Content Innovator Jay Acunzo: An Interview on Creativity's Role in Content Marketing
Storytelling Innovator Series

Jay Acunzo of NextView Ventures: An Interview on Creativity’s Role in Content Marketing

In this week’s Innovator Series interview, I speak with Jay Acunzo, director of platform and community at NextView Ventures. Jay studied sports journalism in college and planned to go into traditional reporting before landing a chance role at Google in digital media and marketing.

Jay is a content innovator who advocates for putting creativity back into content marketing. Recently, he has become a local mentor to other content creators here in Boston by way of Boston Content, a local community built to unite writers and strategists and encourage both to share best practices and tips via regular meetings and an online forum. You can read Jay’s personal blog to learn more about his views on content marketing. Here, we discuss creativity’s purpose in content creation and why many brands fail to get this part right.

Question: Can you tell me about your transition from digital media strategist at Google to director of content at Dailybreak Media? What trends did you pick up on during your time at Google that made you believe in the future of content marketing?

At Google, I advised big brands and agencies on how to execute their marketing with Google products. Toward the end of my time there, I was asked to join a small group to work part-time on an unnamed social product, which would become Google+ down the road. That experience taught me that what I truly wanted was to build from the ground up, so I jumped to a start-up, Dailybreak, which eventually was acquired by a Boston-based agency.

But before I actually made the leap, I had this one crystallizing moment that helped me focus more on content production and marketing in my career. I was at home trying to show friends a YouTube video that I had over-hyped as the greatest thing they’d ever see. As soon as they were all excited and leaning forward, with their anticipation at its highest point, I clicked the video and, lo and behold, a pre-roll ad played. It completely deflated the moment.

What was unique about that particular moment, however, was that I actually knew the Google account executive who’d sold this particular ad campaign to his client. Then I had another thought which hit me like a ton of bricks: I had the same job at Google as that executive! So somebody, somewhere (with Google’s scale, that was probably millions of somebodys) could have been frustrated just like I was in that moment—and, though they might not be aware of it, the person responsible for that awful experience was me.

That sucked to realize. This isn’t some metaphor, either; this was, quite literally, analytics telling me that millions were seeing disruptive ads that I’d convinced my clients to launch with us, and these were angering real human beings on the other end.

At no point did I want to build a career like that, so I changed course. I want to create things that people want, not try to convince people that they want stuff—that’s just good content marketing.

Q: You also led HubSpot’s award-winning blog before joining NextView Ventures. What lessons did you learn at HubSpot that you’ll carry with you throughout your career?

Too many to list in a single blog post, that’s for sure. HubSpot and, in particular, its CMO Mike Volpe are really good about helping marketers understand all the “plumbing” behind good marketing at all stages of the funnel, in addition to higher-level business knowledge and metrics.

Generally speaking, I gained the ability to either set up or improve a company’s marketing funnel, while also diving deep into my specific area with content. It’s really helped me at NextView with all the work I do both on behalf of our firm and with our portfolio start-ups.

More tangibly, I used my knowledge of how to run that content machine to later develop a playbook for start-ups. I created it because people would often ask about our process, like there was a secret we knew or some God metric to measure everything in content marketing. The truth is, we were just really great at identifying a customer pain point and then running a rigorous process behind our publishing and content marketing.

So I visualize it today like a wheel:

Content Wheel

Starting in the center, we’d first figure out the biggest problem facing our audience of SMB marketers (e.g. blogging is hard), and then create a resource to help them solve that problem (in this example, by providing templates or a guide). And yes, our product was also built to solve that same problem, which helped us reel in highly qualified traffic to convert.

Every other activity around that, which is where people tend to fall off the tracks since it can lack proper process, would serve a single purpose: Drive traffic to the content offer. The activities around the wheel are quicker to do and more repeatable, plus they’re great at generating traffic and reach. The core offer in the middle is not so great at reach, but it focuses on resonance. It’s the most desirable piece in all of it because it solves a huge problem for the buyer, but it’s also built to convert that traffic for us.

Q: What were some of the challenges of publishing so frequently while simultaneously remaining creative in your work?

HubSpot is certainly pushing up against the known edge of what I’d call “direct response” content marketing. In other words, unlike Red Bull or Kraft, most of HubSpot’s content is meant to convert you quickly and tie directly to its marketing funnel.

Our biggest challenge when I was there was that our typical tactic of publishing eBooks and putting them behind lead-gen forms started to break. eBooks were the go-to content offer for years there, but their results started to dwindle compared to past numbers. The tactic had become super saturated; every marketing tech vendor, as well as agencies, resellers, consultants, research companies, and so forth had glommed onto the eBook/guide/PDF approach and made it untenable. That’s what marketers do, right? We find one thing that works and absolutely ruin it for ourselves and our audiences.

So we needed to be more creative. To redefine this approach, I started articulating a rule to vet ideas and help us mix things up creatively. The rule was simple: Does this content save our audience time and/or money? If the answer was yes, we’d create it; if no, we’d kill the idea.

So if you compare different content types, it makes more sense now. When HubSpot launched in 2007, a free eBook about marketing would hold up against that rule. Back then, you’d commonly pay for eBooks, so it saved you money. Today, not only are free marketing eBooks everywhere, but that content rarely saves you time because it’s a huge document, generally speaking—and it fails against that rule.

But design templates, checklists, workbooks, and collections of icons or stock photos all save you time and money, so we’d create things like that in addition to the occasional PDF. The result? Numbers went back up to those we’d previously seen through our eBooks.

Q: Lately, you have been campaigning for the creative. Your platform is built around the idea that brands need to bring creativity back into what they produce. Can you tell me why you’re focused on this industry issue?

The content marketing industry has me slapping my forehead a lot. First of all, it shouldn’t be considered strange to hear someone suggest that creativity matters a ton in content marketing. Also, debating quality should never come up—why would you ever publish low-quality work? Creativity should intuitively matter. By creativity, I mean the nuts and bolts of the process and the skills required to create media.

In my wheel playbook above, conversions happen after the click, which is when your audience has to spend time with your stuff. The content needs to be good enough to resonate emotionally or intellectually with another person. It needs to trigger an action from them that benefits your business, such as shares, subscriptions, conversions, et cetera.

However, I think we run into issues when we want content marketing to scale as neatly as other forms of marketing and advertising scale. You can run algorithms to bid on more keywords more quickly, but robots haven’t replaced writers just yet. Content marketing, whether we want to admit it, is an approach to marketing that favors the creatively inclined. But why is that? You can teach marketing more readily than you can teach someone how to write well, design well, shoot video, or record and edit audio. So there’s no system to game—we just need to be honestly good at this stuff; however, we’re used to trying to game systems in marketing, and the alternative sounds like a lot of work.

I want to sprint toward that problem, not away from it. I want to personally and constantly improve creative skills and, honestly, I hope more in the industry grow to share this desire. I’m far from alone, but I’m also far from the majority in saying that. Besides, if the Big Kids from traditional media started showing up in higher numbers, they’d absolutely dominate our abilities.

At the very least, the majority of us should want to protect our livelihoods. If we believe content is the only marketing that’s left, like Seth Godin likes to say, then we need to get good at the hard stuff, not look for shortcuts. It’s shouldn’t be an either/or situation in this line of work. We should be able to produce quantity and quality, deliver positive metrics and great stories, generate broad reach and deeper resonance. After all, it’s not content or marketing. It’s content marketing. And we need to give that first word much more attention.

Q: As a content innovator who has managed a team of content marketers, how do you motivate and inspire people to avoid taking shortcuts and focus on the creative? What leadership best practices can you offer?

I don’t think shortcuts are actually the issue. A shortcut taken by someone who’s passionate about creating quality work is an operational efficiency. But issues arise when content creation is viewed as a chore instead of an enjoyable and critical process to be examined and improved in the name of better results and better production. The two are related.

One thing I picked up on at Dailybreak was the use of game mechanics, and one word really stuck with me: telic. Telic activities are chores. We do them for an end result, regardless of the process we take to get there. You’d just as soon blink your eyes to get a clean floor than you would grab a broom and spend a few minutes sweeping. Why? You just want the clean floor. You don’t love the act of sweeping itself.

The opposite of telic is paratelic, which is something done for the sake of doing it. Now, it’s unreasonable to ask every marketer in content marketing to enjoy the process of creation itself, however ideal that’d be. However, we can and should find ways to make the production process itself more enjoyable and better understood.

If your team is taking shortcuts and its hurting quality, not helping it, then focus on their process and make it a priority. Discuss it during team meetings, teach it or bring in teachers, celebrate new and bold ideas or approaches to creation—regardless of results. This is playing the long game to get better results, since a more creative, prolific team will yield more if they can improve today.

Rather than talk about how we can move faster, produce more, and take more shortcuts, I’d rather take a moment to teach a team what a nut graf is and how to use it in their writing, or bring in a designer to teach the basics of laying out an eBook cover. Why? Because learning those skills together not only tells the team this stuff’s important, but that those skills are the ones that will help us move at breakneck speed—not some magical app and certainly not omitting valuable time spent researching, writing, creating, and editing.

Q: What’s one trend you’re focused on in content marketing moving into 2015? Think of this as your prediction for the New Year.

Our work can generally be broken down into four parts: planning, production, distribution, and analysis, which then feeds back to the beginning to continue the cycle.

If you can’t already tell, I’m betting the house on the fact that production gets its due in 2015. I’m betting that more tools similar to Canva and Directr will emerge that focus on physically producing content, in addition to all the workflow, distribution, and analytics offerings available.

I also think industry leaders will start writing, training, and, perhaps, hiring more around the idea of creative skills. The result, aside from more jobs and higher-quality content, is that content teams will start binding together erstwhile silos like social, email, creative, and more. I saw it at HubSpot, and it just went public and keeps trending upward. Who are we to argue with results like that?

Do you qualify as a content innovator and want to be profiled here on the Content Standard? Shoot me an email and tell me why you deserve to be recognized for the great work you’re doing.

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