Technology has thoroughly infiltrated the marketing space, and now software programming methodologies are proving quite useful for content marketers. Jeff Julian is at the forefront of introducing the Agile software development methodology to marketers in his book Agile Marketing. He recently spoke to us about his background, about the intersection of Agile and marketing, and about his upcoming talk at the Content Marketing World conference in September, 2018.
Meet Jeff Julian
Jeff Julian is the Co-founder of Enterprise Marketer, an online community and marketing services consultancy based in Kansas. In 2003, he launched the largest technical blogging communities, Geekswithblogs.net, with nearly 4,000 bloggers and 100,000 blog posts in the ten years he owned it.
In 2016, Jeff has launched a new community for marketers, EnterpriseMarketer.com, that helps practitioners find their voice and share insights, as well as a book titled, Agile Marketing: Building Endurance for your Content Marketing Teams.
How did you get started in content marketing?
So, in 1994, I got on the Internet and I was a 13-year-old kid. And I quickly learned that the idea of surfing the internet and just consuming content was not for me. I wanted to create content. So my very first website in 96 had a list of chat lines, and at the time that’s how you communicated on the Internet. Then I also put a list of bands out there and I would constantly mature that list and make it bigger. It was pre-webcrawler.com, pre-google.com content creation for the masses on a consistent basis. So, I’ve been doing this a while.
You’re a software architect and you’re now a digital marketing strategist, how did this happen?
When you’re running the largest technical blog community, your community of 4,000 bloggers is pushing out over 50 posts a day and you’re curating your own content to get to the masses because there’s that much stuff coming out and you’re, you know, our audience was 2 million readers a month and you quickly realize that you’re a marketer.
I did turn all the ones and zeros on or off to make the website work. But my number one day-to-day job was building influencer programs, interacting with sponsors, coming up with native advertising opportunities for our bloggers and working and coaching people through content strategy and building their brand voice and all these other things. And I sat back and went, “Wow, I do more marketing than I do software.”
In the software engineering realm as people who create software for other people, there was a time period where we dealt purely with IT departments. But over the 2010 era, that started to shift to where we were building for marketing departments. So if you think about like being a sales rep and you’re selling to people who like bowling, and the next day you have to sell to people who golf, well, you, better start to understand the rules of golf if you’re going to sell to them and start to be less identified as a bowler. And so I had to do the same thing. I had to shift into the idea of understanding who I’m selling to and who our users are. I really needed to put myself in their shoes as a lifetime commitment.
Tell me how you got started with your blog site, ‘Geeks with Blogs‘?
There’s this language called Visual Basic (VB) that, you know, Bill Gates and all these guys created. Basic is an acronym that stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Nobody can take that seriously, right? “What do you do? Oh, I write in a beginner language.”
I was a C# guy in the .Net world. I just love the language. I love the founders. I love what they were all about. So I got into a little war with a guy who was called the VB Defender on the site where I was posting our content. One night I came home and the guy who was running the blog site we were on deleted our content. He didn’t save any of it; he just deleted over 100 posts of content that we created.
That set me in motion with this idea that nobody’s content belongs to the community where they publish it. It’s licensed to them. So how do I create a community where people can express their voice and then I build the platform that either amplifies that voice because it’s something that the masses should hear or I just don’t amplify that particular message. And so I wrote my own blog engine that night, didn’t sleep, I was so irritated, and we launched Geeks with Blogs the next day.
How did you come up with content and how did that content evolve over the years?
So at first, I was the 17-year-old kid that left high school early, that gave myself a $6,000 a year budget for books, and just consumed information. I loved it. And with the Internet at the time, there was no information out there.
But people like Dave Winer and some of these guys who founded blogs and RSS and the communication guys like Robert Scoble, they were sharing their inner thoughts and they were putting it out with technical information. So it was like, hey, here’s how I solved a problem. Hey, here’s how I would approach this particular thing. Hey, here’s a review of this product or this service. That was just so interesting for me. Also at the time we had all these paper magazines that were starting to go away. So there was this need for building a place where people could share that inner monologue and how-to information.
But fast forward to today in marketing, we’re still not there. We haven’t as a group decided to do collaborative learning and let’s do peer-based education where we share what we’re doing with other people. So that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the marketing space that we’re in now and how we can deploy this new content and the new types of interactions we can do with marketers to open their eyes to the possibilities of collaborative learning.
How did you go about differentiating your content from what was currently there?
I wanted to build a network of influential content creators, and so I wanted an influencer program. But I didn’t want to reach out and leverage people who had influence. I wanted to build up people who had the potential of becoming influencers. So, who was out there that needed somebody to walk them forward, buy them a microphone, sit down with them and say here’s how you write a blog post. They needed someone to coach them through it.
So if I needed a conversation on Sharepoint or Biztalk or something like that, I would find whoever was doing cool stuff with it and reach out to them. I’d start the conversation, get them signed up, and then worked with them to make sure they were pushing their content out and building a brand voice.
So then, all of a sudden, we had the top Biztalk community out there because we had three guys talking about the technology. We had MVPs on Sharepoint and software architecture. We created these little clusters that formed relationships that people still have with each other due to the influencer kind of model that we are rolling with.
How did you measure your success at that time?
So for us, it was who knew about us and who is linking to us. Linking is something that the B2B world hasn’t gotten, I think because of the confusion of social media. Social media came out and people started jumping on board with that. Now they think it’s their only marketing strategy to reach people on the Internet and the linking isn’t there. There is no world-wide web involved because social media is not something that any discoverable engines look at. So you won’t find a tweet because somebody retweeted your link that you’re getting anything from Google or another search engine.
Back in the day, if somebody liked your post, they would comment about it on their site or they would continue the conversation. One way we knew that we’re doing something right is one of our Australian bloggers mentioned that Janet Jackson had the slip incident on the Superbowl, like right after it happened. He took a picture of it. We’re ranked number four for searching Janet Jackson. So imagine the traffic this little nerd site was getting because somebody was discussing the Janet Jackson incident and we were beating out the news engines. So we knew that we were doing something right when we would talk about the trendy topics and we would get such saturation.
How have your success metrics evolved over time?
I’m looking at what teams we are interacting with, who’s consuming the content and who finds value in it, and who’s sharing it with their teams internally. I can’t look at how many views I have. If you look at every single content marketing community or education channel, go look at their YouTube channel and look at how many views they get. There’s hundreds of views of content for people who have gigantic newsletter list. If you go look at their Twitter list and you go look at who’s following them, one of 100 is somebody that they actually want following them. We have to reach and, and measure ROI based off of individual interaction, this person-to-person mentality.
So, who is clicking the newsletter, reading the content, watching the videos on a consistent basis? Who are my potential influencers if I start to build them up and invite them to events and teach them how to speak or teach them how to write or grab a post from LinkedIn and help bring it alive on our community or interview them at an event? We’re all about this idea of building an organic network of people who are interested in and sharing thoughts about marketing. So we measure by who is joining our team more than we do about whether we’re selling a product or service.
What are the similarities between Agile Development and Software Content Creation?
So when I was sitting down with folks at Microsoft when they were launching their blog networks, I would have product teams that we were working with and they would be interested in starting a blog. I had no way of communicating like what an editorial calendar was or anything else that was going on in the publishing world. All I knew is how we did things and in our world, once we learn Agile, once we start to do it on a regular basis, everything looks like Agile makes this better.
So with content, it just made sense like let’s make a list of ideas that we want to work on and let’s sort them by what we really want to work on and let’s figure out who the person is that’s going to consume the content and let’s write a story about how they are going to find value out of this.
And then there’s the whole notion of an estimate. We needed to put estimates in the creation process, and then we needed the ability to sit down and say, “okay, over the next two, three weeks, how many pieces of content am I going to really make?” I just took the whole notion of software development out and put content development in.
The big gap that everyone else was missing but for me was this idea of being a cross-functional marketer. Being able to sit down and edit a video, sit down and build a graphic, sit down and do photos, to write texts, to produce HTML. This is what I’m calling a “Renaissance Marketer“. There weren’t a lot of these, so our teams were still silos. This created an assembly-line mindset that just killed our Agile teams. Most marketers specialize in a single task. This is one reason why I’ve see pushback on Agile adoption in the marketing space.
What are the positives for content strategists and content marketers living in such a disruptive world?
We need to figure out how to engage our folks into the content, how to immerse their lives into the content we produce. So that way it truly has value. It’s easy for us to say words like empathy and not understand the empathy means that we have a direct interaction and understand that experience. Because we have experienced it ourselves it’s not just sympathy. And so as marketers we’ve been so stuck on this. But even today, I went to one of the number-one email platforms. I couldn’t find the RSS feed. All I found was their email subscription link and it was like, we just don’t get it.
We don’t get how this content gets out where people can become immersed. Where is the experience with content going? If you put on a VR headset and pull up text, it’s horrible. The only texts that looks good in a VR experience is watching the beginning of Star Wars. And then outside of that you don’t want to read anymore. You want to be immersed in the 360-degree audio and the video. It makes the world of text just completely inferior.
We just won’t want to consume entertainment and even educational content this way anymore once we’ve gone down that path. Nobody wants to look at how to change their oil and print out three pages of text. They want to watch a YouTube video on their phones sitting on their car hood. This is going to be the way we consume content in B2B and B2C for education and entertainment.
In your book you mention how to prevent a content team from burning out, tell me more?
Yeah, so burnout usually is a factor of they don’t enjoy what they’re doing or they’re doing too much and they don’t have the capacity to return to normal. So I just read an article that somebody said, content marketing isn’t a marathon. It is so what they are! It is purely a marathon because when your team gets burned out from content marketing, it’s because they’ve been churning over and over and over again. They’ve been sweating so hard to produce this content so fast that they just burnt all their energy stores and they want to stop. Or they didn’t want to run in the first place, but somebody got them out there to run and they’re not having any fun. And so we need to turn it around to where this is something that they trained for.
This is something that they spend time with each other, learning, growing, getting faster, getting more productive, that they’re doing more than one thing, so that way they can continue to grow and evolve as marketers. How do we make it to where people enjoy their jobs because they’re learning new things, they’re testing new things? But that, that pressure for them to complete something based off of an estimated number of hours rather than an estimated number of days needs to also come down, right? This agency mindset that everything’s a billable hour and everything is as fast as possible or as small as possible, we need to stop measuring that. We need to measure on how do we make this thing worth $5 instead of $1?
I guess that would be like creating an ecosystem where people can actually enjoy what they’re doing
Exactly. There’s a strong idea in marketing that contracts run on 30-day cycles, like we’re still Time magazine and things need to be released in a monthly episode. The fact that it’s 30 or 40 days doesn’t mean anything to a consumer. If it takes an extra 10 days to be able to produce video assets that go along with it and to do an interview too, to help promote this content, to get it out, to be able to reassess something that we’re doing, then don’t worry about that ending on Friday or ending at the end of the month.
If we’re going to throw out the idea of a billable hour, let’s just throw out the idea of a week too and let’s get to this concept of how long will it take our team to do something amazing? Or how long will it take us to create this content? And be sure that it’s something that will be the best of its type on the Internet because if we’re producing content that’s not the best, that’s just the top 10 social media tools again, then we might as well just not do that and pick something else and try hard to produce value. The bar has been raised on what’s possible and what has to fit that quality metric with our consumers. And that’s why most articles go unread because they’re just not good.
Do you feel it is important to have personas at the centre of your content strategy?
Most content today looks like it’s writing to a persona that the author does not understand. It’s demanding and tries to be authoritative without understanding the audience. So if you’re writing to truck drivers and you’ve never understood what a truck driver goes through, or you’ve never sat in the cab of a truck to see what’s going on, you might quickly find out that text is not the best way to reach them. But there’s a radio sitting right in front of them and there’s eight hours of time to waste. Maybe a podcast might be the best way to reach a truck driver. Right?
So there’s this idea that when you’re looking at a persona, you really need to find out what problems they’re going to solve and be completely honest with it. Like most marketers, the problem they’re trying to solve is looking good in the company and for their boss. And so if everything you write isn’t like, I’m writing this so this person can look good to their boss, you’ve probably missed something in their core desire for consuming your content.
How does the CMO structure their team to take advantage of Agile Marketing?
So one of the things I say is let’s not just go all in with Agile at the start because we’ll never implement it all at once. So I look at a small effort. Maybe it’s an event coming up or maybe it’s a blog that we have. Can we dedicate a small team to doing things differently? And if they accept, then let’s first start with the backlog. Let’s figure out what we need to build and what we content we need to develop based off of the personas that we know about, and then let’s go back to those personas and figure out what we really know about them or what we made up. Because most of the time we just make this stuff up like, oh, I assume they do this right, so let’s go find people that match those personas and interview them.
Once we have the backlog and these personas handled, then let’s figure out our skill set on our team. Maybe we want to try something new like video. Do we have anybody that can produce video? No. Okay, let’s get some education, right? Let’s find like a creative live video series. We can all watch over lunch. Or let’s bring in an independent video creator that can teach us some stuff, but then also offset some of our work. Maybe he does the shooting and we do the editing and everybody on that team gets up to speed on how to do it.
And we do that through peer education, right? So if we have somebody sit down with somebody else and walk them through the process and take them to the point to where they can do this on their own, then we have this team that, when they show up and stand next to the task board, everybody can pick something on that list and very few people have to do something because they’re the only one who can do it. That’s the idea. If we can remove that friction, then we can allow for somebody to be sick. We can allow for somebody to go on vacation and we don’t stop the bus. People want to consume content on a regular basis and so we can’t allow for life to get in that way. It enables us to be consistent.
How would you scale that agile content team to become a global content team?
So now we’ve got this one team, let’s say we have 40 people but only five are Agile. We need to bring in the key decision makers for the organization. The COO, the CMO, the VPs of everything, and invite them to our planning meetings and show off the Agile team, methodology, and its benefits, but also discuss areas where it will not work. Get them to buy in on something bigger. We want to get that content team, the agile team, to the point to where there are more than 9-10 people because then it gets too complicated to scale.
Beyond that, we have to do two teams and so we split them apart and now we have two meetings. We have two sets of rituals and we have two different teams that are moulding this process to fit for them. We need to start to share those ideas with each other. In software development, we call that the scrum of scrums.
Beyond that, we have to do two teams and so we split them apart and now we have two meetings. We have two sets of rituals and we have two different teams that are moulding this process to fit for them. We need to start to share those ideas with each other and so in software development we call that the scrum of scrums. We have a group of people who get together who are involved in other scrums that then discuss the outcomes, the retrospectives, the things that the other team needs. And then to scale that globally, we have to allow each team to have a set of frameworks that identify as the way we do Agile, but then also allow them to organically evolve and grow this thing that fits their team.
For instance, a team in the U.S. will have a very different budget than one in the Philippines. Or maybe one region just has a team of salespeople. So how do we get a salesperson to think in Agile terms and to start to consume some of our content that we’re producing from HQ and make it localized in an Agile way? What’s so awesome about Agile is the rule set is very thin and the way you make it work is all based off of your needs and what your goals are.
What kind of Content Strategy and Content Intelligence Platforms do you think would help an Agile Content marketing team?
We need to get people out of the mindset that a view is the only thing that we measure off of and really start to dig deeper into what people are consuming to help us understand our personas better. Use some artificial intelligence engines to go out and say, okay, here are the things that are of interest to the people you’re reaching based off of what they’re consuming, and that will give you some ideas of the problems that they’re solving, right?
The definition of marketing until the sixties and seventies was the art of distribution, right? Your marketing was taking a market and knowing how to get your products out to it. So if you think of a grocery store, right? If I have a product, the marketer would be the person that got the product in the grocery store and how to scale that distribution. It was nothing to do about messaging or branding or anything like that.
This is where we failed, right? I create a piece of content that’s an asset. Now I’ve got to figure out how to distribute it. I might pick something like Twitter. Well, if our audience isn’t there anymore, or we just guessed wrong, an intelligence engine could tell us about the shifts in the market. The audience may have moved on to YouTube or something. The strategies would have to change.
You’re going to be presenting at Content Marketing World. Can you give us a sneak preview?
Sure. So my session is Becoming a Renaissance Marketer. In the session, we’re going beyond Agile. How do I, as a marketer, fit into an Agile team and become cross-functional? How can I learn to take the new camera I got as a gift to take the next shot for our blog? What do I have to learn to do video? Or to scale? We think of the Renaissance man, we usually think of Da Vinci. But he didn’t have a classical education. He was taught how to read, but not much more.
Compared to the other people that were known in his space at the time, all he had was the opportunity to work with somebody that was shifting the way we did things. His passion for wanting to excel and the understanding craft caused him to become an excellent painter, engineer, and so forth.
He wanted to get to the basis of how do we make this thing great that we’re doing and creative content was the outlet. My passion’s always been that in my work; I want to do the best job possible and I want to learn like how it all works and why it works this way and out of it comes software or websites or marketing efforts or whatever, right? So that’s that idea of a renaissance marketer. And if we have that little flame inside of us, how can we then crank it up so it becomes a fire?
Any advice for anyone learning Agile Marketing?
Join Enterprise Marketer. It’s our online community. Everybody gets a free copy of The Edge of Marketing book and there’s lots of other content related to agile marketing on the site.