Q&A: Michael Brenner on data-backed content strategy

Some of the brightest minds in marketing are coming together at the ANA/BMA 2016: Masters of B2B Marketing conference in Chicago June 1 to 3. SmartBrief will be there, too, and to kick things off, we asked Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group and co-author of The Content Formula, to preview some of what he'll share at the event.

First, you are a marketing executive who recently launched his own company. Can you tell us what it’s been like to make that transition? Do you have any advice for marketing executives who are interested in a similar path?

I started sharing my expertise online a few years ago on my blog. That led to requests to do webinars, then speaking engagements. I was fortunate enough to join a startup called NewsCred and build a strategy business for them prior to launching my own business. I see each step as an extension of that early commitment to share my experiences and insights online and to build a supportive community that helped me so much along the way.

My advice to any marketer considering the same path is to start by realizing that we all have unique experiences and lessons that we can share with others to really help advance our profession. But it takes work, persistence and commitment. I remember how scared I was to publish my first blog post. I committed to writing at least one article a week. Now I have over 700 published articles! I can't even believe it but it was only about an hour a week of time spent. My goal of helping our profession is the same today as it was back then. And I'm building a business simply as an extension of that. Anyone can do it. Start now!

Your new book, The Content Formula, offers ways for marketers to calculate the ROI of content marketing and talks about the costs of unused content as well as the value of social shares. What is the value of content marketing today, in an age when so much user-generated and influencer content is part of the mix?

Content marketing is more important today than it ever was. There is still a tremendous amount of content created by marketers that never gets used or that no one wants. A large portion of marketing budgets are spent on campaigns that don't work. It's pure waste and we now have the tools to measure that.

I came into content marketing simply by following the data of what works. And the book was an extension of the frustration based on all the marketing dollars that are purely wasted.

There is just no excuse any more to hide behind this notion that marketing ROI can't be proven. We have all the data, technology and analytics today to show us where to spend our money to drive growth. And the answer is always the same: Create compelling, helpful content, and you attract buyers you would have never seen if all you do is promotion and advertising.

Every company has expertise to share. With content marketing, the business enters into the conversation that is already happening by users and influencers. Those conversations have value that can be measured.

How are new tools like Periscope changing the formula for content marketing?

The newest tools are forcing companies to do two things. First, there is an increasing appetite for compelling content out there by the buying community. So you have to jump in and commit to the publisher mentality. This means committing to quality content on a regular basis.

The second is the need for true authenticity. This has become a bit of a buzzword but it's so important to understand. Promotional content and ads are blocked, in every channel. But compelling stories told on visual platforms like Periscope and Instagram offer us a window into how the world really works without the polished veneer of promotion and spin.

Marketers need to really understand this and define a strategy to create the kind of content that their potential buyers want to watch, read and share. Visual content can be tough and sometimes more expensive. But it doesn't have to be and it's a trend that isn't going away.

What about for B2Bs? How must they approach content marketing differently? Are mainstream platforms like Facebook as useful for them?

B2B and consumer marketing follow the same formula: Define the questions your customers are asking, the topics they are interested in, and the formats they want. If you do that, you will see that "considered purchases" like we see in B2B require a ton of education. This is content that buyers are looking for every day. And every business has the knowledge to provide it. But you also see this in consumer industries with high consideration like healthcare, financial services and others.

Mainstream platforms are extremely important. Email, search and social media are still the top three ways we discover content. Within social, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are the dominant forces today. B2B Marketers need to define where their potential buyers are reading and sharing content and distribute there.

Chatbots are all the rage right now. Do you see companies already adopting this technology as a way of reaching customers? In your opinion, is it more useful for B2B or consumer marketers?

I think we use chat modules and contact us information on our websites to make it easier for buyers to contact us when they are ready. For most companies deploying them, the majority of responses are for customer support, investor materials, and press requests. I'm not sure it's really driving a majority of leads for most companies, but every little bit counts. And the more early-stage, and middle-stage content you publish, the likelihood of gaining leads at scale goes up from all communication channels.

What are some of the most innovative examples of content marketing campaigns you’ve seen of late from the big brands? Any big success stories to share?

Some of my favorite content marketing examples include mattress company Casper's Van Winkles, which is a site for the "sleep-obsessed" and focuses solely on driving subscribers. They already have a corporate blog about sleep. But then they doubled-down on content marketing by building this "off-domain" and almost completely unbranded publisher experience for those who are truly obsessed with sleep.

I also love Wistia's Video Resources. A Video platform company, using video in a really fun and authentic way, to teach people how to improve their video. It's very meta!

But I also love what Chase is doing with "News & Stories" right on their homepage and on their Business home page with customer stories and resources. I can't imagine how hard it was to get a traditional brand in a regulated industry to make that shift.

We're seeing a real revolution in corporate websites away from 1980's brochures online and into true storytelling platforms.

We hear you’re a fan of SmartBrief. Tell us how it fits in your daily routine!

I love the ANA and Business Marketing SmartBriefs, as well as the Leadership and Social Business newsletters. They help keep me up to date on what's going on in our industry. They also help me to understand what topics are hot. Your content helps me understand what's important for my clients, my content and sometimes, it shines a light on an issue that I feel compelled to respond to.

For example, through your newsletters, I saw this article about the continuing myth of the importance of  "The Big Idea" in marketing. So I ranted against it and received a ton of positive traction and support from our marketing community. It became one of my top performing articles ever.

Michael Brenner is CEO of Marketing Insider Group, co-author of the bestselling book The Content Formula, and one of the leading voices in marketing today. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or come watch him speak at ANA/BMA16: Masters of B2B Marketing, June 1 to 3 in Chicago. To learn more about content marketing and other advertising opportunities with SmartBrief, visit us at ANA/BMA16, Booth 7, or online.