Meet your marketer: Max Johns

Here we go with another episode of “Meet your marketer“.

I met Max few days ago over a beer in Takapuna after almost a year I’m in New Zealand. He is going to introduce himself pretty soon, so I’ll skip it. The story is I virtually met Max when I decided that my next destination would have been Auckland, New Zealand. Looking in Linkedin for digital people based in Auckland, I found Max’s profile and since one of my passion is content strategy, I wrote to him asking to meet as soon as I would have arrived there.

That didn’t happen that fast. We stayed in touch via twitter and linkedin, and finally we were able to sit down for removing the word “virtual” to our meeting.

So with Max, the Meet your SEO/Meet your Marketer series is finally global. How cool is that? It sounds almost as cool as the new Aphex Twin LP coming out in a month. (I said “almost”).

All right Max, take the stage and rock on!

Max Johns

Describe who you are and what’s your job.

I’m Max Johns. I’m the Content Marketing Manager for Jade Software, one of the three organisers of Auckland’s content strategy meetup, the guy behind a blog called Content Is The Web, and one of the elves behind Blog Secret Santa.

Jade makes all sorts of business software, for companies from banks to ports. We have our own programming language and development environment, too, as well as digital strategists, UX researchers….the hard part is summing us up in a simple way. Anyway, my day job is writing and managing most of the content that Jade uses in its marketing, digital and otherwise. It’s only been a few months so far; I spent five years as a ‘content guy’ in big banks before that.

You are running the Auckland Content Strategy meetup. Can you explain why this idea and how it is going so far?

Content strategy meetups are happening all over the world now, so it kind of feels like all we’re doing is helping Auckland (and New Zealand) be part of something much bigger. I met Emma, another co-organiser, at UX New Zealand in 2013. We were a few too many drinks down on closing night when we decided to start a meetup. I roped in Michelle, who I was working with at the time, and now there are three of us running things. It’s a good number – an earlier Auckland meetup folded when the single organiser got too busy.

Meetups are monthly and anyone who works with digital content, or is just interested in it, is welcome. We’re still trialling different formats – expert speaker giving presentations, videos of world-class conference talks, open floor sessions for anyone to speak their mind…they’re all good in different ways, and it’s fun to mix it up. BNZ pays for drinks and snacks, and we keep it pretty informal. So long as people are learning things and getting to know each other, we’re winning. Every second month we just go to the pub and chat.

We have 100 or so people in the group on meetup.com, and most months 20-40 people coming along. It’s a good mix of people from all over the place – start-ups, university staff, big companies like banks, agencies, bloggers, students… it’s fun.

You worked in Australia and New Zealand as well. What’s the main differences?

I spent four years in Melbourne working in the digital team at National Australia Bank, and I loved it. I was always learning new stuff and working on interesting projects.

NAB owns BNZ, so when I moved back home I just shifted banks. In terms of work culture and day-to-day office life, the two countries are pretty hard to tell apart. BNZ would get stuff done faster, probably because it’s a smaller company.

There are differences, though. Australians don’t realise this, but they’re a bit more global in the way they think. The web world is all about sharing ideas – there’s a wonderful international community all helping each other get better at what we do – and I think Australia is a bit more plugged into that. Kiwis are more likely to try to find our own way to do things. We trust ourselves to do stuff that’s at least as good anyone else can do, so we’re less likely to join in the worldwide chatter on Twitter or at conferences or whatever.

Australians talk about being on the edge of the world, and how far away everyone else is. They really notice it. New Zealanders live it, without being so concerned about missing out.

A lot of times I talked about content strategy, people are saying: “ah great, so you are doing content marketing”. What’s your take on content marketing and content strategy?

I think “content marketing” was meant to be “the use of content to achieve marketing goals”, which could have been a really useful, valuable thing, so long as the goals were defined properly. But a lot of marketing has fallen victim to the tyranny of metrics. To generalise, marketers love metrics but are terrible at using them. We end up looking at stuff that’s easy to measure, rather than at what’s important.

So what’s the simplest stuff to measure when it comes to content? Output – how much we publish. Clicks and page views. If you add in social media, there’s followers, likes, and retweets. Those are lazy, easy metrics to track. Even worse, they’re easy numbers to game. With marketing goals like these, of course the content work is going to be crappy.

To get to the point of this rant, “content marketing” has pretty much become “the creation of content that pushes your easily-measured, uninsightful metrics upwards”. More blog posts! More tweets! Cheap, low value stuff that you can just churn out. There’s no deeper end goal.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Marketing people simplified a good idea until it lost its soul.

Ok, so this answer isn’t actually about content. It’s about my long-held prejudice against people who work in marketing. I’m sure there are great marketing people somewhere, doing great content marketing. Whether that looks any different to content strategy is a totally different matter.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is losing balance in life. On the one hand there’s overwork and burnout. On the other there’s a lack of personal progression.

I’m as scared of becoming a 100-hour-a week workaholic with no real friends as I am of becoming an out-every-night alcoholic with great mates but a crappy job that’s the same every day. I can’t even guess which one is more likely. I fear losing what I think is a pretty good perspective on things. If it happens, it’s one of the hardest things to see for yourself until it’s too late.

If someone wants to work in New Zealand in the digital world, what are your recommendations?

New Zealand’s a little place. We don’t have lot of huge workplaces. My number one recommendation is to make sure that you can branch out a bit, and cover areas that aren’t your number one specialty. If I’m employing a copywriter for a small team, a great copywriter without much else to offer isn’t as useful as a good copywriter who knows a bit about UX research and can handle SEO basics if she has to.

This next one goes beyond digital jobs: New Zealand employers really value ‘cultural fit’ (sorry for the HR-speak). That doesn’t mean that you have to be everyone’s best friend or act just like your boss does. It means after you walk out of a job interview, the first thing everyone asks is ‘could we work with that person? Do we want to have them in our office every day?’ Your skills and experience get you into the interview, but your personality gets you into the job. Luckily, every workplace is looking for something different.

If someone wants to become a content strategist, what do you suggest to read? People to follow?

Ha, I’ve already blogged part of this answer, about books, last year. What else? Nothing beats talking to people. Obviously if there’s a meetup in your area, get along to it. And if you can make it to a conference like Confab or CS Forum, do that. It’ll change your brain.

But who to read online? That’s tricky. When I first got into content strategy I thought there’d be a small group of gurus that could lead the rest of us (my list started with Kristina Halvorson, Erin Kissane, and Karen McGrane). But the more blogs and tweets I read, and the more people I met, the more I realised that there’s actually a heap of really good people out there. It’s just not true that there’s a list of elites for the rest of us to bow down to. Have you seen Jonathon Colman’s list? It’s HUGE!

A few more of my personal favourites are Richard Ingram, Sara Wachter-Boettcher (who’s the editor in chief at A List Apart), Kate Keifer-Lee, Diary of a Content Strategist, Sally Bagshaw, Ben Chadfield (he’s the rest of the original Blog Secret Santa team), and Margot Bloomstein. But it’s more about finding the conversations that interest you, and joining in.

Music time. Name your top three favorite bands and what they mean to you.

This is the hardest question by a mile. I started with a shortlist of about 60, and I’d probably pick a different three every day of my life. But for today…

I grew up on The Beatles. My dad had a box set of all their LPs, and when I was tiny I learned how to play them to myself through headphones. I could drop the needle on Abbey Road before I could walk properly.

If I can include a solo artist, it’s Sage Francis. I love the way he plays with words, and his range. Not many rappers can do sincere ballads, throwaway joke pieces, slam poetry, and everything in between. He’s a real craftsman. On some of his albums he cuts in taped things he did as a kid sitting in front of a ghetto blaster, just to prove he’s been honing his craft his whole damn life. On top of that, he’s interesting on social media and he runs a great indy label. What more could you ask for?

My last pick is Toy Love. They were a New Zealand band who were only together for a couple of years, up until 1980. They made more good music than most bands ever manage, no matter how long they try. They grew out of the rubble of this aggressive, loud punk band called The Enemy, and in the end two of them stayed together as the Tall Dwarfs, doing half-insane 4-track home recordings. So Toy Love sit the middle of a pretty unusual arc. They were a bit anarchic and DIY, and there’s this mad, fun energy, especially in their live recordings. When the remastered version of Cuts came out a few years ago I got a message from my brother: “Get Cuts, play it loud, and wonder why anyone else has been bothering for the last 25 years.”

What do you think is the best part of living in New Zealand?

The space. The beaches, bush, mountains, lakes and bays. This country is just ridiculously beautiful. My favourite places are Milford Sound, Stewart Island, Central Otago, Waihi Beach, and the Bay of Islands. Since my wife and I moved back here we’ve done as much travelling and holidaying around the country as we can. It’s been amazing.

Oh, and the wine: Central Otago (again), Hawkes Bay, Marlborough…it’s all good.

Make yourself a question and answer to it: You’re part of the team that introduced Blog Secret Santa last year. What’s that all about?

Like almost everyone else with a blog I don’t post as often as I’d like, and that’s where the idea of Blog Secret Santa came from. It works like any other Secret Santa present swap, except the gifts are all blog posts. You sign up, we draw names so everyone knows who they’re writing for, collect posts from everyone, then deliver them at Christmas. Last year my gift was a post from Brasil, which was pretty awesome.

People loved it. We had lot of comments from bloggers saying “I’d never worked so hard on a post before”, and “this is the most fun I’ve ever had while blogging”. How cool is that?

In 2013 we had a team of two running things, and it was pretty much only content strategy bloggers. This year we’re expanding, so there’ll be multiple games covering different blog subjects. Right now we’re looking for people who can help run each game. The proper launch of Blog Secret Santa 2014 is set for next month. Exciting!

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