We can all learn a thing or two from Mark Schaefer, who started a blog, created a ton of content, and let it take him wherever it would—which turned out to be writing books, keynote speaking, and consulting around the world.

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"I never had a goal to write a book," he says on the latest episode of Marketing Smarts. "Everything was an experiment...As my personal brand began to climb, I stepped back and didn't have a plan."

Personal branding, he says, is the only way to market post-COVID. Businesses have to connect on a human level, or people aren't interested... lest we forget the inundation of the ineffective "We're with you in these unprecedented times" emails.

"Even in a corporate setting, you have to have a human voice," Schaefer says. The companies that people trust are the ones that show up during a crisis, ones that are transparent about their business practices, and the ones that create an emotional connection.

In that vein, Schaefer prefers to keep it real on social media as well: "It's important for me to try to show a balance...to show I'm a mess, too."

And what's more human than being a mess from time to time?

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Full Transcript: Creating a Human and Relatable Voice for Your Marketing

Matt Snodgrass: Welcome to the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. I am excited to have Mark Schaefer with me today. Mark is the executive director at Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is also a keynote speaker, an author, a kayaker, a tennis player, all these different things.

Mark, how are you?

Mark Schaefer: I could not be better. It's been a long time since I've been on your show, so I'm glad to be back.

Matt: You are one of our favorites. You've been on a couple of episodes. I love getting a chance to talk with you, catch up with you, see what you've been up to. It has been a while, so we have a lot of catching up to do. First, tell our audience a little bit about you, who you are, what you do, and about Schaefer Marketing Solutions.

Mark: Okay. I've had a great career. I spent many years in the corporate world, then started the blog when I went out on my own. The blog sort of caught on, and that led to books. I've written nine books. The books led to speaking and consulting. I consult with a wide variety of customers. I work with a lot of big companies and brands. I've worked with Dell for many years, and Adidas. I've worked with the U.S. Air Force and the UK government.

I'm working on a big project right now for a big company in India. I also work with small companies and startups. As you've mentioned, I've had a great career as a speaker, which I really enjoy. A lot of that is virtual these days. I also teach at Rutgers University, I teach in their graduate studies program, I teach digital marketing. I've been there for 12 years, so that is a very rewarding part of my job as well.

Matt: A real Renaissance man, a little bit of everything in there.

Mark: A little bit of everything, keeps it spicy.

Matt: That's right. You mentioned going from the blog to books to speaking to consulting. Was that a formulated plan for you, was that a long-term goal or did you realize that as one thing happened and led to the next, how did that come about?

Mark: It's interesting because it started out as a plan and then it wasn't. I'll tell you what I mean by that. I left the corporate world to go out on my own and I had a plan. Back in those days, social media was really taking off and it was becoming mainstream, so I knew I needed to immerse myself in that world if I'm going to consult about it, if I'm going to teach about it, so I started a blog. The blog took off. Then I had an event and hundreds of people showed up, and I started to realize that I was becoming a brand. That was not a plan. I was starting to become known.

Honestly, this is going to sound crazy. I never had a goal to write a book. My whole life, I wasn't thinking, "Oh my gosh, I want to write a book someday." Basically, everything I do is an experiment. The blog was an experiment, my podcast was an experiment, writing a book was an experiment, just to learn, but it worked out.

Originally, I had a plan. As my personal brand began to climb, I literally stepped back and didn't have a plan because I wanted to see where the world would take me. I wanted to be open to the idea of was I going to make money on consulting, on speaking, on books, on teaching, on workshops, I didn't know. I kind of said let's just see what the world tells me and where the world is going to pull me. I didn't want to be too strategic that I would start pushing one thing and leave other opportunities on the table. Now I'm a little bit more strategic about it, but I kind of let the world pull me along for a while.

Matt: There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think that's a great period that we should all go through at some point, to just drift and see what happens. Everything doesn't have to be planned and scripted out, but just kind of go where the wind blows us. It's exciting and scary at the same time.

Mark: I do a lot of coaching on people who are trying to grow their personal brands. Sometimes they're overthinking it or ignoring opportunities.

I was talking to a person the other day and they said, "I'm getting all of these requests to do this," and they're going in a completely different direction and ignoring this amazing monetization opportunity. I said, "Wait. The world is telling you we love you here, we want you here. Don't be so committed to a certain path that you're not listening to what the world is telling you."

Matt: I have a million more questions that I want to ask you, but I think we have to start this out with the big three that we ask every guest on the show here. I want to know for starters, what are you reading right now? Are you a digital reader or a physical in-print reader?

Mark: A little bit of both. When I read business books, it's usually digital. The reason is because I might copy and paste different ideas that I might use in a blog post or something else down the road. If it's pleasure, it's usually a paper book. The thing that I'm a little embarrassed to say is most of the year I don't read books that much. The reason is I'm a creator, I'm so busy creating other things.

I wrote a blog post once that said blogging makes you dumb. Only 1% of the people on the web are creators. I blog at least once a week. There was a period I went 650 weeks in a row without missing, and then I took a little bit of a break last year for a few weeks, but started right back up again. I've had a podcast for nine years, never missed an episode. I've written nine books over 11 or 12 years. Even when I'm not in a period of writing, I'm researching, I'm gathering things. You can either blog or you can read books and watch TV, you probably can't do both. I'm a consistent creator.

Now we're getting into a holiday season and things are starting to quiet down a little bit, so I am going to be reading. The book I'm reading is by Jared Diamond, a sociologist and anthropologist, I think he's at the University of Southern California. He used to be. He wrote one of my favorite books called Guns, Germs, and Steel, which basically explains the history of the world in a very comprehensive way. I see you're looking at your bookshelf now, you probably have that book.

Matt: I have it back there. I was just looking for it, I was going to hold it up to the camera because that makes great radio.

Mark: The World Until Yesterday… We're breaking all the podcast rules. It's a pretty big book, but I'm going to take a little time off, I'm going to read that. I'm way behind on business books that people have sent me, my friends have sent me some books that I certainly want to pay attention to, so I'm going to try to catch up a little bit over the holidays.

Matt: Whether you're digging into a whole book or not, part of that creation process is that consuming of content. Right? You have to constantly be reading, as you said, you're always researching, you're always looking for things. There's that element. That consumption of content breeds those new ideas. As you mentioned, you copy and paste, you take notes for things.

Mark: Absolutely.

Matt: I think you can't really be a good content creator unless you're a good content consumer. Right?

Mark: Right. Yes. I'm a voracious reader. I love curated newsletters that give you the highlights of here's what is going on in the world, here's what is going on with tech, and here are the big ideas and the big trends. I'm an avid reader of the news, searching for little tidbits that fascinate me that could lead to some other ideas. I'm a voracious reader, but in the course of the year, usually not books.

Matt: You wrote a piece recently, I read it a few days ago as I was doing some research for our call today, and it's titled "How to Overcome Your Fear of Being Honest and Open in Your Content." You posted that on LinkedIn, and I read that and was floored by it. I thought, "Mark is looking into my brain, he's hearing all the fears that I have, and he's just encapsulated that into one blog post." What I like about that piece is the open part, because I think we all want to be honest in what we write, none of us want to be dishonest or untruthful. It's the part about being open in your content that I think is terrifying. We're so used to creating content that corporate-centric or feels structured or is business related.

As you and I were discussing pre-show here, LinkedIn has changed a little bit, and there's sort of a fine line to walk between yes, you can share personal stories, personal anecdotes, you can share more about yourself on LinkedIn. It's become more normalized. I don't think LinkedIn is the place to share foodie snaps and what you had for lunch, things like that, but there is an element that people are being more vulnerable. I love that you wrote about that. I'm curious, what was the impetus for you putting that post together?

Mark: It's a very common issue in my consulting, whether it's with individuals and executives or big companies. It's hard to stand out in the world today. It's very competitive. We're competing against this tsunami of content all around us. The fact of the matter is to stand out you have to be original. You don't have a choice, to be original, you have to add your own perspective. That is the only point of differentiation you have when you get right down to it.

Even in a corporate setting, you have to have a human voice. One of my favorite quotes from my Marketing Rebellion book was from Philip Kotler, and I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something like what is missing the world today, what's missing in companies today is a true human voice that is accessible, friendly, even vulnerable. I just love that quote because what would it mean for a company to have a human voice, but that's what we want, that's what we need. We want a company to act like a friend, and a friend sometimes has to admit they're wrong and sometimes they have to be vulnerable, so it's an interesting challenge. It's been a challenge for me.

As I wrote in the post, I grew up in kind of a stoic German family where you don't talk about things, you don't show your emotions, you don't cry. I had to learn how to show myself in a reasonable way, in a rational way that I could live with. What I found is that every time I talked about something going on with me, the world just rewarded me in an extraordinary way. People would say, "How did you know? I was just thinking about that. How did you know? We were just talking about that at work. I'm so glad to know there's somebody else struggling with this."

Just talking about something like that really seems to help people, so I pushed myself to do a little more. It comes a lot more natural to me than it did 10 years ago or 13 years ago when I started. That's how I stand out. It's the only alternative we have.

Matt: That's the thing that I think we sometimes forget. There are people out there, there are content creators that we follow, there are brands that we follow, and we forget that we're all the same creature, we're all the same animal here, and we're all facing these same types of things. Whether we address them, or whether we come from these stoic German families and we push them all down and don't focus on them, we're all facing these same insecurities and the same issues.

There's an element of that human desire for connectivity. I don't want to say misery loves company, but there's an element of, "Oh god, Mark is feeling the same way I do, and this is Mark Schaefer who has written nine books and does these speaking events. He's relating to plain old average Joe me over here. I'm feeling the same way." It makes you realize that we are all in this same boat and we're all, hopefully, trying to row in the same direction.

Mark: It's important to me in another way. I saw a statistic long ago that said the primary emotion people experience when they're looking at their social media feed is jealousy, because on social media you kind of see a person's shiny best self. As you see the steady flow of the perfect meal, the perfect vacation, the perfect children, people start to think, "Gosh, maybe I just can't live up to that." It's important for me to try to show a balance.

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago called "Five Ways I Fail In My Life Every Day." The reason I did that was to show I'm a mess too. I don't want you to feel jealous of me, because I'm a mess too, just like you. Don't put me up on a pedestal, because I'm just a human being and I'm trying and improving and failing every day, too.

Matt: I will say for everyone listening, if you want an Instagram page that you will not feel jealous about, follow mine because it's very bad and it's mostly poorly staged pictures of me making soup. There's a lot of soup pictures in there, and they're not good. If you want one that you will feel really good looking at, look at that one.

Mark: My Instagram is mostly rocks and flowers.

Matt: Nice. If you want rocks, flowers, or soup, you know two guys to follow.

Mark: I overdo fungus a lot, too. I'm fascinated by mushrooms.

Matt: They're beautiful

Mark: I have to hold myself back from posting lots of pictures of mushrooms in the woods.

Matt: I want to spend the last half of our time together here recapping 2021 and asking you about what you think 2022 is going to look like. We did not do an end of year wrap up episode, so this is our first one for the new year. I want to look back on 2021 and get a hot take on what you're thinking about 2022.

Let me ask you this. What did you think we did well as marketers in 2021? We were faced with a lot of challenges, there was a lot of change happening, it started happening in 2021, but it bled through into 2021. What did we do well, where did we excel as marketers?

Mark: The big mistake that people made in 2020 was following an advertising script. It was, "We're with you in these unprecedented times," to the point where it became a joke. None of these companies were really with us in these unprecedented times. They didn't know what to do. They didn't know what to say. I remember about midway through 2020 I talked to an executive with a big marketing and advertising agency in New York who told me many companies were just stopping, they just didn't know what to do, they just didn't know what to say. I think 2021 was trying to really come out of that and figure out what to do.

A lot of people said the theme of the book I wrote, Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins, was coming true, it was coming alive in 2021. The idea of that book is you have to roll up your sleeves and you have to show up. People don't believe what you say. Trust in businesses, brands, and companies has declined 13 years in a row across the world, across every industry, this is according to Edelman Trust Barometer.

So, who do we believe? We believe each other. We believe people. We believe our friends. We believe our neighbors. By the way, we believe company executives, founders, technical experts. To the extent that we can get out there and connect in a human way instead of a scripted advertising message, I think that's what is really going to succeed today.

One of the most interesting case studies from the year was early in the year we had these terrible ice storms in America and places like Texas, which normally have a balmy climate, lost power, lost heat, lost water. There was a big furniture store down there that didn't lose power, so they said, "If you're cold, come warm yourself in our store." They brought in food, they brought in televisions for the children. They had more than 500 people a night sleep in the furniture store.

You're thinking, this is a show about marketing, what does this have to do with marketing? The idea is everything because marketing, great branding at least, is about creating an emotional connection between what you do and your customers or your potential customers. You don't do that by saying, "We are with you in these unprecedented times." You do that by rolling up your sleeves and showing up.

That furniture store didn't just create an emotional connection; they're legendary. Nobody in Houston will ever buy furniture from another store again. It's the ultimate in marketing because they acted like a human. That's what a human does; if people are cold, you say, "Come warm yourself." If they're hungry, I'm going to help you out. Right? That's how we want to relate to brands.

There was a study, I won't go into the details, but it was done by Princeton University a few years ago, that said brands are buddies too, brands are people too. We assess companies and brands just like we would assess a person and a friend. Are they warm? Are they competent? Do they really care? Do they show us that we care? That's what great marketing is going forward.

Matt: Going back to that idea of following this unprecedented times script, I want to push back and get your take on this. I was sitting here thinking, there is an element of that that I think was true, because no one knew what the hell was going on. Not you as an individual, not me as a brand, not anyone in between. We were all sort of in this same limbo of just trying to figure out what the hell was happening.

I think from a macro level, it was true, we are all in this together, none of us know what's happening. To your point, it's about showing up. Do you think there's a truth to that and brands were just, I don't want to say they were throwing their hands up in surrender, but that was maybe a tacit way of admitting they didn't know what was happening either?

Mark: Yes. I'm not necessarily being entirely critical, because you don't want to come across as tone deaf and keep doing something or just go with the wind in a moment and then end up looking foolish.

In this environment, I think there's probably an advantage to small and medium-sized businesses that really are on the ground and know their customers, like the furniture company in Houston. They could just sort of respond; it was one person calling the shots. If you look at a Fortune 100 company, it's a lot less easy to do something like that, and you have these complex relationships with advertising agencies, legal, and all this sort of thing. If you're a Fortune 500 company and you said, "We're going to open up our stores and let people sleep in our stores," the legal department is going to kill that right away.

I think this is a time when small to medium-sized businesses won, they had an opportunity to win. I can name 50 different examples where small to medium-sized businesses rolled up their sleeves and said, "This is our town. This is our city. These are our people. We're in a crisis and we're going to show up," and they'll never be forgotten for that. A lot of the big companies struggled, and I think they're starting to figure it out now.

Matt: Again, you sort of read my mind there. A few minutes ago, you said we connect with founders, individuals, leaders of companies, but I was thinking as you said that I don't think the average person connects with the head of Bank of America or Visa, but I think we do connect with the president of that furniture company or the mom-and-pop shop in our town.

Mark: Right.

Matt: It is those small and medium-sized businesses that we connect with. I think that big corporations still, to me, feel out of touch. I don't think we make the connection with those folks. It's those smaller sort of backyard organizations that we really feel strongly connected to.

Mark: It's probably the biggest challenge for major brands going forward, because increasingly the personal brand is the brand. We want to know, who are these people, what do they do, do they treat their employees right, what do they stand for.

I think a mini case study is Tesla. A competitor like Mercedes-Benz spends $900 per car in advertising. Tesla spends $0. A lot of that is because people just believe in Elon Musk. He's not a perfect person, but he's a real person. He's a person you can listen to, you can admire as one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our generation, and you want to be part of that.

It's like you said, who do you love at GM? Who do you love at Mercedes-Benz?

Matt: I couldn't tell you who leads Mercedes-Benz, I have no idea.

Mark: That's why small to medium-sized businesses are ideally positioned to win in this environment, because they still have people on the ground being face-to-face with their customers.

Matt: Where do you see 2022 taking us? We're in the middle of a new surge of the virus. You just mentioned off-air that you had some trips that you've canceled. I know events are starting to question, we were going to come back in 2022, can we now, what does it look like. The NFL is moving games. The National Hockey League has canceled all their games this week, which by the time you hear this will be old news, but it new to us right now. Where do you see marketing going in the next year?

Mark: This is a time to be very humble. If you think about going into the pandemic, we guessed wrong on everything. Everything. Who could have guessed we would run out of lumber in a pandemic and an economic crisis? There are 23,000,000 people unemployed in America, and we're running out of lumber, we're running out of mulch, we're running out of Clearasil because people are wearing masks and their faces are breaking out.

In the same respect, we're going to be guessing wrong about everything coming out of the pandemic, because we're in this era of unintended consequences. There are so many millions of tiny little changes happening with our customers. We don't know, we cannot fathom how things are going to be different.

Let me give you one tiny example. Before the pandemic, about 20% of Americans said they had chronic sleeping problems. Today, it's 60%. They're calling it Coronasomnia. They're saying this is not a short-term thing. What happens when you're sleep deprived? You're irritable. It can lead to short-term health problems and long-term health problems, like heart disease. Now, what's the implication when 60% of your customers are sleep deprived? What's the implication when 60% of your customer service people are sleep deprived?

There are millions of little things like that going on that are going to change customers' behaviors, their wants, their unmet needs, in just ways we can't even think about. It's going to take a generation to really see the full impact of what's going on. The other day I was at an event, and we saw some friends there, and they had a little girl, maybe she was 2 years old. She was toddling around walking in the grass, she was taking grass and putting it on my shoes, and she was giggling.

Normally, I would probably pick her up and make her laugh, but in a pandemic you can't really do that. I'm wearing a mask, so she can't see my facial expressions. She wanted to go play with some other kids, and her parents pulled her back. How is she being socialized? She's saying the only people that can hold me are my parents, I can't really see what people think about me, there's something dangerous about playing with other children.

How is that going to show up in this generation? We don't know. We're all being impacted. We're suffering. We're grieving. We have anxiety. We have this chronic uncertainty. We don't know how this is going to impact us.

Here's step number one of where we go forward. You can't trust any research or data that occurred before March 2020, it's irrelevant, it doesn't matter. The pandemic is not a blip. It's a reset. It's the reset button. Every chart you look at should start with March 2020.

You cannot make any assumptions about where your customers are right now. I saw a statistic that showed 15% of American consumers will change brands if it's a cleaner more sanitary environment. We didn't have that in 2019, we didn't care how grimy you were. Right? We just don't know. What's the implication for a bank, that you're cleanest bank? What's the implication for a school, for a university?

I was talking to a group of people at a conference, these were people from all over the country. They said, "Our kids are going to go to this college," and they were all saying the same college. I said, "That's just crazy. You're from all these different parts of the country. Why are you all choosing that college?" Because they've committed to having live classes. "We're not sending our kids to where they have to sit in a dorm room and be on Zoom all day."

Again, we are in the era of unintended consequences. We just have to be patient, we have to be humble, we need to reconnect with our customers in a deep way and really listen and see what's happening over the next few years.

Matt: Mark, thank you so much for your time today, my friend. It has been great talking with you.

Mark: What happened to the million questions? We're just getting going.

Matt: We're just getting going indeed, but we ran out of time. We'll have to come back for round two.

Mark: Let's do it.

Matt: Thanks again. I really appreciate you being here, Mark.

Mark: Thank you, Matt.

Matt: If folks want to learn more about you and what you do, where can they find out about you?

Mark: Super easy. You don't have to think about how to spell this guy's name, all you have to do is remember BusinessesGrow.com. You can find my blog, podcast, books, all of my social media connections there.

Matt: Excellent. We're going to have a link to that article we discussed earlier in the show notes. I highly recommend you guys check that out and let Mark know what you think about it. It has some good feedback in it. Like I said earlier, it really hit home for me when I read that.

Friends, this has been another episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast. Before we leave, I would be remiss if I did not ask you one simple thing. Find someone, one person, and let them know about this show. Let them know that you learned something amazing on this episode, that they have to go check out this blog post and to listen to the show. If each of you tells one person, and each of those folks tells one person, we grow and grow, and soon we'll take over the world.

That is it, my friends. Thank you. We'll see you at the next episode.

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