How To Avoid Burnout & Thrive In Marketing with Amy Balliett & Kage Spatz

Marketing Strategy Series by

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Amy Balliett Marketing Expert

Imagine a world where we prided ourselves on our capacity for truth telling. A world where we scoffed at those who tried to pull one over on us simply because we are so apt at discerning fact from fiction.

As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with my fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Amy Balliett.

Amy is the CEO and founder of the creative content agency, Killer Visual Strategies as well as the author of the newly released book by the same name. Considered an expert in the fields of visual communication and visual content strategy, Balliett speaks at dozens of conferences each year including SXSW, AdobeMAX, Content Marketing World, and more. In addition to driving visual strategy for the world’s top brands, Balliett is a regular teacher at The School of Visual Concepts, a guest lecturer at several universities, and a LinkedIn Learning instructor.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?

I often point to the first few infographics I ever designed as the worst infographics ever created (and several media outlets suggest the same). For example, the 2nd infographic I ever created was riddled with issues, despite how proud of it I was at the time.

It was an “infographic” comparing Google’s PageRank algorithm to voting for prom king. At the time I was (and still am) an avid follower of Rand Fishkin, the founder of MOZ. In 2010 he was the authority in SEO and someone who’s thought leadership greatly informed my own strategies. He was also quite outspoken about his dislike of infographics because of how spammy they could be. I thought for sure I had produced something that wouldn’t meet the same criticism so I tweeted the infographic at him expecting a positive reaction. Instead, he quickly responded with one sentence: “That’s not an infographic.”

I was crushed, but also suddenly very aware of my mistake. What I had created wasn’t even close to true visual communication and instead I had become part of the problem. The concept was spammy link bait, the design was very low in quality, and the final product was nothing more than a lengthy reading assignment paired with pictograms.

Fishkin’s critique made me rethink everything. I realized that simply putting images next to text and framing that as an infographic didn’t mean it would actually pass muster.

That tweet from Fishkin put a public spotlight on my marketing blunder (rightfully so), but at the same time, it triggered something positive in me. It sent me down a path to best understand and deliver high-quality visual communication. At the time, I didn’t realize just how influential that one tweet was, but I’m doing what I love today because of it!

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

There were a lot of small tipping points for my company and career. That said, Killer’s growth was initially driven by public speaking and thought leadership, so I would say my first major speaking opportunity (AdobeMAX) was a very important tipping point.

I love public speaking, provided I’m presenting on a topic I’m really passionate about. So, in 2013, when Adobe needed someone to speak about infographics at their upcoming conference, I jumped at the opportunity. I had presented at a number of smaller conferences prior to that, but a speaker’s credibility improves significantly when a brand like Adobe asks that presenter to be the authority that speaks on such a popular topic.

Following the success of that conference, we shifted our marketing strategy at Killer to continually replicate that success. We began focusing the bulk of our efforts on writing (and designing) thought leadership content while I set out to speak at as many reputable conferences as possible. Within a few short months, I had booked over 30 conferences and began a life of traveling 80% of the year to speak.

The biggest lesson learned: choose a niche that aligns with your passions and that you truly believe in. From there, share anything and everything you’ve learned about that niche, especially your mistakes because there’s much to learn from them. People can recognize if you’re faking it or just trying to pander to audiences to make a quick buck. But if you truly believe in the niche and are passionate about your craft, lacking authenticity is never a worry. Instead, becoming an authority in the niche is just a natural product of your love for the craft and the outcomes it derives.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Being a marketer is sometimes like trying to spin dozens of plates at once without letting any fall. There’s quite a lot to keep track of and, in this world of juggling priorities, we often find some tasks bring us respite because they are more exciting than others. For example, some marketers find it incredibly exciting to build a robust drip campaign. For others, it’s digging into analytics to pressure test assumptions that really gets them going. Whatever it is that drives you and makes you love marketing, find a way to make that a larger part of your focus.

For me, I’m driven by public speaking. I love sharing what I’ve learned with a crowd of like-minded individuals and empowering them with information they can’t easily access in their day-to-day lives. I also love the conversations a speaking engagement spurns and the networking opportunities that come from it because it provides opportunities to openly debate key marketing concepts.

When I wrote my first book, I realized that this same excitement surrounding public speaking applies equally to writing. It turns out that the venue isn’t what drives my happiness, it’s simply the opportunity to share what I’ve learned widely that I really love. As a result, I’ve found that it’s very easy to take my speaking experiences and turn them into content to fuel my marketing efforts.

Whenever I’m feeling burnt out, I seek out opportunities to share the latest big lesson I’ve learned. That may appear in the form of a blog post, an Inc article, a new LinkedIn Learning class, or I’ll identify the right conference to pitch the topic to. This is the best thing about being a marketer: audiences love authenticity, so if we just focus on sharing what we love it’s easy to create content that is engaging.

Find what energizes you and weave it into your marketing strategy!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are?

I’m going to intentionally leave out family in my answer, because my first choices here would be my spouse, my parents, my siblings, etc. My family has been immensely influential in my success and there are too many stories that I could share that exemplify this fact. I’m also going to intentionally leave out my team and colleagues across Material (the agency Killer rolls into), because I could write a book on how much they have been an integral and amazing part of my journey. That being said, there is someone well worth bringing up that had had a very large impact on my success as well as the success of my company, and that is a man by the name of Keith Upkes.

At the end of July 2015, I was on the homestretch of my first full month away from the office due to traveling to speak at conferences. I was burnt out and quite frustrated with my lack of managerial oversight from a remote distance. Rather than look inward to realize that I was not properly setting my team up for success, I got frustrated with some issues at hand and wrote a very lengthy email to my exec team passing the buck. But here’s the catch: the “e” for “execs” auto-filled to “everyone” in the “to” field and the email went to my entire team.

This all happened on a Friday afternoon, while I was over 1000 miles away from the office. What followed was a long weekend of trying to fix the problem from afar, in all the wrong ways! Some members of my team were only slightly offended, but others were ready to quit as a result. I was drowning in uncertainty and worry, with little opportunity to walk back what had been said. It was so impactful that, to this day, we refer to this experience as “EmailGate 2015.”

I reached out to some colleagues for advice, and was referred to Keith Upkes, an executive and business coach out of Vancouver, Washington. Keith quickly jumped on the phone with me, empathized, and dove right into building a game plan. He recognized that culture issues at a company are driven from the top and can also be healed from the top. He helped me identify the ways in which I was contributing to the problem and gave me the tools to be a far better CEO as a result.

Within a few weeks, he was helping us build a vastly improved company. He taught my team and I what it was like to run and work in a values-based organization. He gave us the framework for continued growth centered around a team that was aligned on the core 4: core purpose, core vision, core mission, and core values.

I have to be honest, all of this seemed corny to me at first. I had read dozens of books about strong companies and the fact that they all had a foundation of strong values, but I didn’t believe it. I had a codified and public list of values at the company, but I hadn’t put forth any effort to make them the foundational element of our business like all the books suggested.

By following Keith’s guidance, however, it became clear how to instill values at every level of the organization. As a result, we emerged far stronger than ever before. We were already a company seeing a lot of success, but we became a fortified powerhouse thanks to the changes Keith helped us implement.

I can’t express enough how powerful it can be to bring in an experienced and independent third party to help you get past your own tunnel vision as a business leader. When that third party has a proven business framework as their foundation for coaching, it’s even better!

Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. Where do you see the future of marketing headed?

The 2019 Venngage Marketing Survey has some interesting insight into this. They found that 90% of the most successful marketers prioritize their audiences’ informational needs over sales messaging. In addition to this, the latest findings in Edelman’s Trust Barometer show that today’s audiences need to trust a brand to do what’s right if they are to remain loyal. All of this points to a world where thought leadership and authentic media will (and should) drive the bulk of marketing strategies in the future.

We see this all the time in our industry at Killer Visual Strategies. We develop creative content campaigns for some of the world’s top brands, which gives us the opportunity to connect with the CMOs of those brands on a regular basis. The content we create for these brands almost always centers around sharing reputable and relevant information with their audiences. Sales messaging is reserved for the bottom of the sales funnel and often delivered in the form of PowerPoint decks, the final page of a whitepaper, testimonial videos, etc.

If you’re struggling to determine what type of content to deliver at different times, simply ask yourself this: Does this content provide value to my audience in their current phase of the customer journey? If the answer is “no” then it’s not the right content to keep your audience loyal and engaged.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Understand the tax implications of different corporate structures — Before starting my company, I sought the advice of only one person to determine what corporate structure was right for my business model. Unfortunately, I started with an entirely different business model before pivoting into Killer but I had picked a corporate structure (a C-Corp) that only made sense for the original business model. This led to a hefty tax bill when I reincorporated Killer by transitioning to an S-Corp, which was also my only option since I had already started as a C-Corp. Before you start any type of business, take the time to learn about all of the different potential corporate entities and their associated tax implications. Make sure to choose a structure that gives you room to pivot and grow.
  2. Solidify your mission, vision, and values from the start. Then hire and fire employees, clients, and vendors based on how well they align with these things — Because Killer was a pivot from a completely different business model, we spent much of the first few years being reactive rather than proactive. But had we intentionally developed and evangelized our mission, vision, and values early on, we would have built an even stronger culture from day one. The stronger your culture is, the more successful your company can be. It took years and the aforementioned “EmailGate 2015” to learn this important truth.
  3. Choose your business name wisely — In 2019, we changed our name from Killer Infographics to Killer Visual Strategies for a variety of reasons. When we launched with the name Killer Infographics, we didn’t actually plan on becoming an agency (see “The Accidental Agency” in my book for more info here). As we developed into an agency, we expanded our services well beyond infographics and went out of our way to make that clear in all of our collateral. Still, about 50% of new customers came to us only expecting infographic services, which made it harder to bring attention to all that we could do for them. We combatted this by making a concerted effort to be known first and foremost as Killer. After a couple of years of this, it became easy to keep the Killer brand while shifting the name to something more appropriate.
  4. When it comes to tough decisions, rip the Band-Aid off as fast as possible — Business owners always have to weigh risk and reward when making decisions, but sometimes it can be really hard to see the potential reward when the risk takes an emotional toll. Some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made came after months (if not years in one situation) of simply putting extra work on my plate to avoid the emotional exhaust of following through with the tough decision. But each time I’ve chosen to finally rip the Band-Aid off, I see positive results almost immediately. As for the problem that took years to resolve, I’ll say this: When you see your revenue double in under a year because you finally ripped the Band-Aid off, you wonder how much more successful you could have been had you just taken the plunge right when you recognized the problem in the first place. Rather than regret inaction, take action as fast as you can and recognize that the positive outcomes you will see far outweigh any emotional toll a hard decision may bring.
  5. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top — I spent the first few years of my business feeling extremely weighed down. I took on every problem like it was mine alone to solve, worked crazy hours, and beat myself up for every mistake. In 2013, a friend encouraged me to join the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO) and everything changed. Within EO I found a tribe of entrepreneurs eagerly growing and learning from one another. I quickly learned that your industry doesn’t determine your roadblocks; each business owner had similar challenges regardless of their industry. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my journey and, more importantly, there were dozens of business owners further along on the path than me that could help me tackle any challenges coming my way.

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

I’m lucky enough to attend a great deal of marketing-related conferences, which always help me sharpen my skills. SXSW, SMX, the Seattle Interactive Conference, ContentTech, and Content Marketing World are on the top of my list.

I also love pretty much anything that comes out of Content Marketing Institute (hence my love for their conferences as well). I follow their blog as well as their Tuesday morning Twitter chats.

I need to up my Podcast game. I listen to Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast because I also love pretty much anything he shares with his followers, but I wouldn’t say that is too marketing-focused. I do, however, highly suggest the 2Bobs podcast which delves into marketing from time to time and heavily focuses on business development techniques for agencies.

One more question! You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’ve built an entire business around the knowledge that audiences crave visual content above all else for their information gathering. We rely heavily on visual communication to bring understanding to complex subject areas and earn our attention, among other things. And while visual communication has myriad positive applications, I can’t ignore the fact that it continues to be used as a weapon in the war of misinformation.

We have become a headline-driven culture. Often, we look at the visual media associated with a headline to determine its trustworthiness rather than checking the source of the content itself. An entirely false quote may be attributed to a politician, for example, and because the quote is associated with a photo of that politician people believe it to be true. News outlets have been caught Photoshopping their content to validate false claims, but millions see these images before the inconsistencies are brought to life. Even simple data visualizations are misconstrued to take advantage of our universal vernacular for charts and graphs. And now deep fakes threaten to further erode our trust in the media we see.

Our education system has not kept up with the rapid evolution of visual media and the technology behind it, leaving us struggling to decipher fact from fiction while companies like Cambridge Analytica take advantage. It’s because of this that I firmly believe our only recourse is through greatly advancing our understanding and appreciation of media literacy.

If I could inspire a movement, it would center around a demand for prioritizing media literacy as a required subject area in our schools. Imagine a world where we prided ourselves on our capacity for truth-telling. A world where we scoffed at those who tried to pull one over on us simply because we are so apt at discerning fact from fiction. We should be encouraging fact-finding by teaching students how to ignore the noise and get to the original source of a claim. We should be teaching our students how to recognize propaganda, how to identify the calling cards of a Photoshopped image, how to consider the underlying context of a media campaign, and so on.

So much of our current state of the union is driven by our inability to recognize the calling cards of propaganda and how visual communication can be used against us. I believe we can overcome this, but it will require a massive effort driven, in large part, by our education system.

Thank you so much for sharing so much value with us!

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