Natalie Jackson: Spotlight on the Expert

Natalie Jackson tells us about her start in creative writing and magazine publishing, and about the role of thought leadership in her professional development.

Natalie Jackson: Spotlight on the Expert

Our “Spotlight on the expert” series digs deeper into the stories of our expert contributors. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When email expert Natalie Jackson took the leap from publishing into marketing technology, she took advantage of the professional thought leadership available to her in Kansas City, Missouri. (She also told us she was an early MarTech subscriber.) Now, she’s a valuable contributor to MarTech and a frequent speaker at in-person and virtual events, including recently at The MarTech Conference. Her story could be taken from the pages of a novel, like the many she reads, and also writes, in her free time.

Q: You have extensive career experience in email marketing, content and B2B strategy. What was the first step that got you on that track? What sparked your interest in martech?

A: I have kind of a fun career journey. I actually have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. So, I went to graduate school with the idea that I would be a novelist and that I would probably wind up teaching English and/or writing, and that would be my career trajectory. What is interesting is that I finished graduate school at the very bottom of the recession in 2010, and it was a time in which not only could you not get an interview, but also there was nothing even to apply to. Job boards were empty, there was nothing there. 

After months and months of scouring job boards, there was a position open as an editorial assistant for a magazine. And I knew I could write, so I figured I could write content for magazines. But it was like an unpaid editorial assistant, literally like an internship.

Q: It’s so difficult to take a position like that unless you have the resources to do it.

A: I was working at a steakhouse — that was my primary income. I had to get something on my resume. So I took the unpaid editorial position at the magazine, and they actually really liked me, so they expanded the position. One of my primary jobs was to review all the incoming press releases from these companies. There were actually two publications by this media group — a business magazine and a lifestyle magazine. And so my job was to cull through the inundation of daily press releases, pitches, people saying there’s this cool thing happening. And what struck me was how few people really understood what the story was. Talk about burying the lead! They would think the press release should be about the opening of a new office, which nobody really cares about. But what actually was the story was buried four paragraphs deep, about this amazing new innovation that had sparked this tremendous company growth and it was propelling them to hire 10,000 more people or something. And you’re thinking, “That’s the story!”

Obviously, I couldn’t survive as a minimally-paid assistant — I went from an unpaid to a minimally-paid editorial assistant. [Laughs.] One of the executive editors at the media group knew of a nonprofit that was looking for a communications person. So I went to work at this nonprofit where I was literally one of four employees. I ran all the press releases, grants, email marketing, website and social. And that was really my introduction to marketing. This then led to another job at a small technology company, in Kansas City, where they hired me as a writer. Within three months, I think, everyone in the marketing department had taken a new position or gone somewhere else. And we had just gone through the implementation of a marketing automation platform. This was around 2012, and we were one of the initial Act-On clients. When everyone in marketing left, my company asked if I could learn email, and also HTML and also SEO. [Laughs.] Can you run our website and learn our email program, and basically run this whole thing? Can you figure it out? I told them sure, I guess I could.

Q: How did you go about learning email?

A: It turned out email marketing expert Jessica Best is also in Kansas City, and she used to host a trainload of working luncheons and how-to tutorials. I would go to all of her lunches, and she would go over email best practices, datasets. At the time, she worked for [marketing automation company] emfluence, and she became, like, my personal trainer in Email Land. And when she left emfluence five years later, I moved from the tech company I was working for and worked for them. They called me “the brown-haired Jess Best.” [Laughs].

Q: How did you build your own identity in marketing?

A: My career trajectory has always been in B2B. A lot of the digital marketing conferences focus so heavily on B2C, and it just doesn’t work the same for us in B2B. And that was the angle I wanted to take. I felt like my market was underserved with thought leadership. In B2B, we’re talking sales cycles that aren’t “hey I saw that you saw a sweater and you might like it, here’s an abandoned-cart notification.” It’s more like I have to put something in front of you that you won’t opt out of, over the course of 18 months to maybe five years. [Laughs.] It’s just a completely different mentality.

Q: You spoke earlier about learning from thought leadership. What is your approach now that you are also a speaker, delivering thought leadership to marketers?

A: The first frustration I had with email marketing conferences was that it wasn’t B2B focused. The second was that it wasn’t actionable. Email marketing is rife with speakers who want to talk high-level theory or general best practice. And I think part of that is because everybody’s email strategy is by definition nuanced. It’s difficult to hammer in on that nuance when you’re talking to a big group of people. I get that. I will say, however, that my experience as a consumer of thought leadership has led me to want to put together actionable presentations. So if I’m going to get up on stage and talk about something, I don’t want it to be a high-level theory or general concept. I want it to be: You have a problem, and let me tell you about how I had a similar problem and how I addressed it. I want you to at least have the framework of how you’re going to go back and solve this problem at your company. I also like to start with why it’s a problem. I want people to come to any session I give and feel like they have some pretty clear direction on what they can do next.

Q: Are you still writing? Are you reading anything interesting?

A: For sure. I am a big reader of fiction. I probably read 75 books last year. I’ve tried to get to 100 books the last four years and I haven’t yet hit it. You have to have so much free time to read 100 books.

Q: You have to read short books.

A: Yes, and some of the books I read are 500 pages. I can’t finish that in a week, and certainly not do another one. And I am still a fiction writer. I do have an agent and she’s wonderful, and we’re working on a manuscript right now, in my free time. If anything, being in marketing and not solely a fiction writer I think has enriched my fiction writing, because rather than writing books about writers, I’m able to pull my day job and the complexities and nuance and the conflicts and interpersonal relationships into my fiction.

 

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About the author

Chris Wood

Staff

Chris Wood draws on over 15 years of reporting experience as a B2B editor and journalist. At DMN, he served as associate editor, offering original analysis on the evolving marketing tech landscape. He has interviewed leaders in tech and policy, from Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, to former Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Vivek Kundra, appointed by Barack Obama as the country’s first federal CIO. He is especially interested in how new technologies, including voice and blockchain, are disrupting the marketing world as we know it. In 2019, he moderated a panel on “innovation theater” at Fintech Inn, in Vilnius. In addition to his marketing-focused reporting in industry trades like Robotics Trends, Modern Brewery Age and AdNation News, Wood has also written for KIRKUS, and contributes fiction, criticism and poetry to several leading book blogs. He studied English at Fairfield University, and was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He lives in New York.

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