The Hello Bar is a simple web toolbar that engages users and communicates a call to action.

Marketing Fit Interview: Christopher Penn, Vice President of Marketing Technology, SHIFT Communications

Christopher Penn Headshot
Throughout life we have the opportunity to meet people who make you smarter by being around them. They push you to be sharper. They help you to see challenges from different angles. Christopher Penn is one of those people in my life. In fact, Chris pushes us all to be better. Better marketers and better individuals.

In this Marketing Fit interview, Chris covers everything from his top productivity tip to what he’s learned self-publishing two books to what tactic he wants to banish from marketers’ toolboxes.

Where does fitness fit into the list of competing priorities?

Fitness is blended in with other stuff. I go to the dojo twice a week when I’m home, plus 2-mile+ walks the other nights. When I’m on the road, I try to either bring good shoes for running & walking or stay at a hotel that has a fitness facility. I am by no means a fitness expert, but I recognize that it’s part of the balance. I prefer fitness that mimics the martial art I practice, sort of a practical two-for-one deal. For example, there’s a particular set of movements in the basics of my martial art that can be done with or without a weight. The weight training adds to the movement and makes it more effective without the weight.

Do you use an iPhone or Android? What apps are on your home screen?


Christopher Penn iPhone Home Screen

What area do marketers overlook but could drive the biggest impact for their company?

The older and more practiced I get, the more I realize that marketers aren’t using enough of their brains. We’ve divided marketing into either left brain – metrics, analytics, Big Data – or right brain – creative, inspirational, artistic – and we’ve put such a firewall between the two perspectives that marketers are incomplete. It’s imperative to be able to do both, especially as you move up the corporate ladder, to be able to write out the framework for coders (even if you can’t code per se, you can still write out logic) and then walk into your designer’s office and draw up a crude picture of what you’re thinking. The ability to meld left and right brain together is what creates amazing marketing. Steve Jobs made this the cornerstone of Apple for decades – the intersection of technology and the arts.

What is your best life hack or productivity tip?

So many to choose from, but the one that is simplest and yet least done is to capture your ideas as soon as you have them. Use a notepad, use a smartphone, use a voice recorder, make your kids do it, whatever it takes to get your ideas in a form that you’ll remember, because inevitably you’ll have a stellar idea that can vaporize seconds later.

You have self-published both of your books. For someone that may be considering self-publishing or the traditional route, what were the considerations that made you decide to self-publish? What lessons did you learn from Marketing White Belt to Marketing Red Belt?

I self-published because I wanted control over the process and very selfishly wanted the lion’s share of the royalties. I traded off distribution and awareness for it. The big publishers will take 95 cents on the dollar but will put your book on shelves; the very best publishers and agents can put your book on the desks of Fortune 10 CEOs. My motivation was not fame, it was earning some revenue while still having something out there people could buy as a souvenir from hearing me speak.

As far as lessons? Your sales are proportional to your engaged audience. If you don’t have the audience, you won’t sell – and that’s true for both self-published and traditional. Build your audience before or as you write.

People are frequently impressed with the volume of content that you create. You publish a new blog post every weekday on your personal website. You also publish 2-3 times per week for your employer, SHIFT Communications. Many throughout the industry have reduced how much they publish weekly yet have continued to see their metrics increase. So, why do you continue to keep up such an aggressive schedule? What is the key to being able to create that much quality content?

This is something that should resonate with you. Why do you go to the gym every day? It’s because you want to be strong. Forcing myself to write every day, to come up with a new idea every day, that’s a mental workout that I first discovered years ago doing a podcast about paying for college. That super-aggressive, intense cadence keeps me sharp, keeps my brain strong so that when I’m faced with situations where I need to generate ideas under pressure, I’m ready for it.

You absolutely can get away with working out less, physically and mentally, but you pay a price in capability and achieved potential as the tradeoff.

You have a diverse list of passions including martial arts training and World of Warcraft. How does the time you spend pursuing these passions help you with marketing?

They help me to think differently. My hobbies require me to think, to solve problems creatively, and to work under pressure. When you’re tanking in a Warcraft raid and you’re down to one healer, you have to get creative with every tool in the box to stay alive and help make the event a success, including unorthodox ways of doing things. When you’re working out at the dojo, and you’ve got someone who’s got a foot and a hundred pounds of advantage against you, you’ve got to get creative or you’re going to get a jarring experience.

The Infinite Dial 2014 study, conducted by Edison Research, showed that audio podcasting hit a new high with an estimated 39 million Americans haven listened to a podcast in the past month. Marketing Over Coffee, your weekly podcast with John Wall, just passed its 7th birthday. Why do you think we are seeing such a surge (again!) in the popularity of podcasts?

The Infinite Dial 2014

One word: mobile. Mobile devices have opened up new time slots, new ways of accessing data, new ways of consuming information, and podcasts are riding that wave, especially since podcasts traditionally cover areas where there isn’t as much variety. There isn’t a marketing radio station on the way home, but there can be if you put together a series of marketing podcasts.

Why do you call your website “Awaken Your Superhero”?

There’s a very specific reason why it’s named Awaken Your Superhero – you’re already a superhero. You have only to realize it, to awaken it within yourself.

Consider this: from where you sit reading this right now, you have access to streams of real-time information from all over the world, knowledge spread the moment it’s created. You can watch far-off places, have immediate or near-immediate access to the sum of publicly available human knowledge, communicate with thousands, if not millions of people with just a few clicks of a mouse, influence and affect people next door and thousands of miles away.

In another time, in another place, these would have been powers reserved only for the greatest of superheroes. Comic books would have been written about such a person with these powers…

… and that person is you, here and now. You have superpowers that a generation ago would have been not only legendary, but even absurd. Comic books of years past would have called infinite knowledge an amazing feat; we call it Google. Action hero movies of yesteryear would have called global mind-reading an astonishing power; we call it Twitter.

Here’s the snag: we have superhero powers, but we don’t necessary have superhero motivation.

To quote The Princess Bride, I do not think that hero means what you think it means. It’s the trendy term in marketing today, along with its cousin, superhero.

  • Being good at your job does not make you a hero (or a superhero).
  • Hitting or exceeding your performance numbers does not make you a hero.
  • Being popular in social media does not make you a hero.

What makes you a hero is when you display the will for self-sacrifice in the face of adversity.

  • When a firefighter rushes into a building to save a life, he or she is putting someone else’s life and safety ahead of their own. That is heroism.
  • When you are poor but still save up enough to donate to a worthy cause, you are putting your own well-being secondary to someone else’s. That is heroism.
  • When you stand up for someone else’s rights and lend your voice in cause of something unpopular, you are risking your reputation for theirs. That is heroism.

Awakening your superhero isn’t about a shiny badge for your blog or calling yourself a marketing superhero in your slide deck. Awakening your superhero is about understanding what you’re capable of so that you can be ever more effective when you seek to make a difference, when you choose to put others before you, when you make that sacrifice and embody what heroism is truly about. That’s what this blog is about, ultimately. We’re on a never-ending quest to understand not just the new media space, but to understand our role in it and how we can be more effective, more powerful, and more heroic through it. We have to awaken ourselves – awaken our superheroes, and it’s a journey I hope you’ll join me on.

If you could banish a single tactic from marketers toolbox, what would it be?

The wish for a magic bullet. There isn’t one. There never has been. There never will be. But that desire for one has let scammers and snake oil salesmen stay in the business and the field forever, and probably will continue to fund them in perpetuity.

Thank you to Chris for a fantastic interview!

You can connect with Christopher Penn on his website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.