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B2B Marketing Interview with Carla Johnson
B2B Marketing Q&A: Carla Johnson on Storytelling Techniques, Building Content Marketing Teams and Living Outside the Comfort Zone

In B2B Marketing: Tomorrow’s Best Practices Today, we feature expert interviews about the state of B2B Marketing and what the future holds. In this post, I interview Carla Johnson, Author, Speaker and Outsourced CMO.

Tell us about yourself?

I have an eclectic background that’s led to my path as a speaker, author and storyteller. I come from a small, rural town in Nebraska surrounded by immigrants who loved to tell stories of family and “the old country.”

Note: follow Carla on Twitter (@CarlaJohnson)

My mother fed my curiosity about the world, which led to me earning a master’s degree in history. My thesis turned into my first published book. Working for architects early in my career formed my perspective of marketers as experience creators. And travel fuels my passion for everything I do.

I’ve written or contributed to eight books, with nine (contributing a chapter about the culture of high-performing teams) and ten (rethinking how we look at innovation) in the hopper.

Tell us about your background in B2B marketing?

My first major in college was electrical engineering before I switched to history.

That technical foundation led me to my first job in B2B marketing: business development for architecture and engineering firms.

It was the absolute best environment for me to start my marketing career. Architects taught me how to create an emotion based on an experience and then reverse engineer that into what you design.

“Storytelling takes a different bent this way, because it’s not about telling a story to sell something, it’s a story about change, collaboration and building something bigger than oneself.”

That’s exactly what I do now as a marketer.

Storytelling takes a different bent this way, because it’s not about telling a story to sell something, it’s a story about change, collaboration and building something bigger than oneself.

Note: For more from Carla on storytelling in content marketing, read the interview she did with the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog:

After that I worked for Time Warner Telecom and broadened my marketing skills. The marketing department was two people: my boss and me. We handled all the marketing, branding and corporate communications for the rapidly growing company.

I oversaw media relations for national and local outlets, worked on analyst relations (including an IPO), launched employee communications, and then oversaw the merger and acquisition communications for the two companies we acquired.

After I started my own company in 2001, I wanted to help build the B2B profession.

That led me to volunteer for the Colorado Chapter of the Business Marketing Association, a nonprofit focused on elevating the profession and skills of B2B marketers. I was president of the local chapter and went on to chair the national board, which included marketing leaders from brands like GE, IBM and Emerson.

The diversity of experiences I’ve had in all areas of B2B marketing has made me a champion for our profession.

Note: Read a related post from Carla, “5 Missed Opportunities for Storytelling.”

What’s a best practice that B2B marketers should move on from?

We really need to move on from seeing content and content marketing only for demand gen.

Yes, it certainly helps drive people through the buying process and convert customers, but it puts a tremendous limitation on the impact marketers can have.

Only looking at marketing from the lens of selling keeps us from understanding how we can create organizational culture, better recruit and hire talent, usher in innovation, and create a more sophisticated profile of what marketing is and does.

Tell us a best practice of tomorrow that B2B marketers should be doing today?

B2B marketers really need to look at how they can drive innovation in their organizations. Today, we wait for someone else to tell us what ideas or innovation to get behind, and then we build programs around that.

No other group within a company knows (or should know) customers better than us. Armed with that, we need to bring more ideas to the table that are better ideas. Otherwise, innovation will continue to be product-focused rather than customer-led.

If we’re going to collect the amount of data and information about customers that we do, we need to use it for something greater than making campaigns more effective and sales cycles shorter.

Understanding what your marketing team needs to look like to deliver this is what I’ll talk about at Content Marketing World this year.

Note: See our subsequent question (below) for details about Carla’s session.

The book you co-authored with Robert Rose, “Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing Paperback,” was published in 2015. How has Marketing changed since then?

Book cover: "Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing"

After Robert and I wrote “Experiences,” people said they loved the process, but struggled to come up with ideas that were truly different and unique.

That’s what led me to see the connection between marketing and innovation.

I watched incredible B2B CMOs like Kathy Button Bell (also a Content Marketing World speaker) redirect the focus and function of her team to grow its impact.

JLL CMO Jill Kouri changed her team’s influence by anchoring their research in stories that people care about.

And Eni’s content strategist Corrado Paolucci innovated how he approaches content in the highly traditional energy industry.

Sophisticated B2B marketers see that their ability to come up with new ideas and execute them in unconventional ways leads to bigger outcomes than they ever imagined.

Note: For more information, visit the book’s Amazon listing.

How do you stay current?

I read a great deal about what’s working in what kind of environments and why.

I also spend time in the trenches with CMOs, marketers and other business leaders. This helps me understand how marketing teams make the biggest contribution to the overall business, the nuts and bolts of getting it done and the architecture of the teams turning out great work.

Leading workshops and training sessions also teaches me new things because we use an experience-design and innovation approach to work through the challenges and opportunities teams have.

Even though the frameworks I use stay the same, how they’re applied and the outcomes marketers receive are different because of their unique situations.

Tell us about your upcoming presentation at Content Marketing World 2019?

Logo for Content Marketing World 2019

I created my session “Walking the Tightrope: Architecting Teams to Deliver Consistently Innovative Content Marketing Results” because I want people to understand that delivering great, regular and reliable results takes a special blend of talent.

Lots of people talk about a better approach to creativity, but I believe the approach doesn’t matter if you don’t have the right group of people in place to make it happen.

You’ll still fall victim to siloed thinking and corporate compliance. I teach people the blend of archetypes they need to consistently come up with great ideas, attract support and deliver better outcomes than they ever imagined.

People will walk away knowing how to assess their own teams, identify where they have overlap or gaps in talent and learn how to fix it.

You’ve traveled a lot in South America. How have those travels changed you?

Twenty years ago, my husband and I took a year to backpack through South America.

It was a time in our personal and professional lives when we wanted to see the world, experience other cultures and learn a second language. We had no idea what to expect, but it was life-changing for me.

Immersion in different countries and languages taught us a lot about ourselves, what we value in the world and what we want to contribute.

Fast forward 20 years, and my husband and I just ended another year abroad, this time with our three kids (ages 12, 14 and 16). We wanted our children to have a similar experience of living outside their comfort zones so we moved to Spain last August.

“There are so many smart and generous people in the world, and I feel I’m the best student when I’m the most vulnerable.”

The world and how we communicate has changed since our first trip, and I’m lucky that technology lets me work from anywhere.

Our kids took classes online and my husband dug into new things he wanted to learn. All the while we were able to better our Spanish, explore Europe and learn from the perspective of other people.

Travel is one of my biggest passions, and these trips are the bravest things I’ve ever done. It’s hard to operate outside my comfort zone day-in and day-out for such a long period of time, but it taught me crazy good things.

There are so many smart and generous people in the world, and I feel I’m the best student when I’m the most vulnerable. It forces me to put my ego aside, take a deep breath and just trust that however things work out, it will be for the best.

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Written by Dennis Shiao
Dennis Shiao
Dennis is an independent marketing consultant who works with brands on content marketing, product marketing and social media marketing. Dennis curates an email newsletter called Content Corner and publishes marketing-related content on Medium. You can find Dennis on Twitter, @dshiao.

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