Differentiate Your Content with Joe Zappa

Struggling to make your mark in today’s competitive and cluttered marketplace? Joe Zappa of Sharp Pen Media helps us explore innovative strategies and practical tips for businesses to differentiate themselves and carve out their unique identity so they can stand out both online and offline.

Key Takeaways from Joe Zappa’s Interview

  • Differentiation in Content: The primary reason content tends to be homogenous is the lack of strategic narrative building before jumping into content creation. Companies often rush into tactics without clearly defining what differentiates them from their competitors, leading to undistinguished content. 
  • Customer Insights: Understanding what differentiates your customers based on your brand or technology is crucial for creating content that stands out. Engaging with your customers and listening to their feedback can uncover unique angles and messages that resonate specifically with your target audience. 
  • Audience Engagement: Success in content marketing can also come from being present and thoughtful in less saturated spaces. Building a following and engaging with your audience in niche online communities can yield tangible business results in relatively short time frames. 
  • Message Differentiation: To craft a differentiated message, engage with both your executive team and customers to identify trends and gaps. This approach helps in creating messages that speak directly to the customer’s pain points and what sets you apart from the competition. 
  • Finding Your Audience: It’s not just about being on the right platform; it’s about engaging where your audience is most active. Whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, or niche online communities, understanding where your customers gather and actively participating in those spaces is key to building an audience. 

Rich: My guest today is a content marketer, journalist, and academic who has spearheaded content programs for dozens of businesses. He founded Sharp Pen Media, a marketing agency that approaches content and PR through a three-step process of narrative building, editorial planning, and content creation. 

He was the editor of the MarTech trade publication, Street Fight. From 2018 to 2023, he earned his BA from Brown and his PhD in comparative literature from Cornell. Today, we’re going to be talking about how you can differentiate your company, stand out online and off, and win more business, with Joe Zappa. Joe, welcome to the podcast.  

Joe: Thanks so much for the illustrious introduction, Rich.  

Rich: So why do you believe that the marketing industry perpetuates homogenous content? And before you even answer that, that sounds like somebody who graduated from Cornell with a PhD in comparative literature, just by all those words I just used. 

Joe: Thank you. I’m ever working on simplifying. I would say that’s the main note my staff and I’ve received from clients.  

Why is content homogenous? I work in ad tech, like many industries it’s highly commoditized, right? You have these technology categories and it’s very hard even for industry insiders to tell you what’s different among the companies in those categories. And so if you don’t take time before pumping out content to think strategically about what is our message, what actually differentiates us or our customers, from all of these other companies in our category, you’re inevitably going to produce commoditized content for commoditized products.  

And so I think the main reason content is homogenous is because people don’t take the time to think through strategy before jumping into tactics. And the reasons for that are very well understood by anyone who’s been involved in marketing. It’s your CEO saying, “We gotta crank this out. We gotta get going. We don’t have time.” If you’re hiring an agency, “We don’t have time to spend a month on strategy”. If you’re hiring a director of marketing, you don’t have time to spend on that. And so people end up just doing what’s right in front of them, and it doesn’t stand out. 

Rich: Now Joe, when it comes to me, you’re preaching to the choir. But if somebody’s out there listening right now, they may be wondering, why is it important that we stand out? Why is it important that our content is different from anybody else’s? And what might you say to that person? 

Joe: If your content doesn’t stand out, probably no one is going to notice you. I say probably because I think there are really two ways to be successful with content. One is to do what I just preached in the first answer. It’s genuinely stand out, have a differentiated message. The way you do that is you figure out, okay, we have competitors, we’re all serving sort of similar types of customers. But there’s probably a specific thing that separates our customers from others based on our brand or our technology and the kind of client or customer it attracts. 

For example, my collaborator, Paul Knegten, he used to be the CMO of an ad tech company called Beeswax. And what they based their marketing on was the understanding that their customers were control freaks. This is an amazing little marketing tidbit, I think, because if you say we are the ‘insert tech platform’ for control freaks, you’re actually going to alienate 80% of your audience. But the 20% that are really for you, and in this case they were right for the company because this technology was really complex and granular, so it made sense for brands that had extensive data science teams. If you zero in on that 20% of your audience, they are going to say, this is the company for me. I want to work with them. You’re going to attract more of the right kind of leads and you’re going to close more deals. So that’s one way to stand out and achieve business success with content.  

Honestly, the other is if you’re not in an especially saturated space, I do think you can win by just being thoughtful and present. Like for example, again, my industry ad tech. Ad tech Twitter is very much a thing, but it’s not so much of a thing that it’s saturated. So I got on there six months ago and I consistently post three to five times a day. I interact with major accounts, and I’ve built a following and had business results from that in one to two quarters.  

So I think you have those two options. One is, genuinely differentiate on the message and on what your customers are interested in. Or two, find a space where your customers are that’s not that saturated, and just be more present than your competitors.  

Rich: All right. So if somebody is listening and they’re thinking okay, that makes a lot of sense. But then what are the first steps that they can take if they feel like either there’s not enough differentiation between what they are saying and their competitors are saying, or that they’re not in that space where there’s just not so much competition for attention? 

Joe: Yeah, so if it’s the first one, if you want to figure out how to differentiate, your customers are the key. So we do a thing when we have a new strategy client, we’ll have a meeting with the executive team and the marketing leadership, and we’ll figure out what do you guys think this company is about? And where do you want to go? And then we’ll talk to five of their customers.  

And generally, you’ll start to notice trends there. And sometimes they’re divergent, which is great, because then you have the opportunity as the new marketing leader or the agency to help the executive team understand that there is a gap between them and their customers. 

For example, the company might be very excited about a new product they’re developing. You talk to their customers, they don’t give a hoot about the new product, and they’re like, “What we really love is the service. We love the service and the flexibility, and they’ll change the product to meet our needs. And their competitors were trying to upsell us every time we had a new request.” Then that has to be front and center in the messaging, right? So that’s one way to do it.  

If you want to win by achieving volume in a market that is not saturated, I think you need to find someone on your team, or go find someone external, who has demonstrated an inability to build an audience online and then develop house positions on three to five key topics. Understand what are the issues in our industry people care about, and what do we think about them? And then you’ve got to let that person loose and let them just start creating content. Because I think that is the major flaw in most marketing programs. It’s not poor action, it’s actually inaction. It’s the failure to do anything.  

Rich: I like the idea of interviewing our customers or clients to get a better read on what they’re looking for. For those people who maybe are just starting out, what might you recommend if they don’t yet have a customer base? Is there a way of doing that kind of research?  

Joe: I think if you don’t yet have a customer base, you have to find who are the businesses like me in my category, who are the people like me who have the audience I want. And you need to see what kind of content are they posting. And then you have to engage with them. 

Because that’s how, in the beginning, you’re going to attract the audience.  

So this is a great question, because tactically, this is a place where a lot of people go wrong. And I did this, so I’m speaking from experience. You say, okay, I have all of these smart thoughts, and I’m going to attract an audience. And you start just posting on your own page. But no one knows you exist, so how are you going to build an audience from scratch?  

The way is to go where that audience already is. Find ten accounts in your category that are very active, and then comment thoughtfully on their stuff, and people will naturally start to follow you because they’ll recognize you from those comments as someone who has something insightful to say. And then your comments on other people’s content and your own content will start to feed each other, and you’ll build up a genuine following.  

Rich: All right. And it sounds like that’s the path you took with Twitter. 

Joe: Yeah, that’s exactly what I did with LinkedIn and Twitter.  

Rich: All right. So once we’ve talked to our clients, assuming they exist, and we’ve talked to the leaders of the company, how do we then hone in on our message? How can we take that information and really make it a clear, differentiated message that we can put out there? 

Joe: Yeah, so what I do is I am taking notes after each of those customer interviews. What did they say about the product? What terms did they use to describe the product? What is their pain? How do they talk about competitors? And then at the end of those five interviews, I look at the trends. So did three to five of those customers say the same things? And usually there will be a few things that they all said.  

And then I go back to the executive team and I say, okay, here are the trends and what your customers are telling me about your business and your competitor’s businesses, and why they love you. Does this make sense to you? We have a dialogue, and you should be able to come out of that with messages that speak to the customer’s pain and speak to what differentiates them from competitors.  

So for example, I have a client that is a publisher business intelligence tool. And so they help publishers like the New York Times reconcile data across a bunch of different tech systems so that they can make faster and better decisions. And what happens when a company does not have this tool, when ad ops professionals do not have a good BI tool, is they spend a lot of time manually collecting and reconciling data. And the overarching message we came up with for them was take back Monday. And it’s this idea that all these people are telling us, “Oh my God, before I had this, I would spend half my Monday doing manual data reconciliation.” And so you come up with a message that is going to galvanize them, that they’re going to go to the home page of the website and say, “Oh, I get this. This is for me.” And then you create sub messages below that, that are like, everyone in our industry is talking about AI. So then how does AI intersect with ‘Take Back Monday’, right?  

It’s okay, there’s going to be a lot of bluster about AI and the way that AI is actually going to matter for our clients, i.e. publishers, is it’s going to help them save time by recognizing patterns that they used to have to recognize manually. And you create house POVs that roll that ladder up to that overall message. And then that overall message and the POVs inform all of the content you’re going to do. So six months later when we have 20 pieces of content we’ve created, there’s no mystery of oh, we’re just going through the motions and we’re creating this content haphazardly. It’s like we’re creating content in this very targeted fashion based on our customers pain points and what differentiates us.  

Rich: So one of the concerns that I’ve often heard over the years is we have more than one audience or we have more than one message. So if we’ve got this main message like ‘Take Back Mondays’ or whatever the equivalent is for our company, but we think we have more than those, how do we decide which is the most important message that we should be putting out there, especially if there are people in the company that might be saying you’re not speaking to this audience, you’re not speaking to that audience?  

Joe: Yeah, I think the number one thing, and this is obviously very common including with the client I mentioned, is who is really driving the deals. Like this company I mentioned, they speak to operations professionals, and then they speak to chief revenue officers. And so there was a question of which one ‘Take Back Monday’ is more for. Ops people, because it’s about saving time, and as is often the case, then there’s another message for people who are concerned about making more money, right? So do we focus on the operational one or the revenue?  

And in this company’s case, the ops people were really the ones that marketing was working on since they were the ones who were coming through the door and pushing deals along. Now, you did need to have a pitch for the revenue people, but there are no deals if we don’t attract the ops people with marketing. And so that’s the message you have to focus on.  

Rich: And could some of those secondary messages, like you mentioned AI just as an example and how does this impact this industry, are those where you can maybe pull in some of those secondary audiences that might be part of the decision-making process? 

Joe: Yes, exactly. And sometimes you might even create content about or do PR campaigns about topics that don’t tie directly to what you do. Like maybe you’re just trying to attract the attention of investors,, or peers, or journalists and you go up tangential to what you do to captivate them. So it’s not the case that everything needs to tie back to that primary message. But if you articulate the primary and secondary messages, you at least have a sense of, okay, here’s what we’re focusing on most of the time, and then we’re going to have some other materials that address this. 

Rich: I like everything you’re saying, but I’m sure there are people out there that are like, we don’t have a point of view and we don’t have the thought leadership in our company that’s going to create these blog posts and content. Is this something that has to be created in house? Is this something we can hire out? What are some of the pros and cons of working with somebody outside the company to be creating your company’s point of view?  

Joe: I think the advantage of hiring someone external is that they are talking to ten other companies in the industry, probably, if not more, and journalists, so they have their finger on the pulse of the industry. What do people actually care about, right? You’re obsessed with what you’re doing, you should be. You’re hiring that other person to get that external, less biased POV. Also, often you can get a level of talent that you’re not going to get in house, because you’re hiring that person who would be $500k a year to hire in house, and you’re getting a fraction of their time, and then it’s a reasonable price. So those are the advantages.  

I will say, building an online audience is an everyday thing, and there are very few external resources who are going to integrate in your team and be posting on your Twitter or LinkedIn page every day. So I do think if you want to take the audience building strategy, you need to have someone in your company who’s going to partner with the agency and own that. Or you need to go out and hire someone internal to do it.  

But I think the truth is, very few companies are going to have the resources to hire someone internally to do it. Because you don’t really want to hire a very junior person to be the voice of your brand. And senior people, of course, are very expensive full time. 

Rich: Once we’ve honed in on our message, what tips do you have for getting it out there and being seen by our ideal clients? 

Joe: Yeah, you have to figure out where do our clients actually hang out. And I think that means getting more creative than just, here are the trade publications in our industry. I think that’s definitely part of it, but that’s like the old school PR playbook. And I like to say that a lot of companies in my industry are running a marketing playbook that would have been appropriate before Facebook was invented, right?  

So you also need to figure out like, where are the niche communities online where our customers are gathering and where they’re really active. Is it Twitter? Is it LinkedIn? Is it WhatsApp groups? Is it Slack? Is it Reddit? There are usually online communities for any company where your people are hiding out and people have built very large businesses by just going into Facebook groups and finding their audience. So I think that’s what it comes down to. 

And I think earlier on when I was getting into marketing, I would hear people talk about find your audience. And I was like, okay I’m in B2B tech, so presumably my audience is on LinkedIn. But I think finding your audience is deeper than what platform they’re on, it’s also where are they on the platform? That’s where the advice I gave earlier about finding the creators who are attracting your audience comes in.  

Because let’s say your audience is on LinkedIn. You could just go start posting from your LinkedIn page and again, nothing will happen. But if you find the creators who are already engaging that audience, you will build that audience yourself if you have something thoughtful to say and you say it consistently. 

Rich: All right. You had mentioned earlier AI. You mentioned this would be something that maybe one of these secondary messages, any tips on how we can come up with those? Is this just a matter of listening to the general hubbub within our vertical and speaking to those issues? Or is it more than that? 

Joe: Yeah, I really think it’s a matter of listening, and listening could take the form of there’s a podcast that everyone in your industry talks about, and you listen to it and see what are they covering over there. There’s a trade publication everyone reads again, they’re congregating on LinkedIn or Twitter and you’re following that. 

But you have to see what other people are really talking about, because you can’t just insert yourself into a discourse that isn’t happening. And I think that’s where a lot of companies struggle. They know what they do and what they’re interested in, and they take that as their point of departure. When really the basis for a successful marketing program needs to be what other people, above all your customers, care about. 

Rich: We’ve talked about a lot of things that can go into creating a unique messaging platform and a unique POV for a company. If somebody’s just starting out, how long does this process take?  

Joe: Usually it takes me two to three months to do the messaging exercise. It doesn’t need to, that could take a month, but usually it takes longer because you gotta wrangle clients and then wrangle important people’s calendars. 

But really it’s just as simple as you’re going to have someone who’s spearheading this process, you’re going to talk to your executive team and the people heading up marketing, you’re going to talk to five customers, you’re going to come back and synthesize it all. And then you’re going to create a doc where you formalize all of it, and you meet again, and you discuss the doc. It’s not that much more complicated than that.  

And then you should start creating. Once you have that overarching message and you have your house POVs, you know what topics you want to be weighing in on and what you want to say about them, you should do an analysis, have some hypotheses about where your audience is, and just start engaging with them across a couple channels. 

Rich: All right. Now, I know that you come from a background in journalism. You’ve done PR. A lot of what we talk about on this podcast and what people are familiar with is digital marketing. Is there anything specific to PR in terms of these messaging campaigns that we should keep in mind as we try and get earned media? 

Joe: I think the main difference is, if anyone listening is more in the paid media camp, is that paid media is a dial that you turn on and off or you switch it around to various degrees. PR is an effort to build an audience over time with compounding effects. So the beginning is probably going to be slow. It’s not always that slow. Like again, I have seen clients have tangible business results within a quarter, maybe two quarters, of building an audience. But generally speaking, you have to do it consistently. You have to be there every day. And you have to understand that the people in your category crushing it with these methods have probably been at it for years. 

There’s a guy in my industry who has 25,000 Twitter followers. Depending on what you do, that may sound like a ton or not a lot at all. But in ad tech, that’s about as big an audience on Twitter as you’re going to have. And he’s enjoyed immense benefits from having a tapped in audience and from being the guy people look to for insights on ad tech. And he’s been building that audience for probably more than a decade. And did he have results from it in year one or two? I’m sure he did. But it really does serve best the people who are willing to stick with it and see traction.  

Don’t keep doing it if you’re seeing nothing, but if you’re starting to get a lead here or there, an interesting conversation after a quarter I would say that’s a sign that it’s working and you should just see it tick up with each passing quarter, and over time you’ll start to see big ramifications. 

Rich: That compound effect for sure. Joe, this has been fascinating. If people are interested in learning more about you, learning more about your company, how you might be able to help them, where can we send them online?  

Joe: Yeah. I’m Joe_Zappa on Twitter. You can just Google ‘Joe Zappa’ LinkedIn, or find me at sharppenmedia.com.  

Rich: Perfect. And we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Joe, thank you so much for your time today.  

Joe: Thanks for having me. 

Joe Zappa Show Notes

Joe Zappa and his team at Sharp Pen Media help their clients to better hone in on their marketing, content, and PR strategies. You can check out their blog for valuable insight and advice, and be sure to connect with Joe on LinkedIn and Twitter 

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.