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Telling an Evergreen Story: An Interview with Joe Zappa

November 3, 2022

With the abundance of content constantly being put out into the digital world, how do you ensure it is appealing and resonates with audiences? In the fast-paced world of ad tech, content needs a strong hook and a thoughtful approach that speaks to what is happening in the industry around us.

Meet Joe Zappa – founder and principal of content marketing agency Sharp Pen Media and managing editor of Street Fight Magazine

With years of experience in the martech and adtech industries, Joe has helped several B2B tech companies attract audiences and grow their business by creating compelling content. From thought leadership bylines to stellar social media content, Joe knows how the power of content can make or break a company. 

Get to know a little bit more about Joe and his thoughts on how to create compelling narratives through content.

How did you get your start reporting on the advertising/marketing industry?

I was looking for an internship the summer after my sophomore year of college, and David Hirschman, co-founder of the martech publication Street Fight, posted a job opening on our shared college alumni network. I’ve been writing about martech ever since. I wouldn’t have anticipated that writing about martech would become the focus of my career.

What is a common faux pas you often see when receiving op-ed or news pitches? 

Companies focus the pitch on themselves. But the focus should be serving prospects by educating them and, more directly, serving the journalist’s readers. If you’re not helping the publication’s readers do their jobs better or understand their market better, your pitch likely won’t get picked up.

What makes a compelling news/op-ed pitch? 

Target the pitch to the publication’s audience. Challenge the consensus. Articulate a clear thesis.

How do you beat writer’s block when it rears its ugly head?

Writer’s block isn’t a big issue for me, partially because I write every day and partially because, in adtech, I constantly speak to people and read about what’s going on. You can mitigate writer’s block by making writing a habit and staying plugged into your space.

What are your thoughts on companies responding to trends (specifically clickbait trends) on social media? 

For B2B companies, I’d mostly avoid it. If you’re SaaS and you need big scale, you can get it by hiring a firm that’s great at social hijacking. But most firms would do better to focus on consistently being helpful.

What was one of your most memorable or favorite stories that you’ve gotten to cover throughout your career? 

A bit tangential, but as a ghostwriter, I’ve written a bunch of columns for AdExchanger, AdWeek, and Ad Age. I have a forthcoming piece in my own name in MarketingProfs. I think the journalistic neophyte I was 5-10 years ago would find that compelling.

What’s something an outsider wouldn’t know about your industry – whether it be reporting or the content marketing space?

Reporting — most reporters are smart and earnest people, who are trying to do good work. Reporters don’t get enough credit.

Marketing — not all marketing is “Please buy my company’s stuff.” Good content marketing, for example, mirrors best journalistic practices in many ways.

What or who inspires you the most in your career?

Writing isn’t like finance or engineering; the opportunities are fewer and the path to success is more obscure. I’ve only had success due to the generosity of others — the aforementioned David Hirschman and then mostly agency owners and longtime adtech marketing folks including E&O’s very own founders (Lacy Talton and Brook Terran), Mark Naples, Lana McGilvray, Bill Daddi, Nicole Jordan, and others. I’m inspired by their success as agency owners and also by their generosity in affording opportunities to others. I’ve started to get the opportunity to extend that same generosity to more junior people as my career has advanced, and that’s a nice thing.

What do you predict will be the most talked about trends, topics or themes in our industry for 2023? What topics/themes/trends do you hope to leave behind in 2022?

2023: privacy (still), retail media and CTV (hot channels), data clean rooms, macroeconomic challenges.

It won’t happen because polemics are sexy, but I’d love to see more people leave behind the dichotomous thinking over what’s hyped and what’s real, what’s apocalyptic and what’s a panacea. Everything is somewhere in between the extremes. Take clean rooms and retail media. They’ll both be around; they’ll both have their flaws and challenges. I’m more interested in their complexities than in proclamations about their fundamental goodness or lack thereof.

It seems like you see or hear about content creators constantly these days. In your eyes, what traits make a successful content creator? What traits make a cringe-worthy content creator?

As in the case of a pitch, 80% of your content (in B2B) should focus on helping others do their jobs better. So, don’t be afraid to get personal, but focus on being helpful, not on yourself.

Also, don’t assume your experience is universal. There’s a lot of “I make $100k/month writing for the interwebs, and you can, too,” on LinkedIn. But if you did that, it’s probably because you possess various advantages (some earned, some lucky) that others don’t. So, get honest about that, and share your experience without making others feel like immense success should come easily.

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome in your career? What advice would you give to combat it?

I like to think I’m good at what I do, and I know what I’m not good at. What I will say is that among the greatest benefits of running an agency or even advancing at a company is that you can focus on what you’re good at and rely on others to handle the things they’re far better at than you. So, my advice would be to find the tasks at which you excel and lean into them. Know where your weaknesses lie and don’t be afraid to ask others for help.

Joe – Thank you so much for being our guest and sharing your insight! 

Interested in learning how we can leverage our connections in and knowledge of the adtech / martech space to help your brand tell smart stories? Reach out today!