Patti Podnar knew she wanted to be a writer since she was in second grade. Back then, she got so caught up in the story she was writing that she forgot all about the spelling words she was supposed to be using.
Patti declines to say how long ago that was, but she says forgetting those spelling words was a defining moment in her career, because she's never again forgotten the purpose of the content she's writing. Add to that a few decades in the business world, and she's developed a passion for making sure the content she produces matches her client's "job to be done." And, when needed, she helps clients figure out just what that job is (which happens to be her favorite part!).
That means Patti isn't a writer who just churns out copy on request. Instead, she begins any engagement with the mindset of a content strategist, making sure her clients have a specific purpose in mind for each piece of content and that the resulting content meets that purpose, whether that means helping SaaS companies explain what they do in terms that resonate with their customers or helping retailers explain to store teams why it's so important to perform recalls the right way. Regardless of industry, Patti's the content strategist you call if you want somebody who makes you question what you think you know and who is determined to make you and your brand better.
A key component to telling your brand’s story is the ability to understand your customer’s pain points, tell them how and why your product or service will solve the problem, and then present why you are the right person to solve their problem. It is about knowing what you want prospects to think, feel, and do, and then customizing the message from the user’s perspective, in a relevant and relatable way. In this episode, Patti Podnar (no relation), a content strategist and writer, explains her process for creating content that resonates and leads to business results. She also shares where businesses most often get tripped up and how to jump over such hurdles to get content marketing right.
KRISTINA PODNAR, HOST: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Power of digital policy podcast, your source of subject matter expertise that helps you shape sound digital policy. Today we're talking about writing for digital channels, and I'm delighted to welcome my guest Patti Podnar. I can pronounce her last name! Patti knew she wanted to be a writer since she was in second grade. Back then, she got to, you know, she got to catch up on her story writing because she was writing so excitedly that she forgot all about spelling words that she was supposed to be using in her assignment. So, I've known Patti for a number of years. She declines to say how long ago her second-grade writing was, but she says that forgetting the spelling words was a defining moment in her career. She has never again forgotten the purpose of the content she's writing, and to that, you can add a few decades, right Patti, of the business world experience where she's developed a passion for making sure the content she produces matches her client's job to be done. I can personally attest to that, and when it's needed Patti helps clients figure out just what that job is and that just happens to be part of her favorite part of the work.
So welcome Patti to the Power of digital policy. I'm so excited that you're here and the only caveat I have to share with my audience and tell them before we kind of get into the weeds here on what we're here to talk about is that you and I are not related. We're not sisters, we're not cousins. We're just two women who happen to have married into the last name Podnar.
PATTI PODNAR, GUEST: …but I say it ˈpɑdˌnɑr.
KRISTINA: Okay. Well, you can say it .. I can't even say it like that. I'm just going to say Podnar not so it'll be like a tomato-tomatho. So, we're both in digital and slightly different areas but related, and I always say to people that you're the saving grace to a lot of my projects over the last few years. Including my book and you were at the core of making that happen and making it be something that's usable and wonderful. And so definitely appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.
PATTI: Well and you have given me a master's degree and so many subjects that you're very welcome glad to be here.
KRISTINA: Well, here's the thing, Patti. I was that kind of thinking about our conversation that we were going to have today and I was reading an interesting article in Nature journal and the article is really about how humans have been sharing stories for 44,000 years now, which is a really long time and over the time period of forty-four thousand years, we've shifted to a new medium and away from cave art, right? So now we're actually telling stories, but we're telling them in a digital fashion versus cave art way. Content marketing and content development and storytelling are really all about engaging the end-users. Given what you do for a living tell us a little bit, how do you see content marketing? How do you see storytelling? How is that space defined based on your work and what you do?
PATTI: I probably approach it a little bit differently than a lot of people who are very focused on storytelling. And storytelling is important, but only if it gets the job done. So, I can't approach my work in a job to be done way. And so how I write what I right there is all based on what my client is trying to accomplish and different types of writing or appropriate for different purposes, and I just kind of work from that beginning and go from there.
KRISTINA: So, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people making when it comes to telling those stories?
PATTI: I think that there are several. In my work, I have met some brilliant people who could not write a paragraph if their lives depended on it. So instead of going from what they wrote, I was just, stop, tell me, and then once they told me it was fine and I can write it in a way that makes sense, but writing it wasn't their core competency. They were brilliant analysts, they are brilliant engineers, and just needed me and help them make that bridge. A very common mistake I see is, and this is especially true for a lot of tech companies that they write over their customers' heads. And for instance, a lot of SaaS platforms do a great job of explaining how their solutions work, but they don't ever address why somebody would need that solution. So, if you have a larger business probably know, but if you have a small business coming to a website and reading about integrations and your digital policies, as you do, and how to make sure your vendors are digitally secure. I think you talk to me one time about digital policy taxonomies. That's going to make your smaller business say, "what the heck are you talking about?" So, you have to get out of your knowledge level and produce what you know in a way that tells your prospective customer why they need it. Because you could have the best digital policies program in the world just like you, but if people don't even know, they need to sort of policies. It's not going to help him any or you.
KRISTINA: So that's interesting because I think there was a defining moment and at this point, I think we already had been working together in some way, shape or form for about a year and that I came to you and said, "Hey I wrote this brilliant first stab at my book. I just think it's so great." And I was tapping myself on the shoulder, and I think the very next thing I remember is you can have to be very generous and to say, do you want people to read it? What exactly do you want people to be able to do with this information you're putting out there? It was the kindest way of saying, "what in the heck are you thinking?" And you were generous enough to work with me, and really I think to start this process from scratch, and I credit you with having a structure that's usable but also getting me away from my academic tone, right? So, I mean, there was a totally different thing. And I'm not sure if there's an actual process you can describe, but it seems to me like there's always a cadence or there's a process that Patti Podnar process I call it, you know, can you talk to us a little bit about that or you know, what's at the heart of like trying to get to that point where you really are setting people straight or helping people to write content in a way that's going to resonate with that end audience?
PATTI: Yes, and I'll use my retail experience as a background and so I would first ask somebody if they were sent to me a message to write to the stores. What do you want people to do, think, or feel after they read this? And they would say I want them to stack recalled products on pallet such-and-such away. Okay, let's just pretend all that go out like that, and then they would come back to me a couple of weeks later and say they are not doing it. Well, no, because they've got a ton of other things to do and they have no idea why stacking things a certain way it's important. So tell me why it is important? Well, because they don't do it that way, it damages such-and-such and cost us a billion dollars. It's like, okay now we're getting somewhere. And then I can phrase the message and a term that makes it important and instead of just another task to do but the person who came up with that to them it was so obvious that they didn't think they needed to tell me that or to tell the audience that and sometimes I go through why is that important several times before we get to the real answer, but I'm finding more and more often now that all it takes is that first question. What do you want people to do, think or feel after review this and sometimes they'll realize at that point that they have no idea and they'll all talk together to figure it out, but more and more often they know exactly what they want to happen and they're able to explain that to me and then that helps me throughout the process.
KRISTINA: With everything going on right now, with a pandemic that we're in, do you find people are starting or trying to just write content for content sake or are people really stepping up and understanding what is it that they ought to think, putting themselves, I guess in the user shoes and saying what do you want that person to think, feel, do?
PATTI: A lot of the people I'm currently writing for are in the manufacturing or SaaS industries and especially at the point where those two intersect. So for them, it's business as usual. They know this is going to end, and they know that when it does, they're going to have to be ready to ramp up. So that hasn't really changed. Retailers and restaurants have a different problem. So for restaurants, I would provide: share your secret recipe, you don't you don't have any customers now anyway, so what's it going to hurt to share your secret recipe, what people make it on their own and have fun with it and ask them to post pictures of how it came out and just to be relevant that way without being promotional. There are a lot of yoga instructors right now who are streaming yoga classes. Grocers can, I'm finding out that in different parts of the country in the world right now, there are shortages of different things. I have a friend with a family in Italy whose family can't find yeast. You know, that's really interesting because right now everybody here is making beer bread, I never thought of that, and she has a sister in England who can't find eggs. So grocers and even agriculture businesses have a great opportunity to suggest substitutes, or you know, make a recipe with what's in your pantry and things like that just to kind of help people through this time, and that starts creating that relationship.
KRISTINA: So, how does a business do that? I think that there's probably different challenges for different businesses, right, and you've worked instead of really large enterprises, and you've also worked with very small businesses. Do the processes differ in terms of content development, content writing, content marketing, depending on the size of the business that you are, does it differ if you're kind of a local, you know Joe's Barbecue Shack or if you're the Olive Garden of the world.
PATTI: I think the greatest difference is how many people you have to get to check off on approval?
KRISTINA: Okay, but the process is essentially the same thing you're saying.
PATTI: Yes, it is. I mean, because you think about the restaurant and their patrons and the relationship they may have developed over the years where they recognize each other, you know, maybe it's your favorite date night's place, and at that point, I think it's all about the relationship. I can't be there in person right now, but here let me share a little bit of what I provide with you for free. You let me give away my secret recipe and things like that. So no, I don't think it really depends on the size of the business. I think it depends on the type of business, if it's a manufacturing plant that makes these shiny enormous cooling systems for buildings, well, that would be different. You know, then you would want to let your customers know that they will have products when they're ready to buy it again and that if they let you know when they're planning to ramp up, then you will ramp up in order to meet that need. So that's a different kind of relationship but not really. I mean you're still saying. Hey, I'm not pushing you. I know you may not be doing much right now, but you're planning, if you let me know what your plans are, I'll meet you there.
KRISTINA: And so the way that you put that it's very simple and it's full of what I would consider being empathy is there sort of, a is there, I guess a policy and if for lack of a better word, is there policy is there, you know, a guardrail out there that people should have around the tone that they're invoking right now for content or how they're speaking to their audiences. And is that different from regular kind of day by day times when things are quote-unquote normal?
PATTI: I don't think so, you know, you have these salespeople who work with their industrial clients all the time. Anyway, my brother is in sales, and people just love to buy from him. Because he's just this ordinary guy who sits down and has a conversation with you with a great deal of empathy for solving your problems, does not come across as salesy and people just love to buy from. So, I don't I haven't experienced every business and every company in the world yet based on my limited knowledge of what I have. I don't know that it would be that different now. I mean one thing that has been different as, you know, some content marketing agencies depending on what industry they're in, their clients are pulling back right now it retail especially but there are others, and you know my suggestion, and that case goes back and examine your own context from day one. You see what needs to be updated, see what standards have changed that you need to bring it up to check your internal linking yet to take this time to get your own content 1000% perfected. Because otherwise, you're never going to have time to do it. If you wait till things start back up again, you'll be too busy. So that's another way I think people could approach things.
KRISTINA: So that's interesting, and I think you know now that we all have or should theoretically have an extra moment to reflect on our content. I want to go back to what I said earlier, which is you know, it seems like there's been storytelling over the last forty-four thousand years. And the thing that's really shifted is the medium, but storytelling is still alive and well, how do you advise businesses to tell their stories? And how do you actually do we need to be telling stories through this content that we're putting out there had what does that actually look like?
PATTI: No, I am not the best storyteller because I focus so much on the job to be done. I think there are a lot of companies that are focusing on storytelling—going back to where I was in second grade. They're focusing so much on the story that they're missing the point, but I think if you could find the sweet spot where those two intersect, that would be phenomenal. Tell the story, but don't forget the job you're trying to do.
KRISTINA: And so if we actually want to give people some guidance or some policies around, getting the job done telling the people what the job is that they want to get done around content writing, things that pop into my head that seems just very obvious as, maybe tone and voice or perhaps, please use AP versus Chicago style of writing, but I feel like there's some unwritten policies that you've indoctrinated into your work. I'm wondering if I can put you on the spot, can you share a few with us or does it seem like their policies? Because again, you know that the concept of what do you want people to think, feel, or do sounds like a policy to me?
PATTI: Sure, that's a fair question, and I think again, I probably depend on the industry and the audience if you're a retailer sending messages to your stores on this role. Your important tasks you need them to get done. Don't bother with the storyteller. They're too busy. Just tell them what you need them to do. On the other hand, if you're a B2B company and I wrote for this one company one time that they produce this really great lumber that, you know, they have been in the industry for a hundred years. They knew these trees; they knew which cuts of lumber to be used for certain products and why that's the perfect example of storytelling. It tells the story of a customer who wanted a particular feel for their home and how they worked with that customer to not only pick the right type of wood, but how to cut that wood, and things like that when you're trying to promote a feel, I mean, yes at the end of the day, they still want these people to call them and hire them, but if your customers are looking for a feeling, which is basically what most of us want for my home, then you give them a feeling. Does that make sense?
KRISTINA: It makes a lot of sense, and I'm thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense. I'm wondering how do you scale that, especially into an enterprise? That isn't just about numbers but also maybe about different markets, and I know that you've worked in large enterprises as well. What's the key to trying to get people to understand that when we're talking about such a large set of writers and also a large set of writers that maybe have their own nuanced way of working?
PATTI: Well, what I tried when I was in the corporate world, and at the time it was too big a company, and I was in far too junior of a position to pull it off, but I tried to get a request forms that don't bring me a message to send to the stores unless you can tell me why it's important, what you want people to do, who the audience is, you know, what are they're pain points. Now, if the store employees are frustrated because they have outside ourselves too often, then you might want to address how they place their order, but you would do it from the starting point of, man, it could be frustrating when your favorite customers come in, and you don't have what they need. So you identify that pain point first and no, you don't come out until I'm well, you're not placing your order, right? Tell me what it means outside of ourselves. Here's how to place your order to make that problem go away. And so you know, you have to balance what you want people to do for your benefit and what you want people to do for their benefit. So typically, you try to find a way to phrase it toward their benefit. And that one, you know, we reverse engineer, and it goes back to your benefit.
KRISTINA: That sounds like a lot of psychology, Patti. It also sounds like a lot of change management. To be honest with you. I think about, everything that you're describing and I'm going wow, you know, what I guess writing is I think a gift it's a craft, and you know, but that's only a part of it right, you know being able to write is a talent, but it's only part of what it takes to get the message right, and then sort of this positioning like you said and understanding what am I writing for? Who am I writing for and it's really about thinking three steps ahead and putting yourself in other people's shoes so that you can actually understand how does everybody wins with an outcome and presenting it as such does that sound right or my off on that?
PATTI: No, you're absolutely on target with that, and I'll admit I think again going back to the corporate world for the first ten years, I work there I didn't have any insight into that part of the company. Then I had a two-year stint in merchandising, know to buy the products. How do you know how many to buy how do you know where to price how they know what customers want, and all of a sudden it all made sense. And I wish I had had that knowledge sooner, but that two-year span taught me, between that and you, it's taught me everything I bring into play right now and it you know, it taught me that instead of just somebody telling me right now is that it's okay to ask why because there might be a really good reason. They're just not thinking they need to tell me.
KRISTINA: So that's sort of funny. I always tell people that I've been through the Patti Podnar school of writing. I'm not sure I have the certificate to prove it. I'm not quite there yet. But I do feel like I've learned so much from you, and you know, I find myself..
PATTI: ..you have!
KRISTINA: Thank you for saying that, you know, as a mentor in the space, I feel like you've really pushed me, and one of the things that I always enjoy is the fact that, and I guess this has been the case from day one Patti. I always enjoy the fact that you never left me off the hook, you're always should have to push, and I don't get to write anything until I can explain certain things. And so I'm wondering you know and thinking about sort of the most simple and elegant writing, and the most simple and elegant thoughts that I feel like I've been able to produce are the ones where I'm getting pushed by you or even by other colleagues, but especially by you on explain to me at a most basic level at a basic level. What is it that you are trying to get across? And its sort of that pushing and pushing and pushing. You know, that I feel like has really evolved me to a point where I go. Okay, you know what? I think I'm getting better. And so, I can see that working even with clients and I think the policy is really helpful in setting that framework, but I think that a lot of it has to do with experience and it has to do with practice, right practice makes perfect.
PATTI: ..absolutely ..
KRISTINA: ..and I'm wondering, you know from your perspective, you know, it sounds like yes, practice makes perfect. We all need training. But if anybody is listening out there and says, you know, what Patti tell me, "What is the very first thing I should do to enable myself and my peers to do a better job of writing, a better job of the content marketing. What are the two or three things they need to step away and do right away to train themselves to get themselves really to the point where you're going to say: "Look you've been to the Patti Podnar school of writing? Not to give away the magic sauce…"
PATTI: No, I always give away the magic sauce. I have no problem with that, and it's what I've mentioned before. It's what do you want people to do, think or feel, and if people can't answer that question, you send them away until they can because otherwise, it's not worth doing. And then once you've got that established, then you can start digging into the why is that important and who benefits that people do what you're telling them to and you know, just ask those little prodding questions that help people really question their own assumptions and with us that have work that had worked both ways because when we first started working together half the time I didn't know what you're talking about. So, but what I would ask, hey, what do you mean by this? Yes, I know. Okay, that makes sense. And so, it's work both ways sometimes, you know, a lot of times the writer or is from the client, when they push back that what the client is asking for is actually correct. The writer just didn't know it. So, it has to be a give and take.
KRISTINA: So Patty, there's a lot of people out there that might be thinking, how do I get this right or how do I learn from the best people who are doing this the right way? Can you share with us? Some good examples of people who are getting it right in terms of content creation and sharing?
PATTI: Tractor Supply Company and that might be no, not the first brand that comes to mind for a lot of people since it's about farming, but their Instagram account is phenomenal, you know, we had talked earlier about storytelling, and Instagram is where they tell their stories. I mean, I'm looking at her right now. They have a picture of a man and his dog sitting there by their container farm like they're just worn out after a long day, and there was this little girl with holding carrots almost as big as she is and it honestly makes me want to kick up and comes the country and buy a farm. It just so encapsulates who their audience is, their tagline is "For life out here", and I mean their customers know when they look at their Instagram that the company knows who their customers are and, sorry, go ahead…
KRISTINA: I was just going to ask you that you know because you're talking about them it what's interesting to me is they have a really heavy presence in the area that I live in, and it is interesting because I've seen a lot of their ads on TV and what struck me you know, as you mentioned that there are really kind of good go. So is I'm thinking about this advertisement is short it's brief and it basically just says we're here for you. As always, we know what's important we have curbside delivery, or we can actually deliver to you. And what's interesting is it they just get straight to the point, and they just get it done, and so is that kind of what their effectiveness has or is it that their story resonates or is it all of that? Is that sort of the magic sauce?
PATTI: Well, on Instagram, I think it's the emotional factor it resonates it what it tells their stories, and it tells stories about their customers, their blog, which is also called "life out here." That's where you can go to get the job done. Last time, they had an article on how to make goat cheese from your own goat's milk and then how to build the chicken coop, how to secure your own meat, just a very specific post about getting the job done. So between those two platforms. I just think they do a phenomenal job of telling the story and giving you valuable information to help you do your job.
KRISTINA: So especially during this pandemic because I think what I'm seeing is a lot of people out there are writing content and it seems like a lot of the content is for content sake not necessarily getting a message across and it's such a fine balance between putting something out there that's useful putting something out there that's relevant and still getting a message out there that says hey as a company we're still here. So I know you talked earlier about this is a great time to go back and clean content, but should people really be putting out their messages around we're still here or thank you to our employees for being there. Is that helpful at this time, you think?
PATTI: As long as it's not promotional, I don't think it would hurt what makes it work for Tractor Supply is that their customers are the people who provide our country's food, you know what without a bit, and we wouldn't have anything to eat. So, you know, there's a very specific connection there between the company and their customers and I think that's why what they're doing right now is so valuable and when they say "we are still here," you know, the basically America still gets to eat because you know, we can apply your cattle feed and your chicken feed and whatever else you need to keep producing food.
KRISTINA: Well, that's key. Right and I think one of the things that that the one thing I do remember when I first reached out to you, I really needed content strategy help and I think I had the benefit of working in the industry so I knew that I didn't know that and that I wasn't good at that and that I needed an expert in that area for folks who think they're really good at content marketing at content writing content positioning and delivery. You know, how can they partner with somebody like you should they be partnering with somebody like you and what can be the benefit?
PATTI: They should partner with somebody like me they want a collaborative effort if they want somebody to push back the things they've always done, you know if they're willing to consider the fact that maybe they're not getting it just quite right and it even if you have good traffic, traffic doesn't always lead to conversions. Now, I could write a blog post about aliens that landed in my backyard. That would probably go viral, but it wouldn't good single person to hire me. Hmm. So everybody focuses on traffic, but you have to also look at that traffic, but if it's you in any way. So yeah, I mean I I would love to work with anybody to take a look at their content and say "Here's where I think you've got it on the mark" No, here's where need a little tweaking" and you mentioned earlier that I sound very psychological and I think I do approach it for more of a psychological content than just KPIs because you know at the end of the day conversions is really what matters. Unless you generate income through driving traffic, and then eyeballs matter. I call myself a content marketing heretic sometimes because you know, I just do things differently. So I think if anybody were to want to see if doing things differently might be what they need, I would love to help them. I think somebody who knows exactly what they want and just wants a good writer they can trust in, who will deliver it on time and it'll be good copy. They would probably hate me, but I could certainly refer them to writers whom they would like, you know, if he doesn't like Devil's Advocate, you're not gonna like me very much.
KRISTINA: Well, I have to say, Patti, I've really enjoyed having you play The Devil's Advocate, and you know, even sometimes when it can be really frustrating. I know it's because we get to a much happier place in the end and I think we need more people like you not just as a adviser, although certainly, I've benefited from that but also I think for enterprises having that external set of eyeballs, that's kind of looking at the engagement, the storytelling, the consistency do we have the right way of getting the message across, are we doing the right thing? And is it coherent which at the end of the day I think is all about content strategy, but it's really all about marketing and engagement and like you said conversion whether its conversion to a sale or if it's a conversion into action right because sometimes and I've learned this from you is it's not always about the bottom line conversion can be customer loyalty. It can be sentiment it can be taking action for good, it could be all kinds of other things.
PATTI: It can be recommending you to someone else, or you know, it could be something as simple as if I want medical information - Mayo Clinic. I mean that's just to automatically go to, never been there, probably never will, but they are my trusted source. So I think that's a lot of value in that to be a trusted source.
KRISTINA: Yes, that's great. Well, thanks very much for taking the time today, Patti, to give us so much insight and share. I think what can be sometimes seen as a very convoluted process, but I think you've boiled it down to what we really need in order to make really good content and do a great job of engaging in user. So thanks for your time. I really appreciate you sharing today with us your insights and experience.