The best marketing messages start with empathy for the audience, but marketing organizations should have empathy for their employees, too. Better work/life balance means better marketing, which ultimately brings better business results. The truth of this becomes plain if you look candidly at your own work as a marketer: No one does his or her best work if burned out.

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Smart companies and agencies strive to boost employee engagement by respecting the commitments marketers have outside of work: family obligations, hobbies, volunteering, and everything else they value outside the office. Employers hoping to keep top talent also need to invest in their people, offering training and professional development, as well as stimulating work.

Digital agency SmartBug Media has been certified as a great place to work, so I invited founder Ryan Malone to Marketing Smarts to talk about how the agency he created encourages balance and engagement among its workforce.

We also discuss the concept of "intelligent inbound marketing," as well as why experimentation is critical to creative success.

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

'Intelligent inbound marketing' requires more in-depth knowledge of your audience (3:00): "If you look back in 2006, HubSpot created this really cool concept called 'inbound marketing.' And inbound marketing was a collection of some things that existed and some thinking that did not, by way of content marketing and social media and search engine optimization. And they built this really cool piece of software that helped people do it better and in a more informed way.

"Like many other philosophies, over time, the definition and the application of it start to get diluted and here we are in 2018. Oftentimes, we've found that inbound marketing is associated with this idea that, if you blog forever, money will fall from the sky. What we've done is to take the core tenets of inbound marketing...and add practice areas that we focus on. The first is a really deep understanding of your business.

"In order to actually deliver really helpful content and educational things and recommendations that are going to move the needle, you really, as an agency, have to take a very deep understanding of someone's business, which is more than just marketing. It's how their business works, how their business monetizes its work, how all the different departments work together, what their strategic road map is—things that are typically at the C-level area of influence but are not necessarily marketing. Because marketing recommendations and the types of people that you bring with marketing can have a pretty dramatic impact on the rest of the business, we take a very deep dive into our clients' work."

Hire experienced marketers to do strategy work (05:06): "It starts with hiring. One of the things that's endemic in the content marketing/inbound marketing space is a lot of the work that's done out there [is] done with people that are very early in their careers. A lot of agencies rely on interns and different functional people to be doing deeper marketing strategy...[but] to take a deep dive into someone's business with a level of comfort for them, you need to have walked in their shoes.

"We tend to hire people that have managed P&Ls and launched products and, more importantly, walked into an executive team and explained what happened to this big budget you had, because those life experiences are really useful as a marketer. If you start with this position of credibility—knowing that you've done what they've done and you've lived in their shoes—it's a lot less uncomfortable when you find something [they're doing that's not ideal]. Also, you understand that the stuff that you find isn't because they're doing something wrong—it's because they haven't connected the way that things work together two or three steps down the line."

Don't just release creative assets and move on to the next project—assess results and optimize (06:32): "A lot of times, we've found that in the agency world, especially on the agency side, if you're an agency lifer, it's really easy to get wrapped up in success as being defined as the release of the creative. You built this beautiful thing and it launches and everybody high-fives because this great thing that you've poured your life into is finally released.

"But the reality is, it's not the release of the creative that matters, it's what it does. In order to understand what it does you have to be able to measure it. So, putting KPIs around different areas of the marketing business and the touchpoints into Sales and some of the connecting areas like Operations, we try to look at a whole bunch of different KPIs, knowing that, if we're always trying to go after the lowest-hanging, highest-impact priorities at any given time, then to use an analogy of a juggler, he's always trying to keep a bunch of different balls in the air. You're always trying to raise the lowest-level that those balls go.

"If you always focus on a metric that's lagging and you fix it, there's always going to be another metric that's lagging and you can fix that. Over time, none of the metrics are going to be below a certain level and you're going to get a lot more leverage in the results that you deliver."

'Intelligent inbound' involves working smarter, not harder (12:48): "The tactics fall out of some of these strategies. If you don't understand business, you don't know what strategy to do. If you don't understand the data, you don't know where to apply the tactics. If you don't understand when and what to optimize, you don't understand how to target some of the tactics or what percentage to target based on what you want to optimize. The reason we call it 'intelligent inbound' is it's a little bit cerebral, elevating yourself above the normal day-to-day and trying to really think about working smarter, not necessarily harder."

Employee training is an investment worth making (13:30): "We do a lot of cross-functional training internally. As a remote agency, one of the things that's really hard is you can't have in-service days or training days, but we've put in place a lot of things that allow us to have actually a better training experience than some of our peers. One of those things is, out of the gate, we have four 'certification days.' On March 16th of this year, we basically shut down the company and everybody spent the day just working on certifications on the areas of knowledge that they needed to know. We spent about 320 man hours of time literally just learning, and we do that once a quarter.

"We also have a user-driven marketing lab once a month. So consultants on our team share what they've found has been working, little tricks they've found, how certain clients are performing and why, things to avoid, stuff like that. Then, once a year, we bring everybody out to a four-day leadership conference where we dig deeper into that. All of those discussions, they're case-study driven and very, over time, you have a consulting team who's heard across many different industries, many different case studies that they can pull from and apply to their own clients."

To learn more, check out, and follow SmartBug on Twitter @SmartBugMedia.

Ryan and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by GoToWebinar:

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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