From Super Bowl Sex Ads to Brand Storytelling Machine: an Interview with GoDaddy Editor-in-Chief Shawn Pfunder
Storytelling Innovator Series

From Super Bowl Sex Ads to Storyteller: An Interview with GoDaddy Editor-in-Chief Shawn Pfunder

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When you think of GoDaddy, what’s the first thing you think of? Domain names? Website building? Bookkeeping software? Didn’t think so. How about Danica Patrick? Banned Super Bowl ads? Raunchy commercials?

GoDaddy has great name recognition—the problem is, most people don’t associate the name with what they do.

For Shawn Pfunder, Editor-in-Chief of GoDaddy, the way to change perception is through storytelling. A year and a half ago he embarked on a journey to promote what GoDaddy does without talking about GoDaddy products. The result: The Garage, GoDaddy’s media site aimed at helping small businesses and freelancers—its target audience and consumer pool—succeed.

When people hear GoDaddy, they immediately think of your risqué Super Bowl ads or know you for issuing domains. How is The Garage changing that perception?

I had a friend who asked his wife to come over to my house to look up what GoDaddy did in front of her, so he wouldn’t get in trouble. Seriously. He didn’t even know what we did. If there is one thing we are trying to accomplish it is that anyone starting a new business can feel comfortable checking out GoDaddy without worrying about what they might find at our site.

In the beginning, our mission was all about name recognition. As long as they knew the name GoDaddy, even if they weren’t completely sure what we did, that was our measure of success. But it’s great when you have a bigger mission, beyond what our name is. We are growing as an organization and finding those right points to work with our customers as we guide them from domain name to website building to actually growing their business. This is what we’re passionate about as an organization.

We change perception by actually helping small business owners succeed. We love seeing small business owners go up against the big guys, and we want them to know that we’ve got their backs. We also want to build affinity with what we call the Web Pro group, the “creative class.” These are the freelancers of the world who are trying to help the small business owners. They are WordPress developers, social media experts, one-person design agencies, and freelance copywriters.

Our journey in content marketing is one we can share with our customers. Many small business owners don’t know what to put on their websites. That’s why I’ve become passionate around the education—whether face-to-face or via The Garage—convincing them they are capable. They do have something to say about their business.

You’ve held several titles at GoDaddy, from director of professional development to director of communications to director of customer education & outreach. Is editor-in-chief an evolution of these other positions, or newly created to address a specific objective or challenge?

It was an evolution—the role didn’t exist. As the company grew from 200 people to more than 4,500, there became opportunities to spend more time and effort on communication strategy, so I evolved with the company and got to spread my wings a bit more. I was a creative writing major. I knew I wanted to work with language and words and the way that people communicate with each other.

start up businessIt was very simple at the beginning, ten years ago. The goal of GoDaddy was to help customers understand how to get online. Get a domain name, get a website. Point domain name to website. Get email address. Point domain name to email. For early adopters, that sufficed. But we began to realize we had a greater role to play in the lives of those setting up those websites. So I tried to find out who our customers were and what they were struggling with. Because I spent so much time with our customer care organization in my endeavor to truly understand our customer, The Garage now operates within the customer care department. Over time my role evolved to professional development because I had experience teaching. So we took the show on the road. When we wanted to scale that out, GoDaddy decided that a content marketing strategy would be fun (we’re an organization that is passionate about education and resources). We wanted it to be entertaining and informative, and so The Garage was born.

What advice would you give to content marketers who want to make a case for an editor-in-chief at their organization?

You have to clearly express to the powers that be—the leadership team—what type of content an EIC would be responsible for. You have to explain what brand journalism or inbound marketing is. One of my favorite explanations is that great content marketing solves the same problem that your product solves, but with content. You have to be able to go to the marketing director or public relations director, and say, “We sell website building tools and that’s great. But, I’m not going to write about those products and how great they are; I am going to write about building a website regardless of the product.” And prove why this approach will work.

Differentiate your organization’s narrative and your customer’s narrative. At GoDaddy, we are a company in transition. That’s the GoDaddy narrative, not the customer’s. The stuff that is important to us now was not important to us three years ago. We are to a point where we have to tell our customer’s narrative. Our role is secondary. They are the hero. We now become the traveling companion. It’s not about us anymore. It’s about the small business owner, the freelancer, the woman in Small Town, USA making and selling bags. It’s an underdog story. The odds are stacked against that woman. No marketing know-how, no money, no time. What part do we play in an underdog story to make her the hero and be successful?

We become the wizard or fairy godmother. Our role is to give them the resources and the confidence to go for it.

Garage - GoDaddy Screenshot

How do you recruit and manage writers and the editorial process?

Our goal when recruiting writers is to build relationships. We go to conferences and events. We find thought leaders or other people with social influence interested in the same cause—helping the small business owners whose odds are stacked against them. We are a scrappy team of two editors, and we contract out copy editing. We’ll work with anyone once to see if it’s a fit. We have between 30-36 writers that write for us on a regular basis—these are nurtured relationships. All sourcing is face to face. That’s why we go to events. We want byline content and people with influence.

A year and a half ago we were operating by the seat of our pants, not unlike many of the folks we are writing for. We had no editorial calendar—it was like, “What are we going to write about next week?” Now, we are about two months out as to what our content is going to be. To understand the challenges of a small business owner setting up a website, we drink all the Kool-Aid: The Garage is not on enterprise-level platforms—we still use Google Docs for versioning and editing. We use WordPress, as well as Google Calendar and Basecamp to collaborate with our PR team. We are exploring a tie-in to social platforms using technology like Sprinklr.

We live this stuff. We speak their language, so we can be authentic with them.

What makes good brand storytelling?

I think the most important thing is taking advantage of existing narratives that are already out there. It’s like when you hear notes played together as a chord. It makes sense. It sounds nice. But if you add other notes, it sounds off. Sometimes companies get caught up in the neat stuff and end up playing two different notes at the same time instead of sticking to an existing narrative that resonates with people. In brand storytelling, you must pick a narrative and stick with it, be it an underdog story, a transition story, or a quest story.

Let’s take the example I spoke of earlier—the woman selling bags in Small Town, USA. She needs to decide on the type of person she is selling to, their situation, and the story that would resonate with that customer. If it’s an underdog story, her customer is an overworked, underpaid single mom. Knowing this affects the style of the bag, her marketing message, and her brand storytelling—and the narratives all point to how this bag will make her life easier. But it could be an adventure story. In this narrative, the bag will make her life more interesting, and she will help her on her adventure.

Maybe it’s a revenge story: You deserve this bag because your life stinks. Your marketing tactics can change, but you stay with the narrative. Companies not playing a single chord say, “Let’s do this underdog thing in social, let’s do this adventure thing in advertising, and let’s do this other thing over here that is totally different,” and when they don’t come together, not only do they have a fractured workforce, it’s hard to unify people behind a brand message. It also means they don’t really understand their customers.

We’ve learned we can’t be schizophrenic like that, and so we’ve transitioned. No more goofy sex ads for the Super Bowl; we’re trying to shed our past advertising history. We’ve made huge strides to show people who we are. The past advertising doesn’t jibe with the new story of being in the foxhole with the small business owner. We’ve learned how to play a beautiful chord.

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