Cheryl McCants, Founder and CEO of Impact Consulting Enterprises (East Orange, NJ), took her journalism background and founded Impact, a communications/marketing/digital company. In today’s interview, she explains how “story” works as the foundation for an effective marketing campaign, why it is important to be mindful of industry trends and be ready to leverage experience to diversify into new customer populations, and the critical difference between a news release and a press release.
Cheryl provides a clear path for creating and communicating a client’s story:
- Consult with client to identify the ideal customer and clarify the story that needs to be told to this target audience,
- Develop an integrated cross-channel promotional strategy,
- Research the market, the business environment, the client company, competitors, and customers,
- Build a memorable story that resonates with the ideal customer at a psychological and emotional level, and
- Implement the campaign, keeping in mind the communication preferences of the ideal customer and potential cross-channel synergies
Impact Consulting Enterprises is a sponsor of New York and New Jersey Minority Supplier Development Council’s Business Opportunity Exchange (June 12-13, 2018).
Cheryl can be reached by phone at 973.337.2028, through the company website at www.eimpactconsulting.com, on Twitter: @icebranding, on Facebook at Impact Consulting Enterprises., and on LinkedIn (Cheryl McCants), where, writing under a pseudonym, your Marketing Mama, she provides marketing tips. http://www.eimpactconsulting.com/success-blog/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Cheryl McCants, Founder and CEO of Impact Consulting Enterprises, based in East Orange, New Jersey. Welcome, Cheryl.
CHERYL: Hi, thanks for having me.
ROB: Thanks for coming on. It’s great to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Impact Consulting Enterprises and what the company is great at?
CHERYL: Absolutely love to. Impact Consulting Enterprises is a communications company, a marketing company, a digital strategy company. At the end of the day, what we do is tell stories. We work with words.
We work with clients, whether they are foundations, nonprofits, Fortune 100, Fortune 500, or even individuals, who have untold stories or who have information that needs to be shared with people and they don’t quite know how to get it out. Sometimes we help them with public relations support, sometimes we help them with public speaking, sometimes we help them with video content creation, with their social media, any combination of the things that I mentioned there.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about making sure that your story is told in a way that connects and resonates with people so that they wind up either buying your product, supporting your cause, liking your campaign. Whatever that call to action is, we want to make sure that we help people get their stories told.
ROB: Fantastic. How often when you’re talking to someone do they realize that they have an untold story and they need you? Or, how often are you also helping them realize the stories that they haven’t told yet?
CHERYL: Most of the time people come to us because they believe they know what the story is that needs to be told, and then, most of the time, we wind up working with them to say “That’s not really the story to tell. Here’s the story that needs to be told.” So I would say they both go hand in hand.
ROB: What’s the process look like of figuring out what the right story is? How do you step through that?
CHERYL: It’s a combination of approaches. We generally start off with a strategy session, a kickoff session. We conduct a research audit. We look at competitors, we speak to our clients’ clients, our clients’ customers, our clients’ team to really make sure that we understand what it is they’re attempting to communicate.
Myself, as well as all of the writers on my team are former journalists, so we all have the background of investigative reporting. When we work with a client to help them identify the story that needs to be told, we really do our due diligence and look at competitive information. We look at market research. We talk to others in and around the space where a particular client is engaged so that we can then give them information that might not otherwise be so readily available to them.
ROB: Got it. With that background in journalism, it sounds like you’re not only able to help them figure out the story they need to tell, but you’re actually digging in—as one would report. You’re going in deep. What are the ingredients of a great story, then? What should we think about there?
CHERYL: I used to work on an assignment desk for a local television station in New York City and was also a producer for MSNBC News for a short stint. At that time we would say “fire and babies always make the news because it’s great video.” Not that we want people to have their businesses burn and not that we want to have everybody be in a stage of infancy, but it has to be compelling.
So the ingredients of any good story are that it has an emotional connection with the target audience, that it resonates with the ideal customer at more than a psychological level, but it resonates with them emotionally. At the end of the day, people do business with people they like, trust, and care about. We need to make sure that the story has some meat behind it, that it has an emotional connection with the ideal customer, and that it’s memorable as well.
ROB: Wow, that’s a lot to think about. You know your stuff there. What led you to strike out on your own and decide to start a company instead of maybe pursuing things further on the news side of the world or things more on the corporate side of marketing? How did you come to this decision?
CHERYL: It was through a variety of ways. I will say that, as a graduate of Brown University, I was expected by my mother to work in corporate America. That was why she sent me to the high school that I went to. That’s why she supported my Ivy League education.
However, I am proud to say that, as with most folks out of Brown, we have an entrepreneurial spirit. I did initially start working in corporate America; I very soon and early on learned that my heart was really in line with working for myself. I met a woman named Deb Wattrin [sp] from Talladega, Alabama. I will never forget Deb. She had her own business, and she encouraged me to open up my own.
I found that being an entrepreneur was exciting, it was challenging, and it’s in my blood. I have since then—as most entrepreneurs do—I have succeeded, I have failed. I worked back in corporate America after having my business for about 10 years. I worked with some iconic brands like AT&T and Nike and Girl Scouts and National Urban League, and then realized that my heart, after some soul-searching, is really in the entrepreneurial space.
So here we are again, 30-something years in business, and loving what we do. I love to tell stories. So that’s why we’re here.
ROB: In that time, I’m sure a lot has changed. How have you managed to adapt the business? Interestingly, you say even early on, that video is what helped tell stories in television. In some ways things have almost come full circle for you. Video is now one of the hottest things in digital marketing. But how has the business changed over that time, and how have you adapted it to be able to survive and thrive?
CHERYL: You’re absolutely correct. Life is cyclical. The world truly is round, and despite the naysayers, things come back full circle. I think the key to being able to adapt to change is being nimble and being open to ideas that are not your own.
One of the things that I would say makes Impact successful, and therefore makes me, as the leader of Impact, successful is listening to old and new ideas and being open and receptive to change. When I first started Impact, our primary targets were regional Bell operating companies, and we worked with them. Then, when I had to close my business because RBOCs don’t exist anymore, I worked for AT&T.
While there, I helped launch what we called then the information superhighway. Ironically enough, the internet, which is the shortened name for the information superhighway, is now one of the primary vehicles that we use to tell our stories, whether it is writing (we now do a lot of blog writing), whether it’s the websites that we design for customers or clients, whether it is the digital marketing campaigns that we create, whether it’s the videos that we create.
And now you have to make sure that all of the content—which is still the same content that we’ve always created, but it now uses multiple channels. It all has to be internet-compatible or web-based. So we’ve been able to continue to thrive and excel because of our receptiveness to diversity.
ROB: It’s maybe hard for some people listening to remember, but when the internet arrived—right now digital marketing is this miasma of different channels and complexity. When it arrived, it was one marketing channel, if you even had a website. It’s hard for me, even, to think about that transition and how we slowly came to this huge complexity of pay-per-click and SEO and the site and content marketing and email marketing. It’s quite a ride.
CHERYL: Absolutely. The circle is completing itself, because most fully-integrated successful campaigns also have a snail mail component to them, or they have a printed document component to them.
For example, one of our clients is the New York and New Jersey Minority Supplier Development Council, and we are working with them. We are their agency of record. We manage their website, their marketing materials, their public relations support. The reason we manage all of those entities is because you have to be fully integrated. We’re in the process now—Impact is a sponsor of their Business Opportunity Exchange. It’s coming up June 12th.
Through that marketing initiate, we are doing online digital marketing support for them, we’re doing social media support for them. We’re also responsible for creating and designing all of the printed collateral, because in order to have a fully integrated campaign, in order to tell a true story, you have to touch (as you mentioned) all of the different channels.
ROB: Do you think that print and direct mail may even be an underleveraged marketing channel today?
CHERYL: I think that they definitely might be underleveraged because of the cost associated with them. People find that it is less expensive to use the internet than it is to actually print a piece.
However, I would suggest that dependent upon who your ideal customer is and who your client is that you’re going after, they might be on multiple modes of communication—or they might only be responding to what they see in a magazine or in a newspaper. You have to really do your due diligence, understand your ideal customer, and then connect with her wherever she is.
ROB: That’s really fascinating. It might almost be shocking to a potential customer to actually receive something in their snail mail that’s relevant, because most of what we get there is very wide-net, very top-of-funnel bulk mail.
We know a number of folks over at MailChimp, the email marketing company. They’re pursuing a direct mail integration with MailChimp to where you can even imagine sending direct mail to someone who opened your email campaign, somebody who clicked on your email campaign. It’s this weird offline marketing automation thing. Is that a good future for us?
CHERYL: It makes sense. We use a different email marketing provider as our backend, but regardless of whether you’re using MailChimp, Constant Contact, Infusionsoft—whomever it is you’re using, I think that any smart marketer knows that you need to find a way to rise above your competitors. So if you’ve noticed somebody has engaged, then you want to continue to engage with them.
I think, in the marketing world, there’s a lot of confusion about what really matters from a digital marketing perspective. Sometimes people focus on the wrong metrics.
I also think that it’s extremely important for people to understand that marketing is extremely measurable, and the ROI (the return on investment) is easy to calculate because, in a digital space, you can see whether or not people are responding. Then if you add some good old-fashioned direct mail and phone calls, you then can determine the level of engagement.
I would say it’s not about how many likes you have; it’s about how many shares you have. It’s not about how many followers you have; it’s about how many click-throughs and what your engagement is. From a fully integrated marketing perspective—I call them news releases. It’s not about a press release because we don’t really want press. We want to be newsworthy. We want to be something that people care about. We don’t just want to toot our own horn. We want to connect with our customers. It’s really about engaging.
ROB: I love it. You answered my next question, which was going to be that people focus on the wrong metrics. You’ve given us some great analogies of what the right metrics are. I think you’ve drawn a really interesting distinction here between a news release and a press release. How should people think about getting that information out there?
I think the default temptation is you go to do your press release, and then you see five upsells for ways that you can blast that press release out to more places, where it probably is still going to be shouting in the wilderness and not really echo or resonate. How should people think about making a better news release, and not just this boring “I followed a template for a press release and I put it out on a wire service”?
CHERYL: Rob, I would be remiss if I didn’t say the first thing they should do is think about engaging Impact Consulting Enterprises. [laughs] I have to put my own plug in there.
ROB: Gotta plug, yes, absolutely.
CHERYL: In seriousness, though, I just had a conversation earlier today with a potential client who said to me, “We want to issue a press release. Can you issue a press release and get us on XYZ network?”
What I explained to him was that a press release does not get you news pickup and news coverage. While it will show up on a variety of platforms because of contractual engagements between online news release outlets and other media outlets, good old-fashioned phone calls and relationships is what is required in order to connect with the assignment desk editor, in order to connect with the producer, in order to connect with the reporter.
That’s why relationship building, relationship maintaining, and ensuring that you have a publicist or PR rep like Impact—we have connections in the news space. So the difference between a news release and a press release is not just the content that’s on the document, but the relationship of the person making the phone call to the person that’s going to have to answer the phone.
[Phone rings in background]
ROB: Speaking of which. [laughs]
CHERYL: Sorry about that. That was not intentional. [laughs]
ROB: It was very timely, though. We’ve got to leave that in.
I think you make tremendous points there about those relationships. I think sometimes either the interesting story or the timeliness of the message is also key. We’ve been privileged a couple of times to be able to show up on TV and talk about some pressing things in the news, particularly around Facebook and election and data and all that stuff.
It really came down to relationship. It came down to one of our key investors having a relationship with the journalist, and the timeliness of the message, and the quality. It really takes that storm of things. I think it would be easy for an entrepreneur or a business to underestimate the effort it takes to sustain those relationships in the press.
CHERYL: You’re absolutely correct. Lots of times, individuals—whether they are the presidents/CEOs of organizations, whether they are solopreneurs, whether they are middle management—do very often underestimate the fact that you have to be timely, you have to be newsworthy, and you have to have a relationship. Without those three in full alignment, you don’t get picked up.
ROB: Because you have more stories to tell, is that part of what helps you keep a relationship? You have more reasons to be on their radar in a relevant way than maybe one company can normally generate on their own.
CHERYL: It is partly that. I want to say, however, I have a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Grad School of Journalism. One of the reasons I went to journalism school was to understand the processes and to understand the journalist’s job. That also helped me gain respect from my colleagues as well as have more respect for the industry.
I was, as I mentioned, in the news space for a while, and that was to help me better understand and be a better PR person. As a result, I know what’s newsworthy. My team knows what’s newsworthy. My Vice President of Communications herself was an anchor for a news outlet out on the West Coast for several years. So the benefit that we have, and one of the reasons that people do respond, is we do not send press releases that are irrelevant to be picked up. Folks know that if they hear from someone from Impact Consulting Enterprises, it is timely, it is newsworthy.
That’s also an agreement that we reach with our clients. We have the first right of refusal to say “This is not newsworthy. We’re not going to burn a bridge. Understand that.” But there are other ways to get the message out, and that’s where social media comes in, and different platforms. There are different kinds of stories, and some stories are for just press and not necessarily for news pickup.
We have the blessings, I would say—I have a fabulous team, and I am so blessed that everyone on the team understands and respects everybody else’s expertise. Similarly, when we are reaching out to media folks, they know that we respect what they do. I don’t want to waste their time, and they don’t want to have their time wasted either.
ROB: I think there’s in some cases a natural cynicism or this disrespect towards “old school” media—until you need it. You’ve actually highlighted something that is critical across every marketing channel anyhow, but we just forget sometimes.
You said respect and empathy. Respecting and having empathy for anyone that you want to work with is just so critical. So thank you for highlighting that, in particular when we’re looking at the PR side of the world. I think it’s easily lost.
Cheryl, what are some things you’ve learned from your experience in building Impact that you would do differently next time?
CHERYL: Wow, that’s a good question, Rob. I can tell you one thing that I did learn that we did do differently—as I mentioned, when Impact first was launched back in 1989, 90% of our customer base consisted of regional Bell operating companies. They don’t exist. Impact kind of went away. We had one client, Cheryl got a job to help support the business.
So what I would say to other folks is—not that you don’t need to specialize in a particular area, but just as we look at what’s happening in the industry for our clients and our customers, you need to look at what’s happening in the industry that you’re specializing in.
The thing that I missed—and I’ll take responsibility; I’m the founder and CEO—the thing that I missed was the fact that Ma Bell was going away and breaking up, and that meant that we needed to do something differently. That meant that we should have had a pipeline that allowed us to pursue other areas.
Lots of times business advisors will say “you never want to have more than 50% of your business come from one customer.” That’s kind of a challenge when you’re just getting started. However, what you should always do is be mindful of the trends that are taking place in the industry that you specialize in, and be prepared to move in a different direction should the requirement exist. So that would be one thing I would say.
ROB: That is such an interesting dynamic. I think, again, that may be lost on some people listening. You had these regional telecommunications companies—the people that hook up your home phone—that were split into regional non-monopolies, but still local monopolies, by the federal government. But then there was this period of consolidation.
What was the timeline of that consolidation, for folks who don’t remember? How long did it take from when they first started getting snapped up to when the writing was on the wall and you could see, “these aren’t going to be our customers anymore”?
CHERYL: I would say in the late ’80s is when regional Bell operating companies or GTE Telops or various local phone companies were thriving. Then it was around the mid ’90s when they started consolidating, which then leads us to the mid to late ’90s when the internet started to come out. We’re looking at technology. We’re looking at how we communicate.
We were dispersed. We then went to full force, full throttle with the internet, and now if you look at where we have landed, we’ve got the current potential merger—the third and fourth largest long distance companies are looking to merge, to be able to compete from a mobile perspective against the AT&Ts and Verizons that are out there. So we’re kind of going back to having one or two folks in charge of everything. We’ve got the internet, and there’s the possibility of net neutrality being removed.
Everything is moving around in a very sine wave fashion. I would say that from the ’80s to the ’90s to the 2000s to the 2020s, we’re just doing the same old thing to a different beat.
ROB: It’s remarkable now for you to have the perspective on that. You saw the lesson, but you also to an extent learned the lesson. I think the first time around when you see those customers getting bought up, there’s not so many of them, the people who bought them may not want to do business with you the same way that the Baby Bells used to want to—there’s probably still, for many of us, a temptation to cling onto the past and say “that customer’s not there anymore, but I still have these other customers.” It sounds like you’ve got a much better lens on that. You won’t get fooled again.
CHERYL: Right. We won’t get fooled again. What we’ve been able to do is leverage our experience. We’ve done work with one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world with their internal communications team. That gave us some pharma experience. It also leveraged our internal corporate communications experience.
We’ve done work with supplier development councils. That gives us insight into the world of diversity and supplier diversity.
And we’ve done some work with foundations. We did a lot of work with the city of Newark. I am proud to say that Impact was extremely pivotal in telling Newark, New Jersey’s stories about revitalization and about all of the development opportunities that still are taking place within the city of Newark, New Jersey over the past 3-5 years.
The thing that is the common thread through all of that is the ability to tell the story that people want to hear, and to tell it in a way that they will listen and engage.
ROB: What a rich discussion. What a tremendous amount of wisdom you bring, Cheryl. When someone wants to get in touch with you and with Impact Consulting Enterprises, how should they find you?
CHERYL: Well, I’m so glad you asked, Rob. [laughs] Anyone who is interested in connecting with Impact Consulting Enterprises can call us directly at (973) 337-2028. They can also find us on the internet, or the information superhighway, at www.eimpactconsulting.com.
I would also strongly suggest that anyone who is interested in staying current with tips around business marketing, staying current with information or suggestions and guidance around how to implement and maintain successful integrated marketing communication campaigns, look at our social media platforms. You can find us on Twitter @icebranding. You can find us on Facebook at Impact Consulting Enterprises.
You can also go to LinkedIn. You can look me up, Cheryl McCants. You’ll find our page there. I have a pseudo name, your Marketing Mama. Marketing Mama provides tips for folks, because I also believe that a true leader shares what she knows with others, and that as one individual gets better, as long as we share that, the community grows. I know it’s going to sound corny, but we make the world a better place.
Our core values are to put clients first, to give back, to do the right thing, and to lead with creative ideas. We tell stories that make people feel good about where they are and better about where they’re going. So look us up! eimpactconsulting.com
ROB: I love it. It’s clear within the conversation, you know the stories you want to tell. You know the information; you’ve got it tight and ready. You’re certainly living out what you show your clients as well.
Thank you so much, Cheryl, for coming on. A special thanks to Cara Scharf from Fearless Media for this introduction and connecting us to Cheryl. We love those recommendations. You’ve been a great guest, Cheryl. Thank you.
CHERYL: Thank you.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.