[VIDEO] Joe Pulizzi on Redefining Your Creative Process During Uncertain Times

What Did You Learn? Episode 21

“In March and April, my rhythm was all out of whack because everything changed. How do I go ahead and set these new guidelines and parameters so I can create and be at that optimum level, even when it seems the world is in chaos?” That’s the question Joe Pulizzi, known as “The Godfather of Content Marketing” used to devise a new creative process for himself when the pandemic changed his fine-tuned content creation strategy.

During this episode of “What Did You Learn?” we talk about the importance of an audience- or content-first business model, how “Moneyball” inspired Joe to create The Content Marketing Institute and how to develop a creative rhythm when the world feels upside down.

Ahava: Hi, I’m Ahava Leibtag. Welcome back to “What Did You Learn?” Today we have the most  fantastic guest, my good friend and colleague, Joe Pulizzi, who you probably know as the Godfather of Content Marketing. But really, he’s my favorite mystery author in the whole world. He wrote a fantastic mystery called The Will to Die, and I suggest you check it out immediately. Join me in welcoming Joe. Joe, it’s so great to see you.

Joe: You are so kind and you’ve been such a support telling me, hey, when’s that next version? Next edition coming out? Get going.

Ahava: I don’t think I’m supportive. I think I’m like I want to know what happened.

Joe: It’s so funny because people probably know some of your Facebook feed, but I said, oh, I finally I got my manuscript done for Content Inc. I put it on Facebook last week. I’m really excited about it, my next marketing book. Everybody’s saying congratulations, such a big effort and you’re like, where’s my Will to Die part two? I love it. You’re the only one I love it.

Ahava: I actually felt after I wrote it, I was like, wow, Ahava you’re incredibly selfish. You should congratulate your friend, you know what it’s like to put in a manuscript. And I was like, no, I don’t really care. I want my sequel.

Joe: No, no, no. I appreciate, it’s gotten me, no, your insistence has gotten me to think about this a little bit more. So I appreciate it.

Ahava: It really is a great book. It really was. It was such a fun read. So let’s talk about what, you’re involved in a billion different things. I don’t know how you manage it. You manage your charity and sponsorship of children with autism and speech issues. The Orange Effect. You still write about content, still are heavily involved in the content marketing industry. I know that you like to play golf also. How did quarantine hit you? What did you all of a sudden do? You were grounded, you were home. What happened to you during that time period, where you just sort of, life as you knew it sort of really changed?

Joe: Well, I’ll be completely honest with you. I had a nice little bout of anxiety at the end of March, April. I was having some chest pains and I was having all kinds of issues. And I’m like, I’d better go to the doctor and the doctor said, you’re fine. And then I realized, oh, my god, this is all in my head. Because nobody knew anything. I’m sure a lot of people go through it, but I’m not used to it. Usually, I was telling everybody I’m fine. I don’t take anything too seriously, what the heck is going on? So physically, it was weird. So I was going through that. The second thing is I was pretty much, every other week, I was on the road doing something. Go and do a speech. It’s a wonderful position I’m in that I can sort of choose which speeches I want to do and which I don’t want to do. And we had some really, we were going to go to Europe. Pam and I, my wife, we were going to go to Europe a couple times. I was just supposed to be in Milan, Italy, and do a presentation that I just did virtually. We were going to go see some family from Italy there, so that didn’t happen. A lot of people are in the same boat, right? But if you’re asking about my creative process, that completely changed because I would do my reading on the planes normally. I would sketch a lot of notes. I carry a Moleskine notebook everywhere I go, sketch lots of notes on it and so that when I’m ready to go and create some kind of content, whether that be marketing content or fiction, I’m ready to go. I’m in a good position because I work up to that point. I usually, I don’t just sit down and start writing necessarily. Writing a chapter on something takes a week for me, and people don’t realize this, but I’m literally in writing mode all the time. I’m running and I’m writing. I’m just hanging out with the family. I hate to say this, but in my head there’s things going on and I’m starting to work through things. And then all of a sudden there’s a chapter and, yeah, I sat down for two hours and wrote it, but there was a long process to get there. So long story short, Ahava, my process had to change because my regular, the way that I live was changed so I had to figure, okay, well, how am I going to be creative since I’m not doing the things I used to do?

Ahava: Yeah. I tore, I do a lot of my thinking while I walk and listen to music. That’s like walking, meditation, type of thing. And I tore my hamstring this summer and I was on the couch for 10 weeks. It was horrendous. And, yeah, I didn’t come up with any new ideas. Oh, well, there goes my creativity.

Joe: Well, I think you’re allowed, first of all. You’re a lot, I’ll give you a really good example. I’m not a person that, I don’t watch a lot of TV. But I finished the second version of Content Inc. I finished that manuscript on Thursday and I said, I’m doing nothing for the next couple of days and literally on Saturday during the day, I think I set a record for most movies you could watch in one day. I just sat and did nothing. I watched Galaxy Quest and Vice and Moneyball and all my guilty pleasure movies I don’t get to watch.

Ahava: But Moneyball is a phenomenal movie if you want to talk about how to put together a great story based on a Michael Lewis book.

Joe: Moneyball, by the way, Moneyball was a huge inspiration for Content Marketing Institute. Because I, when I, first of all, I read the book and then watched, of course, Brad Pitt’s amazing performance in it. And I kept thinking about what’s the thing that everyone’s missing that’s right out in front of us. Of course, that’s Moneyball, right? It’s right there, on-base percentage. It’s right there that, what do we need? We need runs. We need to score more runs. We need to pay for runs. And then nobody did that at that time. Now everybody uses, is it on-base percentage plus slugging percentage? So that’s what they kind of use.

Ahava: I have no idea.

Joe: Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.

Ahava: Some magic formula.

Joe: Basically, that’s what I was trying to think of. Everybody’s doing content marketing, everybody’s calling it different things I’m like, oh, well, what if we just flip the script, and called it something different? And that was the thing. It’s not like I was a trailblazer in the custom publishing field. I wasn’t in it very long. I just said, let’s just, I think if we gave it a makeover, I think we’d do better. That’s all I said.

Ahava: Yeah, but I think that that’s what Drew Davis’ keynote at Content Marketing World this year was about, right? How do you become a visionary? You kind of just look for the thing, you don’t be an expert. You move away from the how to, you look at what? What’s in the future? What’s next? What’s different?

Joe: By the way, that was an awesome presentation. He has to be, he’s one of the greatest marketing speakers of all time in my opinion. Especially the way that he is so creative about it. And now he’s figured out the virtual medium. We’re just up here speaking, doing Zoom and whatever and think, oh, that’s good enough and then he has 17 different camera angles coming at it.

Ahava: He’s hilarious, and he’s the nicest person.

Joe: He’s so good.

Ahava: And you know what? We’re really lucky, because in our field, just everybody is so great. What, if somebody had come to you in January and said, hey, Joe, you’re about to have an anxiety attack that’s going to last a month. What do you wish you had known before this started?

Joe: Well, first of all, on February 20th, I wish they would have told me to sell all my stock and then re-buy it, a month later, all into Zoom and Peloton. That would have been amazing.

Ahava: And Home Depot.

Joe: All of, I mean, really just about everything that you could possibly imagine. It’s crazy. In January, if somebody came to me. Well, first, none of us writing, I would have said travel your butt off. Travel like crazy now because you can’t, we were actually supposed to be on a cruise during the election. That’s not going to happen. It was interesting. So I was, in January, February, March I’m in full, promoting the book mode. We had the book party, Will to Die was, all kinds of stuff was going on. I was trying to get it out there as much as possible, and I’ve never promoted a novel before, so this was all new to me. But what surprised me, and I don’t know if it would have helped if I knew beforehand, maybe because I could have moved faster than I have, which seems awfully slow, I know you say I’m doing a lot, but I don’t feel like I’m going very fast when I do it, is in late March and April, just as we were in the thick of this whole thing, I started getting a lot of emails for me about the business model of content, which I call Content Inc.

And the only reason why I just finished the manuscript and why I’m republishing and why I started half of the stuff I’m doing is because there’s a need for it. And I was getting so many emails and messages from people that said, okay, I’ve lost my job, but I really believe in this model. I’d like to start doing this. How do I find my differentiation point? What’s the timetable to expect? How should I build my plan? All questions that you get all the time, but just very specific to the business model that we put together based on a lot of interviews. So I wish I would have known that, because if I would have known that, I would have had something ready to go in late March or April that say here you go.

I just read an article in The Wall Street Journal that said there’s more people starting businesses right now than at any point in the United States since 2007. And my take is launching up with a product first business model today is flawed. I believe in audience first or content first business model. It’s just a lot of people don’t understand that, because we think, oh, we’ve got to go ahead and sell our product. They don’t understand that oh, what if we build a relationship first? Would that make a difference? Oh, yes, it does. I think it’s a less risky business model, but that’s neither here nor there. So that’s what I would, that’s probably what I would say. I wish I knew the demand because you’re right. The industry is resilient. The problem is a lot of our friends are on the media side of the house and they’re not getting their jobs back anytime soon. Except for the fact that it may be on the other side, which they’re basically creating content for brands. Or they can decide, I’m going to do my own business model, which, course I’m partial to just because you and I are both entrepreneurs and why work for somebody when you don’t have to?

Ahava: You’re talking about content and you’re talking about the business model for content. Did you watch the Social Dilemma on Netflix?

Joe: Yes, absolutely did.

Ahava: Okay. What are the ethics around the things that we do? And I’m not talking about clickbait and things like that, Black Hat SEO. Obviously those things we know that they’re wrong. But did you think about yourself? Did you think about, what have I accomplished here for so many people? I’ve created an entire industry really, or I married two bad businesses to create an industry. But what was your reaction?

Joe: The first reaction is I need to leave social media entirely. And the second reaction is, okay, let’s just cut the cord on the Internet altogether because I’ve got two kids and the third? Yeah. The third reaction is oh, my god, I can’t believe my mom’s on Facebook. Those are the things that I thought about immediately. No, I think that we have to ask ourselves that question as content creators, because we have a lot to do with it. You have been teaching forever that social media are, they’re just pipes. They’re very smart pipes, but they’re pipes and they can’t do anything without content, just like what’s a faucet good for if there’s no water coming out of it? Same thing.

Ahava: What’s HBO good for if there’s no shows on it?

Joe: Exactly. So you’ve got programming, and we helped create that programming, sometimes ourselves, sometimes for our clients, sometimes for our friends. We have a lot of responsibility in all this. I think that these platforms, they’re going to be used. And when you think about Facebook, it’s the one that I hate. I say in my newsletter all the time that I think that if there is a social media representative of evil, it’s Facebook. And I believe that because I don’t think their intentions are honorable.

Ahava: You literally say that almost every time you post.

Joe: I do.

Ahava: You’re like, I can’t keep on posting on Facebook.

Joe: So I’m trying to do my part. I’m not saying don’t use Facebook because look at the Philippines. In the Philippines, Facebook is the internet.

Ahava: The internet, yeah.

Joe: They don’t go, there’s a lot of African countries as well, the same thing. They get a phone, they don’t have a computer, they get a phone and it opens up and automatically it’s Facebook. It’s pre-programmed in. Done. They’ve got a Facebook account. That’s how they get there. So I think Facebook is going to be used. But I think that we have to just tell the truth about what’s going on. We have to be involved in some of these platforms. I’m on Facebook less than ever before, but when I’m on there, I just try to let people know. Hey, this is what I believe. This is based on the information I have. This is not true. When I run into certain people and they say nobody knows what’s true anymore. I’m like, “No, we do. We do. We actually can find these things out. We actually know.” Yes, I know that is a fact. Just like the earth is round. These are things we can find out. Here is the, so back to your statement. We know this stuff, you and I, and a thousand other people. And I think it’s our responsibility to get in there and do it as politely as we can and say that some things are right and some things are wrong, because if we leave the platform and just let holy hell break loose, Mark Zuckerberg is not going to stop it. Who’s going to stop it?

Ahava: I agree with you, and I do think that that’s one of the things that we really work hard at Aha Media Group and our clients as well, particularly the healthcare space. If we can’t find a second source to verify it, it’s not going in the content because I’m a journalist by training, and you just, you have to really figure out what your ethics and your standards are and follow them because otherwise, I think you are contributing. Not you, Joe Pulizzi, I’m saying we are contributing as a community to disinformation.

Joe: Absolutely.

Ahava: So what do you think is the number one thing you’ve learned from this whole experience and what you plan on taking with you in the future?

Joe: For the creative process to work for me, I have to set some guidelines to make it work. When I look at writing a novel and how that novel came together, basically I wrote for 44 days in a row to finish that novel. And the first couple days were horrible. It’s just bad stuff. And then you get into a rhythm. And I’m a long-distance runner, and that’s how I work. And not all people work that way, but generally you find that in writers and creators of some kind where you build the muscles, you build over time and then you start to get into a rhythm. And then that rhythm produces something hopefully great. So that’s what I’ve learned about myself. Now, what I had to adjust in March and April is, my rhythm was all out of whack because everything changed. Even my running schedule seemed to, because the kids were off school and you just, so you’re like, okay. It took about three or four months to figure out, okay, what’s my new schedule going to be? So I guess what I’ve learned is I need to be a little bit more flexible with my schedule. But at the same time, I have to figure out, okay, we’ve changed how we live in so many ways. How do I go ahead and set these new guidelines and parameters so I can create and be at that optimum level, even when it seems the world is in chaos?

Ahava: Joe, where can people find you?

Joe: Joepulizzi.com You can find all my books and speaking and my newsletter that goes out every two weeks and then I’m probably most accessible on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

Ahava: Thank you, my friend it was so good to see you.

Joe: Yeah, if you ever need anything, you know I’m here for you. Alright, we’ll see you.

Ahava: Take care.

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About Ahava Leibtag

Ahava Leibtag, MA

Ahava R. Leibtag has more than 20 years of experience in writing, messaging and marketing. She is a well-recognized content expert and writes thought leadership about content strategy and content marketing. Ahava is the President and owner of Aha Media Group, a content strategy and content marketing consultancy founded in October 2005. She... More >