Tommy Walker is the founder of The Content Studio, a content marketing consultancy for Fortune 1,000 companies and fast growing B2B startups. Prior to founding The Content Studio, Tommy was the Global Editor-in-Chief at QuickBooks, and the first marketing hire at Shopify Plus.
Questions and topics we covered :
- The story about how Tommy was living on a couch for $100/month when he was 20.
- How do communications silos in marketing departments develop?
- How can junior marketers alert senior leadership about the emergence of silos in their teams?
- The skills that help Tommy be the best content marketer and business owner that he is today.
- How Tommy approaches “serializing” the content he makes for his clients.
- What does the ideal content team look like?
Full Episode Transcript:
Kenny Soto 0:01
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the people of digital marketing with your host, Kenny Soto, and today’s special guest, Tommy Walker. Hey, Tommy, how are you?
Tommy Walker 0:14
Not too bad. How are you today, Kenny?
Kenny Soto 0:15
I’m doing very well, prior to us. Starting this recording, I was telling you a little spiel about how I’m doing some PR outreach for the first time this week, which is always exciting to learn a new skill.
And yeah, with that being said, I want to learn a lot from you today. And I think for both myself and the audience, to get more context about who you are as a professional, the best way to start is just to get some cool stories from your background. And I want to start off by you telling us the story about how you were living on a couch paying $100 A month when you were 20 years old. Yeah, for sure.
Tommy Walker 0:51
So I had gone to an acting Conservatory in Manhattan. And when I was 17 years old and spent a lot of time there, I learned a lot about myself and the time that I was there. And by the time I came back home, I was 1920 years old, and I knew everything.
So because I knew everything I had gotten kicked out of my family home for good reasons, right? And the only place that I had available to me was my buddy’s couch, I paid $100 a month. And that allowed me to have my own sense of freedom. But you know, that came with some other things as well.
The cool part about that couch, though, was that I was across the street from a gas station, right? And I started working at the gas station because obviously, you need money. And my approach with the gas station was that this is one of the very few jobs where every single person from every single walk of life is going to be coming through those doors. Very few jobs give you that opportunity.
And if I look at the job itself, the job is you know, sweep and mop floors, make sure coffee pots are filled up, stocked, the cooler, etc. And the way that I looked at that was more of an opportunity to find people that I could end up working with. And as a result of that, that two major things happened.
The first one was I started my own video production company and made a music video. And because I said if I can’t be in New York, I’m going to take a little bit in New York with me. And that music video, I ended up following a band around right I kind of put it out there to all my customers what I wanted to be doing next, one of my customers said, Well, I have a band. And I followed that band around for an entire summer and recorded as many things as possible. It was before they launched their first album.
And by the time they were ready to launch that first album, I had made a music video. And we put that music video all over the internet. And this was my first foray into online marketing. I didn’t realize this at the time. And as a result of that music video, and the amount of spread that we got ahead of it got ahead of time, they actually ended up at our local music chain, right, we have this regional music chain at our local regional music chain.
They ended up outselling national acts on their midnight release. And there were lines out the door. And we all felt like celebrities for a night it was absolutely incredible. The second thing that happened at that gas station was I got recruited into my first tech position. Right? There was a customer in there who was like, hey, I really like your attitude. I think you’ve got the right you know, fit for this company that I’m working with right now you should come in and take you to know, come in and take a look.
And I did and I was on their sales floor initially. But I had a terrible time asking for credit card numbers. But they saw that I was a hard worker. So they asked me to move into their marketing department. And in the time that I was there in the marketing department, we had gone from a $1 million a year company to a $5 million a year company. And I was one of three marketers on the team.
Kenny Soto 4:11
What was your role on the team?
Tommy Walker 4:13
I was in the online marketing department. So what I thought was this really cool online marketing position, right? I got to learn a lot about it. But I was glorified Link Builder. But we had this number of metrics. And we made a lot of relationships with people.
And even though we were asking for links, essentially, we were doing a lot of research to find the right people and sort of assessing where these links should really be. So it wasn’t just a matter of like let’s build links to get the site authority.
It was like let’s build links and build relationships with these folks. So we can continue to have these links over time. So those were like the two major opportunities that came from being on that couch and working I’m working at the gas station, because it was this major jumping-off point to say like, I can do a whole lot more just based on the opportunities that are afforded to me through this type of position. Tommy, how I wanted to get off the couch, I wanted to get off the couch.
Kenny Soto 5:16
So absolutely, yeah, yeah, there had to be a roadmap for that for sure. How would you describe your current job? What are you doing today?
Tommy Walker 5:24
Sure. So I build content marketing programs, there’s a lot of conversation around content marketing, strategy, or editorial. But what my consultancy focuses on is building out the content marketing program as a whole. So that can include everything from operations to budget, to the editorial calendar, and policies, of course, hiring, and whatever is necessary to build the content marketing function within an organization.
A lot of companies already have content marketing functions within their organization. And that being the case, I’ve used my experience from both QuickBooks and Shopify, to help retool that program, one of the major challenges that I see, especially with the types of clients that I work with, because I’ve worked with a lot of fortune 1000s is the communication silos that happened within the organization are usually broken down or very siloed off, right? You’ve got different teams who aren’t even talking to each other.
And from a startup perspective, it’s actually kind of a weird thing that like the social team, the blog team might not talk to each other. When you’re on a small scale. That seems like how is that even possible. But in a large org, there are so many different priorities coming from so many different teams, that those communication silos tend to break down.
So one of the things that I really focus on in that case is facilitating internal communication, as well as workflow optimization and automation, automation being a huge part of what we do, because nobody’s going to go to somebody else’s thing, everything needs to sort of flow back and forth and come to the other people. So that’s a big part of what we do is the sort of facilitation of communication internally, to then have a better, more cohesive external communication to the rest of the market.
Kenny Soto 7:19
I want to dive deeper into the topic of silos. How do you think those silos develop?
Tommy Walker 7:27
You know, that’s a great cash question, Kenny. Then, from what I’ve seen, there’s sort of this, then, you have to dig back into the history of how all of these programs are built. And a lot of times what happens is the people who have taken it over aren’t the people who originated it. And there are all these systems and processes and like old legacy things in place that make it so the communication is just not there in the first place.
And within larger organizations, in particular, departments get shifted around and change ownerships so many different times that like, right now, I’m working with a client where the blog team used to be under the digital care side of the house, and the social media team used to be under PR. And as a result of that, they become so much further distance away from each other, that there’s really not a lot of need.
From the day-to-day in-the-weeds perspective, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of need for those conversations to be happening back and forth. So part of what I’m doing is always learning the history of how these functions started to then find out where those breakdowns and communications happen and either officially bring teams together within the organization and work with senior leadership to say, Hey, this is, you know, this is how this whole thing should be structured together, or at least build these unofficial tunnels where people are able to communicate with each other.
Because what happens within the larger orgs is, that everybody wants to communicate with each other. They want to talk to each other, but the mechanisms to make things viable to have those conversations and to actually exchange information and work become very difficult because you end up with a number of different tools that people are using. So there was a study done by airtable. And I’ll send you the link to this.
So you can have it in the show notes, where it found that the average marketer, right, this blows my mind, the average marketer uses 20 Plus tools on a regular basis. And I did an audit, I said, that’s impossible. I can’t like it blew my mind to even think that that was a thing that was possible. I audited the tools that I was personally using and it was like, oh, yeah, that was like 26. Right.
But then I had to also audit the tools that I had to also be proficient in because of my coworkers, and it turned out to be more like 56, right? You’ve got some people using Asana, you’ve got some people using air table, you’ve got some people using notion, you’ve got these number of tools where people are managing their different work because that’s what works for them.
But the work ends up living in those silos, and only the people who have access. Like, we’ll get in there. And then, within the company, usually the conversation goes, well, let’s have a meeting. Why don’t you take a look at my calendar? And ultimately, you’re just wasting a lot of time, and nobody’s looking at other people’s stuff. So that’s a big part of how those exist, and why they exist.
Kenny Soto 10:44
Putting you on the spot here. But just both of us thinking out loud right now. Obviously, these silos to some degree, are created because there’s either an I’m spitballing, here, lack of foresight from senior leadership, or there are just so many things going on that it is a priority, but not the top three priorities on the list of to do’s, right? How can Junior marketers flag, the emergence of silos in senior leadership?
Tommy Walker 11:21
No, that’s a great question. So the big part with senior leadership is generally this is an invisible issue. Right, it’s one that is sort of accepted as part of the job, right, a lot of double entries. A lot of this other stuff that comes with just getting the work produced is usually considered part of the job.
So as a junior marketer, and especially if you’re newer within an organization, right, you can use that sort of gift of ignorance, to work against somebody’s curse of knowledge, right? Where you can say, hey, here are all the different places where I’m spending more time managing the work than working on the work. Right?
So if I have to do double entry over here, or I’m checking somebody else’s calendar, or if I’m having to wait for them to email me something, right, the biggest thing a junior marketer can do, and this is something that I do when I go in even as an as a senior person is, I’m always looking at the time it takes between tasks. Right?
Because if there’s a gap between these tasks, that’s time being lost on not producing. And if we’re able to quantify that, even by a small amount, you can start to say, like, oh, it takes me two days to get design feedback, because I have to submit this ticket and do all of these other things before it even gets on their radar.
And they’re going well, we only work in Sprint’s and you’re like I need this right away. So you have to start evaluating that. And as a junior marketer, even though you do not sort of looking at things from that higher level, you can start to quantify the time it takes between tasks to then bring that to a senior manager’s position and then say, here’s the issue. I’m not blaming anybody. I’m not pointing fingers.
I’m not saying that I’m not getting the stuff I need to be done. I’m just saying that these are the little steps that are taking more time that is making it so we can’t produce on time. Again, not pointing any fingers not trying to be political. Just this is something I think we should address. How do we address it? That’s another conversation. But at least now we can surface the conversation and make it a conversation that people are aware of. Because that’s the biggest thing nobody’s usually even aware of the issue.
Kenny Soto 13:50
What’s going on? Yeah, certainly. Now, making a slight shift into talking more so about how you get your own clients for your business. What are some of the weekly and monthly challenges that you face as a business owner? And as a marker?
Tommy Walker 14:06
Yeah, time. Time is the biggest one. It’s always time and consistency. The biggest challenges are just making sure that I’m constantly out there having conversations on Twitter and the Facebook and LinkedIn groups that I’m a part of in the slack groups, and balancing that with the day-to-day work. Right.
And I think that’s a universal challenge across the board. Now, the ways that I’ve solved some of those challenges, or at least have mitigated some of those, like things is I keep I use I’m a huge advocate of air table. Is anybody following me on Twitter or anywhere, really? Air tables, like my database, it’s my tool, and I love them. I will keep track of all of the different communities that I’m supposed to be a part of.
I’ll keep a track of a list of all the Twitter profiles that I’m supposed to be keeping track of. I Have an automation setup where whenever I have a new follower with over 10,000 followers of their own, I have that list. So I can start to see who I should have engaging with to get new nodes or better distribution possibilities. And setting up those sorts of ways to have that information come to me. And having those systems in place.
And blocking out the time in my calendar is usually like, that’s the best way, to engage with those conversations. And then, you know, that’s from both the marketing and both parts of the business, because through those conversations, and through that demonstration of expertise, and having those, you know, hey, does it make sense to even share this stuff? Right, get my content out there. All of that just comes to this establishment of credibility. And you know, when the time comes, it’s, Hey, let’s, let’s talk to you about this.
Kenny Soto 16:00
Perfect segue into my next question, what skills did you need to acquire throughout your career to actually get to where you are today?
Tommy Walker 16:11
All of them. So everything when I started my career, it was after I had gotten fired from a retail job over something incredibly stupid. And it was at that point where I said, either I can work for myself, and I’m the only person responsible for my income, or I can try to get another $ 12-hour job. And that was the problem.
So what I came to the table with was a strong set of writing skills and acting background. And I had these parallels of like, okay, well, script analysis is really market analysis, customer service is really improv. And I could draw these parallels. Everything else, right workflow, optimization, building content, calendars, learning, management, and programming, like, a lot of the other stuff was, everything had to be learned, right? The most recent thing that I’ve been learning is workflow optimization and automation, always in service of creating better content.
So you can spend more time focusing on creating instead of managing that work. And, that’s really that now when I’ve learned about things like content calendaring, for example, I’ve always taken this approach of thinking more about my publication as like a television station or serialized content, right? And this is something that’s starting to come out a little bit more. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for many years, where it’s how can we not have a series where not everything’s like part one, part two, or part three?
But how do we have content if somebody were to read in sequential order from front to back? How does all of this stuff flow into each other? So a really good example of this, right? If you were to look at a serialized drama, you follow things from week to week, you understand the stories, callbacks, and references, you see the foreshadowing, etc.
In a content calendar, that might be something like, and here’s my kind of go-to example of how to design the perfect webpage, right, and you go, you know, here’s the header, here’s the hero image, here’s the copy, so forth, and so on. The next week, you might focus, you might zero in entirely on creating good navigation, right, and the role that that has, the next week, you might focus on the science of hero images, and after that copy all the way down to the microcopy that exists underneath the call to action button.
And then even from there, you can start to follow up the purchase right now what happens after somebody takes this action, and thinking about things in this sequential order, that again, that comes from programming, right thinking about television, programming, but always finding these inspirations in these different areas, and then sort of zeroing in on the skills that are necessary to make that thing possible.
The end result is that we’re always trying to get people to come back to our site. Right? If we don’t have returning visitors, we’re never going to get into that consideration set. Right. So how do we have returned visitors? How do we get people to engage with our content a little bit more deeply? And how do we get people to share this stuff? Right? Those are the three core questions that we all want to answer anyhow.
So learning the skills involved, always what I try to do is look at all of the places that have already done this for years, and then incorporate those like really focused on those inside the skill sets, like what are the skills necessary to do things like programming and creating good content and, you know, bringing people back? Yeah, I think that those are the skills that I’ve had to learn, And then how I’ve gone about the sort of identifying what those skills need to be over time.
Kenny Soto 20:05
So one aspect would be skill. The other aspect to consider is having the right team. Now, right? When we talk about the ideal content team, I would love your thoughts and opinions on how to build one, both from your experience within your own business and also through the experiences of helping your clients and seeing what’s in teams they’ve already created themselves.
Tommy Walker 20:31
Well, fortunately, my business is about helping clients. So as far as my own content team, I don’t have one. I’ve built content teams for the organizations that I’ve worked with in the past. So when I was full-time, I did this with Shopify, plus, I did this with QuickBooks. And I did this when I was a conversion XL before all that right now because I consult. I don’t necessarily do that in my own Org.
But the thing that I try to identify first is, what’s the spread of content that we need? Right? It’s not a templated approach. It’s not you know, there are frameworks, but it’s not a template. What are the things that we’d like to go after? And what are we already strong ads? So do we have somebody who’s already strong at? Are they strong writers? Okay, cool. If they are, are they better in long form or short form? Right? And you start to drill into what those skills are? And you build around what you already have?
And then from there, I go, Okay, well, we already know from a scientific perspective, that people respond to images, right? How do we, you know, what kind of imagery we want to have? And then do we bring somebody in to do imagery full-time? Do we have a need for that? Or can we have a freelancer that does, you know, the part-time stuff, right? Do we want to do a video, it’s not just about it’s building out sort of the people that you need to do the job, right, and you can identify those different areas.
But the other part of that, and I think what’s more important is more important than the who is the why right? A lot of companies will go, well, we need to have a blog, we need to do ebooks, we need to do graphics, we need to do the podcast, we need to have the videos, the bells, and whistles, we need to have it all right. And that’s ideal for every single organization. Everybody wants to do it all.
But they’re not like well look at go like, Oh, we’re gonna have a YouTube strategy. And most people will say, like, by YouTube strategies, I mean, we’re going to do YouTube videos. But what we have to think about is not these ad strategies, but these assets, right? And if we’re going to create certain assets, how are we going to get those assets out to market?
And a lot of times in the conversations that we’ll have about the people that we need to hire, and the things that we need to do is how do we focus on the things that we’re the strongest at, and what’s going to create the most focused impact for what we’re trying to do. And that might mean cutting out a lot of the like, nice to haves, so we can focus on that. And that comes down to a lot more market research.
And from that market research, you go, okay, what are the best channels that we should be going after? Where are we going to have the most impact? And then how do we staff up in these areas that will have the most impact? So I think that answers the question Kenny, where it’s more about not who do we hire? And how do we build an entire function around this, because we could just hire all the people to do all the things?
But we have to focus because we all have limited budgets, nobody’s got an unlimited budget to do all of the things, nor should we be putting all of the things on a single person. Right. That’s the other part of that. It’s more about how are we going to have the most impact where our customers already are. And then how do we use the momentum from that impact to move over to another channel where we might have more and more people on the way? So I think that answers the question.
Kenny Soto 24:05
It definitely does. It’s really just taking an understanding of first, what are the needs. What’s the strategy? How do you execute that strategy? And then you figure out the people who can help you execute it. It starts with the strategy first. Okay. With time Yeah, yeah.
Tommy Walker 24:23
Before we get to like and further on that too. Yeah. There’s research by Content Marketing Institute that found that and this is funny because we’re talking about teams, right? Research by Content Marketing Institute found that companies with over 1000 people in it right, so larger organizations are just as likely to have zero to one person focusing on content marketing, right?
So somebody’s part-time, responsibilities to one person’s dedicated time to it’s the same as somebody else having like 11 plus people on their content marketing team, and it’s like 25% either area now you’re 50% Isn’t that like, you know, two to two to 10 range of people focusing on this.
But it’s an interesting thing to see that you’ve got just as much likelihood for hardly anybody to too many people, in some cases, and going like, you know, and it just kind of gives you this indication of like, where companies heads are at when it comes to creating these programs as well, and how to stack those up. So just something to put out, there
Kenny Soto 25:28
Definitely was a time we have left, I’m going to ask you a hypothetical question. If you had access to a time machine, you can go back into the past 10 years, knowing everything you know, right now, how would you accelerate the speed of your career? I wouldn’t,
Tommy Walker 25:49
I wouldn’t. And the reason for that is, that I believe in sustainable growth, if I were to go back 10 years from now, think about the rest of the circumstances that were happening in my life, right? And I don’t know if this is where you really wanted the question to go.
But if I were to think about all of the other things that were happening in my life, 10 years ago, knowing what I know, now, the rest of my life wouldn’t have been able to handle the knowledge that I have at this point. Right?
And going in with that work-life balance in thinking about that, knowing that, like I’m a family, man, I have young kids at the time, right? Like, I have children. If I were to push that too far back then it is like, yes, I’d be in a very different position, career-wise right now. But that would come at the expense of, you know, watching my kids grow up. Right, so. So I wouldn’t change the thing.
Kenny Soto 26:57
I love asking that question. Because everyone’s answer is completely different. Some people do have things that they would like to change, other people don’t. And it’s always cool to see that there’s literally a balance among all my guests. There’s 50 50% Either way, so with all that being said, I really want to thank you for the wisdom that you shared with all of us today. The listeners and I included. If anyone wants to say hello to you online, where can they find you?
Tommy Walker 27:23
You can find me at Tommy is my name on all channels. I’m primarily active on LinkedIn and Twitter though. So say hi to me over there.
Kenny Soto 27:31
Very great screen name. Definitely, something to keep in mind. For anyone who’s listening and who’s thinking about consistency across channels. Definitely, something to think about. And with that being said, I want to thank you for your time Tommy and I want to thank you the listener for listening to another episode of people digital marketing by your host Kenny Soto. And as always, I hope you have a great day.