Ellyn Winters-Robinson, President & CMO - Ignition Communications Inc. (Q&A)
Finally, we turn the tables and shine a light on the voice of WATCH!
Ellyn Winters-Robinson is the President & Chief Marketing Officer at Ignition Communications, a Waterloo based marketing and communications firm and the PR and Marketing Mentor at the Accelerator Centre here in R+T Park. Ellyn has mentored hundreds of tech companies over the past nine years, helping them to refine their marketing strategies and tell their story.
For over three years, Ellyn has also been the principal writer for WATCH, shining a light on the research, innovation, and most importantly people that make this such a great place to be. So, we decided it was time to point the microphone the other way and look back on over three years of stories with Ellyn!
There’s no shortage of projects you could choose to work on – what makes WATCH and R+T Park so compelling that keeps you coming back to it?
I love story telling – it’s just my favourite thing to do. I suppose I’m naturally a very curious person. I just love to dig into a person’s story and find out what makes them tick – learn about their lives and their backstories and why they do what they do. In the tech market we tend to focus on product, the “what” and the “how” of making a product. And yet, the really fascinating stories often lie with the company founders, their origins, their inspiration. The personal journeys of people behind the product can provide dramatic and compelling story fodder. The great founders understand this. They know it is ok to be vulnerable and open up about their experiences, because there’s power in those stories. That’s what people really want to read about.
Are there any stories you’ve captured that have stuck with you over time?
There have been so many amazing stories that have stood out for me, but there is one that was particularly important. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Scott Vanstone, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in mathematics and cryptography at the University of Waterloo for WATCH. Dr. Vanstone was the founder of Certicom (the company behind Blackberry’s encryption). He also co-founded Trustpoint Innovations at the Accelerator Centre with wife, cryptologist and mathematician Sherry Shannon-Vanstone. Scott and Sherry were talking about the Internet of Things years before it was a common industry buzzword, and they saw the need for a reliable security layer in that emerging technology. What I didn’t know at the time was that Scott was quite ill. He passed away shortly after the story was published, making this one of the last interviews he gave. That was special, and I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to speak to him about his passion for technology and innovation.
Are they any stories you haven’t had the chance to tell yet?
Absolutely. The Accelerator Centre is a well of amazing stories that are just emerging and waiting to be told, which is fantastic. But one thing I’d love to do more of is take the time to revisit companies that we interviewed early on and see how they’ve grown and changed. For example, back in 2013 I interviewed Adam Belsher at Magnet Forensics. He and the company were just getting started. I interviewed him again a few weeks ago and it was amazing to see how far Magnet has come in a relatively short time. So many companies in the Region can trace their origins back to what we’re doing here in R+T Park. I love following their journeys and seeing how they’ve succeeded, in part, thanks to what we’ve been able to do here at the Accelerator Centre and in R+T Park.
You’ve been mentoring startups at the AC for the past nine years; what’s been the most interesting change you’ve seen in the tech ecosystem in that time?
There are a certainly a lot more startups. There’s also a lot more options for them to turn to for support. In 2008 the AC was the only incubator in town, but now there are lots of choices. I think this is healthy because different companies at different stages can take advantage of programs that feel right for them. At the AC, for instance, we’re really focused on building a strong curriculum, that spans the first two to three years of a company’s life. We also have built in accountability on both sides, which companies are really responding to. They tell us it’s like doing a postgraduate program in business and entrepreneurship.
Why is storytelling so critical for a company’s success?
This goes back to the PR person in me. Journalists are storytellers. They look for stories to tell. If companies want to succeed, they need people telling their story – not just the product story, but a human story. It is these stories that make a company memorable to investors and prospective customers. Over the last decade storytelling has become a critical part of marketing. With the rise of inbound marketing much of our effort has shifted to content creation and authentic storytelling, which creates discoverable content used to educate and intrigue buyers. If you’re going to succeed in today’s marketing world, you need to be able to tell your story and convince people that it matters. These days there are less and less journalists out there, so companies have to step up and take ownership for telling their own story.
We often hear companies say that they don’t have the time or the resources to do effective storytelling. What’s a simple first step they can take to get started down the right path – even it’s only a start?
It is labour intensive to do really good, high quality storytelling. There’s no way around that – you have to acknowledge that as a start. I cringe when I hear companies trying to take cheap, easy ways out that aren’t delivering authentic voice. They aren’t investing in building a true story about the company. They are just shovelling cheap, barely relevant content out the door so they can check content marketing off the list. If you are settling for poor quality, you won’t get the desired result. Customers can tell. They won’t engage. That’s bad for your brand and your company. So, to start, people need to acknowledge that good storytelling takes effort and they need to want to do it properly.
That all said, I don’t think people take enough opportunity to leverage and repurpose content. They get this list of individual items and think each content element needs to be completely unique. I encourage the companies I work with to think of content as a package of materials. For instance, you can take a whitepaper and rewrite it to create a graphical eBook. You can break it into parts and create a series of blog posts and social media posts. The power is in the synergy. In having all that content working together. It’s more efficient and it’ll drive better search engine result.
Another great tip is to leverage built-in champions: your employees to help you spread the word. Smart companies make sure that each time a new content asset is created, everybody in the company knows about it. They make it easy for employees to share that content on their individual social channels.
There’s no way around the fact that creating good quality content with high frequency is labour intensive, but I think we can be doing a better job of making the most of that content by finding more effective ways to amplify it.
Whatever you do, make sure you commit to it and do it well.
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