363: Building a Content Marketing Team, with Dan McLean

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There is no possible way to scale, manage, and optimize every channel to ensure a company’s story is being told without a dedicated content marketing team.

What does a content marketing team look like? Dan McLean, Director of Content Marketing at Vendasta, knows a thing or two when building one. Dan has not only developed a content marketing team in one organization but four organizations. He often sees stories getting lost when creating content because there has been a focus on content specifically based on SEO value. Dan makes a shift in the organizations he has worked with to tell the story that solves the problem. A content marketer needs to be purposeful, understand who they are writing for and the objective they are solving. Writers can lose sight of the audience; he reminds teams to deliver value, not a pitch.

Dan’s words of advice, give a damn about what you do. Don’t think something is good enough, always do the best work you can do.

Dan McLean is the Director of Content Marketing for Vendasta Technologies. He is a seasoned communications professional whose previous experience as a content and corporate marketer includes stints at OpenText Technologies, Intelex Technologies, Rogers Communications, and Cisco Systems. Dan has a 25-year career in information technology as a journalist with IDG and the Globe and Mail, market researcher with IDC Canada, and executive communications manager who worked with the Canadian CEO for Cisco Canada.

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George: Well, 2020 has been an interesting year. And for me personally, it’s been the year where I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some great new friends and bring them on board the rocketship at Vendasta. And today’s guest on the Conquer Local podcast is our new Director of Content, Dan McLean. And Dan has a long career. I believe very similar to the length of my career. Most of it in journalism and in content management and building out content teams for companies like Cisco and Rogers. He also has interviewed some of the legends of technology over that career. We’re gonna learn everything about content marketing, designing content, what to do and what not to do, and then how to tie it all together into a story that resonates with your customer from lead to bleed with Mr. Dan McLean, the Director of Content Marketing at Vendasta Technologies coming up next on the Conquer Local podcast. Mr. Dan McLean, Director of Content Marketing at Vendasta joining us this week on the Conquer Local podcast. Hello, Mr. McClain. Welcome to the show.

Dan: Thanks very much, George. I’m glad to be a part of this today.

George: You know, as a new member of the Vendasta rocket ship, you and I have had the last couple of months to get acquainted and understand a little bit about your philosophy around content, but for our audience, I’d love for you to just to give us a quick overview of your background and maybe a couple of those highlights from your resume where you were developing content for large organizations over the years.

Dan: Yeah, glad to. So my background, if I go back far enough, I actually started my life as a journalist and spent most of my career covering the tech industry. So I like to say that I was in the best part of the history of tech during the ’90s, when a lot of stuff was happening, a lot of growth was occurring. And I got to interview a lot of really interesting people that were historic names in this business. So I’ll drop names like Steven Jobs and Bill Gates. They were two people that I had the great pleasure of interviewing. From journalism and tech, where I spent the bulk of my journalistic career, I moved into market research. So I was a researcher with a company called International Data Corporation and worked with them for about seven years doing primary research, mostly in the space of outsourcing and networking and communications. And from there, I actually went back to publishing again around the early 2000s, right around the time that the industry was making a shift to online, and actually, I hooked up with The Globe and Mail as well. So I did a column for the Globe, a weekly column for about three years on a small business technology. And from there, I actually took the dive into the corporate world, started working for a large company called Cisco as an executive communications person for the CEO of the Canadian operation of that company. I did that for about seven years and then moved on to Rogers Communications, where I took on a role as a content marketing director, helping to build that organization for that company at the time, which didn’t exist, and did that for them. I moved to another job with a software services company called Intellects. and likewise built another organization there. And then, previous to coming on board within Vendasta, I worked for another large software company called OpenText as, yet again, a content marketing director. So I’ve had four stints at this and feel like I’m getting pretty good at it.

Tell a Story

George: Well, when we first met, and we started to talk about your tenure as a journalist, I was very pleasantly surprised and excited to hear that we shared a lot of the same views around telling a story and coming into these various organizations where you’re either tasked with building something from scratch, or you’re coming into an existing content philosophy. Do you find that maybe that idea of having that story from lead to bleed is getting lost compared to, yeah, I got a couple of blogs that I wrote, and I did this white paper? Are the stories getting lost, in your opinion?

Dan: I absolutely believe they are, George. I think that a lot of times when you step into a corporate role, I think you can lose that as a writer, believing that you’ve really got to focus on the product stories or the feeds and speeds stories and the how-to, and you lose sight of what really matters, which is your audience. And I think that’s universal in content marketing. Everything starts with your audience, and you’ve gotta be focused on storytelling and speaking to them. Everyone loves stories. I mean, we all like to be told and listened to and to tell stories. And I think that’s what makes for effective communication, especially in the whole space of marketing. You’ve got to be a storyteller, and you’ve really got to focus on your audience and what matters to them.

George: You know, listeners to the Conquer Local podcast will know that I’m a big believer that stories sell. And you’re a big believer in that as well. The difference being that when you write the story. it’s for the entire organization, and it then articulate to the prospector to the existing customer. It reinforces the value that that is being provided by the organization. We talk a lot about nurturing and delivering the right message to a lead or to an existing customer at the right time. How big of a challenge is this for organizations as they start to build that story, and how do they understand when might be the right time to deliver, or what’s the trigger as to why I would wanna send this piece of information at this time?

Dan: Well, that’s a great question from the standpoint of now. I think we’re in a position to do that kind of thing better than we’ve ever been able to do. And it’s because we were able to serve up content to folks through online campaigns, and everything you do online is measurable. And you’re able to sort of see what it is that people are consuming and how long they’re spending on any piece of content or asset that you might have. To answer your question, it’s a difficult challenge to pull together assets, content, informational items that address wherever a buyer or a customer happens to be on their journey. It’s a huge amount of work to fill in all of the gaps, all of those spaces that eventually bring a prospect or a customer along in a sales funnel that eventually leads them to perhaps a sales discussion. People can come in at various different points. I might be someone who really doesn’t know much about anything on the topic. And I’m really at that very front end, what we call top of the funnel awareness stage. And I need some education. I would start there, and I would go through maybe a stage that we might characterize as consideration, which is really about, okay, well, I understand sort of my pain and what I need to be thinking about to address, the consideration might say to me, okay, here are the things that you need to be looking at; the best practices, the technologies, the options that are available to you. And then, once I get through that stage, I might go to a decision stage where I’m thinking, okay, I’m ready to make a choice now. Now I wanna learn about my options in terms of vendors and solution types. And I wanna know more about the success that’s being driven through a particular vendor solution, through the voices of customers or whatever. So it’s a big long set of assets conceivably that you need to have. And you have to assume that a customer or a prospect can come in at any stage of that journey. And you’ve got to make it possible for them to continue that journey through the assets and through the content that you make available to them.

Writing for SEO Value or to Solve the Customers Problem

George: So when we, again, I’m gonna go back to that moment when you and I met, we realized that we were aligned around this idea of telling a story. And you shared something with me that you found to be a common trait, and that is that writers have a tendency to get dragged over to this let’s optimize for search engine optimization and forget about telling the story first, and then optimizing second. Why do you think this phenomenon has happened to content teams?

Dan: Well, it’s a slippery slope. And I think content teams can get really wrapped up in this notion of things like ranking and trying to be so focused on your Google performance that sometimes you can lose sight of what it is that you’re actually trying to do. And for example, the way I’ve spoken to the team here at Vendasta is to say to them, “Look, let’s consider what the prize is. The prize is at the end of the day to generate leads and to lead conversions, to get to conversions through our content. That’s what we’re trying to do. And everything begins with the customer. It always does. It doesn’t begin with where you’re trying to rank in terms of keywords on search. It begins with the customer. And when your story starts there, you can guarantee that you’re on the right track.” And then what things like search engine optimization should do, in my opinion, is to augment the great content that you’re building or that you’ve already built. SEO, to me, is an overlay. It’s not where things begin, but it’s frankly where things end when it comes to developing your content. It should be that last overlay where you’re adding to your content those things that would help you to improve ranking and to improve search, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. And sometimes content teams can get bogged down and kind of thinking a little backward about that, in my opinion.

George: So writing a great story or delivering a great message that resonates with the audience is the number one component. Then let’s do some technical things to make sure that it ranks for the robots and for the various searches that are out there. I’d like to also put into this same idea, what networks are we going to use to amplify the message or what ad tactics, or are we going to do a series of social media posts? Or is it going to be a YouTube video pre-roll or, again, all items that are very, very important, but without a great story, or the absence of that great message, then you’re just deploying tactics that may not be as effective as they would have been with that great creative.

Dan: Exactly right, George. I mean, you said it well. Everything else is a tactic. Look how you go about turning your content into a campaign where perhaps you’re utilizing paid and organic social, you’re using an email campaign. You’re considering how you might write blogs to amplify the great content that you’ve developed. Those are all just tactics, and unless you’ve got frankly great content, none of that really matters. It’s not gonna get you. I believe in the kind of success that you need to have. And frankly, if the content isn’t very good and you’re putting a lot of time and effort and muscle behind promoting it, and people are underwhelmed by it, the risk you run is they’re not apt to go back to anything that you might introduce again. So real quality really does matter. Great content really does matter because if it’s less than that, you’re not just risking the success of your current campaign. It’s frankly the success of every campaign after that because you may have underwhelmed people, and you definitely don’t wanna do that.

George: One of the moments where I think that I got most excited was when we were having our first conversation around the value of amazing content. And you’ve done a great job of articulating that, not just today but throughout your career. But then we had this moment where I asked the question around, well, what about the email that’s being delivered by the sales rep to some deal that’s already inside the pipeline? What about what’s being said on that call, where they are now taking, again, that content lives throughout any motion that is delivering it to the prospect? And you did something you’ll probably remember this, the very, that day, or if not, the very next day you went and listened to a number of calls where salespeople were articulating the story, and that is true ownership of all the content. And at what point in your career did you figure that piece out?

Dan: Well, I think it probably began as my life as a journalist because I always sort of liken journalism to marketing because as a journalist, you’re trying to do all of the things that you’re trying to do through marketing. You’re trying to engage your audience, get them interested in the message that you’re putting out there, and you’re to move them to an action, which continues being a reader. So, I mean, that’s where it started for me. And that’s where it sort of stressed the importance of, I call it customer first or audience first. Regardless of how you look at it, I think that the focus of what we write in the way of content, how we speak to prospects, it should really begin with them. It should be that there I call it the Stephen Covey notion of seeking first to understand then be understood. And I think that’s the right formula, whether it comes to creating content or speaking to your customers and your prospects. I’m a big believer in that. And I’ve just seen it work repeatedly.

Building a Content Marketing Team

George: What would be some advice that you have for a young writer or a young journalist or a young content creation individual on some of the pitfalls to avoid? And then on the flip side, and we’ve talked about this at length, how do we get these folks to write around the problem that’s being solved and not around the flashy button or the feature or it is one of my pet peeves in the SaaS software business where my career always had around just helps the client and really understand what their challenges are. So how at first the one question, what advice would you have for that young writer to truly be effective to reach their audience? And then number two, how do we get people to understand a right to the problem that’s being solved and not the product?

Dan: Yeah, great questions for a writer. And this is what I say to the team here all the time. I tell them to be purposeful. So when they write something, be purposeful in terms of understanding who they’re writing to and what’s the objective that they’re trying to achieve. There should be clear objectives when you’re writing anything, and you should be considering those things before you put pen to paper, as they say. The other issue is to really understand your audience. Who is that audience that you’re speaking to? This is, again, we lose sight of this sometimes, even as writers, that we forget to ask that question, who’s the audience, who am I speaking to? What do I know about them? And this is the first step in not just writing, but to me, all of marketing begins with defining and understanding your intended audience. And then the third thing I would say to them is to deliver value, not a pitch. Focus on the things that matter to your audience, and always align marketing as an effort to solve my pain or problems and make my life better. In B2B marketing, it’s often the effort to help me do my job and be successful. So those are the three big things that I sort of preach to my writing team here.

George: So in your early days as a journalist, and now we’re sitting here in 2020 with all this amazing technology that we have access to, and I’m sure some days we’re like, “Ugh, more technology.” “What!” But one piece of technology that I think is an amazing way to tell a story today that is actually quite readily available is video. And I’d love to understand from you over the years how you transitioned from being a journalist and doing that writing and that reporting function to now utilizing video to deliver those messages, or even what we’re doing today, which is an audio broadcast.

Dan: Yeah, video is incredibly powerful because it allows, I think people if they can see a face behind something that’s said, that’s really powerful. And it’s interesting in terms of doing effective video. The same rules apply there that apply with, say, something like journalism, where you wanna have direct messages. You wanna be succinct. You wanna be targeted and focused in your messaging. You know, you wanna keep it tight. You wanna be very clear on what it is that you’re saying and your calls to action as well. And video allows you to sort of inject your personality, which is great, but more than anything, you wanna be focused on that message, and you wanna be tight and succinct and direct.

Interviewing a Couple Legends

George: Dan, it’s not every day I get to talk to somebody who interviewed Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. So could you give me a couple of highlights from those two interviews? I know you’ve had a number of others in your career, but two of the most iconic innovators of our time, that really changed the way that we do everything that we do as a society. And you’ve had a chance to sit across the table and interview both of them. So why don’t we start with the late Mr. Jobs?

Dan: Yeah, well, my story about Steve Jobs was I actually interviewed him when he was with a company called NeXT computers. So he had been booted out of Apple, and he was doing a speech in Toronto back in the ’90s. And my interesting story with him was that he had spoken about his experience buying a washing machine I remember. He was talking about how he and his wife had invested all of this time and energy in purchasing this washing machine because they were looking for something very specific, eco-friendly. He wanted to have as much technology put into this thing as he could. And he frankly sort of told this story about going all over the world to do the research and all of this. And I mean, it was a fascinating sort of story. And I told you a lot about the sort of person that he was and what he was passionate about. He loved technology. He loved this whole notion of innovation, and it wasn’t just the thing that he would talk about it in speeches, but I mean, he lived his life that way. And I found that a fascinating sort of story, and that truly was sort of guy that he was. That permeated, I think, everything about him. It wasn’t just something that he stood up and talked about in the keynote, but in his own personal life. He was always looking for innovation and that next great thing.

George: No, I read the auto, not autobiography, but it was the authorized biography that Walter Isaacson wrote on Steve Jobs and how he didn’t even have any furniture for the longest time. So making the decision on a washing machine, I could see that being a tough decision, but you do have to wash clothes.

Dan: That’s true.

George: Let’s move to Mr. Gates, Mr. Bill Gates, and the interview that you did with him.

Dan: Very guarded. So Bill Gates was the sort of guy that he was. It always about Microsoft. I can remember speaking to Bill and really trying to throw all of these personal questions at him to sort of get an insight into what sort of guy he was. And during his days at Microsoft, he was a very guarded, private sort of guy, very careful about what he said. And it was amazing, a lot of his keynotes really didn’t speak to, you would expect a guy like Bill Gates to be talking about, the future of the world and what was really sort of, frankly, all of the stuff that he talks about now, quite honestly. He’s a much more interesting guy today than he was back in the day because he didn’t speak much about how he felt about some of the issues that were happening in the world. Most of what Bill Gates would talk to you about was Microsoft, Microsoft products and solutions. I mean, he really was their best pitchman. And frankly, again, I think he’s a much more interesting guy today than he ever was back then.

George: Well, when I think of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, I think about both those companies that they were involved in and numerous organizations, but I’ll never forget that day where Bill Gates came on the screen on the Apple presentation and looked larger than life and were there two lives collided? And I think it wasn’t there as an investment made or something like that, that really changed the face of Apple at that time. And Microsoft had a key in that. It’s pretty cool, Mr. McClean, that you’re able to talk about two of those icons and interviews that you conducted over your career. I appreciate the learnings that you brought my way over the last few months. So we’ve been working together, and I’m looking forward to what we might be able to accomplish moving forward. One final item, because I know that you really enjoy mentoring young talent, and you found a few of those young folks inside our organization, words of advice for someone that is in the content business in 2020 and beyond.

Dan: Yeah, boy. Well, I guess the most important thing is to give a damn about what you do. I think that, and I’ve seen this a lot over the course of my career. I’ve dealt with writers who would write things, and they felt that it was good enough, and it’s the old story of good enough. It is never good enough. Do the best work that you can do. I think it says so much about not just a writer, but anyone. I’m always really impressed when I see or look at the work of someone that has put in a really solid effort. They’ve looked at the smaller details. I can see that they’ve looked at smaller details, and they’ve really thought through what it is that they produced in the way of work. So I mean, my advice to new writers, to anyone that’s early in their career especially, is to just give a damn and do the best work that you can do. That’s always going to impress people. And it’s a great way to get people on your side for sure.

In Closing

George: You’ve been listening to the Director of Content at Vendasta Technologies. I like to call him the King of the story. Mr. Dan McLean, thanks for joining us on this week’s edition of the podcast.

Dan: Great, thanks so much, George. I appreciate it.

George: Well, if you are a young aspiring content creator, or maybe you’ve been doing it for a while and needed a refresher, there it was that’s Dan McLean Content 101, 201, 301 in about 20 minutes time. I could listen to Dan all day long speak about the way that you can improve the messaging on content. And I just love the takeaways around. Let’s worry about SEO afterward. Let’s not forget that our job in content is to write a compelling story. Let’s not get too caught up in the feature benefit. You can always put that down here in a couple of bullet points, but let’s tell the story of how the solution or the product or the service solves a problem and really speak to the audience in a way that entertains and nurtures them as they move through that buyer’s journey. All of those things are a lot of times easier said than done, but Dan has a very uncanny ability to break them down into some very easy to consume bite-sized pieces that just make sense. And then, when you hear about some of the amazing interviews, he’s been able to conduct over the years and the work that he did at Cisco with the CEO of the Canadian operations, exposed him to some of the biggest tech leaders of our time. You could tell that this gentleman definitely has the resume and the pedigree to offer the advice that he brought in the last episode. So thanks to Mr. McLean for joining us. If you’d like to continue the conversation with Dan McLean or any of our guests on the Conquer Local podcast, you can do it in the Conquer Local community. It’s all part of Conquer Local and the Academy as well. You can learn. You can ask questions from the guests that we’ve had on the podcast.

You can carry on conversations with any of the product teams or product marketing teams. It’s actually a pretty cool place. Producer Colleen and I spend a lot of time in there answering questions and comments, and we’re meeting a lot of new friends. So be our friend, please. Come to the Conquer Local community. And what we’re really looking for is your feedback and insights, and suggestions on what Conquer Local season four is going to look like. That’s 2021, our fourth season. We already have over 150 episodes of the Conquer Local podcast in the can. And now we’re moving to 200 in-season number four. So sending those suggestions, we can’t wait to hear from you. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.


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