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Data-Driven Thought Leadership with Alicia Johnston (Sprout Social)

Data-Driven Thought Leadership with Alicia Johnston (Sprout Social)

Quality content is the difference between run-of-the-mill advertising and a campaign that grabs people’s attention. But cultivating your talent as a content writer takes intentional work. 

Alicia Johnston, Director of Content at Sprout Social, has experienced both being and managing content marketers. What’s one common denominator for good content writers? Their skills go beyond writing. 

In this episode, Alicia tells us what makes content writers unique, how to create strategic content, and why you should merchandise your work.

Show Topics

  • Target customer personas
  • Listen to social media
  • Understand the game
  • Ask the same questions yearly
  • Use your own data
  • Create authentic content
  • Be a storyteller
  • Hire curious people
  • Merchandise your work
  • Write to entertain

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Key Takeaways

08:35 – Target customer personas

Writing marketing content for individual customer personas helps you envision who you’re talking to so you can target them better.

“I think customer personas are really helpful. I think that even though you’re trying to create an amalgam of many different people and bring them all together into one, having that person in mind and knowing, ‘I’m writing for Danny, I’m writing for Ashley,’ or whatever the fake person’s name is, I think can just be so helpful because it really taps into your empathy as a marketer and it forces you to think about not just how somebody would react or how they would buy, but how they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what fears they have. So I think personas are super valuable, and currently we’re actually working on the content side, some additional research on the content habits of some of our new personas. and then on the product marketing side, working on expanding our personas beyond a lot of the user personas and the buyer personas we’ve used in the past and thinking more about influencer personas or personas of people who are really important within a deal but we might not have been targeting.”

13:26 – Listen to social media

People are very honest about their opinions on social media, which means it’s a great place to find out how people really feel about your product.

“I think social listening is a good example, because as you know people will be very honest online and they don’t always try to couch their opinions. And so social is a great place to really dig into some of those unfiltered thoughts. You might not always like exactly the comment you read, but you can hopefully pick up themes and trends if people are complaining about a certain thing or if they’re expressing frustration or if they’re saying that something is life changing and that they absolutely loved it. So, I think listening can be a great place for unfiltered conversation. I think, guard is definitely still up, but I do think that gone calls and sales call recordings can be a really good source of data as well, because folks are talking directly to their reps, so an individual who they have a relationship with and have a rapport with where they can be a little more honest and they share some historical context as well.”

17:41 – Understand the game

If you want to be able to “play” the marketing game, first you have to understand it, which means interviewing experts and relying on data-driven thought leadership.

“You have to understand the game to play it. So, first we have really strong partners in our SEO team who can provide a lot of value around keyword research, content strategy from an SEO standpoint, as well as search intent and really help us bring all of that into our content plans and briefs. But from there, the lens that our team is bringing is always, how can we stand out? How can we differentiate ourselves? So, I think a few of the things that our team puts a lot of emphasis on are interviewing subject matter experts and bringing first-person accounts and quotes into our content. I think it’s great because it makes the content stronger and it helps the writer better understand exactly who they’re trying to speak to, but it also gives the content ways to stand out on social, through email, through other distribution channels. So, subject matter experts are one. Data, producing a lot of data-driven thought leadership and using our own social listening tool for more ad hoc data polls gives us a lot to work with. So, every brief will typically include some internal statistics if we have them about pieces that we’ve published in the past and researched in the past that we could bring into that.”

25:00 – Ask the same questions yearly

If you want to understand how certain trends are changing year over year, you have to ask the same questions annually to determine a baseline.

“We do have some questions we ask year over year to understand how trends are changing and be able to benchmark against our previous data, because we’ve been doing this index in some form for nine years. So, there is a lot of historical data we can compare to and being able to watch those trends is really interesting. But then of course we also want to open it up to what’s most timely and most relevant for us as well as for our audience. So I would say we use questions more than hypotheses, but they’re just the flip. So, if there’s a question that we really want to know, like, ‘Everyone’s talking about TikTok. We think everyone’s using it. It’s exploding, but how are brands actually using it?’ Things like that and trying to understand what’s below the surface for some of those trends we’re seeing, as well as looking ahead and saying, ‘Okay, I think for the index this year, a good example is looking into the Metaverse. People are talking about it a lot. Are consumers actually adopting anything related to the Metaverse? Are brand marketers investing in it? What level of priority does that have? How confident do they feel in their efforts or where are the gaps that are still existing since this is such an emerging area?’ So, trying to balance some of that more year over year state of the industry, platform trend type stuff with answering the questions that we’re most curious about and answering the questions that our customers are most curious about, too.”

27:55 – Use your own data

If you’re trying to determine what trends are and aren’t worth following, you have to look at your own data first.

“I see a big trend and I’m like, ‘But is it a trend? What’s the substance underneath that?’ And I think that helps really build conviction. I love when findings from this research challenge something that I believe, and I think across the team that’s true because we also use this data. The same way that people say you should eat your own dog food, you should also use your own data to refine and build and change your strategy. And so conveniently, since we are a social media company, we are always tweaking our social strategy. So, getting this data every year and being able to also then see how others react to it really gives us a lot that we can change internally.”

42:11 – Create authentic content

Learning how to make videos can be intimidating, but you don’t have to churn out super polished content on YouTube or TikTok. Just make sure your content is authentic.

“We’ve been starting to produce some educational videos at Sprout, and as I’ve been researching for that project and putting together the briefs for the videos and looking at related content that’s already out there, there is such a spectrum from the beautiful, wonderfully-produced high talent videos to people just doing a screen recording and showing you how they work through some formulas in a sheet and just talking through it like a Loom video or something like that. But those videos also have a lot of success because I think people want, just as much as they enjoy the more entertaining feel of something super polished, I think people also want to be able to have a tutorial they can watch and walk alongside in their own practice if they’re trying to learn something, and it doesn’t have to be fancy to accomplish that end.”

01:02:41 – Be a storyteller

Being a content writer is about more than putting words on a page. It means looking at the overall story your brand is trying to tell.

“I think, for me, it’s just thinking beyond the written word. That’s the main change. The main shift for me personally is thinking about the different ways to tell stories, the different media, the different platforms. I think you could consider a Twitter thread to be a story, you could consider obviously video of course is one of the best storytelling mechanisms. So, for me, it’s just thinking beyond what I would like as the audience and what I feel comfortable in and trying to push that to what do other people like and feel comfortable in and how can I adapt what I’m sharing so that it’s going to be consumed in the best way possible that people are going to enjoy it the most or they’re going to learn from it the most, and trying to prioritize that over my own personal interests or comfort zone.”

01:10:48 – Hire curious people

Curiosity is a foundational facet of a good content writer. If a writer isn’t curious about the world around them, they won’t come up with good content.

“I think curiosity, which you mentioned earlier, is so important. It’s hard to quantify, but that’s the spark that you get in an interview. You can see that somebody is curious about something or they’re passionate about something. I don’t care what it is and it doesn’t have to be content, but they just have to have that interest in life and interest in what’s going on around them. Because I think that if you have that and then you have strong writing and critical thinking skills, you can do so much in content. So, I’d say curiosity, proactiveness, I think our team, I like for people to be able to be as autonomous as possible, obviously with the support of the team behind them. So looking for people who see a problem and who say something or who solve the problem, instead of people who are like, ‘No, I’m just going to wait and see if somebody brings it my way.’ I think that’s really important. And I think for us too, it’s having an open mind and being collaborative, because we work with a lot of teams at Sprout very, very closely. And so being able to be the representative of content to the social team or to the PR team, the demand gen team, I think it’s important to just have those communication, diplomatic skills and ability to bring together multiple perspectives, not only your own.”

01:13:06 – Merchandise your work

If your managers and coworkers don’t know what you bring to the table, they won’t appreciate your efforts. Merchandise your work so other people know what you contribute.

“Most people don’t grow up in their personal lives thinking, ‘I should really merchandise my work.’ And so, for me, it was the same as you having good managers who said, ‘You need to talk about the work you’re doing because very candidly, if I don’t know about it, or if my boss doesn’t know about it, how are you going to get a raise? Or how are you going to get a promotion? And if your coworkers don’t know about it, how can they help you? Or how can they give you insight that might improve your work?’ So having, I think, my manager and then her manager as well, and my first couple of jobs at Sprout really emphasize that concept of merchandising your work, and not bragging about it, but letting people know what you’re doing or what you’re experimenting with as well as any results, and also learning how to call people in to that. So sharing results and then saying, ‘I think there’s a good learning here for the social team, what do you think? Here’s what my takeaway would be. Does that track with what you all are seeing?’ And I think that can open up some really good conversations and relationship building as well. So I definitely do think it has to be built and it’s a great skill. I think it really is just so, so helpful in any type of role, but especially in content where we’re very cross-functional.”

01:20:31 – Write to entertain

If you don’t entertain your readers, they won’t bother reading what you write. So, make sure you’re writing to entertain, not just to inform.

“I think that all content, bar none, should be entertaining. And I think that people often think, ‘Okay, the goal of this is to educate. The goal of this is to sell something.’ Well, if you don’t have some spark in it, it’s not going to hook people. And so entertain doesn’t mean you’ve got somebody cracking up about it. Obviously, not all content should make people laugh or something like that, but you have to give them something that is enticing to create a story in your head that aligns with what you’re trying to do. And to me, that’s entertainment and it comes in so many different forms. You can make an Excel sheet entertaining. It doesn’t need to be always a narrative. So, I think that’s one the people would do well to keep in mind is that you can really bring that perspective to any content you’re working on. And that’s what we see people are looking for, especially on social.”

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.