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Ann Handley is a keynote speaker, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, and the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Everybody Writes. Ann also wrote the foreword to my new book, The Experience Maker.

Dan Gingiss: So Ann, let’s just jump right into it. You’ve been in the marketing business for a long time and I remember hearing you speak at Social Media Marketing World a couple of years ago. And I noted that although you weren’t necessarily saying the words “customer experience,” you were really focused on things like listening to your customer in order to come up with writing ideas. The things that you were saying in your keynote, to me, felt like you might as well have been a customer experience person as well as a marketing person. Can you just walk us through how you think about that? And how does listening to your customers help you create great content?

Ann Handley: Yeah, it’s funny because I wrote the foreword to your book, Dan, and I remember when you first approached me and you said, “oh, I’m writing this book about customer experience” and I’m like, “I’m not a CX person. Why is he coming to me?” And then I don’t know if you remember this, that you detailed out, “well, here’s what you talk about. We’re just using different words, but we’re basically saying the same thing.”

We’re both thinking about how we put our customer at the heart of, not just our content and our marketing, but our entire company. How do we build our communication around them? I have always taken a very customer-centric approach in my world, creating content and writing and thinking about marketing programs that truly do put the customer at the heart of the plan, of the strategy, of everything. And that’s a challenge for a lot of marketers, a lot of companies. And so basically what I realized is that, yes, you and I are singing from the same hymnbook. So I think we have slightly different words in how we describe things, but very much aligned in that way.

So as to your question, how do I think about that? I think the tragedy is so often that so many marketers aren’t out there directly speaking to their customers or their prospects. They have a vague notion of who they talk to from a demographic standpoint, sometimes a geographic standpoint, but they have less of a familiarity with who they are from a psychographic standpoint. And so that, to me, is the first step that I always think about.

I think about one specific person who I’m communicating with, whether it’s for my own keynotes or I think about that one person in the audience who I’m trying to help. Sometimes it’s for my e-mail newsletter, I write to one person. When we are developing our education, our training programs, we think about the one person who we’re trying to help. And so I think bringing it down to just the individual level. The irony is, the more specific you get when you think about your marketing in terms of that, the more universal it will be if you think of the right person. And so that’s sort of how I approach it and how I think about it. And I think very much where you and I align.

Ann Handley Headshot

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, that’s great. I want to give you a quick story from my first job right out of college. I worked for a company called the Danbury Mint, which sells plates, dolls, figurines, that sort of thing. And I started in the Classic Car Replica department. And these are 1/24th scale of classic cars that sell for about $150 each. They are made of a lot of the same components as the real car. So if the car had leather seats, these have leather seats, the paint chips are matched meticulously, etc. I didn’t know a whole lot about cars, but I was asked to start selling this line of replica cars.

I learned one thing very quickly. The people that were buying, say, the ’57 Chevy replica were getting it in the mail, taking it out to the garage and comparing it to the real thing which was in their garage. So, we had to be absolutely perfect. I remember having this conversation with a guy that had a ’62 Corvette in his garage. He was telling me about how the air hose was in the wrong place underneath the hood. It should have been going under something instead of over. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I went and got the replica out and had him walk me through it. And he was right.

We ended up fixing that, and I made sure he got the first one off the production line. But what it taught me was, I’m not a car guy, but here I am selling these cars. I better get to know what these car guys are like because otherwise I’m going to fail miserably at this job. And so I love the idea of looking at that one person as well. I think both in marketing and customer experience, we talk about personas, but I’ve always struggled with that because it tries to wrap people into this invisible concept that isn’t real. Because it’s a combination of lots of people, right?

Ann Handley: Yeah, exactly. They’re composites. And I think you can’t build a relationship with a composite. It just doesn’t work. And so I think personas are a place to start, but I think we need to go one level deeper than that. My experience is that with a lot of companies, when you ask them who they sell to, they’re really good at quoting things at a demographic standpoint or they know the persona.

“Well, we sell to Mary, you know, she’s a mid-level marketer and she works at this tech company.” OK, but who is that person? You don’t feel like you don’t feel the heart and soul of Mary. You don’t feel blood pumping through her veins. I think that’s so important because even at B2B companies, we build relationships with people. And it’s so cliché, like I feel almost clichéd saying that to you right here and everybody reading, but it’s 100% true. It’s the difference between mediocre marketing and truly spectacular marketing and customer experience.

Dan Gingiss: The question I get the most often when I walk off a physical stage, it’s always somebody from a B2B company. They’d come up to me and they’d say, “Oh great presentation. I was really inspired. Does what you talk about apply to B2B companies?” And I kind of perfected this. With a very straight face I would say, “Well, that depends. Are you marketing to human beings?” And then they’d be like, “Well, yeah.” Then customer experience applies to you because the people that are buying your product are people. They’re consumers and you’re not selling to a building or to an entity. And that’s what I talked about when I had the privilege of speaking at your B2B marketing event was that this is very much for B2B companies as well.

Ann Handley: I was doing a webinar on creating a fantastic newsletter. And I talked about Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett, icon of industry, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. And every year he writes a letter to all of the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. But he also writes it to the press. It gets picked up in every news outlet around the world because people want to know, what does Warren Buffett think about the state of business in any given year. And so it gets tons and tons of play. Tons of people read this. Millions of people, I would posit, read Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders.

But the story is that when Warren sits down to write that letter to shareholders, after the turn of the year every year, he doesn’t think about those tens of thousands of people. He thinks about one person. He thinks about his sister, Doris. And he says he writes to her because she is a shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway. She’s smart. She reads a lot, but she doesn’t know all the financial jargon and she doesn’t need to. And so he says I try to say on paper what I would tell her about the business if we sat down for an afternoon.

And so I talk about writing to “Doris” as a way to think about your own communication. Certainly newsletters, but almost anything that you’re doing, like I think “write to Doris” is basically a marketing super power. The more you can think about who your “Doris” is, it makes your communication a whole lot more accessible and personable, number one. But also it reminds you of who is important to you and who isn’t important to you. It’s just important to think about who is your “Doris” as much as it is to think about who isn’t your “Doris.” And so I think it helps clarify who is the most important person to your business and how do we actually meet his or her or their needs. 

Dan Gingiss: I love that. And I’m going to be thinking about my “Doris” going forward. We talked off stage right before we started about how I’ve never been one to use really difficult vocabulary. I don’t own a thesaurus or look up fancy words to sound smart. I just write like I talk, but what I’ve really been focused on for a while now is the role of communication in customer experience. And of course, that starts with marketing or advertising.

That’s often the first experience we have with the brand. But even when we become customers, the number of times that a company communicates with us, it could be a welcome letter, it could be the website that we go to, could be a sign if there’s a physical location, it could be a contract or an invoice or some legal disclosure. Those are all opportunities to create an experience. And on my podcast called Experience This!, we call that, “making the required remarkable.” It’s a required part of your business maybe to have a contract or to have an invoice. But it doesn’t mean that it has to be a boring part of your business. It can be a place where you have some fun.

And one of the reasons why I love reading your newsletter is that you have a wicked sense of humor and it always gives me some sort of a chuckle. And I know that that you’re coming at something from an interesting perspective. So it’s not just, “Ann talks about marketing,” it’s Ann’s personality infused in it, and that’s what makes it so great. I always recommend that for companies as well.

Ann Handley: And actually that’s intentional because one of the metrics that I look at for, not just my own content, but for any content that I’m reading or looking at is, if you cover up the logo on your website, on your social channels, or if you cover up the “from” line on your email, your email newsletters, or any of your email marketing, does it sound different? Does it sound like you? And so that’s an intentional differentiator that I layer on because I don’t want to sound like Dan Gingiss, I want to sound like Ann Handley. So I want you to be aware of the fact that this is me speaking to you. And so, yes, that is a very intentional thing that I do.

But that doesn’t come, by the way, on the first draft. It’s interesting to me, I was just slightly distracted by what you said a second ago, about how you write like your talk. And I think that’s true to some degree. But I also don’t think it’s entirely true because I’ve read your writing, I’ve read your book, and I can hear your voice in it, but you don’t really write like you talk. I think that your voice is definitely throughout the book, but writing and speaking are two very different disciplines, right?

And so, to me when I hear people say that, oh, just write like you talk, kind of don’t do that because like if you were to read the transcription of this conversation here today, it wouldn’t be perfect. It would be meandering and be a little all over the place and some “ums” and some “uhs” and that’s writing as you speak. [Editor’s Note: As far as we can tell, the only “ums” and “uhs” that Ann uttered in this interview were in that last sentence.]

But I think the important thing is to take that bit of concrete and shape it into something that’s inherently more readable. And so, yes, I think writing like you talk means that you include your voice in there, but don’t just publish your first draft, which is what I often think that people do, which is what they think we’re saying when we say, “write like you talk.”

My newsletter, that’s about four drafts before I finally get the humor and my personality and the feeling that it’s coming from Ann. And so that’s eight hours of work creating this newsletter, which is enormous, right? When people hear that, they’re like, wow, I can’t do that. But you can do that because it’s an important part of marketing and that’s how I like I’m valuing it. It’s just a matter of what your priorities are.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, totally makes sense. I think what I just meant was I don’t use big vocabulary in real life, either. I don’t speak in acronyms, so I don’t write in acronyms. But a lot of companies do. There’s a great story in my book. A bank sent an email to the daughter of a Forrester VP. He’s a Forrester analyst, so he focuses on customer experience. The daughter gets this email and the subject line has seven words in it, three of which are acronyms. She doesn’t know what those acronyms mean.

So, she sent the email to her father, the VP at Forrester, and said, “Is this even English?” And so then he wrote a post about it, and I wrote about his post because I thought it was so fascinating, I mean, that makes sense to the people at the bank. It’s just not how people talk or how people understand English! But, yes, you can’t just spew out words and then not do any editing or cleaning up of that.

Ann Handley: Yeah. Clearly that bank did not think about their “Doris,” right? Because for some segments of their audience, like maybe they would have a “Doris” that connects with acronyms. So again, it comes back to this always. 

Dan Gingiss: It definitely does. So you briefly mentioned this before, but in what I am sure is going to become the pinnacle of your career, you did write the foreword to my new book called The Experience Maker: How To Create Remarkable Experiences That Your Customers Can’t Wait To Share. I have to tell you Ann, I know that when I first approached you, you were like, “Why is this guy asking me to write the foreword?”

Before you wrote it, my feeling was, I sit at the intersection of marketing and customer experience. And so I really thought it made sense to go find somebody who was in marketing versus somebody in customer experience. But then after you wrote the foreword and I read it, and I loved it, and I laughed, and I cried, and I realized you are driving experiences, I literally felt like I found the absolute perfect person on the planet. So give us a little bit of a hint. Don’t spoil it all, but give us a little bit of a hint of the experience that you wrote about in your foreword.

Ann Handley: Yeah, so first of all, everything that Dan said was 100% true. When he approached me, I was like, “What? Why me?” But the more that we talked and after he sent me four pages of notes about why I was the right person, I guess the straw for me was when he showed up at my house.

Dan Gingiss: With flowers, right?

Ann Handley: He had a little Danbury Mint ’62 Corvette. It was incredible. I was like, “Wow, that’s a replica. Look at that, the hoses are going the right way. Everything about it to a tee.” Anyway, that was a callback.

Dan Gingiss: Great. Very good, keep it up.

The Experience Maker by Dan Gingiss with a foreword by Ann Handley

Ann Handley: So back to the question. So first of all, Dan’s book is fantastic. If you have not ordered it yet, please do. It’s just such a great read, first of all. Second of all, I wrote about my experience visiting a 3-Star MICHELIN restaurant in Oslo, Norway. I used that as a lens to talk about the importance of crafting an experience. And it has relevance for everybody. Whether you run a 3-star MICHELIN restaurant, a 2-star, 1-star. Or whatever the case may be. Maybe you run a B2B technology company. The lessons apply across the board. 

So, that’s what I wrote about. How they created a story, how they built anticipation, and how they really were so plugged-in to creating the on-site experience. But more broadly, thinking about how they are connecting with customers way before you even get a reservation. There are so many lessons that I talk about in Dan’s book and that I think dovetails really nicely into what you talk about more generally in the book as well.

Related: The Experience Maker

Dan Gingiss: I literally felt like I was there with you in Oslo and I’ve never been to Oslo. I felt like I was with you at this restaurant. The descriptions were just amazing. I love that you picked a restaurant example. In my book I actually talked to Stephanie Izard. She is an Iron Chef and has a number of restaurants in Chicago. They’re all goat themed (Girl & A Goat, Little Goat, etc.).

I asked her, “You are an Iron Chef, you’ve done all the shows, you’re a celebrity chef, and yet you’re also an entrepreneur because you own all these restaurants. Help me understand, what is the division of importance between the quality of the food and the quality of the experience?” Now I expected her, as a chef, to tell me 80/20 food. She actually answered 50/50. I thought this was surprising, but also very impressive. And she basically said, “Look, I know the food is going to be good and the food is probably what brings people in. But the experience is what brings people back. And so it’s just as important that we provide them with an amazing experience as it is that we provide them with great food.” So I think that’s something we can all learn from. 

Ann Handley: Yeah. And think about the wisdom in that, because the food is the product, essentially. The product can be anything, right? It can be anything from a Danbury Mint Corvette to a B2B solution. It’s got to be good. You’ve got to deliver on that. But what’s the overall experience that you’re creating around that? The way you deliver it, the way you’re communicating, the story that you’re telling, the way you’re putting that product, or service, or food in the context of the lives of the people who matter to you and to your business. And so I think all of that is so universal.

Dan Gingiss:  It is, and one of the things that you finished your foreword with, was that this meal that you described was, what, six or seven years ago? And you still remember it. And you can write about it with such detail, and that’s because, obviously the meal was great, but it was the experience that surrounded it. That’s what you’re really remembering. So I loved it. Thank you so much. I’ve got to thank you publicly, I’ve thanked you privately, but it was a true honor to have you at the top of my book introducing it. And I so appreciate it. So definitely if you would like to order, I would certainly appreciate it. I’m telling you, the book is worth it just for Ann’s foreword. You can just read the foreword and throw the rest of the book out.

Ann Handley: I don’t think that’s true. That is not true.

Dan Gingiss: So what are you working on right now? What are you excited about right now?

Ann Handley: I’m working on a new book that I’m not really prepared to talk about right now, but that’s kind of in my brain. I’ve talked about it in my newsletter in the past and I’ve talked about it publicly a little bit. But it’s been a challenge for me over the past year of the pandemic, just with all of the other stuff going on. Just the emotion of it, the heaviness of it. Just everything. It’s been a very difficult year for me to think about how to actually create something new. Some of my friends have been incredible, they’ve produced amazing work throughout the pandemic. But for me, I’ve been so distracted by world events, it’s been harder for me to focus. 

In some ways, the fact that we’re coming out of this does feel a little bit lighter to me. I feel like I’m able to focus a whole lot more than I have been. So, that’s the first thing. And the second thing is MarketingProfs has tons of stuff going on. We’re really expanding our education and training programs. So that’s been a major focus as well. We’ve recently gotten into consulting so that’s been another huge focus for us. We just wrapped up our B2B Forum online so lots of stuff going on personally and professionally. And then finally, I’m sitting here and my little puppy August is right beside me. He brings joy to my life. So that’s the other thing that’s going on. 

Dan Gingiss: I adopted a senior shelter dog during COVID as well. She’s awesome.

Ann Handley: Fantastic.

Dan Gingiss: Well, thank you so much Ann. I really appreciate you taking the time out. If you’re not already following Ann Handley on all of the channels, please stop what you’re doing and go do that. She’s @AnnHandley on Twitter, also @MarketingProfs, she’s on LinkedIn, and everywhere else. Go follow her work and you will learn, you will laugh, and you’ll be a better person for it. So thank you so much Ann, great to see you.

Ann Handley: Thank you for having me.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch this interview in its entirety.