On this episode of Learn to Lead, I interviewed Mark Schaefer, who is the chief operating officer of B Squared Media. He is the executive director at Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He has worked with clients including Adidas, Johnson & Johnson, and the United States Air Force. He is also the best-selling author of nine books, and he teaches at Rutgers University.
I’m going to kick us off actually with the subtitle for your most recent book, which was How to Build Momentum for your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds. If you’ll permit me, can we start by talking about the odds? What odds are we up against?
The name of the book is Cumulative Advantage. The reason I wrote this book is I always write a book when I see a problem that people are really struggling with. Today, I think what businesses, and especially marketers are struggling with all the time is how can we be heard. This has really been a subject I’ve been writing about and speaking about for at least the last 10 years. The problem is is the amount of content, the quality of the content on the web that’s competing with us is just really overwhelming and it’s getting harder and harder every day to be heard.
One example: I wrote a blog post one time that absolutely went viral. It was shared thousands of times. It had thousands of comments. I Googled it a few days later. It was a term I made up at the time. It’s called content shock. I Googled it and to my amazement, I was third in the search results. This was a term I made up. I think the world is stacked against us in big ways and small both online and offline. My idea to transcend this overwhelming challenge is momentum. That’s what the book is about, how to build momentum for your ideas, your life, and your business.
I think one of the things that I pulled out was this essential marketing question that you have. In my opinion, at least, it has applicability for individuals and also has applicability for organizations. The question which I think is a wonderful follow-up from your first answer is how can we be heard? Why is that so critical? Why is that the critical question, and how can we do some of the things to be heard and break above that noise that you talked about?
I think all of us, whether we’re working for a nonprofit and competing for funds, if we’re at a university competing for students and competing for status in many ways, or a business competing for the best employees or trying to get our products out to market, it all gets down to we have to be seen. We have to be discovered. We have to be heard. I think I can save all of your listeners a lot of time and money because that’s essentially the subject of every marketing book that’s been written in the last 10 years.
It’ll probably be the subject of every book written in the next 10 years. Whether it’s SEO or social media or content marketing, it all gets down to how can we cut through the noise and become the signal.
I’m always curious about how our guests got to where they are. I think the way that I’ll structure the question for you is, is there a defining moment early in your career or early in your life where you realize that marketing specifically is something that you wanted to focus on?
I think it’s probably popular to say that this was some strategy that I had, that I had a vision that I was going to be a marketer and author. I think that all of our careers are really a collection of random events that lead to something.
I think the first defining moment is I started out as a chemistry major, but I didn’t like the people who were in chemistry. I think they’re all pressured to be doctors by their parents or something. They were all miserable. On a whim, I took a journalism class because I always liked to write.
Now here I am, here we are in 2021. Who would have ever thought that creating content would be such a big part of my life?
Another defining moment would be in the early ’90s when the internet was starting, I was in a marketing job. I loved being in marketing and I was stuck. My boss wasn’t going anywhere. I was thinking, “What am I going to do next?” I looked around and I saw this thing called the World Wide Web was beginning. I asked my boss if I could get an AOL account and put it on my expense account. After much debate, he was against it, he thought it was a waste of money, he agreed. I became the first employee of this Fortune 100 Company to be on the internet.
A few years later, the company woke up and decided they needed a director of e-commerce who should lead this thing. They thought, “Oh, Mark, you’ve been on the internet longer than anybody, it’s you.” That explains why I’m here with you today really. It’s a series of random events. It led to a career that I absolutely love. I have fun every day, and it’s very rewarding.
Many of our listeners might operate in the field or close to the field of marketing, but a good chunk of them don’t. What would you tell to those individuals that they should be thinking about given the importance of, in some ways, having a personal brand? There’s new social networks all the time to jump on, how do you tell somebody who doesn’t directly day-to-day focus on marketing? How can they use marketing to their advantage in their career?
I think it’s something to consider that, increasingly, the personal brand is the brand. Great marketing is about creating an emotional connection between what you do and your audience. We used to be able to do that through advertising. For example, we might have a loving, fond relationship with Coca-Cola because we think of polar bears, but increasingly people don’t see ads. We’re moving to streaming media, watching TV on Netflix or on Amazon Prime or on Disney+. You don’t see ads. Listening to your favorite music on Spotify, you don’t hear ads while listening to audiobooks. The frequency of us seeing ads has dropped dramatically. Even if we see ads, we probably don’t believe them.
In fact, research shows that trust in businesses, brands, and advertising has declined 13 years in a row. Who do we trust? We trust each other. We trust our friends, our neighbors, we trust business leaders, founders, technical experts. Working on your personal brand and showing up in your customer community can be the best marketing that you can create right now. It does take time. It takes consistent commitment. You have to show up usually by creating content of some kind. If your listeners are interested, I did write a book called Known about creating your personal brand in the digital age. It’s the bestselling book on the topic and it’s helped thousands and thousands of people.
Many times when we’re embarking on something new, it helps to ask certain questions to put that formula in place before we embark on something. What are some of the questions that we should ask if we’re thinking about our personal brand or if we’re directly involved in our company’s brand before we embark on a change in strategy? Do you have some fundamental questions that we should have constantly in the back of our mind when we’re dealing with these types of things?
I do actually. I have a series of five or six questions that I use when I go through strategy development with my customers. Whether it’s an individual or a company, the first thing I do is I’ll say can you complete this sentence: Only I, or in a business, only we…
This is a very important question. If I’m working with a company, I might have the executive team around the table get out a piece of paper and literally write their answer out. If everybody has a different answer to that question, that shows they do not have a coherent marketing strategy.
That’s really where we need to begin, to define what is the answer to this question. Why do people love you? What makes you distinctive? Why do your competitors fear you? The customers who love you, where are they? Where do they spend their time? How do they know about you?
It may take some time, it may take a few weeks or maybe even a few months to define that. If you can answer that question, your marketing strategy unveils itself. It’s very liberating because now we have: what to say, who to say it to, where to say it.
That’s really the beginning of the marketing strategy process.
One thing that we’ve heard from a lot of listeners is they’re fascinated that a decent number of our guests have talked about curiosity. Can you share a little bit about what you’re curious about right now? We’re obviously living in very interesting times. What is making you curious about what comes next? What do you see on the horizon that maybe people aren’t taking seriously?
I am constantly curious. I am overwhelmingly curious. I think the thing that I’m just utterly fascinated with right now is what will be the outfall from the pandemic, from a consumer behavior or a human behavior standpoint. If you look at what happened going into the pandemic, we guessed wrong about almost everything of what was going to happen. Who would have guessed that we would have a home construction boom? Who would have guessed we couldn’t keep the shelves stocked with Clearasil because people’s faces were breaking out because we were wearing masks?
There were a lot of unintended consequences going into the pandemic. Coming out of the pandemic, I think there are going to be even more. I think we have been forged and shaped in entirely new ways. We can’t even imagine some of the long-term consequences. In particular, think about impressionable children, one to three years old right now who are supposed to be socialized. They’re supposed to be playing with other children. They’re supposed to be picked up and played with by other adults. They’re supposed to be fond over by grandparents who they haven’t been able to see in the pandemic.
How’s that going play out over time? I think it takes about 30 days for a behavior to become a habit. Many of us have been living in a wacky new way far longer than 30 days. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how things occur at the end of this pandemic. I think truly we are entering the era of unintended consequences for businesses.
As a final question before we shift to the questions that I ask all of our guests, I’d love to just get a sense if you found out that you were working with a brand new leader at a company that you were consulting and you could snap your fingers and give them a trait, is there a trait that comes top of mind that you think would make that leader very successful in the world you’re describing?
It’s got to be someone who is humble right now. I think this is a very important trait because everything we thought about our customers has to be reimagined. We have to be patient. We have to listen. We have to re-learn. There are going to be shifts that are going to create enormous new business opportunities. There are going to be shifts that will close down some business opportunities in how we learn, how we work, how we relate to each other, how we entertain ourselves. Now really is a time to be humble and it’s the time for humble leadership.
That is a wonderful spot to shift to our final two questions. The first one is this. If you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
Without irony, it would be humble!
Because I am humble. I’m very, very, respectful of everybody that I work with. I never tell people what to do.
When I went to graduate school, I studied under Peter Drucker and he taught by the case study method. He would get so frustrated when people would actually try to solve the problems. He said, “What makes you think as a leader that you’re so arrogant that you can go in and tell people what to do? These people have been working on this problem for years.” I approach things very, very humbly and respect the intelligence and the expertise of the people that I work with always.
The final question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
That also came from Professor Drucker. I studied under him for three years when I was in graduate school at the Claremont Graduate University.
He said, “Being a great leader doesn’t mean having all the right answers, it means asking the right questions.” I totally believe that’s true.
In my consulting, almost every time the people that I work with, they have the answers. They probably know the answers, but they’re missing the right questions to bring those answers out into the light. That’s definitely a philosophy that I’ve used in my career.
This interview has been edited for clarity.