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“Every Word Matters, Every Step, Every Fraction of a Hip Pivot”

A poet, an author, an expert marketer and a former MMA fighter. Post Funnel sat down with Cameron Conaway for a fascinating chat

Rebecca Wojno
June 16 2018

While the transition from mixed martial arts fighter to poetry and later to marketing seems unusual, Cameron Conaway, Solace’s Director of Marketing Communications, makes it look so natural. Conaway carved out a path few marketers have walked. Before working for the data movement platform that has a team of 250+ and 16 offices around the globe, Conaway first learned the power of expression while facing off against his opponents in a tiny cage. PostFunnel had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about the unique blend of poetry and MMA, how journalism led him to a successful career in marketing, and his new book, a page turner on the culture of toxic masculinity.

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Thank you so much for sitting down with us—you have an incredibly interesting background. Take us on a journey to your beginnings.

“So the journey…From the time I was 12, I wanted to be the best mixed martial arts fighter in the world, and I pursued that path for 9 or 10 years. I’d studied Bruce Lee extensively and had hundreds of fights and thousands of hours of training during that time. When it came time to choose a major,—I was fortunate enough to be the first in my family to go to college—I selected Criminal Justice, because I was abused by my father as a child and I wanted to put people like him away. Throughout all that, I turned pro as a fighter.”

Was it one of your motivations to go into martial arts in the first place?

“For sure. I felt like a vulnerable young boy. I was also very small. And when I stumbled on mixed martial arts, I saw it was actually the smallest guy, a guy named Royce Gracie, who was using principles of leverage and science to beat everybody, and that was incredibly inspiring. I also studied Rickson Gracie, who has a great documentary called ‘Choke,’ and Bruce Lee. They were both able to string words together in the most beautiful ways and think on very deep levels. During college, I went down the list of electives and saw an introduction to poetry class. And my first thought was, ‘I think if I take this, it might make me a better fighter.’”

There’s a strong connection between poetry and martial arts. How do you see the two fitting together?

It’s about the radical pursuit of new perspectives, and I thought poetry was gonna fill in the gaps that I had as a fighter. The other lesson is about concision in small places. Poetry is the most concentrated form of thinking, and depending on the styles you work in, very constrained. What’s the maximum value you can put into a very small place? And I was fighting in metal cages, so for me that was the parallel between the two, complete efficiency. Every word matters, every step, every fraction of a hip pivot, everything matters in a fight as well. The whole fight can change based on the smallest thing. And I think a whole poem can change as well.”

How did this come together and lead you to Solace?

“I ended up getting an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona and moved to Thailand a few years later with my wife. That was where I delved into a lot of human rights issues including human trafficking of young boys, which blossomed into a journalism career that continues today. There were stories I wrote- including one in Chittagong, Bangladesh about the Ship Breaking Yards where I put myself in really dangerous positions. At one point, there was a machine gun pointed into my back as they walked me through and let me see everything as an independent. Not having the safety net of being with The New York Times inspired some deep thinking. First, what the F*** am I doing? Second, even if I write the best story, for some of the publications I worked with—and they were great publications—a lot of times, there would only be a few hundred readers on those articles and I didn’t feel like it was enough.

For me, that opened up the field of content marketing and I became obsessed with telling authentic stories, but also drawing eyeballs to those stories. I started reading everything I could from Mark Schaefer, and to this day, I think I’ve read every word that guy’s ever written. I started exploring what I could do on my own site to make sure everything ranked properly. I think today, Andy Crestodina is the guy I look to. That was kind of a pivot into marketing, realizing, if I’m gonna write, I want people to read. And the journalism industry, unfortunately, wasn’t, and still isn’t kind of up-to-date on those modern best practices.

A few years ago I was working for a company that got rid of their entire marketing department and I put out a tweet that said, ‘I’m looking for something new.’ And my wife said, ‘You should probably pin that tweet just in case.’ And as soon as I pinned it, Mychelle Mollot (currently CMO of Solace; RW) from Canada reached out. I had no idea who she was, and she said, ‘Hey, would you be up to fly over here to Ottawa for an interview?’ That began our relationship, a mentorship really.

Solace is this kind of quiet messaging infrastructure that allows innovators to innovate. We’re enabling 1.5 million connected vehicles in Singapore, helping to ensure every swipe of an American Express credit card is as smooth as today’s empowered customers expect, and helping to ensure that Jio, the world’s largest mobile data network, can keep scaling. Here we are in aviation, telecommunication, mobile payments processing…doing all of this stuff that everybody has benefited from but that nobody knows about.”

At this point, you’ve developed content marketing strategies for e-commerce, major brands, non-profits, etc. What do you think it takes to build a successful content marketing strategy?

First of all, I think empathy is what underlines everything. And unfortunately, just throwing around the word empathy has become a cliché. Empathy takes practice to consistently, and over time, care about a potential audience. It’s an actual discipline. It allows you to discover your audience better, it allows you to work through the friction points they might feel when they reach your site and throughout their entire journey. Before you start building out a content marketing plan, you have to imagine to the deepest extent every pain point they’re gonna go through. So for me, it starts with empathy. And I think then it delves into understanding your team’s capacity.

A lot of companies that I’ve worked with get this framework of what content marketing is, typically from Content Marketing Institute, which I love, but then think they can just apply every step regardless of the talent and the capacity on their team. Once you realize the talent and skill set that you have, you can figure out the best ways to apply that whether it’s creating 7,000-word amazing articles or starting a podcast. You discover the personalities and happy places of your teammates and what they wanna do. And from there, I think you can create the framework for your content marketing efforts.”

How did you build your strong team? How did you go about sussing out the right structure for them and for you?

For 10 years, Solace had a two-person marketing team that did everything – from building the site to creating all the content assets a best-in-class company would need. Greg Barr, our Content Director, is still on the team and i’m grateful to work alongside someone with his talent and expertise. But now we’ve ramped up our marketing team from two people to about 20 in a six-month time frame. A little while ago, we had a company retreat in Canada where we spent some time together, because we’re a global team now; we have a marketer in Hong Kong, New York City, I’m in San Francisco, we’re all over the place. We were able to get some quality time and create a safe space and have really deep conversations about what we want to achieve and how best we can do it.”

In one of your published pieces, you’ve talked about how traditional journalism organizations built out these content marketing agencies and work with brands to help them share their story. Is this a trend you see continuing over time?

For sure it’s a trend continuing. Traditional journalism organizations need to create additional revenue streams, and they’re doing that by spinning up their own content marketing agencies. In many ways, they have all the tools a content marketing agency needs. They’ve struggled to bring their journalists up to par on modern content marketing standards, but they are, however, Pulitzer Prize winning organizations and writers. They know how to move fast, they often have fantastic videographers who can shoot incredible footage.

I think what we saw with Alibaba buying the “South China Morning Post,” what we saw with Jeff Bezos and Amazon buying The Washington Post, I see increasing links between heavily regarded journalism organizations struggling to provide the kind of quality content that built their legacy. And then the incredibly successful unicorn tech companies that would like to operate the media a little bit, while feeling like they can seriously contribute to a democracy by helping fuel the truth-tellers. Every morning, I ride my bike to work, past the San Francisco Chronicle office. And I look up and I see the big Salesforce building. And for me, that’s kind of a metaphor for where things are going. I see those two increasingly fusing at some point, those two kinds of companies.”

Let’s keep with the ‘media of the future’ theme and talk social media. How do you approach posting on online platforms and where do you see it going?

I was a poet struggling to just pay rent. So for me, it was a necessity, a free platform where I can get some organic attention around my work. That has become increasingly difficult. Social media is, in many ways, pay-to-play today. If attention is what you want, you have to put money on it. Eventually, it shifted from drawing organic interest or traffic to building actual relationships on these platforms and moving the conversations into a coffee shop. So that’s how I’m seeing it today. I’ve met some amazing people through social media and those are the intangible values of social that make me stick with it.”

That’s exactly what social should be used for

“I got quite burnt out when I saw the Facebook numbers plummet based on a single algorithm change. It can be heartbreaking for people who have spent years building it up. So, yeah, it’s the relationships that are keeping me there.”

We noticed that Top Rank named you one of their 50 content marketing influencers. What does that mean for you to be an influencer?  

I guess for me, it was a nod that this fusion of investigative journalism and marketing that I’ve tried to carve out for myself has merit. As I comb through the other 50 on there, that’s what makes me stand out, and that felt good because it’s been a brutal journey. I had about a 10-day stretch where I ate tuna out of a can because I couldn’t afford anything else. And I was trying to tell these stories of human rights issues and wasn’t being paid for them, so the honor was, ‘Hey, man, it’s been worth it, keep going,’ you know?”

It’s a huge accomplishment, not just the honor but the way you’ve carved your own path. Any advice for newcomers, aspiring writers, content marketers, or even journalists in the beginning of their career?

“Journalism school enrollments are higher than ever and a lot of people wanna be able to tell really important stories and believe in journalism as a public service. However, you know, the academic world moves very slowly. And I don’t think J schools have properly prepared journalists for the future of digital marketing. They’re not teaching them about SEO, they’re not teaching them about the importance of schema.org, formatting and things. I think in some ways, they need to move faster and they need to evolve a bit on that front.”

We have two last questions for you. And this first one is a little offbeat. If you could write anything, let’s call it your dream story, something you’re most inspired by, what would that be?

“I would write a definite guide to rice. I would love to travel to Vietnam and track the journey of a single grain of rice all the way from the tiny husk to a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, Canada.”

One of the biggest dietary staples…

When my wife and I moved to Bangkok for three years, we would go through the grocery stores and the way they have an entire aisle filled with bread here, it’s aisle after aisle of rice.”

You just published a new book. Can you tell us about it?

Sure, yeah. There was a time where I was executive editor for a website called The Good Men Project. And it was trying to address the way men are put in boxes. When I was a mixed martial arts fighter, society praised me for being this alpha male. There was another kind of subset that just thought I was this typical dumb macho guy. And then I went into poetry and society was making judgmental comments about my sexual orientation. All of these negative comments about being homosexual were aimed towards making me feel weak or ‘unmanly,’ and that was interesting to me because I felt I was bridging these two words together and being treated differently in each.

The more I study men and masculinities and gender studies, I realized that so much about how men treat women, how men treat other men etc., is based on how society has brought us up. Of course, you know, the feminism movement is the only reason I think I have the privilege to understand this. But that’s what I’m trying to address in Man Box, this culture of toxic masculinity. And I think it’s leading to wars. And I think it’s really harming our society. I’m trying to apply poetry as best I can to address it.

I see so many broken relationships and so many people who can’t shine and be their true selves, as clichés as that sounds, because of all these boxes we’re put in. And I think for decades, the feminist movement has allowed women to recognize the boxes that they were being put in. But I don’t think men have done the same level of work and we need to. So it’s time we learn from feminism and start thinking about this stuff.”

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