Very Finnish Marketing and the Art of Online Community Building

The name of this podcast is Marketing Helsinki and in my opinion, there’s very few people better suited to talk about marketing and Helsinki than Joel Willans.

Joel is an award-winning author, creative director and the founder of various popular online communities including Very Finnish Problems – which is one of Finland’s most popular social media brands.

We discuss the divide between sales and marketing, selling to Finns vs selling to non-Finns, launching and growing a Facebook page to 15 thousand fans in one month organically. But, my favorite part is when Joel talks about discovering some of the happiest (Finnish) words in the world!

Listen to the full conversation on AppleSpotify or in the browser below.


Marketing Helsinki | Episode 32

➤ How did you fall into marketing?

Originally, as you may remember, I worked in sales in the UK. I was a sales manager for a couple of magazines and I had quite a lot of distaste for marketeers actually – I always felt like, all you need to do to sell stuff is actually to go and pitch people and promote your product. And what were marketeers really doing? Just sort of faffing around. So, I got into marketing as a result of studying creative writing and when coming to Finland not being able to do sales because my Finnish was poor – and it’s still not as good as it should be – so I started copywriting and I fell into marketing via copywriting for Nokia.

➤ All right. This is super interesting because you’re saying in your mind there’s a divide between sales and marketing? Sales people look down upon marketing? What’s the difference to you? Is it just the difference between going out and pulling in?

Maybe it’s a bit harsh to say I have a distaste for marketing. I still think that, of course, the best way to sell anything is to go in person and pitch the person who’s making the decision to buy the product but ultimately it’s just impossible to physically go out and pitch to tens of thousands of people. You can’t have individual sales people going out and pitching to all those people. So yeah, you’re never going to replace a talented sales person pitching individually to the the decision maker, so marketing is always to an extent going to be second best. 

➤ I’m so surprised to hear that because to me you’re the king of marketing, in terms of the your Facebook pages and your viral content – because that’s not selling, that’s marketing.

I mean, ultimately the whole point of all marketing is to sell stuff, isn’t it? People can tiptoe around that and pretend they’re doing all this creative genius stuff, ‘Look at how creative we are. Look at the amazing campaigns we’ve done. Look at the amazing copy we’ve written,’ but ultimately, at the end of the day, if you’re not selling the product, it doesn’t matter how fancy your pictures, or how beautiful your films are or how marvelous your words are, they’re not selling the product, they’re not doing the job, are they?

I like creating beautiful things and I love creating beautiful things that loads of people see, and you know content marketing in that sense is a blessing for me personally because it’s made storytelling at the forefront of marketing but ultimately at the end of the day, if you get a million views and you don’t sell a single thing, then I would argue that you failed.

That may be a brutal assessment and you know a lot of marketeers because they’ve never really worked in sales, they judge success in a different way. I mean you look at marketing awards and it’s just a massive circle jerk as far as I’m concerned. It’s like a loads of marketeers patting each other on the back about how fantastic their campaigns are but ultimately the only way you should judge a marketing campaign in my opinion is what’s the return on investment? Have you made more money than you invested in that campaign? If the answer is no, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, doesn’t matter how many awards it’s won, it’s failed.

➤ Yeah that’s awesome. You’re saying that if marketing stops at getting the numbers and the views but it doesn’t go as far as getting the sale then it’s pretty pointless. We should have a view of the big picture. 

Yeah I’m not saying it’s totally pointless, of course. You could argue it’s all about the funnel. It’s all about brand awareness. You could say, ‘I get a million views, I didn’t sell anything but I’ve made a million people aware of my product and I’ve put them on the path to buying,’ so there is that argument and you know marketing agencies and advertising agencies for the entire time I’ve been working in this industry – which is now 25 years almost – it’s always been about proving that your investment is working. And even when I worked in advertising sales it was always the same: people say, ‘Here’s my marketing budget. Can you prove that this advert is gonna work for me?’ and we’d always say, ‘No, we can’t prove that but you get brand awareness.’ So it’s always like a ‘Get out of jail card’ but now in the era of digital marketing, you don’t really have that. I think you have less opportunity to have that excuse. 

I mean on Facebook, like all online marketing, you can directly see how much money you spend on that campaign and how many sales you make – if you’ve got an online shop for example. And I’ve become a lot more like this since doing online stores. Very Finnish Problems has an online store now which is pretty much a standalone business. I actually invest very little in Facebook ads but I can see when I do invest money in Facebook ads how that converts and how much stuff I sell and it’s actually quite nice because it’s very tangible.

➤ Yeah numbers. Clear numbers.

Numbers. Exactly!

➤ Well that brings us nicely onto Very Finnish Problems. Do you remember – I would love it if you do – the very first post you made?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been on quite a few podcasts and no one’s ever asked me what the first post was. You’re challenging my rapidly failing memory. What was the very first post? I have a vague… I could find out by going back and checking but I can’t quite remember. I can’t remember to be honest but it was likely something to do with the weather.

➤ Okay but that’s already nice insight because you’re saying that the very first post is still there. A lot of accounts when they get to a certain level they delete the earlier posts.

Likely, the very first post I made was one I just found. I mean I started to make them a bit later on. Because to start with it was just an experiment to see what would work and what wouldn’t but we could go back and see the first week or so yeah. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that all the themes that regularly crop up are represented within the first week or month so: weather, language, sauna, character, forest, you know all those things.

➤ You started it off as an experiment. So did you experiment other ideas before you settled on Very Finnish Problems?

Well I’ve got loads of online communities. I mean my biggest one is on Reddit which has like 15 million followers now – OldschoolCool. I’ve got a lot of different Twitter feeds, I’m always experimenting. Growing communities and growth hacking stuff was always fascinating to me ever since we started doing content marketing for Nokia and I wanted to create audiences that would engage with the content we’re doing. So rather than relying on other people’s audiences, I realised it’s cool to create our own audience and so I was creating Subreddits, Facebook pages of Nokia fans etc etc. For Very Finnish Problems it was just a bet to see and to prove that I could create a full page with like 10,000 followers in a month without spending a penny. 

➤ Wait, I didn’t know these numbers. So you went from zero to 10,000 in a month?

I went from zero to about 15-20,000 in a month but the bet was for 10,000. I mean it was a different time. I mean, Facebook’s evolved so much. You know ultimately, the aim of Facebook has always been – and it’s more barefaced about it now – they just want your money. They don’t want to give any organic anything so they want you to pay for everything. If you knew what you were doing four years ago and had some good ideas you could grow a page organically relatively easily but now it’s a lot more tricky, sadly.

➤ So back then, 0 to 20 000 in a month, what were some of those the tactics that you used back then that don’t necessarily work now? 

It used to be the case, you could get a small clip of video and if it had viral potential it could reach loads and loads of people. Like my biggest video on Very Finnish Problems has something like 10 million [views] or something; on Very Brexit Problems, which is another community I have, on that 20 million [views] and that’s all organic. But now Facebook has changed the way they do video. You don’t get automatic views and they have this Facebook Watch which is their competitor to YouTube so video performs a lot worse than it used. I think it’s just the fact that Facebook just rewards different types of content now and just wants you to pay.

So, I mean the techniques I used then, I would still use and in some ways it’s easier because for example, like one way to grow a page even now is, first of all you need to find your niche, you need to find something quite specific and then you need to find maybe a dozen groups that have a similar theme and then you just cross post into groups. I mean a lot of stuff I used to do was also just cross post into other pages so there’s a lot of cross-posting, cross-pollination, finding audiences that already exist and create content that they would like and then sharing it in those places.

When you say find groups, do you mean share your page on the groups? Don’t they frown upon that?

Not if it’s relevant. If I’m doing a … ‘Bonsai fans of the world’ Facebook page, okay I’ll look for Bonsai fans of Helsinki… Bonsai fans of [another city] you know what I mean, as long as the post is relevant. Of course if it’s totally irrelevant then you’re spamming them. If you’re creating relevant content then there’s absolutely no reason why it would be frowned upon. And the thing about Very Finnish Problems is it’s on the one hand very specific, it’s specific to a country but on the other hand it’s very general because it’s literally anything to do with Finland. So in that sense you’ll see Very Finnish Problems stuff crop up all over the place. After Finland – I mean most of the fans are in Finland but – the second biggest audience is in America because there’s like 750,000 Americans with Finnish ancestry.

➤ Yep, exactly and they’re even more obsessed sometimes!

Yeah they’re super obsessed! They treat Finland like some weird Nordic Disneyland. They’ve never been here! A lot of them have got like ‘Sisu’ bumper stickers and Finland tattoos and they can’t speak Finnish. So Very Finnish Problems is like a window for them into Finland. So there’s loads of people who have an interest in Finland who you wouldn’t expect. And Facebook’s really promoted groups in the last couple of years so there’s a lot of groups like that. And even Very Finnish Problems has a group; it’s got like 16,000 followers, it lives its own life basically.


Hear the full conversation on the podcast: