It was the one thing standing between me and the 'Submit!' button on my Distilled job application:
"Anything else we should know about you? (this is your opportunity to impress us)"
Well, damn it. I had reached the online equivalent of the, "So tell me more about yourself?" question in an in-person interview—you know, the one filled with the awkward rambling of mish-mashed facts about your life accompanied by the sinking feeling you just verbally completed an eHarmony profile page.
With no previous experience in online marketing, I knew that my way of "impressing" Distilled was not going to come by way of a Google Analytics Certification Score or a list of popular blogs that already called me a contributor. I knew getting past the dreaded "apply-here-and-we-will-contact-you-if-we-are-interested" portion of the process would probably be one of my biggest hurdles of the entire thing. The brainstorm that followed resulted in the weirdest/most embarrassing thing I have ever done to score an interview:
I clearly didn't have a future as a rapper, but I ended up having a future at Distilled. Was it silly? Yes. Was it unorthodox? Perhaps. Too unprofessional? For certain job applications it certainly would be, but I do think it played a big part in getting me where I am today. The video added color to the overall picture; it showed that I was already beginning to understand the steps one must take in order to become successful at outreach.
I’m constantly learning new things about what works and what doesn't in this industry, but the following five lessons I took away from my homemade rap video have proven to be some of the most valuable I have learned in my career thus far.
1. Identify Your Audience
For outreach to be successful, you have to understand your audience. A blogger is not going to accept content that is irrelevant to the interests of his or her readers. What topics receive the most comments and socials shares? Are the majority of articles actionable, “how-to” style posts or do articles tend to be more thoughtful and reflective? Answering these questions before brainstorming ideas will greatly improve your chances of developing content the blogger will want to feature. A post can be expertly written and full of innovative ideas, but if the message falls on the wrong ears (errr, eyes?) you may as well be asking a class of kindergartners to read, explain, and debate amongst themselves the motifs presented in The Grapes of Wrath.
My understanding of Distilled, through researching both the company as a whole and the individuals who make up the culture (Twitter profiles are an invaluable tool for getting insight on a person!), made me feel that in the midst of serious applications, approaching the process creatively and with humor would set me apart from the group.
Being different does not guarantee success, but when it comes to the world of outreach, understanding your audiences’ interests and offering them a unique perspective or idea can make the job a hell of a lot easier. Kyra Kuik does a fantastic job of explaining how to identify your audience and create sharable content in her post How to Produce High Quality Written Content.
2. Be Authentic
An integral part of being authentic is recognizing your strengths and owning up to your weaknesses. With my strengths being more creative than analytical, it made sense for me to present myself in a medium that would play up these characteristics in the application.
The ability to recognize where I shine and where I fall short has proven crucial in developing my personal outreach strategy. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by a team of really friggin’ talented individuals, each with his or her own specialties and strengths that appeal to different audiences. Luke Clum kills it in the design space, and for fashion and food, there is no better woman than Adria Saracino. James Daugherty and Rob Toledo are both excellent when it comes to small business and tech topics, while my previous experience as a professional photographer has helped me in the both the design and photography space.
Though I am constantly trying to improve and leverage myself in all niches, there are cases when staying authentic means letting another team member score the win and get the credit. Being naturally competitive by nature, I sometimes struggle with the team mentality of outreach, but if I know a fellow team member's strengths are better suited for scoring a win on a site I prospected, it willget handed over. When it comes to defining and measuring success, you should always choose client happiness over a personal ego boost.
3. Learn How to Brand Yourself
I was only slightly horrified when I showed up on my first day of work to a desktop meme of myself and an office introduction met with responses of, "Oh, you're the rapper girl!" It wasn't what I was expecting, but I blame it on Phil Nottingham's affinity for memes and my own (somewhat accidental) branding of myself. Like it or not, I had created something memorable with which I was now associated. By creating content Distilled thought was worth sharing internally, I became a familiar name and face to the audience I was trying to reach.
Self-branding, when done correctly, can help a good outreach member become great by creating familiarity, recognition, and most importantly respect, within a specific audience or group. Building a solid personal brand in outreach takes patience, time, and some damn good relationship building and writing skills---but you have to put forth this level of effort before you can expect others to care. By using your personal expertise and strengths to leverage yourself into a position of authority in a particular niche, you can begin to establish yourself as a credible and reliable source of information, something that is priceless in the outreach world.
4. Give a Damn About What You Are Doing
Full disclosure: my preparation for my in-person interview at Distilled borderlines on creepy. No seriously. I could have easily recited half the statements from Adria Saracino's 35 Additional Fun Facts About Me list on her personal blog, or given a painstakingly detailed lesson in the history of Distilled starting with a discussion on Will and Duncan's alma maters and chosen degrees. Why go through all the effort? Because I cared. I was invested in this company from the very beginning, and I was ready and able to prove it if necessary.
Many of the skills necessary for being successful in outreach can be taught, but giving a damn isn't one of them. Anytime you ship an idea in an outreach email, you have to remember there is an actual person receiving the message. Treat them as such. Before hitting 'Send' on any outreach email, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I summarize and explain a post this person has recently written?
- Can I name at least three topics commonly discussed on the blog?
- Can I name one unique, personal fact I know about this blogger? (beyond his or her first name!)
If you have trouble answering these questions, invest the time to figure them before crafting your pitch. Offering thoughts or asking questions about a recent blog post, making article suggestions centered around frequently discussed topics, and/or establishing common ground based on a mutual hobby or interest will help show the blogger that you get who they are and what type of content they want. There is no such thing as a perfect outreach email, but if there was a prize for "giving a damn" about the blogger, Rob Toledo and his thoughtful outreach emails would be the front runner every time.
5. Accept Failure as a Possibility
I, like many people, have an inherent fear of failure. My response on the final question of the application could have turned out to be a complete bust. A mark of embarrassment on an otherwise standard application. I hoped people would love it for being different, but I worried people would hate it for being too unprofessional or find it completely stupid rather than entertaining. Outreach involves a very similar risk; you are constantly putting your name on an idea that may or may not work, all while hoping that the message will be well-received.
I’ve spent seven months at Distilled so far, and in that time I have accepted that failure can (and will) happen anytime you attempt outreach. It's still a part of my nature to second guess myself and question if I am doing enough to be successful in adding value to the team, but I have learned to use each failure as motivation to improve. "No" is an all-too-common word in outreach that is hard to hear and accept, but it's what pushes people to evaluate themselves and create an evolving strategy to improve. It’s truly an ongoing ebb and flow of both success and failure, but it's honestly a big part of what keeps the game interesting.
The Overall Lesson
A creative approach to outreach can be awesome and successful, but it’s a wasted effort if the message is off-target and being sent to the wrong people. By incorporating the five lessons I learned into your own outreach efforts, you can be sure that you are getting the right message to the right people---no rapping required.