Taking Creative Risks With Your Marketing to Stand Out in the HR Tech Market – Part 2 | Episode 52

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In part 2 of our conversation with Matt Torman, content marketing pro at work tech company, Brex, we continue exploring why moving away from marketing that attempts to be “everything to everyone” helps you breakthrough and standout in a crowded HR tech market.

Listen now to learn why taking calculated, creative risks with a blend of innovative ideas and data-driven decision making is crucial in a content-saturated landscape.

00:55    Taking creative risks that stay true to your company’s brand
01:34    Why understanding and targeting your core audience is so important
05:15    Fears and challenges that prevent marketing teams from taking risks
12:23    Taking the time you need to create engaging, authentic content
14:52    How to create unique content that stands out and connects with your core audience
16:55    Why collaborating on ideas and gaining new perspectives fuels innovative strategies
17:31    Testing and learning how your marketing performs is a critical component
18:37    Making data-driven decisions and gaining leadership support

(00:00:01) – Hey, everybody, it’s Jenni from GrowthMode Marketing. You’re listening to The Demand Gen Fix 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. Deanna here. Welcome back to another episode of The Demand Gen Fix podcast. We are back to continue the conversation we started last week with Matt Torman. Matt is the content marketing principal at Brex, which is an AI-powered platform that empowers employers to make smarter financial decisions for their employer. And we are continuing the conversation we started last week about how to stretch your brand by taking creative risks with your marketing campaigns. Matt, it’s great to have you back. Let’s talk about your slingshot analogy.

(00:00:55) – Yeah, I think it was more like, I was just kind of brainstorming some ideas of some of these things where it’s like, if your brand is a slingshot, as long as you do things within your brand, take these risks or take these approaches that are within your brand.

(00:01:05) – I think it’s, I think a slingshot like the rubber band on it would come back only so far. It’s not going to go back so far. It’s also going to be within your brand perspective, but if you pull that back farther and farther, and then you swing the rock a little bit out into the wild, it feels like it’s going to go farther if you take that approach. So yeah, I’m not sure if that’s the greatest analogy. I’m thinking about it, but there’s just doing some things that are within your own brand are important. No matter what you’re doing, you’re trying it. You can’t just do things that are going to cause people to have a different feeling about who you are as a company, and really just that’s how you fail. Just try to do things a little bit outside of your own comfort zone or own guidelines.

(00:01:34) – Yeah, and that totally makes sense to me. You’re right. If you are going out and you are trying what you consider to be risky, or different marketing programs, but it’s not resonating with your audience; it’s too far off from who your brand is and how you’re known you’re probably going to miss the mark.

(00:01:52) – For example, I had an episode in the past that was about brand personality, and one of the things we talked about was there are companies that will go out there, and as a marketer, they’re like, oh my gosh, I love what Apple does. We should do marketing like Apple. You’re in the HR tech space. You are nothing like Apple, but you’re going to redesign your website to look like Apple’s. But then you go to your audience and let’s say in this particular case, your buyers are actually AARP type of people, senior citizens, okay? That personality does not fit your brand and who your market is. And so, you’ve got to think about when you’re looking at doing things differently, stretching your brand, to your point, and being able to build upon it, but not stepping so far out that you break that rubber band.

(00:02:41) – Yeah, I think it’s admirable that everyone wants to be just like the number one marketing organization in the world, Apple. They have the best marketing out there for a lot of reasons.

(00:02:49) – But yeah, you’re right, it creates a dissonance of between core audiences. If it doesn’t like, if what you’re doing doesn’t align with what you’ve been doing, or it doesn’t have some dotted line to match that. Yeah, I think the branding piece is important, and I’m not sure if this directly relates, but not everything has to be the biggest swing out there. There’s just like the little incremental things you can do as a brand that make you more valuable in your space, or against your competitors. And one of the ones I was thinking about was, and this is the most extreme possible example, but having worked at Zoom during the wildest time in its history, there was a reason; just thinking back on the reason that Zoom was really the one. Obviously all video conferencing, with the pandemic shutting things down and making it harder for; impossible for schools to meet in person and just harder for people to connect in real life, video conferencing of all types elevated, but Zoom was one of the bigger winners, I think because of its brand.

(00:03:30) – Microsoft Teams was a competitor, WebEx is a competitor. Notable Business Solutions, and Zoom is a business communication solution as well, but just what they’ve done as a brand; it’s pretty accessible. It was easy to start, 100 percent easy to start. You didn’t have to have an account to sign up, and it always just worked. And Zoom, and WebEx, and Teams; like their business accounts, no one wants to put their Gmail; or whatever into a business. You have to sign up for a business platform, and it’s super confusing, but Zoom was always the easiest to use and it was consumer grade. I think that’s why it was just the one that took off the most in that span. And I think from a brand perspective, it was just a little bit cooler and more accessible than some of these stodgy or business platforms.

(00:04:04) – Yeah, I remember back in 2020, Zoom totally took off. They weren’t new. They were a well-known, established business solution, right? But suddenly everybody knew Zoom’s name. It was the perfect storm for that company, and to your point, there were other solutions out there, but they were the ones that, from a marketing standpoint, obviously took a few risks, then became the one that everybody suddenly knew about.

(00:04:30) – Yeah, and notably, my mother-in-law was very excited that I was working for Zoom at the time. She was always really excited to talk and tell her friends about it, and tell her friends about using Zoom and things like that. And at one point, my wife worked for a travel and events company, and my mother always remembered who I worked for, but she couldn’t remember the name of my wife’s company at certain points. So, it was also the branding where it’s like, oh yeah, you have this thing that’s like really cool when people want to talk about it.

(00:04:52) – Well, you’ve achieved brand status when the mother-in-law can remember where you work. So, let’s talk about what prevents marketing teams from taking those risks. What limits thinking? Because I think as marketers we all want to come up with creative, great ideas, but we also want to get results.

(00:05:15) – And I think it’s very common to think through your marketing strategy, and look at what are the tried and true things that we have done that we know work? What are we seeing our competitors doing that is clearly working for them? And before we know it, we’re emulating what others are doing versus looking at it from a unique point of view. And we’re all doing it with the best of intentions, but I think it happens a lot because we’re so focused on the results that it’s like, well, we have to do what works. I can’t afford to take those risks right now. I can’t afford to test these new programs, especially right now. And a lot of companies have trimmed down their marketing departments, trimmed down their budgets. It’s okay. I gotta get down dirty. I don’t have time to do the fun stuff.

(00:05:59) – I guess no one’s saying you have to stop doing certain things. There’s marketing. There’s so many different channels, or so many, especially in the demand gen field, so there’s so many different ways to reach people and engage and get your brand out there, your message out there.

(00:06:10) – The always on pieces, some of those things that are tried and true, that work and that show results like that’s important. I think it just takes the reflection. It’s just constantly looking at what the numbers and the data are telling you in the sense of it’s just working. Should I double down on this? Are there other ways to make this what I’m doing, expand what I’m doing into other areas of our business, or other areas of marketing, or there’s that part of it as well. I think the challenge becomes, though, as people start to think. They’re trying to think outside the box a little bit more, and they start to lose who their audiences are. And I think that probably is pretty similar to what you were talking about with that company that was trying to be like Apple as a marketing org. And just when you try to do new things, you want to make sure obviously your core audience is still front and center, because when you market to everyone, you sell to no one.

(00:06:45) – I’ve always believed that. We’ve had that problem at Zoom a little bit after the post-pandemic, where there are so many people that were consumers that were using this product, and there was all these people and just different types of new users that were using it. And Zoom went through a phase where it really had to buckle down on who the core audience of the business was. Business audience versus consumers and other people who maybe weren’t going to pay us; pay money for the product. So overall, it’s really just understanding baseline what you can do, and then incrementally where you can make gains and make those bigger bets. And I think that part of that is just understanding what’s working and what’s not. And there are data tools out there between Google Analytics and just all the platforms that measure success, open rates of emails and click throughs and things like that. And it’s just really getting into it again, going back to having more time to actually look at the results of what you’re doing is really important.

(00:07:25) – You mentioned that trying to be everything to everyone. That is, I see that happen in probably 90 percent to 95 percent of HR tech companies where they’re looking at it and they’re like, my technology literally can help companies with 50 employees to 50,000 employees.

(00:07:45) – So, why would I shrink down my total addressable market? Because the more lines I can put in the water, the more sales opportunity they have. And to your point, when you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you resonate with no one because let’s be real, the way you would talk to a company with 50 employees is a lot different than the way you should be talking to a company with 50,000 employees. I think that’s fairly common sense. When people step back, they’re like, yeah, you’re right, but yet from a marketing standpoint, the messaging tends to get so broad because you don’t want to alienate anyone. I hear leaders say all the time in this space, we don’t want to box ourselves in. We don’t want to pick a niche. We don’t want to say no to these companies over here because we’ve sold and we’ve proven that we work for companies of this size and companies of this size, and it’s industry agnostic. And all of those things may be true, but this is such a crowded market that those messages just fly by people and everybody sounds the same and nobody’s standing out.

(00:08:54) – That’s a problem. You don’t want to be that company that’s in the 90 percent. You want to be the company that’s in the 10 percent and standing out. That’s a big challenge, but it also comes down to the fear factor. We’re afraid to go too far. What if it’s too provocative? What if it doesn’t resonate? What if it backfires? What if your CEO calls you at 7 a.m. on a Thursday and says, I don’t like the title of your blog post? That’s too risky, right?

(00:09:20) – Yeah, I think there’s different approaches to that. Hopefully you’re not taking some risks that are so egregious that you can’t come back from. I think that’s important. Again, that’s staying within your brand guidelines. Amazon was an online bookseller. They do that and more these days. There are probably other better examples, but you can always pivot. Not that I’m like a CEO of a company that’s like making the direction of a company, but I think there are always ways to just understand what you’re doing isn’t forever. That’s the part of it.

(00:09:40) – And also in marketing, marketing is all risks. It’s mostly failure. If you think about emails and open rates and things like that, you send it to a thousand people, you get 200 to open it, that’s like 20% is a good number to open. To get people to click through a couple percentage points there. That’s a good number. Get them to fill out a form. It’s even a smaller number than that. So, overall what we’re doing, even thinking about baseball, it’s like 300 batting average is pretty good. It’s really good actually. It’s a pretty good contract. There’s a lot of misses you’re going to have. I think that’s okay. It’s just being real with yourself and understanding not everything is going to work all the time, but there are some things that can happen that can move the needle in a positive way for your company.

(00:10:14) – It’s important to monitor that and figure out; test different things and if it doesn’t work, okay, move on. Don’t use the same old playbook that you’ve always used, right? Marketing has evolved significantly because we’ve had to because of the way prospects are buying and making decisions has evolved.

(00:10:32) – And your example of the emails, now 20 percent open rate is a miracle because quite frankly, tactics that worked really well in the past and may have worked at your last company aren’t necessarily going to work now. And I use email as an example because AI has increased the amount of emails that are coming into people’s inboxes, and the quality sometimes is questionable, but a side effect of that is now people are paying even less attention to what comes into their inbox, right? They’re getting so much more. They’re like, I’m getting a lot of junk. It’s clearly written by AI, which means those of us who are not using AI and are trying to be really intentional with it, it’s still a lot harder to break through the clutter. So, just because it worked before doesn’t mean it does now.

(00:11:19) – No, I 100  percent agree, and it’s based on your audience. We’re talking now more about  HR tech software in your space. And you were (inaudible words) which was more IT focused. Some people just aren’t online all the time.

(00:11:28) – They don’t have access to their email. They’re not going to get that. That’s not resonant. What are better ways to reach them? And I’ve seen things like direct mail approaches, reading about those that how they’re more successful these days because people just don’t get mail anymore. Like Fedex, a nice mail, priority letter from Fedex that somebody can open, and then they’ll have their attention for maybe a few seconds, but it’s different than being one of 1,200 emails in their inbox. So, what you suggested, AI generate emails in general, but I think people are so ready. Things that are real. You think of artificial intelligence, artificial, as being as real as possible. I like your example. I think it’s really funny about the passkey example, but I think there’s just a way that the authenticity is going, being more authentic today is going to be so important to go much further than it has in the past. Just because people are always confused, they’re always trying to do more things and do better things.

(00:12:10) – But I think doing quality things better, being a real person or a real human being and connect with people is going to go so much more further for people.

(00:12:17) – What do you think marketers need to be able to take those risks?

(00:12:23) – Yeah, I do think they need time, and education, and just understanding. I think it’s helpful to always keep an eye on what other people are doing. You can learn from them, you can see what’s maybe working for them, whereas now you can get ideas from other industries, or even just if you’re a B2B org, maybe from a B2C org, or just seeing some of the content, or the marketing ideas that are happening out in the wild. Always important to just learn and see what’s working. Also, just really think about what can you uniquely offer. And I think there’s some good examples we have. We had at Zoom, and even at Brex, using your own data. I think people don’t do that enough. We’re really happy to pay money for somebody to do a survey for us, and aggregate into a report and use that report insights, which is great.

(00:12:58) – You get that external third party validation and just understand what’s top of mind for people, but at Zoom, we had a whole host of data of how people were using our product, and we did end of year report, and shout out to Rhonda Hughes, who was my boss at the time, for this idea. This was the most used emoji. This was the best meeting time, or the most popular meeting time. This day was the least popular for meetings, things like that. We had that data that people, how people were meeting and when. And so we’ve aggregated that into a fun end of your report. It wasn’t anything we were selling. It wasn’t to sell more Zoom necessarily, but it was a fun way to engage our core audiences of like, oh yeah, I use that emoji. I’m always late to a meeting. I’m five minutes late to a meeting. So, those are the types of things that help build your brand. Brex did something similar where our former CFO, CEO Michael Tannenbaum, he was interviewed about the expenses that were filed in the past year and it was just incredible.

(00:13:38) – It’s just so funny. It was through the Brexit platform. There’s 47 instances of people buying Taylor Swift tickets, or getting expensive haircuts, or paying for a flight for a celebrity, things like that. So, probably within budget, or a pre-approved, or something, but you just think about those fun things from a  brand perspective. You have that data, we have the information. Why not make it another way to engage your brand, or your core audiences with fun stories and fun content?

(00:13:59) – Yeah, it’s about making a blend of creative ideas with the data driven decision making when you’re building marketing, right? And if you can take the data from your solution, and build it into a really fun story, and get creative with that, that’s a way to stand out from the basic things that you see in the HR tech market that people talk about all the time, filling positions faster and with better people, and being able to submit expense reports easily and all those different things that employees do and that these technologies support. Yeah, you have to talk about those things because it has to be clear what you do, but the story’s got to be bigger than that, or you really do get lost in the crowd.

(00:14:46) – Yeah, agreed. Selling all the time. It’s exhausting. And people get immune to it in a way. So 100 percent agree with that.

(00:14:52) – So, as we wrap this up, let’s talk about advice to finding a unique take, because I think that is the challenge as content marketers is how do we come up with creative stuff all the time that stays within brand, but stands out from the crowd and is unique from what the competitors and everyone else out there is doing in the space.

(00:15:14) – Yeah, we talked about (inaudible word) before. Obviously, using AI to just get started,  I think is a good place, and really being authentic, being real, trying to understand what’s really the downstream value of what you’re; understanding the downstream value of what you’re actually selling. You’re not just selling to that person. You’re selling a bigger dream for that person, right? in our space, to find that they can save so much time, they can save so much money, or they could possibly; all this could help the bottom line; they can maybe get promoted, things like that.

(00:15:36) – Just the downstream effect of what you’re doing. How are people if we’re selling Zoom, for instance, or whatever platform you’re selling, how are they going to use that platform, a customer, how are they going to use that to engage their customers? So it’s really just connecting the dots or thinking harder in a way, or thinking further along down the road than maybe somebody else would. It all just comes down to just having the time and space to really do that. And yeah, hopefully that’s the trend for content marketing managers, strategists, people in those roles where it’s less about writing skills and being grammatically correct all the time. There’s going to be some instances that’s not needed. You need to think about the strategy part becomes way more important than actually executing and doing the physical writing.

(00:16:11) – Yeah, I totally agree. And I think don’t censor ideas because it’s so easy to think of something and be like ahh that would never. It’s like, no, just put it all out on paper and maybe something will come from it and talk to others. They may add new perspectives into that mix too, where you can come up with a really great idea. I think it’s okay to take inspiration from others. Now, as we said, you don’t want to just copy what others are doing. You don’t want to sound like them in the market. You don’t want to come across as them in the market, but look outside the HR tech market, look outside different industries and sectors, and even learn from business to consumer marketing to get ideas on things that you could do that are different than what everyone else in this space is doing.

(00:16:55) – I think collaboration is also pretty key, so you can always have your own ideas and just having somebody to really tell you, or augment what you’re doing. Is this a good idea? Reality check this for me. Is this a bad idea? Is somebody else already doing this? And then you can just iterate a little bit more on the idea. Do you think of the return to office people, who are really, they want to have that more in-person collaboration? I can see their point of view on why that’s important.

(00:17:15) – I think it can happen also in remote spaces over video and stuff like that, but overall, there’s an element of collaboration that’s a little bit underestimated I think now, especially as people are trying to figure out how it will work, and there’s async, and so the whole host of challenges, but just making the time to actually iterate on these ideas, it’s going to be important.

(00:17:31) – Yeah, and put it out there. I always say progress is better than perfection. And I think as marketers, we tend to hold things back a lot of times because it’s not quite perfect, but if we get it out in the market, test it even on a small scale and see does it have legs and fail fast? And if it doesn’t, that’s okay. You learned from it. Pivot and keep doing that until you find what really works within the market.

(00:17:55) – Agreed. There’s something to be said about testing where I think you’re going in with the expectation that this is a test is super important. You’re going to have people, other internal stakeholders, understand that this could or could not work. We’re not spending a ton of money on it at this second, but we’re going to spend some money to see if it works. And if it could, we can double down and go from there.

(00:18:10) – Yeah, hopefully everyone listening, you come up with these great ideas that do have legs, and you can double down on it and get more marketing budget to invest in those things, right?

(00:18:19) – Yeah, I think having the story, having a point of view, having a story to sell also just to close the loop on content marketing in general, but just having a story to sell to your internal stakeholders on an idea of what you think can happen, and having data to back it up, or other examples of campaigns out in the wild that did work or were wildly successful. Having that story to sell is really; the pitch is really important.

(00:18:37) – Yeah, that’s really good advice. So, I think the key takeaway in today’s content rich marketing landscape, particularly in the crowded HR and work tech market, it is a challenge to create unique and compelling content that stands out, but risk taking in marketing, it’s often hampered by fear and conformity to traditional methods. It is crucial for differentiation, though, and I think successful ventures into uncharted territories require a blend of creative ideas, data driven decision making, and, of course, leadership support. So, don’t be afraid to push the envelope with marketing. Matt, thanks so much for joining me on this episode. Loved your insights and experience that you shared with our audience.

(00:19:19) – It’s been a pleasure, Deanna. Thank you for having me.

(00:19:23) – 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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