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360Learning’s Joei Chan on embracing innovation as a content marketer

When it comes to content marketing, it's easy to feel like you're being stretched between a growth-focused, SEO-driven content strategy and a more creative, high-level approach. But why can’t it be both?

Ideally, this wouldn’t be a conflict. Just ask any content marketer – they would rather have the time and resources to focus on both, because to build a strong marketing brand, you need an approach that covers both the awareness and the acquisition.

Striking that balance is of the utmost importance to Joei Chan, Director of Content at the collaborative learning platform 360Learning. While a career in marketing wasn’t exactly in her plans, her background in literature and film studies has given her an unusual perspective that has encouraged her to experiment with bold and new storytelling formats to drive organic growth.

On her very first day as Director of Content at 360Learning, she starred as the lead of Onboarding Joei, an original, unscripted docuseries that followed her onboarding experience during her first 90 days. And if starting a new role wasn’t challenging enough, the show started filming a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that we got to watch in real time as she faced the challenges of pivoting to remote work during a global pandemic. Joei and the team’s unique approach has paid off in spades: the show was recently selected as a Webby Honoree, not long after they released their second series.

We recently sat down with Joei to chat about her new series, how to work unexpected new formats into your content marketing strategy, and balancing creativity with lead generation.

Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the conversation.

1. Don’t be afraid to try something different

Blog articles, podcasts, ebooks, and videos have been the bread and butter for content marketers for a long time now. That’s why, if you want to build a brand that stands out from the crowd, you need to be open to experimentation. For 360Learning, this means that every now and then they like to take an unusual idea and run with it. Like, say, merging the idea of a reality TV docuseries with one of the key use cases of a fast-growing B2B startup.

“I knew they had a lot of ambition to do original and bold storytelling, and that’s what I signed up for. It just came together nicely – I’m starting this new job, onboarding is one of our use cases, and I’m a content person. I’m in for experimenting with different content formats. Obviously, when we first started, it sounded like a crazy idea and we had no idea where it would land or how far it would bring us. It was kind of a risk that we took.”

2. Balancing the creative with the traditional

Of course, all things considered, you’re not going to be turning your content marketing team into Netflix – at the end of the day, you still need to be regularly producing content for every step of the lead generation funnel. And so, content marketers must find the right balance between creating memorable, high-level, top-of-funnel content that builds brand awareness and more acquisition-driven, bottom-of-funnel content that converts that awareness into revenue.

“Content marketers are in a very tricky spot because there is this more traditional path of content, of being very focused on blogging, SEO, and growth through publishing a lot of blog posts. And we need to do that because you want your brand to reach customers in their buyer’s journey, and you want to show up when they’re searching for different keywords. But at the same time, doing that alone is not enough for you to stand out as a brand and to be memorable.”

3. Inviting the audience in

Many of us struggle with the feeling that we need to be different people at work: more serious, more professional, less open. But as Joei points out, that approach may be putting up barriers in our relationships with customers. Being polite and professional is essential, of course, but a bit of vulnerability and authenticity can actually help you connect with your customers on a more personal level. And as we know, building those personal customer relationships is the key to long-term growth.

“Ironically, our desire to seem professional sometimes stops customers or prospects from connecting with us on an emotional level. So I feel like it’s important to think of how we can speak and communicate more as we do in our real lives. I’m the same person at work as I am in my personal life, and I think when you embrace that, people can really feel it and appreciate that, and they connect with you on a much deeper level.”

This is Scale, Intercom’s podcast series on driving business growth through customer relationships. If you enjoy the conversation and don’t want to miss future episodes, just hit subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. You can also read the full transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.

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Marketing by accident

Dee: Joei, you are so very welcome along to Scale by Intercom today. We’re delighted to chat with you about your work at 360Learning. To kick us off, do you want to give us a little bit of background on yourself?

Joei: Sure, thanks for having me today. I’m super excited. So I’m currently working at 360Learning as Director of Content. Before, I was working in other startups, working in content marketing, doing lead generation and inbound marketing but with a strong focus on telling brand stories and creating different types of formats of content.

I kind of fell into content marketing a little bit by accident. I actually have a background in literature and film studies, screenwriting, and all that. When I was young, I thought I was going to be a professor at a university. That wasn’t my career path, or at least my parents’ career path for me. But out of a random summer holiday in Paris, I turned a gap year into a full ex-pat life. Now I live in Paris and I work in content marketing, and it’s great.

Dee: Well, to be fair, there are elements to that history in terms of filmmaking, in terms of education and storytelling that I think is probably very well expressed in your world today. And we’ll hear a little bit more about that later.

Joei: Yeah, looking back. I didn’t see it at that time, but now, yeah.

“It’s very important to have a strong brand so you can bring about organic growth, which is much more sustainable compared to paid acquisition”

Dee: So that brings us to your work in 360Learning. You joined the company at a pretty interesting time. How did that come about?

Joei: I was approached by the brand director when 360Learning decided to really invest in building a strong brand to differentiate ourselves, as we have very ambitious goals to grow in the US and globally. The company historically has been very successful in paid acquisition, demand gen activities. And that’s kind of how the company has grown over the years.

But our CEO saw that it’s very important in the long run to have a strong brand so you can bring about organic growth, which is much more sustainable over the long term compared to paid acquisition. So, I was approached to help build that organic content brand strategy about a year and two months ago. No regrets so far, it’s been a crazy adventure. I’ve learned so much in just a year and two months, and we still have a lot of ambition and growth coming in the near future.

Reality show meets B2B

Dee: In that year and a half, you’ve done some really, really interesting — I’d even go so far as to say out-there — stuff in terms of content marketing. A lot of our audience will probably be familiar with your reality show or docuseries. Which do you prefer?

Joei: Yeah, it depends on who I’m talking to. I think we pitched it on Product Hunt as a reality TV show of a B2B, and maybe more docuseries when we’re talking to more serious customers or investors so that it doesn’t sound so Kim Kardashian.

Dee: I like it. Well, look, our audience will probably vary between the two of those. It’s called Onboarding Joei. And for those of us who haven’t watched it yet, it’s now on its second series. So can you share what the series is and what the content actually entails?

“When I started my first day, my video producer welcomed me with a camera and asked if I wanted it to be in a docuseries”

Joei: Sure. Onboarding Joei is a docuseries produced by 360Learning, and it’s exactly what the title says, Onboarding Joei. The pitch was: go behind the scenes of a hyper-growth startup with our original docuseries and follow Joei through her first 90 days as she starts a new job.

When I started my first day, my video producer welcomed me with a camera and asked if I wanted it to be in a docuseries and that he would be filming me every day and we’d shoot and produce an episode every week for my first 90 days. 13 weeks, 13 episodes, completely unscripted.

Dee: Amazing. Was the series ever on the table before you arrived on that first day?

Joei: It was not explicitly on the table, but I knew they had a lot of ambition to do original and bold storytelling, and that’s what I signed up for. It just came together nicely – I’m starting this new job, onboarding is one of our use cases, and I’m a content person. I’m in for experimenting with different content formats. We have a video producer, so all the stars were aligned and we decided to go for it and do something different. Obviously, when we first started, it sounded like a crazy idea and we had no idea where it would land or how far it would bring us. It was kind of a risk that we took, but then it paid off.

Dee: Yeah, it absolutely has. It’s paid off in spades. I’ve watched it, it’s a great series. I really enjoyed it.

Joei: Thank you.

Dee: The storytelling and the narrative arc in it are really enjoyable. I’m curious, where did that sit within your overall content strategy and ambition for when you started this role as content director?

Joei: That’s a very good question. Content marketers, especially in B2B, are in a very tricky spot because there is this more traditional path of content, of being very focused on blogging, SEO, and growth through publishing a lot of blog posts. And we need to do that because you want your brand to reach customers in their buyer’s journey, and you want to show up when they’re searching for different keywords.

“We have this more down-to-earth aspect where we work on our blog and SEO strategy. And then, every year, we think of something kind of crazy to try out”

But at the same time, doing that alone is not enough for you to stand out as a brand and to be memorable. And so, content marketers have to do this hybrid where you have this consistent SEO content machine going on for your blog, but then you kind of need these more epic moments of campaigns or fun projects that really stand out and catch people’s attention. And that might be slightly less scalable, but it’s more provocative and memorable.

That’s how we think about our content – we have this more down-to-earth, traditional aspect where we work on our blog and SEO strategy. And then, every year, we think of something kind of crazy that we try out. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it doesn’t.

Dee: And you actually alluded to something I was going to ask you about a little bit later in the conversation. When a format like that isn’t necessarily scalable, you’re clearly quite comfortable for ideas like that to shine short and bright.

Joei: When we talk about scalability, it’s not just about how much you can replicate it, it can be also about how you maximize what you can get out of it. Sometimes it’s doing a season two, sometimes it’s just promoting the hell out of season one and making sure you get the most out of the production that you’ve put in, and just promote it in different aspects, or slice it into different formats. “The Slicing of the Turkey” is a very popular way of repurposing content among content marketers.

Sometimes it works, but I think it really depends on a case-by-case situation. Other than Onboarding Joei, we had another video series called Master SaaS. So it was a total rip-off of Masterclass, where we emulated the same grand music and very dramatic setup with an expert sharing his expertise in front of the camera and then a short class. That has also gotten a lot of great feedback and it might be more scalable because we can re-adapt and take that same format and get other experts to share different topics. We were not able to do that because of COVID, but that might be a more scalable idea that we will do more of in the future.

“You want to find creative ideas, but they should always have a connection to what you’re doing”

For Onboarding Joei, it takes a lot of circumstantial elements. You need to be someone who just started their job and someone willing to put herself out there. And then, there was also this craziness that wasn’t expected with COVID and the pandemic that kind of increased the tension and the drama aspect of the show that might not be something that we can easily replicate.

Dee: The rest of the world would probably thank you for not trying to replicate that. But at their very core, Joei, those two bigger ideas you described there between Master SaaS and Onboarding Joei, at their core, they do speak to 360Learning, the company, the product, and everything that you offer. So, they’re kind of the content marketer’s dream in that they are anchored in that philosophy.

Joei: Yeah, of course, you want to find creative ideas, but they should always have a connection to what you’re doing. It’s not like we’re Netflix and we’re producing interesting shows for people to watch with no end goal. In the end, if you’re a SaaS company, or an agency selling services, you ultimately want to create this funnel where, at some point, there is an acquisition element to it. It’s a bit different than media companies, where all they want is to entertain and create engagement.

Dee: Absolutely. And in terms of selling these ideas to internal stakeholders, did you come up against any challenges?

Joei: I believe my video producer did when he pitched the idea before I joined a company. But luckily, we have a culture of being strategically provocative as a company. The CEO is very aligned with doing things differently and trying things that other companies are not doing. But of course, we still had to kind of build a business case that Onboarding Joei highlights an aspect of our use case, which is onboarding, and we’ll be talking about learning – it’s not just like a catchy idea where we have people twerking for no reason. We have to sell it a little bit and tie it with business impact to get that buy-in, but it was not terribly difficult because of the company culture.

Onboarding during a pandemic

Dee: With the pandemic hitting, your team kind of had to turn on a dime, presumably in terms of what the original idea was, and produce a very different series to what might’ve been anticipated. What was that period like? And did you ever consider dropping the project?

Joei: Obviously, my producer couldn’t follow me around anymore after we went remote. In the beginning, he was literally following me around with his iPhone every day, in our meetings and everything, documenting everything. And when we had to work remotely, that all had to come to a halt. I started my job and the series two or three weeks before the pandemic hit. So, of course, we had no idea how long it was going to last. We didn’t know if it was just a month where everything would stop and then we would resume and go back to normal. Little that we know that, a year later, we’d still be here, but we thought about putting it on hold because we thought it might resume in a short period.

But then we saw all these talk shows, like Jimmy Fallon, doing home editions and just adapting the format. And we thought we could try to do the same because there is this element of my onboarding being 90 days, and at the end of it, we would find out whether I make my probation period or not. So if we hadn’t continued, that storyline would be basically ruined. So we kind of had to stick to it. Luckily, my partner is also a filmmaker with cameras and stuff, so he started filming me instead. We switched that format, and luckily people responded very well. Since then, we never thought about dropping the project.

Dee: Yeah, I think that when you watch the series, it comes across, it really speaks to the moment. And if nothing else, it’ll actually be quite an interesting record for you to have in decades to come, to look back on that period in a way that a lot of the rest of us don’t.

“I definitely had doubts about how much of it I wanted to share or whether it was kind of putting me in a vulnerable position”

So many of us felt that sort of blurring of the line between the private and the personal, suddenly working from home. It was quite a lot, but obviously, with you, that line was blurred even further. Did you find that a challenge at all?

Joei: Yeah, I definitely felt that I was exposing my personal life quite a bit on the docuseries. We made that decision from the beginning, to show the personal and emotional aspect of onboarding because that’s what’s interesting, and that’s not an angle that’s usually told in B2B content. But we went even further as the pandemic went on, and I was sharing about my family, and at some points, we talked about very personal things. So I definitely had doubts about how much of it I wanted to share or whether it was kind of putting me in a vulnerable position.

But then, from the responses I’ve got from viewers and my friends and family, they really resonated with what I was sharing. And in the end, what’s personal is what’s universal, in a way. And I think that’s what has made the show successful because people can see themselves in my journey and experience. I feel like it was intense in some moments, but it was worth it just because of how well people resonated with it.

“You have to completely rethink how you integrate someone into a team when there’s no human contact”

And like you said, as our homes become our offices, there’s really no clear boundaries between personal and professional. The series really highlighted how our lives have changed, how our way of working needs to change, and also how employers need to consider employees’ personal lives at work, too, because when you’re working with people behind the screens, sometimes we forget there’s this whole personal aspect to every employee’s life. I wanted to bring that and highlight that in the show to remind everybody that every employee is a human being and they all have personal lives and problems.

Dee: And you know, what a great thing for 360Learning to capture, that onboarding process at a time when onboarding, as an experience, has changed so much. And across the two series, you can see how these tools at our disposal can actually help the person on the other side of the screen.

Joei: Absolutely. And you have to completely rethink how you integrate someone into a team when there’s no human contact. How do you make people feel welcomed into a team? Part of a culture usually requires a lot of physical meetings, or gatherings, or team lunches, and none of that can happen now. So, when there are no water cooler conversations, how do you keep that engagement and foster that culture? We haven’t figured it out either. So it’s really, I think, something that every company is learning to adapt to.

Finding the right metrics

Dee: What was the audience reaction like and the return on investment for your team?

Joei: The show generated a lot of interest and buzz from day one. I think the idea was fresh and bold, and it’s still a format that is not so common in B2B. A lot of companies do episodic video or podcast series, but it’s usually not dramatic, nor a reality TV show with a plot and cliffhangers and tension. And so, we were able to get a lot of views, and people talking about it from the beginning.

“We actually readjusted the KPIs. It didn’t make sense to have a bottom-of-funnel metric”

In terms of ROI, I think that’s an interesting question because, in the beginning, we actually set up a subscriber target and an MQL or a lead target. And then, we quickly found that because it’s an ungated piece of content that anybody can look at and watch, this lead gen aspect is not the best way to measure the show’s success. And so, we actually readjusted the KPIs and measured it more on awareness level because it is an awareness-y type of content, really top-of-funnel. It didn’t make sense to have a bottom-of-funnel metric. So, in the end, we’re looking at more viewers and traffic for the show.

Dee: That makes a lot of sense. And I was actually going to ask you about KPIs because even just watching it or talking about it, it does feel, as you say, very top-of-funnel content. So it almost seems like you wouldn’t have been set up for success if the KPIs had been otherwise. Were there any other KPIs that you used? I mean, aside from the obvious one of you getting to keep your job.

Joei: We’re also starting to use it as an HR employer-brand piece of content. We’ve noticed that a lot of our candidates mention Onboarding Joei in their interviews and say, “Oh, I’ve seen the show, and I really liked the culture,” or “I thought it was super interesting for the company to have done something like this.” So, we’re looking at the mentions of candidates talking about the show, and we’re also starting to look at our press mentions – backlinks and quoting us in blog posts, or even podcast interviews like this one to look at how much conversation it’s driving for the company.

Dee: Brilliant. And what advice would you give to other content creators trying to find a similarly intimate or conversational way to engage with their audience?

“Our desire to seem professional sometimes stops customers or prospects from connecting with us on an emotional level”

Joei: A lot of people have asked me for advice on how they can start a show like that. Obviously, there’s the technical side of things you need to have – the right people with the video skills or editing skills. But more importantly, it’s probably the approach and the tone, as you said, that needs to be more personal and conversational. I think it’s normal that most of us feel like we need to speak and present ourselves differently at work or in marketing. And that’s why we often find this corporate jargon that bleeds through most content marketing. But ironically, our desire to seem professional sometimes stops customers or prospects from connecting with us on an emotional level. So I feel like it’s important to think of how we can speak and communicate more as we do in our real lives. I’m the same person at work as I am in my personal life, and I think when you embrace that, people can really feel it and appreciate that, and they connect with you on a much deeper level.

Dee: That makes a lot of sense. I suppose if you want to invite openness, you have to be open yourself. As content marketers, we are always looking for new ways to invite those conversations with our audience. And because you’ve been successful in avoiding the pitfalls of this, I think, in your two series, Master SaaS and Onboarding Joei, what’s your advice for making sure that companies don’t miss that opportunity while also avoiding jumping on every bandwagon going? Because there is that risk there, I think.

Joei: I think you do have to have a plan. You want to be responsive and react to what’s happening in the world and in your customers’ lives to be relevant. But I think it’s better to create conversations with your audience by making connections between what you’re already doing with what’s happening rather than just waiting for something to happen and then think of a marketing idea that responds to it.

Dee: That does make sense. It’s being proactive about these things rather than being reactive.

Joei: Yeah, basically. We started Onboarding Joei before there was a pandemic, and we were going to do it anyway. Obviously, it was much less universal as an experience, but we wanted to talk about what it’s like starting a new job in a company and the behind-the-scenes of a startup. It became something different because of COVID, but we already had a plan that we were going to do anyway. Same for Master SaaS. So it wasn’t us reacting to what’s happening and then thinking of doing something.

Taking on bolder bets

Dee: As season two draws to a close, what are the key learnings that you and your team will take going forward from the whole project, including Master SaaS as well?

Joei: I think that the biggest takeaway for our team, at least, is to take the risk because sometimes it pays off, and when it does, it’s great. And there is enough cookie-cutter type of content out there. We need more original and different ideas. Even for ourselves, as content marketers, when you’re working on projects, you want things that are exciting and make you look forward to going to work every day. So, I think the biggest takeaway is to take bolder bets in your content.

“Content marketers spend most of their time producing a great piece of content, but not so much about, ‘Okay, how do we get people to see it?'”

On the distribution side of things, I think we actually haven’t thought as much about distribution as we have on production. And I think the series or both of our projects could have been even more successful if we had thought about distribution a bit more from conception. Sometimes, content marketers spend most of their time producing a great piece of content, but not so much about, “Okay, how do we then get people to see it?” And so that’s what we have taken away. We are going to invest more in social media and on distribution and proper strategies to promote our content.

Dee: That’s such good advice because I think you can’t always plan for that big idea, but you can certainly plan for distribution and discovery. Really good advice there, Joei. Has this impacted your content strategy going forward?

Joei: Definitely. I think before this, we had a more packed content production schedule, and now we’ve actually decided to produce less but spend more time thinking about, “Okay, what is the launch? What is the distribution strategy?” So we’re doing less, but hopefully more impactful content.

Dee: Quality, not quantity. I think that’s something that a lot of content teams do step back from at various points and realize that they need to just find that right balance for themselves.

Going where you can grow

Dee: What’s next for the content arm of 360Learning? Have you any big plans or projects on the rise and for the rest of 2021?

Joei: Well, we are scaling into new markets, we’re continuing to grow in the US, but we also want to grow more in new markets, in the UK, in France, and possibly opening up new markets. So I have to start thinking about how to localize and basically replicate our content strategy for all these new markets, which is going to be a big challenge. I’m also launching a podcast soon, we have different video formats coming up, and we’re also publishing a book next year. A lot of work to be done in 2021.

Dee: Well, that all sounds very exciting, particularly the podcast. Before we let you go, this series is generally about hearing how companies scale their growth, and I’d love to know if there was a key event in your career – outside of Onboarding Joei, of course – that helped you scale professionally.

“What has really helped me grow in my career was joining a company that was really investing in my department”

Joei: I don’t know if I can call it a key event, but what has really helped me grow in my career was joining a company that was really investing in my department. Not just a company that’s growing fast, but growing in your specific department, meaning they are investing in the marketing team. I’ve joined companies where they were growing, but they weren’t growing in my particular department, and that makes all the difference on how much you can grow professionally.

Dee: Absolutely. Lastly, then, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Joei: LinkedIn would be the best place to find me. You can find me on LinkedIn, Joei Chan with a dot after Chan.

Dee: Right. Well, we’ll link to that as well. And listen, Joei, it has been such a pleasure chatting with you today. Thanks for taking the time.

Joei: Thank you for having me. It’s been so much fun.

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