If everybody has your attention, nobody does. That's a problem — but it also paves the way for 2020s new currency: meaning.

Join Paul Campillo, Typeform's Director of Brand, as he explores why becoming a meaningful brand is more critical than ever — not just for your business, but for society.

Paul met with Tara-Nicholle Nelson: self-taught marketer and author of The Transformational Consumer. Watch how Tara’s childhood prepared her to become the trusted advisor of CEOs, brands and human beings in general. The keyword? Listening.

Want to watch the full interview? Head here.

If you're looking for the transcript, keep reading…


Paul Campillo (PC): I'm Paul Campillo, and this is Meaningful. We're in beautiful, sunny Oakland, California, my hometown. And today we're talking to Tara-Nicholle Nelson, author of "The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair with Your Customers by Helping Them Become Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser." Tara helped grow brands such as Trulia, HGTV, and MyFitnessPal, where she took their user base from 45 million to over 100 million people.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson (TN): What is their problem and how are they going about trying to solve that problem? What is the problem that we can help with?

PC: Today's topic: the power of listening, not just to your customers, but to your market as well. Enjoy the conversation.

PC: Hey Tara.

TN: Hi.

PC: We have a lot to talk about. I want to talk about your book, I want to talk about the things you've been up to, but I think we should always start with someone's background. And so the first question is, who is Tara-Nicholle?

TN: Who I am is a student of human behavior change. Who I am is a human, right? I'm deeply interested in other humans and how they, you know, I, there was this quote I found one time on the internet that I got super obsessed with and actually memorized. It was like, "You are a ghost." "You are a ghost, driving a meat-covered skeleton made of stardust, riding a rock that is hurtling through space. Fear nothing." So that's who I am and that's who all other people are. And that's why I'm interested in them.

PC: I feel there's a lot to unpack in that statement.

TN: I think that statement is the beginner's guide to humans.

PC: Yeah, the ghost is the, I don't know, the spirit, the soul.

TN: It's like the soul, spirit. 

TN: Yeah, but sometimes when you see it, at the end it'll just say "Fear nothing." And I think that's the perfect sort of close to that, which is that, you know, our minds and bodies and souls and spirits and actions that we take or don't take based on our emotions, kind of make up who we are. That's, I'm a ghost. That's all, that's my short answer to your question. I'm just a ghost. I'm riding this rock that is hurtling through space.

Changing patterns

PC: Why people? Why people, why human behavior? When did this kick in?

TN: When I was nine?

PC: Are you serious?

TN: Yes. Well, I can track it back to when I was nine. It probably started, you know, three or four lifetimes ago or something, I don't know. But my parents owned a gym when I was nine. It was a racquet club, which racquet clubs are bizarre places. You know, racquetball is a very high exertion sport, but they also, every racquet club I've ever been in in my life serves fries and beer. 

TN: But we also had an aerobics room at the club. As a nine-year-old girl, I would sit at the snack bar counter and watch these women working out. And I would watch obsessively cause all I wanted to be was them. All I wanted to be when I was nine, was a mid-forties woman exercising with my friends, you know, doing dance aerobics and step aerobics and wearing those high-top white Reeboks. Cause that's what people wore back then.

PC: You wanted to be what you were seeing?

TN: I definitely wanted to be them and did become them, in fact, so mission accomplished. I am a pattern-spotter, as another answer to your question of who am I. So I was fascinated at watching the cycles of them. They would show up and they would come and they would have new clothes and they would come all the time and then they would stop coming. 

TN: Or they would come and they would come as long as that little group of them would come and they would always be talking about their diets and their, you know, what teachers they liked and what teachers they didn't like and what they were doing in their lives. And so I was fascinated because I love to work out. I've always been just someone who liked physical activity. 

TN: So I was really watching the patterns, their patterns of behavior change and being able to keep the behavior changes that they wanted to make or not. And I didn't call it, you know, use it in those words. But at the same time, in my life, I was having some relatives get very sick and die from, you know, disease that was arguably lifestyle-related and preventable. 

TN: One of my first self-help books that I remember reading was Deepak Chopra's "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind." And I was 14, which is kind of funny to read a book about ageless bodies and timeless minds when you're 14. But I was fascinated by those things even then and I think it's part of my, just part of my, you know, sacred curriculum for existing or something, to really help, to help, to understand people so that I might help them make those changes that they want to make in various contexts. It almost doesn't even matter how. I put myself through law school as a personal trainer and I feel this is the same, it's the same work I do now.

PC: What patterns did you notice, you know, at such a young age that you were kind of picking up on? Because yeah, some people kind of just show up and they go through the motions, like you said, they buy the gear and look the part.

TN: For a minute.

PC: Yeah, for a minute and then drop out. And then some people, I don't know, show up in gear with holes, holes in their gear, but they're grinding it out and they're really getting it done.

TN: Funny, so this was like, I was nine. So this was 36 years ago. And there wasn't a workout culture then like there is now. So it, the pattern that I was mostly spotting was people quitting. The pattern I was mostly spotting was people signing up and paying and being on this high that they were going to do this thing and buying all this gear and coming to work out. And then not. In the book, I call this the personal disruption conundrum. And it exists in every, in any field of human endeavor where people are trying to make a change, it exists. I've seen it everywhere. 

TN: That people know, people generally know the changes that they want to make. And they generally know the, you know, high-level, how. They just can't get themselves to make them, right? And so you can look at that problem through a bunch of different lenses. Some people would call that a discipline problem, some people would call it a self-sabotage problem, some people would call it a willpower problem. You know, neurobiology has something to say about it. Psychology does, spirituality does. But that's the fundamental problem that I maybe exist, even, to solve.

PC: What specifically?

TN: It's the problem of helping people actually make the changes that they desire to make. You know, that they find so hard to make. I've worked in, you know, health and fitness, nutrition, wellness, whatever you want to call that industry, forever. Everybody knows that if they want to lose weight, they should eat less and exercise more. There is no new wisdom on that. Whether you're talking about tracking macros or intermittent fasting or the different apps or workout programs, all you're doing is a variation on a theme of how can I help people do the thing that they want to do?

Predicting pain points

PC: You went to law school.

TN: Yeah.

PC: Wait, so why did you go into law school?

TN: It was a moment.

PC: Okay.

TN: It was a moment.

TN: I was very young when I was doing my higher education. So I started college when I was 16, had a master's degree in psychology, and my bachelor's degree and master's degree are in psychology. And graduated law school when I was 25. Along the way, realizing even as a lawyer, the piece of that that I did love was being a trusted advisor to people who were trying to make a change. Like there, that is the through line.

PC: A through line, yeah.

TN: So yeah, and even when I started, when I came into marketing and when I came into tech marketing, I tended to, I just only could even see the companies that I felt were really trying to help people make really good decisions or trying to help people live better lives, trying to help people be healthier, wealthier, wiser. It's just my natural... 

TN: And then the way I market tends to be through that lens too, how can we actually create content that helps them, you know, make the change that they want to make more effectively, more beautifully, with more ease. And then, and become sort of their trusted advisor as a company, right? Versus "You have to use our product, you have to use our product, you have to use our product." 

TN: Nobody really cares actually, is the spoiler alert to people who are, I'm not a professionally trained marketer, I have just been a professional marketer for a long time. Nobody actually cares about the product.

PC: Did you just pick up on this intuitively? Like how, what happened after law school?

TN: So I represented a bunch of bad apple realtors.

PC: Okay, what's a bad apple?

TN: I actually think realtors, I was a realtor for a while, so I believe that realtors get a bad, a real bad rap. But there are occasional, actual bad apple realtors. And so I ended up representing some of those people.

PC: So you were actually practicing law.

TN: I practiced the law for a couple of years. And I was very dismayed by what I saw. And usually I would just give my clients the advice that you really should settle this, and you should pay these people. And in my mind, I kept thinking, "Gosh, I would be so much better at this. They don't seem to care." And these are, this is these people's biggest transaction they'll ever make, it's all their life money, all their life design intention is going into this one transaction. And so I quit my job as a lawyer.

PC: You just quit?

TN: I did, I got a real estate broker's license.

PC: Were you working on that on the side or-

TN: I didn't work on the side as a realtor, no. I did work on getting my license on the side.

PC: Getting your license, that's what I meant, yeah.

TN: And then I quit my job. I feel like sitting in the car with hundreds of home buyers was, it is the origin story of my entire approach to customer insights and research and marketing. Because I would sit in the car and they would start talking to me about bedrooms and bathrooms. And I'd be like, right, but what do you want your life to look like, man? You know what I mean, zoom out a little bit and let me help you get to the granular details. And people would tell me things because I do have that trusted advisor kind of vibe. 

TN: And I kept seeing people make really poor decisions. And so what I did, my master's degree is in psychology with an emphasis in curriculum design. So I designed a curriculum. I actually, when I was in real estate, created this flowchart of a real estate transaction. But I annotated it for, so it was like how-to, which everybody kind of had some version of. Here's, here's how you do a transaction.

PC: Yeah, but it's so easy to lose contextual clues.

TN: No context.

PC: And just be in the process and lose yourself in the process, right.

TN: And most people don't even go through the flow chart with people until they're deep in the process. So I would be like, before we get in the car, let's sit down at a table when we're not going to go look at houses today, we're just going to walk through this. And it was how-to, but it was also what to expect.

PC: Based on the experience that you've already-

TN: Yes!

PC: You've been picking up on these things.

TN: Yeah, cause I'm pattern-spotter. And it totally changed the game. I literally had people who had bought several houses before in their lives be like, "That was the least stressful real estate transaction." I think people feel, and I say this even for clients or companies that are marketing now, when you can truly get deep inside someone's, especially inside their painful, their pain points, their pain experience, and put language to that in a way that they have never heard before, you get you gain instant credibility as a resource. Your brand gains instant credibility as a resource for them.

PC: Well I'll go one step further, you're predicting-

TN: Yes.

PC: The pain.

TN: Here's how you're gonna feel. 

Finding your genius

TN: I turned that book into a workshop, or that flow chart into a workshop. I turned the workshop into a book. I self-published the book. I joke that I sold 10 copies of that book. But one of them was to HGTV, who licensed the book. And they hired me as a digital content marketing consultant to break my 400-page book, cause I like to talk, down into hundreds of articles and these video webisode series. And they media trained me and I went on the road for them as a PR spokesperson for three or four years.

TN: Do you know the book "The Big Leap" by the psychologist Gay Hendricks?

PC: Uh-uh.

TN: We all have four zones. Our zone of incompetence, which we should just stay out of but we don't for some reason. I don't know how a lot of us are doing things.

PC: Or sometimes it's necessary: I don't want to be competent in anything.

TN: Right. Our zone of competence, where it's just, where we're kind of as good as anybody else would be at a thing. Our zone of excellence, which is where we're actually better than most people at doing things, doing that thing. But that thing kind of depletes us. The zone of excellence is kind of the trap zone because people end up getting jobs and building whole careers there.

PC: I'm great at it, but maybe I'm not… I don't love it.

TN: It doesn't light me up, I'm not that into it. But generally people will pay you a lot to do it.

PC: Right, right.

TN: And then your zone of genius. Right, which is where you are.

PC: A mix of, like talent?

TN: Yes. It's like, you're so good at it and it super lights you up to do it. I do think that that first HGTV gig kind of hit in there. It just kind of landed right in my zone of genius. Around the combination of the content stuff and the spokesperson stuff and the consumer insights. Let me not omit this really important fact. The market was crashing. The market was about to crash.

PC: Okay, so we're talking 2007?

TN: Something like that, maybe '06, '07. Cause it was three or four years. So it was in that timeframe. So there was all this interest in real estate as a topic on the news. And there was all this, you know, there were people talking about it, but they tended to not actually have any credentials in real estate. And so there was this really perfect space for me. I could get on pretty much any show because they all needed someone who actually had some expertise in real estate. And then I did that work with them for three or four years while I was still selling real estate. 

TN: Ultimately was recruited away from that project to go work in-house at Trulia. And Trulia had a repository of customer search data, the size of which, you know, was almost, I mean maybe Zillow at the time was bigger and that would have been the only thing. So Trulia had some cool stuff you could do from a data perspective. And so we did. So then I went in-house at Trulia and that was my first real marketing job.

PC: What specifically was your role now?

TN: Yeah, I was, I don't actually even know what my title was, but I think it was something like... It might've been something like Head of Content Marketing. 

TN: The question that I knew, that every buyer ever who ever has ever bought a house ever, ever, ever, asked is, should I rent or should I buy? There are formulas that kind of give you some mathematical guidance on that. So we were like, what if we actually just made this a thing? What if we made a rent versus buy index? 

TN: We ranked the top cities in the nation on whether the math says, based on average prices on Trulia right now, whether the math says you should rent or buy. And we got all this opportunity to build out commentary around whatever was really present in the minds of home buyers at that time. So everyone still had a theme, like the index stayed kind of the same, but as the market got worse, and I started at Trulia in 2010, as the market, you know, declined and declined and declined, there would be themes around that. As the market started to improve there would be themes about that. And it's hard, you can't really fake it. You can't really fake it. You actually kind of have to get all in it, get deep in it.

Uncovering the real insight

PC: MyFitnessPal, how did that whole thing come about?

TN: Right when they first started, like Forbes contributor, whatever, I had written this article called "Meet the Transformational Consumer." If your brand is willing to stop creating content about itself and start creating content that helps solve a real problem that your real target, best-fit customers really have in their real lives, you can actually use email, even email, and all kinds of other content marketing strategies to drive this wild, incredibly, relatively inexpensive, compared to advertising, incredibly engaged customer relationship and lead gen and all of that. 

TN: So that was the hypothesis that I held forth in that original Forbes article. And so someone in the Valley told them they should call me. And my brief was, help them decide if they need a marketing team. And if they do, what should marketing even be responsible for here? Like what should, what is the right strategic framework within this organization for marketing?

PC: How are companies just talking about themselves versus, like what's an example of a company talking just about itself?

TN: I mean all advertising. Until the year, you know, 2015.

PC: Oh, I see.

TN: You know what I mean? Where it's just very promotional, all about your features, all about, you know, the product. The product versus the problem. In the early days, what people would do was put together a bunch of materials about the product and think that that was content marketing.

PC: Yeah, "We have the best forms," versus whatever the problem is.

TN: Yes, you want to understand the cultural, human interest, other side of the story. Which honestly is risky, because it may not include you yet. Right, but the brilliance of understanding the high-level human problem that your people are trying to solve in detail is that you can then understand where you can meet them. Right, if you can find that Venn diagram overlap, then you can understand everything about that problem. 

TN: You can be so inside it, you can language to them from inside it, you can help them understand that sort of arc from their pain to their bliss. And you can insert yourself in key, like I love, Google used to use that phrase "micro moments." So it was moments in time in your life when you, when something happens in life that inspires you to know something or go somewhere or do something or buy something. Like you want to know what those moments are, you want to inventory those moments.

PC: Also, you could say service and success teams have this frontline information.

TN: Oh for sure.

PC: And somehow it doesn't always make its way to the product teams.

TN: Yeah, I know. I find that it's generally not for lack of the success team trying. I often find the success team is like, "Guys?"

PC: Here's the voice of the customer for the third quarter in a row.

TN; Yeah, here's a thing that we're noticing, or here's an email that came in. But unless there's like, like at MyFitnessPal we ended up building an actual, we built a pillar of our PR and content strategy around user success stories. 

TN: Okay, so here's what happened. So we go out to do ethnographic research to understand what people's real-world journey of trying to lose weight and live a healthier life looks like. One thing that we realized is the "influencers" in that space aren't really who you think they are. We didn't hear anybody talking about Jillian Michaels or Khloé Kardashian probably wasn't even a weight-loss influencer at the time. We heard people saying, "My uncle lost 50 pounds and I was like, maybe I can too."

PC: But the examples were more intimate?

TN: Yes. And so what we did was, once we knew what the common sort of catalyst life moments and micro moments were, we would find people, like we knew that people getting ready for weddings was a big one. We knew that people seeing a reflection of themselves in the mirror or seeing themselves in a photo and being surprised at how overweight they looked was a very common thing that would catalyze change. 

TN: So we would actually work with our customer success team but in a systematic and formalized program to find a bunch of real people, customer success stories with those real fact patterns. And then we would amplify those stories mostly on big PR.

Unraveling messy minds

PC: It seems to me that what you're doing is, you're constantly trying to find context. How, yeah, maybe I'm oversimplifying it, but it's, you're context-seeking, right?

TN: It is context-seeking. Really, all you're doing is understanding human beings. Like legit. But at a level of specificity and granularity that most modern marketers are not used to and honestly are actually a little afraid of.

PC: I've seen this in CEOs too.

TN: Oh definitely.

PC: I don't want to talk to my... I don't want them to kill my baby.

TN: Right? 

PC: I think you need them to kill your baby.

TN: Right, your baby is not that cute. Your baby needs to go. And I think the human mind and the human experience is very, it feels messy and scary to people. So I think there's also often, you know, I see this a lot when I consult with companies. They want a quick answer. They want a quick answer now to how do I grow? How do I get more users, how do I get more revenue? 

TN: The human answer may or may not be that quick. It requires a patience that I don't meet many marketers who have. And I guess I should also really, really stress for tech companies in particular, you are probably not your customer. Especially if you're, if you live in Silicon Valley, you're not your customer, I'm just going to tell you. Unless you want your company to be very small and marketing to a very specific kind of person, you're not. 

TN: What people in San Francisco and around will do with technology does not generalize to what anyone else in the world will do. And you don't need more of the same, same with talking to your existing users. Unless, I mean, you already reached them. You're wanting to know how to reach people you're not reaching. So you've got to talk to people you're not reaching. And I think sometimes that's really hard for companies because they're just, you know, it's really easy to talk to your existing users. It's less scary. It seems the right thing to do, it seems a really common thing to do because it is. But it's not where big growth is made.

PC: As far as big patterns that you're seeing now and things that, the things that really stick, the things that really work. I know when, off the top that you're going to say, is like, well, not just talk to your customers, but talk to your market, right?

TN: Listen to them.

PC: Well yeah, but at least have that dialogue, right?

TN: I would say it's almost, as I observe it up-close and personal, it's almost less about just the dialogue and more about the psychological safety.

TN: What's an example of that?

PC: I mean, it's kind of, it's really, it's why I do the work that I do now. Because as you know, "The Transformational Consumer" came out a few years ago. As I started traveling and consulting with CMOs and marketing people around the book, I was like, you guys know what to do. What's the, wait, I'm not even, cause I will often just ask, like, I'm a sort of master coach. That's my, in my being, right? So I just ask, well, what do you think we should be doing? 

TN: And they all have really good answers, often based on this kind of intuitive, you know, instinctual observation and patterns and whatever, but they can't make the case for it per se, because you can't always make the business case for intuition. It feels very scary to go out on a limb based solely on intuition if you've been trained that data is king. Right?

PC: Well the truth is that marketers don't know what's going to work.

TN: They don't, they should not even know what's going to work. If they're not actually screwing it up, something is, they're not trying the right number of things. Like, this is not, perfection at marketing is not even, shouldn't even be the goal. Like the goal should be, and I'm constantly challenging my clients and their teams with this, what are we going to learn out of this campaign? That's the, if we learned X, that is success.

PC: Okay.

TN: Right, what are we trying to learn?

PC: It just reminds me of Buzzfeed's virality model. They're basically admitting they don't know. And, and you know-

TN: I was like, wow, I didn't know they had a, what's the plan.

PC: No, but everything is an experiment. Everything, it's almost like their mindset is more scientific than it is.

TN: It's lean but marketing. Right, like lean methodology, but, so I actually take that as, that's my life rule. Everything is an experiment in life.

PC: Yeah. 

Defining your brand

PC: Final question.

TN: Yes.

PC: Jeff Bezos says that a brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room. What do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?

TN: I would like them to say that they left feeling like they could do something that they'd always wanted to do, but hadn't been able to give themselves permission to do. Yeah. I would like to be that.

PC: Amazing. 


PC: So that was Tara-Nicholle. A few things I'm taking away from my conversation with her. Number one, don't just talk to your customers, talk to your market. Specifically, the people who aren't using your product right now. There's a lot of room for growth there. 

PC: Number two, find the transformation your customers are trying to make and help them make that transformation. Sometimes you have to look at contextual clues and do deep research, but it's worth the effort. 

PC: And number three, experiment, experiment, experiment. You're a marketer. You don't need to know everything. 

PC: Thanks for watching this episode of Meaningful, and don't forget, let's make every interaction count.

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