Applying Sales and Recruiting Principles to Outreach

In a lot of the posts I see about content promotion, an underlying theme is “if you want great results from your outreach, follow the golden rule.” While the “do unto others” sentiment is heartwarming, it’s not particularly helpful for improving outreach performance. More useful lessons can be learned by looking at models found in disciplines like employee recruitment and sales.  

I’ll explain more in a minute. But first, a story.

My Strangest Interview Ever

My first real job in technology was with a big software company in Houston. The company was known for treating its employees incredibly well and in my third year the company offered me an opportunity to spend a year in one of the company’s European offices. I’d also recently entered a relationship with a girl that had gotten serious quickly, so I was feeling pretty settled in my life.

One day I got a call from a recruiter about an opportunity at a software startup in the Valley called The company was founded by Mark Pincus, who went on to found Zynga. At the time, he wasn’t someone I’d heard of and, as I said, I wasn’t looking to make a move. Nevertheless, I agreed to talk more about the opportunity and I ended up spending an hour and a half on the phone with Mark. Something intrigued me, so I scheduled a trip out to the Valley for an in-person interview.

I went to their office, which was located in a seedy building in a seedy part of Redwood City. The front door to the office was glass and the words ‘Star Physical Therapy’ had just been scraped off of it. The interior of the office was in bad shape…the floorboards were warped, there was almost no light and there were hockey sticks lying in various places throughout the room. In contrast, the office at my current company was in a beautiful, award winning highrise, everyone had a private office and mine had a great view of the city.

The interview itself was borderline chaos. Mark walked in 20 minutes late with his dog Zynga by his side. We went into his office and sat down to talk. Zynga climbed on to the chair next to Mark, promptly began snoring and proceeded to fart in his sleep throughout the three hour interview.  Twice during the interview, someone walked in and asked if this was Star Physical Therapy.  The interview itself bounced from topic to topic with little rhyme or reason. At the end of the interview, I got a ten minute demo of alpha software…and then Mark made me an offer.

The Decision

Now, for a normal, reasonable person, the next move would have been easy – thank Mark for his time, turn down the offer and fly back to a cushy job/life.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I accepted the job on the spot. Two days later I quit my job and four weeks later I packed everything I owned into my car and drove halfway across the country to San Francisco without a place to live. I’d completely turned my life upside down for seemingly no good reason. 

So what led me to such a seemingly irrational decision? Well, in reality, the chaos that I encountered in my interview was exactly what I was looking for and Mark knew it. For anyone who’s ever interviewed with Mark, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise…I’ve met few people as effective at attracting and hiring the right people for the job.

So what did Mark do that led me to join the company? I think you can boil it down to four things:

Clearly defined his target market

 Before talking to me or anyone else about the role, he had a clear vision of the target candidate. This vision had more to do with personality type than skill-set (although both mattered). In this case, Mark recognized that he needed someone with skills in the specific market, but more importantly the ideal candidate needed to have a pure startup mentality. 

Did his research

When Mark interviewed me over the phone, he asked a ton of questions that were designed to find out if I had the right mentality AND to figure out what made me tick. Through these questions, he quickly figured out that I was a startup guy stuck in a big company environment. Understanding this was the key to getting me to join the company. 

Built rapport

 Because Mark had a good understanding of my personality and my needs, he was able to present himself and present the company in a way that appealed to me. The fact that the office was a mess and the interview was so loose was a huge plus for me and he knew it. If he would have shown up on time wearing khaki pants and a button down, he would have turned me off. I was stuck in a corporate environment and I spent every day desperately wanting to live the startup life. Mark knew this and played to it by presenting an environment and using language that appealed to me. 

Understood what I valued and tailored the offering accordingly

The offer that was presented to me was exactly in line with a decision criteria that i didn’t even know I had. I was working in this beautiful building with really nice people and every day was excruciating….I had to deal with people who were much more concerned about protecting their turf then getting things done, executive management was slow moving and stuffy and my ability to affect change was limited.

Walking into this chaotic scene where I was going to be responsible for getting things done and I’d be working with people who had the same mentality was exactly what I was craving. The beautiful building that I worked in came to symbolize everything I hated about my job…the focus just felt all wrong to me. I wanted more grit.

Now for some people that Mark interviewed, he focused on the technology innovation and for others he focused on the venture backing. The key thing though is that he tailored his pitch to the unique needs of the target hire.

How this applies to outreach

If you think through Pincus’ approach to hiring, the starting point for everything was understanding the needs and wants of his target market intimately. The golden rule didn’t apply because how he’d like to be treated is irrelevant. This seems like a subtle point, but it’s a core marketing tenet and it has big implications for every aspect of your outreach efforts. Three years ago, Melanie Nathan at Canadian SEO said in an interview that the single biggest mistake that people make in their content promotion efforts is failing to put yourself in the shoes of the target market. Three years later, this is still the biggest problem that I come across. 

So let’s look at the things Pincus did during the hiring process and see how they apply to content promotion.

First, if you have a clearly defined target for your efforts, you won’t waste time trying to get links and mentions from people who have no interest in your offer. Your most valuable resource is time, so effective segmentation and targeting is critical.

Once you’ve identified your target market, conducting the research required to understand them intimately will help you understand what type of content they like to promote,  you’ll understand their wants and needs and you’ll be able to speak in the language they understand.

This research will also help you build the rapport you need to get people’s advocacy. This is critical…you can have the perfect offer, but at the end of the day, “people buy from people they like.” If you’re not talking in their language and you don’t connect in a way that makes people feel like you actually like them (can’t really fake this, by the way), then you’re just one step above the “dear webmaster, give me link” douchebag.

Finally, having a detailed understanding of the wants/needs of the target customer leads to an offer they’re more likely to promote. It’s important to remember that the things that motivate people include both tangible and intangible offerings. Keep in mind that Pincus’ offer wasn’t focused on the pay package, it was focused on the lifestyle that the business could offer me. You’re obviously not offering something like this to your audience, but you can offer things like trust and likability. As I said before, people buy from people they like, and if you stand out as someone that speaks their language, understands their wants, respects their time, etc., you’re more likely to stand out.