Other Voices: Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

This post marks a milestone for the group at B2B Voices as it is our 200th since we launched four years ago. And to help us celebrate, I was able to convince Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules, to spend some time with us.Handley

You are clearly very busy. Tell me about how you process information and content.

I try to touch things once (email, social updates) when I can. I’m pretty controlling when it comes to my work, so I don’t outsource well or shortcut much. In other words, this is actually me answering these questions, and not a robot. Surprisingly, huh? (I’m kidding.)

I wish I could say that I have a secret weapon or cool tool that makes me incredibly efficient. But the truth is straightforward: I’m pretty disciplined in my approach, is all. The key is simply staying on top of things, and not getting too distracted while you’re doing so: For example, when I’m writing I shut off email so that the constant alert of incoming mail doesn’t divert me. Otherwise, I’m like the dog Dug in the movie Up. (“Squirrel!”)

There are so many comparisons of B2C vs B2B communications and how B2B seems to lag, particularly in social media. Do you think B2B communications is misunderstood? Or is it just that we are more focused on our work and approach?

I’m not sure whether business-to-business communications is misunderstood, or whether social media is simply misunderstood by B2B companies. I wish more B2B brands used social platforms not just as a way to amplify their content (to repost blog headlines, for example), but as true storytelling platforms. I wished they used them more thoughtfully: As a way to tell a larger story, and express their value and mission.

Here’s what I mean: MarketingProfs is a B2B training and education company, and we’ve found great success in using Pinterest and Slideshare as platforms to showcase our lighter side – through our Marketing Humor board or our presentation about how to ruin your presentation. Those efforts tell a small part of a broader story: We are approachable. We are human beings. We love what we do. We are serious about marketing, but we also think that marketing doesn’t have to be boring. (It shouldn’t be, in fact.)

What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to marketing?

How much time do we have…? Here are two:

1. People who don’t walk the walk.

2. Brands (and people) who speak Frankenspeak instead of using the language of actual human beings.

If you were advising a client and they could only use one social media platform what would you recommend and why?

I get this question a lot from people. But often the unasked question there — the question inside that question, if you will – is: How little can I get away with doing? Here’s the thing: Social media represents a rich opportunity to market in a whole new way. It’s not a task or channel, it’s a mindset.

I’d advise them to forget about social networks, and to focus instead on content. It’s more useful to focus more on creating great content for your prospects and customers (published regularly through a blog or similarly flexible content management system) and focus less on specific platforms. That can come later. Focus on your message and story first.

Data. More data. And more data. What do marketers need to think about when it comes to metrics and evaluation?

There’s no magic data elixir that applies to all businesses. If there were, I’d bottle it in beautiful packaging, set it in a velvet-lined box, and drive around the country, trading it out of the back of my car for ounces of gold.

It’s more important to figure out what marketing metric matters to you: It might be sales, but it might be something else, too: Customer engagement or sharing metrics, or the length of time between a lead generated and a sale. In other words, it depends.

But at a high level, look at your lead generation, sales, and sharing metrics. Those are ones that will give you a pretty solid sense of how well your marketing is driving business.

We’ve seen a real evolution of how people interact, communicate and share information in the past five years. What strikes you as the most relevant change for B2B companies during this time?

I’ll share the change I like best: I love the way that some B2B companies are embracing social media and content for what it is: An opportunity to connect in unprecedented ways with people who they are selling to.

I especially love it when I see B2B companies take that opportunity to lighten up a bit. I wrote about a few of those companies on American Express’s OPEN Forum recently. (The OPEN Forum platform itself is also a great example of a B2B company embracing the opportunities inherent in social media and content, by the way.)

What’s the biggest challenge ahead for communicators?

A big challenge for forward-thinking communicators in 2013 is how to produce the kind of messages and content that truly engage. While most companies understand the notion that they need to be producing content, many are still producing drivel. Producing enough content, and producing the kind of content that engages, are still major challenges for B2B marketers.

Think of your marketing through this lens: Is this marketing truly useful? Will my customer thank me for it?  I believe that last question is the Holy Grail for marketing. It’s what I hope all companies aspire to, and it’s a fundamental theme that I focus a lot of my work around.

Finally, it was good seeing you, so when are you coming back to London?

It was so great to see you, too. I love London! Soon, I hope!

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy some OtherVoices:

R “Ray” Wang on customer engagement

Michael Pranikoff, PR Newswire on B2B digital communications

A Q&A With Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext

A discussion with Mark Ragan, Ragan Communications

A brief interview with Kipp Bodnar, publisher at SocialMediaB2B.com

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