I met Cameron Conaway at the TNW conference in Amsterdam back in May 2017. I was there with the WordLift team and when I saw Cameron showing up at the booth I was glad as I had been following him for more than a year. In fact, Cameron is among the most influential people in content marketing. Yet before being a Content Marketer, Camerons is a poet, BJJ/MMA fighter and a journalist.
Those things are what I believe made Cameron a successful Content Marketer. That is why I wanted to hear from him how those things affected his career and life.
How did BJJ, poetry, and journalism shape your mindset?
The historic beauty of BJJ rests not with its ability to allow a smaller man to maim a larger man, but with its ability to allow any man of any size to survive.
I was a small boy growing up in an abusive household, wanting but unable to protect myself, my mother, and my sister. So I often quietly but desperately wrestled with concepts of power and powerlessness. Why do some use their power to push others down, while others use it to empower others? How could I get it or, better yet, take it away from my father?
BJJ, which I first began studying 20 years ago, taught me that power can be gentle, beautiful, a force for good. It gave me a confidence in my small body and fear-driven mind that I’d never known. But what it also gave me was a sense of community. BJJ, perhaps more than any martial art, is about community.
Cameron with BJJ legend Renzo Gracie
The BJJ mindset is one of continuous learning, of openness and trust in others even when it means being vulnerable, and of understanding how most lessons arise in the infinite space between winning and losing.
Poetry taught me to observe rather than see, to listen rather than hear. This seems a minor difference in words, but the intentional living of these differences over the last 15 years has impacted my life in ways I understand and will never be able to.
Conaway speaking about poetry at Penn State Altoona
My first poetry teacher was Lee Peterson. One particular exercise of hers that helped me understand perspective was when she asked our class to go outside, find a tree, and write for 60 seconds about it. Then she asked us to take three steps closer to the tree and repeat the exercise. Then three more and write again. Eventually, I’d gone from writing about a towering tree to writing about the ants crawling up the bark—something I wouldn’t have been able to observe at first.
It blew my mind and forced me to confront the fact that I lacked that kind of perspective in every aspect of my life. I’ve radically pursued multiple perspectives ever since.
Journalism has fused many of my learnings from BJJ and poetry. BJJ’s lesson about power being a force for good became real and global in my work as a journalist. And my work as a journalist simply couldn’t have existed without those observation and listening skills that I picked up in poetry.
My focus as a journalist has been on issues of human rights and social justice—from covering the Rohingya genocide in Burma and the sex trafficking of boys in Thailand to inspiring new education models in Ethiopia and a promising but relatively unknown malaria vaccine here in the U.S. Each experience sunk the lessons of BJJ and poetry deeper into my bones.
How is BJJ useful for content marketing?
BJJ and content marketing are aligned, in my eyes, because they’re both about giving to others.
When I stepped onto the mat it wasn’t just about the Gatorade cliche of “just do it.” It was about bringing my best because I deserved to learn and because my sparring partner deserved to learn. It’s a difficult concept for non-BJJ players to grasp—they see what looks to be violent and thinks it’s a dog-eat-dog free-for-all.
Conaway’s photoshoot for The Penn Stater Magazine
BJJ is a dance where every move made by your partner is their lesson to you and vice versa.
Content marketers too often forget that giving to others is the essential component. And I don’t just mean giving to potential consumers of your content. A big part of content marketing is giving to your team by unleashing the buried brilliance of your teammates. When I look back on my content marketing career, I’m most proud of those times when I helped my teammates shine.
Has poetry improved your content marketing?
For sure. Especially in copywriting.
Very few of today’s content marketers get to focus purely on one thing. Most are part of lean and scrappy teams, and they need to pitch in on all aspects of copy—from landing pages and emails to brochures and company swag. All of this, done right, demands lyrical concision and a sensitivity to words, both of which poetry helped me to develop over the years.
Right now I’m actually wearing a shirt from Klipfolio, a previous employer of mine, that has a copy I came up with across the back: “Data loved, loves back.”
Cameron’s online poetry class has nearly 1,000 students
How does your journalism background impact your content marketing work?
Conaway at the Rohingya camps in Sittwe, Myanmar
At its core, I believe journalism is about providing societal value. Yes, the best of it is about speaking truth to power and uncovering truths, but fundamentally journalism is about creating a more informed citizenry.
Content marketing is the practice and process of consistently creating, distributing, analyzing, and optimizing valuable content for an audience defined by its potential to become a customer or otherwise engage in actions beneficial to a company.
So while content marketing’s end goal may not be to create a more informed citizenry, the best leaders in content marketing are guided by that same principle.
If your mindset is primary to get leads, you’re far more likely to hear crickets. You’ll have a far better chance of reaching those who have “potential to become a customer or otherwise engage in actions beneficial to a company” if your mindset is to create something of value for people—something that answers their questions and alleviates some of their pain points.
What makes a successful content marketer?
A successful content marketer can:
- Assesses a company’s marketing needs;
- Understand a potential customer’s challenges; and,
- Create content solutions tailor-made to help both.
Because the solutions will always be different, and because this approach demands finding product/content fit, I believe content marketers should be T-shaped marketers, as Andy Crestodina put it.
This means they’re masters at one particular facet of content marketing but have a broad content marketing skill set so they have the versatility to contribute in multiple ways.
What advice would you give to an aspiring content marketer?
Create a content marketing curriculum and carve out dedicated periods of time to learn.
I’ve been part of the higher education system for many years and, for all of its flaws, I do believe in the process of dedicating time and attention to disciplined study.
The vast majority of content marketers are trying to educate you about content marketing, so if you only learn when you stumble on their advice you’ll miss the best of what’s out there and you’ll likely forget what you learned.
I once spent an entire month reading and listening to (almost) everything that content marketing mastermind Mark Schaefer ever wrote. I’d listen to his audiobooks during every minute of a commute or flight, and I’d wind each night down by reading his books and articles—yes, I printed them out!
It was a complete crash course in content marketing. And because the learning was so concentrated, the lessons stuck and I discovered the transferable skills from my journalism and poetry backgrounds.
I’m looking to do something similar in 2018 with the work of Vishal Khanna and Ardath Albee. The Content Marketing Institute named Vishal the 2015 content marketer of the year and, like me, he has an MFA in Creative Writing. And there’s a kind of practical immediacy in the wisdom of Ardath that makes me feel like she understands marketing’s evolution far more than most. I have plenty to learn from them both.
Business operations and consumer expectations are evolving rapidly, which means the content marketing industry is as well. It’s important to step back from time-to-time to not only honestly assess your skills but also to see what new skills might be required for tomorrow.
by Cameron Conaway, Director of Content Marketing at Solace