This is not just any frog. This is the frog that gets Melissa Romo into writing mode. Usually he sits atop the antique writing desk in her bedroom, but if she’s travelling he comes along and perches wherever he can, so that even on a plane or in an anonymous hotel room, he quietly sends the signal to her brain: ‘It’s time to write.’
Melissa has a unique perspective on writing: she’s a novelist, a publisher, and also Head of Global Content at Sage, so she comes at the issue of connecting with people through content from multiple angles, bringing a fascinating insight to the business of writing business books.
In this week’s episode as well as discussing her own writing routines and tips we touch on bots, voice assistants, interactive content and AI stories – it’s a fascinating glimpse into how one of the world’s biggest companies sees the future of content marketing.
Melissa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RomoAuthor
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and today, I’m here with Melissa Romo, who is the Director of Global Content at Sage, and she’s also a novelist, and founder and publisher at Red Ship Books. So, welcome to the club, Melissa.
Melissa Romo: Thank you so much, Alison. I’m thrilled to be here.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s really good to have you here. Let’s start by introducing you. Just tell me a little bit about your role at Sage, and your background, you know, where you come from.
Melissa Romo: Sure. As you mentioned, I’m the Director of Global Content for Sage, and what that means is that I am part of a digital transformation happening at Sage. For content in particular, the company is striving to truly leverage content as a strategic element of its digital marketing in a way that it hasn’t been able to so far. Part of the reason it hasn’t been able to is that the company has really been organised by countries or acquired units, and so activity around content has been relatively siloed in those countries or acquired units. So there hasn’t been a holistic thinking about the audience, and a holistic thinking about how we go to to get the audience’s attention, how we engage the audience and deliver value to the audience, really thinking about it at an entire country level or an entire global level, because with the Internet, the audience really is, in many ways, quite global, so …
Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, you say “the audience,” and I get that it’s global, and I get that it needs to transcend all those kind of legacy structural bits, but is it one monolithic audience? How do you tailor your content?
Melissa Romo: The audience is definitely not monolithic, and I think that’s the mistake that many companies make, is they sort of shout from a mountaintop, hoping that whoever is out there will hear them. And so I think it’s the job of content professionals and content specialists to help define the audience, and put a face on the audience, and so my team has done that … We worked on this last year, defining six personas for Sage, and that is how we define our content, so we … You’re completely right, it is not monolithic, and you have to have the right definition and the right personality against the audience that you’re thinking of.
Alison Jones: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I always talk about personas for business books as well, being really, really clear on who it is you’re writing for, partly because it helps you write in a more engaged, interesting way, doesn’t it, if you have a real person in mind.
Melissa Romo: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Alison Jones: And when you put out a bit of content, presumably, you know which of those personae that you’re aiming it at.
Melissa Romo: Yeah, that’s completely right. We start with “Who is the audience?” And this is a new … We’re trying to build this muscle at Sage, because we have, in the past, tended to start with the product we’re trying to sell as the starting point, and so what my team is working hard to change at Sage is that we actually should start with the person we’re trying to sell to. In fact, not even the company sector or the vertical sector, but actually, who is the person in that business space who will ultimately make the decision about choosing us as a solution?
Alison Jones: Yeah, that’s such a great point, isn’t it? And it’s something that we all do. We start with who we are and what we’ve got, and we start talking about it without giving anybody a reason to be interested in the first place.
Melissa Romo: Right.
Alison Jones: You’re fairly recent at Sage, aren’t you, the last couple of years. What’s your background before that?
Melissa Romo: Yeah, before that, I was in … I did content before that, also in the UK, working for Concur, which is a US cloud company that was acquired by SAP in 20 … I believe it was 2015. So I was there doing content, and prior to that, actually, I was more in general management, working in small-business card marketing for American Express, and prior to that, I was an account director on Procter & Gamble consumer advertising for one of their big ad agencies, and I did that in Europe and the United States.
Alison Jones: And what was it that intrigued you, or got you really interested in focusing on content as the basis of your career?
Melissa Romo: Yeah, it’s interesting because, you know, when I started my career in advertising, there was no such thing as “content.” You know, we just made TV commercials, that was what you made, and some print ads, and outdoor and radio, but we [inaudible 00:04:34]. So for me, you know, I didn’t set off on a career to head in this direction; I just knew I loved communications, I knew I loved the art of marketing, in particular, advertising; I was fascinated with advertising, and I loved the art of communicating for a commercial purpose.
What led me into content was that simultaneously with us forming Red Ship Books and writing my novel, content was becoming very important for businesses, and I realised content was a place that I could still be involved in the business world, and still be involved in communications for commercial purposes, working towards a bigger mission, I guess, or more of a corporate mission than my own project, which was the publishing imprint.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the publishing imprint, because I love this, and I was really fascinated by the fact that instead of simply publishing your book through CreateSpace, or try to find a traditional publishing deal, you actually kind of went the whole hog: you founded a publishing company, Red Ship Books. What was your thinking behind that? What did you learn in the process?
Melissa Romo: Well, I think what drove me to do it was just that as soon as I knew I wanted to put the book out myself, I really put down the author hat and picked up the business hat, and the business hat was telling me that I needed to present the book in as professional a way as possible, so that meant that I needed to assemble a team of editors, designers, proofreaders, you know, all the people who could do the things that I didn’t know how to do as the writer. So I assembled that team, and it really felt very natural that if I was going to assemble a team of people who would bring those skills to the project, that we really would be … We should be doing it under an imprint, versus, you know, simply me putting my book out. So I ended up hiring a digital formatter who’s in Australia, I had a proofreader in Turkey, I had a web developer in the UK, my editor was in the United States, and my cover artist was in Athens, Greece.
Alison Jones: Wow. That is possibly the most international book production team I have ever heard of. That’s amazing.
Melissa Romo: Yeah. Well, this is the power of the Internet, really. I mean, this is … You know, this is the new way of publishing, and I went and found those people, in some cases I interviewed them, in some cases I crowdsourced them, in the case of the cover art, so I used kind of the new tools of going to market to put the book together. And then the reason for the imprint, aside from just thinking of it in a business sense and a business team, the other reason for the imprint is that when you go on Amazon and you look at the details of the book, if there isn’t an imprint, then it will just say it was published by CreateSpace or by Amazon Digital Services, if it’s a Kindle book, and I really felt like it needed to have its own brand identity as a book, and so that’s what Red Ship Books enabled me to do.
And I have a bigger vision for the imprint beyond just the first title that I’ve put out. I think at this point, it’s just a question of me being able to carve out the time between being a global content director, a mum of two very active boys, and managing international relocations, which has been what’s been going on the last few months, so …
Alison Jones: Oh, cool. Actually, let’s come to that, because you wrote a brilliant blog, and I will put a link on the show notes, to how you deal with interruptions when you’re writing. So just tell us what tricks and tips that you’ve discovered to help you juggle that, you know, full-on job, full-time job, family, writing. How do you do it?
Melissa Romo: Yeah, well, I think Stephen King actually gives extraordinary advice when he says you should find a physical space in your life, whether it’s in your house or outside of your house, but a physical space that you always go to, and you go there the same time every day, and you sit and you write. Because what will happen is the muse, so to speak, actually will start showing up when you show up. And really, it sounds all very mystical, but basically, it’s really just kind of creating this habit that is tied to a physical space. I have a writing desk, I’m talking to you from the writing desk right now, it’s in the corner of my bedroom, it’s always been in the corner of my bedroom, and that’s the space that when I go there and sit there, my … It’s a signal to my brain that now I’m going to write.
You have to find that connection with a physical space and a time of day that is always the same, and then you will get into this rhythm of writing. And I actually will not do my content work at that same writing desk, because it will then become the place where I have to respond to emails, and I have conference calls. I will not do any work at that old writing desk that relates to my job with Sage.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting, and I … That’s what I need, I need a separate desk. And I love that idea about the muscle memory, almost, just … You just keep doing it, and then your body goes, “Oh, I see, oh, I see, we’re writing today, okay, here we are in our writing space,” and there it comes. And you say it’s mystical, but it’s also beautifully practical.
Melissa Romo: It is, it’s very practical, it’s just … There’s no fussing around with, you know, setting anything up, or “where do I go today?” There’s no fussing around with that; you just know that that’s where you’ll always go, and that’s what you do when you’re in that space. Now, the caveat to everything I just told you is interruptions, right? So you’ll have a sick child, you’ll have a really manic week at work where you have to travel, so I end up … I travel at least once a month, either to London or somewhere in the United States, so I travel quite a lot.
And when that happens, my … What I try to do, and my advice to people, is to cling to the necessity of what you have to do with writing, as if it’s like taking a pill every day. As if you didn’t take it or you didn’t do it, you would physically be in some harm. I mean, you really have to stop the craziness of, “Well, look, I’m just going to watch like 30 minutes of a show on Netflix, because I just need to relax,” right? And you have to fight the urge to just kind of relax into your crevices of entertainment and things like that, and even being with your family and friends sometimes, and just say, “This thing is so important to me that I will not give up this hour.”
Like, I have to have this hour, and if I can’t have it at my writing desk like I always want to have it, I will have it in row 33, seat D on a flight to Atlanta, right? I just … I have to have that hour. And that hour is really difficult when it’s in row 33, because you’re not … You’re suddenly disoriented, because you’re not at the antique desk, and you’re not in the physical space you’re used to. I think one thing that helps me is I take … I carry something from the top of my desk, which is a little … It’s a little frog, it’s silly, but it’s a little frog. I carry it, if I have to leave my desk and I know I can’t write from my desk, I carry the frog, I put it in my purse, and so when I’m in the new space that’s not my usual space, I pull the frog out, and it’s almost a way to kind of cue myself, even if I were at my desk.
Alison Jones: So the muse can now find you, because you’ve brought the frog.
Melissa Romo: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Oh, I love that. Can we have a picture of the frog, please?
Melissa Romo: Yes, I’ll send you a picture of the frog.
Alison Jones: We’ll have the frog on the show notes. That is just … I love everything about that. And it’s also really, I have to say, it’s making me think, “Oh my goodness, I don’t treat this nearly seriously enough.” I’m like, “Oh, you know, I’ll write when I’ve got time, if I’m not too tired,” and if I … Once I finish everybody else’s work, which of course is what happens as a publisher. So I am madly taking mental notes here. Thank you, that’s really helpful.
Melissa Romo: Great, good.
Alison Jones: It would be crazy of me not to ask you about content marketing as well, though, because we’ve got those two fantastic angles that you bring together. So, what is hot in content marketing at the moment, you know, stuff that we haven’t heard about yet? And have you got any tips for authors who want to use the content associated with their book, maybe, for their marketing?
Melissa Romo: Yeah, I tell you, this is a thing that I’m really noodling very hard in my brain, because I feel like the days of books being published as books, even on Kindles, is … I think we’re very close to moving way beyond that. I think with things like … You know, in terms of content, what’s really hot right now is content coming out through robots. My team this week worked on a series of snippets of advice content that we will record, and we will publish into a robot that Sage has developed to support accounting for small businesses and small-business tasks. The way content’s going, I would say even starting this year, you’ll see content being delivered by robots, you’ll see content being delivered through message formats. Video has been very important for the last few years, but it’s going to become even more important, and video that really has a quality of arresting you from a visual standpoint, so literally stopping you and making you look at it, is going to become very important.
Alison Jones: Can I just go back to the robot for a minute?
Melissa Romo: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Because this is … That’s fascinating. When you say “robot,” do you mean actual, you know, physical robot, or do you mean kind of bot on screen? How does that work?
Melissa Romo: Well, the bot that Sage has developed is called Pegg, and Pegg actually works through Facebook Messenger and through Slack. And it’s free; anybody can go onto Facebook Messenger and search for “Pegg” as a contact, and when you find Pegg, you can introduce yourself to Pegg, she can become a contact, and then Pegg will start talking to you about … You know, if you ask Pegg about your … For example, your accounting balance, or just “Have I been paid by this customer today?” Pegg will be able to … You know, once you do some setup with it, will be able to tell you if that has happened or not.
Alison Jones: Ah, that’s very smart.
Melissa Romo: So that’s how Sage’s bot works, but there’s loads of them. This is just-
Alison Jones: Yeah, the voice assistant space is really hot at the moment, isn’t it?
Melissa Romo: Yeah. Yeah, well, even Alexa, you know, for Amazon, I’ll tell you, in the United States, we moved back to the United States two months ago from the UK, and everyone has Alexa on their kitchen counter. It is almost like I’ve come back to this sci-fi country, right, where everyone’s standing in their kitchens asking Alexa, “What’s the temperature today?” and Alexa will tell you what the temperature is today.
Alison Jones: It’s so interesting, isn’t it? I think they’ve just brought the Echo speaker out in the UK, actually. I might be wrong, but I think they have. You know, we’re always a little bit behind, when Amazon roll out stuff in the US and then just forget about us. And, of course, the Google assistant [inaudible 00:16:49] as well, isn’t it? I think they don’t yet recognise different voices, though, do they? I think that’s one of the big problems with them. So if you’ve got two people in the house, they’re only going to talk to one of you, or they’re only going to recognise one of your schedules.
Melissa Romo: Well, Alexa, I was with a friend last night who has Alexa, and Alexa recognised my voice, and I was a new voice. Alexa is Amazon’s bot here, so-
Alison Jones: But she wouldn’t have access to your schedule as distinct from your friend’s schedule.
Melissa Romo: She wouldn’t, she wouldn’t, but if I were to ask Alexa … Like, so, for example, one thing we did last night was I asked Alexa to go buy a basketball, and because Alexa is an Amazon bot, Alexa searched in Amazon and came back and said, “I found a Spalding basketball for $14.99. Would you like to buy it?” And I said yes, and so when you say yes, Alexa basically does the whole one-click purchase, and it has all the information already in Amazon, and so it just gets sent to your house, and that’s it.
Alison Jones: Sent to your house, or your friend’s house?
Melissa Romo: Well, it gets sent to my friend’s house, because it’s her device so my friend has just purchased a basketball.
Alison Jones: I love that. If I have somebody who has an Alexa, I’m going to quietly go around and ask Alexa to buy loads of stuff, and … That’s really funny. And what about … How can … I mean, obviously, you know, authors aren’t going to have … Develop a bot, particularly at this point, but what sorts of things could authors think about for content marketing?
Melissa Romo: Well, I think … You know, I think the stories that I love, and the ones that I think really do well generally, are the ones that are very character-driven, where we get very attached to characters, and characters are in huge moments of conflict or moral questions, things like that. So I think when you look at novels and what really makes novels successful, it is characters, and I think then if you think about a world, you know, you can start putting those two things together, and you could imagine, almost, characters inhabiting the personality of these bots. You could sell characters in the form of a bot, who could tell aspects of the story. I feel like I’m thinking sort of five years ahead here, like, I don’t know … I’m not a developer, so I would have to work with a developer to see how that would work, but this is how I think people will engage with stories as the world, and as technology evolves into some more and more artificial intelligence.
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. Do you know Wattpad?
Melissa Romo: I do know Wattpad, yes.
Alison Jones: They’ve just released an app called Tap, which is … You’re reading a story, but you kind of load it text message by text message, so you have to tap to load the next one. People say that it’s … I haven’t tried it yet, but people say it’s like spying, almost, on a conversation, and the plot kind of unfolds through it. That, I think is really interesting. It’s such an interesting, engaging way of telling a story. I can imagine that would lend itself well to that kind of technology and that kind of, you know, the bot, that you could almost … You could ad the AI bit in there, couldn’t you?
Melissa Romo: Exactly, yeah, yeah.
Alison Jones: That’s very cool, very cool. Now, I always ask my … We’ve had the interruption bit, which I thought was genius, and the frog, nobody will forget the frog, but do you have any other bits of advice? Imagine somebody’s listening to this, and they’re in the throes of writing their first business book. What would you say to them?
Melissa Romo: Well, I would say … You know, I think business books are different than novels. Novels are kind of these, you know, these ideas that come out of the ether, and if you’re a good enough writer and storyteller, you can make a really nice product out of them, you can present a great story that either a publisher would be interested in or readers will be interested in, if you do it yourself. Business books require a platform, and require some level of expertise, or a relationship with people that you can interview to bring expertise into your book. So if you’re writing a business book and you’re not already someone with a platform, or you have not already engaged people to interview with expertise, I would definitely strongly advise that that’s part of your process.
And then, you know, I think related to that is making sure that you’re connecting with people who already have the audience a bit under their wing. So, for example, if you’re writing a book about social media trends, that you are … You know where people are already going to read about social media trends, so that you can potentially work with that blogger or that social-media influencer, or whoever that person is, or that speaker, to make sure they know about your book, and that … You know, try to get them interested in talking about your book, or even interviewing you for the book. So social media and digital influence are some … You know, people who basically have already gathered the audience around them, you want to go find those people and make sure that you’re building a relationship, because that will help you get the book to the right audience.
Alison Jones: That’s awesome advice. Really, really good, and I absolutely agree with you that the book is part of a platform; it doesn’t stand alone. If you’re writing a business book, it’s just part of the whole influence that you have, online and off. And, of course, actually, the great thing is that when you’re writing a book, it’s a fabulous way of developing your network, because the people that you’re talking about, you know, the real kind of movers and shakers in the field, are generally interested if you’re saying something interesting.
Melissa Romo: Yes, for sure. They really are, and, you know, again, it is kind of proof of concept. If you’ve written a book that has some very interesting new takes on something, in a valid sense, they will be interested in it. So don’t be timid about it. If you feel passionate about the idea, and you believe that it presents something new to the space, go out and champion it. No one will be a bigger champion of your worldview in that book than you, so definitely push it.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. That is absolutely brilliant advice, thank you so much. And I always ask my guests to recommend someone else as a guest onto the show, which of course I did with Grace Marshall, and she recommended you. So who do you think I should have on? Who’s got something interesting to say about the whole business of writing, or publishing, or business books, or anything that you think would be interesting to people listening to this show?
Melissa Romo: Yeah, I wanted to recommend that you have on Pam Didner, who is the author of Global Content Marketing.
Alison Jones: Aha.
Melissa Romo: And obviously, that’s a book that I … I will not tell you how much it’s dog-eared, and how many chat messages that I’ve exchanged with Pam on LinkedIn, and she was even kind enough to join my team for a team call once. She’s very knowledgeable about the space of content marketing, and, as well, has written a very good book about it, and I think one of … Really one of the only books about global content marketing, because it’s still a … It’s a difficult space to get your arms around, because the relevancy of content is so important, and if you just sit in one location and create content with one frame of mind, it won’t work in other markets unless you’re very clever about how you do it and how you localise it.
Alison Jones: Yeah, really good point. She sounds fascinating, thank you. And, of course, never had that recommendation before, so great. I do love the way, actually, that these things expand out, and I reach people that … Totally outside my network, but, you know, a “friend of a friend of a friend” sort of effect, so that’s just wonderful, thank you. And if people want to find out more about you, Melissa, more about your books and the publishing house and Sage, where can they go?
Melissa Romo: I would definitely ask people to follow me on Twitter. I’m @RomoAuthor on Twitter, and everything I have going on, from writing to publishing to content, I talk about on Twitter, and I … There’s a link, also, on my Twitter profile to my website, so Twitter’s probably the best one stop to go in and connect with me.
Alison Jones: Actually, I did love … I do love the way that you bring it all together, that you don’t … You know, you didn’t create a separate account for you as an author, it’s all of a piece. I thought that was really … It struck me as being something that I liked about the way that you presented it. It’s like you’re owning all of it, it’s one package.
Melissa Romo: Yeah. Well, it took me a while, actually, to make that decision, and it was a little bit … I started out as, you know, Melissa Romo, and I was Melissa Romo doing Sage content and all of this, and then I had … Red Ship Books had a Twitter account, and then I had @RomoAuthor, I think, as a Twitter account, and trying to run three Twitter accounts as an author, a publisher, and a content professional was too hard, and I realised I lost the synergies that go between those three types of roles, and so I just decided to dump the three and go with @RomoAuthor, because, as you say, that’s where I most identify myself, and that’s … I want to just be that one persona out there in social media, so I’ve just gone with that one. But I recognise that I will occasionally tweet about software, and that if a literary agent is following me, they probably have absolutely no interest in that, so you just have to be careful to stay kind of up the middle and not try to go for weeks and weeks tweeting about upgrades to balance sheet entries in a piece of software. Like, you know, you have to-
Alison Jones: You could properly lose your audience, a part of your audience, that way, couldn’t you?
Melissa Romo: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. That was such an amazing interview. Thank you so much, Melissa. Lots and lots of really practical stuff there, and lots of inspiration, and a bit of future-gazing as well, which is always nice. Thank you so much.
Melissa Romo: Great, Alison. Thank you so much. Really a pleasure to talk to you.