we would, you know, as we would prepare for, you know, the topics on our show.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And I think that also speaks to the content on your show as well. Because the advertiser, you know, you flip the script, the advertisers are now begging you, you know, to let them be a part of that experience, because the content on the show is so good. And they want to advertise with you. And I hope more of that, you know, the democratization of advertising would be fantastic.

Mark Schaefer: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. And I think it also sort of hints, Jon-Mikel, at the power of influencers, where, I have a certain amount of influence over my audience. But it’s, it’s not, you know, by association, these products are believed, because people believe in me, and they know that I’m not going to promote anything that’s, you know, that’s not in their best interests.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yep.

Countervailing Processes

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, onto your new book, which I loved, Cumulative Advantage. I just finished it this weekend, it is amazing. I highly recommend it. I’m gonna kind of gloss over some concepts here. But I love the idea of gaining an advantage using countervailing processes. This seems to be a very common theme in a lot of your work. I saw a lot of that in Content Code and Known and Marketing Rebellion. Can you describe this concept for, you know, these people and sort of go into its importance?

Mark Schaefer: Yeah, I think it is part of a common theme. It’s something I realized myself where I’m always like, trying to beat the other the big guys, you know, trying to punch back.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: You’re the David of the marketing world.

Mark Schaefer: Yeah, right. I’m the David of the marketing world. Um, so, I mean, the idea really, behind the book, is that doggone, it’s just so hard to compete today. And we’ve sort of lost this opportunity of equity of the internet. I mean, everything is being, is coming together again, where you’re the internet, sort of like threatened big media companies, right.

And now the internet is dominated by big media companies again. And so all of the content we’re trying to produce is just getting buried, even if we’re great, even if we’re doing our best work. And I’m not the kind of guy to say, Oh, well, life is hard. We got to go, you know, move on to something else. I want to figure it out.

That led me to this idea of momentum if you’re stuck. If you’ve sort of plateaued, what do you do to move to the next level? And this led me to research that really started in the 1960s in the field of sociology that kind of looked at, how does it happen, that some people just seem to have unstoppable momentum.

They just go and go and go and go and everything they touch turns to gold, and some of us just are always left behind. I found this fascinating. So long story short, this famous sociologist Robert Merton came across this idea of cumulative advantage. And he said, “Look, if people have an initial advantage, and they sort of play their cards in a certain way, they’re going to create this unstoppable momentum unless there are countervailing processes.”

So I became obsessed with this idea of what are the countervailing processes? He didn’t freaking tell us. And I went to all his writing, I went through all his speeches. Thanks, Robert. And by the way, this idea has been proven in business, and in athletics, and in education, and in every kind of field. So I mean, this is really something that works, but it hasn’t been applied to normal people like us in normal businesses.

So I went to his son, his son, ironically, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. And you want to know why it’s ironic, Robert Merton his work was done on Nobel Prize winners. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Right? I think he passed this on to his son, this is how you do it, boy. Now, so I contacted his son.

I said I got to know. I’m writing this book that features your Dad, what are these countervailing processes, he said, “Well, he said, I’m not really the person you need to talk to, you need to talk to my stepmother.” She was the research assistant who did the work. And she still teaches at Columbia University.

So I contacted her, she said, Oh, I’m so glad you contacted me, here are all my unpublished papers on this topic, this will help get you to where you need to go. So she was very kind and helpful. You know, it was hard going through a lot of this stuff, because it’s sort of very academic and very ethereal in a lot of ways.

But you know, was able to, you know, plow through it and find some stuff that helped. So I think, you know, I nailed it, I think we sort of came up with this process that says, Look, this is how it works in the real world. And you don’t necessarily have to be special, you don’t need a Harvard degree, you don’t need a million dollars, it just really need to be aware of how momentum works. This is the process.

One of the things I think is most powerful, most inspiring in the book is that on the Bloomberg list of the richest people in the world, there are 10 people on that list that had grew up in poverty, absolute poverty, had no college education. And they all did the same thing to get where they were right, they sort of followed this idea. They followed this process. And that’s what’s codified in this book.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And so to kind of take it to the next step, then you have a process that you’ve outlined in the book, which I think is great. And it’s one of the themes throughout all your books is usually have a process that people can understand and follow, which I really appreciate because I’m not very smart. So it’s nice to have things spelled out for me sometimes.

Finding the Seam in Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: One of the other concepts in the book is finding the seam. So one way to cut through the noise, get some big wins in marketing. How might someone sell this to a team or management or whatever, who is just head down focused on daily tasks, goals, KPIs, and all that corporate crap? Yeah, we get too obsessed with what everyone else is doing marketing in marketing, and you know, therefore get lost in sort of this sameness. Yeah.

Mark Schaefer: Yeah. Well, I think this is really, this idea of the seam, is really the heart of innovation, the heart of opportunity. Let me give you, first I’ll explain what it is. So the idea is, the first step is looking at…

  • What could be an initial advantage for you?
  • What are your skills?
  • What are your resources?
  • What are your ideas?
  • What’s your perspective?
  • What’s your energy?
  • What’s your… it could be almost anything, right?

Sometimes it’s like who you know, sometimes it’s like being in the right place at the right time, creates this advantage. And then you think about now that no idea is going to lead to momentum unless you pursue it. There’s, it’s sort of a quest to say, how does this concept or advantage or idea how does it apply to something relevant going on in the world today? Not next year, not two years from now, but what is happening right now.

A seam is a shift in the status quo. It’s a change. It’s a new trend, something going on with demographics, something going on with taste, something going on with fashion, or economics, or the world. And the reason why this is particularly relevant right now is because we are living in the greatest shift in the status quo in the history of the world. It’s called a pandemic.

Literally, everything in the world is being reimagined how we work, how we entertain ourselves, how we educate our children, how we date, how we eat, how we do almost how we travel or not travel, it’s everything is changing. And a lot of that is going to be permanent, right? Millions and millions of people are going to work remotely.

Okay, so now, what’s the seam? What’s an opportunity? What are the needs? What are the unmet and underserved needs of people who remote work remotely? Well, they could be working at all times have hours, you know, hours of the day? How are they going to get their food all hours of the day? What about childcare? What if they have a sick child? What about working out? They might have to work out at weird hours?

You know, could you build a remote working apartment complex? Could you build a remote working hub? Every single shift creates opportunity. And this is happening every single day, every minute of the day, there are little things percolating and bubbling, and we just need to be aware of these things.

So let me give you an example from my own life, that when the pandemic hit, I got COVID. And I really had, I had hypoxia, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t think I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain. And when I finally sort of wakened from this haze, I realized my business had gone to zero.

You know, my speaking had dried up. My consulting customer said, “We love you, but not right now.” Even my book sales dropped to nearly zero. And so I had to think, alright, what do I do? You know, what’s my role in the world? What’s, what’s my initial advantage?

My advantage is I am a teacher, I am a really good teacher, I can take very complicated concepts and distill them to the essence and help people understand. And what I realized, Jon-Mikel, is that what the world needed me to teach in that moment, in that time was something different.

I stopped creating marketing content. And I started creating content about how do we get through this thing? How do we deal with this? Disorientation? Anxiety? How’s it working on me? How do we deal with this uncertainty when we don’t know when it’s gonna end? We don’t know what’s going to change.

And many people said the content I produced in this period was the most helpful content. They saw during this period, the traffic to my website doubled. So I took some of this content, made it into an ebook, called Fight to the Other Side, gave it away for free. The last page of the ebook said, “If you love this ebook, and are more inspired by it, just think what Mark Schaefer could do for your boring zoom meetings.”

Now, here’s the unmet need. Everybody has these leadership meetings every week? Right? They’re boring. What do we do? We need someone to come in and try and inspire us and give us hope. Jon-Mikel, by July, August, I was having record months that I went from, I went and, and look, it didn’t last. Sure. Right. Because it’s a seam.

You know, it’s good, it may boom, it may happen for a year, may happen for two years. But people are moving away from that, right? They don’t need me to do that. So you have to be looking for the next seam. It’s not a five-year plan. It’s not a 250-page document. It’s what can I do right now, to create opportunity. And that’s the way we need to view the world to create strategy today.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And, you know, it’s, you know, it’s a flanking maneuver, and in a sense. You’re facing a huge challenge head-on and maybe it’s time to sneak around the side. So, you know, and all of this.

Digital Marketing is a Long Game

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I love the fact that in your book, in all your books, but specifically in this one there’s a consistent theme about hard work, and that none of this comes easy. It’s not as if you go and, you know, companies are always talking about they want that next hit or instant success or the viral video.

Your story, your personal story is one of hard work. I think most successful marketers’ stories are those of hard work. And you say there’s, you say in the book, “there’s no substitute for consistent and steady progress.” Should marketers today pay more attention to the importance of the long game in marketing?

Mark Schaefer: Well, it’s really a balance, you know, I mean, sometimes you’ve got to, the clock’s ticking, right? I mean, you’re a startup, and you’ve got so much money. And, you know, you need to look at the long term, certainly, you need to build your brand in a smart way. But maybe you’ve got to make something happen, and you’ve got six months or nine months to do it.

So you’ve got to think about influencers, you’ve got it, that’s borrowing an audience. Basically, you’ve got to maybe think about using advertising in a smart way, digital advertising, that’s borrowing, you know, borrowing an audience until you can establish your own. I think for an individual trying to great create a personal brand, for a business trying to create a meaningful brand in the long term, and create an audience of people that really connect to them.

I mean, there’s just no shortcut. I haven’t seen one, I haven’t found one. When I wrote Known, I really would have loved to have written a book that said, how to how to build an effective powerful brand in 60 days, or 30 days, or 10 days, you know, but that would be a lie. Right? And there are too many people out there, you know, promising quick success.

And look, you know, I went down this deep rabbit hole when I wrote Known, and I interviewed 97 people around the world who are known in their field, IT, real estate, or wealth management, or education or music or whatever. There was no exception. None. The people did basically the same four things that I outlined in the book.

But it’s about creating this meaningful content, being patient, engaging with your audience, finding the right audience that matters to you, nurturing them, and rewarding them. And it just takes time. There’s a story I tell in this book, and, I tell it a lot because it had a big impact on me.

About seven years into their career, I got to meet the Black Keys, a huge rock band, one of the biggest rock bands in the world. You know, they can fill Madison Square gardens. When I got to meet them, they had just had their biggest hit. They’re playing a club held, you know, maybe 1000 people, something like that.

And I said, what was the big turning point? What was the thing that really helped you burst through? And Patrick Carney the drummer said, “there wasn’t one. Look, we’ve been making records for seven years, we’ve been touring for seven years, every record’s a little bit better than the last one, every tour is a little bit better than the last one. We just keep working. We just keep engaging with people, we just keep, you know, trying to get a little bit better month by month and year by year.”

And that was at a point where I was working on my personal brand, and I wanted it to explode. And what he was telling me is it doesn’t. And as but as long as you see progress, and I spent a lot of time talking about this in the book, as long as you see progress, you gotta keep going. Because you know, because it’s working. It might not seem like it’s working, but it is, and you got and it might take two years might take three years in some cases. But as long as you’re seeing progress, you know, it’s going to tip off and start to take off.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I love the fact that you quoted a drummer in your book, mainly because I’m a drummer as well. And I’m actually recording this interview sitting on my drone throne because it keeps me from rocking back and forth and doing all the fidgety things that I normally do.

Mark Schaefer: Haha, good for you. That’s fun.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So Mark, you know, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. As I said, I enjoy all your books. They’re all helpful. They’re all great reads. I will link to all of them in the transcription below when this goes live, so thank you so much. Stay healthy, stay well, and continued success for you.

Mark Schaefer: And thank you so much, my friend. Thanks for being so well prepared as a great interview.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Oh, a huge compliment. Well, you know, let’s just end it there.

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