Today’s interviewee isn’t a writer. Instead, James Hathaway created the social media and content marketing program for Orvis — one of the biggest retailers of outdoor/lifestyle/fly fishing gear.

James Hathaway, Hathaway Communications

James Hathaway, Hathaway Communications

For several years, Hathaway fought to bring content marketing and a new media strategy to longtime fly fishing/outdoor lifestyle sales powerhouse Orvis, who despite their direct sales leadership, wasn’t embracing blogs, podcasts, social media and other new media strategies.

Now — after building Orvis into the fly fishing industry’s only legitimate content/social media powerhouse — Hathaway recently formed his own communications firm (he works on a contract basis for Orvis, Clear Path International, and the Morris Animal Foundation).

I’m hoping his experiences will prove useful to my marketing readers — as will his thinking about the kind of skills needed to write or manage an online presence.

/Interview On

Q: You advocated for a social media and content marketing strategy at Orvis for quite a few years before Orvis built; what were the barriers to gaining acceptance for “new media” marketing?

I think just the fact that it is “NEW” media. Orvis is a place with a lot of smart of people who are very good at what they do. It is difficult to measure the ROI on social media and hard to make a case for it if you go from that direction. When we started seeing social media as a customer service tool, then it became a no-brainer and upper management committed to making it work.

When I started with Orvis in 2005, I proposed within months (Ed: the Orvis blog site), but the culture wasn’t yet right. We weren’t ready to pull it off in a way that was authentic. If we had gone too early, we would not have been able to create the kind of product you see now.

Today, if you took the name ORVIS out of or the Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast, it would be hard to tell that you were reading a blog put out by a retailer. That was the goal, to create a resource for anglers for fly-fishing tips and entertainment that was as brand-agnostic as possible. That was a tough sell six years ago at any company. It is getting to be easier now that most people realize the value of content marketing and customer engagement.

To Orvis’ credit, we have really done something pretty cool and not what you would expect from a 150+ year old brand. The benefits to the brand and to our customers, many of which are not-yet obvious, will be felt for a long time, I believe.

Q: What aspect of it remains a hard sell to management?

Whenever you try something new, you are going to get push-back. Making investments in time and money for something like social media that does not have a direct return to the bottom line is always going to be a hard sell, and it should be. If I had my way, we would have spent a lot of time prepping for Google+. Look how wrong I was! I am sure all 7 anglers that use Google+ are disappointed.

If you have a vision and you communicate it well, the hard sell is a good exercise in fine-tuning your proposal and getting it, as Orvis says “absolutely right”.

Q: In 200X you were instrumental in getting Orvis to launch their new, high-end fly rod (the Helios) via bloggers instead of traditional media channels. Did that pay off for Orvis?

Did it ever!

Back before we released the Helios, before it had a name, Tom Rosenbauer called an off-site strategy meeting with a small group of us at the Inn at Willow Pond in Manchester, VT. Tom wanted an offsite meeting to reinforce the idea we were doing something new. Orvis had a game-changer on its hands and our marketing of the product should reflect that. It was an exciting time.

We knew from people both inside and outside of Orvis that our R&D team had come up with something that was going to blow people away. In the past year, though, we had released the Zero Gravity fly rod to critical acclaim, winning Field & Stream’s Best of the Best award. Most companies would have ridden out the success of the Zero Gravity for a while longer, but Perk believed we had developed a truly great product and it should go to market ASAP.

Since we didn’t yet have a name, and didn’t even have a color for the rod, yet, the Helios had this mystery around it. Back when I was a kid, I worked in the Burton Snowboard factory when it was still in Manchester, VT and worked on the Mystery boards doing some god awful thing like grinding edges all day long. It made me think that we could pre-market the Helios as this “mystery rod” to blogs and give them this sneak peak. If the rod sucked, it would be catastrophic to the launch, but we knew it was a game-changer.

Tom loved the idea. We sent out the rod with almost no information, just instructions from Tom to fish it and tell us and your readers what you think. The results were AWESOME. We had customers calling us, asking when they could get the rod, coming into the store asking to cast it… but it wasn’t available yet.

We created an exciting buzz that helped create one of Orvis’ top selling products. Don’t get me wrong, the rod was going to be a success anyway — it’s a phenomenal product — but the buzz helped ignite a lot of initial interest and we wound up winning back-to-back “Best of the Best” awards from Field & Stream magazine.

Q: Orvis has created a podcast (which just saw its two-millionth download), multiple blogs, and Facebook and Twitter accounts (it already had an active email program). Which have been most effective for Orvis?

For the quality of the engagement, for now, it’s the podcasts. Social media, when done right, humanizes your brand. Rosenbauer has done something truly great, here that transcends the conventional customer-retailer relationship. He has built a community around his podcast and I believe our listeners feel he is more like a fishing than a brand representative. That’s the goal. To connect with people in an honest, meaningful way around the Orvis brand. Orvis is lucky to have Tom and Tom is lucky that Orvis gives him such freedom to be exactly who he is. There is no one besides Tom and me deciding how we talk to thousands of anglers everyday.

What Monahan is doing on is just as powerful, and people are recognizing that. is the real deal. We get emails from readers thanking us for creating this great, free content and for helping them finally learn how to double-haul or inspiring them to teach their daughter how to tie flies. That is the kind of customer engagement that builds loyalty. It will grow. I am sure of that.

Q: How have you been able to measure the results of your work? Any success metrics you’re willing to share? Has it been hard to find useful metrics?

We have a number of metrics we use to track engagement. OrvisNewscom struggled for a while until we implemented real-time link tracking. This was a big help to see when we publish social media objects (podcasts, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc) to determine not just how many clicks an object gets, but how quickly they get them. What did our readers really want?

When things were lagging Perk asked me why I thought numbers were below my expectations. My response was “We are putting out great content. People just don’t know it.” Perks response was dead-on “You are making the biggest mistake and one that we all make from time to time. You are telling the customer what they want and not listening to what they want”.

He was so right… that was when we started measuring not just click-throughs, but the speed at which people clicked posted content. Those were our winners. Our page views turned around quickly and became a much better product than it had been thanks to basic customer service principles.

Q: Can you describe the biggest surprise you experienced during the buildout of the Orvis content marketing strategy?

The biggest surprise has been the quality of engagement from podcast listeners. We get really thoughtful questions sent to us nearly every day. The gratitude… I never thought we would get actual fan letters, you know? People thanking us for helping make their fishing trips better or being able to “be on the water” while riding the subway to work.

I love that. I really do. Makes my day when it is obvious our relationship with the or customer had become more meaningful than just selling stuff. When we do it right, we are improving their lives on a totally different level. That’s magic.

Q: Can you sum up the experience of creating and managing a whole new online presence for a category-topping company? The results?

I was fortunate to be working with a company like Orvis. We didn’t have to establish authority. We were well-recognized as an industry leader. What I wanted people to see was this deep bench of talent that made our success possible. Everyone knows the Perkins family, but behind them are guys like Jim LePage, Tom Rosenbauer, Steve Hemkens, Phil Monahan, Pete Kutzer and Paul Fersen. Giving a voice to these guys has been good for the brand.

Don’t get me wrong, selling internally was not always easy, and there are still things I would have done much differently, but all-in-all, we have created something really unique and genuine.

Q: What skills do you need to build and manage an online presence like Orvis?

You need to be ready to produce and manage consistent content. I tell people quite frequently that they do not need a social media strategy, they need a content strategy. Then think of the delivery of it in social media. How are you going to feed this hungry, content eating monster once you build it?

You have to to be able to think and act like a media company.

You have to like to engage with people in a genuine, friendly way. If you can’t create consistent content and if you aren’t very personable, this may not be the right direction for you.

Q: If you were going to hire a writer to write/run a content marketing program, what would you look for?

First and foremost, an expert in their field. You have to be able to offer something that it not easy to get elsewhere. There are a ton of blogs out there. How is your content going to rise above the nose. What do you have that is unique?

I would want someone that understands not just the content, but online culture. If you don’t know what RSS feeds are or why it is important to have comments on a blog, I am not interested in hiring you to run my site.

Q: In retrospect, what would you do differently — and what advice would you offer someone taking a slightly behind the times organization into a chaotic online marketing universe?

I made a lot of assumptions about people’s understanding of what I wanted to do. I have been blogging since 2001. That’s forever. I assumed too often, and still do sometimes, that this stuff is obvious. It’s not.

The benefits of online customer engagement are not always apparent. If you have a good idea, take the time to lay out your vision in detail and be patient with push-back. Social media and content marketing will display the culture of your company. If the culture is ready and the company understands the importance of your efforts, you will be successful. If they are not ready, take the time to get them there. It is well worth it.