Content Marketing Masters

How Drift’s Conversational Approach Makes Content Marketing More Human

 

When Dave Gerhardt took over marketing at Drift, he wanted to do things differently. He wanted to use real stories and real people to stand apart from the thousands of companies vying for customers’ attention. In other words, he wanted to build a brand that people could relate to.

During his time at HubSpot, Gerhardt had watched the internet become saturated with B2B companies producing endless streams of generic content. These companies followed all the rules—they published blog posts everyday, posted to social media, ran regular email campaigns— but there was no story, no unique voice. Gerhardt knew that if Drift could connect with customers on a personal level, the brand would gain an instant advantage.

Drift’s meteoric rise over the past several years makes it easy to take for granted the simple genius of that idea: that starting a conversation is the best way to do business. It’s evident in everything they publish, from their website content to blog posts to social media copy.

Drift’s brand book and marketing manifesto capture some of the ways they’ve humanized their content. They use plain, simple language to simulate everyday conversations. They don’t do stock photography, instead putting real employees and customers everywhere in their marketing. And they’ve made a point to be “good enough,” championing a steady output of solid content over a slower, more perfectionist approach.

“Content is a commodity — everyone is doing it,” Gerhardt says. “The current model for content marketing is broken. We want to challenge it in everything we do.”

Measure in love.

It’s easy to imagine Gerhardt, VP of Marketing at one of the world’s fastest-growing technology companies, sitting at the controls of the world’s most sophisticated marketing dashboard, crunching numbers, pulling levers, optimizing Drift’s content until the results are just right. But, according to Gerhardt, Drift operates much more on intuition than data.

“We just know,” he says. “We don’t have to search for it.”

Drift’s executive team inherently understands the power of good marketing. The company’s podcasts, videos, webinars — they all add value. Gerhardt and Drift’s founder, David Cancel, have talked to the world’s highest-profile CMOs, and in all their conversations he says they’ve never heard of a way to measure the true quality and love of a brand.

In a world of endless data, Drift stands out from the crowd. At the start of a project, they ask themselves, “Is this helpful? Would we want to consume this content?” As unscientific as it sounds, this principles-first approach is working.

That’s not to say they don’t measure or document their success at all. Gerhardt shared a screenshot of one of the team’s Slack channels, aptly titled #drift-love.

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And while the marketing team does track overall website traffic and other important metrics like revenue, churn, and NPS, what they care about most — what Gerhardt says drives their decision-making above all else — is this idea of customer love.

Document, don’t create.

Drift also follows Gary Vaynerchuk’s "document, don't create" strategy of content marketing, which advocates documenting what your company is doing and then sharing it quickly.

For example, they turned what they’ve learned about product launches into a blog post helping other companies do the same. They followed that up with another lessons-learned post on how to ship more effectively. The Shipyard section on their website documents everything they’ve shipped in the past month. It’s an awesome read for customers and marketers alike.

Drift is always sharing knowledge, including the stories behind their team. They recently published a profile of #1 power user, Eve, who happens to be on Drift’s sales team. The piece does an excellent job of detailing real interactions between users and customers. It offers useful insight to readers while elevating Drift’s brand and putting another face to the name.

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The company’s weekly podcast, Seeking Wisdom, is another great example of creating content by documenting internal process. Hosted by Gerhardt and Cancel, it explores a number of topics, like how the Drift team functions internally through their use of Slack.

Drift is always talking openly about what they’re doing and how they do it. It sounds simple, but it’s an easy way of leveraging what they’re already doing to create even more content.

It doesn’t have to be original.

As the originators of conversational marketing, it may seem ironic that Drift’s content marketing team has made a practice of repurposing and republishing — again and again and again. Any piece of content you see may be in its second or third or fourth iteration. And you will see it again: similar messages, over and over again, across different platforms.

“We make small bets,” Gerhardt says. “For example, Cancel will write a LinkedIn post on how ‘the future of X will be Y.’ If it blows up, we turn into another medium.”

They might take the idea onto the podcast, and then from there make it the focus of a blog post. The story changes a little each time, but in each case it started from the same seed.

Buffer, another content marketing giant, has found similar success without always having to be original. Rather than develop net-new content ideas, they’ve focused on identifying content they knew their audience needed and then making it better than anyone else. As a result, they’re getting tens of thousands of monthly views with useful articles on social media graphic sizes, free SEO tools and resources, and how to get verified on Twitter.

Were they the first to write a post on how to get verified on Twitter? No. Had their competitors already written it? Yes. But Buffer, like Drift, focused on doing things better. And it worked.

Show your work.

Drift isn’t quite as transparent as Buffer. For example, they don’t have a transparency dashboard that shares company salaries to the outside world. But according to Gerhardt, they’re serious about radical transparency in the way they work.

“Everyone shows their work every day,” he says.

Consider a typical scenario on a marketing team: a designer is asked to build a landing page. They work hard and deliver it by Friday. But it's not quite what the team wanted, or maybe expectations have changed, so it gets blown up and has to be started all over again.

At Drift, the same designer might mock up the landing page, take a screenshot, and then share it in the middle of the day as a social media post. If it gets taken apart, great. The feedback is instant and can be iterated upon. The point is to move quickly and be “good enough.”

The Drift team believes in faster, daily iterations. One of their mantras is “innovate, don't invent.” This aligns with their philosophy of reusing content, as well as borrowing and copying great ideas. When team members show their work internally, someone will often ask “Where did you find that? Who did you look to?” They want to see ideas validated by others.

For example, when Drift updated their pricing page recently, Gerhardt was transparent about taking inspiration from InVision, another successful B2B company. He knows there’s nothing wrong with emulating others’ success — especially when you give credit where it’s due.

Hire for passion and fluency.

When Gerhardt started at Drift, he was responsible for cranking out blog posts himself. Over time, he realized this approach wasn’t scalable. When it came time to grow Drift’s marketing team, he made a promise to himself that he would not  build a content farm.

At this stage, many companies hire a handful of recent college graduates to pump out SEO-focused listicles and other generic content. While Drift doesn’t shun the list format altogether, their main focus is authentic, narrative-driven content. The reason for this, Gerhardt says, is that they’re in a tough industry to fake.

“We’re marketers doing marketing to marketers,” he says with a laugh.

For his first hire, he looked for someone who was fluent in the language of marketing. He recruited Erik Devaney, a former HubSpot content strategist, and tasked him with writing 3-4 high-quality articles per week. He then hired Gail Axelrod, who was already well-known in the industry for her work and came with a lot of experience and expertise. 

When Axelrod joined, she set out to build a blog that felt more like a legitimate business magazine than a content farm. She interviewed Cancel and other executives as if she were writing a story for Bloomberg. She asked Drift customers like Slack how they approach specific problems. She spoke frequently with Drift’s success team about the problems customers face, product-related and otherwise. All of it is geared at creating more — and better — content.

You can’t fake the passion Drift’s content team brings to the table. Whether it’s Gerhardt pushing conversational marketing at every opportunity, Axelrod turning every takeaway into content, or the entire Drift team committing to radical transparency, their energy is infectious. 

They’ve created a great brand that speaks to customers on a human level. It’s representative of their product, and it’s raised the bar for content marketers everywhere.