Marketer Dennis Shiao: Good Content Solves Problems
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
The Power to Reinvent
Marketing consultant Dennis Shiao publishes the Content Corner newsletter, leads the Bay Area Content Marketing Meetup, and contributes columns to industry publications like Content Marketing Institute and CMSWire.
Dennis wasn’t always a marketer. He began his career in IT and only discovered his passion for writing when his employer at the time was acquired. Then, after a decade of great work, a layoff last year led him to reinvent himself again, now as a consultant.
We talked to Shiao about why he loves writing, how he approaches content, and what he’s reading. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: What do you love about your work?
Dennis Shiao: I love any creativity that I can apply to a project or a concept and be able to craft something that helps advance or achieve a business goal. Mostly I've done marketing. My entire career has been doing full-time jobs and last year I moved into a freelance model. I'm out on my own, available as a freelance consultant.
What I love about that is it gives me so much variety in the types of projects I work on, both in industries as well as the types of marketing help a client might need. It could range from writing to messaging to social media marketing. That combination of the disciplines and the different industries has been really invigorating. The variety is a lot of fun.
What have you overcome to get where you are professionally?
Trying to identify what I'm passionate about and following that as a guiding principle has led me down a couple of windy paths in my career. My undergraduate degree is in computer science and I spent the first 14 years of my career in IT. One of the first challenges I had was around 2005. My company was acquired and the acquiring company was not bringing IT with them. So I was essentially out of a job unless I could find a new role in the acquiring company. I started to have some curiosity about the business side of the house and less about the technology side because I was exposed to a small team of startups.
I could have been out of a job, but I ended up looking at some of the available positions and I made my transition into marketing. They had a project management role but it was essentially product marketing. I was able to convince the product management team that they should give me a shot at this job, even though I had no track record. Thankfully they did.
I had been doing different types of marketing roles since then. Even though I went off on a track to do technical work early in my career, I feel like it took me a little while to discover my true calling. I was laid off from a job in the spring of 2018 and I was interviewing for another full-time position, but nothing panned out. That's when I made my move into freelancing. I've been loving it.
What do you think makes for good content marketing?
Audience focus. A lot of content marketers working for brands think first about themselves. I think that's a mistake. You first need to understand who the target audience of that brand is and make it all about them. That's really what content marketing is. It’s not product marketing. It’s not sales collateral. It’s about answering questions, solving problems, and even enlightening or entertaining the target audience.
If you're doing content marketing for a software company, it’s not about software, it’s about who is going to buy that software. How can you create content that helps them solve a problem? Initially, that may have nothing to do with that specific software you're prepping to sell. It’s about helping them, because then your brand becomes visible to them. The key thing is to be audience-focused.
Where do you see content marketing headed in the future?
I've been doing a lot of reading about artificial intelligence. I think there are some interesting things happening there. There are examples of companies using AI products and services to auto-generate content. One example is the Associated Press who does a couple thousand quarterly reports, and they have some commercial software that they license.
On the one hand, I think there will be more and more AI playing a role in content creation. Then the important question is, what does that mean for a content marketer? There is certain content that will be better suited for a computer or an algorithm to generate. Maybe that's not something that's going to be a sustainable career for you anyway.
I think the future is heading there and my advice for marketers would be to understand where this technology is headed, the potential of it, and where you can insert yourself to secure your future. There's a great quote by AI marketing expert Christopher Penn who said, "Manage the machines or they will manage you."
What writers do you admire?
I read a lot of printed books, so maybe I'm old-fashioned. One of my favorite book authors is Michael Lewis. He wrote The Blind Side and Moneyball, and I find that whatever story he's telling, he does it in a way that I find accessible. It grabs me and I'm just immediately interested. I just finished his recent book The Fifth Risk.
Another one, of course, would be Ann Handley. Everybody Writes is one of her recent books and she also wrote Content Rules. I love reading what she writes because she will make a point or go in-depth on something like marketing but do it in such a friendly, accessible, and humorous way.
What’s the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
A lot of my writing has been self-taught. I haven't taken any formal classes. There’s a quote I like from Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking.” When I first saw that quote, it perfectly captured why I love writing so much. We all have so much knowledge to share. For some people, though, it largely remains in their head. When you write and publish content, your knowledge gets shared with the world. Not only does the world benefit from your knowledge, but you may surprise yourself with how much you know. I found that with my writing. I say to myself, "Hey, I DO know a lot about this subject." If more people understood this dynamic and its potential, I think they'd write more.