Monday, December 15, 2008

WMC Interviews: Anne Holland

Over the past three years, I've had the honor of interviewing many brilliant marketers, including Laura Ries, bestselling author, blogger and TV personality; Mike Schultz, president of the Wellesley Hiils Group; and Janine Popick, co-founder and CEO of hosted email marketing platform VerticalResponse.

But last week, I had the unique pleasure of corresponding with Anne Holland, founder of MarketingSherpa and legendary marketing guruess. Though Anne announced her retirement on November 10, she graciously agreed to share some of her collected wisdom and plans for what's next. Here's our discussion.

WebMarketCentral (WMC): Thanks so much for your time today, Anne. First off, why do think MarketingSherpa has been so successful, over a long and turbulent period, in a market where so many paid content providers have failed?

Anne Holland (AH): We were always obsessed with market research. We focused on a single primary market (marketing professionals in corporate America with $3 million + year department budgets) and researched what practical information those folks wanted day in and day out. Then we built it for them. In business, it's all about solving a target market's pain points. Sherpa's in an incredibly competitive space, but I suspect we were one of perhaps only two publishers, targeting marketers, who did this kind of ongoing intensive research before developing products and before picking taxonomy for copywriting. We spent hours on the phone with customers and prospects every week in interviews; we conducted multiple surveys every year to different slices; we studied our site's internal search stat data; etc.

A lot of what businesspeople want is actually good old fashioned reporting. It's not easy. You're not rewriting press releases or dashing off opinion columns. Instead we conducted new research projects continually to present the data to readers. We also went out and dug up people to interview for our Case Studies. Every one of our now 900+ Case Studies were exclusive, requiring about $2,000 of staff time just in research, interviews and crafting. Our research reports contained 200-400 charts and tables, compared to about 50 for many fancy research firms. We even spent hours with speakers before our Summits, helping them craft every aspect of their presentations; we didn't just assume whatever they came up with would be ok. If you're willing to roll up your sleeves and really slog through that kind of hard work, you'll please your audience. Very few people really want to work that hard I think though.

WMC: What are the two or three most important pieces of advice you would give to marketers today?

AH: In this economy, frankly your first concern has to be marketing to your boss and your boss's boss. Few marketers are really comfortable with and savvy enough to market themselves internally in the corporation—I think sales pros are far better at it than we marketers are! Create personas of every person who has power over whether you get the budget you want and the power to execute campaigns the way you want; then figure out them as prospects and market to them. Do you know how to impress the CFO, the CIO and the CEO? Great, then make that happen.

Then focus on your marketplace. Don't take anyone's word for who your marketplace is or what they're all about. Find out for yourself. Meet them in person. Survey them. Review recent demographic studies. Often you'll find two or more unique demographics have been conflated into one by mistake (such as "the financial services industry" which is many separate demographics who must be targeted separately in campaigns). Or your company's targeting is fuzzy. Or the taxonomy of your taglines, key benefit propositions, and/or headlines doesn't match the wording your prospects would use.

The biggest question I get asked is about particular types of campaigns. "Does podcasting work?" "Should I be advertising on Facebook?" "Should I zero out my print ad budget?" Etc. This makes me nuts because marketing success is NOT about the tactic or the media channel, it's about what will appeal to the prospect. What media do they like or use? What types of tactics do they respond to? Every prospect segment is different. Learn your prospect and they will lead you to the tactics and media channels you should use.

That said, sometimes what works is unexpected to everyone involved, prospect included. So you have to dedicate at least 10% of your budget (I'd prefer 20%) to an ongoing regular series of tests. Test media buys first, then test everything else about tactical execution. Set a schedule for testing—weekly, monthly, quarterly—whatever makes sense. But be sure to put it on the calendar or it won't happen.

WMC: Anything you'd like to say about the future—either yours or MarketingSherpa's?

AH: It's been a great, amazing run for me; first 16 years in business media and then nine years founding and building MarketingSherpa. Everything I've been able to accomplish has been due to incredible support from the marketing and media communities. I've had so many mentors and friends, I've lost count. Now it's time for me to redefine myself, to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Marketing and publishing were very, very good to me. But, I have to look outside my comfort zone and try new things. I'll probably wind up in some field related to gardening and plant nurseries, but who knows? I feel a lot like I've just graduated from college all over again with a new liberal arts degree and a blank slate for a career. It's scary and very, very exciting. If you'd like to keep up (or you're considering early retirement yourself) I'll continue blogging at

250,000 (or so) marketing professionals say...thanks Anne.


Contact Tom Pick: tomATwebmarketcentralDOTcom


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