Episode Show Notes & Transcript
- Personal/Company website: https://www.kimber.kim/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimberh/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/kittyriot
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.
Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud, I’m Corey Quinn. One of the unpleasant-to-some-folk realizations that people sometimes have is, “Wait a minute. Corey, you’ve been doing marketing all this time.” To which the only response I can come up with is a slightly more professional version of, “Well, duh.” And I think that’s because people misunderstand what marketing is and what it means. Here to talk about that, and presumably other things as well, is Kim Harrison, a freelance content marketing strategist. Kim, thank you for agreeing to listen to me.
Kim: [laugh] Thank you for having me, Corey. It’s great connecting with you today.
Corey: You’ve worked at a number of different places over the course of your career, the joys of freelancing. You have periodically been involved in getting folks from the companies at which you’ve been working onto this show, but it’s sort of the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ type of philosophy. You were somewhat surprised when I reached out and said, “Hey, why don’t you come on the show yourself?” Which is always the sign it’s going to be a fascinating episode because some of the most valuable conversations that I find I have here are with people who don’t think at first that they have much to say. And then I love proving them wrong. But you’re in marketing. Presumably, you have many things to say.
Kim: [laugh] It’s funny, you say that I feel like in marketing, we’re always behind the scenes, we are the ones building and crafting the image, and bringing that story forward of, who is this? What is this company? What is this product? What do they do? Why should I care about it? And, “Wow, those are amazing stickers. I want five of them, please.” So, I’m kind of used to being behind the curtain rather than in the foreground talking about what I do.
Corey: People tend to hate marketing, especially developers, when you talk to them, but when you really drill down into it, it’s not marketing that they hate. It is, on some level, a marketing straw man—or straw person, whatever the current term of art is—because they think of the experience through the lens of the worst examples of it. And everyone who has been in the industry for five minutes knows what I’m talking about. Billboards that make no sense where a company spent $20 million on an ad buy and seven bucks over the lunch counter trying to figure out what to say once you have all of that attention, or bad email blasts that are completely irrelevant, untargeted, misspell your name, and are clearly written by a robot. That’s not what marketing is, at least in my mind. What is it to you?
Kim: For me, marketing is how you communicate who you are, what have you built, what is the value that it provides, and how can somebody use it. There’s many ways in which you can share that, that can be all of those activities that you just talked about. And I think it’s easy to sometimes lose the story in all of that and talk about things that may not be as important. I think a lot of times people get excited about what they’ve built, and love to talk about what they’ve built but not why it provides value, and what value it provides. And so, staying focused and really sharing that clear story is—it’s a lot harder than I think people give it credit for.
Corey: A very senior, well-known engineering leader whose name I will not mention because I—I can tell stories, or I can name names, but I don’t believe in doing both—once said, out of what was otherwise like this—like, this person just dispenses wisdom like a vending machine. It’s amazing, but one of the dumbest things I ever heard this person say was, “I never want to get marketing outreach, or show me ads or the rest. If you’ve built something awesome. I will find it on my own.” Which is a terrific recipe to follow if you’d like to starve to death.
Kim: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think there is this… I don’t know, maybe it feels great to imagine that what you’ve built is just so interesting that people would automagically find their way to you and pop up in your DMs and beg to throw money at you for what your product is. But I mean, truly if nobody knows that the thing exists, or even what it does, how could they? I’ve seen this happen quite often in technology where there’s actually an amazing product that maybe they are sharing who they are, they are promoting themselves, but the messaging just doesn’t quite land, and so there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about an amazing product. And so, not sharing, but also not sharing a very accurate, complete picture of who you are can also hurt you.
Corey: When I first started going out independently in the fall of 2016, I did not know whether it was going to work, whether I was going to succeed or have to go do something else, but what I knew very obviously, was that, one way or another, 18 months from now, I was going to want to have an audience to tell about whatever I was doing. Like, the best time to build an audience is five years ago; the second-best time is today, just like planting a tree. So, I started building out the email newsletter. It was something I wish existed, no one else had built it, I figured I’d give it a shot, and it resonated, and that’s where the Last Week in AWS newsletter came from. But it means that I can reach out and talk to 32,000 people in their inbox, more or less whenever I want to, tell them whatever is on my mind, and I do that in the form of my newsletters. And that more than anything else has really led to anything that could be equated to be… me as a brand, so to speak. It took work to get there, but I view it as something that, in hindsight or to someone who had spent 20 minutes thinking about marketing, was obvious, but it took me a while to get there from first principles.
Kim: Yeah, for sure. And, you know, as a person who receives your newsletter, as somebody who has collaborated with you in the past, something I know you do really well is you are very clear about who you are, what you stand for, and you’re consistent. And so, I think… in my opinion, I think you’ve done a great job of earning your audience’s trust, and that’s a huge part of this, right? As a marketer, it’s very easy to say, you know, “My thing is bigger, better, faster,” but if it’s pure conjecture, if it’s not—if there’s no there there, people will find out, you will lose that trust, and it can become difficult. And so, it does take time. And I think—I imagine, and I would ask you—I imagine you were very intentional about what you did. It took time, and you understood that, and it’s like, okay, put your head down and be patient because this will reap rewards in the end.
Corey: That’s the curse, on some level, of having succeeded at something. You look back in hindsight, and everything looks like one thing clearly led to another, and where you are now is sort of inevitable when viewed through that lens. It does not feel like that on the day-to-day. I promise.
Kim: [laugh] What—okay, so as you built your audience, what was the hardest part for you?
Corey: Figuring out who the audience was, to be perfectly honest. It didn’t take long before Datadog came sniffing around, six issues in, asking if they could sponsor. And it was, “You want to give me money to talk about you? Of course, you can give me money. How much money?” And I inadvertently found myself with a sponsor-driven media business.
But that led to a bit of a crisis of faith for me of, who is my audience? Is it the sponsors because that—like, I like money, and I wish to incentivize the behavior of giving it to me, but if I do that, then suddenly, I’m more or less just a mouthpiece or a shill for whoever pays me enough, and that means the audience loses interest. It has to be the community is my target because that’s what I consider myself a part of. I write content that I want to read, that I want to exist, and if sponsors like that, great. If they don’t, then well, okay, it’s not for everyone.
But the audience is around because they either agree with what I say, or they appreciate the authenticity of it. And it goes down to the old saw of would you rather have a pile of money, or would you rather have a relationship with someone? It’s like, “Well, I can turn a relationship into money way more easily than I can the opposite.” So yeah, I would much rather build a working rapport with the people who support me.
Kim: Interesting. Yeah, I agree with you. And I would ask another question about your audience. Who was in that audience? Is this one kind of person? Is this many kinds of people? How do you think about who you’re speaking to? Is it a unified group, or are you considering that there are three or four different kinds of people within this body, and you try to address all of them at different points in a week or month?
Corey: If you try to write for everyone, you wind up writing for no one—
Corey: —and every time I think I have a grasp on who my audience is—like, if you’re listening to this show, for example, I have some baseline assumptions about you in the aggregate, but if you were to reach out—which again, everyone is welcome to do—I would be probably astounded to learn some of the things that you folks are working on, how you view these things, what you like, what you don’t like about the show. On some level, I operate in a vacuum here, just because feedback to a podcast is a rare thing. I suspect it’s because it’s like listening to an AM radio show, and who calls into an AM radio show? Lunatics, obviously. And most people—except on Twitter—don’t self-identify as lunatics, so that’s not something that they want to do.
I encourage you to buck that trend. Reach out. I promise, I drag multi-trillion-dollar companies, not individuals who dare to reach out. Some of my best friendships started off with someone reaching out like, “Hey, I like what you’re doing, and I’d like to learn more about it.” One thing leads to another, and there are no strangers; just friends we haven’t met yet.
Kim: Yeah, yeah. In the world of developer marketing, sometimes that audience can be a range of people. It can be the user versus your buyer. So, when I think about content marketing and I think about telling the story of a platform or a brand to, you know, this range of people, maybe I want to tell that same story, but I’ve got to do it in slightly different ways. Because to your point, if you try to be, you know, one thing for everybody or nothing to everyone, it just, it doesn’t work. And so, how do you talk to that buyer who can actually sign the check versus the individual contributor, the person who’s using the product day-to-day? What part of that story do they want to hear? What makes sense to them? What is engaging to them?
Corey: Part of the challenge I’ve had is that I always assume that the audience was largely comprised of people who vaguely resemble me, namely relatively senior engineering folks who have seen way too many cycles where today’s shiny new shit becomes tomorrow’s legacy garbage that they needed to maintain. But that is not true. In practice, about 60% of the audience is individual contributing engineers, and the remaining 40 is almost entirely some form of management, ranging from team leads to C-level executives of Fortune 50s and everything in between. And every piece that I write is written for someone. And by that I mean, a specific person or my idea of that person as I go.
Now, I don’t mention them by name, but that means that different pieces are targeted at different audiences and presuppose different baseline levels of knowledge. And sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t, but it means that everything that I write should ideally resonate with some constituency.
Kim: Yeah. Yeah. And, again, as a person who has collaborated with you, you have a range of channels that you share content across. And so, I think when I first met you and first started working with you, I very quickly started to understand where that made sense to me, not just as a collaborator, but as somebody who enjoys the people that you bring in to interview, the stories that you tell, the conversations that you start. But I’ve noticed there’s areas that I tend towards, and would listen to or read more. I don’t know if that was intentional, if there are certain areas that you focus on for different segments of your audience.
Corey: Partially. And this is a weird thing for me to say, particularly in this medium. I don’t listen to podcasts myself. I read extremely quickly, I do not have the patience to sit through a conversation. It makes sense when I’m driving somewhere, but I barely do that. My drive home from dropping off my toddler at preschool is all of seven minutes, which is not long enough for basically anything, so it’s not for me.
I don’t watch videos. I don’t listen to podcasts. I read. That’s part of the reason that every episode of this show has a transcript. It’s also part of the reason, though, that I have the podcast entirely, as that I am not the common case in a bunch of things. An awful lot of people do listen to the podcast. I’ve talked to listeners who are surprised to learn I have an email newsletter, but I view it as the newsletter came first and then the podcast.
Occasionally, I find people who only know me through my YouTube videos—which are sporadic because it’s a lot of effort to get one of those up—and no one sees all of it. This did lead to a bit of a weird crisis for me early on of, okay, so I have a Twitter account, I have a LinkedIn page, I have the Screaming in the Cloud podcast, I have the AWS Morning Brief podcast, I have the Last Week in AWS newsletter, and I have the Last Week in AWS blog, and of course, I have my day job at The Duckbill Group where we fix AWS bills. That is seven or eight different URLs. Where do I tell people to go?
Corey: It’s a very hard problem.
Kim: Do you do that? How do you do that? Or do you allow people to find their own way?
Corey: Whether you allow people to or not, they’re going to do it on their own. My default of where do I send people is lastweekinaws.com. That talks a little bit about who I am, it has a prominently featured ‘newsletter signup’ widget there, give me your email address and you will get an opt-in confirmation.
Click that, and you will start receiving my newsletters, which talk in the bottom about other things that I do, and let people find their way to different places, like slack.lastweekinaws.com, for the community Slack channel, which is sort of the writer's room for some of these conversations. There’s a bunch of different ways, but not everyone wants to engage in the same way, and that’s okay.
Kim: Yeah. That is something that’s come up a lot for me, managing content programs. You said it yourself: not everybody learns the same way, and so thinking about different ways to share a story, I would say right now a lot of people are really burnt out on webinars. I think the past couple of years of being at home and staring at screens has done a number on us all. But still, there are ways in which some people do prefer video.
Maybe shorter format is better, or audio, or reading. And it’s great that you put the transcript in because I know I’m a person who really values that. Sometimes I can’t listen to an episode, and it’s great that I can, you know, kind of skim through and read through parts of the interview that I knew that were going to come up. And so, being attuned to the fact that there’s many different ways to tell a story, and having fun with that—dare I say [laugh]—is, I think, a huge part of it.
Corey: You have to have fun, otherwise, you aren’t going to be able to stay the course, at least that’s my philosophy. I am very fortunate in that what I do is technically marketing for the consultancy because an overwhelming percentage of our leads come from, people have heard of me and that leads them here. It’s never clear to me where was the original point of contact, how did you get into the orbit, who recommended you, but that is functionally what it is. I’m fortunate in that the media side of our business with sponsorships turns this into a business unit that generates a profit. But it is functionally still a marketing department. That is not mandatory.
Kim: Yeah. So, an interesting thing that I’ve seen happen within developer marketing is when thinking about this audience and how you market your consultancy, you spoke about how many people are individual contributors in your audience. I—did you say it was like 60%?
Corey: 60% engineers, although it’s also how people view what their role is changes rather drastically. And I’ve never found that any of these things that are categorizations of roles or company styles or what have ever fit me well. I don’t fit anywhere I go. And that’s okay. I assume that there’s a lot of slop and wiggle room in there, but it gives me a direction to go in. I would have guessed before that, that 95% of the audience was engineering hands-on coding-type practitioners.
Corey: Clearly I’m wrong.
Kim: Well, in understanding that, I mean, what you’ve got is an understanding of who can take what action. I mean, yeah, at some point, you do want sponsors, right? If you are marketing for your consultancy, you probably do want to reach those executives that would be the person that would actually bring you in—your team in—to evaluate and give them advice and feedback, and that’s not always the individual contributor. However, having a presence within the community is equally beneficial to your brand. And so, for me, as a person who has worked in-house at teams, often the demand gen team is telling me, “Oh, we just want to do things that will get leads in the door,” you know, leads that will actually turn into customers, but addressing your community and having a presence there, and showing up there, and participating is just as important. You know, that’s brand awareness.
And so, there will sometimes be activities that you do that really are just about participating, and showcasing yourself and your team as the experts that you are. And sometimes it will be a direct, “We have this feature. We have this product. Here's how you can do a trial and sign up to become a customer.”
Corey: That is, I think, something that gets missed a lot. With so much marketing in this industry slash sector slash whatever it is that you want to call it is, in larger companies in particular, you wind up with people who are writing some of the messaging around this that are too far removed from the actual customer journey. You see it very early startup phase, too, where… I see it on the show, sometimes, with very early stage technical co-founders. They want to talk about the internals of this very hard thing that they built and how it works. Great. That’s not your customer. That is not something that anything other than your competitor or your prospective hires are really going to be that interested in.
Corey: Talk about the painful problem that you solve.
Kim: Absolutely. Show—oh, my gosh, I just had a conversation with a colleague about this very thing. Show the return on investment, show the value you provide, and do it explicitly, do it very clearly. Do not assume that people understand. Give numbers if you can, metrics. Just really put it out there because I think in this moment right now, in this economy… budgets are tight. And so, if you can’t clearly show what value you provide and why you should be there, you know, why somebody should bring your product into their stack, you’re just not going to make it through, or you’re not going to last long.
Corey: Yeah. It’s hard. None of this stuff is easy, and marketing is way, way, way harder than it looks. Done well, it looks like you barely did anything at all. Do it badly, and suddenly the entire internet lines up to dunk on you.
Kim: Oh, that is so true. Gosh, and that’s really difficult for marketers because, as you said, we’ve done well, it just feels natural. Like, of course, this would happen. But there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to execute and make it look seamless and flawless. That is something that I like to advise onto my fellow marketers and content marketers is, don’t forget to remind your team what you’ve been up to and what it took to get there so that they appreciate the value of what you’re providing, and will continue to do those things that help keep that momentum moving forward. As you said, how many years did you work on getting that audience together where it is today? This was not six months. This was a real time and effort for you to build this following, and to earn this trust, and to have the brand that you have now.
Corey: The funny part is, I didn’t do most of it. My entire time doing this, I have been unable to materially alter the trajectory of growth. It is all word of mouth, people in the audience telling other people about whatever it is that I do. I have run a number of experiments across almost every medium that was within my reach, and none of them seem to materially tip anything other than being authentic and being there for the audience, and then just letting the rest sort of handle itself.
Kim: Mm-hm. I like that you said that, that you’re running experiments. You’re in conversation with your audience. You’re really thinking about how your message lands, and what they like or don’t like, or what resonates.
Corey: It’s a hard problem. How do you view marketing? You’ve been working in this space a lot. You have specifically in your title of Freelance Content Marketing Strategist a derivation of the word strategy, which has always been something that I’m not great at. It’s longer-term, big picture thinking. I’m much better tactically in the weeds. What do you see as the broad sweep of how it’s being done in this industry?
Kim: I can speak to myself. I studied sociology. I really love thinking about what influences people, I love stories and storytelling, and so my focus is strategic communications. And that’s a fancy way of just saying, you know, taking these complex ideas, these products that people built, and turning them into compelling narratives so we can showcase the value they provide. And I think it’s especially interesting and challenging doing that in technology when a lot of times you’re bringing forth a completely new products that never existed before, so how do you speak to that? How do you help people understand that a thing they’ve never been able to do before they can now do, and it could be a part of their life, and it could be part of their workflow, and change how they think about their own practices?
And so, for me, it really is storytelling. I’m a sucker for, you know, a good podcast and a good book on the side. That’s how I think about it, but I also do appreciate that at the end of the day, this is marketing, we are, you know, a business, and so I also enjoy being a part of a team. So, I can help build the beautiful story and think about how to share that effectively, get that in front of the right people at the right time so that they can have an understanding of who you are, what you are, what you offer, be a part of the larger conversation that is in place that you can become a trusted brand, and doing that within you know, a larger marketing team, those people that make sure that, you know, ultimately we’re getting those people into the marketing and sales funnel, and the appropriate activities that happen next. So I’m, I tend to hang out in my storytelling realm of marketing, but fully well appreciate and know that this is—to your point, this is—marketing is a large effort, and there are a lot of people that contribute to the different moving parts. And it’s like a dance making it all come together.
Corey: Something I found as well is a complete lack of awareness outside of marketing itself, in the differences between all of the marketing sub-functions. It’s the engineering equivalent of lumping mobile developers, and front-end developers, and SREs, and back-end developers, and DBAs, and so on, and so on, and so on, all into the same bucket. Like, “You’re just an engineer. Can you fix my printer?” Style stuff.
Corey: Marketing is a vast landscape, and you start subdividing it further and further, and there’s a reason that it’s an entire organization within companies and not a person.
Kim: Yeah, for sure. And gosh, some of the people that I’ve worked with at earlier-stage companies that are capable of covering more than one area, really creative, flexible, nimble fingers, you know, they are quick on their feet and can see that, you know, larger vision and help contribute to that. So, you know, building out messaging is one thing. Thinking about how to get that in front of your audience is another. How to guide your customers through that journey, like, what does the learning process look like, and how do you make sure that you continue to drive those conversations so that somebody can go through that learning process? How are you showing up in the real world at an event? How is your team talking to [media 00:25:23] to analysts?
I mean, the list can go on, as you begin to think about the more and more people in the world that you want to touch and interact with, who should know who you are? They should understand who you are, what is your brand, what product have you built, and why it’s important to the conversation right now. And so yeah, you start to bring in more team members who specialize in that, who can help you make sure that you’re doing that particular function really well. And it’s fascinating being inside of a small startup and then watching that operation scale into something larger, and really watching that effort take off. It’s pretty cool to see.
Corey: Something I’m curious about that you have been rather vocal about is that marketing extends after the product is sold. What do you mean by that?
Kim: The way that I think about that is, in my opinion, customers should be a part of the customer journey. So, the customer journey is from point zero where this person or team or organization was not aware of who you are to, “Oh, apparently, there’s a solution that fits my need,” to, “Oh, and I want this particular brand, I want this tool in my stack, I want to work with these people,” to, they’ve signed on to become a customer. Even after that point, in my opinion, marketing efforts should continue, in that perhaps that customer came in to solve one or two use cases, but your platform or product can help with many others. And so, making sure that customer is onboarded appropriately so that they’re getting the full value out of the product that they should, and they’re keeping them educated so that they’re aware of other parts of the product that maybe they didn’t learn about in their discovery journey, as well as, you know, as your product evolves, new features that are offered.
So, as I think about marketing, the existing customer base is also a group of people that I’m always thoughtful about. So, let’s say that, you know, if I were to plan out a product release announcement, that is a segment that I would absolutely want to make sure that we include in our strategy. And where are the touchpoints for that? How can we make sure that segment is also understanding and aware of this new announcement, and how it can affect them? And what resources would I provide to them so that they know about it, they will use it well, perhaps become a power user, and you know, very selfishly… sorry to say this out loud, but maybe they’ll become a power user and want to come on a webinar with me, or be featured in an article about how much they enjoy using it. But again, just because you’ve got a customer in-house doesn’t mean that journey is finished. There’s, as your product continues to grow and evolve, your relationship with that customer should also continue.
Corey: There are two schools of thought on taking money from customers. One of them is you get them as much money as you possibly can upfront, once. And there’s also the idea of, all right, I want to have an ongoing relationship in which they broaden their relationship in the fullness of time and grow as a customer. Some of our best sources of business have come from folks who either—not just—don’t tell their peers at other companies about us, but come back to us when their situation changes, or wind up doing business with us as they land somewhere else in the ecosystem. Like there is, “Yeah, we like working with you,” is all well and good, “And I want to do it again; here’s money,” is a different level of endorsement.
Kim: Absolutely. And some of the companies that I’ve worked with, often customers will come in because they have some extreme point of pain, and they want to solve that one thing. They do not have time to think about the dozen different interesting use cases. “I have this thing that I need to solve, and I need to get it done now.” And so, work with them on that, and later on, that opportunity to expand their understanding of what else is possible.
And even coach and provide guidance on, especially with some newer products where people are learning new development techniques. “Did you know that this is also possible? Have you considered this?” And so, thinking about that, like, not everybody is just twiddling their thumbs, “Oh, I have free time. I’d love to learn a thing.” They’re usually coming to you because they have a very painful thing that they need solved, hence why it’s great to talk about the value you provide: “I can help you solve that, I can help this pain go away, and help your business do what it needs to get done.” And so, when they’re our customer, that next moment is that great, great opportunity to talk about other use cases, other parts of the platform.
Corey: I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. If people want to learn more, where’s the best place for them to find you?
Kim: Right now, I’m mostly active on LinkedIn, and I believe—would you be able to provide a link to that in the show notes?
Corey: Oh, we absolutely will put that in the show notes, whether you want us to or not. That’s the beautiful part of having show notes for folks.
Kim: Awesome. Yeah, I think that’s the best place to find me today. Unfortunately, I don’t use Twitter as much as I used to. So, I do exist there, but I’m not—
Corey: That’s such a smart decision.
Kim: I know, I feel terrible about it. And I got to say, I miss the community that it was.
Corey: Yeah, that’s the reason I focus on the newsletter as the primary means of audience building. Because email is older than I am. It will exist after I’m gone—and that’s fine—but it means that it’s not going to be purchased by some billionaire man-child who’s going to ruin the thing. I don’t need to worry about algorithmic nonsense in the same way. I can reach out and talk to people with something to say. I’m in that very rarefied space where when a company blocks an email that I send out, they get yelled at by their internal constituencies of, “Hey, where’d that email go? I was looking for it.”
Kim: That’s awesome.
Corey: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it.
Kim: Thank you, Corey. It’s a pleasure talking with you.
Corey: It really is because I—like you—am delightful. Kim Harrison, freelance content marketing strategist, has been my guest today. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, along with an angry and insulting comment. Don’t worry about telling me about it. If your comment was any good, I’m sure I’ll find it on my own.
Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business, and we get to the point. Visit duckbillgroup.com to get started.