In today’s conversation, we delve into the evolving dynamics between long-form and short-form content, guided by the expertise of our guest, Isabelle Papoulias — SVP Global Marketing at BackBox.

Isabelle sheds light on a fundamental shift in the way today’s consumers engage with content, especially during the era of information overload. The conversation centers on the value, or perhaps the lack thereof, of long-form content. Isabelle’s insights and experiences offer a fresh perspective on the never-ending quest to strike a balance between content quantity and quality, a topic that every marketer grapples with.

Isabelle also challenges the concept of the buyer’s cycle versus the traditional sales cycle. Isabelle reminds us that as marketers, our primary goal isn’t merely to sell but to empower buyers, making their journey smoother and more informed. The shift from selling to facilitating the buying process is a pivotal change that marketers are embracing.

Finally, we touch upon the PSOTD (Provocative Statement of the Day) shared by Isabelle: “Less is more with sales content” — more on that to come! Stay tuned for a dynamic discussion, offering valuable insights into the world of marketing strategy and the evolving roles of marketers in the digital age.

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Hello Isabelle, welcome to the show!

Hi Chris, great to be here.

I’m very excited for you to be here. Let’s go ahead and jump right in with the quick fire. Let’s talk about your best and most successful content campaign. What would it be?

It’s not a campaign’s name, it’s the approach. It’s a holistic campaign with a core theme that plays through various different content types.

And what is your worst content campaign type?

Same thing, it’s a content type. So it would be long-form content, like guides and ebooks.

Oh, interesting. Okay, I’m going to come back to that, but out of the two, where do you feel like you learn the most?

Tough question. The first one, probably.

Okay, I want to come back to the very controversial statement that you opened with. This is going to be a very special episode of WordBirds because we’re already going to be in a conversation about things that most people don’t think. It’s a kind of provocative statement at the beginning. You think, you just said, long form content isn’t the most valuable. Explain yourself.

All right, I’ll justify this and I’ll give you a specific story from my last company, my last role. Look, I worked for a sales enablement leader. So we had content management software that enabled us to see, not just how content was being used, like what was being downloaded or used, but truly how the audience was reading the content, how much time they were spending on it, where they were stopping, et cetera, et cetera. 

And for the longest time, to be clear, long-form content worked well for us. But then something happened, and I remember it was during COVID, in fact. So I can’t really explain why it was during COVID, but that’s when we saw the trend. We noticed that people weren’t reading the long form. They were opening it, but they weren’t actually spending time with it. 

So the more we can think about it through the eyes of the buyer, I think the better the content strategy will be. Click To Tweet

What we saw instead was an increase in engagement with more snackable content, videos, but also things like checklists. “10 ways to evaluate a sales enablement vendor,” or “five things to look for when you do whatever.” So we followed the data. We looked at the data. It wasn’t us deciding that long form wasn’t working. I mean, the data was clearly telling us that. There was a pivotal moment where that happened and that was pretty clear.

I’m buying what you’re throwing down here. So do you still create the long form as the base and then create the derivatives from it and the derivatives are the value, or do you just start with snackable content?

So great question. Again, I’m in a new role now in a new company. I’m two and a half months in. Absolutely, we’re looking to create long-form content as well. Then we’ll try to understand as best as we can the engagement with that and tweak from there. 

I think fundamentally, best practices are fine. But ultimately, you have to benchmark against yourself. The way I approach it when I build a content strategy, I build it with a pretty open-minded approach. And I do think you have to try different things to see what works for the company you’re in. So one might have worked somewhere else may not work in this new situation because the buyer is a lot more technical. 

So, for example, BackBox. We’re a network and security device automation company. Our buyer is, and our end user is, the network engineer. They’re extremely, extremely technical. And what I’m seeing so far, I say this with a grain of salt one and a half months into the job, is that they do like very long, very technical, what many of us would consider boring content. If that’s what they want and that’s what works and that’s what we need to go build.

Now are they your buyer or are they your user?

So both depending on the size of the enterprise. The more on market you go, the larger the company, we’re talking if it’s 10,000 employees and up, a very large enterprise. There’s usually a hierarchy where the buyer and the end user aren’t the same. But most of the time for the space that we play in, they tend to be one and the same, which is interesting. It’s an interesting finding for me. That’s because network teams are understaffed compared to security teams. So there’s less of that hierarchy. More often than not, the end user is also the person who makes the decision because there’s just not that many people. She or he doesn’t have a boss over the boss over the boss, and they’re empowered to make the decision.

So that’s interesting because then your long-form content is both an attracting force for inbound leads, it’s also educating in the middle of the funnel. Are you then cutting that up and turning that into things that can be used by the folks that are around that initial contact, that lead that comes in? So whether that person is the economic buyer or not, there’s something that can be driven out from that original piece of content.

More isn’t necessarily better. The right content to solve the right questions is the right amount of content, not just content for content sake. Click To Tweet

Exactly. And I can’t give you a clean answer on this because again, I’m just now diving into the content strategy, but that’s absolutely something we’re looking at. I’ll give you another example. Our pitch deck as it stands, let’s call it a pitch deck, I hate that term, but our sales deck for the first discovery call, as it stands today appears to be from the feedback we’re getting from the sales team a little too elevated for the prospects that we’re talking to who most of the time is the end user. It’s a little too educational, let me tell you about the challenge, et cetera. 

But the end users, by the time you talk to us, they understand network automation, they understand the challenges, and they know why they’re calling us. They just want to understand how the product works, how are we delivering on their challenges, right? And so we’re developing a second sales deck, which we’re calling a practitioner deck, which is more of, let’s call it “the pre-demo to the demo,” if that makes sense.

This is interesting. If you’re pitching to that practitioner and you’re doing a conceptual hello deck introducing the business. What I’m hearing is that it could actually slow down the deal because it’s taking them backwards from, just show me what you do. Where do I put the keys? Where does the key go in the box and make it run? And I’m trying to explain the value and the problems that I think they’re experiencing, whether they are or they aren’t. Versus just saying, let’s take your interest and parlay that into a next step. Let’s just get you to move forward. 

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

That’s interesting, because when you look online at the perfect sales deck, it’s always that: Introduce the tagline, move into the challenges in the marketplace, tell the customer what their challenge is that they’re seeing, then explain how you solve that challenge. And I’ve been having a lot of problems with that lately, because I think that, as a business at Acrolinx, we tell you what the challenge is. 

So as a person in marketing, I’ll tell you what you’re dealing with, whether you’re dealing with it or not. If what I’ve hit on in my hypothesis isn’t at the top of your list, I can talk you into why it’s important, but it probably moves to the bottom of your priority list versus the challenges up here that you’re actually dealing with on a day-to-day basis. If I could attach to one of those, then I’m in a priority path. You’re identifying that depending on who you’re talking to, you can get into the priority path right away.

Yes, but you still have to double-click for a bit on the challenge, understand their challenge, right? Very quickly. So you can then get into more of the nitty gritty of the product story — if we want to call it that. It’s not a demo right at that point, so you can tailor the rest of the conversation. 

To be fair, I think you’re having the same reaction. It’s different from what I’m used to. As marketers, like you said, we start with a challenge. I have a methodology I usually use for sales decks, which is: the CLOSE, Challenge, loss, opportunity, solution, evidence, pick any other acronym, it doesn’t matter. But more or less that’s the structure. All of a sudden now we’re saying, okay, well, don’t spend quite as much time on the challenge and the opportunity because the buyer gets it and go faster into the product. It feels a little contrarian, but that seems to be what’s needed based on feedback from the sales team, based on listening to sales calls. 

And so look, like anything else, we’ll test it. I think the best way to test something is actually through the field. They’re truly in the trenches. They’re hearing directly from prospects. The most valuable insights to me come from sales calls. Yes, we can do other things. We can test on the website and do other things. But truly, the most important source of information comes from sales.

Focus on shorter pieces, frameworks, lists, next steps, again, things that help them navigate what's already out there rather than throwing more content on the pile of confusion. Click To Tweet

Oh absolutely. Do you use a platform that allows you to record your sales calls?

So we don’t, I wish we were! We will at some point in the future, I’m sure. We’re not quite there yet. So right now it’s reminding folks to use Zoom please and record your calls so I can listen to them.

We use Salesloft and it’s still a challenge. It’s, “I just got off a great call.” “Oh, cool, where can I go to listen to it?” “Oh, yeah, I didn’t record it.” And it’s a bummer because, like you said, that’s the best feedback you can get is how does this meeting go. 

The interesting thing here’s that mileage may vary depending on the type of company and the type of product, but once a product hits more of a mainstream position in the market, it’s not that educational sell. You don’t need to start at the beginning and really pitch that huge value message of this is the challenge you’re having and this is what we do to solve it because people should understand it more. 

Where you are in network and security device automation, that’s a thing that people understand. If they’re looking for that, they understand why they’re looking for it and what they’re looking for. So spending a lot of time upfront in that challenge doesn’t seem to make as much sense because I know why I found you and I know what I’m looking for. Versus Acrolinx of three years ago where you didn’t know you were looking for content governance software. That wasn’t necessarily a thing. We’ve got to tell you what it is upfront. But with the advent and mass release of generative AI, all of a sudden people know why they’re coming to us and the time that we’re spending trying to prove that we’re a thing can start to go away because people know we’re a thing. 

So you want to tune a model? Yes. You want to tune a model on your best content? Yes. How do you know what that is? What do you mean? Well, what do you do for content governance to better understand the content that you own and how it’s performing and what you want to use to tune your new model? Oh, okay, cool, I get what you do. And now we move away from that into how we do things differently. How we do things better. And how we make you better at doing your job. That changes the way that you structure that messaging, I think.

And to be clear, that first sales deck I mentioned, the more elevated one, let’s call it more expected, there’s still a place for that one, right? If we’re very on market and we’re talking to a very senior executive and it’s more of a thought leadership discussion then that’s the right type of content.

The Marketing Playbook for Content Creation A Guide to Crafting Fit Content That’s Ready to Perform

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Amazing. This went in a lot of different directions that I didn’t expect to go, but I love it because this is something that we deal with. Like this is real time for most organizations. You’re never done with that introductory deck. It’s always a thing in progress. Our Head of Sales has a version that he’s working on. I have a version I’m working on. My product marketing team has a version they’re working on. And yesterday we saw what the salespeople are actually using. And none of those things are the same. So just constant iteration.

No, that has never happened to me. Just kidding!

No, no, never. How do I lock this slide deck thing? 

Anyway, let’s talk about you. So things I know about you, builder, connector, a globalist expert. Let’s dig into that connector, because I think that’s a thing that we deal with in our role quite a bit is company alignment. Collaboration across more than just your organization and sales. That’s what people expect is that marketing and sales work closely together, but there’s more than that. I know from your past experience and where you just arrived, that’s a lot of what you think about. How do you think about that idea of being a connector?

If there's already a guide or a long form guide about your industry, don't necessarily create that. See how you can actually use your competitors' content and educate your buyers on how to better navigate the confusion of content that's out there. Click To Tweet

Wow, that’s a loaded question. Let me see, how do I start this one? First I’ll say as marketers, as you know, head of marketing, CMO, whatever your title is, we’re inherently connectors. I feel like we sit in the middle of the organization and we have to collaborate very closely with sales and product, but also CX. We have to influence the customer experience end to end. So I think that, I want to say it’s a responsibility that we have, whether we consciously know we have it or not. It’s a skill that we develop one way or another over time. 

Now for me, it also happens that prior to getting in this fun tech business, I was in global account management at major agencies, some of the biggest ones, advertising media agencies, and I was always handling marquee brands and teams around the world. Like we’re talking, you know, 150 countries and such. So I feel like I trained my connector muscle a lot because in that role, what you have to do essentially is getting all of these markets across the world to march to the same drum beat. The same global strategy, but in a way that’s localized and makes sense for the market. 

So there’s a, I’m going to call it, basic “herding the cats” thing in there, right? And constant communication and convincing people to maybe do something that they don’t really want to do. So that just has helped me to become a better connector. Then more recently, because before this new role, I wasn’t in a corporate strategy role. So that’s a lot about alignment. Leading executive off sites, leading the ELT on behalf of the CEO. All those things are about encouraging communication, collaboration, and driving consensus. I don’t know if that answers your question the right way.

It does. And I think the idea of there’s this central business experience role. I don’t want to call it the customer experience, but the way the business feels, looks, communicates, interacts in the marketplace. A lot of that starts in brand, which tends to live in marketing and spreads out from there. So it’s not this front office versus back-office mentality. There’s a lot that a CMO can influence throughout the rest of the business for the betterment of what we’re doing in the front office. The reach that you’ve had into, for instance, product organizations, reaching to make sure that the right products are being built, that you’re able to get the right product market fit, that things are falling into place so that you have the tools that you need to be successful. It’s more than just I talk to the salespeople a lot. It goes well beyond that. 

So when it comes to content, I'm increasingly feeling that less is more. Click To Tweet

All of that leads back to your ability to speak the language of the business fully. If you’re that marketing organization that doesn’t really have a solid handle on what you sell, that’s a problem. If you don’t know how to communicate that, you can’t create the content that drives that. All of that comes together by you being central and having that visibility, that 360-degree view, of the business so that you’re the communication hub. Even if there are communication organizations that fall outside of that. Technical documentation teams that create content, support teams that are creating content, there’s an experience that’s coming from you in the business to make sure that all of those people are aligned.

Yes and I love the word experience. I also love how you mentioned 360. And look, as marketing leaders, we have a huge amount of influence again. Whether we choose, we choose to have it or not. That’s the position we’re in. I think it’s a wonderful thing. 

But like you said, in product we influence pricing and bundles and how the thing goes to market because we have to be able to market it, right? Employer branding, HR. We have a point of view there. We’re working with that team. Sales, I mean, we just discussed the sales deck. We’re influencing that as well. So it’s fascinating to me. I think that’s why it’s such a great role because we’re touching so many different parts of the organization and in some ways we’re making all of them better. Some people may disagree with this.

I hope not. We try. We’re trying. Trying really hard.

We’re trying to make them better. We’re trying really hard to make them better. Yes, that’s better said.

Exactly. A thing that I like to do towards the end of episodes is the PSOTD. That’s the Provocative Statement of the Day. It’s a mechanism that I use in my day-to-day to be able to say a thing that is somewhat controversial, provocative, to start a conversation. Often I don’t know that I think it, but if nobody’s saying it, we’re not going to argue about it. So I like to ask, what is your provocative statement of the day?

Okay. It’s about content. You’re going to hate me for saying this. 

I hope so!

You want provocative, right? So when it comes to content, I’m increasingly feeling that less is more. Let me tell you why. So I think we have a tendency for more content, more content, more content, SEO, keywords, all that stuff, right? But Brent Adamson, formerly from Gartner, I forget where he is today, which company he’s working for. I was on a webinar where he spoke, I think it was last year, and he shared this idea. He gave the example that it took him three years to buy a car. He had never owned a car before and it took him three years to make the decision to buy one. He attributed the delay in making the decision to the fact that he was completely overwhelmed by the amount of information that was out there when he was researching. 

As marketers, as head of marketing, CMO, whatever your title is, we're inherently connectors. Click To Tweet

That resonated with me, it really did. Forget about me as a market, as a buyer, as a consumer. And then he said, look, don’t feel the pressure to create more content. Your competitors are already doing that. If there’s already a guide or a long form guide about your industry, don’t necessarily create that. See how you can actually use your competitors’ content and educate your buyers on how to better navigate the confusion of content that’s out there. So his recommendation was to focus on shorter pieces, frameworks, lists, next steps, again, things that help them navigate what’s already out there rather than throwing more content on the pile of confusion. Now I’m not saying I’ve solved for this, but as I think through the content strategy for BackBox, it’s something that’s very top of mind.

But generative AI says that you can have 20 times the amount of content you have today, right now. You don’t want 20 times the content?

I don’t know.

It seems like a lot. I don’t know.

I don’t think so. It doesn’t feel right to me.

The interesting thing that you said that really stopped me in my tracks was that you can’t make decisions because there’s so much information. Now we’re on this precipice looking over into this pit of new information that’s going to be created by robots. And if you can’t buy a car now because there’s too much information, how is this new 20X, 50X amount of content going to help you make a decision?

And your provocative statement of the day is it’s not. It’s going to make it harder. I think that’s something that listeners need to take away from this is that there’s a balance. You started with less is more. More isn’t necessarily better. The right content to solve the right questions is the right amount of content, not just content for content sake. Because if you slow down the ability to make a decision because people are plowing through hundreds and hundreds of pages of content, you’re not closing deals. The right content closes deals. Now the challenge to you is what is the right content? And that’s what our job is, apparently.

And it’s not easy, but that’s why I always go back to the customer journey. That’s the guiding principle. Look at it through the eyes of the buyer. When I speak internally, I talk about the buyer cycle, not the sales cycle. Because I like to remind myself and remind the team that our job isn’t to sell, it’s to make it easier to buy. I know these are kind of cliche. It’s not like I’m inventing these words, but they’re there for a reason. I do think that’s powerful. So the more we can think about it through the eyes of the buyer, I think the better the content strategy will be. But I do think it’s easier said than done. I wish I had a perfect answer, a magical answer, or someone had it for me. I think we’re all trying to figure it out.

We noticed that people weren't reading the long form. They were opening it, but they weren’t actually spending time with it. What we saw instead was an increase in engagement with more snackable content, videos, but also things like checklists. Click To Tweet

But that’s the thing. It’s identifying what the pathway is, the shortest distance between two points to get an opportunity to progress from start to finish and close won. If we knew how to do that, if there was a button that you could push, we’d buy that software and we’d all be pushing that button all day long. That’s why there’s us. That’s why there’s people trying to solve this problem.

Isabel, thank you very much for being on the show. This was fantastic.

Thank you, always fun to talk with you.

Important links

The Marketing Playbook for Content Creation A Guide to Crafting Fit Content That’s Ready to Perform

Download now