Why we decided to trash our content strategy & gamble on a purpose-driven podcast
In this post, I want to let you in on the entire process that went into developing ‘The Humans Strike Back’ by Hotjar; a podcast, a website, and a community about helping each other succeed as individuals, as employees, and as business owners by putting people first.
It’s been a winding road, but hopefully, in seeing how this idea developed, you’ll gain insight into how to create your own purpose-driven marketing campaign that not only shines a spotlight on your company, but makes the world a better place for humans to live. Some of this may sound familiar, if you’ve signed up for our emails, but here I go into even greater depth and share the whole story of our journey to get back to being human.
Part 1: The Video Call
When I got the invitation from my CEO, David Darmanin, for the video call, it wasn't a surprise. I had anticipated it.
David D. said he wanted to “catch up”. Deep down, I knew what the discussion would really be about.
I hadn’t come close to meeting the target I had set myself of 50,000 hits per month on Hotjar’s blog. We’d done good work, having published two blog posts, organised two webinars, and co-written a guide with my colleague Fio - but it wasn’t nearly enough to drive those numbers.
Half a year into the job, I was expecting David D. to come after me because of the target I failed to reach.
Instead, the discussion took an unexpected turn when I decided to ‘come clean.’
“Look, I think I know what you really want to talk about. I didn’t reach the target I set myself which means that our number of signups are not as high as expected, which probably has an impact on our revenue too…”
“What do you mean?” David D. asked.
“Well, I figured if I could bring 50,000 people per month on the blog then it would mean more subscribers to our list, more signups, more…”
David D. interrupted me:
“You came up with that number, Louis. I didn’t. This isn’t what Hotjar is about. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about your target or the number of subscribers…”
“Yes, reaching our objectives in the long-term is important but you know what is even more important? Helping our users to reach theirs. That’s what we care about first. The amount of subscribers, the number of signups, the traffic on our website, our profits… They all come after."
Coming from the CEO of a 60-person company, one of whose key responsibilities is to pay his team’s salaries, this answer might surprise you.
But it didn’t surprise me one bit.
In fact, it was a wake up call.
I knew exactly what Hotjar stood for (and why it got me to join), but I’d gotten lost in the day-to-day hustle and had forgotten about our ethos of putting people first.
So in that moment, I made the decision to wipe away our entire content strategy.
I realized that David had given me carte blanche to explore what I believe in: Transparency, vulnerability, honesty, humanity.
So 6 months worth of ‘strategy’ went up in flames, just like that.
Out of the ashes, the kernel of the idea that would become 'The Humans Strike Back' emerged.
Just the seed though. And like all seeds, it had to grow and change to bear fruit.
Part 2: People, Stories and Marketing
If this were a prescriptive type of blog post, I might advise this to any marketers out there: Play to your strengths.
For the first six months working at Hotjar, I’d done the opposite - I was trying to improve my weaknesses in writing content rather than focusing on my strengths.
My strengths are interviewing people, asking questions that open up deeper insights, and thinking about the big picture - but always with a contrarian twist.
I like to see what everyone else is doing, and take time to consider whether that’s really the right direction.
Before joining Hotjar, I’d started a marketing podcast myself to fight against in-your-face, shady marketing tactics. In that podcast, I interview marketers who use good marketing to stand out from the crowd and sell more stuff. One of these marketers was David Darmanin, CEO of Hotjar. After the conversation was over, he suggested I should apply to the Content Strategist role at Hotjar, which I did a few days later.
After I was hired, David D. had made it clear that he expected me to launch a strong concept with, maybe, a similar format to my podcast. Something, anyway, that was close to where my strengths lie.
I had, somehow, forgotten that. And I’d been focusing on the blog instead.
Playing straight into the dominant paradigm that content marketing for a tech company means producing massive amounts of “high quality” informative blog posts in the hopes of attracting qualified users.
We didn’t want to let go of that entirely - it’s not bad advice. But I didn’t want to launch a show that was only about Hotjar marketing itself (and neither did David D.). This show had to inspire people to make an impact.
An idea had already begun to form, which I called “Unfiltered by Hotjar.” It would be a show that put people and stories first, with the internal goal to:
And, this podcast had to align with our values.
It would be very top-of-funnel marketing that would introduce Hotjar, our point of view, and what we believe in. It would ask people to buy into our larger mission: To make the internet a better place for humans to be.
I had already conducted a substantial amount of research into who Hotjar’s audience is. We knew 99 percent of our active users were marketers, product managers, developers, startup founders, designers and consultants - a group I call “Digital People”. So we knew that if we wanted to attract new users with this content, those are the types of people we needed to provide value for.
Our “Digital People”, however, are more than just their job descriptions. Our audience, in particular, actively pushes the limits and breaks through the dominant paradigms in their industries to do better by their customers. They’re constantly pushing to improve.
Our own user research also told us what was most important to our users about the content they consumed. In a survey, we asked our users what were the best online resources they’d found, and what made them the best?
Their answers revealed three main characteristics:
When I brought all of the research together, it pointed in one direction: Short stories about how people and companies grew through empathy and providing better experiences. Short stories are, by nature, not prescriptive and easy to digest, and with a little work, they can be actionable as well.
This concept went back to the foundations of why David D. and his co-founders created Hotjar in the first place - partially in response to David D.’s past experiences working for tech companies that only *said* they put people first, but really put profit above all other concerns.
With our audience, and with our CEO, and frankly with my own leanings, I knew this podcast had to have an undercurrent of rebelling against the status quo.
Early brainstorms revolved around the concept of humans vs. robots. Why it’s important to go back to being human, instead of letting software and hardware rule so much of our lives. This is what we came up with:
Close, but it didn’t really connect with all of us.
From my previous research into Hotjar’s audience, I knew that most of our customers were between the ages of 25 and 45, so I began looking for title inspiration in pop culture references that everyone in this age group would immediately get.
With the help of Wikipedia, I began listing all the references to pop culture in music, movies and books between 1970 and 1990:
It wasn’t until I landed on Star Wars that the inspiration for the final title of the show began to emerge.
Part 3: Lost in Storytime
At the same time that I was brainstorming themes and titles, I was also working with the idea that this podcast should include all the elements of a good story, based on the criteria set forth in Michael Hauge’s book, Storytelling Made Easy: Persuade and Transform Your Audiences, Buyers, and Clients - Simply, Quickly, and Profitably.
I had this nucleus idea of humans, empathy, and technology, and of subverting the dominant paradigm. It went back to Hotjar’s fundamental point of view (we’d created a point-of-view sheet months ago for the blog called “How Hotjar Views the World”) and this evolved into a sort of framework for the project:
#1 You have only one boss: your users
We want to help people win by putting people first.
#2 Aim for good
It’s not about making money or helping people. It’s making money by helping people.
#3 Focus on the right things
Not big data, best practices, or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (also know as HiPPOs), but what your users need.
#4 Always be learning
Call it ‘Kaizen’ or just the drive to continue learning, iterating and improving, but it’s an instinct and a value we ‘Digital People’ tend to share.
Somehow, we had to translate these values into good storytelling, with a few pop-culture references thrown in. I went back to what we were fighting against, our values, and the villain (which every good story must have).
Our villain became The Status Quo Empire, where making money is the focus instead of helping people. Yes, I was all in with the Star Wars theme.
All of these values, and our ‘villain,’ came directly from David’s past experiences as an employee of tech startups and the founder of several businesses before Hotjar. He’d seen ‘best practices’ fail, profit become the only purpose, and products developed almost entirely without user feedback - some of those mistakes he even made himself.
Fighting against these things has been Hotjar’s raison d'être in a nutshell.
Our ‘hero’ - another story necessity - was you, and me. Our weapon? The human-first approach of incremental, ongoing improvements driven by feedback, with the goal of helping people honestly.
I know, it sounds ridiculous now, and this only happened a few months ago. I was overthinking it.
When you’re so ‘in’ the company, it’s difficult to distance your perspective from it.
The best decision I’ve made in this, which I think is a good thing for anyone trying to produce purpose-based content, is to hire a third party, an outsider, to help you. Even if you have a tiny budget and it’s just for an hour or two.
I was very lucky to be able to have four calls with Michael Hauge, a Hollywood script consultant, to review what I had so far.
I showed him my presentation with all of the slides.
And I could *feel* Michael shaking his head as he said “If you go this route, you will never return.”
He wasn’t just talking about the copyright issues.
Over our four phone calls, Michael helped to simplify and clarify our mission and our story down to its essentials:
Putting people first.
That, in the end, was the only story we really needed - because everything else, what we do, what we’re fighting against, who we’re fighting for, is there.
Part 4: The Empathy Factor
What does it mean, really, to put people first?
Many tech companies cite this as one of their values, but if you look at what they do, it’s all very product-centric and customer-service or customer-success-centric. For so many of these companies, ‘putting people first’ is a path to retention, lifetime value, and ROI.
Which is a good start.
You get better products and much better service when you design them with and around your customer’s needs and ideal outcomes.
But that’s a very finite definition of putting people first.
And people aren’t that finite.
Around this time, we’d been hiring for the role of Outreach Marketer, in charge of helping us to spread the word about our content. The pre-hire task for this role consisted of identifying potential guests for the show and building a promotion plan.
One of the applicants for the role who was at “task stage” was David Peralta. He began challenging what we meant by ‘putting people first’ almost immediately.
He challenged us to think about more than just having empathy for the customer, but how empathy is critical to helping people find more purpose and meaning in what they do.
During his task, David P. suggested we reach out to guests that also focused on empathy towards employees and the need for empathy at work:
His outside-of-the-box ideas for interviewees to reach out to also helped us to open our minds to think beyond users and customers, and put people first in general.
David P.’s input, along with an email from Fio Dossetto, my other colleague in the Content Team, helped us get down to what we really wanted to accomplish.
Fio wrote, “Ultimately, it’s about changing the world through empathy.”
We wanted to get at a much deeper paradigm shift that puts empathy and human values at the center of business, of tech, and of life.
Then David P., who lives and breathes empathy, broke our definition of empathy down into three parts:
- Cultivating empathy inside yourself. It’s the first step before you can bring it into your life and work.
- Empathy towards other people (customers, employees).
- Empathy towards the environment and the world around you.
He took a big gamble at challenging our initial idea, and it paid off, big time.
With these new insights, it wasn’t enough for us to just talk about businesses. We wanted to expand into interviewing positive psychologists, mindfulness experts and authors, founders and CEOs who’ve built social consciousness into their companies.
We wanted to provide a holistic understanding of how to do well by doing good, and give people actionable ideas for how they can genuinely put humans first and still run a successful, sustainable business.
It turned our initial, very SaaS-centric, concept on its head and we haven’t looked back since.
Part 5: Only the Beginning
This is not the end of our origin story. It’s only the beginning. Because during our pre-launch, we invited hundreds of our ‘digital people’ to help us build ‘The Humans Strike Back’ experience they wanted.
In our next post, I’ll go into how we refined our rough edges and cemented our purpose with our audience, well before the first episode went live.
Take care and be human.
Full transparency: idea, structure, data, and recording for this post were provided by the author (Louis Grenier) while the piece was written by our copywriter Lauren.