What leads people to sharing your content? Rainer Gawlick has the answers in this episode.

Is there a formula for content virality? Shareable content has to be valuable for your target audience — regardless of the type of content. A piece of content that’s actionable and informative is easy to share because it helps people achieve their goals or solve a problem. This also means no gimmicks: just focus on creating good content.

With Rainer’s wealth of experience (he’s currently a board member at seven different companies!) we talk about how useful content cuts through the noise and what the future holds for the BDR role. 

It’s time to get more people to share your content! Tune in below to find out how. 

Watch the episode

Listen to the episode

Read the full episode transcript 

Hello Rainer and welcome to the show!

Hi Chris, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Very excited to have you here today. This season is really about bringing people that I know from the industry in to talk about content matters. I definitely know you, we work together at Perfecto. I have employees that have worked with you multiple times and you’ve a lot of experience here. 

So let’s jump right in with the quick fire questions. What’s your best and most successful content campaign?

So I thought about this in advance. I have three that I was debating between and they actually have a common theme that we can get to later on. But having to pick one, I’m going to pick one that I did for a company called Sophos. The company’s in the security space and we had a blog, this was sometime around 2008 so a long time ago, that had between 1.5 and 2 million visitors a month, which back then was a lot.

What we did is we carved out a space of information that people really were interested in, particularly Facebook security. So whenever something weird happened with Facebook, some security incident — that was a big issue back then — anyone who’s anyone, who wanted information about it, went to our blog to find out what was going on. Reporters went there, CISOs went there, consumers went there, and we had all the best information on that particular issue.

That drove a ton of traffic to one of our branded sites. And from that, we then drove traffic to our company that provided security products, particularly endpoint, network, and web security. So that was probably one of the ones that was truly successful. And I think the key thing there was just great content. It was really useful and people love useful content. So that’ll be the one I pick as the best one.

Fantastic. The flip side of that, what’s the one that stands out to you as the worst?

This is a little embarrassing. So this was at the same company actually, interestingly, a little bit later. At the time, these viral videos were getting to be something that people were interested in, particularly viral commercials. Phillips did a commercial on some male hair products for below the waist area and it actually went viral! They did it in this very British humor kind of way that worked. And so, we had a British guy running the creative part of our marketing team. He saw this and liked this and said, “hmm, you know, maybe we should do something of the same genre.” 

I think that's where the future marketing is: Can you do something useful on a regular basis such that when then it's time for me to buy something, I think, “ah, I remember that company. They can solve this problem.” Click To Tweet

So, we’re a security company and they came up with this concept of a guy dressed in a rubber suit, talking about security and all the various innuendos that can go with that and created a little set of short videos that played on security innuendos. It was a complete bomb out. Everyone hated it. It was pretty cringy in the end. My judgment at the time was this isn’t good and we should not do this. But my team convinced me that I was being a Luddite, had no creativity, and I should go with it, so I did. But clearly a mistake. Didn’t get a lot of traction, but it got a lot of people rolling their eyes in the wrong way.

So out of those two, which one did you take more learning from?

I think they come together in one lesson. And I think the lesson is that gimmicks don’t work, but great content does. So if you provide people with stuff that they could use, they’re going to pass it on to their friends, they’re going to come back, they’re going to take it and leverage it. If you do something gimmicky, it’s hit or miss, who can predict if a TikTok video is gonna go viral or not? No one, right? It seems pretty random. 

So if you go for a gimmick, hey, you could get lucky like the Phillips people did, right? Or you could have a bomb out like we did. So to me, content is about substance, give people something of value. If you do that, you have a pretty good chance of success.

It’s interesting because the time that we spent together at Perfecto, I have a very similar two-part arc of the magazine that we built, Factors Magazine. It had all the information on the devices that were being used by our customers, super valuable, actionable content. It wasn’t a gimmick, it was information that not only helped customers to understand the importance of testing across a wide range of devices, but also helped our sales team increase average deal size.

The flip side of that was the Volkswagen campaign in San Francisco where we rented 13 Volkswagen Bugs and a sign truck and the branding on that was “don’t let bugs get you down.” And the same thing, I was like, “I don’t want to be a part of this.” I remember telling Randall Leveret who was the brains behind the campaign, it all worked out Randall, I’m sorry I’m not saying that it’s bad, but I don’t want to be in your meetings. I can’t come and hear about this because every time I hear about it, it makes me uncomfortable, but you do you. You guys know your cost per lead, you know what you’re up to, go and do it. 

The learning is, if you’re doing the right thing and sending the right message, you’re going to be successful and that’s where things come from. We ended up turning that around and turning all that content from that campaign into ABM. That was interesting and entertaining. But the results and the click through rate on that sign truck, the Volkswagens, and the drone that flew around the Embarcadero in San Francisco, I don’t know, not so great.

The one thing I would say though is it’s okay to make mistakes and sometimes to let your teams make mistakes. I think if you’re the kind of leader who always thinks that they need to know better, as a result, then let your teams do things that you don’t like. I don’t think there’s a good leader either, right? Everyone’s going to make some mistakes. They’re going to make some mistakes on their way up. I’m sure I made plenty. And I’m glad that people who I worked for at the time allowed me the rope to make them because it hopefully made me a better leader later. So I think we both made the right call to let our teams do it despite our judgments.

I wonder if the whole idea of using BDRs to go after and find leads for sales is something that, at least in this current incarnation, has run as course. Click To Tweet

We shipped out a lot of boxes full of little gummy bugs with that campaign too. It’s confusing sometimes, but here we all are. We made it through. 

You’re talking about the things that you did at Sophos, as a big identifiable company. That blog with 1.5 million readers in 2008, that’s early days for that kind of volume. How would you repeat that today at that scale? 1.5 and views at a company like Sophos would need to be 10-ish million today. How do you start that over again?

I think it’d be pretty hard because you have to come up with something that’s pretty useful, people are interested in, and no one else has already provided it, right? And so sometimes the way to do that is to focus on what you have that’s unique. You give the example from Perfecto, which is that we had device information that no one else had and that was pretty unique. No one else is going to get that. 

I’ll give an example from a company I went to subsequently called IntraLinks. The volumes are quite the same, but the coverage in terms of our target audience was even better. So what IntraLinks did is it sold a virtual data room, which is the place where companies provide confidential data during an M&A process. And we sold that to bankers. So bankers use that when there is an M&A process in companies. 

One of the interesting things about doing virtual data rooms is that we know who’s buying whom, about when the process starts, which is about six months before it gets announced. So we have a six month early lead time on what the M&A market is going to look like, which if you’re an M&A banker is super interesting. Now we couldn’t of course reveal any particular company, that would not be appropriate, but we can talk about trends. We can say, “Hey, in the tech sector, deal volume is up and deal value is going down or the number of companies putting themselves up in the sales process is going up.” Or we can do it by region, by vertical, we could cut all this stuff. 

On a blue background there's a quote from Rainer Gawlick in white that takes up the majority of the image. The bottom of the image has a headshot image of Rainer and the WordBirds Podcast logo.

Then every six months we would put out a report that predicted these trends. And if you’re an M&A banker it was must reading, must see TV, except this was a report — and they all looked at it. I’d never met a banker who didn’t ask me when the next report was coming out. And whenever it came out, even CNBC put us on air to discuss it. So while the volumes weren’t that great, the coverage and as a percentage of people who are our target audience is, it was fantastic. 

It’s kind of the same thing, really useful content. And to your question, it was content that only we had. As a result, it was unique. I don’t know how many companies have that, but I think the thing I’d look for is, do you have something that’s useful and do you uniquely have it? And if you do, you can at least, in your target audience, do something pretty powerful.

It’s an interesting approach. We did the same sort of thing back in the early days of Pyxis Mobile, where before we were mobile, we were working with state treasurer’s offices on optimizing their online enrollment in 529 educational investment plans. Here’s the thing, the states don’t manage the plan, the investment managers do. So Maine had Merrill Lynch, for instance. 

So we’re going to the treasurer with our data of how we view the process and where we see winners and losers in the market, knowing that they’re going to go to their administrator with this data and drive their administrator back to us. So we actually created the data. I mean, it wasn’t a data point anybody was looking at. It was the process of online enrollment in an institutional investment plan that came out of nowhere, like you said, got media coverage because we were the only people talking about this that drove customers back around. We couldn’t sell to a state, we could sell to an investment manager. 

If you can make great content that your target audience thinks is so useful that they're going to pass on their friends, that's the measure of what you need and even today will still drive success. Click To Tweet

It resonated really nicely, but I think today’s different and there’s so much content and generative AI doesn’t help with that, it just creates more. And people have gotten so good at ignoring things. How do you cut through the noise now to be recognized in a world where we’re going out of our way to not recognize?

As we all know, there are two things that matter for a campaign. First is the content and second is the placement — so that people see it. And that makes it harder. I’m going to go back to, and this is going to sound boring and perhaps simplistic, is it really useful to someone? Because if it’s useful to someone, they’re going to send it to their buddies. 

Take this banker report I talked about. The reason that it got more and more traction isn’t because we advertised to the bankers. We actually never advertised to anyone for that matter. It’s just the bankers read about it and told their banker friends about it. As a result, their banker friends told their banker friends, right? And I think the friend recommendation, no matter how much we’re getting in terms of in the media these days, it still works. 

I’ll give another example that was interesting. Also a time ago was a company called SolidWorks, which is in the CAD/CAM space. And back then it was very difficult to exchange different CAD files. The CAD is basically a digital model of a part you want to produce. These digital files back then were like 50, 60 megabytes, which you can’t put into email. And so we created a tool that would allow you to exchange the CAD file with some small reduction in fidelity, but taking it down to like a hundred K. So less than a megabyte. 

All of a sudden you could send it by email and that tool was incredibly useful. And basically anyone who was a recipient of one of those files now also said, “Hey, this is a great tool. Let me use it.” And so on and so forth. That particular tool was called eDrawings, it brought in about a million, million and a half leads per month. 

The best content is actionable content. Click To Tweet

I think leads is perhaps a generous statement because a lot of these people weren’t necessarily going to buy our software, but they allowed us to build our database. Because in order to download eDrawings, you had to at least give us your email address. So as a result of having an email address, we could then subsequently show you other marketing materials such that if you weren’t ready to engage in a sales process, at least you’d heard of us. So maybe fair to say it was 1.5 million contacts per month rather than leads, but still, that’s pretty cool.

Got to start somewhere. It’s a very Mike Volpe approach: I know a lot of people are never going to buy my product, but I want everybody to know so that I can find the people in that pool that are going to buy my product.

And to speak of Mike, he had SiteGrader, way back in the day when HubSpot started. I don’t know if anyone remembers that. I don’t know if it’s still around actually. But it was a tool you could download that looked at your website and graded it. Very useful! One of the things that I think HubSpot recognized, which is also a really good point to make here, is that what SiteGrader did is it showed you hopefully how good your site was, right? And if it wasn’t good, it showed you some ideas to improve it so you can then subsequently show how good it was. 

So thinking about if I’m the head of marketing or the person in charge of the web, what I want to do is impress my boss and tell my boss how great what I’m doing is, right? So that my boss is impressed with what I’m doing. The SiteGrader told me that I’m in the top 10% of websites and being able to show that to my boss is very attractive. So I think that’s another interesting thing: Can you do something that helps someone’s career? And if you help their career, for example, by giving them the tools to show their boss how great they are, I think that would get attention and would also get passed around. 

I think it’s back to: Do you do something useful and can you as a result get the viral effect? In the end, the things that matter are not the stuff that you can advertise and spend millions of dollars on clicks. I think it’s the thing that’s good enough to go viral  and I don’t think that’s changed.

I think it has to be. Maybe two years ago, we built a handbook on how to, from an enterprise standpoint, build a policy on inclusive language usage. And yes, our product does have the ability to govern the use of inclusive language, but that wasn’t the purpose of the book. The book was a handbook that somebody could use, and we know that both customers and folks that are never going to be customers use the book, and that was the intent. 

The Acrolinx Inclusive Language Guide Bring Inclusivity Into Your Content Strategy

Download now

If we can be actionable and relevant and helpful, some percentage of, let’s call it, a qualified lead is gonna shake out of that process, but the rest of it is that we’re going to be more recognizable. We’re driving adoption, we’re doing it in the form of being assistive, and that’s always been a big focus of what we’ve tried to do with content over the course of my last several experiences is forget about talking about us. It’s not super interesting. Nobody’s going to work in the morning doing searches on Google to find out about my company. That’s very rare. They’re trying to solve an individual problem that they have sitting at their desk. Like, can you help me right now? 

If we can be that assistance to them in any percentage of their search, it’s going to be good for us in the long run. And so I totally buy into content that’s useful, gets shared, content that’s useful gets used, and the idea of the best content being that actionable content, I think you’re dead on there.

And the example you provided is great. Because you can imagine if you have a guide you can use for inclusive language, if I’m a marketeer, I’m going to have a lot of friends who are marketeers, right? And, most of those aren’t going to be in companies that are competitive to me, and so I’m going to pass it on to my friends. 

The thing I'd look for is, do you have something that's useful and do you uniquely have it? And if you do, you can at least, in your target audience, do something pretty powerful. Click To Tweet

Here you are cutting through the noise and you haven’t had to do anything in terms of putting out ads or buying clicks in order to get the traffic. The traffic just generates itself. So I think if you can make great content that your target audience is going to think so useful that they’re going to pass on their friends. I think that’s the measure of what you need and even today will still drive success.

Fantastic. Last section today, PSOTD, Provocative Statement of the Day. What you got?

So I’ve thought about this and it’s a little bit of a history to show how old I am. So when I started out in marketing, this was in 1999, I was head of marketing at a company called AspenTech. We would send out emails, everyone knows and loves email marketing, and we would get response rates in the 40% range. Just absolutely stunning. And of course, at the time, people were so excited to get an email that they looked at it and responded. We all know those times have changed. 

So then, about seven, eight years, maybe 10 years ago, the whole concept of BDRs really came out. You’d have people who would aggressively and, hopefully, helpfully reach out to prospects and talk to prospects and convince them that they ought to take a look at whatever product the BDR is trying to sell. And that was a very successful method for many years. 

Content is about substance, give people something of value. If you do that, you have a pretty good chance of success. Click To Tweet

I’m involved with a bunch of companies, on the board of a bunch of tech companies, and I’m seeing the success of that wane. I wonder if the whole idea of using BDRs to go after and find leads for sales is something that, at least in this current incarnation, has run as course. The reason I say this is because unlike email, where you can just crank up the emails and it costs you zero so even if the response rates go down a percent or less, in the end you can still make the economics work. But when you think about a BDR, there’s a point at which if the response rates don’t stay above a certain threshold, there’s no way to make it work. Because you actually have people who you have to pay and the people don’t scale infinitely. There’s only so many calls in the day they can make. 

I wonder if within the industry that has run its course and we need to find something new and different to engage people, get their attention, and take a look at something. Because when someone called me, it used to feel this kind of almost moral obligation to return the call eventually, after the three or four messages they would have left for me. At least for me that moral need has declined substantially over the last few years. And I may not be alone in that. 

No, you’re not!

So I think that we have a whole tool that we all think is a pillar of our marketing that I think is going to crumble over the next few years.

So what comes next?

I wish I knew I’d start a company and go after it! I honestly don’t know. I wonder to some degree if it’s back to trying to just stay in front of people. I think fundamentally marketing has a very hard time generating the demand. I think it’s a very hard thing to do. Particularly in B2B, which is what I’m familiar with, and B2C I can’t comment on as much. 

Because either the company has the problem, wants to buy, or they don’t. And if they’re not ready to buy, it’s not a problem they think is important, I think it’s very hard by and large to influence things. So I think the key to marketing isn’t so much to create demand, it isn’t B2B, I think it’s more to be there and be known such that when the company is ready to pursue it, that they know about you and reach out to you. 

So I’m a firm believer in more things like newsletters and those regular communications that have enough valuable content that the person’s going to take a look at it. There’s a couple things I read. So for example, I used to be at McKinsey a long time ago and they send out a bunch of stuff regularly. I’d take a look at it. I don’t read all of it, but there’s enough good stuff in there that I read some of it, so it stays top of mind for me. I think that’s where the future marketing is: Can you do something useful on a regular basis such that when then it’s time for me to buy something, I think, “ah, I remember that company. They can solve this problem.”

You’re showing your German roots because this is a problem that we deal with in Europe, and specifically in Germany, because of GDPR and the anti-competition laws in Germany where we can’t just communicate outbound. So the idea of a BDR is fantastic, but it’s actually not legal in most cases, the way that we do it in the U.S. So you do have to be where the search is happening. We need to do more field marketing, for instance, in Europe. We need to be out at events.

Here, you know from working with me, I hate paying for events. I think that the return on investment, at least in this market, is terrible. But it might be the only way that we can address the public in a place like Germany. So being out in front and building those relationships at that level becomes super important. And you drive that by being interesting and actionable when you meet people. You can’t just be standing there in a booth with a demo running.

It may sound a bit old fashioned, but I’ve seen some events that my companies have done have become more productive in the past few years. And I think that could be driven by the fact that you don’t go to an event for “shits and giggles” these days. You go to an event because you have something to do, or something that you need to accomplish for your company. People are less interested in travel for travel’s sake. The idea of going to industry events isn’t as glamorous as it maybe was 15 years ago. 

Gimmicks don't work, but great content does. Click To Tweet

I think people go there these days to actually learn something. So we found that the leads from some of these events are much more productive. At a company called ChyronHego, I’m on the board there and interim CEO at the moment, we provide graphics software for broadcasters both in sports and news. And there’s a big event called NAB every year. For us that’s become much more productive over the last years in terms of the actionability, if that’s a term, of the leads that come from it. I think it’s because people go there when they have a purpose, rather than just because they want another business trip.

Absolutely. I think back to the 2006-2008 time range when I would leave at the beginning of March and not come home until mid-June, and it was just a boondoggle. I was going to BlackBerry’s big conference, I was going to Apple’s big conference. We were going to SIA, we were going to SAP’s user conference in a row, going from Arizona to Florida to California, and it was fantastic. I can’t point to what we got out of it but I had a great time in my late 20s. 

Nowadays, when we go, Allie Davis is my head of field marketing here, and she’s going in with a plan, objectives, and a set of metrics that she needs to meet. Everybody that goes to the conference knows exactly what they’re responsible for, and there are expectations associated with it. We’re going to get a return on investment in everything we do. It’s different now than it was and that’s to say I do miss the way that it was. It was fantastic back then. But I’m an older person and I don’t think I could keep up.

Yes, same here. I’m not looking for the next business trip, but if I did go, it’d be for a purpose.

Excellent, Rainer, thank you very much for being on the show. This was fantastic. I know everybody’s going to get a lot out of this. If somebody is looking to contact you in the future, LinkedIn, best way to reach out to you.

LinkedIn is fantastic. My email is on it. You can always message me, but firstname.lastname.gmail.com is also always going to work.

Fantastic. Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Important links

The Acrolinx Inclusive Language Guide Bring Inclusivity Into Your Content Strategy

Download now