Introducing Allison Smith
Allison is a journalist turned marketer who transforms tech talk into irresistible stories. An avid reader, she has a penchant for books, chocolate, and content first design.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is Episode 117.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by Allison Smith. Allison is a journalist turned marketer who transformed tech talk into irresistible stories. An avid reader, she has a penchant for books, chocolate, and content first design. Welcome, Allison.
Allison: Thank you. And thank you so much for having me on. I am excited.
Tara: We are excited too. Thanks for joining us. Allison, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit of your story about yourself.
Allison: So journalist turned marketer, that happened about six years ago. Before that, I had had a lot of experience in community journalism up here in Canada in the Ontario Niagara area, if you’ve ever been here. I wrote about everything from the economy, to my city council, to sports and pretty much everything you find a newspaper, took the photos, laid out the paper, and every Monday got it out. That was fantastic for a few years.
Then I kind of found myself out of work and jumped around doing a few stints and various gigs. Through serendipity and meeting a bunch of people in my local co-working community, I made the transition to copywriting and marketing. Since then, I’ve found a real passion for helping tech-focused businesses and manufacturers. Because they have amazing stories and they’re so very passionate about what they do, but sometimes I think they have trouble themselves and talking about themselves and marketing themselves. So I love helping them. That’s me.
Tara: It’s really interesting. I think a lot of people have trouble marketing themselves. Do you find that problem for yourself? Because it’s sometimes easy to market other people but how about yourself. What do you do to market yourself? Do you set a good example?
Allison: Oh, for myself, I find it difficult too. Talking about my clients and talking about how passionate I am about what I do is easy because you’re telling a story, you’re focusing on somebody else. But the minute I’m asked to give like an elevator speech or any kind of bio…right now I’m in the final stages of writing my own website and it’s a special kind of torture I think for everyone – even for marketers.
Tara: Making your own website?
Allison: Yeah. You just do the best you can. I think the key is more to focus on your audience and that one person you want to talk to, like your ideal client, rather than yourself if you’re nervous. It’s really about having a conversation. Marketing should really be about two people, maybe more, in a conversation, right? That’s kind of what I tell myself is that it’s a two-way street.
Tara: Do you find yourself laboring over what you’re writing on your own website whereas probably you felt like it was clients who labor over it on their own content. Talk a little bit about your process and your perfectionism or how you…it sounds like you struggled to get your website out. Was it perfectionism getting in the way or other work getting in the way? What made that a more challenging process for you?
Allison: Probably both. Because you as a business owner, you’re trying to balance everything. You’re trying to balance client work, networking, admin stuff – everything is on your plate all at once – and somewhere in there trying to see your family and have a life. Part of that is I guess really forcing myself to see myself as other people see me. That can get difficult.
So the way I overcame that was to start asking around and saying like, “Okay, how would you describe me in three words?” As uncomfortable as it sometimes is, it’s sometimes about talking to your clients and saying, “What did you find that was unique to me? Why did you hire me? What pain points do I solve for you? How was I able to help you?” Those types of questions really illuminate where to focus on and where your talents lie, and how you bring value.
That’s really what clients want to know is that, how are you going to bring value to my business and how are you going to help me? What will be different than the way it is now, the way it was before? How do you want people to feel when they interact with you?
Tara: Those client’s questions it’s a really great suggestion. And I think there’s a lot of fear in doing that because number one you don’t want to bother people. You know, people don’t want to take the time to have a conversation like that. It’s hard to ask that. And then I guess maybe we are afraid to hear what they’re going to say? Maybe they won’t come up with something. When you present that idea to your clients for them to ask their clients, what kind of reaction do you get? Are they all for it?
Allison: They’re sometimes leery because they’ve been in various stages of actually asking their clients or they have probably the same fears I do. Like, how do we approach them without bothering them? I think it’s a common thing in business. Everybody wants to know, how am I doing? And then getting those answers is kind of an unknown, right? It’s a question mark until you have the conversation.
So ideas I’ve seen come up include doing something small for them even if it’s inviting them to lunch, or coffee, or if you’re able to give a discount or something. It really kind of opens up the lines of communication. Testimonials they’re expected. You kind of want to see those on a website. So getting them is important.
What I found is especially effective…because people they get these email requests, and they’re like, “I don’t have time for this. I’ll do it next week.” And then that next week never comes. So I tend to write something up for them and say, “Is this what you would have said?” And kind of check it with them and say, “I took the liberty of writing a little something for you. Does this sound good?” So totally saying, “You totally don’t have to, we don’t have to use this if it’s not what you would have thought or feel free to make changes or even feel free to back out, no worries.” Most of the time, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, thanks for doing that. Go to it.”
The real, like, the real hump, I find is the actual writing for them. They dread coming up with words in a testimonial. Because either they think they don’t have anything valuable to say or they’re like, “Well, you did this thing for us, what do you want me to say?” type thing. Luckily, I’ve gotten better at doing that. It’s a really weird feeling to ghostwrite testimonials for people to put on your own website. I don’t think that ever goes away but you just do it because it’s like…
Liam: Yeah, it probably gets easier.
Allison: It’s part of the sausage making process.
Liam: Allison, how do you look for clients? How do you do your business development?
Allison: I get sometimes referrals. I’ve also joined a co-working space in my local area and that’s been huge for building relationships. Stuff takes time, and honestly getting clients has been one of my major stumbling blocks. What I found most effective is thinking outside the box. Because I’m a freelancer…I don’t really want to say freelancer, but because I consult, I’m small. I am a one-woman company. So I don’t have a huge marketing budget. But what really works is face networking. So going to business and industry events where my I target clients are, going to Business After Five for my Chamber of Commerce.
Today I went to this economic development speech in my local area here in Niagara, and interestingly enough, some of those people are kind of connector people, and they’re just interesting people to keep in contact with because they know what’s going on in the region and they’re apparently more than willing to admit they know you and maybe connect you with somebody.
Somebody suggested today since some of my clients are manufacturing people, they said, “Go to our local Industrial Association meeting. So really targeted groups like that. Go to a meeting of software people and developers if you want to get in with them and do things for other people and say like, ‘What small thing can I do for this person today?'” Not that I like to be transactional about it, but sometimes it’s just good to get outside of my own head and say like, “If things aren’t going really well, what happiness can I bring to others? What can I do for them on Twitter? What mentions can I give them?” Because everybody’s kind of in the same boat, it goes around and comes around.
Liam: You certainly have given a lot of yourself recently. You and I met each other through WordCamp Niagara, which was in October, and you were one of two organizers for the WordCamp.
Liam: Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with WordPress in your journey to putting together a WordCamp. Talk about that.
Allison: Well, when I first started my business, I built cobbled together a WordPress website. That was probably in like 2014, so five years ago. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes with WordPress. The community and the CMS has really progressed in that time, and they’re constantly evolving.
One of my main things has been to be involved in communities. I especially love tech communities. They’re just so fascinating. So when I found a local meetup group for WordPress in Niagara, I started to really buy into it and I started to participate. And then I found there are WordCamp in Hamilton, and there’s a WordCamp in Rochester. I went to a couple of those. And then last year I spoke at Hamilton.
For the past two years, I’ve co-organized our WordCamp here in Niagara. And it’s just a fantastic way to meet people and kind of that camaraderie in that solidarity with the community I find is energizing and recharging. Organizing is just a rush. It’s fun being on the inside. And it’s an amazing way to give back.
Liam: Yeah, it certainly is. Tara, did you have something to add?
Tara: I was just going to say that I have not organized a WordCamp before. I’ve only volunteered. So I can only imagine how much work it is. But it’s nice to hear that is also a rush. I was actually going to ask you about success, because we like to talk about that on the show, and it’s always interesting to hear how people define it. So can you tell us how you define success, Allison? Whether it is a combination of professional and personal one or the other, whatever you’d like to share. What does success mean to you?
Allison: To me, it’s always meant making enough money to support myself and live a comfortable life. Not even a diva-like life. Just enough money to live comfortably. Do some traveling definitely. I’d love to do some traveling to the States or Europe. I’m always watching the WordCamp wrap-ups, and they always have these amazing pictures of a WordCamp US and WordCamps all over the world. That’s really opened my eyes to the fact that I would like to do that. And being successful enough to consistently give back whether that’s contributing time or donating some money to my community.
Also I’ve realized that I really like organizing in that I get to help other people be successful. I get to put them on stage as speakers. I get to introduce them to the WordPress community, I get them to find out what this WordPress thing is all about become volunteers. I get to send them an email saying, “We’ve accepted your speaker application,” and watch them grow from that. That really is success to me.
Liam: I like the community focus of that, the giving back, the some level of, you know, I’ve got to live I want to see the world a little bit. But it’s much more about doing so in a holistic way. That’s very kind of you.
Allison: I really like to be engaged and working towards a common purpose. I love working on teams. I’m an introvert, but I like being part of a team. That’s one of my big things is that I’m in marketing and marketing sometimes gets a bad rap for being just like take, take, take and not thinking like, okay, what’s the other side of that? What do we actually do for our customers? And how do we bring value and how do you really bring value as a human, like human to human? That’s really what it’s all about.
Tara: That’s interesting that when you say that marketing gets a bad rap. I don’t know. I mean, I think selling can be overdone. Maybe that’s where that comes from. I’m not quite sure. But most of us who are probably listening to this podcast are marketing, whether we’re actually calling ourselves marketers, or we’re building websites for people are developing websites. We’re all doing things to help other people make money ultimately. Whether it’s a donation to a nonprofit or a big company. So that’s what makes the world go round to a certain degree. I think it gets a bad rap because sometimes it’s not done in a very admirable way maybe. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not ethical. So maybe that’s where that comes from. But I think in general, marketing’s a good thing.
Allison: Totally. And there are so many people who do it right. Those are the people I truly look up to. A lot of them are in the WordPress community. It’s just fantastic to see that, “Look, you can run a business and market ethically.” Part of what people like to support nowadays is people who have, like, they somehow integrate some type of like social good or values or values are kind of like the front feature of their business, right? They live them every day. Those are the people I like to look up to and support. That’s what I love about the WordPress community is that we all kind of support each other.
Tara: Yes, we do, that’s for sure.
Liam: I’m going to ask maybe a challenging question. When you find yourself with a client who you’ve got a good relationship, you’re working with, you enjoy them, they enjoy your company, not buddy, buddy, but just they’re nice people you like working with them, they pay your bills, you enjoy writing for them, have you run into a situation where they want to do something that kind of maybe puts the ethical hair on the back your neck up a little bit? And if so, how did you handle that?
Allison: That is interesting.
Liam: I don’t really know what ethical hair on the back of your neck is. That was kind of a weird little analogy. Sorry.
Allison: Yeah, no worries. I think for me, since I’ve been in journalism, and this is like part of the crux of what I’ve always dealt with, is that you can make a lot of money if you don’t have any scruples about the stuff. And I have major scruples about this stuff. So it’s like finding the clients out there that I get good vibes about and then having a conversation about what I can do for them.
In the tech and manufacturing world, I think it’s really about establishing expectations with prospects and customers and everything and being proud of your products and services but not overselling them and being authentic and honest. Authentic is a cliché for a reason. There’s a reason like everybody wants to say, “I’m authentic,” because it’s one of the major things people value about people they do business with today. They need that authenticity.
I think part of our duty as marketers is to make sure that that happens. Ethics and authenticity and all that good stuff are huge questions, and how do we keep that at the forefront, how do we balance and even promote that in terms of…like, how do we help the good guys win has always been like a question in my mind.
Liam: and that can be a challenge if the business is struggling, right? It’s all well and good and easy to say we’re going to always do the right thing when we have money in the bank. But when we’re behind on bills…not to say that we shouldn’t do the right thing when money’s low but it becomes a lot harder, especially if maybe it is a manufacturing company and they’ve got 35 or 100 employees who need that bi-weekly or fortnightly paycheck to pay the rent, to pay the mortgage, to pay the food. It’s a challenge. It really is.
Allison: And I think if somebody wanted to make some claim on their website that I knew wasn’t totally accurate, I’d have to caution them against that. I have to say, “In my professional opinion…” I’d have to find a way to template it and say, like, “People are going to find out, and they’re going to be pissed off. They will be mad.”
Tara: Yeah, you have to.
Allison: This is always, always, always one of the pillars of public relations is that you don’t want to try to outrun the truth. Especially in the age of social media, it just doesn’t work anymore. There’s so much more scrutiny and so many more ways to find out what companies are up to today. I’d say don’t bother, just be honest, and be transparent.
Tara: If you have to try to be authentic, you’re probably not really being authentic, right?
Allison: Yeah. And don’t compare yourself because a lot of what’s out there on social media is I expect at the very least stretching the truth.
Liam: I think I’d agree with you on that.
Allison: Don’t compare your returns or your success to what you see on social media. I mean, I’ve done it before. I’ve fallen for it, but you just have to keep in mind that, like, how accurate is that stuff?
Liam: I love the line “Don’t try to outrun the truth.” That’s a great bit of advice. And with that backdrop, I want to ask you about advice. I wonder if you can share with us the best advice that you’ve ever received or been given or read and successfully implemented in your life. It might be something someone said to you, maybe something you read.
Allison: This is a work in progress. But some of the best advice I’ve ever received is from…She’s like a business coach. She does all kinds of cool things in our community. Her name is Ruth Unruh. I’ve seen her speak so many times in the past five years, and I know her pretty well. One of the things that she said that has really stuck out for me is not to make fear-based decisions. Because so many of the decisions that get made in business and personally are fear-based.
Fear is a really powerful thing. That is at the core of so many of the things people do – fear and anxiety – and it can cause like so many problems whether is just kind of hanging back and holding yourself back or doing things or saying things that you wouldn’t necessarily do or say on your best days and in your best situations. It’s a death knell for business. I think it’s a lot more prevalent than people want to admit. So fear-based decisions.
Tara: I think I was going to challenge that but then I actually want to come at it from a different direction, not necessarily fear-based decisions, but not avoiding things that scare you. Those are two different things. I think if you avoided fear in general, you would never do anything because we all start something new or do things that we’re afraid of. So I just want to say that I understand what you’re saying about not making a decision based on fear, like not doing something because you’re afraid of something bad happening, but also not doing some because you’re afraid to do it as well. Right?
Allison: Yeah. Which famous lady said, do something that scares you every day? I’m blanking on it right now. But that’s another piece of advice I’m trying to live up to and something I’m trying to do that’s pretty new. Every day is pretty big.
Tara: Yeah. Well, I’m being involved in WordCamps, probably talked to a lot of people who are speaking for the first time. You know, everybody gets afraid before they speak in front of an audience or most people do I think so. So you must have to share advice with people about overcoming their fears as well.
Allison: I did it for the first time in Hamilton in 2018. And seeing your name on that placard is a new experience when you haven’t done that before. When you see your name on there, it’s like, “Well, I can’t back out now without some medical emergency or everybody knowing that I just didn’t.” At that point, it’s like, “Well I’m here in my solar my slides and so are these people. So guess what? It’s time to get up there.”
The WordPress community is so patient and forgiving I find with new speakers. That’s another reason I love it is that they’re very kind. It’s a challenge, but I think a lot of the challenge was within myself.
Tara: Were you pleased with how it went? Did you feel fine afterwards?
Allison: Yeah, totally fine. I mean, better than I would have if I had kind of said, “On second thought let me just sit down here and watch somebody else do it.” I really came from watching other people do it and be okay. Be like, “Well, I think you should do it and it’ll be okay.”
Tara: Yeah, you will be. You mentioned your…
Liam: Tara just muted herself, so I’ll jump in.
Tara: Sorry, my finger hit the mouse there.
Allison: No worries.
Tara: Go ahead, Liam. Pick it up where I was muted.
Liam: I was mostly just going to start talking so we had a conversation. Let me just start over again. Do you want to do a little sound clap? We got about two minutes and 15 seconds left.
Tara: Just keep quiet for a moment.
Liam: Allison, I’ve been fortunate enough to be up in your corner of the world on location and it’s a really lovely little corner of the world, and it makes me wonder what do you do when you’re not writing copy or organizing a WordCamp or attending networking events? What do you do outside of your office?
Allison: When I’m not at my desk or running haphazardly all over the place organizing, I really like to grab my camera and go for a hike or go to a local event and take some pictures. Photography is another one of my passion. I really love just snapping some shots. Just spontaneously saying, “What’s going on this weekend?” and then going to those things. I really love just the community aspect of doing that.
Liam: It sounds like you go places where people are and watch – in a good way, in a supportive way. Sorry, that came out wrong.
Allison: I know what you’re saying. I love people watching. People are so interesting. And it’s a great way to get ideas. It’s a great way to remember that we’re all human. Overhearing conversations is…I just had a discussion with somebody about this last night. You’ll hear the funniest things if you just listen or curious about the world and other people, and ask questions. If you’re interested in other people, they’ll probably eventually take an interest in you. I mean, you remember that outside of your internal mental voice or bubble that we’re really not all that different from each other when it comes down to it.
Tara: Thank you for sharing that. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks for sharing all of this. Do you use Instagram or some other platform for these photos that you take?
Allison: Instagram, sometimes. Lately, I’ve been posting them to Flickr. I posted our WordCamp photos to Flickr. Instagram has been a big one for me. I actually split up the Instagram account I had, because I would take my weekend photos and then go to work and be like, “Business Allison, here’s some advice on content.” I was maybe confusing people a little bit so I created a second Instagram account just for my…here’s my community stuff and followed all different people. It’s really interesting the identity you can take online, like, “Here’s weekend Allison and here’s social Allison.”
Tara: Well on that note, Allison, we’re going to wrap up today. I’m sorry we’re out of time. But we always end by asking people to share where they can be found. So we’ve already started that conversation here. Where can people find you online?
Allison: They can find me on Instagram @aesmithcontent. The same on twitter @aesmithcontent on there. My website is under construction right now. It’s almost done. It’s at aesmithcontent.com.
Tara: Great. Thanks for joining us. It’s a pleasure to meet you and have a conversation with another Canadian. Thanks for having me.
Liam: Thanks for joining us today, Allison. It’s been an absolute pleasure catching up with you and getting to know you a little bit more.
Allison: I was really honored to have you say, “Hey, let’s do a Hallway Chat.”
Liam: It’s all our honor, all our privilege. Thank you.
Tara: Thanks, Allison. Bye.
Allison: Thank you.
Liam: Thanks for listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.