In part one of our interview with content marketing expert Paul Gustafson, he explains content marketing, where it's going over the next decade, and what this means for organizations of all kinds.
Paul is President of TDA Group, a leading content marketing firm based in Silicon Valley, and he's a member of udu's board of advisors. This is the first half of our interview; we'll conclude it with part two tomorrow. The interview was conducted by Frank Boosman, VP Product Marketing of udu, and has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the first in a series of interviews we're going to be doing here on the intersection of data and analytics with a variety of other domains.
Frank: Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?
Paul: The tagline we use these days at TDA Group is that we're tech's marketing agency. What that means in the technology industry is we produce content that helps our clients, who are all types of B2B technology companies. We help them explain what it is that they have and the value they deliver to customers in a way that customers can understand, because technologists sometimes aren't always adroit at explaining the value of their technology. They like to explain what it is and how it works, but the why is where we tend to focus. We produce all manner of different kinds of deliverables, everything from websites to videos to graphics to blog series to presentations—all the various kinds of materials that you would expect to see coming out of a marketing communications agency.
I think what makes us a little different is that we can also have a two-way conversation with someone who is a technology expert, a world leader in their field, someone who has spent their life really focused on inventing something powerful and compelling, but they may not always be the best person to describe it. We help those people describe the value in terms that their target audiences can understand so that they're comfortable—in fact, comfortable enough to take some kind of action. In most cases a purchase, eventually, is the ultimate goal. But it doesn't always have to be a purchase; it can be a sign-up, it can be becoming a partner, it can be deciding to use an API. The goals can be very different. But most times revenue is what our clients like the most. That's what we focus on here.
I've been here 12 years. TDA Group has been around since 1987, and I spent several decades in the software business at a bunch of companies, some of which you've probably heard about—Adobe and Xerox PARC—and a bunch of companies that you may not have heard of. My background is that I got an engineering degree from Iowa State, and I also got a journalism degree there. So what I'm doing now is actually a good fit for me because it combines my technology affinity—I like technology, I always have—and my ability to explain it to people inside and out. Here at TDA we have a whole room of people who can do that, so it's great.
Frank: You're a recognized expert on content marketing. Can you explain what content marketing is for people who are unfamiliar with it?
Paul: Content marketing means different things to different people. In fact, now we struggle with the term because it has come to mean content for content's sake, and that's not how we think about it. Our approach at TDA Group is to try to understand the informational needs of your target audiences and then create original thought-leadership content that meets those informational needs and fosters engagement. So the idea of content marketing in its best form is information that only you have or that is unique to your organization, to your experts on a particular set of subjects that really matter to your community, your partners, buyers, and sometimes even employees. And content marketing is the process of understanding who those audiences are and what they need and then producing stories and other kinds of assets that impart information to those audiences in a way that the audience thinks is valuable.
The kind of reaction that you're going for from the readers is, "Wow, I didn't know so-and-so knew anything about that," or "Gosh, I hadn't thought about that part of the puzzle before, and maybe I need to do something as a result of being better informed or have a little better understanding than I did before." And hopefully, "Wow, that was fun." We're trying to kind of get people better informed, better educated, and ultimately entertained and engaged, and feeling good that the brand is actually looking out for their broader interests, not just trying to sell them something.
Frank: You've been at TDA Group for 12 years now. I'm curious where you think technology marketing generally—and content marketing more specifically—are going over the next 10 years. If we sit down and have this conversation again a decade from now, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having?
Paul: Things are changing dramatically. Salespeople used to play a big role in influencing purchase decisions, and now by the time the salespeople actually get involved the decision has largely been made. That is very different from the way it used to be. I think the other thing that has changed is that the purchase used to be the point where people would get access to your product. And now the free trial is ubiquitous. What that means is now you still have to foster the same understanding of value that you used to do pre-sales, right? But now you do that in the context of your product offering.
I think what we're going to see is some of the stories and assets and marketing communications that have traditionally been used as sales enablement or pre-sales are going to find their way inside the products, so that when you sign up for a trial, that understanding is imparted throughout the trial. I think we're going to see the infrastructure for content marketing get fused inside of digital products to heighten understanding during the trial, so that at the end of the trial you actually convert. Because if the trial isn't happening, if you sign up and do nothing, that's like not having a trial at all. I think ahead of that will be content that is very interactive and fun, and designed to flow through social channels in ways that everybody struggles to make work now. But it's all about getting people to a sign-up page for a trial, and then ensuring that the experience between opting into the trial and the conversion, trying to compress that time and up the conversion rates. I think that's where it's headed.
Frank: Listening to that, I was thinking about how Engels said that eventually the state wouldn't be abolished, but that it would "wither away". It kind of sounds like you're saying that sales departments are going to wither away.
Paul: I am. Gartner or Forrester a couple of years ago did a study where the net was that literally hundreds of thousands of enterprise salespeople—in the technology sector anyway—weren't going to be around within 10 years. They predicted a huge drop in the numbers of salespeople, which means of course the salespeople that you do have will have to be even more productive. I don't think salespeople are going away. But I think for many products and many services—I mean, I didn't talk to Skype before I decided to download their software, I just did it, right? We're having this conversation using an audio conferencing/unified messaging solution for free. I would hazard a guess that neither of us talked to anybody to go get that. I think that's going to become more and more pervasive.
And I think it's not just going to be technology. There's a company called Stitch Fix you can sign up with for a free trial of clothes. You measure yourself, you tell them the kind of clothes you like to wear, what you have and what you don't, and then they send you a box with 5 or 10 things in it. And you keep what you like and send the rest back. And they charge you for what you keep, and there's no going to the store, there's no talking to a Men's Wearhouse fashion consultant. It's just all done remotely.
In fact, at the apartment building where I live, it's striking to me that every day by the mailbox there are at least four, five, six, and sometimes as many as a dozen boxes for people who live in my little 8- or 10-unit apartment complex.
The free trial with a subscription that converts with purchase is going to become a very, very important model for a lot of things that go beyond technology software and hardware products. Even the servers and storage systems that people offer now, the leaders, you can go provision most of that in a trial for free in less than an hour and you can begin to see how well it works with what you're trying to get done. It's a remarkably different world that we're living in.
Frank: I note that Tesla—to the best of my knowledge—has never done any advertising. Probably the bulk of their marketing is tweets by Elon Musk, and they have no true salespeople. In the vehicle division, anyway, their people that work in the stores are simply there to explain Tesla, to show it to you, to help you do the order, but you do the order yourself, they're not there to sell you. And I contrast that with a 1950s educational film that I saw once on the automobile sales process. They literally would go through their Rolodex of customers, visit them at home, and say, "It has been two years since you bought a new Oldsmobile; it's time to buy a new Oldsmobile." If Tesla is at the leading edge of that, they've gotten rid of most of the traditional marketing function, they've gotten rid of most of the traditional sales function, they just have this sort of direct unfiltered relationship with their customers, and they publish lots of stuff that their customers can obsess about and satisfy their curiosity—is that where we're all heading? And if so, what's your advice to companies that don't have someone as charismatic and famous as Elon Musk—which is, to be fair you know, about 99.99 percent of companies?
Paul: Mr. Musk is not only very, very smart but he's also very articulate, and that combination will continue to have a lot of value for executives going forward. That said, if you have a product that you were capable enough to bring to market, and you have customers who were smart enough to figure out that they needed that, and to find you, and to actually find a way to buy from you, and then deploy it, and have a good experience, then that means that you know something. And probably just as important, you know something that their peers would appreciate also knowing. I think the idea is to really focus on what is it that you bring to the table that is uniquely yours. And you may not be the most polished executive, but we don't all need to be Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.
I think the key here is to understand the knowledge and the expertise that you've got and then package that in a way that's easily digestible by your target audience. That's a skill. That's something you could either hire somebody to do internally for you, or you can hire an agency like TDA, or you can hire another agency. Find ways to package that expertise so that it's easy to find and easy to consume. And it's not just about the ideas. There's a design element there too. It has to look like something your audience wants to engage with. And good design will kind of get right out of the way if it's done well—you just get right to the ideas.
We'll conclude part two of our interview with Paul in our next blog entry—look for it tomorrow.
Note: Since this post, Paul has become President of Expert Support, a Silicon Valley technical communications firm. He’s still reachable via Twitter, @psgustafson. You can read more about his move here, and find his new blog here. Congratulations, Paul!