Motherboards to Mortarboards: What I’m Learning About Marketing in Tech & Education

My journey in marketing has (unintentionally) gravitated toward two fields: tech and education. From an independent school in Hawaii to a K-12 HR software company in Philadelphia; to a higher education marketing agency in South Carolina and a planning software company in San Francisco, I keep landing in those two fields.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Serendipity? I think so.

One might think these two fields are as polar opposites. I’m not so sure. I’m not going to go all Dickensian here, but this is a tale of two “cities” that’s worth thinking through. Let’s dig into the differences, similarities, and what we can learn from them.

The Similarities

I’ve come across a few common themes in my time in tech and education. Here’s one: empathy for your audience is always king. This reminds me of this “post-on-your-desk-it’s-that-good” statement about writing from Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes:

“Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader.”

You’d think we’d have learned this by now, but why do I still get fake greeting cards from telecom companies that end up being marketing pieces, or even worse, fake checks? Why do marketers still mistreat their target audiences? It’s easy to lose our focus. Let’s put ourselves in our audience’s place, and keep recalibrating to that north star. Bring it in, friends. Huddle up. “Have some empathy” on three! One, two, three!

The next thing I’ve found is stakeholder wrangling (not a rejected rodeo event) is a skill worth strengthening. In tech, it might be getting product and marketing and executives on the same page. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the world “align” since coming back into tech, I could buy a payload of four-dollar mochas. In education, it might be deans, department heads, administrators, and (lowers voice) the board. In both cases, reaching outside your silo is essential. It can be painful. It’s often slow. But it’s the wise way to move forward.

And here’s one more common factor from my experience: you have a department brand to build. What do I mean by this? Have you ever had a conversation with a colleague outside marketing that made you realize they think you just play around on Facebook all day or draw pretty pictures?

Then you have a department brand to build, and do some “marketing of your marketing.” Have you found yourself branded as nothing more than a support function in your tech company or university? Build that brand. Tell stories of real impact, and not only will you feel better about your work, but your colleagues may be more inspired to share as well.

The Differences

The most stark contrast I’ve found is the pace of change. While I shouldn’t make a blanket statement across all tech and education, I’ve seen that pace-wise, education is more towards the molasses end of the scale, and tech is more like wax paper on a metal playground slide. Pros and cons abound on either end of the scale, so whether you find yourself moseying or scurrying, enjoy the ride, and learn from it.

The Common Goal

While tech and education seem very different at first glance, I think their goal is essentially the same: making people’s lives better. Educators educate to train the next generation to make the world a better place, and tech marketers spread the word about products that help people be more efficient and successful. So in the end, maybe we’re more alike than we think.

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The Michelin Guide: An Inspired Piece of Content Marketing

André and Édouard Michelin had a mission, and they accomplished it through a brilliant example of content marketing—before content marketing was even a “thing.”

The year was 1900. Their tire company was 11 years young and definitely not the household name it is today. Only around 3,000 cars were rolling around in France at that point, so their goal was to increase the demand for cars, and in turn, the demand for tires.

To reach this goal, they decided to publish a guide to the British Isles. It would be full of useful info for drivers: accommodations, petrol stations, how to change a tire, maps, etc. They printed 35,000 free guides and distributed them to motorists. More tourists, more cars, more tires. Good plan, right?

Presto! Instant fame and success! Tire sales through the roof! Well…not so much. As the story goes, André was visiting a shop that sold his tires, and he noticed that a workbench was being propped up by copies of the guide. They weren’t exactly prized possessions. So he decided to try to add value to the guide by charging for it, and tweaking the contents.

The brothers categorized the restaurants, and removed ads (there’s a content marketing lesson in itself- saying farewell to ads.) The brothers realized the restaurant section was doing well, and they focused the guide on restaurants, created a team of “inspectors” and 26 years after the inaugural guide was published, the first stars were awarded to fine dining establishments.

Today, gaining or losing a Michelin star can make a restaurant sink or swim. The world’s top chefs wait on pins and needles to hear if they’ve kept their star, gained a new one, or lost a star. Culinary enthusiasts travel across the world to visit two and especially three-star restaurants.

Through an ingenious storytelling vehicle, a tire company became not only a household name for tires, but the world’s leading culinary authority. That’s content marketing if I’ve ever seen it. The Michelin Guide provided useful information to a specific audience with a specific goal in mind, all the while keeping the ultimate goal in mind: selling tires.

So what can we learn about content marketing from the Michelin Guide?

Learn from your failures

The guide wasn’t a smashing success at first, so the brothers pivoted and adjusted their approach. Sound familiar? Sometimes our well-thought-out content marketing falls flat, and we have to accept it, learn from it and get better through the hiccups. That willingness to be flexible paid off massively for Michelin.

Start with story

The Michelin brothers had a keen grasp on the importance of story and character—starting with the famous Michelin Man. “Bibendum” is the Michelin Man’s formal name, and it comes from the Horace quote “Nunc est Bibendum,” meaning “now is the time to drink.” Which is where I bring in this slightly terrifying, but historic image:

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The copy translates as: “That is to say, to your health. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles.” This iconic image takes a larger-than-life man made of tires to tell the story that Michelin tires will drink up the nails and obstacles the road brings. While not a great poster to hang in your toddler’s bedroom, it’s a beautiful use of imagery and story.

It’s the same with the Michelin guide. The idea of a book that helps you create a traveling adventure, all with the subtle reminder that “oh by the way, we make the tires your car is riding on” is a brilliant stroke of storytelling. And all the while, Bibendum (the Michelin Man) guides you along.

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Focus on bringing value

What if the front of that first Michelin Guide said: “A guide to France, which you should see in your car, on which should definitely have Michelin tires, which by the way, we sell!” Tongue-in-cheek, of course, but you get the idea. We can smell marketing and salesmanship a mile away, and if you’re like most people, you run far away. André and Édouard understood that. The Michelin guide was, and still is, a useful guide. You know that a Michelin restaurant review is done by a professional, and a starred restaurant is worth your visit. It’s useful, it’s helpful, it doesn’t overtly sell—that’s top-shelf content marketing.

Keep the bigger picture in mind

André and Édouard wanted to boost demand for cars, and therefore tires, but they didn’t focus on that narrow goal. They focused on meeting a bigger need—providing a guide that would help people find the best spots across the British Isles. In the end, their company’s brand awareness went through the roof, and they became a food authority. Big picture thinking paid off.

Were the Michelin brothers thinking “content marketing” when they created the Michelin guide? Maybe not, but the concepts line up beautifully, and in the end, the benefits were huge. Centered around story and character, it focused on useful content with a bigger picture and goal in mind. And that’s something content marketers can drink to—or in this case—“Bibendum!”

Note: This originally appeared as a guest post on Anthony Gaenzle’s Integrated Marketing Blog. 

Home Videos & The Beauty of the Ordinary

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5 minutes of a bird hopping around a bird feeder, picking out a few pieces of feed and dropping others on the ground. 10 minutes of our church Christmas party, where young and old munch snacks, sip hot chocolate and listen to Christmas carols strummed & plucked by a patchwork orchestra of kids and adults. 10 minutes of a birthday party & 15 minutes of Christmas morning. 8 minutes of my family playing badminton in a field beside a church. 5 minutes of ocean slow pans, back and forth, back and forth.What do these scenes have in common? They’re all from home videos, a la the 1980s and 1990s. Seems like every time my extended family gathers, a Rubbermaid filled with VHS-C tapes gets pulled out and we settle in for a trip into the slightly grainy, sometimes shaky, always memory-stirring world of home videos.

We spent some time watching these sentimental clips this past Independence Day weekend, and it got me thinking. How will we remember these times when my kids are grown? Instagram photos? Facebook posts? The memories of my generation and the generations to come live largely in “the cloud,” and in the ether of social networks and that iPhone that’s always running out of space. What if that all was lost somehow? What would we do then?

Today, we curate our memories. Only the most beautiful vacation pics make the cut onto Instagram. We edit our vacation photos to make them utterly shareable and nearly perfect. When’s the last time somebody you know posted a 10-minute video of the ordinary moments? Sure, that’s not too engaging, but as I was watching those home movies, I was reminded that it’s the ordinary moments that make up the canon of our memories. Those that go un-shared, but just experienced. They fill in the gaps between the “shareable” moments, and that’s real life. It’s beautiful. In our “share everything” world, I can forget to just be.

I took my four-year-old to the indoor pool at the sleepy little East Tennessee retirement resort where my parents have a house. I’ve been going there since I was four myself, so the memories are rich and intense. The type on the signs are the same, the mini-golf course is the same, so much is the same. Just a few hours after taking him to that pool, we turned on a home video, and it was me as a skinny 7 year-old, swimming in that very same pool. That moment reminded me that sometimes, it feels like life goes by blindingly fast.

So though I’ll still find and treasure those “highlight” moments, I’m going to remind myself to savor the beauty of the ordinary moments. Here’s to the home videos. 

The good of 2016

Hey 2016, I’ll admit you weren’t the best year ever. But you probably weren’t the worst either. 1348 has a pretty decent hold on that title IMHO (#GoogleIt). I’ll also admit I joined in the “2016 is the worst” trend a bit, but that’s called commenting on current events. The desire to commiserate with others didn’t magically materialize last year. That’s called empathy & community.

As 2016 wrapped up, I made a point to gather a mental catalog of all I was thankful for about the year. Here are a few pages from that catalog.

Clarity

In 2016, I uncovered more clarity around what I want for my family, and my goals for us moving forward. Those goals are still being shaped, and I expect them to sharpen and clarify with the years, but through experience, observation, and discussion, the focus ring is moving and they’re coming into view.

Efficiency

I may be a right-brainer by tendency, but I’m a list-maker & I embrace process because I believe it creates freedom. One of the biggest improvements to my work life was one I started in 2016: adopting the Stephen Covey Priority Matrix. It’s a simple concept: dividing your tasks into categories by urgency and timeliness. I’ve adapted it to work best for me, and once you get in the habit, it’s a huge help to those of us who sometimes feel like Hammy from “Over the Hedge”- SQUIRREL!

Direction

There was a moment this year where I’d just wrapped up a work project, and I had a clear, poignant moment of satisfaction. I realized I loved what I was doing. And then like being hit by the 4:05 from ObviousVille, I saw the reason why. I was using the skills I spent 6+ years of college building: writing & speaking. (Dear Mom and Dad, thanks for that!) I’m thankful for a job where I can harness those skills to support a common goal, make a difference, and learn from a ton of great people. Work takes up a hefty chunk of our waking hours on this rock, so here’s a thought: keep trying stuff. Keep on trying and failing until you find what you’re good at. Those moments are worth it.

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This picture (captured by my favorite shutterbug Yiqian) is the last sunset of 2016, from Carmel Beach in Northern California.

One of those pieces of clarity I found for my family this year is the determination to put experiences over stuff. This year for Christmas, we didn’t really do gifts for each other. We took a trip to the Bay Area for 2 weeks–our favorite place in this big country. That was the best gift we could have given ourselves, and the only one we really needed. Sure, there were moments when taking two toddlers across the country seemed about as logical as taking a mountain goat to an opera, but it was 100% worth it. Standing on that beach with my family watching the year’s last sun sink beneath the waves is a moment I’ll have forever.

The sun has set on 2016, and it’s a new year. Don’t move on too fast before you take a moment to gather up the good, spread it around you, and be thankful. And then look forward to the good of 2017.

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Needy Child Unsure He Was Actually Helped Because No Pictures Shared on Social Media

GABORONE, BOTSWANA: 8-year old Nbawe Ngonawae recently met a bearded, shorts & Hillsong t-shirt-wearing twenty-something named Brandon who visited his country on a singles group mission trip. Brandon shared his lunch with Nbawae, helped dig a well for his village, gave him several CrossLife Church t-shirts, and played basketball with Nbawe and his friends. However, after Brandon left the village to fly home to his air-conditioned suburban condo in Kansas City, Nbawe was sitting outside his hut scrolling through Instagram and realized that no photos of Brandon & Nbawe had been posted on social media. He is now unsure whether or not he actually benefitted from Brandon’s visit.
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“Now I do not know whether or not I have been helped,” said Nbawe. “I expected to see at least 3-4 selfies with the hashtags #missiontrip, #blessed, #giveback or #missional, but all I saw on Brandon’s feed was a few sunset pictures and overhead coffee pictures, accompanied by #devoswithcoffee and #theheavensdeclare.”

Brandon was unable to be reached, as he was too busy intentionally pursuing that cute brunette from his life group (but guarding her heart, of course.) Nbawe shared, “I do hope to see a few pictures on Facebook or Twitter soon so I can be confident I truly made my new friend.”

How to Stop MONSA (Marketing Ops New System Addiction)

The blessed ground troops of marketing operations know this struggle all too well: you have a system, say an email marketing system or a CRM, but it just doesn’t quite meet your needs. So what do you do? You buy a new system that promises to meet those needs, and go through implementation. The word “implementation” comes from the Latin word for “kick me in the head.” So, you “go live” and presto, all your problems are solved. Right? 99% of the time, not so much.

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Like Dug from “Up”, marketing ops is often plagued by the “SQUIRREL!” syndrome when the next start-up claims to have created the marketing system to end all systems. I mean, the sales rep said it was “seamlessly integrated” with all my other systems! It will connect your email platform, CMS, and CRM and show your boss how much money all your campaigns are generating! After you present the results at the next big meeting, the board will start chanting “R-O-I, R-O-I!” and carry you out above their heads on a blanket made entirely of 100-dollar bills.

Oh, how we love to try new software, just because it’s new, not because it’s proven. But did we mention it’s new! We could even be the first company to try it! What could possibly go wrong?

6 months later, you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in implementation, only to log in and realize, “um, this doesn’t really do what it said it would.” I’ve been there. It’s root canal painful. Even if you see red flags along the way, just like the ill-fated cast of Speed 2, it’s too late to turn around. It doesn’t have to be that way. Together, we can stem the tide of Marketing Operations New System Addiction (believe me, I tried to come up with a “T” to make it “MONSTA”).

So, Mr. Sales Guy, Define “Seamlessly Integrated”  

Oversell is also a chronic disease in systems-land. Take a stroll through the aisles of a major conference, let’s just say, hypothetically, one that rhymes with “Beet Furled,” and it all starts to blur together.
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With so many companies making similar promises, before you know it, you bought DataMarketOmniGemiAnalytifyLy Version 2.5. You’re not really sure what it does, but boy did they have a sweet display booth.

If you absolutely have to pursue a new system, how do you see through all the acronyms and get to the truth?

Ask the hard questions, and keep asking them beyond the first sales pitch. Get their engineers on the phone, ask your IT crew to join you to ask the “nerd” questions you might not know to ask, and don’t stop until you’re sure.

Ask for examples of successful integrations, and don’t relent until you’ve seen them or talked to people at companies they claim as “success stories.”

Use All Your Cylinders

Your existing systems may be more powerful than you think. You might be driving a Porsche, but think you need a McLaren because the Porsche just isn’t cutting it. Maybe you’re just not using all your cylinders. Take time to build out your current systems, and make sure your using all their functionality to their fullest potential. Talk to your system’s support team, sign up for extra training, see what type of customization they can build for you. Remember, you’re paying them to help, so don’t waste their expertise!

It’s not easy, and it may take time, but by halting the spread of MONSA, you can save yourself a boatload of time, energy, and pain implementing a system you didn’t need in the first place.

What About You? 

Have you or someone you love suffered from MONSA? How have you escaped its icy grasp? It’s okay, you can share, we’re all friends here. It’s just us and the Internet.

Wolverine on the Road to Damascus

Apostle Paul, Hugh Jackman

So, Hugh Jackman is playing the Apostle Paul in an upcoming Hollywood epic.

To save you the trouble when it comes out, allow me to preview your Facebook timeline so you don’t even have to log on that week.

1. Excited moviegoer: “Can’t wait to see my man Hugh Jackman as Paul! Wolverine on the road to Damascus, whaaaat.”

2. Excited moviegoer who just saw the movie: “Well, that was a wee bit different than the flannelgraphs from Sunday School, but Hugh Jackman though! Epic!”

3. Excited moviegoer’s conservative friend: “I cannot believe you would give your filthy lucre to the Hollywood film industry to promote such a vile twisting of such a powerful Scriptural story!”

4. *Excited moviegoer unfollows his conservative friend*

5. Excited moviegoer’s liberal friend (to conservative friend): “Stop being so close-minded, you Pharisee!”

6. Someone posts a Gospel Coalition Blog Post: “Saul The Wolverine: What Hollywood Got Wrong About Redemption & Transformation”

7. Someone posts a Opposing Blog Post from Liberal Blogger: “From Adam to Adamantium: Why We Should Be Happy that Hollywood is Even Making Biblical Movies”

8. Single female moviegoer: “Whew, Hugh Jackman is full of holy hotness, I need me a man like that to preach me the word with boldness!”

9. Me: “The Book is way better.”