Marketing Director, Educational Software Company
Date of Interview: February 24th, 2017
Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?
A: I am the senior field marketing manager for analytics and student success initiatives at Blackboard, and I graduated seventeen years ago [laughter].
Q: Okay. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?
A: My primary job functions include setting up campaign management for all outbound marketing campaigns around our analytics and student success products at Blackboard. So that is developing strategy, go-to-market strategy for those products, lead generation, demand generation, awareness campaigns, event management, there’s some writing involved, there is some contractor management involved as well.
Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: I would say 20 to 30 percent of my job requires writing. We don’t have copywriters in house on staff. We do utilize them for larger projects that require a lot of writing, pages and pages and pages. Normally what I’m doing is writing either campaign briefs, or strategy documents, or powerpoint presentations. But then also I’m responsible for some of our outbound copy, as well, that you would see appearing in marketing emails, as well as smaller brochures or flyers that might appear at a trade show or that a salesperson might leave behind at a sales presentation.
Q: Great. And that 20 to 30 percent that you mentioned, does that include email communication or no?
Q: Great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete? You mentioned a few of them there.
A: A lot of my time is spent writing internal communication. Explaining what types of campaigns are going on, explaining strategy, those types of just internal business types of documents. But a lot of my writing also involves that outbound communication that our prospects and clients are seeing, and that’s primarily in the form of marketing email communication. There’s some writing that occurs or you’ll see on what we call data sheets, or a marketing flyer, a sales slick, that sort of thing. More often than not, I tend to prefer to let a professional writer handle some of that, but if I need something quickly and cheaply, I’ll do it myself.
Q: Could you describe the primary audiences that these types of writing are most often reaching and the primary purposes of these types of documents?
A: Sure. The audiences range from technical positions, or persona as we call it, within higher education institutions, primarily open enrollment style institutions, community colleges, state school systems. Also then more higher level persona within those institutions: presidents, provosts, senior directors, and vice presidents usually involved in enrollment, student success, student retention, sometimes academic affairs as well.
Q: And the purposes of those documents are primarily sales oriented?
A: Sales and marketing oriented. Either making someone aware of a product or a solution or an offering, making them aware of a change or an enhancement if they’re already a client or a user of that product and solution, or just general awareness of what Blackboard is doing in a particular area, particularly around student success or student retention.
Q: Were you familiar with these types of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did that affect your approach to them in the workplace?
A: Not in that particular type of writing. I never imagined, especially when I was a student, that I would be writing to that particular audience. And funny enough, now that I think about it, I don’t know exactly what audience I was planning on writing to. I know I was given the impression that I’d be writing to a business audience, but at that time I didn’t know exactly what that meant and who those people were. I found throughout my career that as the audiences change, you have to adapt to those audiences and sometimes change your tone and sometimes change the way things are presented, depending on what the audience is.
Q: And you mentioned as a student, sort of what you were imagining as– did you study marketing and business as a student?
A: I studied journalism and public relations. So there was a little bit of a connection there. At the time I thought I was going to be in public relations, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. I got into marketing because I was advised that that is one of the easier ways to get into public relations. Nobody got into public relations right after college, especially from someone who was going to a small college in the countryside of Pennsylvania. So to find myself in marketing with then what would gradually evolve into a role of public relations, and 17 years later I’m still in marketing [laughter]. It still hasn’t happened. So there was a lot of instruction around crisis management, more journalistic style of writing, more about just sort of corporate overviews or how a corporation might be doing something well for the environment, and how you would position it for the press, you know, those types of things. I never really really took any courses or study around marketing writing or even how to write internally within business, regardless of what business that would be.
Q: Okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how tasks or assignments are given to you, or sort of appear in your life, any preparation you take before writing, and the steps from the start of the project to a final version of a piece of writing? And if it’s useful, you can choose one specific kind of–
A: Well so I’m involved heavily in my own strategy, so I do a lot of planning, and I’m aware of what’s coming up in terms of my output over the next, let’s say 90 days. I know when I’ve got a brochure coming up, I know when I have an email campaign, I know when we have a big event coming up that we’re going to need collateral for, and so I plan that way and I look at what’s coming up and what I’m able to do myself, and what I’m going to need help doing. I do a lot of research in terms of what has been written before for these audiences. I take a lot of time and I go back, and I look at things that have done well. So we have resources here and members of the team who are able to catalog those best practices. Whether it’s an email that it performed well, or a digital ad that performed well, or flyer that is really hot and everybody loves to receive it and there’s some action taking off of that. So I’ll look at those things, and I’ll study how our people are positioning the communication toward that particular audience, because I’m not a member of the higher education community, and I’ve never been a member of the audiences that I’ve written to, so I have to immerse myself in that world and try to understand that person. And then you sort of take a look at exactly what is the instance, not every bit of communication’s going to be the same – an email doesn’t sound the same as a flyer, doesn’t sound the same as a boilerplate company description, doesn’t sound the same as something that you would put in a powerpoint presentation – so you got to think a little bit about what the occasion is and what you are trying to get across. Then also there’s the instances where I am trying to drive somebody to do something, whether it’s fill out a form, or give me their contact information, or download a study or a white paper, or sign up to attend a webinar, or if I’m just telling them that Blackboard is going to be at an event and you should come and visit us and it’ll be really great. So there’s all these little nuances to that that you have to think about and you have to plan through because it’s not all the same. But then keeping that common thread of this is how you talk to a president or a provost at a higher education institution who’s running a state school system, that sort of thing, you’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind of course.
Q: Absolutely. And then in terms of, if your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach making those changes or improving from one draft to the next?
A: I’m really open to it because it’s a lot of trial by error for me. Regardless of what industry I’ve been working in, that’s the way I learn what works best. I am by no means an expert and I am by no means a copywriter, and I’ve found over the years that as resources have become more and more limited– where when I started after college, every business I worked at had a team of business copywriters who were trained to do what a lot of us marketers are doing today. So you would rely on them and not really even deal with revisions or, you know, there might be some stylistic changes. I’m more than happy to have somebody look at my work, especially somebody who’s more keenly familiar with who I’m trying to communicate with, and give me feedback, because otherwise I’m just sort of making it up as I go and hoping for the best, and that’s not what I really want to do.
Q: Gotcha. So those comments that you’re often seeking, they tend to be about audience?
A: Audience, yeah absolutely. I mean surely, if I’m working on something long enough, I will miss a word that I misspelled, or some grammar, or something like that that I wasn’t familiar with, and that’s always helpful as well. But a lot of times, the revisions are more audience related. Like, “Oh, this would be more effective, or this is not what we say, and this is–” because what I’ll try to do, I think I tend in my writing, particularly to this audience, which has been new to me for about a year now, I’ll overcompensate a little bit. So I’m talking to somebody in the academic community, so I’ll try to make myself sound smarter than I am, and so the writing comes across fake and phoney. A president of a university is a person too, and they’re going to respond differently to something that sounds fake and phoney than something that’s a little bit more organic. So people will tone it down a little bit, and you know, “Back off of that a little bit, or maybe you rephrase this, and you don’t have to sound so stuffy about this particular research study, it’s not that big of a deal,” and so that’s been interesting as well. And I think that applies to any of the industries that I’ve worked in before. I think I would tend to overcompensate to try to make it sound a little bit more professional. But I’ve learned over time, these are people too, and they respond just like any other human responds to something, and there’s a time and a place for that too. But there’s also a time and a place to sound like a normal person and communicate like a normal person, so try to put that into the writing.
Q: That’s really interesting. Do you mind telling me briefly about the previous industries that you’ve worked in?
A: Sure, oh wow, there’s been a few. So previous to my current role, I was writing to lobbyists and lawyers and very senior officials at government contracting offices. So there’s, again, a whole other level of pretension that I felt like I had to deal with, and I needed to sound like they– and I needed to talk like a lawyer, and I needed to sound like a lawyer, and that’s just wasn’t necessarily the case as well. They also were human beings, and they respond to things like a normal human being does and you have to keep that in mind. But I also had to make sure that things were professional and very streamlined. These are people who are very busy, and they have their busy, busy day, and you have to consider that as well in terms of what you’re putting in front of them. Are they really going to read the whole thing? And how to get the most important points in front of them quickly. I think I learned that the most in that role. And prior to that, I was working in the wholesale capital asset and commercial goods industry, which is a whole other beast altogether. And all those people have a whole other style that you have to sort of get in line with. These are people who go to flea markets and swap meets and buy bulk truckloads of merchandise to resell on ebay. So that was a different style and a different tone and I had to learn how those people communicated with one another. I relied on people in the industry or people that I was working with to help me do that.
Q: Great, that’s really helpful. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project, one of the more formal writing projects?
A: Well, we’re just all so busy all the time that I would like more time to do what I do. I probably spend a lot less time than I should on some things. Particularly if it’s just an outbound marketing email communication, I’ll probably write it the day or two before it’s supposed to go out, which I don’t advise anyone to do, but that’s just sort of the nature of the game sometimes because there’s so much going on. So with something like that, I feel comfortable enough that I can do that, have somebody look at it, have somebody from the email marketing team say, “Hey, maybe you should make it only one paragraph, not two paragraphs, that works better for us in terms of email performance. It should have more than three links in it, or it needs a better call to action.” And we can get that done quickly. If it is a series of emails or if I’m writing landing pages for a webinar series or promotion or something like that, I will take additional time and I’ll build in the time to have other people look at it, and spend time with me, and test it out, and try it out, knowing that there probably will be a good bit of revisions going back and forth. But the funny thing is there that people that are reviewing it aren’t necessarily the official reviewers of that copy, you kind of have to make do and you have to say, “Hey, can you look at this, I know that you’ve done something around this topic before. Can you take a look at it? Or do you think this would work?” So you’re just sharing it with colleagues, you’re sharing it with other members of the marketing team, sometimes you’re sharing it with salespeople who are more of the subject matter experts. There’s no real official copy reviewer here, and I haven’t had that in years and years, I’d say. You make do and you try to work it out the best you can, and get the help that you can, until you get to the point where you feel comfortable enough releasing it to the public.
Q: That’s super interesting. Do you feel like it’s a better system?
A: No, no. I loved having a team of copywriters who I knew were trained and who were able to adapt their writing style and their writing skill to any industry and any audience, because that’s what they were brought in to do. I do miss that, I miss that a lot, because there’s sort of that level of comfort there that’s gone now. I’ve had things go out with spelling errors, and I’ve had hell to pay for some of that because you work at some of these organizations and you’re basically embarrassing the entire organization if you send even an email communication out to 300 presidents of a university and it has a spelling error in it and you’re supposed to be working in higher education – it’s ridiculous. It happens now because there’s no one who is officially assigned to making sure that that doesn’t happen. You just have to do the best you can, but there’s so much going on all the time that stuff like that gets missed. I don’t think stuff like that got missed when there was a team of writers who was responsible for making sure that that didn’t happen. And I do miss that.
Q: Interesting, okay, yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?
A: Reputation, for one. You are the voice of an organization always, you’re representing an organization always, and it goes back to what I was just saying – if you make a mistake or something doesn’t come out right, or you’re saying something wrong, it’s really the organization’s reputation is at stake. Nobody knows who I am or where that email came from. A lot of times, I’m writing as a ghostwriter for somebody. I’m writing as the vice president of so and so, and their name is on the email, my name’s not on the email. So you’ve got to think about that always and that’s when it gets really tough if there’s a mistake. And there’s mistakes a lot of the time now because I’m not a professional writer, we don’t have professional writers. And then there’s also the transactional business aspect of it – I’m trying to get somebody to buy something at the end of the day. And so what I’m writing has to be informative enough, impactful enough, interesting enough to get somebody to do that, because that what I’m getting paid to do at the end of the day.
Q: How would you say – I know there’s no one specifically designated to oversee the quality of your writing – but how would you say that, if not your boss and the people around you in the organization, judge the success or quality of your writing?
A: Well, we look at performance metrics really. At the end of the day that’s all that matters to a business, I think. Outside of reputation, they’re going to be looking at the hard numbers. Did an activity that required writing result in new leads being brought in, and new business being brought in? That’s what we look at it. And then we look at, okay, what worked and what didn’t work? And then you sort of filter it back down to the writing. We look at a campaign in a holistic view when something does really well, and then it sort of filters back down later. That’s when I go back and I look at the things that did work, and I’m like, well, “How did I word this? Why did this work? Was this call to action really effective? And I should try to use that again.” But at the end of the day, the business is looking at did it bring in leads that convert to a sale.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?
A: No. No, I mean, informally I’ve worked with some really, really smart people, and again, I think the review process is a training in itself. But no, definitely all informal and nothing that I had had the ability to even– and I never even considered going out and seeking that out. That might be a good idea [laughter].
Q: What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer in those sort of early years right out of college?
A: I think the fact that there’s so many different styles that you need to consider. The way you write an email or a memo to a CEO is not the same as the way you would write a letter or an email to a coworker or a colleague or a counterpart. Then an email communication is different from an online web communication, and that wasn’t laid out for me. I hear a lot about students today, who are especially in the workforce – people are seeing that students are having those same challenges, that their writing style is almost the same across the board, no matter who they’re writing to, and no matter who’s reading it. And I do remember that being a challenge, and I remember having a tough time pivoting from the way you wrote your assignments in school to writing business communication. It wasn’t the same at all and nobody made that distinction for me at the end of school as I was preparing to graduate and set out for a career. It was more verbal communication that we spent a lot of time on: “This is how you interview, this is how you answer these types of questions, this is how you talk to your boss, this is the proper way to talk to your colleagues,” and things to avoid and pitfalls and things like that. But never really prepared to, “Here’s how you write an email–”. You know, I was thrust into the world of email marketing at 22 or 23, and never had written a business email before or back then, we had fax marketing as well, so I didn’t know how to write a fax marketing that was effective. And then having to present information about how those things did to your boss, that’s also a different communication style. So I think the different styles of written business communication was something that was left out in my education.
Q: That’s really interesting. Can you think of practical steps that you took in those first few years to acquire those skills, or to shift those skills?
A: It was a lot of trial by fire, it was a lot of mistakes that I’ve made. Again, that was a time where I was working with really smart people whose job was to support writing efforts, and working with those people and learning from them, and learning from my colleagues as well. There was people who had been there for a long time, my bosses at the time just say, “No, that’s not how you do this,” or “No, this is what an effective call to action is.” I didn’t know what a call to action was when I graduated college. So learning as I went on the job, on the job training I guess.
Q: Are you able to identify, and you sort of talked about this already, but are you able to identify specific changes in your writing between college and now? And if so, what do you attribute this shift to?
A: Practice. The practice – doing it again and again and again – and I think the more I do it, the better I get. I am by no means a very, very good business writer, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, and enough that I can get an email out and get some people to register for a webinar if I need to. At the end of the day, no one’s going to be asking me to write a white paper or an extensive study on something, nor do I want to, because that’s not what I’m good at and I recognize that. One of the positives of not having a team of writers to rely on is that I do get to flex that muscle a little bit, and learn a little bit, and keep at it, so that I don’t lose that skillset when I need it. So just doing it myself and learning as I go, and making those mistakes, is the thing that keeps me active with my writing. And then it keeps me interested in writing outside of business as well. Now and again I’ll find myself doing a little bit of writing outside of the business world just for my own enjoyment, and kind of break away from that sort of stodgy, very structured business tone that you have to have sometimes.
Q: We talked a little bit about ways in which your academic background did not prepare you to write in the workplace. Are there, on the other hand, things from your academic life that you felt did prepare you for writing in the workplace?
A: No, I think it was a lot more preparation to get into the workplace. I go back to– they taught us how to write a resume, they taught us how to write a cover letter, they taught us how to write a thank you note, all the things that people did back then when they were looking to get into the workplace. I don’t know if that’s happening today. I think it was a lot of effort spent on making sure we got you out of here, and got you a job after you graduated, and then you’re on your own after that. And that’s the way I truly feel. A lot of my training was in speech communication. I took speech classes, I didn’t take writing classes. Which, now thinking back as a journalism student, I think I took the standard English and things like that, but there wasn’t, from what I can remember, a specific course of writing that I took to help me prepare, definitely not business-focused writing. I wasn’t in a business school at all. And there’s things I would do differently for sure. Oh gosh, if I went back, the things I would do differently, in terms of my education and what I’d prepare myself for, but I am grateful for the instruction that I got because it got me a job two weeks after graduation. I don’t know if students are doing that these days. But that’s what I feel the emphasis was on. The emphasis was on we will prepare you to do whatever it takes to get you a career outside of this institution when it is time for you to leave.
Q: Interesting. We’ve mostly answered this question, but in what ways were you unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce. Is there anything that you’d add that you haven’t touched on here?
A: Again, I go back to business writing, how to speak to a certain– I didn’t spend time learning different audiences that different industries might be marketing to or selling to. My first job out of school was working at a publishing company that specialized in executive-level newsletters to companies in the Fortune 500 and that sort of thing. Nothing in school prepared me how to write a communication for that type of person, nor the next type of audience that I worked with. Again, I wish I had a little bit more of an understanding of the different types of business audiences that are out there that are receptive to different types of marketing and selling, because it does change. And then knowing the industry that you’re in and what you’re trying to sell. At that time I was trying to sell newsletters about wireless communication and the gaming industry and the cable industry. I knew nothing about those things and you’d have to pick that stuff up because you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about. There was never any preparation for anything like that. And again, it was all just sort of learning about it as I went.
Q: Two more questions. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?
A: I could be better, I could be better. Sometimes during revisions and proofing and things that I get back from people who’ve looked at my work, I’ll go, “Oh geez, I should’ve known that,” or “Geez, why did I do it that way?” or “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I don’t feel like I do it enough to really, really, really, really, excel at it – I do it just enough to get by. Again, like I said, nobody’s hiring me to write a report a white paper, but I’m deadly with an email [laughter].
Q: And what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?
A: Understanding the audience. Understanding what are they looking at all day long? What are the things that are effective in terms of communication for them? What are the things that bring them in that are interesting to them? What is their day to day struggle like? What does their day look like? What do they have to deal with all day long? So understanding the best way to communicate with them that is a way that doesn’t get lost in all the other clutter and the things they’re looking at all day long, whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s on their own internal communications, or other marketing that they’re getting, or sales messages that they’re getting. You have to understand how to stick out in the fray of all of that, and that it takes a little while to understand that. And again, it’s trial by error. Luckily, when you’re in a marketing organization, you’re constantly being judged in terms of was your output or your activity effective? And so we’re looking at that all the time and we’re making changes based on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of certain types of communication. So I get instant feedback in terms of how something did that I was responsible for writing, and then we take the time, as much as we can, to understand what went right and what went wrong, and then how to make changes for the next time. And I like that, it’s a fun part of the job actually.
Q: Great, thank you so much.
A: You’re welcome.