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Focusing on the Humanity in Marketing with Natalie Williams
Episode Summary
This week Duckbill Group’s very own Director of “Snarketing”, Natalie Williams, joins Corey for a conversation on what exacly marketing is—versus Corey’s so called “ridiculous nonsense.” Natalie’s recent hire at the DBG goes to show that marketing is much more than shitposting and witticisms, thankfully she is now on the team to show us how. Natalie offers her perspectives on how to make marketing feel more authentic to an audience and how to push the narrative around marketing into a more human space. She discusses coming on board with DBG and how working with them has helped her to foster the above. Natalie gives insightful advice on how you don’t need to obsess over tracking people across the internet to market your product to them, tune in for the “must know!”
Episode Show Notes and Transcript
About Natalie
Natalie is the Director of Marketing at the Duckbill Group. Her background includes marketing roles in the localization and SaaS industries. In her free time, she teaches yoga, creates beadwork, and tries to keep up with her toddler. All of which impacts how she approaches growth and storytelling. Natalie resides in Missoula, Montana with her husband, daughter, and two wild corgis


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Transcript
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: This episode is sponsored in part my Cribl Logstream. Cirbl Logstream is an observability pipeline that lets you collect, reduce, transform, and route machine data from anywhere, to anywhere. Simple right? As a nice bonus it not only helps you improve visibility into what the hell is going on, but also helps you save money almost by accident. Kind of like not putting a whole bunch of vowels and other letters that would be easier to spell in a company name. To learn more visit: cribl.io


Corey: And now for something completely different!


Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. Periodically, it seems that I’ve misunderstood the fundamental concept of marketing and interpret it through a lens of aggressively shitposting on Twitter and other places. I have since been informed that what I do is less about marketing and more about creative stunts in public, which are apparently close, but not exactly the same thing. This led to a natural evolution of the Duckbill Group’s understanding of what marketing is, and effectively culminated in our hiring, earlier this year, of Natalie Williams, who joins me today to tell me what a Director of Snarketing might actually do that differs from my ridiculous nonsense. Natalie, thanks for joining me.


Natalie: Thanks, Corey. It’s great to be here.


Corey: At a high level, something that is one of the most misunderstood concepts across the board is what marketing even is. So, before we proceed down the barrel of inevitable, ridiculous commentary I’m about to levy at you, what is marketing?


Natalie: Marketing is a way to attract the audience that you’re looking for and to frame your services, your content, whatever you’re selling, to your audience in a way that makes sense to them. And I think that another piece of it that’s important is, everybody has a pain point; you really have to be able to find the emotion behind what you’re selling in order to attract your audiences.


Corey: So, fundamentally an authenticity story more than anything else.


Natalie: Yeah, it’s finding that—yeah, the authenticity in what you’re selling, and meeting your audience with their pain point.


Corey: So, many times, it seems like the next follow-up question for most companies would be, “Great. So, what emotion is it exactly where people reflexively reach for their wallet and hand all the cash in it to our company?” It tries to be combined with aspects of sales; it tries to, on some level, wind up doing the entire job, in some cases of not even having a decent offering in the first place, but if the marketing story is strong enough, it’ll sell. Is that overly cynical?


Natalie: I don’t think so. I think that marketing, it’s challenging in this time, we have so many options, so many choices there, our attention spans are so short. And so I don’t think it’s cynical because there’s a lot of noise to cut through, and I think what’s important is to think of your audience as—or what you’re selling to your audience in a way that, how can I make their lives easier? I think that’s what’s going to, like you said, get people to pull the money out of their pocket and give it to you. What can you do to make their life easier and how can you show them that what you’re selling is going to make their life easier?


Corey: There’s a recurring trope that engineers, developers, whatever we’re calling ourselves this week—anything except DevOps is fine—that we don’t like marketing because no one likes being marketed to et cetera, et cetera. And I feel like that, in many cases, is because most marketing is terrible at its job. It comes across as smarmy: if I were to talk to people in person the way that marketing talks to people, I’d get punched in the mouth a lot. And I feel that is not an accurate view. It’s almost like looking at salespeople through the lens of the worst experience you’ve ever had buying a used car. And I feel like by judging an entire field by some of its worst examples, people are prone to prematurely dismiss a very challenging field.


Natalie: Absolutely, I think that it’s very easy to pick out that dishonesty, like you said, the slimy marketing sales tactic that just feels, it feels like it’s too much. I think people are very, very good at being able to see that. It’s like the spam that you get in your email or your LinkedIn direct messages. It’s just this constant barrage of tactics to try and tell you what you need without actually getting to know what you need, what you’re looking for, and how it can help you. So, I think there are a lot of those tactics that really give marketing and sales I think, too, a bad name.


An easy way to cut through that is just to be human about what you’re doing. Think of your audience as human beings and not just a target or a persona that isn’t a real person. And so I think, like you said earlier, the authenticity piece of it; it’s not difficult to… well, I don’t think it’s difficult to be human. I think it’s easier to take the emotion out of it and just try and put a sales pitch or a marketing pitch together that hits on all the points of the services you provide, and, you know, “I’m so great, and this is what we do,” without being able to talk to the people that you're marketing to as the humans that they are.


Corey: It feels almost like I became a marketing person of sorts without ever intending to. When I started this company as an independent consultant, I was finding my initial source of clients to my personal network, as most small independent consultants do. And one thing that almost came by accidentally was that newsletter, Last Week in AWS, that took on an additional series of—it gets a different level of meaning to the ecosystem, and it turned out, sort of, growing like a weed. At which point, great, now it turns out that is marketing, although I didn’t realize it at the time. And at least from my perspective, I didn’t consider it marketing, which meant that I built it the way that I would want to receive things because, as it turned out, I was a relatively close match to the people that I was going to be emailing every week.


And as a result, I didn’t do a bunch of scammy nonsense that would alienate people; there’s never any tracking put into it in the form of, “Oh, if you click on a link, that implies that you’re going to be interested in what I’m selling. We’re now going to fire off drip campaign number 17.” We stepped away from a lot of that because I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and it always rings hollow and strange. When we were interviewing to fill your role, we made it a point very early in the interview process to make clear that, yeah, this is not going to be one of those scenarios where you walk in and effectively get to instrument everything with all of the latest marketing technology and the rest. Okay, yeah, we have a list now of almost 27,000 subscribers.


We don’t mine that for leads. Now, should we? Maybe in an idealized sense, but it turns out that the reputational management of people trusting us not to do skeezy things far outweighs any temporary benefit we get from doing things like that. Now, that wound up driving an awful lot of people away, which is why we mentioned this in the early stages; it didn’t drive you away. You decided to say yes; you actually showed up on Monday for your first day, and then continued to show up every day since. What was it about, I guess, that statement that would drive some folks that we spoke to away, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker for you?


Natalie: I remember clearly that part of the interview, and I remember it feeling like a bit of a breath of fresh air. I think that when you get into all the tech, all the marketing tools, there is that trade-off of losing a little bit of that human touch with your audience where all of a sudden they’re not humans, they turn into data points, they turn into the demographics about themselves. And all of that stuff is important and has a role, but when you lose that personal connection of the storytelling piece of it and you’re just driven on a lot of these metrics, which I think it’s very easy to almost paralyze yourself by looking at too many metrics and getting all this set of data versus just what are the most important pieces? What does our audience need? And you know that by knowing your audience, and so I think that’s why it was such a good point when you talked about, you know, you didn’t really know you were doing marketing, but you were having success with it because you were doing it in a way that was genuine to your mission and to your audience, and you weren’t doing it with the intent of how do I get X number of subscribers?


You were doing it in a way of how do I provide something that I think is beneficial to people like me. You had that pain point and you filled that pain point, and it resonated with your audience. And so, yeah, in the interview, when we were talking about those things, I just—it excited me to be able to have that connection with my audience and not be so focused on the data and the intel. Which, I’m not the kind of person that wants everybody to know every single thing that I do online anyway. I think that some of those tactics are, quite frankly, a little bit terrifying. So, knowing that wasn’t a push of knowing every single thing that you could possibly know about all of your audience was something that was very refreshing to me.


Corey: One of the things I built fairly early on was my own custom click-tracker because sponsors demand this, on some level, but I also found it useful for my own purposes in the aggregate. Specifically what I built is something that shows me the number of people that click on a given link in a particular issue, but it doesn’t tell me who any of those people were. It dedupes it, so it isn’t one person clicking a link 500 times winds up inflating the count, but that was as far as I went. And I use that data to periodically put together a best-of issue when there’s a slow week, when Amazon, I don’t know, winds up in a super-contentious company-wide argument about what is the absolute worst name to give something, and then there’s not a whole lot of releases that week.


Great. I can go back and highlight things that people found interesting and useful in the past because no one reads everything, and even if I’ve talked about it before, it’s new to someone. And that took a surprising amount of work because every time I would talk about what I was building with folks in the space it was, “But yeah, then don’t you want to track the people who click it as they move through your website, and as they wind up moving across the internet so you can start putting them into cohorts and the rest?” And no. First, I don’t have the patience to wind up doing that sort of tracking; I don’t speak Excel that fluently.


And also, it’s somewhat marginal as far as the ability to improve any meaningful business outcome. We don’t tend to manage by a whole bunch of iron metrics here around things like that. When I wind up doing ridiculous stunts, like a music video making fun of some Amazon exec or whatnot, I do it because I think it’d be funny and it will probably resonate, but there’s no business case behind it. It’s, “Ehh, why not? Worst case, we learn something.” And I get the sense, talking to folks, that is increasingly rare.


Natalie: I think it is, too, but I like the approach. I think the click-through rate, what’s important there is the success of your content. If people are clicking through it, your content is resonating. And I think that people really underestimate people’s ability to decide if they want to move forward and reach out to become a customer or go further down in the funnel. I think people are pretty smart.


Just because they clicked on a link, you don’t need to berate them with 15 more touchpoints to say, “Hey, are you ready to make this purchase? Are you ready for this?” I mean, all of these things, people can get there, and if you frame your funnel in a way that makes it easy for them to get to point A and point B, really shouldn’t have to have that much involvement in their journey. And some marketing people might not agree with me on that, but I think as long as you make it easy for them to get what they need, to find what they need, to learn as much as they can about your service before they purchase, you don’t need to have all of those touchpoints, you don’t need to know that they clicked on all of these things. And I think, too, as a user, if I know that if I click on a link, I’m going to get a barrage of 
emails selling a service if I’m not ready for it, it’s going to make me hesitate to click a link.


And so I think that that approach is just a more user-friendly approach, and it really just makes the experience of the user that much more smooth knowing that there’s kind of a mutual trust there. I’ll let you know when I’m ready and you can help me get there, but don’t try and do it for me.


Corey: The piece that I’ve always found surprising was that everyone talks in the ad tech space as if without this data, our businesses will wither and die on the vine. But the ability to track people as they move across the internet and go through their lives is a relatively recent horrible invention. Companies existed and sold goods and services phenomenally well for millennia before the advent of any of these things. And does it improve around margins? Of course, it does; I’m not saying the industry is built on fraud. I’m just saying that it winds up making a trade-off that I’m not comfortable making myself, and therefore I’m unwilling to ask my audience members to make similar trade-offs themselves.


Natalie: Yeah. And it’s like, at what point do you get to be too much, where you know too much about your audience? And like I said before, people are smart; we don’t need constant advertisements across all of these platforms to remind us of something we thought about or we looked about. I mean, it’s good; there’s certainly a time and a place to have a reminder come through or be retargeted in a way that isn’t creepy, but I mean, it’s those things where I think about something and all of a sudden I see an ad, those still freak me out, so I think that people don’t need this over-advertised approach to make a purchase. Like you said, people have been purchasing things for a very long time, and I think that people are capable, people are smart, people know where they’re at in the journey better than, really, anybody else.


And so there is a time and a place for it, but there is also—it seems to be moving in too much information, too much interruption in people’s lives and it is certainly—yeah, if I don’t want it, I’m certainly not going to—or if I don’t want to be targeted that way, I’m not going to do it to anybody else either.


Corey: Turns out there’s an entire seedy underbelly to the web, and as soon as you have a website that has a little bit of traction, you wind up getting exposed to countless piles of spam about it. There’s the standard SEO stuff of how to optimize your results in search engines. I have this ancient approach that seems to serve me pretty well, which is, I write fun, engaging original content and then put it on the website, and then it sort of takes over from there. I don’t write with an eye towards, “Well, use the following phrase more than 20 times but less than 50 in the course of the next month.” It’s, “no.”


But then you wind up with folks guaranteeing, “Oh, use us for search engine optimization,” which I always think is the weirdest pitch because let’s face it, if I want someone to do my search engine optimization work, wouldn’t you think I would just type the word search engine optimization into Google and then click the number one result? Seems like they have the proof and no one else would. But there’s also this sea of folks asking if they can pay me to put a guest blog post on the website. And the answer is no. When we have guest blog posts—usually on Fridays—that comes from people that we pay to write them.


It’s not some random thing that’s only tangentially tied to what we do but includes a suspicious number of links to some other third-party website. It doesn’t make sense for me to just start devaluing the experience of the reader like that. I try to be as respectful of people’s time as I can be when it comes to content creation.


Natalie: Right. And I think I’m becoming a broken record on this point, but I will say it again: people are smart; they can see through those tactics. And yes, there are certain things that will help your content rank better: where you put your keywords, having a title and a meta description, and all those things are important, but at the end of the day you need to write for your audience and not for the search engines. They’re getting smarter, right, the search engines are getting smarter, but they are still not the humans and so if you overstuff your keywords, if you put in a bunch of links, it’s going to look like you’re doing it solely for the search engine and people will see that, they’ll recognize that, and they won’t value your content because they will feel like they’re being sold to. And they won’t get what they need out of it; they won’t see it as a thought leader that’s genuinely producing content in order to help inform them and it’ll be devalued.


Corey: This episode is sponsored by our friends at Oracle HeatWave is a new high-performance accelerator for the Oracle MySQL Database Service. Although I insist on calling it “my squirrel.” While MySQL has long been the worlds most popular open source database, shifting from transacting to analytics required way too much overhead and, ya know, work. With HeatWave you can run your OLTP and OLAP, don’t ask me to ever say those acronyms again, workloads directly from your MySQL database and eliminate the time consuming data movement and integration work, while also performing 1100X faster than Amazon Aurora, and 2.5X faster than Amazon Redshift, at a third of the cost. My thanks again to Oracle Cloud for sponsoring this ridiculous nonsense.


Corey: It’s disturbing in some ways to see the number of companies losing their collective minds [unintelligible 00:16:29] there’s a Google algorithm change, and suddenly, as a web browser myself—as in the person, not the software—when suddenly I’m no longer seeing a bunch of eHow links or whatnot dominating search results, or the godawful Experts Exchange site for a while where they would pretend to have a paywall, but scroll down far enough and they have the full text of the thing to keep within Google’s rules. And Google got better at these things with time. If a single change to a search engine algorithm can destroy your business, I wonder how sustainable business is in the long term.


Natalie: Right. And I think that, like you said, it’s—I mean, it’s a game, right, and the game constantly changes, it constantly involves. The search engines are getting smarter, but if you just try and constantly keep up with the rules of the game in that way, you’re going to lose because it’s just going to be a constant change. I think the most important thing is to just show up consistently and write good content. I mean, when SEO became a thing, if you put in five million keywords, you’re going to rank well, but it’s not any value.


And so if your intent is just to always produce good content, be aware of the rules of the game and apply them when it makes sense to, and figure out what the ones that are most important to you are, you will do well, but it’s just that consistently showing up, producing good content, and having your readers in mind is what’s going to help you go forward. If you’re just focused on the algorithms and making it fit in that, it’s going to look that way and you’re never going to be able to catch up.


Corey: For me, the big indicator that I’m doing something right is periodically, because it is a collection of links, I’ll link to some site that has some sort of attack malware on it, usually from an ad network that was compromised somewhere—surprise; it’s just a thing that happens—and as a result, some companies will start blocking it or will start putting it in the spam folder. And when you wind up with larger outside spam folks reaching out to you because of the number of complaints they’re getting from their customers about it being blocked, that’s my indication that we’re probably doing something kind of right, as opposed to it being incumbent on us to track that down from our side.


Natalie: Yeah. And like I said before, I mean, the users know what—they also know the rules of the game, too, right? Or they’re at least aware of it, and so they can recognize that. But like I said, it’s just having the goal of informing your audience and producing good content that you know is going to resonate with your audience. It’s just a smart way to go. I mean, having the user in mind always, and not it as a way to see them as just a dollar sign or a number, but knowing how can I really help them learn about this topic or share what I know, is going to always benefit.


Corey: The piece that I think resonates in some respects as well is what I’ll periodically do even on this podcast, where it’s, I will ask people about what they’re good at and listen to the answer, and then ask follow-up questions. It’s not exactly a pioneering technique; it’s just storytelling. And for whatever reason, it seems that marketing—the way I view it—is always tied back to storytelling. It’s about understanding who your audience is for anything that you’re working on, understand what action you want them to take. Maybe it is to fix their S3 bucket permissions.


Maybe it’s to reach out and ask me about AWS bill consulting. Whatever it is, understand who the audience is and what the expected outcome is, and then just tell a story around that. It’s not that compellingly difficult, but for some reason, it seems like it’s the most novel thing in the world to some companies. I always equated marketing with storytelling. Is that rare? Am I wrong on something?


Natalie: Not in my book. I mean, that’s how I think about it as well, too. I think that some companies get so focused on talking about themselves, and this is what we do and this is why we’re the best. But they miss that storytelling piece of it of why it matters to the audience. You can talk about your company until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t connect it to your audience, they aren’t going to know how it helps them.


And maybe you have a service that they don’t know that they need yet, but by producing content and telling them a story of how what you’re doing is going to make their lives easier, you’re going to resonate with them. I mean, that’s why people look for services: because they have a problem. And maybe it’s not identified, or they don’t know how to fix it, but if you frame your content in a way that takes them through a journey of, this is where you’re at, this is how we can help you and then—or this can ask, how can you make your life better, and this is where you’ll be at the end of it, it’s going to resonate with your audience. And so yeah, I think that if you’re focused on shouting the benefits without connecting it to the emotion of why it matters, it’s going to come across that way. And so I think, yeah, storytelling, having the audience, their perspective, who they are, what they need, and telling the story in a way that is a good experience for them, is always the way to go.


Corey: For whatever reason, it seems like the folks that are the worst offenders of that tend to be the big cloud companies themselves, where, “Okay, here’s a service we built.” “Great, how am I going to use that to solve an actual business problem that I have?” “Next up, we have a guest speaker from Netflix to tell us what they did with it.” “Cool. Maybe I have problems that don’t look like Netflix-scale problems, maybe I’m just trying to contextualize this thing that you’ve released with the 200 other things that you have, and figure out what component that will replace, or extend, or what feature it will grant inside of my existing environment. Or even if it’s something new, it’ll give me ideas for different directions to move things in.”


And they never do that. They talk about features, they talk about capabilities, they talk about how innovative they are, and they just completely abdicate the entire role of telling a compelling story around this. I mean, Jeff Barr’s blog posts are a terrific counterexample to this. I think it’s the only time that AWS actually tells a story of, “I’m going to set out to build this thing to do this. Here’s how I do it, and here’s how it works.”


And it’s incredibly engaging, it has a distinct voice—because Jeff has a personality and can express that personality—and I get the sense, at times, he’s the only person at Amazon allowed to do that. Everyone else just winds up falling into these same somewhat tired tropes of, “Here’s a bunch of feature announcements.” The release feed doesn’t even let you include images, so wind up—people trying to describe the layout of a new console page to you. And it just doesn’t resonate or make sense. I mean, half the value of building the audience that I have is, whenever something comes out, people’s immediate question for me is—they’ll tell me that it’s out by, “Can you explain this to me because Amazon, once again, has failed to do so.” I didn’t show up here, due to the express purpose of being the de facto head of AWS marketing; it just kind of happened because functionally, it feels like it’s a pretty empty seat.


Natalie: Yeah, and I think that those are all really important points because they put out all this information about their services and their features, but they don’t complete the cycle to say how it affects the user, how they would use it, and so it’s like you’re not finishing the race there. And so you also have to acknowledge that you might target a similar set of companies, so maybe you’re targeting a bunch of companies in one space, but everybody’s pain points are going to be a little bit different, so if your audience can’t relate to how you’re implement—or how you’re telling them to implement a service or a feature, they’re not going to feel that. And so you have to tell your audience how what you’re doing is going to improve their life, but also doing it in a way that is going to apply to them. And so that’s part of understanding your audience and understanding the different pain points associated with each of your target audiences. And so that’s why it’s important to have some of those intel on your audience, but finding out a way to resonate it across all of the companies that you target and make it relatable is what’s going to be success.


Corey: It’s always strange to me that when we talk to sponsors who are—they want to wind up telling people about, great, I try to have conversations with them; imagine that? And understand, okay, how does this differentiate from, for example, an AWS service that does something very similar? And the answer is often, “Wait, that’s a real thing that exists?” If people in that market aren’t aware that there’s an AWS release that does the thing that they do, what hope do customers have? None.


Natalie: Right.


Corey: It feels like it’s not just a matter of will AWS launch a service that competes with you it’s, will they do an even passable job of telling a story around it so people know it exists? They tend to do everything very frugally, which means that they can release things that are competing with, in some cases, many billion-dollar companies out there. And great, okay, so you’ve got a 60-person team or whatnot, trying to compete with a company with a $30 billion valuation. Yeah, my money is on not Amazon for stuff like this, until they start trying to do things that reek of anti-competitive acts. I’m not super worried about Amazon as a competitor for a lot of these upstart services.


Natalie: Yeah. And I think another thing, too, that you touched on was having conversations with your audience and really understanding how they are perceiving what you’re selling. I think if you get caught up in, “This is what we’re going to push; this is how we’re going to say it; this is what we’re going to do,” but you don’t have that touchpoint of how are they perceiving it, are they aware of this? There’s a big missed opportunity there. Because if something’s not working, there’s a disconnect; there’s a miscommunication. So, being able to have some kind of engagement with your audience, where you’re surveying them, or whatever, to see how their perception of what you’re selling is vital in shaping your marketing story.


Corey: You really would think that this wouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging as it has clearly become.


Natalie: Mm-hm.


Corey: But here we are.


Natalie: And I think people, they try and make things more complicated, I think, from time to time. I think that just going back to the reason why you’re selling things: the reason why you’re providing a service is to help your audience fill a need, hit a pain point. And so I think that it can certainly get over complicated quickly and you can forget, really, the mission behind a lot of what you’re doing.


Corey: I wish more people shared your viewpoint. I guess, so far, all we can do is set a good example and hope the rest of the industry follows us wherever we’re going.


Natalie: Right. And I mean, you know, like I said, there’s always kind of moving in that direction of a lot of tech, a lot of these big things that are supposed to make your life easier in marketing, but I think it’ll always come back to the audience, it’ll always come back to the storytelling, it’ll always come back to the user experience. And so, it’s just riding the waves, and seeing what’s going to happen, and how things evolve. Because marketing and everything, it’s just a constant keeping track of the trends and the evolution of it.


Corey: And it never seems to hold still. If people want to hear more about what you’re up to and how you think about these things, where can they find you?


Natalie: You can find me on Twitter at @natveiswilliams.


Corey: I will, of course, put a link to that in the [show notes 00:27:31]. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.


Natalie: Yep, Thanks, Corey. This was wonderful. I really enjoyed it.


Corey: Natalie Williams, Director of Snarketing here at the Duckbill Group. 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 insulting comment telling me exactly which features on the checklist this episode should have had instead, phrased in the worst way possible.


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.


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