Taking Creative Risks With Your Marketing to Stand Out in the HR Tech Market – Part 1 | Episode 51

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In a very crowded HR and work tech space, too many marketers play it safe with their marketing campaigns. It creates a “sea of sameness” where businesses get lost in a multitude of messages across many different brands that blend and sound the same.

Listen in to explore this topic with our guest and content marketing pro, Matt Torman. He’s the content marketing principal at Brex, an AI powered spending platform that helps employees make smarter financial decisions for their employers.

If your company is tied to a marketing approach that safely conforms, but you want to try pushing the envelope, this is a great episode for you! Taking risks can be scary, but listen as we talk through that together. See why focusing on breaking through can capture better results.

01:09 Learn why it’s essential to differentiate your business and solutions

02:43  The value of storytelling and using AI to support content creation

09:31  Why marketing to a broad audience is a common mistake

11:14  An example of a bold marketing campaign by Brex

17:16  Why making an emotional connection is a better way to speak to buyers’ pain points

21:05  How to transform surface-level messaging into content that digs deeper and resonates more with decision makers

(00:00:01) – Hey, everybody, it’s Jenni from GrowthMode Marketing. You’re listening to Demand Gen Fix. The podcast, where our team of GrowthModers and our guests discuss the ins and outs of demand generation, and why we believe it’s the key to long-term sustainable growth, especially in the HR tech industry.

(00:00:20) – Hi everyone, it’s Deanna, back for another episode of The Demand Gen Fix. Today we’re going to talk about why are you copying everything everyone else is doing, and how do you really stand out in the crowd? I think too many marketers play it safe with their marketing campaigns, and as a result, it’s often messaging that gets lost in the sea of sameness, especially in the extremely crowded HR and work tech space, but it can feel too risky to do something that goes against the grain, right? And how do you take risks, but stay on brand? The real question is, is there flexibility? Joining me to explore this topic is my friend, content marketing pro, Matt Torman. Matt is the content marketing principal at Brex, an AI-powered (inaudible word)) platform that empowers employees to make smarter financial decisions for their employer.

(00:01:17) – Thanks so much for coming on the show, Matt. I’m excited to get your perspective.

(00:01:22) – Thanks, Deanna. Excited to be here. And thanks for having me.

(00:01:24) – So, to get started, let’s touch a little bit on your marketing background. How did you become a content marketer?

(00:01:31) – Yeah, I started my career in journalism, so a lot of it wasn’t necessarily reporter, but I was an editor, a copy system, probably a ton of things across the board for delivering like actual news and newspapers. So yeah, I started with background journalism, storyteller, things like that. So, evolved into tech marketing, went to a smaller tech startup, Clio, where actually, I think I met you, we were at the same, similar companies in the same portfolio, or a portfolio company in the same investor branch. And we were tapping your knowledge to get help, get our marketing off the ground. So, and we’ve known each other for quite a while, and that’s how I landed here today. But yeah, I worked for Clio for a while doing comms and content marketing, helping them just build out their demand gen function as well, and then got further into tech content marketing with Zoom in 2019, so right before the pandemic started.

(00:02:11) – And I was there for about four years, which was quite a wild time, and we can talk a little bit more about that later on, but yeah, I learned a lot there amid the pandemic era and the role that Zoom played as well. And I’ve been a (inaudible word) now for about a year, and really just my focus has always been like story, storytelling. Growing up in journalism, it was like you could understand the value of communication, and stories, and even just headlines and just the impact they can have on people, and getting people to read your article, or draw you in and things like that. So, not necessarily like clickbait type thing, but more of really reaching the emotional side of; the human side of stories and what they can do.

(00:02:43) – I love it, and I love when people get into content marketing with a journalism background, because I think when you come into the mix, you’ve got the mindset of, I’ve got to tell a story, right? And I don’t know if that is always the case when they come from a marketing background, it’s just a different lens to put on it. And I’ve certainly had copywriters on my team that have had journalism backgrounds, and they always do great work. So, I’m a big proponent of that journalism background for content marketing. And I think content marketing is such a critical part of marketing. Without content marketing, you really don’t have marketing. As B2B marketers, we’re not going out and just doing a bunch of small ads and small pieces of copy. A whole demand generation engine is built around that content. And I think it’s a challenging role, because you have to be able to tell the same story over and over and over without sounding; you’re just saying the same thing over and over and over, right? Like there’s an element of creativity that needs to be involved.

(00:03:44) – Yeah, for sure, and I think that content marketing is the term they use a lot these days, but marketing is in general content, right? What we’re doing is getting a message, or something in front of people, the right people at the right time

(00:03:54) – And there’s just a whole host of touch points that involve some piece of quote unquote content, whether that’s an email subject line, or an ad, another whole billboard ad with digital ads online. So, I’d use the buzzword, the term synergy comes to mind when it comes to content and marketing. So yeah, there’s a real opportunity to, actually, drive home what your goals as a business through that type of a content story and angle of marketing.

(00:04:16) – Well, and I think it’s a really unique time in content marketing because we have AI, right? And I know you and I previously met, we talked about it. It’s like, man, as a content creator, we can’t ignore it. It’s here to stay, right? But it’s also something that’s a little scary, and I think a lot of organizations out in the HR tech space and beyond are starting to experiment with the AI, and figure out how do we use it, but I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the content strategist because you still need human eyes on this stuff, right? What’s your perspective and your experience with AI?

(00:04:55) – Obviously, the game changing. There’s a reason every single tech company is adding some component to their offering, whether at Brex, or a fintech company, we have AI components to help automate some of that kind of workflows. Zoom, they have AIs like that, meeting summary and things like that to help just speed up the process. And of course the ChatGPT and the other generative AI pieces. Super helpful as a content person, right? Where previously you just have to create from scratch a lot of the content you’re trying to create, or put out in the world. And it was just a lot of legwork, and there’s a lot of like, shortcuts you can take, and AI helps do that, so it’s definitely like an advantage. Of course, there are some ups and downsides. It just feels like I read more and more each day about even in other fields, law,, where it’s some of the GPTs are making up cases, and some of the things the accuracy of the content is just degrading in a way, so it’s very useful. It reminds me a lot about the SEO, how SEO started, and those SEO cowboys were gaming Google and trying to figure out how to get the best content in front of people.

(00:05:45) – People are cutting corners and they’re still trying to do something that’s not really a little against the grain. And maybe it’s not always like the best use of, like it’s not good for the overall consumer, or end user for use. So yeah, I think there’s obviously a lot of advantages, but there’s just some originality questions we want to be asking ourselves.

(00:06:00) – Yeah, absolutely. And I think as you’re looking at standing out in the crowd in this crowded tech market and the tech space and beyond, you have to be careful what you use, and how do you differentiate if you’re using something like ChatGPT, where quite frankly, that’s an open access database that everybody can use, unless you pay for the subscription version and lock down your content and build your own database. And that’s probably a smarter way to go from a content perspective, but that’s a whole nother topic for a different episode, right?

(00:06:34) – Yeah, I think I could speak to that a little bit more to, here, where you’re right, where it’s mostly the free versions of these tools.

(00:06:39) – It’s based on large language models. (Inaudible words) everything else has already been out there. This has already been said before, so if we’re trying to get extract output from things that somebody else has already created, how original. There’s some use for that to get started at some of the programs you have going, but obviously originality comes into play again where it’s okay, so how do you take that? The role of the strategist becomes what you need into there, and get what you need out of it. Is that the best possible scenario to like, put out into the world? I don’t know about you, but (inaudible words) ChatGPT, or Gemini, or what are some of the other ones? Claude AI. I’ve never copied straight word for word, everything that output. So, it’s always some finessing, some reworking, but it’s really good for getting started, of course, and trying to take your creative campaign from 0 to 1, or 1 to 2.

(00:07:18) – I’m with you. I’ve never taken anything word for word from one of these tools simply because the style, what it says sometimes I feel, yep, this looks like it’s written by AI and sometimes it doesn’t say quite what I need it to say.

(00:07:32) – Where I find from a content perspective it’s really helpful is let’s say I need to create show notes for this episode. I’ll take the transcript from the conversation we’re having right now, and I’ll run it through and ask Claude AI, for example, to summarize the key points from it, to give me bullet points that I can then take and go create content from. So, I think there are ways to use it without using it to write your content for you, but to streamline.

(00:08:01) – Yeah, and to touch on, it’s probably the best one; some of the best practices. And some of what we do here at Brex is we built our own  Brex GPTs where it learns based on our own content. So, it’s like a closed system, as you suggested, and it’s been really helpful in a lot of ways, especially for when we’ve been doing RFIs for analyst relations asks. And, I think, that’s really just returning Brex specific content that no one else really has. We trained it ourselves, and you really can just iterate over and over again to get the right thing that’s really specific to your target audience and your message and your positioning. So, it’s been really eye opening. How easy just to use this on our end.

(00:08:30) – Yeah, that’s awesome. So, let’s talk about taking risks with your content, or really just not copying what everyone else is doing. And one of the things I know you and I talked about previously, Matt, when we were chatting one day is brand flexibility, and is there the ability to do big things? Because I think for a lot of organizations and a lot of marketers, we have these ideas, but then we’re like, oh, it might be too risky, or you have leadership teams who are, yeah, we can’t do that. And one example that comes to mind for me, years ago when I worked at Great Bay Software, which was where I was at when I met you when you worked at Clio. We had an article. We were a network security company and I had a copywriter on my team. She wrote an article and the title was Take the Ass Out of Password because there was a security risk.

(00:09:27) – And I thought it was really clever. And I was like, I’m just gonna run with it. Well, I got a call before 8 a.m. the day that it published from my CEO, that was, what were you thinking? This is not something we can put out there; having a swear in the title, and I’m like, but you’re missing the point. The IT people are gonna think this is hilarious. And they’re our audience. And he’s looking at it; he’s like, but I don’t think our board of directors, who’s a bunch of 65 year old man, are going to relate to this. I think, as marketers were worried about that situation, right? Where we thought it was a clever idea that would get some legs and stand out, and not everyone thinks that the risk is worth it.

(00:10:14) – Yeah, I think I like the idea. It’s definitely clever. The buy in from leadership is important. I think before trying to do something quote unquote risky, there’s a middle ground between just taking these huge risks and doing the things that everyone else is doing. There’s somewhere in the middle where it’s just trying new things, but pushing the envelope in a way that’s authentic to you and your audience.

(00:10:33) – And it’s just really just about taking the extra steps, I think it’s just the quote unquote, think harder. You just need to have set aside some time to, like, actually try to come up with some of these, like, different ideas. And I think that’s just tied back to AI a little bit. Like that’s the value that people who are selling AI tools are selling to people where it’s like, you have more time now because of these tedious tasks that are off your plate. Really think about things that can move the needle, or like other ways to reach your audiences, or engage your core personas. So, I think that’s the middle ground there.

(00:10:56) – Yeah, totally. What do you think taking a risk in marketing looks like? I know at Brex, you guys have done some things that other companies might hesitate to do from a marketing perspective. And obviously there was a process to bring on your leadership team and move forward with that.

(00:11:14) – Yeah, I wasn’t directly involved with ideation of this, but we most recently we had an out-of-home campaign targeted at one of our core competitors, Concur, who’s been the legacy player in the space for a long time in expense management, and cards, and travel, and things like that.

(00:11:28) – So, we took them on knowing that a lot of people have the same feeling about Concur, where if you’ve used it before, you’ve been traveling for work or whatever, and you have to submit your expenses. The process isn’t easy all the time. And we try to take advantage of that sentiment. And we had some out-of-home ads that were really thinking of punching up at the larger player in the space where it was something Concur, like just the sentiment of a really long billboard, or said expenses shouldn’t be this hard. There are some other billboards on, like some notably traffic heavy quarters around San Francisco and even in (inaudible word) backyard. I think in Seattle, where, you know, the only thing that’s slower than this traffic is doing expenses with Concur was one of them. It was really creative. Our CMO at Rex is really great. He’s new, but he’s really bright and he had a lot of good ideas. And our team was on board with taking that approach. It was punching up. It’s not like we’re punching down at some of the other peers.

(00:12:13) – But yeah, just thinking about, like just trying to capture the sentiment. You have an idea, or  theory. Like everyone might be thinking this because it is like a big risk to go after a competitor in such a public space. Like you really want to ensure you nail that and make sure your theories and hypotheses of like what’s actually happening out there, what people are feeling is correct, and then getting the buy in from the right people.

(00:12:30) – Yeah. And, you know, I think that’s a bold move because I can tell you, like, I’ll talk to prospects who will say our biggest competitor is XYZ. They have major market share, but there’s all these problems and people are unhappy with them. We know that we can provide a better solution, but then they’re hesitant to say who that person is, or that company when they’re actually going out doing the marketing. And when I push back and I’m like, why are you hesitant to do that? They’re like, they’re a much bigger company with much deeper dollars. What if they sue us? If you go in the market, whether it’s B2B or B2C, there’s lots of instances of marketing where a company directly names who the other one is and takes them on, and it’s not illegal to do it, but it does feel like a risky move, I think, for smaller companies, because they go down the what if game.

(00:13:27) – And obviously with marketing you have to think through everything before you do it, because there are some things from a marketing standpoint that probably could get you in some hot water, but obviously the team over at Brex thought through all of the potential risks, and whether it was something they could do or not before they actually pulled the trigger on it.

(00:13:46) – Yeah, you have a good point to where it’s like the fear overwhelmed somebody trying, or taking that risk. I think you need to understand where that fear is coming from, and the risk, and what the risk is, but also the plan B tends to be, well, like, let’s copy what they’re doing, it seems to be working. You’re actually like, so we’re not going to take the money directly, but we want to try to emulate what they’re doing because it seems to be working. They also have more dollars and more ad spend behind what they’re doing. So again, then you fall into this idea of like, oh, we’re doing the same thing that they’re doing and not trying to like actually take market share.

(00:14:12) – If you’re really trying to beat your competitors and earn market share, it feels contradictory to do the same things that they’re doing.

(00:14:18) – Yeah, that’s a really good point. I don’t think marketers necessarily think about it in that perspective of, oh, we’re trying to take market share for a (inaudible word). We shouldn’t do the same things they’re doing. They’re looking at it probably more as clearly what they’re doing is working. Let’s try it and see if it works for us too. But yeah, how do you differentiate in the market and how do you stand out if you’re doing the exact same things? And quite frankly, I’ve turned around and started doing the out-of-home marketing, the billboards, the bus panels, things like that towards Brex. It might be comical for audiences to see like, oh, we can see them going after each other, but it would lose the effectiveness if both sides were doing it, right? Like, oh, now it’s just a smear campaign.

(00:15:07) – Yeah, exactly. And then there’s like the first adopter, right? If you could demonstrate you thought that you were the first one to do it. The bigger one is. To come back at you. I think that’s a chemical piece where it’s not going to work, and it’s just going to actually probably elevate your brand more in that regard.

(00:15:20) – I know there is so much more we can say on the topic of how to stretch your brand by taking creative risks with your marketing campaigns. We are out of time, today so we are going to continue this conversation with our content marketing pro Matt Torman next week in a part two. So, tune in again next time and have a great day!

(00:15:43) – Thanks for joining us on The Demand Gen Fix, a podcast for HR tech marketers brought to you by GrowthMode Marketing. I sure hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to subscribe for more perspectives on demand generation and B2B marketing strategies. Plus, give us a like. Tell your friends. We’ll see you next time.

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