Content Crafters is an interview series where we de-construct the tools, tips, and tactics that top bloggers use to get so much work done. you’ll walk away in mere minutes with actionable takeaways you can try out right away. Let’s dive in!
Tommy Walker is a powerful online marketing strategist, editor, and storyteller. He’s currently the Global Editor-in-Chief of The QuickBooks Resource Center. Previous to that, he’s held Editor-in-Chief positions at companies like Shopify, where he ran the Shopify Plus blog, and at ConversionXL.
Tommy started his career in marketing many years ago after getting fired from a retail job over a pair of pants (more on that in a bit).
In the years since then, in addition to holding interesting and important editorial positions at large companies, Tommy has guest blogged for some of the most influential names in the marketing space and has hosted three internet shows.
Tommy writes data-backed stories that help marketers and entrepreneurs do their jobs better, and he is also a master of process and systems, which we’ll explore in the interview below (among other things).
How did you get into content marketing? What’s your origin story?
It’s a long story, but basically I was fired over a pair of pants from a retail job during the recession.
I’ve been working since I was 13 in various fields, from agriculture, to restaurants, and entertainment. Prior to working retail, I had spent about a year doing SEO work, and before that, I was a career actor from age 10.
After being fired (the first time ever in 11 years) I had decided that I would take fate into my own hands and work for myself. I spent 18 hour days every day studying what was going on in social media, SEO, and content marketing. After learning the basic language, I had applied my acting training to writing content.
To me, there were several parallels – brand development was similar to character development, determining voice through social media chatter was similar to script analysis, customer service was very much like improv…
After two weeks of intense study, a friend of mine decided I needed to get out of the house and invited me to a Super Bowl party. It was there I met someone who eventually introduced me to my first client. I took on the first contract for $750 which would cover my $600 rent and give me some additional money to eat for the month.
Flash forward 4 years later, and I had built up a consultant practice, which fell apart after taking on a client that decided they weren’t going to pay on time. My wife was pregnant, the engine in my car had been destroyed, and I wasn’t able to get a “real” job because I had been working for myself for so long.
Having few options, I set up a system to find paying blogging jobs, and quickly built out a portfolio. At the time, many believed that I was going hard to build up my own online profile, when in reality, I was just trying to pay my heating bill and buy groceries for my family.
Eventually, I became the Editor in Chief for ConversionXL and after about a year, was recruited into Shopify, where I would become the Editor in Chief for Shopify Plus – their enterprise division. From there, I was recruited to QuickBooks, where I am now the Global Editor in Chief, overseeing content development for the brand worldwide.
What do you believe to be true about content marketing that is counterintuitive or not commonly believed?
My philosophy in the beginning and still holds true now is that people don’t view the computer screen very differently than they did the television or movie screens of the past.
If you’re able, through performance, keep people engaged, than it can be very easy to create an ongoing narrative that people will want to tune into time and time again.
Beyond that, programming makes a huge difference. If you tune into any given network at 8pm every week, it’s likely the same show will be on. Having this level of consistency helps you, the consumer, get into a habit of tuning in.
To me, these two basic concepts are vital to running a publication, because it makes it easier to create an ongoing narrative from feature to feature, but also helps you to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.
Tell me about The Code. What is it, why did you create it, and how can others replicate something like it at their companies?
The Code is a document that distills the main rules for how we’re communicating in the work that we’re publishing.
In my first editorial position, I found that when I worked with different authors, I would find myself saying the same things over and over again. “Needs more research” “Why is this important?” “Yes, but can you explain why or how?”
I created the first Code at Shopify Plus to avoid situations like that, and having to leave notes saying, “I like what you’re saying, but we talk about it like this…” over and over again. I’ve found that it helps to establish a foundation for how we’ll communicate on an ongoing basis.
For other businesses, it’s really a matter of asking other customer-facing areas of the business what they notice in their interactions with customers, looking at top performing team members, and getting an understanding of what’s working well. The content team is one of the most consistent voices of the company, so everything you produce should be something the entire organization feels represents the brand and the work they’re doing. From there, it’s a matter of codifying those interactions.
For example, if your audience is comprised of those who are looking to disrupt an industry, they may require hard research to understand the science and evidence behind why certain tactics or strategies work. However, if your audience is made up of people who are happy making money just doing their thing, than it’s more important you communicate in a way that’s more like how you would talk to your mother-in-law or good friend.
These rules are important to create a communication framework, and it also gives someone in an editorial position to lean back on and say, “look at rule 3 of The Code” and give them some of the context they may not have that institutional knowledge on.
What skill do you believe is currently underrated or undervalued in content writers?
The ability to tell a story.
This isn’t just something that the people hiring undervalue, but also authors themselves.
All we’re really doing is telling stories. It can be the story of “how can I do this thing faster or better” to “how will this make me happier or more fulfilled.”
It’s hard, because a good story is something that makes the reader feel something, and if you’re in a field that relies on heavy data, the question becomes, “how do you avoid throwing statistics at the wall?”
A good author is someone who can take that data and make it mean something, make the reader fantasize about improving their lives in some way, because they know this thing and why it’s important. If you can do that without also being too obvious about it, then you’re doing something right.
What about content managers or marketing managers who need to recruit and manage teams of writers? How do the skills differ from producing content to managing the process?
You have to have an eye for talent.
Deeper than that though, you have to know what your goals are and how to create unique blend of authors who can help you achieve those goals. Where are their strengths and weaknesses? Beyond that, how do you talk with those authors in their language and draw out and develop those strengths?
This is something I focused heavily on in my work at Shopify Plus, because it helped us to approach subjects in a way that had meaning for both the author and the reader. If your author isn’t engaged in the material they’re writing, it bleeds all the way through, and this is why there is so much generic content out there.
Authors and businesses and readers all end up going through the motions, and because of that, 80-90%% of content written is unread.
So much of this work is relationship and trust driven. This is why when I was at Shopify, I did my best to hold weekly 1:1s not only to discuss the pieces, but what was going on in my author’s lives.
When you think about the vulnerability that goes into submitting work, you’re inviting an editor to critique your interpretation and thoughts. If the relationship isn’t there, neither is the vulnerability or passion, and really, that’s what readers connecting to, and it’s often what’s missing.
This is very different from any of the production oriented work, which in my mind is defined as simply creating a calendar and publishing on time.
What are your secrets to building systems or processes? You seem to have a very unique process with regards to editorial strategy and collaboration. Want to open up the kimono for us?
Haha! I don’t really know if there are any “secrets” per se. For me, it’s all about developing an understanding of what people want, the different steps in the production process, and who needs to sign off.
For example, I’ve noticed in every bigger organization I’ve worked for, there are several people who want to have say in what gets published. Ok, simple enough, let’s create a content intake form so they can submit whatever they want, and we can easily keep track of those requests.
This saves a ton of time, because rather than getting one off requests in my inbox, which are more than likely to get buried, I now have a single dashboard where I can keep track of things, and everyone outside of my bubble can feel like they’re being heard.
Taken a step further, I try to use a lot of automation in my processes so that the appropriate people are notified in their step during the process.
So for example, when that request gets approved, an email can go out letting the requester know we’re putting it into production.
During the production process, I ask when different teams would like to be notified and create an automation around that. So when an image needs to be added, I push a button, and the image person is pinged. When SEO needs to do a review, I push a different button and that person is notified. When the article is ready to be uploaded, I push another button and it goes to the queue of articles that are ready to be published.
Each of these little automations save time here and there that add up very quickly.
Zapier estimates that for every task that is automated, you’ve saved a minute’s worth of time. At my automation’s peak, we were automating roughly 80 hours a week.
This is valuable time that is won back that can be focused on producing the highest quality work possible.
(Editor’s note: the more repetitive work you automate the better. Wordable helps eliminate the process of uploading Google Docs to WordPress and formatting them. Save hours per post. Try it here).
What drives you? Why are you passionate about content?
It’s a need to connect and help.
My own story starts in a boarding house with a broken laptop, and I was able to get to where I am now because of so much free advice out there that I could apply and turn my situation around.
I don’t come from any kind of money, and many of the people I’ve known over the years have resigned themselves to their fate. But I know from experience that with a little bit of risk and a lot of hard work, that it’s possible to do anything.
So for me, it’s a matter of giving back.
What’s your philosophy on editorial feedback? Do you have a heavy hand or a light touch when it comes to architecting a piece of content – from a guest writer or in house writer, whatever – and bringing it to daylight?
It really depends on the situation.
I used to be a lot more heavy handed than I am now, but I’ve also developed my ability to find the right people to work with, and create little families.
I’ve really been fortunate to work with people who are passionate about what they do, and are extremely skilled in their own right, which makes it far simpler to get drafts that are pretty close to finished. The Code helps with that as well.
The caveat to that is that when I begin working with a new author, I try to get very hands-on so we can develop a shared language early on.
It’s all about long-term investment. When I was working as an author, that sense of comradery and personal investment was one of those things I felt was missing, and something I’ve always wanted to bring to my work as I’ve developed my own teams.
Do you use an editor for your own writing? What’s that process like?
I don’t actually do a lot of “work” writing anymore, because I’ve found I really enjoy being behind the scenes.
However, I have been getting into running a roleplaying game for a group of my friends, which involves a lot of worldbuilding, lore, and scene setting. It’s really my first time getting into it and it’s a completely different application of the skills I’ve developed.
That said, I ask my wife for help a lot, who is 1,000% better at writing fiction than I am, and while my general concepts stay the same, she makes the work so much better than it ever could have been on my own.
Give me five tips to improve my writing (well, five tips for anyone to improve their writing).
- Write sweater knit copy. One line cannot exist without the other. If you remove so much as a single word, the whole thing falls apart. Some of the best performing pieces I’ve ever seen or written grab the reader from the very beginning and refuse to let you go until the end.
- Take your time. Don’t just jump into a piece, but really meditate not just on the words, but the feeling you want the person to leave with. Do the research and before you ever start writing, reflect on what you’ve read, and don’t type a single line until you’ve given yourself enough time to digest. Watch the screen, close your eyes, and start typing when you’re energized.
- Command the reader. They clicked on the headline, take them on a journey. You control the pacing, timing, and musicality of the piece. Show them when to laugh, when to ponder, when to cheer and when to think critically. When you’re ready, build to a crescendo that defies all expectations and claims a space in their mind, allowing you to say “I was here.”
- Words have meaning. Study words and their exact meanings to make a paint a portrait that communicates exactly what you want to say.
- Cut the first 500 words you write every single time. All professionals, from musicians to baseball pitchers practice warm-ups before they step into the spotlight. Your first 500 words are your warm up, and as a pro, you should never let your reader see you practicing