Giving More Than You Receive and Other Sales Principles

At age 14, my first job ever was “hot dog man” at a baseball stadium. In hot dog sales you have a very simple script:

Take this tray of hot dogs and walk around the stadium and yell “hot dogs” a lot. When someone calls out to you, sell them a hot dog. Repeat.

By about halfway through the 2nd inning on my first day, I was bored out of my skull. So to keep things interesting, I started trying out different things. Saying “hot dogs” in funny accents. Making jokes. Dancing a little bit. Wearing strange hats. Anything to entertain and bring attention to my goods. One time I did 60 pushups on top of the dugout as part of a bet with one of the guys in the expensive seats. He had to buy the whole tray from me when I was done.

These techniques worked really well. I sold a ton of hot dogs. And last time I checked, the single-game sales record I set was still standing. In hindsight, I realize I had discovered my first sales principle: I was focused on value. By providing a fun experience for my customers, I was making sure they were getting a lot more than a hot dog in exchange for their $3.50.

Look for opportunities to adapt

In inside sales, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking your pitch is like a magic spell. You recite your script over the phone or copy/paste it into an email. The customer agrees to a trial or purchase. Alakazam.

This is a trap because it can lead to pitch dependence. That’s where reps are afraid to adapt or go off-script when needed. Even worse, it’s boring. Giving the same pitch every day is a recipe for sales burnout.

In a highly process oriented sales environment, a little bit of this is tolerated. New reps come into the shop and build faith in the proven system. The results are nice and predictable for management.

But the thing about sales (and life) is things can get messy and sometimes you need to freestyle a little bit. You can’t script or prepare for every possible interaction. So during those times, you need a few guiding principles.

Focus on value

Sales and marketing are all about giving more than you receive. This does not mean you hand out discounts willy-nilly. The salesperson’s job is to find a way to help the customer understand how the product or service provides way more value than whatever the price tag is. Ideally, while keeping the ticket price as high as reasonably possible.

Leave a little for next time

Don’t blow your load in one pitch. Good salespeople know that you can rarely make someone feel comfortable by inundating them with information. Moods change. So, if you sense a pitch isn’t going well, it’s OK to hold back a little for when you need to reach out again in the future.

Your take is special

Everybody is a unique person with their own good way of explaining things. You don’t need to rely on a script to tell you what to say. Don’t become overly reliant on the standard formula.

Bring a little positivity

Whether you call them a prospect, lead, customer, or user, remember you’re dealing with an actual person. Sticking to a rigid process tends to cause us to treat people like cogs in a machine. Instead, make an effort to create a personal connection. A little love and laughter can’t hurt.

Principles, not procedures

It’s impossible to have a set piece for every possible customer interaction. And repetitive tasks can be highly demotivating. For those times when the standard script breaks down, salespeople need to be able to improvise. In this situations, a set of guiding principles will help bridge the gap.

What If Leadgen Were More Like a Conversation?

Instead of forcing a customer to fill out a lead form, why not discover their information the same way real people do?

I think it’s really cool that any business can have a basic lead funnel up and running in a day or two. With a ThemeForest template, a basic CRM, and a couple hundred bucks in Facebook ads, almost anyone can build a traffic machine that brings in a steady pipeline of potential customers to their website.

But funnels are really tricky to get right. If a single asset isn’t crafted properly, or the transition from once piece to the next is clunky, the customer gets spooked and you lose the lead.

Setting the Pace Naturally

The difficulty lies in the fact that most customers don’t want to hear a sales pitch. They need to feel that the decision to buy was their own, and if you try to move them along too fast they’ll realize you’re trying to sell them something and get turned off.

They want to feel good about a brand before they even think about pulling out their wallet. And more and more frequently, they expect to receive something of value (whether it’s something tangible like a whitepaper or guide, or intangible like a positive emotional connection) before they’ll consider a transaction.

Image credit: Salesforce

Customers behave this way because they have limited time and resources. They don’t want to  jump right into being best friends with someone they just met. They want to make sure they’re not wasting their time with people who aren’t on the same page. So if someone seems to be moving too fast, or sharing too much information about themselves, it’s human nature to regard them as weird – or at the very least suspicious. Why are they so desperate to have a relationship with us?

The normal (non-weird) thing to do is take the time to learn about other people’s background, interests, and goals. When we find alignment, we warm up a little bit, and move down the road a little further together.

Once a customer feels understood, they almost magically become open to understanding a brand or product’s value, and the sale can proceed from there.

That’s why good sales and marketing people typically don’t take customers directly into a sale – not right away at least. Instead, they invest in making sure their customer feels understood first. They’re patient. They provide value up front. They lead customers along a buying journey, where there’s this natural push/pull of questions and answers that helps everyone feel comfortable. And they look for opportunities to tell genuine, emotionally-driven stories which will cement that buyer-seller relationship until it’s time to purchase.

In other words, they have normal conversations.

Normal Conversations

In a normal conversation, it’s totally natural for people exchange information about themselves like this:

“Hi, my name’s Tom, what’s your name?”

“You live in the city too? What neighborhood?”

“You know who else lives there? My friend Kate Green, do you know her?”

That kind of thing.

If this sounds sensible to you, you might begin to wonder why it’s so common for marketers to dump a customer onto a form page when they think they might be ready to buy. Haven’t we just spent a lot of time and energy getting them to feel comfortable? Given that, does it really make sense to present them unceremoniously with a regimented form to fill out and a button that says “Submit”?

I think brands should be finding ways to have more human conversations with potential customers. The goal should be to fill out as many of those form fields as possible before the customer even gets to the form. This could be done conversationally. Here are some tactics that could work:

More and Simpler Forms

Do we really need a first and last name in exchange for some lead magnet? Could we provide an item of smaller value in exchange for a first name only?

Session Tracking

Instead of requiring all fields on a form, why not let the customer decide what they’re comfortable sharing at this stage? You can always cookie them and ask for any missing information in a later session.


Consumers are still warming up to chatbots. And they still need work in general, but they’re a step in the right direction. “We’re glad you’re enjoying this article. My name’s Tom, what’s your name?”

Geo and Industry Targeted Networking Recommendations

If you can determine a customer’s location or industry, you might try and introduce them to other customers who are in those same circles. “Hey, we noticed you’re in Delray Beach. There’s another company that uses our software nearby in Boca Raton, do you know them?”

Site Usage Tracking

Has the user looked at articles that are all under a specific topic umbrella…say Organic SEO? Probably safe to assume that’s their industry and role, and you can prepopulate it on a lead form.


When a customer is absolutely ready to order, a form is the best way to quickly convert them to a sale. But not every customer who makes it to the form is ready to go all in. By being more natural and conversational in their approach, brands can help customers feel more relaxed and heard. That will ease the transition from prospect to hot lead.

Instantly Give Yourself More (and Better) Content Marketing Topics

Obsessively persistent. That’s how brands have to be if they want to deliver good content marketing results. It’s definitely not good enough to have a writer churning out blog posts once a month. You have to be the steady drum-beat of content in your industry. So unless you want to get stuck repurposing old content for marginal returns, you’ll need a stream of new content topics to keep things fresh.

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” — John Maynard Keynes

At Fractl, I’ve worked with clients to develop editorial calendars that contain slots for 50, 60, even 100 different articles over the course of the year.

To fulfill an SOW of that size, you need to generate and produce content topics en masse. Good content marketers thrive on new ideas, so coming up with fresh content topics is one of the most fun parts of working in content marketing for me. But even so, several months into a client engagement — and after multiple rounds of ideation — it can sometimes feel like the well of topics is about to run dry.

The problem is usually myopia. We get fatigued, or bored, and we unintentionally limit ourselves by thinking too closely to the client’s product or service. Let me give you a real-world example:

One client, a student loan refinancing company, wanted 60 new blog posts this year. So we did some keyword research analysis to identify topics that they weren’t currently ranking for, and developed content around those topics. This got us to 40 articles but it was still 20 shy of what we needed. So we ran an ideation session to fill in the gaps.

This type of ideation can be really tough. The client had been doing some content generation on their own prior to engaging us, and all the student loan-related topics we could think of had been done on the client’s site already. Loan refinancing how-to articles, articles to target long-tail keywords, how-to guides…the low-hanging fruit was picked clean, and the higher branches were looking pretty bare, too. But we were still on the hook for 20 more ideas.

The way we solved that was to realize we were overly limiting ourselves when it came to the subject matter. Instead of racking our brains with the question “what are more topics related to student loans?” we realized that we could tap into a whole lot more ideas by asking ourselves:

“What other topics can this client speak credibly about?”

In other words, what would be believable coming from a student loan company? This opened up a firehose of new topics for us. Now instead of limiting ourselves to student loans, we were able to tackle stuff like personal finance apps, credit card spending, cryptocurrency, even the emojis people use to send each other money on Venmo.

It’s a subtle difference, but it opens up a lot more topics that readers might find interesting. And it provides a 10X boost in terms of outreach opportunities. You might have a limited set of press contacts who cover the student loan space, but with a broader set of topics, you could reach out to more mainstream publications. That gives you the chance to get featured with headlines like this one:

“Millennials say Venmo is replacing credit cards, according to student loan company…”

Not only can this style of ideation inspire content that increases brand awareness in completely new verticals, it’s more fun too. And I think it’s obvious that brands can be more magnetic and attract more customers if it’s clear they are having fun with their brand voice and content.

To Recap

  • For your content strategy to work well, you need lots of ideas.
  • At some point, you’ll feel like you’re running out of ideas.
  • That’s because you are. Don’t panic.
  • Prepare for this by asking yourself “what other topics can my brand speak credibly about?”
  • Don’t be afraid to produce content that’s tangentially-related to the brand.

Why You Should Never Fall in Love With the Creative

It’s the process (not the individual pieces) of content marketing that win the game in the long run.

I used to get paid to make cell phones fly.

No, really. My main client at BBDO was a major cellular network here in the US (hint: they used to use a lot of orange) and we were doing a ton of display work for them. I lead a team that produced probably 500 animated and rich media banners, and they were full of spinning, rotating, flying cell phones which did a pretty good job of catching the eye of online readers.

The iPhone had only just launched so there were a lot more types of cellphone on the market. Sliders, flips, candybars, phones with physical keyboards. The works.

The folks in orange could see the smartphone wave about to overtake the market, so our goal was presumably to sell off this stockpile of dumbphones before that happened.

So we had to create a huge amount of ads, and one way we scaled production was to develop system using templated creative. This way, we could insert a new phone model, images, and copy without having to recreate the entire piece each time.

It worked great. We fine-tuned a few versions and set up our process. Each time we were asked to sell a new phone, we could swap out the graphics, add in the phone images or 3D models, and boom: brand new ad.

But to me, the really interesting part was how much variance there was in the performance of each piece of creative.

I’m not kidding when I say these ads were practically identical. We sometimes ran 10 or more at the same time, and the only substantially different thing was the picture of the phone. But the clickthroughs on some of these ads were like 3X the others.

And the model of phone didn’t really seem to matter. The results would come in from our media agency, and the crappiest LG slider phones would outperform the newest, slickest Blackberry offerings. Or vice versa. Week over week, independent of targeting, the performance seemed to shift for no discernable reason.

I saw just how unpredictable creative work can be in the short term.

But it was working, and we were selling phones. So the important thing was that we kept up the work. Nobody got too bogged down in the creative details, and they certainly didn’t hold up the process with their creative opinions, because they didn’t need to.

Week after week we cranked out new ad versions and at the end of the year, the overall effect was that the client’s business grew by another 10% and everyone was happy when they renewed for another year.

Can you really predict how the creative will perform?

Fast forward to today and I see the same thing in the content world.

At Fractl, we come up with a ton of creative content ideas. I’m serious when I say it’s not uncommon for the creative team to put 50+ ideas into a spreadsheet in a single morning. And we hold these ideation meetings daily.

The idea vetting process usually cuts that number down, but typically a handful of ideas get approved for production each day. And once you add in the ideas our clients often suggest, you can see how we can end up producing over a hundred content marketing pieces each month.

Production is lead by an experienced content producer, advised by an expert team of digital PR professionals, and vetted and approved through a rigorous peer review process.

And still…we get surprised by the performance numbers all the time.

Assets we fell in love with in production? Sometimes they fall flat.

Assets we produced to target a specific audience and weren’t expecting a huge response? Sometimes they kill it. Like, they get dozens and dozens of backlinks.

The most successful brands keep playing the field

The lesson? Content is a long game. Each individual asset, campaign, or article may not perform the way you want it to. In fact it probably won’t. But as long as you remember a simple rule, you’re going to win:

Don’t fall in love with the creative. Just keep creating.

There is no single content idea that’s going to win in the long run. And even your home runs will be copied and done better by your competition next year.

The only way to win is to put a solid content creation process in place. That way you can keep the predictable AND unexpected wins coming.

Good content producers are humble enough to know their opinion doesn’t actually matter that much.

Good content producers design each part of the process for the highest chance of success. They analyze past wins and set up standards to vet new work against benchmarks.

And when your process is good, you can just trust it and usher work carefully and thoughtfully through the steps.

You know you’ll hit on a winning formula more times than not. So you don’t have to stress too much about any particular piece of creative.

Even if you love it. Even if it’s your favorite.

It’s always nice to work with clients who understand this part of the content creation process

They make it easy by trusting their creative people, and understanding that content is a long game.

They understand the often unspoken truth that as long as your creative work is solid, it’s almost impossible to predict which ideas will succeed. They know the important thing is to keep creating, and they’re happy to let us do that.

Because really…we don’t know where the next big win is going to come from. But we know that by trusting the process, we’ll be sure to discover it

Get Something Up

For anyone considering a new idea, the best piece of advice I have is this: get something up.

That means you avoid overthinking and overanalyzing and actually build something. Build something even if it’s not perfect, even if it’s not totally baked. Hell, even if it’s just completely broken. Just getting something up in the most basic sense will clear that initial hurdle of doubt out of the way and allow your brain to focus on making the thing you created even better.

I’m not sure exactly why it’s so appealing to go back and forth about whether something will work or not. But I know I love to waste lots of time doing it. I also know I am not Elon Musk and my ability to predict the future is limited. So when I get trapped in that mode, it typically means I need to stop theorizing and actually build something so I can see how it works.

Want a popular example? Look at Facebook. Remember the Wall? The Wall was how you used to be able to share stuff. You’d post it to your Wall, or your friend’s Wall. Now, the Wall is completely gone. It morphed into the Feed, and the Feed is what currently makes Facebook so much money because users just keep scrolling through it, viewing ads mixed into their friend’s posts for hours at a time.

The things is, Zuckerberg and company couldn’t have conceived of the Feed without first developing the Wall. The Wall was the thing they could conceive of at the time. But even though they ended up abandoning it, creating the Wall helped them get to the really big idea: the Feed.

Getting something up makes it real. It allows us to look at our ideas from the outside. It allows people to give you feedback because there’s an actual thing for them to look at. And if the feedback is negative, it’s still positive because it allows us to make a good decision about whether to continue with the idea.

This concept is also known as the iterative approach. I think it’s better than overthinking things.

So if there is something you are stalling on right now, maybe you want to think about what you can take out of your brain and put out into the world. Thinking about it will only get you so far. Get something up and go from there.