Jeffrey McGuire - The value of value-based strategizing
Jeffrey "jam" McGuire is the co-founder of the B2B content marketing agency Open Strategy Partners and an active member of Drupal and other open-source communities.
In this episode, we talk about the value of value-based decision making in a business strategy, focusing on the importance of trust and broadcasting trust signals. We cover this in the context of an open-source software project, a services-based agency model, and a product-based model.
In addition to trust, we also discuss other communication best practices such as empathy and clarity, which are both key in the context of the outward customer experience as well as the internal employee experience.
Links & mentions:
“The briefest version of how to make your agency or service-based business look trustworthy, to broadcast the trust signals is, you need to have clearly understandable packages of what it is that you offer, so that they know, I’m buying this kind of app, this kind of website.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I’m joined today by Jeffrey McGuire, also known as “jam” in the Drupal and open-source sphere, for those listening who are maybe from those communities. He is a partner at the B2B content marketing agency Open Strategy Partners, bringing his past experience with companies such as Ford, Acquia and others. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the value of a value-based brand strategy, and we’ll focus largely on trust and how to adjust your communications and content strategy to have them be really value-based.
Jeffrey, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you here. As I’ve already told you, I’ve been wanting to speak with you ever since I saw you host the Drupal Splash Awards just before Covid, and so it’s really awesome to get to chat with you now. Do you want to add anything here before we begin?
Jeffrey McGuire: Well, I’m really thrilled to be here. It’s exciting to start to get out into the world again. I mean, oddly, during the pandemic, there weren’t even seemingly so many opportunities to do things like this. So, yeah, I’m thrilled to be here, thank you.
Tim Butara: Awesome. And it’s definitely an important topic, and one that will be probably very relevant to listeners, so, value-based decision making. And it’s also one of these changes that happened through Covid, right. Decision making and strategizing used to be much more business oriented, used to be much more KPI, ROI oriented, and now we’re seeing this increase in focus on focus values like empathy, communication, trust, and so I believe that this will be very valuable maybe for listeners who are making this transition right now, or who haven’t yet made the transition but are considering it and seeing that it’s a necessary one. Let’s get right down to it.
Jeffrey McGuire: I think that, though it’s not perfectly relevant to what I think we’re going to end up talking about today, this fits in how the world is going now with people making more and more decisions based on environmental considerations, on the fact that millennials don’t just want a job, they want a job that means something.
So, there’s many aspects to this, but I’ll try and fill you on today on how, at Open Strategy Partners, we put together B2B content marketing for technical organizations with value-based origin story of the company and how we like to work as a team and how we like to help our clients with that.
Tim Butara: You mentioned, right, millennials, newly emergent generation that’s going really strong in the workforce right now. And this has a double connotation, right. Because, both, millennials will want to work at a company that values the stuff that they value, and also, they’ll want to buy and purchase from a company that’s value-based. So, value-based decision making is something that’s valuable both in the context of customer and the employee experience, right?
Jeffrey McGuire: Correct. Absolutely. And I think, furthermore, in a world of bigger and bigger feeling controversies and politics that seems to be pushing towards extremes that are further and further apart, stating our values and expressing them or whatever is one piece. But then, building trust with someone else, right, so that we could believe them or how we figure out how to come together, it’s tricky, and it’s even more important than ever.
Tim Butara: Why is trust the most important value? And how can you foster and communicate trust to your customers and your prospects?
Jeffrey McGuire: So, I was very inspired very early on when OSP was either not yet – OSP being Open Strategy Partners, the company that I co-founded in 2017, I was very inspired by a woman named Frances Frei, who’s a well-known professor at the Harvard Business School. And she gave a TED Talk about trust, and her definition of trust is quite interesting and fits into some of the things that we do. But she said, trust is the foundation for everything we do, and if we can learn to trust one another, we can have unprecedented human progress. And that’s certainly very aspirational.
But, in terms of B2B business, and especially when we’re talking about the majority of the economy being SMEs, small to medium enterprises. One person, two people, 500 people – every sale is a trust sale. The sales cycle, in my experience, always involves research, it always involves reading and it always involves multiple conversations to decide, yes, I think that you can help me with my problems, I feel you understand me and I feel that this outcome is going to be great together.
And all of us who run anything that’s shaped like an agency or a service provider, we have to give off trust signals that we understand you, we’ve been there before, we’ve helped your peers, right, to make a sale at all, to get a client, to get somebody on retainer. And, by the same token, when I’m looking for team members, for people to work with me as writers, as communicators, as strategists and so on, they want to know what sort of a place they’re getting into.
And as a potential employer, we have to present our organization in a way that makes it feel interesting. In our case, I think we’re doing important and meaningful work. So I really need to project and present my expectations and how we do things to find people who can feel similarly and can contribute to that mission, I guess, that we’re on.
And we don’t talk about our mission much at my company, but we are very specifically coming out of being open-source technologists first, so that’s my background; my business partner and co-founder Tracy Evans is a business person first and has an MBA and studied strategy and so on.
And we came together to provide strategic consulting and content for my peers, right. People who work with Drupal and TYPO3 and Sulu and PHP and all the open-source everything. Who are running agencies and need help with their business that can be helped with communication. People who are building SaaS products, doing anything B2B.
All these people, primarily we come from open source, so we understand that especially well. But translating between the complexity of technical solutions and the business value that they deliver– so, all the people that I met back when I was learning to code and all the people I went to all the conferences with, everybody who’s founded their own business, everybody who’s trying to communicate the value of what they do – they’re the people we’re helping.
And I feel really proud, and it’s one of the great things about being an entrepreneur, is I can look back on clients who are happy with our work and who are willing to say that in public. And I know that I’ve helped someone pay their rent and raise their kids and make the world a tiny bit better. And I love that.
Tim Butara: I mean, that’s what it all should be about, right? I guess a job shouldn’t just be a job that you do and you get no lasting value from afterwards. If it’s something that gives you the keen and concrete awareness that it has helped make someone else’s life better, then you’ve won it. Even if it’s just one person, even if it’s just one feedback like that, right, it’s worth it.
Jeffrey McGuire: Yeah, it’s totally worth it. Now, in terms of trust signals to help me sell my business better, the fact that I have testimonials from people who say that I’ve helped them, right, that’s a key indicator. It’s much much harder to sell something if you’ve never done it before, that takes a huge amount of trust. But me having these testimonials that I’m really proud of helps me show people, hey, I’ve solved this before, I’ve done this, I’ve done that. And that’s really valuable– I mean, I’m not being cynical, but from a business perspective, the case studies and testimonials are the most valuable thing that you can have in this world of trust-based selling.
On the other hand, when we’re looking for colleagues, when we’re looking for team members, Tracy and I both came from previous work situations that were at times unhappy. And our first hire who also comes out of the open-source world, we had all had some difficult times at work, and we very consciously wanted to make a place where we would want to work. And we incorporated right from the beginning value-based things and practical things in that.
So, the practical things, just to say it out loud, were very process-oriented, documentation, modular ways of working, so that we can be flexible and repeatable and improve systematically, right. But on the values-based side, we deeply incorporated things like Marshall Rosenberg’s ideas about non-violent communication, practices from the world of positive psychology.
We start our weekly meetings with what we call gratitude statements, and we go around the room and everybody in the company says, hey, the sun was out at the weekend and I went to the apple orchard with my kids, or somebody’d say, oh, last week the client said one of us did a great job and I’m so thrilled about that. It doesn’t matter if it’s work, it doesn’t matter if it’s personal, but you start by saying what you’re grateful for and it really sets a great mood in the team, and we go from there.
And we also have a Slack channel where we post those as we go. And we have a very collaborative way of working that’s very structured. And the structure gives us the freedom to respect deadlines, but let people work how and when they need to. And we try and bring this across because it really helps. And it really helps once we’re doing all of this day for day for day.
Tim Butara: This sounds like you really value stuff like psychological safety, like work-life balance. And this is exactly what I alluded to in the beginning, right, about a value-based company or a value-based strategy touching both upon customer experience – so, how you establish trust through testimonials and case studies and stuff like that, and the employee experience – so, how you treat your employees.
And ultimately, if you’re a consultancy, then ultimately you will end up working with other companies, not on your own end products, which makes it even more crucial to have this be very much people oriented, because that’ll make your employees, your teammates, that much more likely to be collaborating efficiently with other, with clients’ teams, right?
Jeffrey McGuire: Yeah, for sure. We strongly emphasize asking questions and asking for help when you need it. And you should never be ashamed of feeling stuck. And if you just feel stuck on, ugh, I can’t get this outline right, or what does this actually mean, I think it hasn’t come up in a while, but I remember there were times where we had to remember to tell that to someone new. But being there for each other at every level is definitely, it feels like a community.
And so we do strategic work with the client and we do content production. And the content production comes out of my experience as a communicator, like, the initial ideas of how we put it together; it’s much much better now because I’ve had fantastic people improving it with me, just like in open source.
But the idea is that we’re all communicators. And if you happen to be writing something today and I’m editing it, tomorrow I might be writing and you might be editing. So it’s not a hierarchy, it’s peers and colleagues learning together and sharing together. And we’ve systematized that as well, we have a system of what we call editing codes, but they’re principles of good writing.
I don’t know if you’re familiar psychologically, it’s not fair or productive to argue with someone, to say, you always do that, and, you did that to hurt me, right. But you can say things like, when this happens, right, I feel this way. So you remove the conflict of whatever it is away from that person and you talk about it separately, right.
And so, we have these, there are about 70 codes we use for abbreviations. And we can just put next to someone’s writing, hey, you know, you buried the lede here, or, let’s find a more colorful way to express that, or so on and so forth. So, these make it a less personal experience to be edited, and it also means that the editor has to explain what they’re doing, so we’re sharing and we’re learning from each other all the time.
And one of the most inspiring and brilliant bits of this was not my idea. It’s called the positivity path. So, as an editor, the first step that we take when we’re reviewing a piece of writing is we go through and we look at everything that’s great and we mark it as great. And so, if you use a really interesting expression, you would write ++ color, and color is the code for colorful language. Or ++ Spock, because Spock is the code for logic, right.
And then as an editor, there’s a couple of things here. First, for myself, I’m marking that to remember not to change it by accident as I’m going through and working on stuff, so we’re not going to lose something that’s good. And second, whoever wrote that draft sees that this is good and can do it again the next time. So we’re sharing what’s good about someone’s writing and reinforcing that.
And then whatever else needs to be pepped up, we share these suggestions, and we never say, this was wrong and now it’s right, we say things like, wouldn’t it be more powerful to try this phrase? Or, what if I put things in this order? And then we can discuss between us, yeah, that’s a great idea and that makes it better. And sometimes a third idea comes up that’s even better than either the original or the suggestion. So, it’s this process between peers and I think it’s also a trust builder. And it works great.
Tim Butara: And, probably, the more you do it, the more established the process is, the easier it is for people to get into it. A new hire would maybe get thrown off guard if they think they’re being critiqued, but ultimately when they realize that, you know, the point here is that it’s not– I mean, of course you should be considerate of individual people and this is precisely why you’re doing it this way.
But the end goal of writing a piece of content or of collaborating on this is not the pleasure and the well being of the individual, but the success of the company, right, so you still need to– it’s not about, like, I didn’t make this edit because I have a grudge against you or something. I made this edit because I feel like that this will be the best piece for this particular piece of content, right.
Jeffrey McGuire: Right. Absolutely. We trust that we’re all aiming for the best possible outcome. But what you’re saying actually goes back to something that I left out before, and I’m sorry. But my experience of editing as a younger writer and as a learning writer is that someone would come in and blast through my piece, 30% of it, and then run out of time and get distracted, and then I was supposed to “fix it”, but I had no idea why they had made the changes that they did. Or I would submit a draft somewhere and it would get super radically changed and published under my name, but it wasn’t my article anymore and I wasn’t happy with that.
So, I also wanted the transparency of being–I wanted to be able to learn to do it better. And I wanted to understand the reasons behind it. And we came up with these codes along the way. And it’s turned into a peer-to-peer sharing and helping situation.
Tim Butara: This is another example of an element of a content strategy that’s oriented both towards the customer and toward the employees, right? Because the content creation process is because of this, and because the content creation process is improved, it leads to better content, which leads to better, you know, better sales, better results, basically.
Jeffrey McGuire: You should be writing ads for OSP. Yes, when you put it that way, I can only say yes, it’s true. Absolutely. Yes, just yes.
Tim Butara: Ok, so, what we just discussed was basically what a value-based content strategy should look like, right. Is there anything else that we should mention here that maybe we haven’t covered yet?
Jeffrey McGuire: Ok, so, if we’re thinking about a value-based content strategy, there are two or three resources that I could point people at. For one, we have a concept of a staircase or a ladder from first engagement to trust. And that might be, the goal might be to get someone to buy something, but for an open-source project, that would be to contribute, right, to use and contribute.
So you can imagine that the classic conversion ladder is attention, interest, trust and then engage. And so think about an open-source project for a second, and your goal is, you want people to use it, and you want people to contribute. Contribute can mean fix some documentation, submit a patch, go to an event, whatever. It’s all good.
So, to catch their attention, my project looks good on GitHub, for example, and people are enjoying using it, so they’re talking about it, and there’s some social media going on. If somebody gets interested in it, they’re going to go and read your README, maybe look at the code a little bit.
And by looking at the code quality, for example, and your issue queues, they’re going to start to trust in your technology, maybe they’ll download it and test it. Then they find an issue and submit it, and you respond quickly. Or they’re looking for a feature and they see it’s in your roadmap, or they ask for it and you put it on the roadmap, they start to trust in the community and the people around it. And at some point they’re like, let me clear this up, or let me go to your meetup, or let me do a bit of documentation, or let me add an extension or something.
So this is a kind of, how to get people invested and interested, right. And then I will give you the link where people can see these images. My team member Felicity Brand, we’re speaking in March 2023. Felicity Brand just did a presentation about trust at EverythingOpen in Melbourne. And so slide 13 talks about this staircase.
And then, if you want to think about– so, value-based content strategy, right. Think about everything– let’s just talk about an open-source project for a second, cause it’s a common currency that we have. There’s a version of this for agencies, there’s a version of this for product companies. But if you have an open-source project and you want people to choose it, you have to broadcast trust signals to attract people in, to have a look, and then for them to use it, and then to engage with you, right.
So, you can have things like, do you have a code of conduct, yes or no. All of these things are sort of decision-making points. Do you have regular releases? Do you write good release notes? Do you have a clear README file? Do you have testimonials from the community? What is your documentation like? Do you have clear contribution guidelines so that I know how to engage with you when I want to?
Do you have tutorials, training, is it easy to find? Are you making regular releases? Then you can also– do you have a support channel, is it Slack, is it whatever, how active and responsive are you there, how long do the issues sit in your queue? These are all things that you can affect. And the better they look, the more people can trust that you’re doing a great job and the more likely they are to test your open-source project.
People are also going to look at the number of downloads and stars on GitHub and what have you. You can’t affect that directly, you have to do this other stuff well. But if you have a code of conduct, you have… I know this sounds crazy, but do you have your code properly licensed? I’ve run into people who have allegedly open-source projects who haven’t got a license on that stuff, which makes it a total mess. And, how’s your documentation.
So, all of this broadcasts trust, that lets me trust that trying your software and then getting engaged with your community could be a good idea, right. And it’s really powerful. And most of these things end up about communication, right. So, I would suggest, yes, you should have a code of conduct. You should have a template for your release, so that you can just fill out quickly, but people are going to find it super valuable, and so on. I think all of that stuff really helps.
Oh, and then, I think the third thing that I wanted to mention is that, there’s an author named Stephen Covey and he has a model of trust that talks about showing competence and showing character, which is quite interesting as well. And then the main points under character that he has are intent and integrity. And then the main points that he has under competence are capability and result.
So, if we want to release great open-source software, and we live up to making great releases, then we prove our intent and our integrity, right. And then, if it comes out well and we help people use it, then we show that we’re capable of doing that and the results prove it right. So, there’s lots of ways to show this stuff.
Tim Butara: I guess a lot of these could also be applied not just to open-source software, but to SaaS B2B digital products as well.
Jeffrey McGuire: Yes, and agency service businesses as well. Now, I feel that I understand these trust signals on open-source projects very clearly. And I feel that I understand them around agencies very clearly. And the briefest version – I can send you a link to the resource as well, for the show notes.
The briefest version of how to make your agency or service-based business look trustworthy, to broadcast the trust signals is, you need to have clearly understandable packages of what it is that you offer, so that they know, I’m buying this kind of app, this kind of website, whatever it is.
In the open-source world, I want to know especially what tools you used to build. I want to know that you’re experts in those tools. And I want to know who’s building those projects. And once I have those four pillars, then the foundation of proving that all of that is true ends up being case studies and testimonials, which prove two things– three things, I guess.
They prove that you’ve done it before; they prove that you’re successful offering the packages you offer and using the technologies that you say you’re experts in; and you can show that your team members are good to work with, right. So, when I’m making this SME trust-based decision to go with you, I want a feeling that I’m going to have success and that you’re going to be good people to work with. So, that’s the shape of agency, service-based trust signals.
The product-based trust signals are interesting because, especially in any version of B2C, the sales cycle is so much shorter, and it’s just a matter of, like, I’m going to read something and watch a video, and then I’m probably going to throw my credit card at it, right.
And it’s much more complex. And I don’t feel that I have a set formula ready yet. I was speaking with an old friend who’s in a very interesting business, not at the top layer of the web, but in-between systems, doing stuff that I can’t talk about. And he was asking me about, how do we establish our trust signals? And then we were going through how his industry works and what’s in there.
So, I could say that there are trust signals in every industry where this goes on. And the product ones become interestingly specific to what it is that you’re doing. Are you working in security? Are you working in advertising? Are you working in– healthcare would obviously be a huge one, but then we’re moving away from the technology side of things. Each area has its own set of things.
Tim Butara: So, trust and establishing trust and communicating and demonstrating these trust signals is, basically, should be very important for any kind of business, no matter if it’s B2C, B2B, and then various different types of B2B businesses. But, in B2C, as you say, it’s much more industry, case-specific, and in B2B there are more guidelines that are more universal.
Jeffrey McGuire: B2B service and agency work, yes, I think there’s quite a universal formula. And I bet if I really sat down and sketched it out, guidelines for B2C would become clearer. It’s not our specialty at Open Strategy Partners, so I just don’t think about it every day.
Turning this on to thinking about communication, and communication planning and strategy and so on to build trust, Open Strategy Partners, we say our values are empathy, clarity and trust. And this goes back to the first workshops when we were deciding who we were and we were sitting with an executive coach and we just about figured out what our business model was and so on.
So, our values end up being empathy, clarity and trust. And you can operationalize empathy and clarity to build trust, right. So let’s think about, so I want to tell you how to think about your communications when you’re in this space. Operationalizing empathy means two big things. The first one is, you communicate in the language and the formats appropriate to your audience, right.
So, generally we do business decision maker focused content and we do technical persona focused content. Clearly, technical people are often decision makers, but generally, developers and technical roles are often influencers for product decisions and testing things out. And generally, business roles have owned the budget.
So, we need to speak to each role in different language, different terms and different value propositions. But they all need to point towards the value of my product, right. Whoever my client is or my own product, I need to tell business people that it’s going to make them more money easier, more securely and faster. And I need to tell a developer that it’s going to make her day better and make her commits flow and whatever it is.
So, operationalizing empathy, I need to understand my target personas really clearly, what their day is like, what their challenges are, and what language I should use when I’m speaking with them. And in my view, and I think this is an OSP thing, but I generally want to connect the developer activities to the value that they’re delivering, so that people understand that their job makes a difference to the customer, and because then it gives them stories to tell a budget owner about why we should try this thing, why we should do this thing, because it’s connecting to value.
And then when I’m telling business people about the value that they could get out of a product or a project, I want them to know that the things that I’m telling them are based on absolute technical truth. So that, if they do their due diligence, or if they have their senior developer do their due diligence, it’s all going to go back to features in the product.
The second bit about operationalizing empathy is, I need to produce expert-level content for and with my clients and I’m not an expert on everything. So, we do a lot of interviews, we’re sort of journalistic. And the more subject matter experts we talk to, the better our content is going to be. So we get the real truth out of the subject matter experts, we do good writing and storytelling around it, and then make sure that they can check it and make sure that it’s factual, and it ends up being a really great partnership.
And then if I’m talking with a subject matter expert exactly in the right group, then I know that they’re going to understand the challenges of their peer group, right. So then we have content that’s written to work well with whatever you want to read about, and it’s going to be factual and it’s going to be well written. So, we have empathy operationalized there…
Tim Butara: Clarity?
Jeffrey McGuire: And clarity. In the past, I have observed technology marketing that I found inadequate, sometimes dishonest, sometimes just poorly done. And I felt that there was a connection lacking between marketing and sales departments, and technical departments. And so, part of the way of fixing that is doing this interview based work, where I’m getting the actual expert to give me the information, and then I’m doing my part as a content creator and as a writer and as a storyteller to help them, cause words might not be their thing.
When I want you to be clear as my client, I want you to be clear about what you’re great at. I don’t want you to tell me what’s wrong with your competition, I’m not interested in writing FUD, I’m not interested in saying bad things about other people. I want you to be clear about what you’re great at, and I want to be clear about what you can do, and I want to be clear about you think in the future X or Y could happen. But I’m not going to encourage you to sell vaporware, and I want you to be honest about what you can not do.
And I think it’s an incredible trust signal to say, we can do A, B and C, but if you need D, sorry. It’s brave, it’s hard, and I think that’s incredible. And I think that really, so, that clarity, what you can do, what you can’t do, and the honesty to admit who you are and so on, I think that’s really powerful. And then, on a very basic level, the other bit of operationalizing clarity in communications is: don’t write walls of text, use good headers, use lists, put in a diagram. Be as consumable as possible. Goes for soundbites, goes for interviews, goes for everything.
Being clear about all of this and operating with empathy, I think, then is a very virtuous cycle that builds trust, I think that just all feeds into itself. And then, Frances Frei whom I mentioned earlier, she talks about trust as being, let’s see, you should be your authentic self, you should communicate logically and with empathy for the person you’re communicating with, I think that’s her definition, right. So, it’s not how I organize it, but it absolutely fits logically with how I think about empathy, clarity and trust as well. So, yeah, that was a really powerful discovery for me.
Tim Butara: Yeah, they definitely go hand in hand, right. Because, if you have empathy towards somebody, you'll want to convey your messages to them in a way that's as understandable to them as possible, and that will have to include clarity. And then by default, if you have clarity and empathy, then you've already started establishing trust just based on two values, right.
Jeffrey McGuire: Yeah, for sure.
Tim Butara: Well, Jeffrey, this has been an awesome discussion. Any final words before we wrap things up?
Jeffrey McGuire: Final words? I'm just getting warmed up! *laughing*
Tim Butara: So we'll have to do another one, huh, you say?
Jeffrey McGuire: I would be very happy. I'm clearly in my happy place talking about this. And we've spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff. So I guess, in closing, my interest in technology, since I've started, has focused around the humans behind the technology, the people who create it and the stories about why things happen that then delivered all this incredible value in content management systems, in operating systems, in all these wonderful tools that we have, frameworks and so on.
And then, because I'm so interested in that, I think, once I understood, it was a really powerful step for me to say, ok, so, actually, let me help connect people with other people's good ideas. I take on clients that I believe in, I take on clients that I feel we're compatible with and who are making a positive difference in the world. And I genuinely feel a moral imperative to help them communicate at the level of their fantastic offering, whatever that is. I love that.
So, openstrategypartners.com is the website. @open_strategy is the company Twitter handle. My Twitter handle is @horncologne. And any questions, any ideas, whatever, I would absolutely love to talk with people.
Tim Butara: Awesome. Well, as I said, this has been great. Thank you again for joining us today. And, as we just alluded to, we will definitely have to start talking about a potential second episode.
Jeffrey McGuire: Nice. I'd be really really thrilled.
Tim Butara: Awesome. Well, that's it for this episode then. To our listeners, that's all for today. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
Thanks for tuning in. If you'd like to check out our other episodes, you can find all of them at agiledrop.com/podcast as well as on all the most popular podcasting platforms. Make sure to subscribe so you don't miss any new episodes and don't forget to share the podcast with your friends and colleagues.