S4e19 The Building Community Edition with Devin Bramhall
James chats with Devin Bramhall, a brand marketer with over 10 years leading teams to grow brand awareness, affinity, and activating communities around technology companies.
Former CEO at Animalz, a remote content marketing agency producing the best content on the web for B2B Saas companies. Founder of the Master Slam, a poetry slam-style debate about startups and tech. She is also aTEDx organizer and speaker trainer, instructor on “How to Use Storytelling to Get What You Want,” a workshop about using storytelling for career advancement at General Assembly and Startup Institute.
They discuss the growth of an innovation in content marketing, brand marketing, building community, evolution in distributing content, content strategy, leveraging content, saying no to platforms, being logical, the master slam and not having a plan.
James Nathan 00:54
Hello, and welcome to The Only One Business Show with me your host, James Nathan, and I’ve got a great guest today for you today, all the way from one of my favourite places in the world New York City. She’s a brand marketer with over 10 years leading teams to grow brand awareness, affinity and activating communities around technological companies was the former CEO very recently former CEO of Animalz, a remote content marketing agency producing the best content on the web for B2B SaaS companies. And also founder of the master slam, a poetry slam style debate about startups and tech. I really want to know all about that. She’s also…. this very busy person TEDx organiser, speaker trainer, and also instructor on how to use storytelling to get what you want a workshop about using storytelling for career advancement at General Assembly and Startup Institute. Please welcome Devin Bramhall. Devin, how are you?
Devin Bramhall 01:53
I’m doing great. It’s fun to be here. I saw the list of people you have on the show. And I was like, Why do you want to talk to me? It’s a very impressive list.
James Nathan 02:02
Well, thank you. There are some great people and each of those great people, I always ask who they know and who they should speak to. And, and Matt Patterson, who we were talking about earlier said Devin is someone you need to speak to so here we are, which is great. And I was really, really delighted that he could introduce us and you’ve got a little dog there as well, haven’t you?
Devin Bramhall 02:22
I’m so glad you asked. His name is Henry and he’s almost four now and he is my favourite being on this planet. I love him so much.
James Nathan 02:37
Do you know, I always love it when I know someone’s got a dog because dog people are the best people in the world. Now I know probably upset a couple of people saying that but dogs are better than people most of the time. So always always nice. Mine is sitting, Coco’s sitting on her mat in front of me right now. And hopefully she will stay asleep and not bark at squirels, which she normally tries to do but hey, how did she get from where you started to being CEO of and and business like Animalz?
Devin Bramhall 03:05
Yeah, what a journey. Mine was a bit unorthodox, because I didn’t have any of the traditional preparation or trading. So I was homeschooled for most of my pre college life. I didn’t graduate from high school, I got my GED, so I could go to college in Hawaii for a semester when I was 16. And then like stopped, worked at this like small business in my town, and then went to work in the woods for nine months in New Hampshire. And then went to college at a city school in Boston, sort of became a big fish in a small pond. You know, I really wanted to go to NYU become… study…. I think it was PR I wanted to be I wanted to get into PR and then, you know, I got into NYU without SAT scores. And learned that the hardest part isn’t necessarily getting in, it’s paying for it. So I stayed at the small school graduated. And then I thought I wanted to be a journalist. But that was like 2006 when journalism was quote, unquote, dying. So I instead joined a marketing consultancy, doing like managing budgets. Like I wasn’t even doing anything creative. I worked…. I started off at the front desk because it’s like answering phones, checking people in, kind of went into the budget management side and then made my way to a start up after that doing community management and community management back in the day was like this hybrid of like, customer support and content marketing, but it was before Content Marketing was really a thing. And then I and then I left. I was there for nine months. And I went to Bali and ran an education….a suite, like a training and volunteer programme at a birthing clinic for two years. So I definitely it was a very like unorthodox start. So my career, my professional career didn’t really start until I got back. And then it moved very quickly. So I think I was like, 30/31, I was back in Boston, I was working for the same startup, I left to go to Bali for doing customer support, kind of figured out that like the writing, creative, social side was really where my passion lied. And so I had a conversation with my then CEO, who encouraged me to sort of pursue that. But he up to the incoming CEO, her name is Jacqueline Hampton. And she’s the first person that gave me a content marketing job. Like she really was the one who was like, she said, yes, she was the first yes in my future career. Yeah, and then so, you know, moved up quickly, from there kind of like hopped upwards from a few through a few different startups landed Help Scout Director of Content, did really well there. And then I got fired from there in early 2018, and then found Animalz. So we’ve worked with animals when I was at Help Scout. So I reached out to Walter who was the CEO at the time and said, hey, you know, I’m doing some freelance, do you need any help? And he was like, hold on, just come, just come talk to me. So ended up bringing me on full time as a director, and that was March of 2018. I think 2019. You know, we were having a leadership off site, small team, I think when I joined, it was 18 people by then it was probably around 30 or so. And, you know, he asked, went around the room and asked all of us, the leaders what we wanted from our careers. And I was the last person got to me, I pointed right at him. And I was like, I want your job. And March of 2020 was when we officially announced…. is when I officially took over. So yeah, so there’s a lot of stuff in between there. But that’s the gist. It was kind of like it, I think at the time, looking back at aspects of it that seem random. But there was a there was a thread there. And all of it led to me getting the job of my dreams, which is CEO of a content marketing agency.
James Nathan 07:34
Fantastic. And when you said you was sacked from HelpScout. I didn’t mean to laugh. It just wasn’t what I expected you to say.
Devin Bramhall 07:40
People like to hide, they’ve been fired, like I’ve been fired twice. And it’s absolutely fine. And it doesn’t mean that like I’m a jerk, right or that they’re a jerk. It’s just like, you know, people get fired from jobs sometimes. And like, it’s funny being a CEO now I get it more than I got it back then. I’m like, oh, yeah, it was kind of like I was kind of being insufferable. Like, I didn’t love the circumstances. And I was handling it poorly. Because I was young, and you know. So it’s like, yeah, I loved my time at HelpScout. And I sort of like, both times, I was fired. I’m like, now that I’m a CEO, I’m like, yeah, I get it as being kind of a jerk.
James Nathan 08:17
And how’s content marketing evolved over that time, because we’ve gone through some pretty high technological changes in that 10 years.
Devin Bramhall 08:25
Oh, my gosh, so much. I would say that when I started in content marketing, before it was really had a shape. It was more community oriented. Twitter was in an earlier time when like, was a little more wild west and therefore like, a lot friendlier, a lot more people were talking to each other. A lot more, like B2B SaaS brands were having a moment, like, if you’re a B2B SaaS brand on Twitter, like usually had a big following people like to interact with you. I would say it was harder to measure, like the types of metrics that people folks looked at were more engagement metrics back then, like, kind of fluffy, like, how many people saw your post on Facebook, right. And then, you know, we reached this what seemed like Advancement at the time when, you know, the Google Analytics got better, social analytics got better, you know, easier to measure. And, you know, we kind of I think, it seemed like that was going to lead to us creating better content and doing better work because you could see what worked and didn’t better and more clearly and to more specific degree. But what I actually think has happened is that content marketing has become a tool for people are treating it more like performance marketing than brand marketing and content marketing has always been a more of a brand marketing tool.
James Nathan 09:57
What do you mean by that?
Devin Bramhall 09:59
So let me cuz you can measure content so well people are trying to like tie it back to some, like, bottom line metric. And I’m like, no, no, like, it’s that’s that’s a myopic way to think about content like and it’s to people get too obsessed with like, did this one post get the amount of traffic I wanted it to get? Or does it rank for this keyword and I’m like, you need to think about content holistically as a means of building your brand and developing devoted fans who will talk about you and, you know, refer you outwards. And so like, I think, in a way, we’re in a little bit of a purgatory, where we’ve allowed the technological developments to drive it to….. swing the pendulum too far in the direction of performance, and gotten away from its real benefit. So I think there’s but that’s, but that’s an opportunity, right, because of that, I was just talking to someone this morning about that I was like, I actually feel that we’re on the cusp of a renaissance, because more and more people are starting to realise that, which means innovation and content marketing is about to happen again.
James Nathan 11:02
I really, really hope so I bet it’s interesting when you say that, because I always think of content as a cumulative thing. You know, when you talk about building brand, you can’t….. obviously one post isn’t going to do anything for you. You know, I remember when I started writing blogs, and people now say that blogs are old hat, but I still like them. You know, writing blogs years and years and years ago, and I know no one read the first ones, but I put them out there and then you keep going and you keep going. And eventually you realise that there are people reading them now and you can go back and repurpose those first ones that no one read in the first place and only go, you know, and it’s it’s a great thing. But it is interesting to think about how people see that and how they use it rather than just producing great content to increase in and promote a brand.
Devin Bramhall 11:46
That’s how Animalz grew. Our blog, I don’t think we got more than like 30k visitors in a month, like we didn’t have a tonne. Like our traffic was not substantial. But we got enough business to grow from gosh, I think it was like 1.8m, the year before I joined. To 11m in 2021 off a blog that got 30,000 visitors per month, like and it was because we wrote really meaty content that most of the time was not designed to rank for search like. It was just we were we shared our…. we geeked out on content, we shared our expertise. And it didn’t like it’s sort of like counterintuitive, in a way, right? Like we didn’t do all the things that we were trying to do for other brands. And it worked. It worked our brand was you know, so I’m a big plus one, two, that I don’t think…. my friend Margaret Kelsey was sharing her philosophy with me the other day, she so she was formerly marketing at Vision and then Open View. And now she’s consulting and she said, you know, Devin, this idea that I have around like counterintuitive strategy, where it’s like, you know, startups were founded by doing a counterintuitive thing. They were bucking whatever the conventional way of doing things where, they sort of like, broke the wheel. Why as marketers, would we follow playbooks, then why would we also do things in a counterintuitive way? I think Animalz was a great example of that, like, we just like, wrote great content that we believed in, and like didn’t focus too hard on the details. And we grew substantially that way.
James Nathan 13:32
And where does it move to now? Because you said you were on the cusp of a renaissance. But what’s what’s going to happen next?
Devin Bramhall 13:39
My Well, I’m tell you what, I hope, I hope that people truly start building community. So there’s community has become a buzzword much like storytelling did when I first put storytelling in my like storyteller and my social profiles. It wasn’t a marketing thing. Like it was truly it used to stand up on stage and tell stories. Like, that was it, it became a buzzword, and then it got kind of ruined. So I think the same thing is happening with community. And I believe that we have an opportunity to build stronger communities around brands, through less external means, like utilising sort of smaller private communities to build that fan base. Matt Patterson could probably talk to you for days about this, because he’s done a really good job of that behind the scenes. So it’s sort of like less outward facing, it’s less about like showing people that you have a big community and truly building a big community around your brand. So I think that’s one I think there’s an and part of that will be driven by an evolution of how people use social platforms because I think like, you know, when I think about like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I’m kind of like, okay, whatever, like I don’t even but like, you know, platforms like TikTok and LinkedIn like I think those are kind of where it’s at right now and probably others. And so I think there has to be like an evolution of how we you how we distribute content and how we build community through distribution of content. And I think also just like, you know, very basically like the mediums we use, so like, you know, I disagree with the folks who say that blogs are old hat, I don’t think the written word will ever become old hat. I think they’re wrong. But like, yes, more like more usage more and better, more creative usage of video, and audio in that and sort of the umbrella around that as this concept you mentioned earlier around repurposing. So it’s like, I think that there’s, you know, we can get more, we’ll toss out the playbook in favour of efficiency. And get back to this idea of creating, like a sort of a more strategic, like a brand message, right? Like, we really got away from that it was more about like SEO, and I think that people would content all the back to come up with your singular, like, company mission, create a set of like, you know, educational concepts around that, that you can share to make the industry you operate in better have a content strategy underneath that involves multiple different things that you can, you know, multiple different platforms, and then create a very efficient strategy for basically distributing the same message over and over in different ways. Which like, is the way it used to be done right? Billboards, commercials, like print ads, they all said the same thing. And so I like that’s my sort of big….
James Nathan 16:41
You know, when you when you mentioned before, about can’t, you know, someone sending out a post, and hey, that post, one post didn’t work, as soon as you said that I thought of advertising. And I thought a billboards, imagine if you stuck a billboard on the side of a freeway, and then expected that one billboard to build your business. You know, it’s just, it’s crazy to think of when you look at it like that, but people do when they look at content, and they think, you know, that was that was great that but that post I wrote.
Devin Bramhall 17:08
Somebody was telling me that just the other day, it was another marketer, I mean, the number of marketers I know, who could tell stories of like, you know, the same story over and over, and it’s very disappointing, which is like, you know, again, leaders who don’t know anything about content, having a very myopic view of a content strategy and looking at things to singularly without a grander sort of vision. It’s, that’s what leads to people looking at individual blog posts, that plus being able to measure each individual blog post, because if you think about it, the way you used to measure billboards is like you you canvass awareness of a brand and the place where it’s got in a town or you know, city where it’s going beforehand, you put the billboard up with a new canvas after it’s a very loose, that’s a very loose metric for whether or not that billboard performed, but I think it in a way, it’s more accurate. And I think that’s kind of how we have to look at content is like, look at the totality of your content marketing efforts across the written word, you know, paid….. all whatever activities that you’re engaging in, right? And start at the beginning, and then measure after you know, a six month period of time and then see.
James Nathan 18:21
Who’s, who’s doing it well? If you look at all the brands out there, many 1000s of brands, and all of them are trying to use social and all of them are trying to to produce good content and use influencers, goodness knows what they come up with next. Who’s doing a good job of it, who do you think really stands out at the moment?
Devin Bramhall 18:39
Oh, gosh, you know, I’m never prepared for this question. I swear to God, you’re we’re gonna hang up the phone, I’m going to be like, you know who it is, I’ll be able to list like 10 people, okay, so one company that I don’t actually follow that closely. But that I think does a really good job is Notion, right? Notion does like in person events….. And in fact, I have a friend who just went to a Notion event in New York, they had this like, productivity influencer there. So it’s like, I think they’re doing a really good job of content.
James Nathan 19:19
For people outside of the area there who are Notion what do they do?
Devin Bramhall 19:24
Notion makes? Well, gosh, Notion. They’re basically like a wiki. They make a tool like a productivity tool, that centred around like, note taking, and task management and all that. I actually think my view of them is somewhat outdated because they’ve evolved a lot since like, I first started using them and then I stopped using them for a long time. So but they’re like….and they’ve got they’ve been around since like, what 20…? I don’t remember. 20 teens, and they leverage almost every type of content, right like so they do in person community building events, they have tonnes of use case examples, case studies, like real written educational content, like I feel like they’re very holistic. And so I really appreciate them as an example. But like another example, and I can’t think of a company that is like a company who is not trying to be everywhere, who picks their platforms and doubles down on just those platforms. Zapier, that’s another one similar to Notion. They’re another really good one, I think. But I…. contrary to those two, I think spread across platforms. I think another example is a company who is brave enough and creative enough to say no to platforms, to say no to types of content, and really, really focus on certain content types and communities. And I think those companies are the ones that really like, those are examples of companies who really know their customer.
James Nathan 21:11
But isn’t that isn’t me, when when you say that there’s not using platforms? I look at that and think, Well, why would you use a platform? If my audience isn’t there, then surely, that’s not the place for me?
Devin Bramhall 21:25
Yes, you that is pure logic, but you’re assuming that humans deploy logic most of the time? Okay, we know they don’t. So yes. I mean, it seemed, look, there’s a lot. There are a lot of very basic logical things that marketers propose on a regular basis, that are surprisingly, not listened to or adopted, it is the most uncanny. Like, it’s a joke among marketers that like, every other person at the company…. it’s the one role that every other person in the company thinks they know how to do, as well as a marketer. And almost none of them do. They’re all pretty terrible at it, for the most part. So I think that like, yes, that is logical. But I think, you know, you get to someone who’s trying to grow a company, and they’re like, well, you know, all the other companies are on this platform. So surely, I have to do that. And I think it takes bravery and real creativity to say, I’m not gonna.
James Nathan 22:24
Well, I just, I just, yeah, I mean, I have these conversations all the time. I’m not a social expert, I use different marketing channels for my own business. Some I have some success with those, there has never been a massive strategy around it, although it’s kind of evolved into different areas and things. And you know, I have conversation with a client, they’ll say, we should be on TikTok. And I say, right, why? Well, well, that’s, that’s a great place to be, is it? I don’t know, you need to go and find an expert. Talk to them about your business, your market and whether that platform is appropriate for any spend that you’re going to make? Try it, if you like, you know, but who knows? Because I just don’t know, for myself. But I think it’s interesting how everyone falls does exactly what you just said, Well, if they’re there, I must be, you know, if PepsiCo were there, do I need to be there? No, I didn’t sell soft drink. But people who buy a soft drink might be by market, and then we start a bigger conversation.
Devin Bramhall 23:21
And also trying to compete with a Pepsi on a platform is going to be very difficult because they have more money than you, they’re more well known than you. So sometimes going around about way. And starting with like, an emerging platform or a smaller community or, you know, doing anything at all that’s different, is probably going to serve you better than going head to head with, you know, brands that are already found success on the platform.
James Nathan 23:44
Well, I know, it’s interesting, because I asked you that question, because I really love the businesses who are not the big boys, you know, I like the business who are like, the Australian brand called Oodie, who I don’t know, if they’re in the states, if you if you’re aware of that. It’s like a huge hoodie, right? You know, last Christmas all, you know, kids just were desperate for these things. Now that’s grown out of word of mouth, and some really good advertising on social media. And suddenly, it’s, you know, it’s been copied and copied and copied everywhere. But I think that’s a really cool brand. For what it does, which is one thing really, really well and appeals to the right audience.
Devin Bramhall 24:20
Those are kind of like, I mean, I think especially on the consumer side, like that, there’s like, I think there’s a lot that B2B SaaS companies can learn from consumer marketing tactics, particularly on some of these more like, communities, social platforms. I haven’t formulated exactly like, I haven’t been able to narrow down for myself yet, like what exactly that is, but I think that like, I think that there’s a lot more creativity being deployed a lot more imagination, you know, thinking about fashion specifically, they’re there. They’re trying to create worlds for you and bring you into their world. rolled so that you fall in love with their style. And I think that like, I think you can do that for a B2B company too, especially since the it is necessary for you to build that affinity. Because you need to build a longer term relationship with them in which they are not buying from you. Like I can develop i there are tonnes of, you know, designers that I love, because I buy from them frequently. And I love their clothes, they make me feel great, but like a B2B SaaS company, you’re only going to buy from them once, if ever, it’s even more important to make that kind of deep relationship. And I think, you know, I don’t know exactly what the strategy is yet, but looking at B2C brands is really, you know, what is Wistia? That’s what I’m thinking of, they’re another great example that everyone’s heard of, and they’re like, kind of known for being really good at it, but they’re another one who’ve done a really good job and been really creative, like, you know them and was it Wild Bit like they did, like, they made cartoons, they made comic strips, like, you know, and I guarantee I don’t know, but like, measure each individual thing that they did, and I’m not sure what those, you know, how much how many leads, the comic strip brought in, or the, you know, whatever. But like, they developed, like, the more people knew about their brands, because they did those things,
James Nathan 26:20
Right. Yeah. And that’s got to be good. It’s got to be good. Tell me about the master slam, because I think that sounds fantastic.
Devin Bramhall 26:29
Oh, man, this is a, this is an example of everything that I’ve been talking about around like not doing what everybody else does. So early in my career I was working for this was when I came back. So in my 30s, was working for a company called Spring Pad, they made a personal organisation app, I was on the…. I was doing content marketing. And we had a brand awareness, like a sort of a more local brand awareness problem. And we were trying to I was going to all these, like networking events. And it was really inefficient. Because there are only so many nights in a week, I only have so much energy to go out to these networking events. And one of the things I noticed on the networking events is there were two formats. It was either a speaker or panel. And I was bored. I was like, this isn’t fun. I wanted to be different. I had a storytelling background, kind of like the moth where you get up on stage and you tell a first person narrative story, you know, create a story like, and I was like, Well hold on a second. We’re having all these discussions where we’re like debating things. What if I create an event where you have a topic, and people debate that topic in a creative way? So it would be, you know, the first one I did I think was like Android versus iOS? Like, which one do you develop for first, keep in mind, this was many years ago. And so I had three people on either side of the argument. And they had to did like two or three minutes or something to argue Android first or iOS first. And originally, it was just sort of more of a straight debate. But people got really creative with it, like one person did, like a slam poetry argument, like they did it in the form of a slam poetry. And then the person like, did interpretive dance while someone else read, like they got really creative with it. So like the performance ended up being as important as the argument itself. And so it’s all a show, right? So you have a panel of six judges, and they vote for one winner on either side. And those people go head to head in a final round, where each they have one minute to argue the other person’s side. And then just accumulator. It doesn’t matter who wins. It’s all for the entertainment value, but like you kind of learned something in the meantime, right? So people are making legitimate arguments. They’re just doing it in creative ways. So the whole idea was like, what was efficient about it was that you have six speakers and six judges. So you basically have people from 12 different companies. Which makes… feeds the room, the it always sold out, it was always packed. Because just the performance, people brought their policies, and then everybody else, really good networking before and after, et cetera, et cetera. But it was a really fun event. I did it in Boston for a couple of years, and even had some like, we did a VC version, where I convinced a bunch of VCs, to pitch startups to startup founders. And it was really fun. I’ve had dreams of restarting it again, if I ever had the energy that I had, you know, eight years ago.
James Nathan 29:34
It just sounds fantastic. And so really fun. So what’s next for you? Devin? What are you going to do next?
Devin Bramhall 29:40
You know, I have no idea what it is. I know I’ve been driving everybody crazy with this answer because I think when you run… like after running a company everyone thinks like, okay, well you must leave and know exactly like you must have something in the works and um, you know, I have some things I’ve been thinking about but I was really excited to leave something I care deeply about and not have a plan. I think that my next thing will only come by not having a plan at first and just exploring and seeing and talking and listening. And so it’s been a it’s been very exciting to have no idea. I still don’t know. I have a little bit of time. But yeah, we shall see.
James Nathan 30:27
Well, I think that sounds, yeah, I’m looking forward to finding out what happens following the story. Before before we wind up because I’ve had a lovely time chatting with you today. But what I would love it if you could leave people listening with just one thing, your big idea or your one big golden nugget, something that they could do in their business today, to make their business better for today and better for the years to come? What would that be?
Devin Bramhall 30:51
Oh, I would say you’re gonna hate this answer. Probably everyone will. But I would say do something that lacks external validation. So like, you know, I think that this goes back to everything we’ve talked about around playbooks and sort of the next gen of content marketing. But I think that, given everyone’s fears about saturation, and in content, and all these platforms, like, do something that doesn’t make any sense, as Margaret Kelsey says, do something that is counterintuitive, because I think that is going to surprise you and in its efficacy and the joy it brings you. I think with everyone talking about burnout, right now, both leaders and workers, the best thing you can do for the business is something that objectively doesn’t have any…. like there’s no data to support it. No one else has done it before. And do a bunch of stuff like that and see what happens. I don’t necessarily believe that any one of those things is going to be the answer. But I think it’s going to lead you to something a lot more interesting.
James Nathan 32:01
Fantastic. That is the most different, but also most fun response I think I’ve had to that so brilliant. Devin, thank you so much. It’s been great chatting with you.
Devin Bramhall 32:11
Thank you so much, James. I had a great time.