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Content that POPS: A BALLSY Conversation with Jon Burkhart

Date published: October 03, 2018
Last updated: July 15, 2024

Jon Burkhart is a content strategist, innovator, marketing comedian, author, beernote inventor, and conference crowd pleaser. He is the co-author of Newsjacking: The Urgent Genius of Real-time Advertising (2013), the author of Hacker Maker Teacher Thief (2015) and his new forthcoming work of mostly blood and sweat is Constant Curiosity (2019).

Jon’s fun and eclectic keynotes, marketing games, and workshops have thrilled and inspired marketers across the globe and his wildly original ‘beernotes’ (summary of top trends/themes presented in a high-energy style) have made him a conference favorite.

As a consultant, he has created two content strategy frameworks to help brands get and keep attention. He started the world’s first real-time marketing blog in 2010 with Grant Hunter. He is now the founder/chief creative officer of marketing consultancy TBC Global.

He's also the 1st person to speak at SXSW Interactive, the world's largest innovation/tech festival, 7 years in a row and has been on their Advisory Board for 5 years.

He has worked with brands like Deloitte, Accenture, Google, Samsung, Uber, LinkedIn, BMW, Mini, Channel 4, BBC, MTV, GSK, D&AD, Bath Rugby & Movember. As a bonus factoid, he’s created and emceed his own ‘happy hour show’ for Cannes Lions.

We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Jon at CMWorld 2018 about his innovative and insanely fun marketing games, industry trends, BALLSY content, as well as his love/hate relationship with Colgate and their infamous beef lasagna disaster.

Watch our full conversation with Jon below or read the edited version below and let us know how you’ve used POPS (provocation, originality, playfulness, surprise) in your marketing strategies.

To kick this off, we were hoping you could share some of your recent campaigns, even ones that didn't work, with us. You come from a purely creative background and you have a lot of fun in your workshops and you’ve focused on making those workshops less work.

You’re not a very text-heavy guy so what is something that marketers can really apply in their strategies, something that circumvents creativity, especially for those of us who just starting out?

It's an evil plan to not have too much text on my sites but it's also due to the fact that I live in the moment. Where I struggle to do writing, even though I'm a writer, it’s very easy for me to create games out of my case studies so that's what I've done for you here.

Here, let’s have the global launch of my firecracker content game.

So what we have here is the Ikea versus Colgate round. These brands couldn't be any more different in their approach to content. I want to propose to you that IKEA's a firecracker content brand.

To be truthful, I have lots of frameworks that I use in my workshops and in my keynote speeches and believe it or not, all of this leads to me doing consulting work. At the moment, I'm probably 50/50 at the moment between workshops and speaking and consulting but where I come to life is when I present to you like this.

If we actually look at what IKEA has done using my thinking from my first book Newsjacking and my new thinking around Constant Curiosity, I would say that they are properly a firecracker brand.

This means that they bake Provocation and Originality (the P & O in POPS) into their content. They wreck the norm and they come up with an idea that no one else has come up with and then they don’t stop. They cannot stop there. You have to add the other P in the POPS framework which is Playfulness.

I’m a huge fan of this. it’s why I have Nerf blasters and balls in my workshops. I think playfulness is a crucial ingredient.

The final thing is you can be as playful and as provocative and as original as you want but I’m still just on my phone trying to stop scrolling.

If you can stop my scroll then you’re an amazing brand. The way we’re finally going to slow that scroll is the final S in POPS. It’s the Surprise element. It’s huge. That is the framework I’ve been evangelizing for the last six months.

Jon waxes (and wanes) lyrical with Relevance Chief Editor Neema Kapoor about firecracker content at Content Marketing World 2018

POPS = Provocative, Originality, Playfulness, Surprise

Firecracker content is content that wait for it...POPS.

And here’s an example of content gone horribly wrong. Again, Colgate is thinking they’ve got to future-proof themselves. What if people stopped brushing their teeth?Let’s diversify into other sectors. They decided to diversify and get into the frozen dinner market.

Are you kidding?

No, it's actually in one of my keynote speeches that I give. It was one of the biggest global FAILS. Yes it was provocative and original but it wasn't very playful. It was very surprising but it's an example of POPS gone horribly wrong.

At a time where the need for budgets has gotten much larger because of increasing tools, platforms, and other options, you've brought a lot of attention back to creativity. You've frequently said "creativity over big budgets."

Yes I go with big brains over big budgets anytime. I stole that from my good friend Ann Handley so I just changed that to “craniums over cash” which is a blatant rip off. If you're thinking big budgets over big brains that is so last weekend, Handley.

You also put into play two interesting terms. They don't really go together but they are 'BALLSY' and 'QUIET' content. Two terms on two totally different ends of the spectrum. Where did the idea for those come from and how do they meet?

Here's the thing, BALLSY is the framework in all of my consulting work which usually comes from speaking in workshops and things. I found that you actually have to have a checklist to see if your content is good enough and if it’s going to get attention.

BALLSY stands for Brave Actionable, Long-lasting, Likable, Surprising, and You-centric.

That was a response to my newsjacking and trying to actually come up with a strategy so people would stop spamming the world.

QUIET (Questions, Imagination, Empathy, and Testing) is what I use as a process for creating the content.

You have to listen using keyword research sites like Answer the Public,, and Google Trends to find out what questions people are asking.

For this example, the most interesting and provocative QUESTION (the QU in QUIET) asked by IKEA by people typing into Google is essentially, and I had no idea about this, is that people go there to break up. IKEA is where relationships go to die and that is one of the most typed in things into Google.

In fact, I was doing a workshop with Jason Miller and one of his people came up to me and said “When I am about to get into a fight with my husband, I just say do you want to go to IKEA right now? Do you really want to go to IKEA right now?!”

Do you think provocative content can be made in response to that question from Google?

I would say absolutely yes. It’s amazing because once you're able to admit that relationships die in your store you can have fun with the way your store is designed, with the way you create your content and other stuff. Also, do not go to IKEA before you get married. That was the worst thing I've ever done.

I haven’t been back because A) you find out your partner has bad taste and B) you realize that you went in for a bed and you came out with a bed, a lamp, a refrigerator, and a talking parrot.

Your book Newsjacking has created a lot of misapplications but I thought it was a really super, simple way for less creative people to piggyback on an ongoing trend. I think it really helps bolster lengthier creative processes. Are there any shortcuts like 'newsjacking' that you have used successfully or even unsuccessfully that you can share?

In response to Newsjacking, it really knocked me for six in how brands were really behaving badly. I did create my first card game on that. I think we should go where we should never go again to take you to the promised land.

Where we should never go again is the fact that brands have turned us all into horrible people. I’d like to know if any of the four of you would consider yourself a horrible person?

Have you ever played the game with that tagline called Cards Against Humanity? I created the marketing version of that.

After having all these sessions in pubs around finding out where brands went wrong it made me a little bit ashamed so that is where I started thinking I've got to have workshops where we can solve that problem in one day.

We start with questions, and this is where QUIET comes in. We use Answer the public and all these sites and then we apply IMAGINATION (The I in QUIET) to all these questions. So the hundred questions that we horrible people came up with, we had only imaginative answers for about fifty of them (we had been drinking the night before).

Then we thought which of these 50 imaginative answers to these questions actually relate to the human beings that we are trying to reach? (This is the EMPATHY - the E in QUIET) In this case it’s the couples that break up in IKEA.

We only had about 25 of those ideas that related and then came the most exciting and last thing within a QUIET workshop. It’s the T which stands for Testing. Fortunately, we have a lot of young people we can boss around and we get them to go out and make Instagram stories and we actually test those 25.

Then we high five and give out actual awards to the people whose content actually connects. That’s where QUIET comes in and trust me, it’s anything but quiet. I promise

I read your description of the name of your company TBC. What I understood from that is you believe that the marketing industry and the company itself is in a state of flux. How do you see marketing today? Are we moving in the right direction? There's so many processes, tools, and technology out there to support marketing and it can get confusing.

I have to say marketing is going through phases and one of the phases I feel ashamed for helping brought on is the selfie phase. The selfie generation has been the best thing and the worst thing for marketing because brands started realizing people are literally just looking at themselves. I tell my wife this when she starts worrying about something silly.

I tell her these people are literally just in it for themselves. They’re not even worrying about you. If we think about that from a brand perspective, we realize that no one cares. They’re just thinking “what’s in it for me?”

I think if we go more analog, more surprising, try to be more human with it, we will actually connect with people when we realize they are not inclined to listen to us.

We’re gonna have to give them something they want. We must build an audience. I actually think the five of us are sitting around this table because we’re at Content Marketing World and we believe building an audience and putting the customer’s needs first. It’s music to our ears and the rest of the world is catching up.

It’s not easy. it’s not like doing a TV ad and thinking “Oh a lot of people at the Super Bowl are gonna see this. It’s not easy but it’s the right thing to do.”

You focus a lot on innovation and creativity. It may even equal or top bigger budgets or campaign programs but does it really help build loyalty? If so, how? If it doesn't, what additional, supplementary techniques can we use aside from just being creative? What are your tips for building long-lasting engagements?

For me, it’s keeping capital T trust at the center of everything and empowering your people to be your brand ambassadors. They are your customers and also influencers and people who voluntarily want to like your brand.

I’ve got a list of ten brands who if they call me up right now and if I had enough engaged followers on Instagram, I’d be happy to because I’m preaching about them anyway. These cards for example, they’re all different because MOO Printing have infinity print.

I’m the biggest fan of MOO and they have a relationship with me. They’ve asked me to come into their office and they’ve showered me with gifts for my opinion. They’re always innovating and I gave them loads of suggestions and they’re actually acting upon them.

A brand that champions people and can also bring the right people into their fold to learn from them and say we’ve got nothing here you are literally our brand is great.

The most generous brands are doing that and saying, “Over to you, I know it’s gonna be rough, I know it’s a risk but if we hold onto it so tightly, we’re probably gonna lose. We might as well make beef lasagna from Colgate.”

Is there any tool out there that can do a hundred things that you'd recommend to marketers still in the creative process?

My short answer is that there are a load of tools that free up more time and can help you use your resources.

However, if I were a VENN diagram there would be a big time bubble, a big resource bubble, and a creative confidence bubble. That creative confidence comes from doing stuff like Colgate’s beef lasagna, it comes from trying things out, it comes from doing atomic green ketchup like Heinz once did.

I use these examples not to say these are the world’s worst,  I use them as an example of pushing your brand a little bit further than wha feels comfortable. The people (audience) may be somewhere else. That’s a dangerous feeling in 2018 to think that your people are in one place and they’re totally not with you.

I’ve seen brands do pivots where they approach, for example, a product marketed towards women and suddenly market it toward men and they’ve seen a massive spike and they realize, “Oh, we were totally wrong about this, the people have spoken.”

I love when you can say “the people have spoken” and you show your brand has actually done something ballsy or provocative and it’s actually worked out for you.

We've talked about content but ultimately it's about getting measurable results. What would you say are some of the metrics we can use for content that isn't showing the ROI we want? What do you typically rank or rate content on?

The short answer for that again is I stand by my belief in the engagement of the content. Are people sharing and identifying with it? I think we also have to realize that we are in marketing and we do have to see an uplift in the sales.

I don’t think it’s overnight all the time. I’m building a “content castle” right now for a brand and I’ve told them we’re definitely not gonna have any sort of uplift because I’m building a site from scratch and we have to look at the domain authority of our competitors. It’s a hard thing to do but they need to treat it almost like it’s a relationship and not like it’s a Tinder one off date.

There must be some milestones that you're tracking and they're tracking that gives them the confidence to keep investing for the next six months or so?

Every month we have to look at what the engagement has been for our content and what isn’t working.

Even though I’ve been given a lot of trust, we have to turn up and down the dials every month to see what the results are. For example, I would say that this one brand I’ve convinced to go into the world of VR is going to have to give me several months to build that because no one is thinking naturally about this brand and VR together.

We check it regularly but the kill switch can’t be too soon because it just takes time to build this stuff.

What are your views on how AI and voice are impacting content marketing and content promotion? Are there any other trends that you see in the space that are changing or could change the industry?

To preface these comments, I’m on the board for SXSW, where all the the big brands like Facebook and Twitter got popular. I’m in the middle of judging the talks now. I’ve judged them on AI, on VR, on social media content, etc.

Elon Musk sat on stage three months ago and said AI is what keeps him up at night. I’ve done workshops on the power of the voice. Even though my wife has sworn it off in the home, I secretly want to get Amazon’s version of Siri (Alexa) where I can be like, I really need a Guns n’ Roses guitar solo right now.

Jon plays air guitar with friend, Content Marketer of the Year finalist (2018) and LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Solutions EMEA Jason Miller

I think voice is powerful and I think AI is powerful (for the bad as well) but I have to say I’m speaking a lot on a type of technology that no one understands. It’s bigger than the internet in 1994. Let’s harken back to 1994 for a trivia quiz.

What is the one technology that is like the internet was back then but is set to be a game-changer. This technology is quite controversial, it’s making claims so big that it’s gonna change 42 industries.

It’s blockchain.

Do you have any upcoming books, workshops, or campaigns that you're working on that you'd like to plug?

Well I’m launching my firecracker content game which is also a drinking game today. Then I’m speaking about blockchain at Ann Handley’s conference called Marketingprofs B2B forum in November in San Francisco.

I’m continuing to evangelize around constant curiosity and talk about the most important things in any marketer’s life. For any brand, there’s one moment that’s remembered more than any moment. That moment is the end moment.

NOTE: Jon mentions this and credits Chip and Dan Health’s book The Power Of Moments as his inspiration. Here are the other books he ‘steals from regularly”

When you go to Disney, you remember getting the Disney ears more than waiting an hour to get an $85 hamburger. What do you think, as marketing people, the end moment is for a conference like the B2B forum?

It’s the closing keynote of course. What I’ve done since I launched it at the Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity a year ago is I’ve perfected my closing “beernote,” where everyone has a beer in their hand and I summarize in real time everything that happened in the last two or three days in a high energy, interactive session.

I think a lot of conferences end with a bang but no one is there to summarize what it all meant.

My firecracker closer or #beernote, if alcohol is indeed served as the venue, is what I’m excited almost as much as being in San Francisco with Ann and speaking about blockchain.

For more on Jon Burkhart, you can keep up with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Let us know in the comments who you’d like to see us interview next!

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