How Drift’s Conversational Approach Makes Content Marketing More Human

Dave Gerhardt thinks most content marketing has no story and no unique voice. Here's how he helped Drift do things differently.

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min read

During his time at HubSpot, Dave Gerhardt watched the internet become saturated with B2B companies producing endless streams of generic content. These companies followed all the rules—they published blog posts every day, posted to social media, and ran regular email campaigns—but there was no story, no unique voice.

“Content is a commodity—everyone is doing it,” says Dave, who now leads Exit Five, a community for B2B marketers. “The current model for content marketing is broken.”

When he took over marketing at Drift, he resolved to “challenge [the status quo] in everything we do.” He wanted to use real stories to stand apart from the thousands of tech companies vying for attention. He wanted to build a brand that people could relate to.

Drift’s brand book and marketing manifesto capture some of the ways Drift’s marketing team humanizes their content. They use plain, simple language to simulate everyday conversations. They don’t do stock photography, instead putting real employees and customers everywhere in their marketing.

But these strategies and tactics are just the tip of the iceberg.

In this article, you’ll learn how Drift:

  • Measured abstract notions like brand
  • Harnessed Gary Vaynerchuk’s “document, don’t create” philosophy
  • Shunned originality in favor of usefulness and impact

Measure in love

It’s easy to imagine Dave sitting behind a complex marketing dashboard, crunching numbers, pulling levers, and optimizing Drift’s content until the results are just right. But that’s not how he operated. In fact, the way he tells it, during his time at Drift, they operated much more on intuition than data.

In a world of endless data, Drift stood out from the crowd. At the start of a project, they asked themselves, “Is this helpful? Would we want to consume this content?” As unscientific as it sounds, this principles-first approach paid dividends.

That’s not to say they didn’t measure or document their success at all. Dave shared a screenshot of one of the team’s Slack channels, aptly titled #drift-love. It’s a public repository for every piece of praise Drift receives—screenshots from social media, comments from sales calls, reviews on G2, everything.

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Drift’s #drift-love channel on Slack.

And while the marketing team also tracks website traffic and other important metrics like revenue, churn, and NPS, what they care about most—what Dave says drove their decision-making above all else—is this idea of customer love.

Document, don’t create

Drift also followed Gary Vaynerchuk’s "document, don't create" strategy of content marketing, which advocates documenting what your company is doing and then sharing it quickly.

For example, Drift turned what they’ve learned about product launches into a blog post helping other companies do the same. They followed that up with another lessons-learned post on how to ship more effectively. It’s a valuable read for customers and marketers alike.

Drift is always sharing knowledge, including the stories behind their team. For example, they published a profile of #1 power user, Eve, who happens to be on Drift’s sales team. The piece details real interactions between Eve and her prospects, revealing how she uses Drift’s product to build rapport.

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Drift power user, Eve.

One of the company’s podcasts, Seeking Wisdom, is another great example of creating content by documenting internal processes. Hosted by Dave Gerhardt and David Cancel, it explored a number of topics, like how the Drift team communicates internally.

To this day, Drift still talks openly about what they’re doing and how they do it. Just recently, brand manager Kaitlyn Martins interviewed her sales colleague Ezinne Ogbonna about Drift’s ERGs and customer advocate Daniel Templin detailed how Drift Video supports his work. It sounds simple, but it’s an easy way of leveraging what they’re already doing to create even more content.

It doesn’t have to be original

An obsession with originality plagues many marketing strategies. Leaders convince themselves that originality is the be all and end all of content. Under Dave’s watch, Drift dismantled this misconception.

Their content marketing team made a practice of repurposing and republishing—again and again and again. Any piece of content you see may be in its second or third or fourth iteration.

“We make small bets,” Dave says. “For example, Cancel will write a LinkedIn post on how ‘the future of X will be Y.’ If it blows up, we turn it into another medium.”

They might take the idea onto the podcast, and then from there make it the focus of a blog post. The story changes a little each time, but it always started from the same seed.

The idea is rife in high-performing marketing teams. Buffer, another content marketing giant, found similar success without always having to be original. Rather than develop net-new content ideas, they’ve focused on identifying content they know their audience needs and then making it better than anyone else. As a result, they’re getting tens of thousands of monthly views with useful articles on social media graphic sizes, free SEO tools and resources, and how to get verified on Twitter.

Were they the first to write a post on how to get verified on Twitter? No. Had their competitors already written it? Yes. But Buffer, like Drift, focused on doing things better. And it worked.

Scaling conversational marketing

When Dave started at Drift, he was responsible for cranking out blog posts himself. Over time, he realized this approach wasn’t scalable. When it came time to grow Drift’s marketing team, he made a promise to himself that he would not build a content farm.

At this stage, many companies hire a handful of recent college graduates to pump out SEO-focused listicles and other generic content. While Drift doesn’t shun the list format altogether, their main focus is authentic, narrative-driven content. The reason for this, Dave says, is that they’re in a tough industry to fake.

“We’re marketers doing marketing to marketers,” he says with a laugh.

For his first hire, he looked for someone who was fluent in the language of marketing. He recruited Erik Devaney, a former HubSpot content strategist, and tasked him with writing three to four high-quality articles per week. Next came Gail Axelrod, who was already well-known in the industry for her work and came with a lot of experience and expertise.

When Gail joined, she set out to build a blog that felt more like a legitimate business magazine than a content farm. She interviewed Cancel and other executives as if she were writing a story for Bloomberg. She asked Drift customers like Slack how they approach specific problems. She spoke frequently with Drift’s success team about the problems customers face, product-related and otherwise. All of it is geared at creating more—and better—content.

You can’t fake the passion Drift’s content team brings to the table. Whether it’s Dave pushing conversational marketing at every opportunity, Axelrod turning every takeaway into content, or the entire Drift team committing to radical transparency, their energy is infectious.

They’ve created a great brand that speaks to customers on a human level. It’s representative of their product, and it’s raised the bar for content marketers everywhere.

Quality cuts through

Recall the problem Dave identified with B2B marketing: it was an endless stream of generic content. Companies published blog posts every day, posted to social media, and ran regular email campaigns, but they rarely contained engaging stories or unique voices.

Dave ripped up the status quo and did things his own way. He complemented quantitative KPIs with abstract notions like brand love. He prioritized transparency, openness, and vulnerability, sharing Drift’s own journey with the world. And he shirked originality, opting instead to be helpful.

These initiatives and ideas set the foundation for Drift’s success. Under Dave’s leadership, the company grew rapidly, defined a category, and changed the trajectory of B2B marketing forever.

David is a former craft beer journalist turned writer and digital strategist. He now helps ambitious technology brands tell narrative-driven stories.

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