Learn more about Acrolinx at: https://www.acrolinx.com/
Find Chris Willis on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cpwillis/
JC: Well, welcome everybody to another episode of The Future of BizTech. Today I have with me Chris Willis, he is the CMO of Acrolinx and they have headquarters in Massachusetts and Germany. Chris, thank you so much for coming on with us here. Tell us a little bit about yourself and give us that 30,000-foot view of Acrolinx and what you guys do.
Chris: Sure. Like you said, I’m Chris Willis. I’ve been with Acrolinx now for just about three years. I joined the company shortly after it was acquired by a private equity firm in Germany with the expectation of really starting to see growth and expansion. And first thing is to be able to explain what we do. So let’s do that. We are an AI-powered platform that essentially delivers content governance that enables the world’s biggest, most valuable brands to write better content faster by aligning all of their writers with the company’s strategic content guidelines at scale. So think clarity, consistency, and character across thousands of writers aligned to the business.
JC: Awesome. And you’re the CMO and in the pre-show you had told me a little bit about how you joined the company. Tell the audience here what brought you to Acrolinx and what your motivation is for being there and the changes you want to bring.
Chris: I mean, as somebody that’s had tons of organizations now for almost 20 years, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as what Acrolinx did. And I mean, I was running teams of people across the globe writing great, engaging technical content in many different forms of English. And the issue that we would run into is that editing that content post-development is very difficult because it’s not just changing grammar, it could potentially be changing contexts. The writers were very technical people. They’ve written down the things that are in their head and their writing styles obviously might not align with the organization and so we make changes. And those changes take time and effort that then goes back to the writers and gets changed again. And over and over and over again.
Chris: So it takes a long time to create a piece of content. When I met Andrew Bredenkamp, the Founder and Chief Scientist that developed Acrolinx in the early 2000s, it was fascinating what the company and the product actually do, because it solved a specific problem that I’ve had. So it wasn’t just coming to find a new job, it was that I was passionate and excited about seeing this product move forward and seeing the concept of understanding content quality, so the grammar and the spelling and the layout of a piece of content evolve into strategy alignment. So how do we want to create content?
Chris: We have in our offices, as content owners, we have that idea of how we want to create our content, the words, the clarity level, the education levels of our audiences, the tone of voice that we’ve created for our brand, the specific brand language, and how do we take all of that and build that into all of our writers from day one of the creation process so that every piece of content looks like content from my organization? And I think that part of why I like my job is because I really do like what we do.
JC: That’s good. Now, how long have you been with the company? You said you had joined here somewhat recently? How long ago was it?
Chris: I just rounded into my third year.
JC: Oh, okay. Good. All right. So you’ve been there awhile. How old is the company overall?
Chris: The company was originally founded in 2002. The go-to market really began in 2005 and that’s when we started collecting customers. Acrolinx has the position of having all 20 of the top 20 global technology companies, pretty much every major tech company you can think of is an Acrolinx customer and that has happened between that 2005 to now timeframe. In 2017, like I said, we rounded a corner and started an acceleration phase that brought me to the organization and that brought our new Head of Sales to the organization and new Customer Success Leader, who most recently, Volker Smid, who is our new CEO who joined us from a company called Searchmetrics also a German and US company.
JC: So why does this technology matter? The audience typically wants to know what makes this special. What is it about what you guys do that means something to the industry?
Chris: Well, at the top level, it’s the concept of alignment of brands. So we spent a lot of money creating brands for our companies and the brand of a major enterprise really is its most valuable asset. And the way that you maximize that asset is through singularity alignment. When you see brands start to deteriorate and value be lost at the brand level, it’s because of fragmentation, it’s because of bad brand management. So at that top level, let’s speak like one thing.
Chris: As we reach down into where this value really lives from an implementation, from an execution standpoint, it’s in first being found, driving volume. So content that is written with the right words in the right voice leveraging the right clarity levels is going to be found better. It’s more usable. Findability is critical. You can create the best piece of content in the world, but if nobody ever finds it, it didn’t do its job. So if we can create content that is relevant, is written correctly, is using all of the things that we built into our strategy, that’s going to be found at a greater level. So we’re going to drive more traffic.
Chris: The next thing is, if it’s clear and consistent and on-brand, it’s going to convert at a higher level. So we’re first going to see more traffic and then we’re going to see more conversions. And how do I know this? Well, let me explain. We are a small company. We are not our customers. Our customers are the biggest companies in the world, but in my little world, I build content that offsets my demand gen spend. So when I joined the company, the first thing we do, first thing anybody does when they join a new company from a marketing standpoint is, “Let’s start doing some content syndication. Let’s start generating some leads.” Right? Let’s turn on the engine.
Chris: But that money is expensive and it also generates leads that are questionable in value and we’re getting people that may have downloaded an ebook, do you have your BDR call somebody that downloaded an ebook and say, “Hey, saw you downloaded this. Want to buy something?” Chances are they don’t. So we want to draw in people that actually want engagement with us. And if you look at us in particular, we have a piece of content on our website around tone of voice. It’s a big positioning angle for us. It’s how we talk about a big part of what our product does, is aligning tone of voice and we are highly findable for that search term, a number one result. And because of that findability, we’re driving tens of thousands of visitors to our website a month on that search term. And when they get to our website, that content, which is written using our platform, to be clear, concise, on character has a high conversion rate.
JC: So essentially, I just want to make sure I understand, what you’re basically saying is that, listen, anyone can write content, but your software takes content and makes it high converting so that it ranks better and gets more traffic? So, content with your system equals more website visits and more traffic. Content on your own, not so much. Is that the general idea?
Chris: Yeah. So we use the word supercharge and we’re looking to supercharge the content that’s driving your business.
JC: So supercharge the traffic by correctly creating the content?
Chris: Using the right words, using the right language to be-
JC: Got it. Okay. So you mentioned that you guys were small, but your customers are big, what are some of the biggest brand names that the audience might recognize that you guys do this for? Because I mean, that might put into context how valuable it is.
Chris: Yeah. So, I mean, I think if you think about software, for instance, Microsoft, IBM, SAP. Think about healthcare, companies like Siemens and Philips and Pfizer. Engineering, KTM, Nestle, Kohler. Financial companies that I can’t mention that are huge banks in cities, for instance. And so our customers tend to be the brands that care the most about their branding to make sure that they’re creating content that is able to be first found and then convert. And whether that’s marketing content or support content or technical content and association with products, different product manuals, all of this is driving end business results. It’s either driving customer satisfaction, it’s driving customer conversion, it’s driving customer retention, it’s driving employee engagement. And so the more effective that content is, the more valuable it is.
JC: Is there any kind of industry-specific companies that benefit the most or more from this than others? For example, do tech companies benefit more from this? Or do consumer-based companies, like retail or food and beverage, do you any kind of common ground or any niche you guys have grown into when it comes to that?
Chris: It’s more at the departmental level. So we started in tech doc. We started in technical content, first in UI strings, so the words within the software to align software with company language and then into product manuals and then to support. Where there’s a high volume of content moving very quickly, so if you think about somebody like a VMware, agile software development process, the speed of their software delivery is very high, but content is still content.
Chris: The content companies need to be written, it needs to be edited, it needs to be reviewed, it needs to be released. So how do they take what they’ve done on the development side and move that into the content side? So we allow them to accelerate that process to a point where they’re delivering the product content at the same time they’re delivering the product? At the same pace at scale. And that for them is important. They’re also doing it with one employee versus four to seven copy editors, which is-
JC: So it not only helps convert and do better, let’s say, in SEO to help drive more traffic, but it sounds like it saves even costs on, like you’re saying, employees. You could do more with less. Is that what you’re saying?
Chris: Exactly. So you can take those people. If you look at a support team, for instance, you have all these people that are writing tickets and then you have all these people that are reviewing those tickets to make sure that they comply. Remove all that and now you’re moving more people into the creation process. We don’t ever expect that our customers are going to just cut employees because they don’t have editors. Those are highly trained content creators that have been moved into editing roles. And now you can be more effective and you can start doing things that you weren’t doing before.
Chris: So Laura Bellamy at VMware has spoken at our conference several times and one of the things she talks about is the ability to self-fund projects because they’re saving time, they’re saving money, and they’re freeing resources. For me and my use, we’re able to do more. There is a dollar saving in headcount cost that’s associated with my use of Acrolinx that clears my employees up to do more things across the organization than just copy edit. And so that means that my content leader has time to do things that we normally wouldn’t be able to do if we were taking up the time to release these pieces of content, we have blogs, we have eBooks, we have landing pages, we have website content and all of that needs to go through a review process and we’ve automated all of that.
JC: Automation, I mean, now you’ve got my ears perked and my tail wagging. I love automation. Here’s what I mean, everything about what you’re saying sounds amazing. I mean, I guess what’s the biggest barrier to entry for companies? I mean, why wouldn’t every company just be like, “Oh yeah, great. Let’s just buy this now?” I mean, what are people’s objections and how do you guys overcome those?
Chris: I mean, it’s less of an objection and more of a not understanding what the value of content is, the actual dollar value of content is to their organization because most enterprises don’t have a line item in their budget for content. So if I were going to say, “I can save you money on demand gen.” Okay. I know what that looks like. There is a line item that says, demand gen, and under it there’s a bunch of programs and things that happen. And okay, you can save me money there.
Chris: “I can save you money in content creation.” Cool. Show me where that lives. What money are you saving me? And that’s because for the most part, unless you’re outsourcing all of your content to agencies, content is something that happens as a by-product of employees being at work, your product marketers are creating content, your product management, people are creating content, your support people are creating content. And none of that is tracked as headcount. And so the first thing that we need to do as an organization, and part of what we’re doing in market education right now, is helping companies understand content as an asset in their business.
Chris: So if you think about a major enterprise support portal, for instance, it might have 10 million pages of content in it. And yet they would say, “I’m not sure how much we spend on content.” Okay. Well, if we can assess that each one of those pages, once it’s been researched, created, reviewed, indexed, it probably costs about $1000 per page to create. So if you’re spending $1000 per page, you have a multi-billion dollar asset.
Chris: Now, it’s not fair because the next question you would ask is, how much of that asset, how much of that content are you maintaining? And in a lot of cases, we’re hearing maintenance on that content is about 10% of the content. So, okay, maybe we’re at $1 billion dollar asset that you have. How do we now, moving forward, reduce the cost of adding to that? So eliminate the editorial process and reduce that cost $1,000 per page. And at the same time, allow you to increase the amount of content that you maintain through automation. So if you didn’t have to go through and manually maintain content, uplift things, check things to see if there’s still relevancy, if they’re on-brand. If you could automate that process, would you maintain more than 10% of that content? In most cases, the answer is yes.
Chris: So now, we’re saving you money on content creation, we’re expanding your pool, and if you’re only maintaining 10% of your content, do you have the other 90% locked off somewhere? No. No it’s available. Cool. Now let’s look at risk of that content, because what’s in there? You’re not maintaining it. So if regulations in your industry change, if the language in your organization changes, what risk is sitting in your content? And now do we want to go through all of that looking for specific key areas of risk that can be removed from your content? And that’s a big use case for financial services where there are parts of organizations that are almost entirely responsible for making sure that the risk in published content does not exist, how do we keep people from getting in trouble, from getting fined, from ending up in jail? And-
JC: Oh, well that’s a big value-add there, especially-
Chris: ..all of that content, look for those things. Same gameplay, so we save you money, we save you time, but also, you’re a medical equipment company and the manual associated with a piece of medical equipment allows a doctor to operate that equipment. Clarity and consistency in terminology, those things matter and you’re dealing with a life or death situation now. Somebody can’t use your product wrong or follows the directions and the directions are misaligned or unreadable or unclear-
JC: There’d be huge liabilities, obviously. Yeah.
Chris: Yep. And I mean, so small plug for our podcast, Content Insiders, there’s an episode that we hosted with Phillips and they talk about that. They talk about the life or death situation of the content they create. It’s really interesting stuff.
JC: That is interesting. Now, you said you work with big companies, do you work with small companies? Medium-sized companies as well? Or do you find that typically your main demographic are going to be those Fortune 1000 types of companies? Who could probably afford to hire you or even has enough content or liability where it’s relevant to hire you? What size of company are we talking?
Chris: It is. It’s about $1 billion now because you’re looking at that scale. All of the things that we do are really interesting for everybody, but that at scale is what makes the ROI work. If it’s a team of five content writers and one copy editor, can you get value? I say, you can. I do. But is it worth buying the product? I think you’d have a hard time getting an ROI when you have thousands of writers creating content, when you have even 10 people making millions of pages of content, it’s worth our product and that’s where this size of business, these global brands come in.
JC: So on a side note here, so I’m going to get away from the company for a second. I want to ask about you, Chris. Tell me, you’ve been in the industry a while, who was your biggest mentor and what was the best piece of advice that they ever gave you?
Chris: So I have two. My first mentor is a guy named Bob Mazzarella. Robert Mazzarella was the President of Fidelity Brokerage back in the 90s. He is highly successful businessman. And I think that the words that sunk in from him really went to how to lead people. For being somebody as successful as he was, not a micromanager, really looked to put the right people in the right place to get the most out of them, incent them correctly to be successful and let them do their jobs. And I think that’s part of who I am as a manager.
Chris: My most recent mentor, Rainer Gawlick, was the CMO at Sophos and Dassault and President at Perfecto when I was there. And really, it was about honing my strategic skills. I think marketers in general fall into patterns of being very tactical. It’s easy to all of a sudden jump in and solve problems yourself, put your hands on things and get very tactical with everything happening around you. But as you scale a business from 10 million to 100 million, that’s not helpful. And I think that was the biggest lesson. I have a sticker on my laptop in the other room that says, “I love strategy.” I do. Rainer stuck it there.
JC: What did you want to do when you were a kid? When you were like eight and you were like, “Oh, I’m going to be this?” What was your dream job first, just out of curiosity? Oh, a musician? Yeah?
Chris: I was going to be a rockstar.
JC: A rock star?
Chris: It wasn’t eight. It was from eight until I moved to Boston.
JC: Oh, okay. So you carried that through. I imagine you’re pretty damn good at that then, huh?
Chris: That’s what I wanted to do. I was a musician when I was younger. I moved to Boston in ’93. After coming up here for… I graduated from college in Pennsylvania, went back to Connecticut, and came up here for an open house at Fidelity in 1993 and got a job onsite. It was one of those huge cattle call things that they did for their call center for the 401k plan. And I got the offer, came up here, signed a lease.
Chris: I think I was leaving the lease signing when I got… I don’t remember how one contacted me, because there wasn’t cell phones yet, but I remember talking to Fidelity on a payphone in the Allston-Brighton area in Boston and finding out that they’d canceled my department because ’93 was the beginning of a recession and that cleared my calendar to really continue to work on songwriting and recording. But in the middle of the beginning of a recession, it didn’t come together and I ended up getting a job, like a grownup. So if that hadn’t happened, we would be talking from the stage right now probably, but we’re not.
Chris: The other interesting angle on this is that I am not a traditional business background person. I have a theater degree. So I went to school for directing. I directed theater. I’m not an actor. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I’m sure if you’ve been watching this for the last however many minutes, you’ve seen that. But what I learned through directing was that you can’t save the play, right? So I’m in the audience, my job is to have picked the right people, put them in the roles, given them a context, and the understanding of their priorities to be effective in their roles.
Chris: And if I’ve done all those things right, I can count on a good performance. If I haven’t, I can almost count on the opposite and that’s how I have to operate in business. One of the things that I’ve been very lucky with is being able to hire people that I think are just way above the level that I should be able to hire, because the word’s out on the street here in Massachusetts that I’m not going to get in your way. I’m going to let you be as effective as you can be and do the things that you’ve always wanted to do in your role, as long as you deliver.
Chris: And that’s really attractive to your best demand people, to your best content people, to your best product marketers, to be able to come and do what they want the way they want, without me standing over their shoulders saying, “Let me tell you all the ways I know how to do your job better than you.”
JC: Yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, I agree by the way with that too. I’m a very similar management style myself. I hire experts and I say, “Okay, well, you know how to do it. So get it done.” Right? I give people enough rope to either hang themselves with, or pull themselves over the wall, right? They can do whatever they want with that rope, but it works out pretty well.
JC: I have a couple more questions, one of them being, we talked in the pre-show again about COVID, obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic and regardless of which side of the fence you fall on it opinion wise or politically isn’t really the question here, as much as, how does Acrolinx… What is it about your software that is either helping companies? I mean, is there a play here? Is there something that Acrolinx is doing that’s actually helping companies specifically during this time?
Chris: There is. And I mean, we’re very careful about how we talk about it. What we don’t want to do is be insensitive. We don’t want to… I get so much marketing with COVID in the subject line and I don’t feel great about it. I don’t think that using a global pandemic to market your product is as sensitive as you could be at this time. But at the same time, everybody’s working from home and as a manager, you can’t be everywhere. And that’s essentially what our product does is it helps everybody to be aligned. And that’s the thing that we’re all challenged with right now, is if you’re not used to working from home, which a lot of these big enterprises are not, how do we stay aligned? How do we speak as one thing? How do we create those efficiencies while creating the right content at the right time? And that’s what we do.
Chris: So I think that we have a very timely solution and at the same time, it comes back to, I hate the framework of, “In times like these,” but in times like these, words matter for a number of reasons. So first and most obviously, the way that you create content might be your only interface with your audience. So if you’re not getting your personality, your brand across through the content you’re creating, you’re missing an opportunity to build engagement.
Chris: Also though we, as businesses, are trying to communicate with empathy and care. And it’s not always easy when you’re writing things down to do that. And you’re hearing on a daily basis more and more organizations stepping up and saying that they’re blocking language-specific terminology from their ongoing communications because they find that it’s insensitive. That’s what our product does.
Chris: And so companies are using us and have come out recently in the press to talk about how they’re using us to eliminate problematic language from their content at scale. So not only what they’re writing going forward, but going back into it and things like, master and slave relationship in database development. That’s seen as inappropriate at this point, insensitive. How do we manage, not just moving forward, saying, “We don’t write like this?” But going back into all of our content and looking through and being able to find that problematic language.
JC: When you say that about the content and sensitivity, we had another guest on the show from a company where they have a software that does kind of what you do, but they do it in paid ad spend. As in, they’re able to make sure that a client’s ads don’t show up on websites that have content that is against their message, right?
JC: So for example, Nike doesn’t exactly want their shoes popping up on an ad on a page talking about the KKK, right? Or something like that. And so their software actually reads the site first, kind of like what you were talking about, and it gives it a score, a toxicity score and then your ads won’t run on those pages. Because like you said, again, whether you’re standing next to it or it’s on your T-shirt, either way, that message comes across as guilty by association, right? So, yeah.
Chris: I’ve been in that. I know that situation.
JC: Yeah. All right. Last question.
JC: What? Yeah, exactly. Yeah. No. And so I find that what you guys do is very similar to what they do in just different parts of marketing. Yours is on the content side, theirs is on the display advertising side. So I thought that was interesting. I might actually introduce you two after this, if you’d like, because I just feel like there might be something there for you guys to be very aligned in your missions, which I think is cool.
JC: The last question I have here is, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would be of benefit to the audience to know? Ooh, I feel like I did my job good. If I stumped you on that one, that means I did great.
Chris: You didn’t ask me how my stock tank project came out.
JC: Oh, let’s hear that.
Chris: I got an eight-foot round stock tank in my backyard with a filter hooked up to it, because they can install swimming pools during the COVID, so-
JC: Oh Jesus. Well, how about-
Chris: I mean at the end of the day, it really comes down to the proof points behind all of this. And it’s a great concept, it’s a great platform, but the biggest companies in the world are getting real value. So they’re improving content quality and consistency by huge percentages that are resulting in much higher customer satisfaction. They’re reducing the cost per support ticket created over time and eliminating phone calls into support centers because that content that they’re creating is highly usable.
Chris: Simple things like a company that we work with has a goal to speak like a human. Every one of their employees has access to our platform and it allows them to essentially eliminate superfluous adjectives, use inclusive language, sound more like a person than a company. And that’s where engagement comes from, that’s where findability comes from, and that’s where conversion comes from, which is really important.
JC: It’s funny you mentioned that. So part of… You know me, as you know me, I own a marketing agency and we deal with tech companies and one of our email strategies specifically is we really do shy away from this high graphic, high sales looking templates and we’re very much a people, one-to-one style, mostly text, like if you were emailing your grandma kind of thing. Those kind of personal style relationships in marketing strategy in general, like you said, talking like a human, nobody connects with a logo, they connect with a person. And so, we take a lot of what you’re doing too. So I mean, we’re aligned there.
JC: So listen, thank you so much for being on the show. I do have a question here. If anyone who’s listening wants to get a hold of you, what’s the best way to learn about the company or to get ahold of you, Chris Willis, specifically? What kind of information do you want to share with everyone?
Chris: Easiest way is to go to www.acrolinx.com. Everything-
JC: How do you spell that? Just make sure.
JC: Okay. I-N-X. Got it. Just making sure.
Chris: The easiest way to get to me is firstname.lastname@example.org.
JC: Perfect. Well, listen, this is amazing. I love your software, not only because you hit my buzzword, automation, I like that. I like that it’s intelligent and that it has the ability to really humanize a company in that sense. And I really like where you can help update, like you were saying, you update your content and manage your content in case there are changing times. People talk about how like, “Oh, well people said those words 20 years ago because that’s just the way it was.” And that’s fine, if you have a 25-year-old company though, you might want to change some of that content, right? Because you’re in new times right now. Right? So I think it’s fantastic. I love it. And I want to thank you again for being on the show and I hope you have a good rest of your week, sir.
Chris: Fantastic. Thank you very much.