How Shopify Plus Drives Growth with a Unique Content Marketing Ethos (An Interview)
Like many of us in the field, I fell into content marketing coincidentally.
It wasn't a recommended career path when I went through university because it didn't exist when I went through university - not in the formalized way it does now. So I went for a junior marketing role and found myself creating content instead.
But I fell head over heels in love with it. Truly, madly in love with the whole idea of how it works. I loved the idea of merit-based marketing. I loved creating something and having people love it back (anyone who says ego isn't a factor in content marketing is lying to you).
I loved that something I made could be the reason someone found or chose this company I'm so proud to have helped build.
And then that love faded. Slowly, inexorably, it faded - a bit at a time over the past couple years.
The focus on SEO, perhaps, or the false-feeling flattery and fake smiles which make up so much of this industry. The never-ending output, feeling like you're clogging up the internet's pipes. Or simply the fact that passion can be a difficult thing to maintain day-in, day-out for five years.
Before I fell farther, though, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Tommy Walker and Aaron Orendorff - both of the Shopify Plus content team. My content saviors.
I'd been content-stalking Aaron for a while, but this was my first opportunity to speak with Tommy, Editor in Chief for the Shopify Plus blog.
We talked for over an hour, and they reaffirmed my faith in content marketing as a practice and brought new energy to my time at the keyboard.
Anyone who's tired of writing, or tired of feeling like you throw your hours into an internet black hole, stick around.
Aaron Orendorff is a Forbes top 25 marketing influencer of his own accord. Before getting snapped up by Tommy, he was for years one of the most desired content freelancers out there. He's published on Mashable, LifeHacker, Entrepreneur, FastCompany, Business Insider and many more.
Aaron can be contacted on Twitter @IconiContent.
Tommy Walker is a former actor who dove into the marketing world with ConversionXL, where he was editor, before taking over the Enterprise blog at Shopify Plus.
Tommy can be contacted on Twitter @TommyIsMyName.
I had prepared a couple sheets of standard questions. You know the ones - the ones asked in every typical marketing Q&A.
We got started, and I jumped in by asking about the Shopify Plus blog's role within the Shopify umbrella, and Tommy answered my question. Essentially he has a weekly meeting with the other editors and they ensure they're not stepping on each other's toes and work together where they can. Great.
With that question asked, though, we loosened up, and just started to talk. All three of us have been in the content marketing world for a while and we spoke the same language. We knew a lot of the same people and publications, and had experienced the same kind of frustrations I was.
"Where is the person reading this at in their life?"
Very quickly we got on to talking about the writing mindset. We were discussing an article that Aaron had written, "Why the Three Worst Lies in Business Are the Ones We Tell Ourselves." It was part of a series they'd put together to promote Shopify Plus over a competitor.
Tommy framed it this way...
One of the things that's really easy to do when you're doing a campaign like this is to go 'here are all the reasons and features why we're better.' But one of the big things we're talking about is a second level, namely 'Where is the person reading this at in their life?
So they're starting to think of content marketing less as a 'Here's a problem. Here's the solution,' and instead thinking about "how does this problem affect this person? I can address the immediate technological pain-point, sure, but can I address the emotional effect as well? Tommy went on:
There's this whole other element that we try to dig into, which is that personal side. That very emotional response to how people respond to frustrating technology. So what we really want to dig into with that piece is "what does that emotional life of the person reading this article look like?"
"What does the emotional life of the reader look like and how can we address it?"
When creating your content, try to take a deep-dive into the real emotions of the people who are reading your article. Even if it's '10 top tips to drive success on Instagram,' try to consider why someone might be reading that article, and what they might be feeling. Then put that understanding into words, particularly in your introduction.
"We can't publish this"
Aaron chipped in at this point. And remember, Aaron is a Mashable-published, Top 25 Forbes-level influencer and writer. He's not used to the sentence "we can't publish this."
I gave Tommy [the article mentioned above] and it was supposed to go up on Monday.
But Tommy came as an editor and said 'We can't publish this as it stands. But here's what you need to do.' And then he walked me through that process. So I sat with it and struggled with it. The idea was, 'Good points, good ideas, no details. Make this real. Make them feel it by feeling it yourself.'
That's what made me fall in love with Shopify Plus: that kind of editorial insight. Because if you're a writer worth your salt you want to get better and sometimes the worst thing you can do is have an editor say 'This is great. Excellent. Run with it. Feed the beast.'
"If you're a writer worth your salt you want to get better. Sometimes the worst thing an editor can say is 'This is great.'"
For me, hearing that was like a lightning bolt. For the past few years I've been the editor and also a key writer for the Wishpond blog. There's no one here saying anything to me except "feed the beast."
Someone has to care enough to say to you, 'We can't publish this. We gotta put this off. Go sit with it for two hours. Don't touch a keyboard. Then start fixing.'
Essentially, go be better. I know you can be and I'm going to care enough to push you to do it.
Everyone, no matter their seniority or past successes, needs someone to keep them from stagnating. We all need someone to push us and keep us on our toes. If you don't have this, find it. If you're in a senior role, be this person for the writers on your team.
"Okay, but what does it mean?"
"I want to stay away from being another marketing blog." We were back on a talking point I understood - one I expected to hear. Every editor wants to create something unique with their blog. We all want to offer something a bit different so we stand out from the content crowd.
But you could tell that Tommy means it.
They all seem to have the same voice, tone, cadence. A lot of marketing blogs follow the same sort of pattern, and if you were to take away the design and the by-line?
I've definitely found this. I'll never forget when Groove (helpdesk software) blog came out with their "Journey to 100k" series and a month later there were three or four other "Journey to…" blogs doing the same thing. Originality has never been a big thing in some corners of the content world…
Tommy broke down how he wants to differentiate the Shopify Plus blog:
The main thing for me is this: stats and data - while they're factual, they're neutral. 'Facts' are neutral, the data is neutral. What makes something relevant is how and whether it impacts your business or not.
"Stats and data, while true, are neutral. What makes something relevant is how it impacts your business."
There's an emotional quality to a lot of this stuff that I really try to encourage in my team. To go, Okay, but what does that mean? Dig deeper. How does that affect the business and what's the truth behind that number?
Being different is hard. You're discussing the same topics with the same people, after all. And that's not considering that optimizing your content for search (if you're into that) drives a very specific kind of article.
Tommy and Aaron, however, are saying that you need to dig deeper. Make the numbers and content relevant to your reader so they understand why they should care.
"Have I written the best possible version of this story?"
Aaron jumped in again here, to give a specific example of digging deeper into a story. He'd been writing an article for the past couple days exploring Instagram Stories - how amazing they are for influence marketing, getting exposure, building brand - that kind of stuff.
And most of the data that has come out is saying 'engagement rates are off the charts.' What they don't say is that conversion rates, once somebody engages, are abysmal.
And this is a key moment for Aaron, and for all content writers who, upon reading in-depth into an article, find that there might be more there than they first thought.
So my first response to that is to go through a bunch of brand Stories and what I see is a lot of low-hanging fruit. Say somebody's promoting outfits, and [their Story] just links to their homepage. The ad or the Story promises you that you're going to get this outfit if you swipe up, and you don't.
Awesome, here's his article. He can talk about how great Story engagement is but how you need to be linking to a campaign-specific landing page to get results. But wait...
But then I talk to my friends who are already doing this and they come back with 'we're doing that and it still sucks.'
What do I say about this? Normally, it'd be enough. I could write that low-hanging fruit with best practices sort of thing and 90-95% of the people who read it would nod their heads and go 'Hm, yeah that's cool. Great!'
It would pass. It would pass almost all editorial muster and it'll sound like I'm smart.
The thing with Tommy pushing or having those high editorial standards is this: 'Don't lie to your audience.' It sounds really basic. But yeah. Don't lie to your audience.
So it's a matter of going back and saying 'What is this then? Is it a retargeting play? Is it trying to come up with a lower barrier to conversion than simply 'buy now?'
It's incredibly fun for me cause it's a creative challenge but it's also solving problems for the reader.
"I could write that low-hanging fruit. But I'd be lying to the reader. Don't ever lie to your reader."
There were three possible articles that Aaron could have written here. He could have written "How to Use Instagram Stories to Skyrocket your Engagement." He could have written "Why Instagram Stories Aren't Working for You, and How to Optimize for Conversion." And both would have flown. Both would have been read and appreciated. But neither is the full story. And neither is the full truth.
Instead, Aaron is writing the whole story. He didn't stop reading or researching until he had all of it.
"Don't paint idyllic pictures"
In the very beginning before I even hired a single person or wrote a single line of text on the blog or hired a single designer or anything like that I wrote a publishing code.
It has ten master guidelines. The tenets of the blog. The core of what we produce. But rule #2 is don't paint idyllic pictures.
The reason for that is because so many different publications out there try to sell you on a tactic.
Aaron can very easily try to take this approach like he was saying and sell engagement rate [in his forthcoming Instagram article]. But what does that do for my reader?
Of course Tommy isn't only thinking about the benefits to the reader of telling the whole story. He's an editor after all. He wants to sell Shopify Plus. He wants to build something in his blog which is lasting, meaningful, and creates trust between the reader and the company he represents.
What does the long-term effect of that trust look like in the publication that we have? If Aaron goes to our reader with 'your engagement rates will be great.' Yes, and? So what? It's not going to tell me how to make more sales, which is ultimately what we're about.
"Don't paint idyllic pictures"
If [readers are] going to trust us with something as invaluable as running their business, I want to be able to give them the credit of saying 'most people are going to say the engagement rates are great. But guess what, the conversion sucks, and also here's something else you can do.'
That's going to bring up their expectations and keep people engaged.
Many successful blogs have grown fat on the low-hanging fruit. The problem, of course, is that it doesn't last. The real successful bloggers - the ones who are considered thought-leaders, the ones who we respect and who are invited to speak at conferences - they follow this path of diving into a story and getting to the bottom of it.
Content marketers are storytellers, sure. But we're also detectives. The last thing we ever want to do is tell half the story, because not only does that give people half the information, what they have might be worse than nothing at all.
What are you most proud of?
I got to write about Jones Soda.
Aaron and I then had a moment of early-2000s nostalgia over Jones Soda which I won't bother recording here. Jones Soda is that hipster soda company which was popular long before the word hipster existed. The one with the cool bottle labels? Ever wonder where it went between 2006 and 2016?
I got handed a case study with them and I got to connect with their ecommerce manager, a young lady named Cassie, and their CEO, Jennifer Cue. And, my gosh, the story they had on the rise of Jones Soda and then this 10 year period where they didn't have a single profitable quarter was staggering. They went through five CEOs in as many years.
After Jennifer stepped in 2012, the turnaround they've experienced is like the manufacturing version of Apple. To come back from the precipice. And I had no idea of the story I was walking into.
Of course it's awesome to have a post on Shopify Plus that's like, 'Kaboom.' But it had nothing to do with me, it was just like 'Aaron, get out of the way of the story.'
"Sometimes the best articles require you to get out of the way of the story."
Some of the best articles I've read or written are where the writer can identify a story worth telling. That's why case study articles are often so well-respected and do so well. People love hearing stories far more than they do "10 tips to grow on Facebook" (and yes, I've written that article as well. SEO has a substantial place in our content marketing strategy).
Aaron found a story worth telling, and one that not a lot of people were familiar with. So long as you tell it well, that's the recipe for huge success.
"Your readers are going to do awesome things. Let's make doing those things easier."
We once had this guy. He was head of our studio department, and he did this AMA within the company. And there was one thing he said that I'll always remember: 'Shopify is like a skateboard.'
A skateboard, when you think of it, is kinda boring. It's a piece of wood and a couple wheels and some grip tape. But, when you say the word skateboard it evokes all these different images of culture and lifestyle and things that people do. It's because of what people do with that skateboard that makes 'skateboard' cool.
This is standard marketing speak - the idea that branding is 90% of value. Creating positive connotation for your brand is a big part of what we do in content and elsewhere. But Tommy wasn't actually talking about branding. He was talking about your brand's and content's role as a tool that people could use to do awesome things...
The truth is, people are going to do what they're going to do with or without us. Like the skateboard, we are just a tool. We are just a tool and if they are hungry enough they're going to do it without us.
From a publisher's standpoint, why don't we just make stuff that makes it so they can do the stuff they're going to do with or without us, better with us?
Shopify's mission is to 'make commerce better for everyone,' and every single person at this company takes that very seriously.
We were built on the foundation of doing that for the average merchant, but at Shopify Plus, we found that "everyone" also included successful, high-growth, high-volume merchants.
For the Shopify Plus blog, I want us to be creating content that makes complex challenges easier to understand and wrap your head around and solve them in a truthful way, and that sentiment is reflected in every single person I work with at the company, from product teams, to the merchant success managers and the interns.
We all honor that entreprenur's spirit, because they'll do incredible things with spreadsheets and pieces of paper if they have to.
"Your readers are going to do it with or without you. Honor that fact and create stuff that supports the entrepreneurial spirit."
What Tommy was saying is 'they're going to do awesome things. Let's make doing those things easier.'
I used to teach at the local college and there’s always certain students who’re driven and motivated. They're smart, and it almost doesn't matter that I was their teacher. They're going to go do great stuff.
That's the relationship, especially because of the clientele that Shopify Plus attracts. Basically everybody we're marketing to as far as the audience goes is in the category of 'they're going to be alright.'
So it's about 'how do we make it less painful?'
Since I came to Shopify I've noticed that this place is about making stuff - whether it's a product like wholesale or a blog post about Instagram - that makes those really complex and traditionally time consuming things easier. Stuff that enables people to focus less on tedious stuff, and more on selling cool things and building cool brands, and doing all those things that make the word "entrepreneur" something to be proud of.
Remember that your goal, no matter if it's in the tool you sell or the article you write, is to make their life more pleasurable, more successful, or easier. Understand your target market's pain points, understand the emotion behind them, and then "make it less painful." And yes, that sounds far simpler than it actually is.
"It's about revealing what the other side of the screen is really capable of"
Do you know what the root of 'technology' comes from? The root word for technology is Greek. It's tékhnē, and tékhnē means 'to reveal.'
And what is interesting about technology, not just our software or whatever, but technology as a whole? It means to reveal something else, or something else's true nature. And to make that possible.
I looked this up, and loved Aristotle's definition of tékhnē in his Nicomachean Ethics: 'To bring something into existence which has its efficient cause in the maker and not in itself.'
In that sense of the word, a saw is a piece of technology that will allow you to reveal a rolling pin from a tree. In some way, shape or form, that rolling pin was always possible from that tree, but the technology needed to exist for it to reveal that and to show that form.
What's fascinating for me about what we do and the process I try to put in as a manager, all of it. It's all about revealing more about our true nature and in the content we create. But most importantly it's about revealing what the other side of the screen is really capable of.
Through the relationships we build and the conversations we have we're trying to reveal that people are more capable than they thought they were. Both from a content standpoint and from the reader's perspective
You might have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity not because of the technology but because it was always there and the technology makes it a little easier.
Y'know, Shopify's goal is to make ecommerce easier for everyone, and we're just doing our tiny part in that whole process. But we take it very, very seriously.
This conversation was a big one for me, and I think I've finally figured out why.
Every day, we come into the office. We sit at the same desk and see the same people. We do the same work, by and large, as we did yesterday.
I don't think that the malaise I was feeling was because I stopped loving content marketing. I think it was because I was tired - tired of the day to day. Tired of the sameness.
And then I talked to these guys, and they had something I'd lost - they had the passion.
Aaron and Tommy genuinely see content marketing as an avenue to make people's lives easier. It's not just about selling a product or "marketing." It's about providing a tool for people to achieve their potential.
So how about, every time we write an article, we think about it in the same way they do?
- Where is the person at, emotionally, when reading? Does this article address that emotion?
- How does this strategy, number or finding impact my reader's bottom line?
- Have I written the best possible version of this story? Have I captured it in its entirety or am I leaving something out for the sake of ease or speed?
- Does this article challenge me, as the writer?
- Is there a story here worth telling?
- Does every word I write address my reader's desire to create and grow? Or does it stand in their way? Am I just writing this to publish something on a Thursday?
I'm determined to remember this conversation. I hope you do as well, and take from it what I have - a little more fire.