How do you talk about technology in a way that connects and inspires? For Deb Miller Landau, the managing editor of Intel’s iQ, the answer is simple. Focus on the people—the people building it, the people using it, the people pushing its boundaries.
After a career as a journalist and travel guide writer, Landau took a position with Intel helping build the tech giant’s digital magazine, iQ. Recently, PowerPost’s Burk Krohe sat down with her to talk about creating a brand publishing operation, the state of content marketing and what makes a good story.
Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning.
PowerPost: What was your career path before coming to iQ?
So my career path has not been a straight line *laughs* as most people’s. I am Canadian and went to school at the University of Victoria, where I got a BFA in writing. I took basic journalism, but also poetry and screenwriting. From there, I went and worked at a newspaper in Northern California and then, became an editor for Lonely Planet Publications. After a few years of editing guidebooks, I left to do freelance travel book writing for about 10 years and then also wrote feature articles for magazines.
I taught journalism for a couple semesters at the University of Oregon, and that was really neat to be able to bring it full circle and give some real-world experience to journalism students.
I was freelancing and raising kids when my neighbor, who was head of global social media at Intel at the time said, “Hey, I wanna show you what we’re doing.” He brought me in to provide some editorial shape and guardrails around what they were doing. That six-month contract turned into four and a half years.
PowerPost: So, when you started out did you kind of assume you were gonna stay on that journalism, freelance path?
Yeah, I mean, I always knew. I’m a big advocate of taking a gap year. You know, the British do it and Canadians do it more so than Americans. I took a gap year and a half and traveled all around Europe and the Middle East.
And really learned…I mean, I knew that I always wanted to write, but didn’t know how to do it in the real world, so I went away on that trip and realized that I’m a writer—through and through, it’s what I love to do. It’s what I feel passionate about, and I am a storyteller.
Writers are needed everywhere, in every part of the world and every different industry. There are stories everywhere.
One of my favorite things to do is to figure out what’s the good story, what’s the nugget. Whether I travel through Belize or navigate the IOT world at Intel, I know there are good stories. That’s what I love to dig for.
PowerPost: What do you think makes a good story?
That’s a great question. I think, honestly, it’s not that complicated, and usually, it comes down to people. One of the challenges we have at Intel is we make things that go in things. We don’t sell T-shirts or sell a specific product, we sell things that go into technology around you, and telling that story is really hard because it’s hard to get your head around.
A lot of it is really complex. So one of our challenges is to figure out what is that thing that makes people care and makes it relevant to them. Usually, that hinges on people. Whether it’s the people that are building the technology or the people that are using the technology or pushing it to its utmost boundaries.
Those are where the really good stories are because people want to learn about people. It resonates so much more than just learning about things. One of my favorite things to do is interview people because everybody loves to talk about themselves. You can almost always tell when you’re talking to somebody…they’ll be answering questions and suddenly they’ll light up! Something sets them on fire, and that’s usually the thing, that’s the nugget. Figuring out what that is, is always exciting no matter what you’re talking about.
PowerPost: I think at PowerPost sometimes we face that challenge, as well, balancing talking about technology and technical concepts, but trying to be creative and entertaining at the same time.
Yeah, it’s a challenge.
PowerPost: We definitely understand that. So you’ve got that contract, was that the beginning of the publishing culture within Intel? How was that launched?
When Bryan Rhoads and Luke Kintigh first built iQ for Intel—about five years ago—it was the early days of content marketing. They realized that if brands just talk about themselves, then the only people they’re talking to are themselves.
So we started asking questions: How do you actually resonate with new audiences? How do you become interesting and relevant to people in a way that compels them to seek you out?
That was the beginning stages of becoming a publisher. We had enough separation from Intel and that autonomy gave us the freedom to take a real audience-first approach. Then we realized that, in order to compete with other publishers, we really needed to start thinking like a publisher.
We wanted our content to be as good as you’d find Wired or in another publication. I think, like everybody, we were pretty inspired by Red Bull just taking a completely different approach to building a media company, so sort of took a page out of that book. How do we build something that’s bigger than just our marketing agendas? How do we actually create something that can compete in the journalism space?
PowerPost: Was there anything that surprised you initially? Was there anything that worked better than you thought it would? Were there any growing pains during that early time?
Yeah, I think it’s still an issue for us trying to justify our existence. Storytelling is hard to quantify. It’s hard to show what being meaningful means in terms of money. How do you actually quantify and value that? We can say we’ve got all this traffic and we’ve got all this really high engagement. But so what?
I think a lot of brands that venture into content marketing or a storytelling space are faced with the same thing. So what? We know this is good but what does it really mean? I think that that’s been a challenge from the get-go…you need visionary leaders that are willing to play the long game of audience building and go beyond traditional marketing tactics.
I liken it to differently sized bullhorns. A banner ad is like a loud, voluminous bullhorn and content marketing is a conversation starter. Changing the tactics that have worked traditionally in advertising and marketing is hard for people to get their heads around. So that’s a big challenge.
One of the things that surprised me—I don’t have a tech background and half the time I would go in and be like, “I have no idea what you people are talking about” but then I realized I was like the rest of the world. There are very few people who actually really understand deeply how the technology works. One of the things I could do was be that conduit, and what we could do with iQ was be able to take those big ideas and make them relatable to people. That was an interesting thing to note, to see the opportunity there that I didn’t really realize at first.
PowerPost: I understand. I used to be a city government reporter and had to distill bureaucratic goings on so people could understand them. So do you think your background in journalism and working for Lonely Planet, putting together these guides informed being able to go in and be that conduit?
Absolutely. We see it all the time, people who are so embedded in technology have a really, really hard time talking about it in a way that isn’t deep and convoluted to everyday people.
I think writing guidebooks was…if I could tell any writer to do that in their life, I would. That whole world has changed because people aren’t buying guidebooks like they used to, and we’ve become a lot more digital.
But being a guide to anything for people really makes you genuinely think about how people are experiencing the content you create. I think that that is so valuable and so lost a lot of times as we knock up against marketing agendas. We forget to look at how this will resonate with our target audiences. How will people respond to this and what do we want them to do with it?
It’s important to gut check yourself, too. If I think this is really boring, then likely other people will, too. You know a good story when you see one and you know a boring story when you see one. I think that actually having the guts to say, “You know what? This sucks!” is a big part of being an editor and a big part of making sure you’ve got guardrails around what you’re putting out.
PowerPost: For the record, I actually do own three or four Lonely Planet hard copies!
The Brand Publishing Ethos at iQ
PowerPost: Considering that and how you said that iQ wanted to compete with publishers, what kind of publishing and journalistic processes and standards were brought to iQ?
When iQ first started they were publishing a lot of content and trying to play the volume game. It takes a lot of resources to do that, and of course, branded content is expensive. It’s expensive to distribute and amplify. If you’re having to do that with so much content, return on investment isn’t there.
We really took a “better is better” vs. a “more is better” approach. Everything, beforehand, it was external agencies creating content and we would just put it up, basically publish it. We came in and we said, “No, let’s build a team of writers and editors who can really, really get embedded with the company and teams around the company,” because it’s a big place, and it’s hard to navigate. So having inside access is vital.
Everything that we publish goes through a pretty extensive round of editing.
In the early days, 50 percent of our content was Intel related somehow and then 50 percent was more just interesting things about technology and culture. While those culture stories were really good audience builders, they weren’t really paying back to the company.
So we shifted over the years to finding the really compelling stories coming from within our company, whether it be about the tech being created, or tapping the experts deep inside our labs and fabs.
For every story, we interview internal and external experts and analysts and university professors and people really using the technology. We decided that there would be no first person, we would take a really journalistic approach. I think that’s put us in the direction of being a publisher. We worked with distribution networks that seeded our content in the same places that you would see other competing content from Forbes or the Wall Street Journal or Wired and that kind of thing.
PowerPost: Is that one of the things that differentiates your content from everyone else’s? What are the things that differentiate it?
There’s so much stuff out there now. There’s so much content. Audiences are savvy, they’ve got ad blockers, their feeds are full. One of the things that I think is really important is to really, really establish, what’s your thing. What’s the thing that’s going to make you stand out and make you different than everyone else.
iQ was not built to hawk products or publish technical whitepapers. I believe you need a set of very varied tools in your marketing toolkit so that you’re not all trying to build a house with the same screwdriver. I think there’s a place for banner ads or co-created content, but what we try to do with storytelling is get into the corners of thinking that other people can’t get into.
We have a lot of brilliant people working at our company who are really thinking meaningfully about autonomous driving or artificial intelligence or silicon photonics. They’re generally really amazing engineers or thinkers but they’re not necessarily writers and communicators. What we can do is tap those big brains and use them to inform the stories that we want to tell.
PowerPost: How, initially, are you finding those different corners and those niches?
My colleague Ken Kaplan and I talk to everyone. There are a lot of campaigns running at any given time, and we try to keep those in mind but go beyond that.
Our stories, we want them to last a long time. Some of our best performing content is from two or three years ago, so we want to have that evergreen approach—something that’s good now will be good in a year or two.
We read ravenously things that are happening in the world, and then we keep our eyes open. We have contacts in all of the different business units across Intel, including in our GEOs, and we just keep our ears open to what’s happening in the world inside and outside of Intel. We’ve got a lot of people who come to us and say, “I heard about this thing. I don’t know much about it,” and we’ll go investigate and figure out what that story is.
Agility is imperative. Because things change, and you’ve got to be able to change with it. By having a small team…we work on a WordPress platform, we can change stuff on the fly, we can fix things on the go, we can build content really quickly.
That ability to change when the winds shift is essential because the winds will change.
Intel’s going through an interesting shift right now. It’s going away from being just a chip maker into PCs and really into everything that is smart and connected, data generation and memory. All these things that collect data and how that data is used and managed—a lot of it is built on Intel architecture.
That said, when I say “Intel’s a data company,” most people’s eyes glaze over and go, “Yeah, whatever.” So we have to figure out ways to make that meaningful because it is. We’ve got to figure out those stories.
PowerPost: Yeah, you mentioned shaking the trees and reading ravenously, so what inspires you? Who’s content serves as a model? Who do you look to?
Recently, I met Dusty DiMercurio who runs Redshift, which is Auto Desk’s content marketing platform, and I think they do a really, really good job of connecting the dots up and down their content or their products. They do it in a light touch, heavy touch kind of way. I think they do a nice balance of that.
I am a big reader of fiction. Every week my New Yorker magazine comes—I’m old school—and I go straight to…the first thing I read every time is the fiction. Truly, that sort of storytelling is where I feel where I get the most inspiration from. At the same time, we comb Wired, Fast Co., the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes incessantly. I’m also a big fan of Medium and what people are talking about there.
Brand Publishing as a Strategy for All Brands
PowerPost: What do you think brands can do to become effective publishers?
I think distribution is vital. If people don’t know your content exists, they’re not going to engage with it. One of the things that we do and certainly could do much better is, any time we write a story about somebody or quote somebody we ask them to share on their social networks. We just did a story about mapping the moon with NASA and having NASA share it out is a good thing.
But really thinking about if you’re writing a story about technology and baseball, what are those baseball outlets? Not just technology. That’s kind of a weird example but if you’re talking about car tech, it’s not only just a technology story. Now, suddenly, it’s an automobile story, as well. If you’re talking about air traffic control systems that are run by artificial intelligence. Now, suddenly, it’s not only an artificial intelligence story, but it’s also an air traffic control story and it’s a travel story. Where are those outlets that are going to be interested in that?
Thinking beyond just your genre is huge for distribution networks, I think.
In-depth Analysis: iQ’s Content Program
PowerPost: How would you describe iQ’s brand voice and how do you reach out to people in an approachable way?
That’s a great question. When iQ first started it was built to feed the social channels, to give Intel something other than itself to talk about. You know, here’s our new next-generation computer technology. There’s so much of that, that goes out. So this was something to augment and be partner to that—to have interesting stories that were built to woo a younger generation. Intel’s been around—we celebrated our 50th anniversary in July—so it’s been around a long time. So it’s kind of got deep roots in Silicon Valley, but we wanted to make sure we were also talking to people who are building technology for the next generation.
We did that by digging into music technology and the maker movement, robots and drones and gaming—things that younger generations are into. And that was effective for a while, but as the business shifted so did the audience. While we targeted less of a consumer audience and more of a B2B audience, it’s my firm belief that people who run businesses are also human beings and have interests.
I think of iQ as the nerdy guy in the corner who has some really interesting things to say and isn’t going to be loud and proud about it, but if you walk over, you’ll be like “Oh my god, that’s really cool, that’s really interesting what that guy’s talking about.” That’s the way we think about it.
When we put things through a robust editing process, we make sure that tone and that voice is consistent. It’s hard to do when you have a bunch of different writers, which is why we like to work with the same writers again and again. We built a style guide that really helps detail that out—what do we do and what don’t we do.
I think a lot of people put a lot of work into building personas, and I’m not a huge fan of personas per se because I think it’s just expensive stereotyping. Somebody can be this but they could be this, too. As our demographic skewed older and to more of a business person…we tried hard, in the beginning, to be cool and hip and realized you know what, we’re not that cool, we’re not that hip, so let’s be okay with that. I think that’s when we sort of settled into our voice that felt really authentic.
PowerPost: That’s interesting because I think there are a lot of brands or companies who, like you said, want to be cool and hip, but maybe they aren’t really or maybe that’s not their audience. But they refuse to believe that. Then their social channels…you just want to shake your head.
You can sense immediately when something isn’t real. I’m not saying we don’t do this at Intel. It’s a hard habit to break.
PowerPost: Yeah, back to authenticity again.
Right. You can’t force people to be authentic *laughs* you know, either you are or you aren’t. But you can certainly call it out when it’s not happening. You can certainly see it. You don’t even have to call it out. It’s obvious when that authenticity is not there.
PowerPost: Considering that, you mentioned that maybe your audience was a little bit older. Do you have an idea of the typical reader of iQ right now?
Yeah, so it’s about 75 percent male and between the ages of 30 to 60, which I know is huge, huge age range. One of the nice things about being a publisher is that most of our traffic comes through social channels or sharing, so people aren’t necessarily coming to our homepage wandering around.
In fact, our homepage traffic is pretty small compared to our article traffic. While you don’t want to be too schizophrenic with your content, it’s ok to map to peoples’ divergent interests. I might come to the site to read an eSports story, but I got lured into an AI story because I’m into that, too.
Humans don’t consume content in a linear way, and people have a lot of interests that may or may not overlap. I work in content marketing and I read a lot about it, but I am also really into the outdoors and travel and sports. So I read mostly about those things with an eye of my work, but it’s not necessarily about my work. I think most people consume content that way.
PowerPost: Does that sorta change platform by platform, what subject goes where? Do you have any sense of that?
We’ve got a lot of digital properties at Intel, I think we’ve got a lot of content and not all of it’s great, and I think that in my mind, putting some editorial guardrails around your content is imperative. And less is more in a lot of ways, but there’s just a lot of different things going on. I think having a really good understanding of what platform does what. So we’ve got an internal site that generates a ton of traffic for Intel’s employees and then we’ve got our Intel Newsroom that is for earned media, press releases and announcements. Then our Intel.com site as a very intensive product catalog and sort of bridges across all of the businesses that Intel runs. So it’s huge and complicated and complex. Then iQ is our storytelling platform. Then there are other areas and other parts of the company that has their own different platforms, as well.
Trying to reign that in is tough, but it’s also okay because people aren’t necessarily coming and going, okay here I’m going to Intel and I suddenly want to get this great story about drones. They’re going to search for drones, and you want to be there when the search comes up. And the way to be there is to have great content.
Measuring iQ’s Results
PowerPost: Going back to what we talked about at the beginning, how do you measure ROI for iQ?
That’s the million dollar question for everyone in content marketing. We believe iQ is best poised to boost brand awareness and affinity and to become relevant in people’s lives. That’s really, really hard to measure.
So we’ll ask ourselves, “Okay so this particular story got 2,000 hits and this one got 50,000 and this one has a higher engagement rate, so what’s better? Having that more engaged reader? More page views? Repeat readers? Unique readers?” So there’s a lot of things that you can measure, and we measure everything. Quantifying what that does for your ROI is difficult to do.
I think one of the things we’ve realized is that you need to have a measurement framework that makes you understand what success looks like for you. You have to figure out what you want to achieve. Tracking conversions for us is tough—again, we’re not selling T-shirts. But if someone reads an article and it leads to a conversion down the road, that’s something we’re trying to learn about. Most people engage with something like 11 pieces of content before they even begin to investigate buying from your brand.
Building a measurement framework that makes you understand what success looks like for you is imperative. If you don’t have benchmarks in place it’s going to be impossible to quantify so that’s how I would say you build toward proving out ROI. That you can show that you’re actually building something and then figure out what it is you want that thing you’re building to do.
PowerPost: What are the specific KPIs you have for a framework? Is it page views? Is it engagement? What are you looking for right now?
I believe, we believe, that engagement is probably the most valuable metric that we’ve got. We have a newsletter that readers can opt in to and get a weekly newsletter of our top stories. We get all sorts of information about those audiences.
Building audiences is vital to any kind of personalization or retargeting approach or tactic that you take. You need that data in order to really create targeted content. We don’t want to spam people with a bunch of stuff, we want to send them the right stuff. Getting that more meaningful deeper understanding of your audience through the data they provide is huge.
We have a whole data enablement team that works on managing that because it’s complicated. And also using paid media, you can throw a lot of money at social to amplify your content, but if you’re not putting it in the right places to the right people, it’s really just sort of throwing the money away. So we’re trying to get really smart and savvy about where we’re putting our paid media dollars, what makes sense. One of the things we’ve realized about iQ is if we can give it a paid push out the door through social often times really good stories will gain organic traffic on their own and it just grows exponentially. That’s our holy grail. Ultimately that would be our dream scenario that we’re getting 75 percent organic traffic and that we’ve got high engagement rates.
Looking to the Future
PowerPost: Where do you think content marketing and brand publishing is going in the coming years?
I think more and more people—and it’s already happening—are going to realize the value of journalism and creative writing in marketing. It brings a different idea set and viewpoint. One of the things I do and love doing is digging for the narrative—what’s the story behind this, who are the people. It’s a special skill set, and I think more and more brands and agencies are going to be looking for those skills when building their marketing teams. They’re going to stock them with writers and journalists and creative people. It’s a diverse way of thinking that they’re going to need if they want to compete in the noise.
The question of ROI is sort of this big one that’s been looming, and I think more and more people are going to have to get savvy about how they’re proving that out. Content marketing teams need to get very clear on their objectives and create a measurement framework that helps determine success. Otherwise, you’re sort of just shouting into the ether.
More about Deb Miller Landau
Deb Landau is the managing editor of iQ, Intel’s award-winning tech culture magazine. A seasoned journalist, Deb has penned more than a dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet Publications, was anthologized in America’s Best Crime Writing, wrote an app for the Olympics and taught magazine writing at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. In her spare time, she paddle boats and climbs mountains with her twin boys.
More about PowerPost
PowerPost is a privately held company founded on 2015, headquartered in St. Louis, MO.
It combines intelligent content technology with a full-time team of brand journalists to transform the way brands create content.