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The Secret to Customer-Centric Content: An Interview with Michael Brenner from NewsCred

The Secret to Customer-Centric Content: An Interview with Michael Brenner from NewsCred


 You may know Michael Brenner as the head of strategy at NewsCred. We know him as a loving father who incorporates his four children into his presentations.

Brenner’s been changing the content game since his time leading SAP’s digital marketing division. As an advocate of storytelling, Brenner believes that “winning the Internet” begins and ends with embracing the internal voice that’s unique to your brand. 

To learn more about how Brenner embraces his own and where he thinks the industry is headed, we sat down with him to ask a few questions. 

If you'd like you can listen to the audio recording of the interview below:

Why did you want to be in the content marketing industry? What really sparked your interest, and how did you get involved?

I never made a conscious choice to join the content marketing industry, to be really honest. It’s funny. Even if I go all the way back to college, I was pretty lost as far as knowing what I wanted to do.

After college, I got a job with Nielsen in sales, not for any reason other than that the company was offering me a job. But it was pretty fascinating, I learned — I was selling to the best marketers in the world, like P&G and Kraft. I felt I learned marketing from the best marketers in the world, and I moved out of the sales position into marketing, I think, due to that.

Without formal training, how did you discern good from bad practices?

Because I didn’t have formal marketing training, I gravitated toward the marketing that I thought worked. When I look back now, a lot of those things were content marketing-based or content-based, if not marketing the way we would define it today.

"I found early on that thought leadership (helpful content) drove a lot more conversions than promotional content." Click to Tweet

All of these things made a lot of sense and ultimately led me into a content marketing leadership position. I then joined a content marketing technology company, driving content marketing strategy consulting practices more broadly.

What would be your ultimate definition of exceptional content?

I’m going to borrow a phrase from Bryan Rhoads, who leads content over at Intel, and I think that he really answers that question well: Try to win the Internet every day. I think that’s really a cool concept because people say content has to be high-quality, and while that’s such an easy thing to say, it’s actually really hard to do that every single day. Great content marketing is the best answer on the Internet. But it’s not enough to be the best answer on the Internet for one day.

You have to be the best answer on the Internet quite consistently. I think what that entails is both answering your customers’ questions and trying to be the best answer to those questions.  

You say that the best brands creating the best content are answering those questions that customers are asking. What do you think is the best way to uncover those questions?

I think there are a couple of ways to do it. Where I started was with search; you can go to Google Trends and see the monthly search volume for different keywords that might be related to whatever product category you’re in. When I was at SAP, it was things like big data, cloud computing, and HR software. You can type in what it is, how to do it, and why it’s important and look at all those different who, what, when, where, why, and how questions for each keyword, seeing which have more volume. You can identify what the bigger questions asked by the world in general are. That would be one free, quick, and easy way to do it.

"Also, I think salespeople are really good proxies for customers. I think product people inside companies often think they know what their customers want, but salespeople are the ones who are really fighting the fight."

You’ve worked with some of the top-ranked brands in the world. What is the biggest challenge that you see brands facing or having to overcome when it comes to content marketing?

I remember when I first started — in demand generation — sales guys or the VP for sales would come up and say, “Hey, we have a brochure for this product. I need you to put this out and get me leads.” We’d reply, “Putting a brochure out is not the best way to get leads. But thought leadership and helpful tips — that’s what our prospects are looking for.” And these folks would look at us like we were crazy.

"I think that brands and big companies think if they aren’t talking about the product, they aren't doing the job or their boss is going to be mad at them."

But when you focus on adding value to the customer first and earning his trust, then the value can come back in the form of a lead or something like that. You’re probably shaking your head, thinking, “Of course.” It’s just amazing to me sometimes, especially with senior positions — they say if it’s not thrust in your face or if it’s not literally cold selling, then it’s not effective.

"What’s crazy is that the opposite is true: It’s when you stop selling and start helping customers that they open up a little bit, and then they’re open to a relationship. To me, the secret is that customer-centered desire to be helpful first."

What do you think it looks like when a brand talks about itself but doesn’t talk about itself in a promotional way? Is that even possible?

At SAP, we had a rule that content could not be promotional, and then we would face these dilemmas. One of the great examples we had was a really big advertising campaign, and it was actually pretty cool. It basically said, “SAP’s customers are the best-run businesses in the world.” Then, there were stories about these cool companies. They didn’t have anything to do with what SAP sold, and we actually had a landing page for those advertising digital assets. My favorite was Pinkberry.

Pinkberry is a company with a great story, an amazing product, and a really cool culture. It was just a story about Pinkberry, but it was a customer story. Those were done really well. I think having a great work environment is a totally acceptable — and pretty cool — way to talk about your company without being promotional.

I think the best example of this is Netflix’s SlideShare, where the company documented its beliefs and how those beliefs tie into its culture. I think it’s an amazing piece of marketing and PR that gives what it’s intended to promote: Its board is trying to sell you on Netflix. Yes, I think it can be done. It has to be really authentic. You have to really, truly want to help people or tell a good story in a way that earns some of their attention.

What is one essential that brands need to create that content? If you could choose anything out of the content creation process — various platforms, etc. — what is the one key thing that you think makes excellent content?

The next step is really a belief that you as a company, or as an individual, have all the things that you need to tell a great story. I feel a third of my time is spent with executives talking to them about not listening to that internal voice that we all have that says we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, and nobody cares about what we have to say. That’s what your whole business is, and I think it’s cool to see the lights go on when you can help somebody tell a story.

That really flows from that starting point of customer centricity. One way that I used to do that was with executives who were feeling some of that fear and paranoia. I call them profile interviews, and I used to send them an email saying, “Hey, I’m sending three questions. Can you answer a few?” The three questions were about personal interests — asking them to tell me what they did (not what their title was), what was fun about their jobs, what rewards they got from them, and a particular challenge they’d faced and how they’d solved it.

I would take those answers and turn them into blog posts, and the executive would say, “Wow, that’s really cool.” My reply: “No, you did it. You have the skill.” I think giving people the belief and the confidence that anybody can tell a story — have an interesting point of view and some unique experience or thoughts on subjects that he’s interested in — is really important.

To share your brand story and incorporate those expert insights into content more easily, use a custom knowledge management template and centralize your efforts. 

Is there a specific brand that stands out as creating that exceptional content that we’ve talked about?

GE — with its real science minds and all the different Tumblr projects that it’s put forward, I think it’s really cool. The company started with this principle that its mission was about invention, and it wanted to find all the different ways it could tell its stories about invention, whether those stories sold GE turbines or not. 


I think GE did a really good job of starting with that foundational understanding of what its brand focus was.

Cleveland Clinic is a client that also has a mission statement that I really, really love. Its providers are trying to help people with certain questions about their health, whether they could become customers or not. I love that empathetic, altruistic mission, and it’s nice to hear that somebody in the healthcare industry really, truly wants to help people. Those are just a couple very different industry-related examples.

With Facebook, Apple, and Snapchat making their way into the publishing world, what do you think the future of content publishing is going to look like?

It’s funny. While delivering a speech last night, I was bashing a publisher regarding the customer content consumption process, talking about how publishers are getting really good at pissing us off by interrupting our content experience out of desperation. There was a publisher in the room who asked me a question. He started with, “I’m the guy you all hate because I’m interrupting,” and I responded, “No, no. We don’t hate publishers. We just hate that, as consumers, our content experiences are being interrupted.” He replied, “Publishing has to; the ads help pay for the content.” We have to live with it.

The point I made to him, and I want to write a book about this at some point, is that we are in the middle of a correction — a market correction — and I think advertising is in trouble. I think that brands spend way too much money on advertising and not enough on creating content experiences. In order to create amazing content experiences, I think brands have to get the help that we now see in publishing companies. For example, at SAP, we got into a sponsored content program with Business Insider. Business Insider would create content on a site that it owned, and we negotiated the rights to syndicate that on our own website.

"I think that brands spend way too much money on advertising and not enough on creating content experiences."

That was a great example of a brand paying a publisher for the creation of good content while also making sure that the traffic and the engagement came back to us. That’s an example of what I think the future is going to look like. In the meantime, we’re going to see the correction where brands that are respectful put less money on advertising — and more on content — and do better.  

With native advertising, there’s been a lot of debate. Who is doing it right? Who is doing it wrong? It’s certainly evolving and not going away by any means, but what do you think publications can make a better effort of doing for brands?

You are the first person this year to ask me about native advertising, and I’m thrilled that it’s become a less controversial topic. The reason for that is, in 2014, native advertising was being talked about in certain circles more than content marketing; to me, native advertising is really just an approach to content marketing. I think native is taking its rightful place as the secondary topic, and I think that the reason the buzz around it has died down is that people realize that there was a lot of fear for no reason.

I really think that native advertising is just one approach. The thing that I would question, and I follow this, is the flow of money. You can’t solely do one thing as a brand. I wouldn’t recommend a brand looking at native as the one thing that it does. I think native can be tested, but brands need to really focus first on building their own audiences and then look to expand their reach by looking to publishers in a native advertising approach.

In other words, it’s like a satellite. You have to launch the satellite, but then you need to bring it back home. And I think brands sometimes forget that they have to focus on building their own house on their own property before they look to see how they can extend to publisher sites with native and bring that traffic back.

Is there anything that you’re currently reading, or any favorite books, that you’d recommend? What does Michael Brenner love to read, listen to, or watch?

My favorite book of the past year is “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, and Amy Wallace. I have four kids, so I don’t get to read a lot. “Creativity, Inc.” is about the business of storytelling. To me, that’s content marketing. That’s the business we are in.

The key insight of that book, which is really cool and the way I explain this when I speak, is that the hero of your content should be your customer, your audience.

They talk about how building an amazing, effective team is the secret to building a business of storytelling, and I don’t think any business has been as effective at releasing stories as Pixar.

What is up next for you in the next six months to a year? What are you really excited to be working on?

We are seeing a lot of champions inside big businesses asking us to come in and convince their bosses to pursue content marketing and brand storytelling. One thing that I think is going to start to happen in 2016 is the maturation of content marketing outside the marketing department. It’s so enjoyable for me to see somebody who wants to contribute and bring her voice and her experience to the world and see her navigate that journey. I really do think that we’re going to start to see the emergence of individual brands as the marketing powerhouses of great companies.

And that’s going to happen outside of marketing. I’m really excited about the potential of being part of that evolution, moving into other executive and functional areas. This is the beginning. People call it the citizen journalist or citizen storytelling, and I think that whole notion is really exciting.

What department is it going to next? Is it recruitment? Is it human resources? Where do you see it going?

Again, you totally got it. The reason it’s going to HR is because HR already understands the word “talent” and the need to build the employer brand — my wife actually worked on this; she’s a marketer inside an HR department. I think HR is one logical place where we’re realizing the need for company employees to talk about how great it is to work for their companies.

The other one is sales. We’ve been talking about social selling for so long, and account-based marketing is something that’s starting to get a lot of buzz now as well.

"Social selling is 100 percent dependent upon two things: one is the salesperson building his personal brand, and the other is building the content to drive the connection."

Then, I think it’s customer service. Before we touch points with the external community, what’s really interesting is revealing the folks behind the curtain — the engineers, product people, technologists, operations folks, etc. When they come out and start to tell their stories, we are really going to start to see brand storytelling.

What’s the one thing that you love to talk about that makes you different?

For me, when you have four kids, you can’t have many other hobbies. I try to infuse them into my presentations. I don’t want people to see me as some talking head on a stage, but as a real person and a father, someone who has the same struggles and challenges that they do. Also, to be really honest, it’s easy to like somebody who tells you something about himself. I think that helps.

Obviously, I’m proud of my kids, and I love to show pictures of them on stage — and I try to do it in a way that isn’t just me bragging. I do it by showing a picture of the four; my oldest daughter is 12 years old, the exact same age as LinkedIn, with their birthdays just a week apart. My other kids don’t exactly link up, but I sort of say, “Imagine that they do,” and then I say, “Imagine that social is only as old as my children, and I don’t leave them home alone. I don’t let them cross the street by themselves.”

My point is that social is such a young thing, yet it’s impacted our world so dramatically. Just imagine what’s going to happen in the next 12 years.

If that doesn’t work, I just show pictures of kittens and puppies. 


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About Maya Szydlowski Luke

Social media is my happy place. My best days are spent discovering trends about coffee, health, content strategy, and fashion, 140 characters at a time. Let's connect! @MayaSLuke


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