Rethinking The Appeal Of Sausage Making

I headed out for a walk, looking forward to listening to my dear podcasts. Few things make me happier. Really. And that’s been true for years. Maybe someday someone will study the brain on podcasts. In my experience, listening and walking encourages meandering thinking that eventually leads to somewhere.

Because this work is never far from my mind, I returned not relaxed from the walk but all fired up about what I’d heard and what it made me think of. I’m going to publish this post, despite a nagging feeling that I should have saved these thoughts to share with friends via email. I’m used to their “You OK?” responses.

Behind The Scenes

The walk started as I was shaking off some frustration on behalf of a client. “How can a business not even know who’s using its products,” I muttered to myself as I switched on the Slate podcast about The Americans. It’s an FX drama about the marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.

(Oh. Right. Television. Television producers don’t know who's watching their work.)

The Americans is a show that I watch faithfully every week. It’s not appointment TV for me because I’m a cord-cutter who doesn’t pay for FX. Instead, I pay $1.99 to stream each show on-demand from Amazon using Roku. (Hey, my explicit payment is one way that somebody, if only Amazon, could know that’s me watching, isn’t it…?)

In another time, that would have been it. A 45-minute transaction, over and out. But part of the reason I need to keep up with each Americans episode is that I am then ready to listen to the spoilers podcast and read the multiple blogs about the show. Time is of the essence. The show isn’t everything, it’s just the start.

All of the surrounding content—most of which isn't created by the program producer—makes for a richer experience. The Americans is the television show I recommend to others. It’s excellent (don’t get me started), but I also have a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for it.

The podcast, specifically, is a behind-the-scenes look at the production. I love hearing about the intricacies of filming a stakeout scene, what goes into setting an actor on fire and why there are three as opposed to four stalls in the FBI ladies’ room. This is the detail underlying the decisions about what eventually makes it into the final edit. When the producers and writing team as well as the cast climb the stage to claim their Emmy or Golden Globes awards, I will feel as if I know them all.

The podcasts contain spoilers so if you watch the Americans, don’t listen to this SoundCloud file unless you’ve already seen Episode 3. Everyone else, just listen to the story starting at the 6:30 marker of a scene that involves the spies "disappearing" a body from a hotel room. This is the sausage being made.

Process More So Than Product

The conventional wisdom is that sausage making is to be avoided. According to this helpful explanation found on, “if something is ‘like watching sausages getting made,’ unpleasant truths about it emerge that make it much less appealing. The idea is that if people watched sausages getting made, they would probably be less fond of them.” (I don’t doubt that’s true about sausage sausage. As a student in Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, my niece made sausage and claims to have been scarred by the experience.)

But it’s the insight into the "sausage making" that’s forging my relationship with The Americans.  

The point: There’s value in transparency and openness.

The packaged product is one thing but how did you get there? That’s what people increasingly want to know across the board today. Yes, but what’s in a Big Mac? How diverse is Apple’s workforce? Please tell me that these cosmetics were made with plants and not animal hooves.

Ask a brand advocate to explain his affection for a company and the response will more likely cite how a company does business than what’s produced. In my example, the more I hear about the budget concessions involved in the making of a television show I like, the more I like it.

Why wouldn’t this be the case, too, for information surrounding a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF), I wondered while walking. There’s a difference between at-home entertainment and intangible products on which trusting investors place their hopes and dreams, I’ll grant you that. But I’d argue that if the sausage making is of interest to a television fan, it might be at least of equal interest to an advisor or investor.

My description of how I relate to The Americans includes a lot of emotion. But I have nothing at stake. If the show were to decline, I’d mourn but eventually I’d move on and find something else to watch.

Funds Solve Problems

The engagement of an investment product user is on another level: the advisor puts his or her own brand on the line when recommending a fund. More often than not, the expectation is that the product will remain in place for an extended period of time.

And yet, many of us marketers seem to view the using of mutual funds and ETFs as transactions—as the endgame as opposed to the start or extension of a relationship that involves emotions.

Years ago, this business seized on “solution” as a synonym for investment product. While we use the word, we don’t necessarily think about its meaning. Consider the advisor using one of your funds for the very first time. There’s no gun to his or her head (sorry, that’s the influence of The Americans)—the selection is likely the result of an evaluation process: your product emerged as the winner, the best. There are expectations, to be sure, and optimism or even enthusiasm about how this product is going to work.

Fast forward and it’s conceivable that experience in the fund produces a positive or negative response, and that, too, is factored into what happens next.

"Storytelling" is a concept that I've seen investment marketers struggle with. Since The Walk, I'm thinking that sausage making-telling is what has the greatest potential in this space. Of course, the market has a capacity for thought leadership and research. But aren’t advisors likely to be most invested in what they’re invested in?

What Digital Enables

Advisors seek access to the managers of their funds, as can be seen whenever there's an opportunity for a physical meeting. Digital and social enablement of more timely, more frequent, more relevant, more granular updates can deepen understanding of investment process, challenges and responses, and more. Meaning can be derived from every incremental video clip, conference call, email and tweet, ostensibly strengthening product ties.

Never has there been a greater appetite for (and supply of) content that can build and nurture relationships. This is a terrific time to be charged with communications that drive and support product usage, acknowledging user sentiment good and bad.

Unfortunately, that’s not what I always pick up on when I talk to marketers responsible for product communications. Here’s what I sometimes see: 

  • An inferiority complex. If you’re blasting an unsegmented email list of tens of thousands of names to announce the availability of fact sheets, then I’d shrink too. But to product-users it may not be possible to over-communicate about the decision-making and color (aka the sausage) surrounding your products and portfolio teams.   

Hold your head up, don’t be shy about distributing updates that have information value and appeal. Let yourself believe that what your firm has to say about an ongoing product relationship will be welcomed, appreciated, referred to, relied on. (And, turn to your analytics for substantiation.) 

  • A nonchalance about relationship signals. What about the advisors who register on your Website, subscribe to your newsletter, attend your Webinars, follow and maybe even retweet your tweets, use your funds? They’re doing their part to have a relationship, they’re signaling their interest in the sausage making. Don’t let that attention go unrequited. Smart firms have started to distinguish between who’s into them and who just isn’t, and communicating accordingly.
  • A factory floor approach to how to communicate. Yes, asset manager content production demands have multiplied. Granted, there are plenty of technical publishing issues to keep an eye on. Systems can automate fund data display, and shareholder report-writing robots can formulate narrative based on the data. Uniformity has its place. 

But—hang with me here—let’s not lose sight of the poetry in the sausage making. No one can shape the story like you or you with raw material from your Investments or product teams. C’mon, humor me—and everyone else on the receiving end of your communications. 

Back to The Americans again, listen to the spirit and personality as the cast and crew share what went into their final product. It’s not just the information that’s being imparted, it’s the commitment to it. Product communications, especially, deserve some energy.

All of you aren’t working with Hollywood professionals. It’s possible that your subject matter experts don’t intuitively know how to explain the sausage making in an appealing way. In addition to everything else that has to do with content routing, review, production and formatting, that’s the creative work that falls for you and your creative teams to do with an ever-growing box of tools that includes graphics, imagery, video and interactive. That’s why there’s Marketing.

Your turn, your thoughts?