Why Empathy and Storytelling Should Drive Your Marketing – Michael Brenner
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The goal in marketing is to reach, engage, and convert your followers, but how do you accomplish that? By creating content that people actually want and need.
Michael Brenner knows the importance that empathy and storytelling play in marketing, and shares how brands can tap into this by acting as publishers instead of just creators of propaganda. This customer-centric approach to marketing will help you not only increase sales, but also appeal to your customers in a refreshingly organic and openly straightforward way.
Rich: He’s a Forbes Top CMO Influencer and was named Top Business Keynote Speaker by The Huffington Post, and a top Motivational Speaker by Entrepreneur Magazine. He is CEO of Marketing Insider Group where he has completed more than 75 content marketing workshops for brands, agencies, and startups. He’s also the CMO of the AI powered content intelligent platform Concured. He’s the co-author of two books including, The Content Formula and Digital Marketing Growth Hacks, and is currently working on his third book on the power of empathy in business, marketing, and life. Michael Brenner, welcome to the Agents of Change Podcast.
Michael: Thanks, Rich. Thanks for having me.
Rich: Now Michael, how did you get started in marketing all those years ago?
Michael: It seems like a long time ago now. I came out of college without a lot of idea about what I wanted to do, I think like most people. I knew something in the communications space and I found myself in what was ultimately was a sales job with a great company called Nielsen. Really after about 8 months I kind of hit the ground running as a salesperson even though never in a million years I’d though I never wanted to be in sales. But I became the #2 salesperson at the end of the first year, and a top salesperson for them for three or four years. And when I found what really worked for me wasn’t what I thought if as selling, sort of being a hard closer. And a lot of successful salespeople really are.
For me it was more about service and relationship building, and it was almost the opposite of hard selling. And when I looked at the organization folks that were doing more of that were in marketing, and they were doing that not just with one customer but with all of our customers.
And so I thought I think I’d enjoy myself a little bit more, and it was more aligned to my skill set if I applied my communication skills across the organization in the marketing field.
So after 5 years as a professional I joined the marketing organization at the Nielsen Company and have never looked back in the 20 years since.
Rich: Well that’s very cool, and actually it’s funny because I started doing sales, too, and I never thought I’d want to be a salesperson, never thought I’d enjoy it, but I often say that taking a job as a salesperson is probably what changed my life more than even college. It just gave me a whole new sense of understanding people and understanding myself and a really renewed sense of confidence. Maybe all marketers should have to sit through sales at least.
Michael: I may have said that in more than a few articles over the last couple of years.
Rich: Interesting. So one of the things you do is you help brands act like publishers. Why do you feel that brands should act like publishers?
Michael: Part of it goes back to why I joined marketing in the first place. In fact the very first article I ever wrote was why am I in marketing, and I kind of summarized my transition from sales to marketing by saying that what I found I enjoyed doing was helping people. And I felt if I could do that as a salesperson I could do that on a scale with marketing.
With brands I would say if you ask people – if you ask your mom what marketing is – and most people will answer, “advertising” or “promotion”, or they get this really negative sort of feeling. And I’ve given speeches about the history or marketing, and the history of the negative perceptions of marketing go back hundreds of years, to be honest. But marketing is so much more than that, it’s more than just promotion and propaganda and selling, and certainly more than lying to consumers to get them to do something that it normally wouldn’t want to do.
So I think when you look at the kind of marketing that brands do, the opposite of propaganda is really publishing is. We’re going to share the news, we’re going to share expertise and insights and guidance and predictions, and that’s what publishers do. That’s when brands started doing probably about a decade when we got online and realized that banner ads weren’t the best way to sales.
And so that’s really why we talk about content marketing as a discipline or a subset of marketing. It’s really as a counterpoint to the perception that most people have of marketing is just promotion and propaganda.
Rich: Now I’m sure there’s a lot of small business owners who are sitting here and listening to you talk about publishers and brands and saying, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s great for giant companies with huge marketing teams, but it’s just me. That’ doesn’t sound like anything we could take on ourselves.” What would you say to that person?
Michael: Well it’s interesting. I’m a small business owner, a team of one, it’s me. I’m the marketing department, the CEO, the accounting department, you name it, and I don’t have the budget for a Superbowl ad and I don’t think most small businesses do. I think a lot of small business owners are wasting their money with trying to find ways to do traditional kinds of marketing, tv ads or radio spots or magazine ads or whatever they think or they grew up thinking marketing should be.
I write two articles a week for my own website and I have other folks I’m friends with in the industry that give me some content, and I spend zero money on marketing. And yet I rank #1 for more than 300 keywords on a budget of zero. I generate all of my business, all of my leads come through the content that I create on my website that costs me absolutely nothing.
So to the small business owner I would say you have no choice. You have no budget but what you do have is knowledge and expertise that you’re trying to share between the products and services that you sell. But that’s what your marketing should be, it should be you sharing what you know to help your audience so they think of you first when it comes time for a purchase decision.
Rich: Alright, so I love everything you’re saying, but let me just play devil’s advocate for a second. For years I told people they should be blogging or podcasting or creating videos or whatever it may be, but the bottom line is, I’ve discovered over the years some people were just not born to write. They just can’t communicate like that. So if you’re one of those small business owners – whether you run a small business, whether you’re a startup, or whether you’re a solopreneur – what happens when you just can’t connect through the written word? What do you tell people?
Michael: Well I don’t want to sell myself, but I think there’s plenty of people in the world like my agency and plenty of others, that can spend – and I do this for clients both large and small – I can spend 15 minutes interviewing somebody and turning that into a 1,000 word article and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. There’s obviously a little bit of investment in that, but nothing like you would spend on a full page ad in a magazine.
If you’re not one that can spend the time to write and you’ve got a little bit of money that you can invest in communicating, then there’s definitely simple growth hack kind of ways that any size business can do it.
The other thing I would say is if you have a business the size of 10, – and there’s actually a mathematical principle that was identified way back in the 1980’s and was actually reconfirmed again by Yahoo! In the late 1990’s and again really by Facebook in the early 2000’s – and the mathematical principle is that in any population of let’s say 10 people, one person creates all the content that’s shared by the rest and there’s usually two people that are the ultimate large
sharers of that content. So really 20% of the audience is creating and sharing and 80% of us are just consuming and sponging off of the rest of us in any population.
So that means if you’re a heavy industrial manufacturing company you still have people inside that industry that are willing and wanting to share what they know and can learn certainly to share that through the written word. So I think it’s an excuse, it’s in many cases it’s a cop out. I definitely understand that some small business owners don’t have the time or the desire to write. But you can find plenty of folks out there that can sort of understand through quick interviews and email some of the main points that you’d lie to make and some of the things you know and can start to help you share them out with the world.
Rich: And I would agree with that. I have definitely seen good copywriters be able to sit down with somebody, do an interview, and be able to spin that into content gold online. So sometimes you may not be able to get your voice online, but somebody else professional in that area certainly can.
So getting back to the idea of businesses or brands as publishers. What kind of content should we be thinking of turning into putting online and really becoming this publisher? It sounded like we don’t want to just be pushing out our latest sales or something like that. What kind of content do you recommend?
Michael: It’s much more educational and much more basic than most people realize. And I’ll give you a quick example. It’s a large company but I think it can apply to any business. There’s a health care manufacturing company that I won’t name, but they invented the MRI machine. I have four kids and I just had a MRI with one of them a couple weeks ago who dislocated her kneecap, the poor thing. It’s something that we all as consumers and potential patients in the health care system wonder what it really is. This healthcare manufacturer doesn’t advertise at all on any page of their website, and does not answer the question “What is a MRI machine?” Now this company invented it but they don’t answer that question. And they don’t because they believe in their minds that they have a small audience of healthcare administrators who are buyers of this pretty expensive equipment and they all know who makes it and what it is. And they assume that their audience never changes, they assume 62 year old white guys who have been in the industry for 40 years, they don’t believe that there’s millennials and now Gen Y folks that are coming into the industry that are making large purchases like this. And so one of the ways that they can act like a publisher is to answer the most basic of questions, what is the thing that they’ve created, what is the thing that they sell.
I love to go to Google Trends to show people the volume of traffic, the volume of searches that take place on those really basic educational questions, that they’re just missing out on that traffic because they assume they‘re audience is already smarter than they are or more aware than they are, and they just don’t answer those basic questions.
So one of the models that journalists talk about, sort of the “who, what, where, when, why and how”, and I think brands acting as publishers should do the same thing. Don’t forget to answer the simple, basic what is the category of the solution that you sell. Why is that solution important in the world, what’s the context of it? Then you can start to get into the later stuff like how do I become more effective because of using a tool, solution, or service like what you sell. And then get into answering the questions how much is it and where can I find out more.
Even doing things that might seem altruistic like who are the top 5 competitors in your space. Most brands would think that that’s absolute blasphemy, why would you mention your competitors. Well what’s really cool is if you mention your competitors you can rank for their keywords. So it’s fun for me to teach brands how to rank for their own competitive brands, and how to rank for the most common searches in their category by answering those basic questions.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. Now we talked a long time ago as we prepared for this and I wrote this very cryptic message to myself and it just says, “reverse the pitch”. Can you explain to me what “reverse the pitch” means?
Michael: Yeah, it’s my favorite advice to people in product marketing and product managers, who all think of their products as babies and no one can tell them that their baby is not beautiful. And so what do we do when we have beautiful babies? Well we want to show pictures of our beautiful babies, we want to talk about our beautiful babies. And yet unfortunately what we forget is that most of the world doesn’t care. And they might care if we provide them some context, if we start showing like we care a little bit more about them as an audience than we do about our own stuff.
And so reversing the pitch, the typical sales pitch is, “This is who we are, this is why we’re better, and these are awards we’ve won, and here are 100 logos on a slide that you should be impressed with because they’re our customers”, that’s the inference. And so all of those things I recommend salespeople and product folks and marketing people and business owners even, put that in the end of your presentation. Reverse your pitch by talking about why you exist, talking about the context of the solution that you sell. Maybe tell the personal founding story of the struggles that you had in becoming a business owner and inventing this new product or service that you sell. All of those things are really interesting. Maybe talk about the biggest challenges in the industry or the trends that you see or the predictions that you have for the future of the audience that you’re trying to reach. Provide a little bit of value, show that you care a little bit, and that’s actually the best way to sort of earn the right to them to present and pitch what it is you sell, who you are, what you are selling, and why you’re better.
So that’s reversing the pitch. Almost every organization does the opposite. They start with those promotional pieces, they start with why you should buy from us, when you haven’t yet earned the right to make that case.
Rich: So what are the things that go into reversing the pitch? Like how do we connect with people? I know that you like the idea of storytelling, how does that all fit in?
Michael: I love starting with a personal story. I actually use a picture of my kids as the second slide in almost every presentation that I give. Not to show everybody that I think my kids are beautiful, but to actual tell the story of how we’re seeing a lot of disruption in the world, and the disruption that we’re seeing with mobile applications and tools and technologies is as young as my oldest child, 15, 12, 7 years old. Some of the most recent tools that we all use like Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram are only those relatively young ages. So I use my kids as a personal story to tell the story of disruption in the world. And I just don’t think a lot of brands think that way, they don’t think how to connect with people on an emotional, personal way with a story about their business. But I’m a human being and I’m a dad with kids and it’s kind of a funny story and a way to kind of highlight the analogy of the age of my kids with the young age of these technologies. And so my goal was to endear people to me and sometimes I think it works.
But I think that’s the first step is just start with a personal story that isn’t slimy, that isn’t overly thought out but just simply a personal struggle that allows people to relate to you as a human being but still connects to their business.
Rich: Human empathy seems to be a big part of all this. Do you have any tips on how we can kind of connect with people whether we’re presenting online or in person?
Michael: Yeah. That’s really the focus of my next book, The Empathy Formula. Part of the reason I’m writing it is I wrote The Content Formula, which was almost a mathematical workbook for brands on how they can show the ROI of marketing through content. I wrote it because I had been asked so many times and challenged through the course of my career to answer that question. And it really does come down to math, and I was an English Literature major, so it was tough for me to do math calculations into a book.
Rich: Me, too.
Michael: But what I found when I went back to a lot of the CEOs and folks and clients that I talk to who had that challenge, was that there was a cultural sort of dimension and a roadblock to them being able to get to the math calculations, and what it came down to was empath. And you mentioned it. I refer to empathy as the counter intuitive secret to success, you mentioned it in my bio, because of the simple truth that when we put others first we’re more likely to get what we want out of the relationships we have.
And so the focus of the book and the tips that I provide is an acronym and I’ve tried to make it go viral with hashtags and all kinds of fun stuff, but it hasn’t worked. The acronym is “W.I.I. F.T.C.” And what it is is the question that we should ask with everything that we do. And “W.I.I.F.T.C.” stands for “What’s In It For The Customer”. You’ve heard “what’s in it for me”, we
have to ask what’s in it for me or answer what’s in it for me for the customers, and that’s what’s in it for the customer.
What’s in it for the customer to do a full page ad in a trade publication, not a whole lot? That’s really all about me as a business, it’s not about the customer. What’s in it for the customer to write an article that shares the most important information your buyers need to know. That’s really something valuable for your audience. And so that’s my tip for trying to drive empathy for an organization and even potentially changing the culture at least within marketing. And the ultimate goal that I’d love to see happen is that people start to see marketing as something that is helpful and useful and not something that’ trying to trick people into doing something that they wouldn’t normally do.
Rich: So we’ve talked a lot about storytelling and human empathy. I have to ask, does SEO figure into this at all? Because I’m a huge fan of SEO in marketing and I’m just wondering if we need to put that off to the side if we’re going to focus on storytelling and human empathy.
Michael: No. And what I love about SEO is that it totally ties in. And here’s what I mean by that. And actually before I considered myself a content marketer I would have called myself probably something like a results driven marketer or an online marketer, because SEO is essentially ranking for the things that people search. And what do people search? Well they ask questions of the search engines; What is? Why? How? Where? What, when, why, how, all of the questions we already talked about. And the goal of SEO is to rank for those questions, to rank for the keywords that your buyers use when they ask their search engines questions.
So what’s really interesting to marketing acting like a publisher, being empathetic is about answering your customer’s questions in a written way and a visual way with great stories that engage people. And so it really all ties together and so part of the way that I found myself leaning into content marketing was because it was driven by the data that showed that people were doing searches in their search engines. And their questions we had the answers to at a lot of companies that I worked for and we just hadn’t published the answers. And when we started publishing them like a publisher would, we started getting that traffic. And then we started to figure out how to convert that traffic and it drove business.
So again, it all ties together but it comes down to what are the questions your customers are asking. You can use SEO tools to figure out what those words are. Look inside your organization and find out who has that expertise or do you have the expertise to answer that question. Commit yourself to doing that on a consistent basis and you will win business and start to attract, convert, and retain the right customers.
Rich: Michael, I’m sure there are people listening right now and they recognize that all they’ve been doing is pushing products for the last few years online and really just talking about themselves and their business and how wonderful their products are, and they recognize that it’s time for a change. What are some of the first things that they should do if they want to make that shift?
Michael: My recommendation is to think through and create a buyer’s guide – some of us all call that “lead magnets” or “offers” – but really think through what questions your buyers are asking throughout the buying journey long before they come to your website, long before they’re looking at you as a potential competitor in the marketplace as a solution to their problem. Identify their problem, identify all the considerations they should have, the content, the trends, the predictions, and the key challenges. It really ultimately comes down to the “who, what, where, when, why, how” questions. If you answer all of those and put them into a formatted offer like an ultimate buyers guide, that’s the first thing I’d recommend. The reason I think that helps is, #1 it forces you to think about your buyer’s journey and the questions that they ask. #2, it then forces you to answer the question and to really put yourself in their shoes and become a little more empathetic for the challenges that they face as business people. And then the production of it, then you’ve got yourself an offer that you can use to convert.
Now the next trick is to be really kind of building content at scale, and it’s not as hard or as expensive as people think. I offer super affordable packages to a lot of small businesses that allow them to do one or two articles a week for less than the price of a full page ad in a magazine in a lot of cases. So it’s not super expensive but the goal is to reach, engage, and convert. And the way to do that is to create content that people want.
Rich: Fantastic. This has been great Michael, and I’m sure a lot of people want to check you out, check your business out, where can we send them?
Michael: Thanks, I appreciate that. My website is marketinginsidergroup.com, you can also find me on Twitter @brennermichael and I definitely engage quite a bit and connect with as many folks as I can on LinkedIn, so find me by searching for me there. And if your audience has any questions, feel free to reach out, I’m happy to help.
Rich: Thanks so much. And Michael, thank you very much for sharing your time and your expertise with us.
Michael: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it, it’s been fun.
A recognized speaker and author, Michael Brenner’s innovative approach to creating meaningful content and helping organizations reach their ideal clients has made him highly sought after by businesses both large and small. You can find out more about what he does at his website, or follow him on Twitter where he loves to engage and connect with his audience.
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 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.