Interview #17 Transcript – September 5, 2013
Participants: Barry Feldman and Martin van der Roest

Martin van der Roest: Welcome! This is Martin van der Roest, the managing editor of the Content Marketing Examiner. Thank you for joining us. We’re jumping into the topic of producing content today, with Barry Feldman, and in particular we’re going to talk about this idea of creating engaging content. Barry thank you for joining us.

Barry Feldman: Hey Martin, thanks for having me, I’m glad to be here.

Martin van der Roest: Before we launch into our discussion, tell us a little bit about yourself and your business and the background that put you here in the content marketing space.

Barry Feldman: I am Barry Feldman and my company is boutique-style, run by me and I have a small arsenal of people helping me develop materials, largely online materials. I got into the advertising business in 1988 and the math tells us now it’s 25+ years. I spent the first seven, eight or nine in the agency business making the rounds and hung a shingle in 1995 in Silicon Valley and became a freelance copywriter and creative director. Things have been pretty good since then, maybe a little of a roller coaster ride that reflects the economy itself, but in recent years I’ve really dug deeper and deeper into online marketing as all things content and inbound have become more important, more prevalent and, without question, more effective. So today, in addition to being a content creator, largely a writer and occasionally a designer and some multi-media stuff too, I’m also a content marketing consultant.

Martin van der Roest: That’s great. I’m looking forward to having this conversation. One of the things that’s going to be kind of interesting is as we put our left-brain on to address these lifecycles and the processes, one of the segments of this is the actual production of the content. We also have a lifecycle component we refer to as Engagement. For the listeners/readers when Barry and I started this conversation and Barry was talking about engagement, it was under this thinking that we were going to tackle the Engagement lifecycle component. But instead, it’s really about “engaging content” and creating content that engages the user. So it’s part of the Production/Producing activity. So as we get started here, Barry, tell us a little about what you describe as engagement.

Barry Feldman: I’m going to have to say it’s as simple as action and I suppose that gets abstract when you say action doesn’t necessarily mean swiping your credit card. That’s probably the ultimate engagement since we’re marketers and it’s easy to keep track of credit card swipes, but if you work backwards from there you could also call conversation engagement, you could call registration or some sort of attendance engagement, you could call complaining or arguing or the opposite, perhaps endorsing or recommending engagement. Certainly there are going to be things that are engagement that often trace to the media that we know, for instance, those that like to keep score and those that are doing content marketing correctly certainly are keeping score, they define their own engagement so I think there are common denominators here, but I want to precede that by saying that engagement is sort of in the eyes of the engagor/beholder, as the saying goes. So you’ll often see people saying, “We need to increase engagement,” and what they’re talking about is retweets or Facebook likes or blog commentary, and those are all definitely signs of engagement and what makes them popular is that they are tangible. But engagement could be getting somebody to smile or laugh or object or simply listen or, in the case of a writer, to simply read. Engagement is the opposite of disengagement so if you are a content creator and you’re simply dull, nobody gets engaged.

Martin van der Roest: What’s interesting about what you’re describing there, and I think our listeners/readers would resonate with what you said, however I want to contrast that to what does happen oftentimes in the content marketing space and that is organizations thinking, “I’m going to outsource that, I’m going to give it to someone who does a lot of the writing, they’ve got the creatives, I’m going to go ahead and outsource that.” I’ve seen some of that work and the way you’ve just described it, I don’t find if all that engaging but let’s talk about why is it important. From the content marketing standpoint isn’t it sufficient just to put content out , post it, illuminate it through the social media activities and let it work that way? What’s your reaction to that and why is engagement important here?

Barry Feldman: H-E-double hockey sticks no! I’ve said this before and here’s an opportunity for me to quote myself, you either get remembered or you get forgotten and there’s nothing in between. Today there’s lots of ways to make content more engaging and you have by contrast the vast majority of content that isn’t engaging, it’s repurposed, rewritten and even stolen content where somebody is sort of doing it on the cheap in the interest of creating content for the sake of creating content, perhaps to have a lot of key words and register on a search engine search. But no, if you’re making those sort of compromises you’re sacrificing this topic that we’re talking about today, the act of engaging people, you’re just simply blending in. I think you can be really memorable and you can easily be forgettable, and in between is neutral. You only remember the ones at the high end of that spectrum, the ones that made you feel something. However rational you’re doing, you can present an argument that all speeds and feeds, or something like that, but ultimately you didn’t engage anybody by talking about bandwidth or download speeds or anything, alluding to technical products or online products here, but it didn’t work until you hit a nerve, until you touched an emotional nerve. And even if that person got turned on by rational features, ultimately they said, “I want that, I need that,” and those are their feelings, I have to have that, I have to tell my friends about that.” So no, if you think just playing the content marketing game even playing it strategically, and then leaving it to the powers that be to allow the world to beat a path to your door, you’re not going to be playing that game for long because there’s simply too much competition, the noise is at an all-time high and your competition is performing the same tricks so the compromises that might be, “How can I give this to somebody else to do, how can I find the least expensive person to write or design or shoot or edit?” is really a crazy act of sabotage.

Martin van der Roest: I want to call attention to a SlideShare post that you made a short while ago. For the readers/listeners, it’s at The title is Your Content Shall Rock, and Barry you’ve had 34,000 viewers of this slide deck. The point I want to make here is you talk about engaging content so content, as we were just saying earlier, could certainly be developed by the organic, and get the visitors to that, but I think by the fact that you’ve got 34,000 viewers of this slide deck suggests that it’s not just a one-time event. You didn’t just post it; you tweeted it and on the first couple of days you get a number of visitors and then it completely tapers off because I would say it wasn’t engaging, but this demonstrates that this is engaging. So I think there’s something to be said about longevity of the content and you’ve demonstrated in this particular slide deck. Lets’ talk a little bit about the slide deck, because on the first page, the Table of Contents, you talk about a number of ideas, techniques that you recommend to create engaging content. Talk to us a little bit about that and what were the thoughts in putting this slide deck together and what stands out in your mind that you would want to call attention to?

Barry Feldman: The piece is called Your Content Shall Rock. I’m a guitarist—it has a guitar metaphor running through it and it has a bit of a modern attitude, visually speaking, with the distressed typeface. When you get into it, the first slide which was actually a runner up for the title of the piece itself, says “Does Your Content Strike a Chord?” and we’re getting back to what we spoke to a couple of minutes ago, making an emotional connection, making people feel, and striking a cord is a metaphor for that. When you mentioned a slide that dumps a whole bunch of ideas, I guess you’re talking about the Table of Contents. There are 17 or 18, this is basically a portfolio, the samples are not all blog posts it goes on to include slide decks and podcasts and infographics and other things. I didn’t just pick my favorites; I picked my favorites across media and across different places with different tactics. I identified in each one of these pieces, “What did I do here and what did I achieve?” For instance, Chapter One is about teaching a real life lesson, a common theme in content marketing. How did I engage people with this piece? This piece is about a lesson I learned that has stuck with me for about 30 years. It’s a story meant to teach a lesson I learned from a teacher, and that worked out pretty well. Next is an extremely unusual metaphor, that piece is called Your Website is a Mousetrap and Your Content is the Cheese and I like to think that’s kind of an irresistible headline. And the piece goes on and on, there are 17 of those so they are some of the tricks of the trade that I’ve had success with and the piece is intended to say, “You should try this or hire me to do them for you.” Some of these recommendations are simplifying things, be explanatory, being funny, being expressive, being strategic, being topical, tying what you have to say to a point in time (my example there is a holiday), being contrary—the list is pretty long. Instead of being abstract or philosophical about it I said, “This is exactly what I mean; I did this and it worked.”

Martin van der Roest: I really like it. What I see in this particular slide deck is your prompting ideas through provoking thought. What you call one of the items is serious funny, or you have some called holiday wishes, or hand over the microphone; those are nice prompting. I want to call attention to another slide deck that you did about engagement and what I like about this is that instead of talking about prompting phrases, in this one you’re talking about emotions. This is a bit of a psychology slide, but you talk about esthetics, belonging, desire, empathy, and so on. How do you contrast the two? One is promptings, one is just putting out the emotions you suggest activating. So what’s the angle on this that you were trying to get across?

Barry Feldman: I have to preface this with decreasing the credit that I take for it. I read what I thought was a fascinating piece in a magazine-style piece of content from some English agency that sent me a top-notch, very esthetically-pleasing magazine about content marketing. In it was an extensive piece about engagement and a link to an even more extensive study about the elements of engagement and that came from a company called Canvas 8, which is research specialists and the agency Weber Shandwick. So I took apart this piece that I felt needed even greater distribution but excessive simplification because it was so long and scientific. They approached shrinks and neurosurgeons and people that could claim to have some knowledge of the psychology of engagement. I was doing this just before Valentine’s Day so I put a little love twist on it and I called it the DNA of Relationships Engagement: the matters of the heart that matter most in business. Then comes a whole bunch of information so I’m glad you sighted it, it’s been seen a lot but I certainly wouldn’t mind if it was seen even more at that URL you mentioned.

If it’s contrasted to Your Content Shall Rock, which was essentially a show-n-tell, basically a portfolio, we’re going to talk here about challenging convention and here’s an example of it. I did it here and here’s how I’d recommend you do it. When I did that piece I thought that most beginning content marketers look at a really small collection of creative angles and they’re not that creative. One is the “How To” article which you see over and over again, somebody giving a lesson, oftentimes in the form of a list, and then sometimes opinion pieces, and they fail to hit on interviews and curative content.

Here we’re talking about what studied scientists had to say about what does engage people, and they came up with 18 of them (you mentioned a few) and I highlighted them. There’s some preamble there that talks about how we think or do or don’t get emotionally involved and there’s some quotes at the end and attributions. In between is a list that is the core of this infographic which is the elements of engagement. We don’t want to go through them all, but let’s take one for example, right down the middle, the icon of an airplane. The airplane is the element of escape. Do we really need examples of that? Maybe you do if you’re new, but when you talk about the things you do to escape those things that transport you away from the repetitiveness of everyday life and allow you to enjoy time off, relaxation, fantasies, change of paces. When we do that, we engage people—”Let me tell you a story of the greatest vacation I ever went on! We saved up and went helicopter skiing.” If you’re a skier, you got my attention. There’s a whole bunch of those and it means to be scientific giving new ideas, that’s what the purpose was.

Martin van der Roest: So someone listening to this or reading this might say, “Barry, I work in a high-tech space and I sell boring equipment and I’m doing the content marketing for my shop and I can’t imagine incorporating some of these things into the stuff that I do.” What kind of feedback would you have for someone like that? We oftentimes hear that that our content is featureless, whatever it happens to be if it’s technology. How does someone incorporate the things you’re talking about into that area?

Barry Feldman: That’s a wonderful question and you might have stumped me if I didn’t hear that one almost every day. Most products are kind of boring, and the closer you get to your product the more boring it becomes. You can go into that evaluation with having made up your mind already that it’s dull. When that question comes to me I say, “It doesn’t matter what you sell because good content isn’t about what you sell anyway.”

In the 1990s and the decades that preceded, it cost a lot of money to put your communications in front of people—you bought media or you rented media or you held events. So you got right to the point, here’s your problem and here’s the solution, and you add as much sex appeal as you could however unsexy it might be. But if you sell high tech, duller-than-dull widgets now, it’s the best place to begin to understand what content marketing is about. It’s not about you and it’s not about your company, it’s really not even about your point of view. It’s about your customers.

When I field that question I say, “Let’s not talk about what you’re talking about as content marketing, let’s talk about your customers. What gets them tossing and turning at night. What do they define as success? Do they go to work each day thinking about getting a raise or recognition or getting a promotion? Or do they toss and turn at night worried about losing their job, losing their staff or losing a customer? Let’s look at how we can help them be better at their jobs.” That is a great definition of content marketing in the B2B space. It’s not a very good definition of content marketing in the consumer space, but it only gets easier when you’re talking about consumers if you can identify who your consumer is and you put in the time to interview them and survey them and sort of observe them in the wild. Funny expression, but one I see pretty often now, the idea being that they’re not surveyed or researched in a sterile environment where they’re aware of the circumstances. If you can understand these things, their pain and their pleasures, what turns them on and what turns them off you can begin to create a killer content program where you put on your media hat, your publisher hat and you forget about what you sell. You start talking about what your customer wants.

Martin van der Roest: I want to cherry pick something you just said that I think would be a great title for this interview, “Good Content Has Nothing to do With What You Sell.” That’s a nice way to encapsulate this.

Barry Feldman: “Nothing” goes a little far, I’m concerned about the word nothing, it doesn’t have nothing to do with what you sell, ultimately there’s going to be this measure of relevance that if it’s too far away, it’s going to be hard to publish and hard to justify, but it’s not based on what you sell. It’s sort of the intersection of the sweet spot–it’s where you’re coming from overlapping with where your customers are coming from.

Martin van der Roest: Yes, I like the theme, what it suggests is excellent. Let’s get just a tad tactical for those who are maybe just getting started, that are perhaps new to this whole idea and have an interest to pursue it. What are some of the things that you might recommend for folks as they get into the production end of it. They’ve done their goals, strategic planning, how they’re going to do this, their editorial calendar, the topics…now we’re into production. What recommendations would you offer in terms of “here are some guidelines, steps or sequence of activities” that you think would make sense?

Barry Feldman: In the content creation process? Little tricky to answer that without the context of what we’re creating. Can we assume what we’re creating is a blog piece?

Martin van der Roest: Let’s say it’s a blog piece and I’m with a technology organization selling what I would term boring equipment.

Barry Feldman: You’re really interested in that one! Okay. I actually gave a presentation that is delivered through MarketingProfs that’s called The Right Way to Write Content. It’s very writer-specific. It really is a lesson that I don’t think you’re asking me to give in detail right now. But to abbreviate it, you’re going to begin by establishing—much like any marketing effort—who you are, what’s your brand, what’s its voice and where can this company go successfully with relevance and credibility…why do we exist in the first place?

Then you’re going to set that aside, get off traditional marketing and become the content marketer and put that hat on. The next series of things you’re going to do is really figuring out where people live and breathe, so you’re going to next deeply understand your customer, however much work that takes, however much dedication and digging that takes you’re going to find the answers to the questions that we just talked about: what pushes people’s buttons? What causes pleasure and pain? What’s their definition of success? You’re not going to write a word or even plan an editorial calendar until you understand that.

Then you’re going to talk about media and this gets more difficult every day because if we flash back 60 years we’re talking about three television networks and the local newspaper, we’re talking about far less media and with every passing day we have far more media. So you’re going to take a look at the obvious candidates in terms of social media, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest…and the list is long and it keeps growing and getting more and more vertical. Then you’re going to look at what publications people read, what websites they hang out on, and what events they go to—you have to find these people where they’re looking. That’s why search engine optimization and all the mysteries that surround search as an activity have become so important because it’s a very customer-centric world now thanks to the ubiquitous access of high bandwidth internet activity. Anybody can find anything in the content marketing world, and the question is they’re going to find answers to their questions, are they going to be your answers?

You’re going to have to look at who they are and then figure out where they are and you already know where you’re coming from. Then you’re going to start identifying themes and I think you’re going to have a master theme where all sub-themes must trace to or they’re out of bounds. Then you’re going to look at many sub-themes, so if you’re talking about semi-conductors, the people that buy them probably don’t think they’re that dull and they certainly don’t think that what they’re doing is dull, because they’re designing technology that’s going to change the world. For a product like that you’re going to appeal to a person’s sense of innovation and creativity and so forth. You’re not going to do a blog about semi-conductors or semi-conductor design or any kind of electronic thing. You might trace a path to those things, it is marketing, you better remind yourself you’re doing this to sell in a much different fashion than you’re used to; you’re doing it as a teacher not a preacher. You get to a theme like that where the product is seemingly dull, but you pay attention to what the user or prospect or the ultimate customer is thinking or how they behave and there’s nothing dull about it, right? They have a life, they’re living, breathing people with aspirations just like you, and you could endlessly create content if you put in the effort to become a good content marketer with the things that are going turn them on.

I just read something last night that I thought applies to the conversation we would be having today. This comes from KissMetrics, Neil Patel of Quick Sprout and the many companies he’s founded. Nobody understands content marketing like him, he blogs multiple times a day and a lot of it is research based. I don’t know exactly when this came out but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so ominous in its number here: “96% of first time visitors to company websites won’t return.” Isn’t that a part of what we’re talking about? I sell something dull and you get there and it says, “Hi, would you like to buy something dull? Let’s talk about me, and we sell this and it’s compared this way and it costs this…” That’s dull, but if you get there and it says, ‘Hi, we understand what you’re trying to accomplish, we understand what you’re like and what your problems are and we also happen to have a solution to it and we also happen to have all this information that’s going to make you better at your job. Come on in!” The goal is to make your site sticky. Engagement can be measured by time on site; it’s one of my favorite metrics. I want to see that go up as my clients get better at content marketing. Then I want to see them come back. If they’re not going to come back, I want to have their email so I can remind them to come back. That’s engagement.

Martin van der Roest: That’s excellent. That was nice recap. We dropped into the tactics a bit, but arming users with kind of a roadmap from someone who’s obviously done it and is successful at it is helpful. So, we’re going to wrap it up, any other last comments that you’d like to offer up to our readers/listeners?

Barry Feldman: I got most of them in there. In the preface to this conversation I said I didn’t really want to give a social media or social media marketing lesson today, but in the “Tactics–Part Two” of this would be, “My content does rock, I do understand my customer, I am engaging, but it needs illumination. Like you’ve said, it needs amplification, how do I get it?” All those answers are going to come from the endless stream of capabilities you have on the Web and the social networks. So once you understand how your customers behave and where they are and what they’re looking for. The answers to those things are definitely going to come from popular social media networks and the activities that you do there. A lot of those same lessons apply. If you had to give a lesson on one, I’d say you give it on Twitter because brevity is so important. So how do you get somebody engaged on Twitter if you’re selling a piece of information? If you want to market the content marketing, you play these same tactics, you pull something out of your piece that you find to be intriguing, provocative and engaging and you Tweet it and put a link to that piece. So that’s chapter two. Have me back one of these days.

Martin van der Roest: Absolutely! Barry, what a pleasure to have you on and in particular I think this topic steps out of the left brains of people thinking, “I want processes, I want checklists.” It gets a little mushier, but I think you’ve offered up some fun and valuable insights that I think will go a long way. So thanks for joining us today.

Barry Feldman: It was my pleasure Martin, and if you understand how the brain is divided and you come looking for a left-brainer and you call me, I’d say, ‘You’ve got the wrong brain.”

Martin van der Roest: You can check out Barry Feldman at, check out some of the slide decks that we’ve talked about at his slideshare account. So, once again, thanks for joining us. This is Martin van der Roest with the Content Market Examiner.