The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing (Just Kidding, It's Me in SpongeBob Underwear)

In marketing, there's an unspoken but very real negative part to the industry. While you may not subscribe to these practices yourself, it's easy to watch some marketers ruin stuff for others, or else turn the work into a constant battle to game systems and buy followers and over-optimize everything. It can feel hollow just to say you do marketing sometimes -- especially since these negative or "black hat" tactics can and do get noticed by those outside our industry.

All of this only furthers the need for quality organizations, individuals, and communities to push us all in the right direction and drown out the negative noise.

Today, I'd like to place something that feels innocent but is actually detrimental to all involved into that negative side of our industry: using data to replace, rather than inform, a content creator's intuition.

To be clear, data is the source of lots of good in our industry. But, as it's so often used incorrectly, it mostly becomes a tool to make a selfish case for something. Often, those things are shortcuts or personal agendas that aren't good for the customer or audience. As this English major has been learning for years, numbers can be twisted in an even more dangerous way than words since they seem more "concrete."

Case in point: the use of ebooks placed behind lead-gen forms. This tactic has worked for years in content marketing -- particularly in B2B. The approach was once the poster child for what B2B content marketing should be, but today, it feels overrun and tired. While it may yield results for some organizations, for many others, it's a sign that they're getting lazy. They look backwards at what the data says worked BEFORE, then try to replicate it without evolving or advancing.

That's where we get into serious trouble -- using data to remove all creative thought in our work, rather than to supercharge it. Some marketers might look at past reports to say, "X worked in the past. Just do X again." Although that feels like a smart approach, we wind up repeating ourselves too much. We ruin things for ourselves and our audiences. And, worse, we become short-sighted and fail to see the forest for the trees.

In these cases, instead of trying to build a loyal audience that takes action on our behalf, we try to manufacture vanity metrics. We over-optimize the headlines, the SEO, or the landing page copy as a substitute for -- rather than enhancement to -- content that's inherently worth reading and sharing. (This is the content equivalent of artificial ingredients in food. Rather than the real, tasty thing, we want to manufacture the cheaper option that LOOKS the same but is usually anything but.)

Again, in too many cases, it's not about the forest. It's all about the trees. But these are rotten trees.

The worst, most rotten offense that data misusers make is to under-deliver on their content's promise. They work like hell on all the stuff that feels like marketing (SEO, et al) but skimp on the other, "softer" stuff like great writing or design.

But in these scenarios, nobody wins. 

A Horrifying Example

I once had a conversation with a marketing colleague about this exact issue, all triggered by a single ebook that had been created about two years prior to our discussion.

I first noticed us tweet the old ebook: "The Ultimate Guide to [XYZ]." (I'm removing identifying words to be respectful of my friends/past employer.) 

We'd been smart about using old content as new social media posts, so seeing a two-year-old piece in my feed wasn't the horrifying part. The horror started only after I clicked the link and arrived on the landing page.

The page read, "The Ultimate Guide to [XYZ]: Everything you need to know to [benefits to the customer]." A lengthy, bulleted list of example lessons you'd learn sat beneath that, with an animated GIF scrolling through teaser images from inside piece.

It looked and sounded, in a word, sexy.

But then I downloaded it. And the ultimate guide was ... anything but.

And "everything I needed to know" was ... everything that was missing.

In fact, while the landing page listed a number of tactics you'd learn in the guide, the PDF itself only focused on one of those things. We were blatantly overselling and under-delivering. Said another way, we were very obviously misleading our audience and didn't seem to care.

Worse still, the only part that was included in the ebook sucked. The writing was awful, the design looked sloppy, and the layout felt juvenile and amateurish. 

So, naturally, I told my colleague that I wanted to redesign and rewrite that ebook. The response floored me: "Why bother? It's generating tons of traffic and leads every month."

I ... um ... what?!

In what world is it okay to do what I just described above? And in what universe does someone who feels THAT misled and disrespected actually want to hear from your sales team or receive another marketing email? Yes, they're now a lead. But they're also a person, and that person probably felt completely frustrated with us.

So why didn't we take action? The numbers looked good enough to stop using our intuition. Gun to their head, my colleague would have probably agreed with me. But why spend the extra energy when the analytics looked positive?

The refrain seemed to be, "Who cares what sits behind that form as long as the form sitting in front of it converts leads?"

Never mind that actual humans are what trigger your analytics reports. Never mind that, even though a new name is in your database, it represents a person who's probably pissed at you.

It was a losing battle. My argument was based on intuition, while theirs was based on data. But just "using numbers" doesn't mean you've learned anything. It doesn't mean you have the right information. It doesn't mean your argument is more correct, either.

I believe that intuition and data need to work together. Sometimes one or the other alone is enough. Sometimes you need both. In my experience, the best content is produced not by looking back at what works and simply copying it but by combining the quantitive and qualitative. 

Best case scenario, it looks like this:

Content, you see, can be frustrating to purely data-driven marketers. It requires a high degree of craft to it, and while someone needs to look out for the science and metrics, you also need to pay attention to the art (aka, the content). It's that part which makes this style marketing different than, say, PPC on search or programmatic display advertising. It's just a fact: Production work can't be fully automated, at least not yet. Hopefully not ever.  

I think about that aforementioned ultimate guide a ton. It reminds me that it DOES matter that content marketers think longer term than all the vanity metrics out there. Again, to short-term thinkers occupying the negative side of the marketing industry, it literally doesn't matter what they put behind the form. It could be the Ultimate Guide to XYZ. It could be a one-page checklist. Or it could be a picture of me in SpongeBob underwear. What difference does it make?

Answer: all the difference in the world.

And if you don't buy it and won't believe it, then here -- I've saved you the trouble of having to create great content. Just stick this behind a lead-gen form and never think about your readers ever again. Never create anything original or useful or entertaining. Never care whether or not you offend, disrespect, or spam your audience. At least you'll be doing so with something damn good looking...

Posted on April 20, 2015 and filed under Rants, Cartoons.

Don't Forget to Tip Your Haters!

I've always been fascinated by the way top athletes use their doubters and critics as fuel for their fires. You know the tale: Michael Jordan gets cut from his high school team, only to roar back the next year, make the team, then go on to become the best basketball player in the world, if not the universe. (We'll never know for sure about the latter. Thanks, Looney Tunes ... )

That one high school moment so affected MJ that he even mentioned it during his Hall of Fame speech. HIS HALL OF FAME SPEECH! At that point in his career, he had literally zero things to prove to anyone. But there he was, still thinking about that seemingly insignificant life setback.

Why?

Because it drove him. It got him to where he is today. It helped him hit the gym when everyone else hit the bars. It prompted him to add new skills to his repertoire each offseason when everyone else remained stuck in their ways. It drove him to outwork and outthink and outcompete his opponents night in and night out during what became one of the most remarkable careers ever.

All that is because, rather than shrugging off, tuning out, or "getting over" the moments when others doubted him, Jordan quietly filed them away in the back of his mind and used them to his own gain later. With each new critic or critique came a new impetus to drive forward or muscle through the day to day routine in order to build a truly special career. By recalling his own setbacks and haters, Jordan and really, all top athletes add serious fuel to their fires.

I LOVE that. I've always loved that about sports. These grandiose, emotionally charged ideals are a major reason I focused my college career on sports journalism.

Applying This to Our Own Careers

We all face our own haters from time to time, whether due to the natural course of a long career or because we as creators are constantly putting ourselves out there for the scrutiny of audiences both internal and external.

As a result, I think we could all benefit from having our own private lists of haters to fuel us.

This realization recently hit me right in the face thanks to a conversation with a former colleague. As we caught up, she complimented my work she'd seen me do since we parted ways: "Dude! You're everywhere lately, congrats! I don't know how you do it."

Now, many who know me know that I'm both a sincerely nice guy and largely disgusted by the self-aggrandizement and "Twitterization" of our behavior in the digital age. In other words, you'd expect my reaction to my friend's compliment to be a simple yet kind, "Thanks, that was nice of you to say."

But it wasn't. Buried in her very nice, very genuine statement was something else, something she couldn't have known she was saying: She hadn't seen this level work from me before. She wasn't surprised, per se, but she was certainly signaling that this was all new territory. 

And all I could think was, You're damn straight I'm doing good work!

If anything, rather than gratitude, I felt vindicated. I felt like I'd proved something to someone. But to whom?

Ah, that's right, I thought -- to a hater that I'd previously buried in my mind. 

Maybe Burying or Ignoring Haters Is the Wrong Approach

In speaking with that friend and analyzing my own bizarre-yet-visceral reaction, I remembered that she and I worked together during a time I felt burned by an employer. Whether they didn't believe in me, didn't use me the right way, or just didn't set expectations properly when I was hired, my longterm thinking and apolitical nature just didn't jibe with the company's unwelcoming, short-term culture.

So of course, at that time, I felt burned, and I left and tried not to think about how angry I felt. I just moved forward, the same person with the same ideas and ideals, doing work of which I knew I was always capable.

However, I'd effectively just heard my friend compare that past with my present. Without knowing or intending it, she'd suddenly torn open a scab.

See?! I told you so! And I'm not done proving them wrong yet!

Is This Really the Right Mentality?

Especially in our business of creating things online, the more you put yourself out there and the better you become at the work, the greater the chance of some haters emerging becomes.

So thanks to that fateful conversation, I started revisiting my haters in my head again. And it's been ... oddly great.

I've felt myself working harder. A lot harder. Whenever I'm feeling tired, or lazy, or uninspired, or even if I start to doubt myself, I rush back to that time in my head. And I suddenly reach a higher gear. I feel mad like my past self felt mad, sure, but only briefly. Above all else, I feel hungry. I feel like I'd run through a brick wall if only to prove myself and produce the best work of which I'm capable.

Now, my psychologist (aka, my wife, who is also an actual psychologist) would probably deem this more than a little unhealthy, but a professional win for me has become equal parts, "Heck yes!" and, "I told you so!" And though I'm no professional athlete, I've read or written about enough of them to know that the latter "told you so" reaction is important to trigger from time to time.

Don't misunderstand: I know most of that is fabricated. The same could be said of the little hit list in the minds of Jordan or Kobe or Jeter or Muhammad Ali. It's the same motivating factor behind every great athlete who ascended to the top of their sport, because that level of greatness requires an innate will to succeed, even if fueled by some fiction. 

Yes, my biggest sports heroes don't just remember their haters, they magnify them. Like the jilted high school boyfriend dumped by the popular girl, they concoct a grander narrative for what it all meant. And I know I'm guilty of doing the same.

But man, do these fabrications fuel an authentic fire.

After all, when the press declares LeBron the best basketball player today, Kobe doesn't just shrug and go, "No, no, they're making valid points."

When people said Derek Jeter was washed up, he wouldn't suddenly consider retirement a bit more seriously.

When Becky Hammon set out to become the first female NBA coach, she didn't leave interviews accepting corporate excuses like, "She's just not a culture fit here."

These people don't accept things at face value. They don't live by a set of rules they saw tweeted by some industry blogger one time. They write their own rules, and their haters are their collective Muse. 

They work harder. They improve themselves. They prove themselves.

So, in closing: Thank you, haters.

Thank you for making me a better writer, a better leader, a better entrepreneur, a better creative, a better mentor, a better employee ... and just plain better. 

Thank you for being the reason I work when others play. 

Thank you for being the reason I take risks where many trot out the same, tired garbage in my industry.

Thank you for always being there when I need you the most.

You are my knight in shit-stained armor. My darkness in the light. My user and abuser who (still) makes me feel like a loser.

My haters. 

Thank you.

Posted on March 22, 2015 .

How to Buy Twitter Followers, A Flowchart

As a modern content marketer, it's important to understand each and every channel available today in order to game and cheat that system to death.

(Also, don't forget to then abuse the crap out of a channel once you've successfully gamed it. It'll stop working for you eventually, but until then, WHEEEEEEE!!!!)

Today, we're talking about Twitter, the latest new fad of 2015. Should you use it for your marketing? Who knows! A keyword tool told me I should write this post.

Anywho, if you're like me and you firmly believe your audience is psyched to tweet with an anthropomorphic corporate logo, then today's your lucky day! I've created an exhaustive guide to buying Twitter followers (because, seriously, at 1,200, you're just embarrassing yourself).

Note that this guide contains everything you need to know about how to buy Twitter followers.

You'll learn such valuable lessons as...

  1. Should I buy Twitter followers?

. . .

You might be asking where I learned such critical information. The truth is, I stole--I MEAN CURATED IT! Yep, I curated it. Curation is a thing we're supposed to do. I believe Mark Twain once said that. 

Now because this is my first guide, I've decided NOT to put it behind a lead-gen form. So rather than have you complete a 20-field form followed by two to three weeks of my sales team showing up at your house, I'm simply asking this: If you do read my guide, please immediately send me an email containing your updated state of brand affinity. I need to tell my CMO.

Now then, without further ado, here is the Ultimate Guide to Buying Twitter Followers! 

And remember: This is quite literally everything you need to know about this topic.

God bless you. God bless Twitter. And God bless the United States of Content Marketing. 

 

 

 

Posted on February 11, 2015 .

Content Marketing Doesn't Scale

honor the craft damnit

Content marketing is "not scalable."

Or, said more accurately, content marketing is not as scalable as some marketers would like it to be.

Posting to social networks? Somewhat scalable. Thanks to Buffer, HootSuite, Tweetdeck, and a long, LONG list of apps, you're doing much less work as a marketer by leaning on technology.

Buying banner ads? Super scalable. You can automate almost all of it. 

Bidding for keywords? Supremely scalable. In just a few minutes, remove all humans from the process.

Sending email, whether once or in a drip campaign? SO scalable. You can set it and forget it. It'll repeat for you over and over and over again, all on its own. It's called marketing automation for crying out loud.

Curating links? Stupendously scalable. Tons of apps and products exist to help you automatically find and insert relevant content in your work, making you the very best of the best at adding zero original thoughts and value to the world.

But creating original, unique, compelling, useful content that emotionally and intellectually resonates with an audience?

The robots haven't replaced the writers.

Or the designers. Or the video producers. Or the podcasters. Or any truly great content creator. 

"Just publish whatever -- it still works."

Sure, marketers can fake their way to some results with the bad stuff. They can take some shortcuts to save time and money rather than view their content as craft-driven work. They can push out more "stuff" or louder "stuff" or sneakier, more sensational-sounding "stuff." They can over-market a crappy piece of crap created by writers they paid crap.

But we can and should do SO MUCH MORE with our content. It can and should be SO MUCH BETTER, which can and should yield SO MANY MORE results!

If you believe Seth Godin (and you should), content marketing is the only marketing that's left. And the only marketing that's left can't REALLY be automated. The distribution part? Sure. The creation part? Nope, and that is (or should be) more than half the battle -- creating great content. 

You need actual humans, preferably both healthy and alive, to produce great work.

Many marketers don't want to admit that. They don't want to admit that there's hard work to be done. (Not YOU, but some.) That's the rub in all of this content marketing stuff -- it seems hard because it IS hard. Pundits will talk your ear off about content marketing, but they glaze over the creation process. They say things like, "Tell great stories," or, "The secret is to create great content." Then they spend hours talking about all the ways to PROMOTE content, leaving you to figure out the majority of the production stuff.

"Create great content"? How? Who can do that? Were we trained? I wanted to be a sports journalist, so I think I can write, but it still took YEARS of my life to get to that point. (Do our companies have YEARS to spare?) 

And nobody taught me design, audio, video, interactive, and so forth. I'm just faking it, and if you enjoy my work, it's because I either hack away at stuff at nights and on weekends or because I fake it better than others. (By the way, if you do enjoy my work, THANK YOU!)

So, sadly, instead of acknowledging that the hard part -- the craft-driven part -- is worthwhile, we avoid it.

In the blue ocean of the creative and media worlds, we act like bottom-feeders. We behave like our entire existence depends on getting more sustenance out of scraps, or else we scramble and fight and claw to get MORE scraps.

Seriously?! If we'd just do the scary thing and look up, we'd see a big, wide, open ocean -- a vast array of creative creatures who aren't overly concerned with squeezing a few extra vitamins out of crap. They're doing awesome flips and underwater ninja moves, while we're stuck debating SEO tactics and whether some new tech or metric will save the day ... all because we're convinced we have to deal with scraps. Those creative creatures doing awesome flips above us? They're doing what we consider impossible (quality and quantity) and feasting to their heart's content. (By the way, that's pronounced "conTENT.") 

But that's uncharted waters (heh...) for the majority of content marketers.

That involves caring deeply about our production, not just our distribution.

That involves treating content marketing as a craft, not an automation. 

And that "doesn't scale."

Posted on February 4, 2015 .

No Audience, No Problem: Run the Content Marketing Wheel to Launch & Grow

Admittedly Ridiculous Disclaimer: This post talks a lot about my own work, which I don't love doing. I genuinely hope this comes across as helpful and not self-centered. To be honest, I can't stand those headlines wherein the author claims, “Get 5,783 Downloads By Doing Exactly What I Did.” Let’s face it — you won’t get 5,783 downloads by doing exactly what they did. That writer lied to you. To gain clicks. And it probably worked.

Ugh.

But here’s the thing: Reading about the specifics of someone’s work is actually the best way to learn. Unfortunately, the marketing industry is rather full of entirely meaningless babble like, “Content can take your customers on a journey with you to fall in love with your canned tuna!"

Nope! Not now. Not ever.

So, I'd rather not take THAT approach (because shoot me in the face). Instead, I’m sharing exactly what I did recently which helped NextView’s new blog attract some initial readers when it launched with zero audience -- a problem I know everyone faces at some point. Again, I think sharing specific examples is the very best way to teach. (For the record, a close second would be sharing general but tactical advice and tips. A distant third — wayyyy back near the starting line, hunched over, chewing some flowers along the track — are all of those garbanzo beans about inspirational journeys and hugging your customers with your content. Blech.)

So, without further caveats, complete this sentence to arrive at the actual post....

*           *           *

Ever say or spell the same word over and over again until you start to doubt it? Like that word right there — “doubt.” Just say that a bunch of times in a row. “Doubt. Doubt. Doubt.” Is there really a B in there? Is it really pronounced like that? “Dowt." It sounds weird now. "Dowwwwt.”

Every so often, I feel a similar sense of foreignness creep into my work when it comes to the content marketing advice I give to others. Over the last few years, as I’ve gotten more excited about this industry niche, I’ve tried to write more, speak more, and teach more — all of which means I’m saying more of the same things in different places.

So you can understand my unspoken (until now) self-doubt when I joined NextView Ventures in the spring of 2014 and decided to launch a go-to blog for seed-stage startups: The View From Seed.

Here's what happened that made what SHOULD have been straightforward and familiar to me (content marketing) suddenly sound somewhat ... off.

In July, when we launched the blog, I was utterly thrilled. It looked slick and clean. It had a strong mission and clear niche to own (seed stage startups, i.e. the first 18-24 months of web and mobile tech entrepreneurship). I was PUMPED!

But then — oh, right — nobody else cared. Our audience didn’t care because there was no audience

Thus, it was time to listen to the same advice I'd given dozens of times to other companies and individuals on how to launch a content marketing strategy and grow an audience. It was time to start building my very own mini content machine.

Unfortunately, as soon as you get incredibly close to any problem, even your own words start to sound foreign and strange. So I began to question my own advice and my own playbook. Granted, I'd done this before, both at a startup and at a larger, now-public tech company. But at NextView, I am quite literally a one-man shop. We don't use vendors. We don't have blog support. It's alllllll on me.

THAT was a first. THAT was kinda sorta scary.

So, after much wringing of hands and sipping of bourbon, a took a deep breath, and I decided to see what happened when I listened to my own advice. Below, I’m sharing the exact steps I took to follow the playbook I'd created for all my talks and teaching. Not only did these steps actually work for NextView's blog (oh thank God), I know that over-sharing these here can help you adopt some or all of it and see better results.

I’m a huge believer in running what I call the Content Marketing Wheel.

This is a hub-and-spoke approach to content creation and distribution. I first came up with this way to visualize and execute content marketing when I worked as head of content for HubSpot and was asked to teach our methods to others. For context, HubSpot publishes 3-5 blog posts every day, creates 4-6 longer form resources each month, and has built an audience of 2M+ monthly readers and 300K+ subscribers.

When explaining content marketing to others, I try to keep the common reasons they struggle in mind. Most commonly, companies fail because they simply stop. It’s hard to sustain. Other times, they might create a piece that’s truly great but doesn’t get any attention because they fail to actually market it. Lastly, many businesses create content that drives vanity metrics like views and shares, but they fail to actually convert people and prove ROI -- whether because they're measuring the wrong things or they literally can't get their audience to take those tangible actions.

The Content Marketing Wheel addresses all of these challenges. It's easy to understand, applicable to any company regardless of size or sector, and built to sustain, promote, and generate returns from your work.

In theory, it looks like this:

You start at the center.

First, create a single resource to offer your audience. This resource is built to do two things:

  1. Solve a problem for your buyer

  2. Address a specific marketing objective

This simply can't be overstated -- a good content offer MUST achieve BOTH of those things. 

Identifying a buyer’s problem dictates the topic you address in a given resource, while your marketing goal helps you determine the format or medium for that piece.

For example, if you sell CMS software to marketers, that thought process might look like this:

  1. Buyer’s problem: Business blogging (Resulting content topic: How to make business blogging easier)
  2. Marketing objective: Lead generation (Resulting content format: PDF behind a lead-gen form)

If your goals were awareness and press rather than lead-gen, the topic still stays the same (business blogging is still hard for your customers). But the format changes to better fit those marketing goals, perhaps in the form of an infographic or research report about blogging -- both more adept at getting press pickup and broad distribution when compared to a gated PDF. 

That's the central content offer -- the starting point to this Wheel. Once you've created that, every single other tactic exists for ONE REASON: drive traffic back to that core resource.

Think about the concepts of REACH and RESONANCE. The tactics around the wheel build reach -- they're built to generate traffic, shares, and other similar activities. They "sit" where audiences live. The resource in the middle, on the other hand, is all about resonance. It solves a core problem for your buyer or, for many B2C companies, helps fulfill a similar emotional desire to the product. 

The interchange between the two help you sustain your publishing AND convert vanity metrics like views into tangible ROI.

Running the Content Marketing Wheel

Here's exactly how I ran the Wheel back in July 2014 in order to start growing The View From Seed, starting with a powerful content offer.

The offer I created was a board deck template for seed-stage startup founders to use with their board of directors and advisors. You can download the PowerPoint file here or read the launch blog post here.

Origins of the Idea

To identify an offer worth creating, I asked the NextView partners what question they get most frequently from our startups that we might address through content. Immediately, all three mentioned board decks. While it's always a good idea for startup CEOs to discuss and set a slide template with their board, it’s not always clear how, exactly, they should package information into their decks. This is particularly difficult during the seed stage of growth, when there aren't tons of charts and graphs going up-and-to-the-right quite yet.

Additionally, some founders we invest in are first-time entrepreneurs and may not have experience running a board meeting -- not to mention their probable lack of design resources.

Thus, on several levels, this template makes a ton of sense to help solve their problem of board deck creation. And since our goal was initial awareness for a new blog, we did NOT gate the piece behind a form. We wanted it to spread far and wide. 

Results of the Wheel Playbook

One last bit of context -- the results generated by running the Content Marketing Wheel for the board deck templates:

  • 10,000 views of the templates and 1,100 downloads in the first two days.
  • Compare that to our average weekly view count for the handful of early posts to our blog prior to this Wheel playbook: 273. (No, I didn’t forget any zeroes — we got 273 views per week for our first few posts. But in just two days, the Wheel generated 10,000 views for our board deck templates. The idea was much more helpful and creative, and the distribution was much stronger, both thanks to this playbook.)

The “splash” effect of the piece also yielded the following results: 

  • Getting featured on SlideShare’s homepage (resulting in an extra 18,000 views)
  • Receiving a few tweets from influential VCs and entrepreneurs
  • Discovering that one prominent VC who tweeted it also emailed a listserv of 500 tech startup CEOs — an incredibly high concentration of the very narrow audience we wanted to reach.

Okay, now the good stuff: What did I do to run the Wheel, and how can you repeat it?

When I began running this playbook at NextView, to determine a problem facing our audience (tech startup founders), I simply asked the three partners of my firm for their take. But I highly suggest talking to actual customers and customer-facing teams at your company.

When I led content at HubSpot, for example, I benefitted from a large customer support team. To generate better ideas as a content team, we'd look at a monthly log of their tickets, which were tagged by topic. One example that came up frequently was “content creation is hard." Perfect! We can create multiple offers and related blog content and be reasonably assured of its success rate. From there, we'd brainstorm resources to help.

Suggested Resources for You

I’ve never founded a company, so I had very little experience with board decks despite needing to create one for others. So here’s what I did that you might be able to replicate when faced with similar uncertainty: 

  1. I started by collecting a few good examples (mostly from the NextView partners, who sent me some board decks they’d recently received upon my request).
  2. Next, I wrote down or saved the common elements found in each deck, as these were likely best practices a founder would expect to find in the deck template. I also saved any formatting or design flourishes I liked and could copy in my own layout.
  3. After that, I created a rough PowerPoint outline (copy only, no design).
  4. With that in hand, plus a list of questions that arose when I was doing my research and outlining, I sat with one partner for 30 minutes to review. This was the same partner I’d asked to be the “executive sponsor” in the initial discussion about the project -- a tactic that helps me avoid the need to build too much consensus or have too many cooks in the kitchen, which would slow my progress. The executive sponsor is the "buck stops here" person.
  5. After getting that initial, overarching feedback, I then drafted a more complete version, focusing on both copy and design.
  6. I did one more 30-minute review session with the same partner/executive sponsor.
  7. I then emailed the final draft to all three partners so they could see it prior to launch.

The entire process took about two weeks since I was also balancing other projects (again, I’m a one-man shop).

Once you've built that core resource, it's time to make that piece do lots of work for you to grow audience and yield a return. That's where the other tactics come into play.

You can start anywhere along the outside of the wheel, which is part of its beauty -- it's easily tweaked to fit your resources, your needs, and the specifics of your content and business.

I like to start at “Blogging and Atomization.” 

Atomization, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of creating lots of related pieces of content all based on a larger, central piece. An ebook, for instance, can and should yield a handful of other pieces, like blog posts, social sharing graphics, SlideShares, and so on, all thematically similar to the core resource.

So, here are all the related pieces of content I used to “atomize” the board deck templates offer:

  1. A launch blog post — one blog post talking specifically about the offer. You should do this every time you launch a big resource. There's no need to get cute here either. Just create one post that announces its launch.
  2. Two follow-up blog posts (1st | 2nd) linking to the offer — to be published in the days or weeks after the launch post to drive more traffic to the resource. These are thematically similar (board decks/meetings), but make different, unique points. The second was launched on NextView partner Rob Go’s personal blog, since he already has some audience that I wanted to tap into and drive back to our new blog. (I realize you may not have a colleague who brings some readership your way, but you can replicate this tactic by reaching out to industry bloggers who have slightly more audience than you to write a guest post if you so choose.)
  3. A SlideShare — to tap into an audience of millions that already exists elsewhere, away from our blog. The slides contain a few links back to the original resource and our new blog. Unsurprisingly, this piece generated more views (18,000) than the blog post did (10,000) across the first few weeks.
  4. A Twitter "share graphic" — to attract more attention in a noisy feed. I shared the headline and a link, plus this graphic. As a rule, make sure your Twitter graphics are twice as wide as they are tall to appear neatly in the feed. (In my case, I also used the Twitter graphic as the featured image for one of my related blog posts.)

IMPORTANT NOTE:

The blog posts and SlideShare each contained shortened hyperlinks (using goo.gl) to direct traffic to the board deck templates. Again, in this playbook, you need to think about reach and resonance. The content you create around a core resource should be built to grow reach and drive traffic, while the central resource should be built to resonate deeply as a solution to customer problems. The shortened link helps track the movement of audiences between things.

Day 1 of the “launch” meant publishing the initial blog post discussing the content offer and starting heavy social media promotion.

Here's what I did:

  1. Immediately shared on Twitter via our firm’s handle and my own. I used the Twitter graphic I’d already created to attract more attention in both cases.
  2. Overall, I tweeted the link multiple times that day and week from @NextViewVC. The more active and fast-paced the feed of a certain social network, the more you can post. Use good judgment to avoid feeling spammy however. Consider your own reading habits to help make that call -- you probably dive into a Twitter feed at various times throughout the day, which means you miss lots of tweets that happened earlier. So you wouldn't mind a repeat tweet since it likely feels new to you. Conversely, tons of similar posts on Facebook does feel spammy since each post is bigger and people tend to post fewer times in a day on that particular network.
  3. To boost reach out Twitter, I also emailed the blog link to the three partners, who have around 40K combined followers. I drafted three “lazy tweets” they could easily copy and paste into Twitter to share. These are simply pre-written copy plus the blog post link. Providing these lazy tweets encourages more sharing from folks you email -- a trick I learned at HubSpot.
  4. When the blog post was published, it was also auto-posted to several LinkedIn Groups. I use Zapier (similar to IFTTT) to set up a rule so that a new post on The View From Seed gets shared from my LinkedIn account into several startup-focused Groups I've joined. This drives significant traffic back to us.
  5. I also shared the post to Quibb. This is a closed, application-only community of tech industry professionals that acts like Reddit. You can share links, upvote, comment, follow people, and so on.
  6. Finally under social media, I looked at Quora for people asking questions about what makes a good board deck. When I found something relevant, I would actually type out an answer! Nothing feels more spammy than simply saying, “We answered that here: [URL].” Instead, I’d pull the answer or re-write it from the blog post, then say, “FYI, I pulled this out of this resource [URL], which includes more advice and a template for board decks that my VC firm created. Hope it’s useful!" If you can't tell, I hate feeling spammy, so this helps me feel more human (I think/hope!).

Next as I turned the wheel, I emailed the launch blog post link to our blog subscribers -- an admittedly short list for our young site at that point in time. 

To continue email promotion, I also contacted 10-20 people in our networks that would find this content useful for their work (including our CEOs). 

Additionally, I emailed 10-20 others that weren't the direct target audience of this deck but instead worked with or advised that audience. Since the intended audience here was startup CEOs, we sent this to a few tech startup incubators and accelerators, co-working spaces, or other VCs who often partner with us that might gladly share this on social or through email with their founders.

In both cases, I ended with a friendly, "All feedback and social support much appreciated. If you were planning to tweet this, I wrote 2-3 pre-written versions to make things easier for you. If not, would still love your take on this project. Thanks!"

This one takes some explaining. "Third Parties" is my catch-all for organizations or sites where audiences already exist -- aka audience outposts. These include sites like SlideShare, Medium, and LinkedIn's blogging feature. In these cases, you have access to publish at will. But this third party category also includes PR, influencers, and blogger outreach, as well as co-marketing partnerships. The latter are companies with whom you might co-create and/or co-promote a given content offer or related piece for mutual gain.

In the case of the board decks at NextView, I focused mainly on blogger outreach under Third Parties, contacting a few blogs and companies that often publish link roundups of the VC/startup community.

To do this, I'd recommend performing a quick Google search for phrases like "link roundup + [a relevant keyword]." In my case, when I found a newsletter or blog that had a history of curating relevant industry posts, I’d reach out and alert them about my post in a friendly, non-salesy way, focusing on the benefits to their audience. (Hat-tip to Robbie Richards who shared the Google search tactic via his great blog.)

The last spoke on the Wheel is paid promotion. While NextView doesn't do any paid promotion of our content, this is still a viable, effective content marketing tactic when done right. 

My best experience using paid content promotion comes from my time at HubSpot. The HubSpot marketing blog has been around seemingly forever -- they were early adopters of content marketing. As a result, they get MOUNTAINS of traffic from search today, in addition to regular visits from their enormous list of email subscribers. But paid placement, which we tried using Outbrain, quickly became a top source of traffic for us once we tried it.

And because we ran the Content Marketing Wheel, this paid content promotion wasn't just about views and other metrics that don't usually justify paid advertising. Instead, in our case, the traffic was being directed to that core offer either directly (to a landing page with a lead-gen form) or indirectly (to a blog post from our Atomization step that also linked to the offer's landing page). Our conversion rates on the offer was also much better than product-focused advertising -- 50% or higher, compared to 1-2% on product demos.

In short, if you can afford even a small test, experiment with paid. If you're running the Wheel, this is about much more than empty views.

I know what you’re thinking: This feels like work.

That’s because it IS work — a lot of hard work, plus a lot of experimentation and creativity. No matter how badly we want it to do so, content marketing simply doesn’t scale like some forms of marketing and advertising. You need actual, creative human beings to power it. And if you're just starting out or lack audience, you also need to do scrappy things that don’t scale well to find initial traction.

That’s what the Content Marketing Wheel is really all about: traction. You can’t simply create a great piece and hope people will find it. On the other hand, you can't simply over-promote a crappy piece and hope people will like it. You need to be systematic and regimented, learning as quickly as you can and following a set process that prevents you from stopping. The Content Marketing Wheel is built to do exactly that.

For me, the practice of content marketing has always been about this Wheel. In the past, it was the theory I taught. In the present, it’s my day to day job.

And whether you're starting or growing, I hope it helps make yours a little better.

Good luck!

*           *           *

I hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. If you did, please consider subscribing to Sorry for Marketing. I publish roughly one post per week on the subject of content marketing, typically about the need for good creative process and the physical production of content.


Posted on January 21, 2015 .

Inside the Work of an Obsessively Organized Content Marketer

apps-workflow-organized-content-marketer

Thanks, Internet.

Thanks to all your readily available mountains of information, we can't just DO things anymore. We have to figure out the BEST way to do things. Buying a chair? Research the BEST chair for hours upon hours. Need a writing app? Sort through hundreds of reviews for the BEST writing app. Looking for a coffee shop? What's the BEST coffee shop?

Hell, even before you research the best of something, you can waste endless time doing research on the best way to do research!

In one sense, this is awesome. But it can also be utterly paralyzing if you let it get to you. And -- Spoiler Alert -- I let it get to me.

But I'm not alone. (Well, I'm alone right now as I write this. So I guess literally, I am alone. But figuratively, I'm not alone. And life is best lived figuratively in my experience.)

So, this is a post about apps and workflow -- maybe even the BEST apps and workflow, who knows? This is how, in the face of a crippling paralysis and insane overflow of information straight to my brain, I'm able to make progress, stay organized, and function like a normal person. (Okay so the first two are actually in play. On the "normal person" verdict, the jury's still out-slash-sprinting to their cars.)

I'm sharing in the hopes that you'll reply with your own, but I'm also answering a question from my friend Sam, a former Google colleague who posed this question on Facebook.

So, grab a drink, hide behind a pillow, rock slowly, and tell yourself you'll get through this. Because it's time to dive into the inner-workings of my brain.

I am so truly sorry...

Where and how I organize daily work and ideas I'd like to execute.

Apps

  • Gmail

  • Evernote

  • Chrome Bookmarks

Workflow

Every morning post-coffee, I check email. I know everyone loves to say, "Do the most important task first," but I can't get to the most important task if I'm stressed about my email. So I remove as many as I can in about 30 minutes. 

This is where I'd normally tell you how smart I am about organizing my inbox. The truth is, the only two things I potentially do well to stay organized are these:

  1. Priority Inbox in Gmail. I've used this since my days at Google, when they gave us early access, so I'm just stuck in my ways. Priority Inbox separates emails into three categories, stacked vertically: Important and Unread, Starred, and Everything Else. It's similar to Gmail tabs, just presented in one single inbox. (I tried their new Inbox product but moved slower through that then my personal setup so I switched back.)
  2. Google Alerts: I have these set up for my name, my blog's name, the three partners at NextView, and every startup in which we've invested. This helps me stay informed but also delivers portfolio company news right to my inbox every day to include in NextView's Twitter feed, since I run that handle but have limited time to spend on it.

Next, I open Evernote, which is where I spend tons of time. Evernote is my brain, outsourced. If you had to map my mind, it would be ordered like this:

I basically break things up with two notebook stacks, bookmarked on the left rail of my Evernote as shown above. These stacks are NextView and Stuff I'm Creating. (We'll get to the latter in the next section of this post.)

Under NextView, my go-to notebook is TO DO LIST. In that notebook, there's one note containing my weekly agenda for the project meeting I lead with the partners of the firm on Mondays. I also create one note per major project currently underway, which gets stashed under TO DO LIST. So that notebook probably contains 5-6 notes at any given time. 

The other NextView notebooks shown above are just idea pipelines, categorized by the various initiatives for which I'm responsible as Director of Platform and Community (content, events, etc.).

Lastly, I also mentioned bookmarks in Chrome above as a way I stay organized. Generally, after I visit the NextView TO DO LIST and determine what to tackle that day, I'll open relevant docs that have been bookmarked in a folder titled "Priorities." I have other folders just for saving stuff too: a generic NextView for various docs and another called NV Blog, which contains the log-in to The View From Seed and the Trello board the partners use to organize their blog topics. (Our Trello is just one long list of ideas and then one list named for each partner, where we'll drag ideas over from the larger pipeline to assign them. I manage that list about once a week.)

(Chrome bookmarks are useful in another way which I'll discuss later.)

Where and how I write.

Apps

Workflow

Evernote again comes into play here. All my writing and content creation in general starts in Evernote, under the Stuff I'm Creating notebook stack. My home base there is really the Drafts notebook, which typically contains 2-3 notes. These contain short blurbs, working headlines, research, and other links or inspiration for whatever I'm writing at the moment. That usually spans three or more blogs: Sorry for Marketing, View From Seed (NextView's blog), and a guest contribution like Content Marketing Institute (where I try to blog monthly).

My Ideas notebook is just a huge list of notes, each containing one idea. Most are just headlines, but some contain links or other blurbs I've written on the fly. I open that up when it's time to write something new and drag the note to Drafts. (The "Posted" is then where completed drafts are saved. It's pretty useless but the act of dragging a draft to that notebook is pretty satisfying.)

Anyways, once an idea is in Drafts, I will jump into Byword, a $10 app I use to write. It's a nice, clean markdown editor. Drafting something there looks like this:

While Byword is beautiful and relatively distraction-free, my real secret to productivity while writing is an app called Self Control. This is a brilliant program that lets you create a "black list" of URLs. Once the list is saved, you can set a timer, enter a password, and BOOM -- you're locked out of those sites until the timer is up. (My black list includes Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, LinkedIn, ESPN, and Grantland)

As an aside, the Self Control app causes you to recognize your own website addictions. It's both funny and depressing at the same time. When I first switched on Self Control, for instance, I found myself mindlessly typing in "twitter.com." When it failed to load, I'd wonder if Twitter was down. I'd do the same with Facebook, et al, before TRYING TWITTER AGAIN. Then I'd realize, sheepishly despite being alone in this adventure, that it was Self Control ... and that I had none.

Back to Evernote for a second just to explain the rest of the Stuff I'm Creating notebook stack:

  • "Podcast" contains ideas for guests, show segments, equipment settings, and links to free music sources. This was previously for my podcast #TechItFwd, but I amicably parted ways with the nonprofit for which I produced the show. I plan to launch a new one in 2015.
  • "Talks & SlideShares" contains the most half-baked notes of all -- typically one-liners about presentations I'd like to give at conferences or create as playful SlideShares.
  • I'll explain "Cartoons" last since I use it least: For some posts, like this one, I sketch little illustrations. I just bought a sketch pad and pencils, and I used to take art lessons because I love to draw, so we'll see if I add more to my blog posts.

Where and how I create content requiring more than just copy.

Apps

Workflow

I often create other projects outside of just blog posts, many of which require some kind of graphic design or typography. I'm a ridiculously hackish designer and proud of it -- almost all my design work commits the cardinal sin of using PowerPoint, the Comic Sans of graphic design. (Designers will appreciate that one.) But I'm pretty good and now fly through the process.

I also use and love Canva, either to design various graphics or to search for inspiration for my PowerPoint hacking. Occasionally, neither Canva nor PowerPoint is powerful enough, at which point I use Pixlr, which is like PhotoShop in the cloud.

(A look inside Canva.)

(A look inside Canva.)

Other apps or sites I use multiple times per week include Unsplash (free, do-whatever-you-want-to photos), Dafont (free fonts), and a pretty basic but supremely helpful HTML color code picker. With the latter, I can upload an image and get the color code of an image I'm using, then apply that in Canva to surrounding design flourishes to maintain consistency.

Lastly, once I have a completed graphic, I use Compressor.io to shrink the file size without hurting quality prior to uploading it.

Where, how, and what I consume for emotional or intellectual growth.

Apps

  • Feedly

  • Pocket

  • Twitter list (private)

  • Chrome bookmarks

  • iTunes podcast player (mobile)

  • Bourbon

Workflow

I'm weird about consuming content. I'm not unique in this, but I'm constantly overwhelmed with all the content out there (which reminds me -- holy hell, THANK YOU for reading this blog out of all the stuff available to you).

So to compensate for all the noise, I allow myself 10-12 Feedly RSS subscriptions and no more. If I want to add a site, I need to drop one. Them's the rules! (Revisiting the "Jay is a normal person" verdict again: Not guilty.)

In Feedly, I categorize subscriptions into two folders:

  1. "Creative and Quality" features Wait But Why, The Oatmeal, Tyger Cove, Smashing Magazine, and my friend Meghan Anderson's personal blog, since she is a ridiculously great writer and thinker in my opinion.
  2. "Content Marketing" features Buffer's blog, CMI, Copyblogger, Orbit Media (to catch Andy Crestodina's work, since he's both thoughtful and writes more advanced content marketing advice), and my own blog, just so I can preview the formatting of my images and adjust accordingly.

Here's the weird part -- Feedly isn't actually where I read. It's where I curate. I periodically dive in and save links I like to Pocket, which is where I DO read. Why? Pocket lets me save links I find from anywhere -- Feedly, Twitter, Facebook, email, et al -- right to one place. I think of this curating as "farming." I then "harvest" by reading in Pocket. (They recently sent me an email saying I was one of the top 5% of Pocket readers, so there's proof positive that I'm maniacal and bizarre about all of this!) 

(Again. Not guilty. Very, very not guilty. I likely need help.)

Speaking of reading and pithy quips, I don't ever read my Twitter feed. It's noisy, and I did a terrible job curating who I followed. It's too far gone. Instead, I built a private list called People I Learn From that I read each day. I don't make this public because I don't want to offend anyone. (If you're reading this, go ahead and assume you're on there because I freaking love you.)

Next, as I listed above, Chrome bookmarks are useful for this bucket too. I have a bookmark folder of which I'm particularly fond called Great Talks. This is basically full of inspirational videos, both short and long, for moments when I'm feeling lazy or just need a kick in the ass to get going. It includes various TED Talks, a personal favorite talk from Kevin Spacey about creativity, the cliche but amazing Any Given Sunday speech, and a couple motivational commercials from Nike and Gatorade featuring one of my all-time favorite athletes, Derek Jeter. (Judge me. I don't care.)

Lastly, I use the iTunes podcast player on my iPhone. I am obsessed with podcasts lately. Here's my list of shows:

I'm pretty straightforward: Top NPR storytellers, startups, marketing, and sports. 

Oh, and of course, my emotional and intellectual stimulation wouldn't be complete without one more essential "app" -- bourbon. Mix all this madness with a little Basil Hayden, and you've got yourself a full day.

Cheers!

bourbon.png
 


Posted on January 14, 2015 .

Should Your Company Blog? An Essay (with Data) to Settle It Once & For All

should you blog

This post originally appeared on NextView's blog for startups, The View From Seed. Some content has been altered to apply these lessons more generally, beyond just startups.

Visit a company website, and you'll eventually drift towards a few standard links, from About to Team to Contact. But among those options, appearing on almost every site, is one link that simply doesn't belong with the rest: "Blog."

Don’t misunderstand, it’s not the fact that a blog exists that's so troubling. Instead, it's why it usually exists and why it gets lumped together with all those other basic navigation links -- namely, because many companies launch blogs simply because they're "supposed to." As a result, most sit idly, gathering digital dust, perhaps getting the occasional company news article, but never gaining any traffic and never becoming what blogs really should be: critical marketing assets.

So the question needs to be asked: Should your company even blog in the first place?

To answer, I wanted to share what I've learned over the past few years of running various blogs, as well as content marketing more generally. The most successful blog on which I've worked was HubSpot’s, where I led the team as head of content. As of Q2 2013, when I left to join NextView, they were generating around 2 million monthly views and had over 300,000 subscribers. Today, I run NextView's blog, The View From Seed (you can subscribe here), in addition to Sorry for Marketing.

So, should your company blog? Only if you fully and completely buy into two things: the right mentality and the right goals.

mentality

Content marketing, of which blogging is a subset, is surrounded by lots of noise today, so we need a simple definition. This also doubles as the mentality companies need to accept in order to succeed. My definition is as follows:

Content marketing is just solving the same problems that your product solves through media you create and promote.

That's it! Jargon and complexity need not apply. Solve the same problem your product solves. Yes, you're doing it through a different medium than the product, but the goal remains the same. Through this definition, everything gets clearer. It's not about all that hype and rhetoric, nor is it about "being a publisher." (You don't sell ad space, so the mechanics are fundamentally different). It's simply about solving problems.

Great products succeed in helping customers overcome some kind of obstacle to achieve something (B2B, some B2C) or to fulfill a desire (mainly B2C). Blog content and all content marketing should drive qualified visitors, subscribers, and/or customers to those products. Both should always align, and both must be consistently built as assets and as solutions for your customers. The lone difference is that one asset -- your blog -- helps your audience before they're ready to buy. The other -- your product -- helps them after.

But this rarely happens. The definition gets muddied, the tools and tactics get in the way of the goals, and egos creep into this type of marketing -- you now have bylines, after all.

Unfortunately, in many cases, this turns a blog into a glorified list of company news or chest-beating opinion pieces, ranging from the ubiquitous “Welcome John Doe to the Team" to product updates to attempts at being brilliant or clever rather than helpful.

These types of content are actually pretty lousy for growing audience. They don't "behave" the right way online. (I'll share some data to show how they behave in a bit.)

That brings us to the goals that should be your focus...

goals

With the right, customer-focused mentality firmly entrenched, you should then turn your attention to the right goals.

For context, growing a blog audience is not a direct-response approach to marketing. If you’re very young as a company and simply need to acquire 10 alpha customers or 100 free users, then paid acquisition via search, display, and social are better bets, as well as any scrappy, non-scalable means of acquisition you can execute.

Instead of immediate acquisition, blogging and building an audience are investments in the very near future (2–6 months) as well as the more distant future. That's because, while content marketing is lousy for direct response without an established audience, it's a much more efficient means to scale your marketing.

To gain those benefits, your goals for your company blog should be: 

  1. Build an inventory of helpful content
  2. Grow an email list

I'll explain the email part first, since it's much simpler. After that, I'll share some data to explain why an inventory or collection of helpful content is the most powerful marketing asset you can create.

Why Email Matters, Early and Always

When you first start blogging, your content might be surrounded by calls-to-action (CTAs) about you or your product, but those should be secondary, appearing on your site's nav bar and/or right rail. Your primary CTA needs to ask readers to subscribe to the blog via email (and not RSS, by the way).

Building your email list matters for a number of reasons:

  1. You gain permission to contact them again: To successfully build an audience over time, you need permission to contact your target customers and to do so for free and on your own terms. With your blog subscribers, you actually own the attention and already have permission to reach out, rather than needing to pay for clicks and conversions, i.e., borrow attention, whenever you need something.
  2. You don't need to publish as much content: Without an email list, you need to constantly appear to your audience in their social feeds and search results just to stay relevant. That requires a ton of content, which many companies struggle to deliver. But with an email list, consistency matters more than frequency. You're able to deliver a post to a group of potential readers and promoters on your own schedule.
  3. You're reasonably assured of successful launches: Your email list can amplify both future marketing initiatives and future product launches. Rather than hoping someone hears about them, you know that at least some people will.
  4. You can test and learn quicker to find traction: Through surveys, split testing, and/or launching things directly to some or all of your list, you're able to test, measure, and learn more quickly and easily to develop new content or even new product features.
  5. You can grow your audience through your existing list: When you send people helpful or entertaining content instead of promotional messages, a wonderful thing happens: They sometimes forward it to others in their network. We saw this at HubSpot, as our email list -- more so than social or search -- was the top driver of new contacts. Interesting, right? The people we'd already reached helped us reach new subscribers. (We even added a button right in the email body to encourage more forwarding, which increased this behavior.)
  6. You can convert new users/customers: Lastly, as is the traditional use case for email, you can nurture people towards using or buying your product.

(In case it's helpful, a simple way to add a CTA to your blog is through Hello Bar.)

Why Building an Inventory of Content Matters

The second goal of your blogging efforts is to build a collection of helpful content.

Building an audience is like pushing a boulder up a hill. Yes, you can ask 10 people to each try pushing it one at a time, but it's MUCH more effective if all 10 push together at the same time.

Similarly, the value of a blog is how much work each post does for you in aggregate. You want a collection of content that all has staying power and continues to drive traffic down the road. Some posts will get only a few views initially but continue to receive a few hits every day for weeks or months thereafter. Others get a lot of traffic initially, then zero next week. Still others get almost no traffic organically but might be highly effective when emailed or shared on social, acting as sales-enablement content or fodder for social follower growth.

So every time you get a moment or the motivation to blog, rather than obsessing over one article's results that day or week, think of it as an opportunity to continue building the base of a more powerful whole.

Data: Why an Inventory of Helpful Blog Content Succeeds

In December 2013, when I was at HubSpot, I stumbled on some data that forever changed how I view business blogging.

I was checking our monthly blog report and noticed that a seemingly mundane post (How to Create a Facebook Business Page) ranked third in that month's top 10 most-viewed articles. While it was somewhat surprising to see such a simple post generating so much traffic, it was the publish date of the article that really blew me away: October 2012. That post was FOURTEEN months old! And yet it got the THIRD-MOST TRAFFIC all that time later -- and it did so for a blog that sees over 2 million views per month. It's not exactly easy for a post to rank in the top 10 of a blog that large. That meant literally thousands of people read that old post 14 months later.

Scanning the rest of the monthly rankings, I noticed that this wasn't an exception. It was the rule. Just four out of the top 10 most-viewed posts that December were actually published in December. The rest were much, much older.

Stepping back from just the top 10 posts, I looked at the entire blog. I found that 70% of HubSpot's roughly 2 million views came from posts that were more than a month old. 

Said another way: That entire team could stop blogging for a whole month and still see 70% of the expected results -- zero work needed.

Now that's ROI! Show me a PPC campaign capable of doing that.

So what was happening? Exactly what we've been discussing today: HubSpot started their blog with the mentality of solving customer problems, then systematically created an inventory of helpful content, capturing subscriber emails along the way.

A Look at the Behavior

When I first saw that 70% number, I became obsessed with how different types of content behave. Hoping to learn more, I did a quick audit of our blog content and grouped the posts into two categories: basic, helpful articles (e.g. How to Drive Leads through Twitter) and theoretical, abstract stuff (what I dubbed "thought leadership" or more egocentric content). Without sharing actual numbers, here's exactly what was happening and why owning an inventory of customer-focused content can be so powerful.

First, when a helpful, tactical post launches, the traffic it receives over time looks something like this:

(Numbers are illustrative and not actual results.)

(Numbers are illustrative and not actual results.)

Predictably, it gets the most views it'll ever receive in the days right after it launches. But over time, it still gets some views on a daily basis -- maybe 50, maybe 10, maybe two -- taking days, weeks, or even months to reach zero views per day. This comes from search, social, people bookmarking it, and email subscribers returning in the future and forwarding the link to their contacts.

We'll come back to why this matters in a second. Next, let's compare these helpful posts to all that thought leadership/egocentric blog content out there. The way that content behaves is much different. These traffic patterns resembled either of two common slopes, shown in purple and blue:

thought-leadership

In the first case, when one of these thought leadership-style posts performed well (the purple line), it got the most traffic in the moments after its launch, just like the helpful content. But in a short amount of time -- much shorter than the red line -- its traffic crashed to zero.

Even more troubling, about half of the thought leadership category didn't work at all. Looking at the blue line, you'll notice that the initial traffic spike was sorely lacking, in addition to the crash right to zero just like the purple line. There's almost no ROI on that post. 

So even when successful, trying to force thought leadership or write about your own company has a very finite return on the precious time you'd spend writing it. The choice is clear: Focus on solving customer problems, not conveying brilliant or company-first messages. As marketing expert Jay Baer likes to say, smart marketing is about help, not hype.

Now, let's revisit that red line. That one post doesn't really matter when you think about it. Who cares that its longtail of traffic gets you 12 extra views next week? That doesn't matter. That doesn't make a difference.

But what does make a difference is if all your content behaves like that. Publishing helpful blog posts every time creates a traffic pattern that looks something like this across the entire site:

floor

All those posts combine to create a "floor" of guaranteed daily traffic. At HubSpot, that floor is obviously huge. At your company, you might still be building that base. Either way, the value of your blog is actually all of those posts working together in aggregate, especially in the longtail, not the head. (The head is a bonus. If there's a big spike early, great! If not, that's okay, so long as your content has staying power.)

Essentially, you want a blog that delivers free results from past efforts. But if you spend time today writing about something different, you hurt your chances. HubSpot rarely strayed from being tactical and helpful, and their "floor" now gets them 7 of every 10 views and leads they generate.

(By the way, all those egocentric posts that stray from this core strategy of being helpful actually benefit from your floor of traffic, so you can indeed write them -- just wait. Write them when you already get some regular traffic. Additionally, any bigger, flashier projects you launch that create a one-time influx of traffic will also get "stuck" to your blog based on that helpful stuff. It's why they subscribe. It's why they come back. It's why you succeed.)

"Okay, but HubSpot adopted all this stuff early. What about today, when everything is more crowded?"

Before you shrug this off, I'd point you to NextView's blog as an example.

We launched The View From Seed in July 2014. In December 2014, these were the three most-viewed posts (notice the publish dates):

  1. Why Startups Should Raise a Seed Round vs. Starting with Series A (Publish date: July 3)
  2. 7 Atypical Rounds of Funding: What Founders Should Know (Publish date: July 7)
  3. The What & Why of Hiring a Great Startup COO (Publish date: September 9)

Overall, in the top 10 most-viewed posts in December 2014, just two posts were actually published that month. The rest were older. The rest were "red lines" creating a floor of free traffic.

Just think about how this changes the approach to running a blog. 

If you judge the three posts linked above based on their first week or two of results, then it'd be easy to call them failures. But they're not -- not even close. They're hugely valuable building blocks for our base of today's guaranteed traffic. They're evergreen posts that have staying power by providing help for our audience.

The View From Seed is not HubSpot's blog. It's a new blog that we launched less than a year ago. It started with zero audience and zero search clout. It has ONE person working on it (hi -- I believe we've met). But just months after launch, we already saw the positive effects of building an inventory of helpful content. Bit by bit, we're growing a useful, successful blog.

In the end, whether or not you decide to blog will depend on your specific situation and resources.

But if you do, don't deploy it like some unimportant site page. Don't leave it static. Don't obsess over near-term view counts. Don't fall in love with the idea of thought leadership. 

Instead, solve customer problems. Be helpful, time after time after time. Not only is that the key to building a successful blog, it's the hallmark of any true thought leader.

*     *     *

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Posted on January 8, 2015 .

Stop Suffocating and Just Create Something Already!

After literally two years of wanting to launch a podcast — two years of agonizing over it, reading about it, listening to other shows, believing I could do it (then doubting, then believing again) — 2014 marked the year I finally said screw it and launched my own.

After all that internal angst, when you finally act, there comes a feeling so great, so addicting, that I can only describe it by sharing a quick story. To tell that story, I need to embarrass myself a little bit, but no matter -- we're all friends here on the intertubes. (It's just a series of tubes, you see.)

The Quad Story

As a kid, I had a couple of friends down the street — two brothers — who owned and drove ATVs, though we just called them “the quads.” Every so often, they’d invite a few of us in the neighborhood down the street to ride the quads, and we’d occasionally venture deep into the woods to a dirt track we’d named the Pits. This was a circular trail full of sharp turns, ever-changing branches interrupting your drive, and several buried boulders-turned-ramps for little kids made of rubber.

Each and every time we’d ride the quads, I’d pretend I was super excited to drive one myself, then find a way to “settle” for riding on the back of my friend’s as everyone else took turns driving their own. You see, while I loved playing sports as a kid, my sport of choice (basketball) forbade even a light slap on the wrist. So baseballs hurtling at my face, giant football players trying to run through me, and yes, the Neighborhood Kid Quad Motocross 500 all felt like nonstarters. I avoided the latter every time.

Except for one time.

One time, after hemming and hawing per usual, I said screw it. The internal agonizing felt too great. As soon as I made up my mind, though, I felt immediately, refreshingly confident. The choice was clear: I was going to drive one all by myself. No more would I belabor the decision. I would be my own personal hero in that moment. Quadman. Harry Quadder. The Boy Who Revved.

It was time.

I grabbed a helmet, crammed it tightly onto my head, and marched towards a quad. Sure, I chose the small one typically driven by my friends’ younger brother. And sure, he was maybe four or five years our junior, which is a million years in Little Kid Time. But the fact remained: It was go time! Just as I did with my podcast, I decided to go all Nike up in there.

So I settled onto the cushioned seat. I gripped the handle. I tested the break. I squinted towards the dirt track ahead. I hit the gas. And I … drove straight into a tree.

BUT THAT’S NOT MY POINT!

My point is that, even though I failed gloriously (but safely — I couldn't have gone over 3 miles per hour), I still felt like a million pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I’d come up for air after struggling underwater for too long. I remember it vividly. It felt great. To everyone else, I’d crashed into a tree, prompting laughter that's equal parts angelic and cruel that only little kids can create.

But not from me. I took off my helmet, and I Breakfast Clubbed my way outta there...

the-breakfast-club-bender-fist-pump.jpg

I’d done it. Victory was mine!

So what about my podcast?

I finally got sick of that drowning feeling you get when you REALLY want to do something but instead settle for inaction and more TV and emailing. This year will forever be the year I FINALLY said to hell with careful planning. I ponied up $200 on basic equipment, donned my metaphorical helmet, and hit the gas.

In total, I produced three episodes in the latter months of 2014, each causing more agony and Crazy Creative Person Talking to Himself moments than the two prior years of internal debate combined. But it was worth it -- so very worth it. I relished every moment. Because although it was difficult at times, and although I'd chosen a tricky, time-consuming style to my show, I was stumbling and experimenting and crashing my way towards personal growth.

But most of all, I felt like I could breathe again. That feeling was addicting too. I craved more of it. I felt more motivated than ever to create anything and everything. So I blogged more at home, blogged more at work, created more SlideShares, and even tried two basic infographics, along with other content projects.

And yes, three episodes isn't that many. Neither is three miles per hour. But what I’m trying to say, as loudly and directly as I possibly can, is this:

Stop agonizing, stop “wanting to,” stop debating, stop suffocating, and JUST GO CREATE SOMETHING!

Literally everything else gets better when you do.

Have a great, creative, and prolific 2015!

 

(Note: After my first three shows, I decided to amicably part ways with the nonprofit for which I'd created my podcast. I will be launching a new show in 2015 with a similar emotional arc but different topical focus. Subscribe to Sorry for Marketing to keep up to date with the new show as well as other content. Thanks for reading!)

Posted on December 31, 2014 .

What Content Marketers Say About Their Own Creative Skills & Careers [INFOGRAPHIC]

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As a content marketer, my brain is always warring against itself.

Think about it: In this role, you need to be analytical and creative, objective and subjective, businesslike and playful, Google-friendly writer and human-friendly writer, and much, much more. It’s truly enough to tear your mind in two. (As for me, don’t stress — my wife’s a clinical psychologist. I’ll be fine. Or screwed. It's too early to tell.)

When I was a kid, my parents would often look at me and wonder if that exact phenomenon — that dichotomy of the mind — was happening before their very eyes in their poor little son. Now, it wasn’t like I was sitting in the corner cramming paste into my mouth (though I hear the 1982 Elmer’s was a great vintage). Instead, they'd stress over my mind's fate when they watched me play. According to them, I would create these wildly complex, far-fetched narratives about my toys ... then carefully, meticulously, and some might say obsessively line up each and every one in perfect order.

Uh oh, my parents would think. What did we do to this kid?

You see, my mom is a preschool teacher and my dad a software engineer. It’s like they could see their opposite traits — creative and logical, outgoing and introverted, abstract and orderly — slamming against each other inside my head.

Luckily, along came content marketing, and I could finally put this crazy brain of mine to work.

It’s because of this, uh, double...brained...ed...nessity?...that I feel right at home in content marketing. You need both halves to fully grok this stuff, I believe, and so love the job because I feel right at home moving between what's business-y and what's creative.

The "Uh Oh" Moment: You Have to, Like, Create for a Living Now?

Unfortunately, not everyone feels at home practicing this strange approach to marketing, even after several years of the philosophy running amok in our industry.

Yes, content marketing is effective and ubiquitous, which many businesses understand. But what about the individuals tasked with execution? Few things seem more unreasonable than to expect thousands of marketers to simply drop into the field and suddenly be prolific, creative, and great at producing content and distributing it. It's unreasonable to assume that you can simply pick up the craft, and it's unreasonable to assume you can just over-market bad content, especially now that the first adopter wave and the loudest adopter wave have both already crashed. (Here's my longer rant on the subject of creative and quality in content.)

So I wondered: How do content marketers actually feel about their own creative skills?

And how do they feel about their careers, strange as they are in both their origins and their path forward and upward? 

I mean, I never received formal training on how to create the various types of content I've been asked to create, and to do so in a business setting ... have you? And I sure as hell don't know what the career progression looks like in a nice, neat ladder ... do you? I'm positive I could be better at both creating stuff and growing my career, and I thought I'd ask others if they felt the same way.

So I surveyed my community group, Boston Content. We have over 850 members on our email list as of this writing, all in the New England area (though several appear to be from New York, California, and elsewhere — it’s the internet, after all). Fifty-four agreed to take the survey.

So without further ado, here’s a mishmash of stats from that small but eye-opening survey:


Posted on December 9, 2014 .

Hiring Content Marketers? Try This Playbook to Vet Candidates Better

playbook

I recently wrote a story about how I almost didn't hire the best writer I've ever hired. If I'm being honest, I came close to screwing it up entirely, and the article was my attempt at telling others how to avoid similar mistakes. Based on feedback I received from the post, I wanted to explore two concepts a bit more specifically today: reviewing candidates and assigning them projects as part of the vetting process.

In my post on my near-mistake, I make the case for why businesses should adjust their hiring mentalities and processes away from traditional marketing roles and towards a more creative candidate profile. I go so far as to break down a few common job description phrases and how to tweak them to appeal better to writers. It's the kind of "come to Jesus" advice that often makes stuffier businesspeople uncomfortable.

(By the way, the staunch, suit-wearing, intercom-using, corner-office-having businessman is probably my favorite persona in all of business. As a B2B writer, that guy's always looming, taking himself too seriously as an "all-important" big wig. But he's just so ridiculous. I mean, look at how big his wig is … but I digress.)

In our industry, we seem to embrace that marketing has experienced a massive shift, but we keep trotting out our tired, traditional job descriptions and interview techniques. If the industry has really shifted that enormously, then we need to shift our hiring approaches too. We need to attract and hire people who understand and embrace all this change ... and they probably aren't the same people that were executing the old marketing playbook.

A Better Approach to Hiring Content Marketers

I've had more than a few facepalm moments lately when it comes to watching companies try to hire content marketers. (For context, I work with early-stage startups as director of platform at NextView Ventures, which has invested in roughly 40 startups to date. By night, I run a community group I co-founded called Boston Content, now at over 800 local members.)

One of the most consistent opportunities for improvement that keeps coming up is the process of reviewing and selecting candidates. Sourcing at the top of the hiring funnel is hard, but it shouldn't be the only focus. When there's a good candidate in the hiring funnel, too many companies botch the rest of the process because it's unfamiliar.

The familiar process that doesn't work for content usually runs like this:

  • Write a plain vanilla job description and post to the usual places.
  • Review incoming cover letters and resumes.
  • Review their work samples next. <-- Applicable but not exclusive to content hires.
  • Conduct a phone screen.
  • Conduct a few in-person interviews.
  • Before the in-person interviews, remember at the last minute that someone should screen for culture.
  • Assign the culture interview to the most junior person on the team. (They don't know anything about the actual work or strategy anyway, right? Plus, they seem like the "fun one" who would be unhappy with a bad culture fit, and culture is a squishy, fluffy idea anyway ... right?)
  • For a select few candidates, assign writing samples. <-- Unique to content hires.
  • Review those samples for ... who the heck knows.
  • Make a decision where the samples account for 5% of the reasoning and the brands listed on the resume account for 50%. 
  • Feel okay about the hire and pray this "content thing" works.
  • Pour a stiff drink.

Here’s what I’m proposing instead:

1. Write a more creative job description.

My past post goes into more details -- you can check that out here. For now, suffice to say that your job description should make the role sound anything but plain vanilla. It should emphasize the ability to produce creative, unique work, get bylines, stand out, experiment, and generally have fun with the process of creating content. THAT is the hard part to learn or teach, so attracting candidates who are naturally gifted and work hard to improve those skills can be a huge leg up to fill your pipeline.

Yes, you want to advertise that you’re seeking a rockstar in both content production AND marketing. Yes, you never want to hire an aspiring artist who rejects all business principles. But at least personally, I know I can teach someone how to be a decent marketer much more quickly and easily than I can teach someone to be a decent writer. So I look for writing abilities first, marketing second.

(As a quick aside: It’s also important to test for attention to detail in this role. There are SO many moving pieces in the job of planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing content. And though I don't recommend everyone do this, I often like to insert a bullet way deep down in the job description that says, “Attention to detail test: Use the word [whatever I’ve chosen] in your cover letter.” It shows me they've read the "assignment" carefully and meticulously. As a byproduct, the really good candidates often have some fun with that one. I had one candidate insert the phrase into a video, pause with the word on the screen and audibly clear his throat. Awesome!)

2. Review applicants' materials in the right order.

The order is as follows:

First, look at their work samples submitted via their application.

This is the most important information you can receive from a candidate, bar none. Reviewing samples is also the best way to save time because, almost immediately, you can remove candidates who simply can't produce work. Despite all the "strategy" their resume may tout, you don't want to talk yourself into someone only to find by the end that they can't produce. (Even if they won't be creating content for you, you want someone who has done so in the past. They'll work much better with freelancers, agencies, and teammates this way. Trust me.)

Your temptation will be to justify why you SHOULDN'T make snap judgments based on work samples. I'd urge you: Do it. Make quick decisions. Rule out poor samples right away.

Second, perform a quick Google search for their name. 

Check for two things here: their online presence and their side projects. The latter is proof that they have creative drive and can be potentially prolific, in addition to caring about self improvement and pursuing their passions. The former -- having an online presence -- is decent proof that they understand the basics of digital marketing. Additionally, both their side projects and their online presence combine to help you understand who they are as people.

One thing to note here: I don’t think you should look for massive social following or blog readership from your candidates — though that’s certainly a huge bonus. Instead, this step is to ensure they’re using digital channels you care about in the first place. Are they tweeting? Blogging? Posting videos? Podcasting? What else?

If they have very few tweets, for example, I like to ask why. They're trying to work as a content marketer, so I want to hear their thinking. The same question applies if they don't have multiple types of content in their portfolio. Tons of free tools exist that let you create content without needing an employer to assign it -- why haven't they built a broader portfolio?

If they can articulate their reasons for NOT doing these things, then that's fine. In some cases, however, their answer triggers a few red flags about their lack of drive, disinterest in expanding their creative skills, or inability to produce content with either or both quality and quantity in mind.

For example, I once had a content marketer tell me that several employers had rejected her because she hadn’t created ebooks before. She asked me whether she should just create one in theory. My response, in different words: "!!!!!!!"

Of COURSE she should! The fact that she hadn't done so as soon as the first employer rejected her told me a lot about her candidacy.

Third, after work samples and Google searches, read their cover letter.

Unlike a software developer who ships code, a cover letter is actually a work sample for a content marketer, since they “ship” the written word.

Cover letters would normally be the ideal starting point in the review process -- it's a work sample and a cover letter at the same time -- but unfortunately, college career centers have done more harm than good for most of their students. So I drop it to third in importance. There's just so much miseducation from career centers about how to apply to jobs and communicate with businesses that most people turn in boilerplate cover letters. It's partly not the candidate's fault.

Take my time at HubSpot as the example. In a year, I reviewed about 50 to 75 cover letters for the content team. Despite applying to writing-heavy roles, I'd say 9 out of 10 of these candidates would STILL use the typical boilerplate. Some would start their emails, "Dear Hiring Manager," while others would write opening lines like, "I am very interested in the role of Content Marketer." Boring. Bland. Undifferentiated. Not a good work sample.

(If you can't tell, I had a bad experience myself, and I feel like the HubSpot candidates were all let down by their educators. It's sad. Why on earth do college career centers continue to advise students to do this?!?! These are not legal or public policy roles -- these are business-focused students applying to modern businesses. Teach them how to be unique and human, not bland robo-applicants.)

When it comes to cover letters, great candidates will occasionally understand that these are work samples and provide something more unique. For instance, a good friend who I’ve hired twice now (at Dailybreak Media and HubSpot) once submitted a cover letter that started simply, “I’m afraid.”

Period. Paragraph break. 

WOW! That stood out and totally reeled me in at the same time. I had to know more. What was he afraid of and why was he saying this to me? How did this apply to the job? He went on to explain a worrisome trend in content quality and why, given the chance, he'd combat that for our team.

(By the way, his name is Erik Devaney, and you need to follow him on Twitter. His work is incredible, and he’s going to be a star in this industry.)

Lastly (yes, lastly), review the resume

Resumes are just not that important when it comes to production-oriented roles, including content marketing, software engineering, graphic design, and more.

The only things that matter for content marketer resumes are achievements (like "Grew the blog 50% year over year"), rather than responsibilities ("Wrote and edited blog posts"). I don't care that your resume says you can write. I care that your samples, your Google search results, and your cover letter all PROVE you can write.

By the time I hit the resume, I’m relatively assured that I want to talk to this candidate, since I’ve already learned so much about him or her. The resume affirms that, yes, all that great writing and great work yielded actual results. Even if the resume doesn't list any metrics, there could be a million reasons why, and I'll probably still talk to the candidate.

We're now done with the "review" step and can move onto the interview step.

3. Run the usual phone screen/interview playbook.

A lot of these steps are completely broken too, but it's not my area of expertise, nor is it the main point of this post. So I’ll just add one suggestion for your interview, which is to ask the following question:

“If I handed you a bag of money and you didn’t need to work for the year, but you still wanted to write … what would you write about?"

The great ones absolutely light up at this questions and ramble on and on about their passion area. I’ve had people talk at length about their love for movies and TV and how they’d do a funny spin on critiquing those things. Erik would probably write about Irish music and history, since that’s his personal passion. I’d write about sports just given my background in sports journalism and my love/hate relationship with the circus that is the New York Knicks. 

It doesn’t matter WHAT they say. It matters HOW they say it. You want excitement and clarity. If they hem and haw and struggle to come up with anything, I'd be worried about their love for their craft. Will they want to learn and improve upon it? Will they be prolific? Are they TOO focused on the marketing mechanics and not enough on creating stuff? That could cause them to take shortcuts and yield poor results and not experiment on high-impact projects.

4. Assign a highly relevant project.

This is the final step. You’re just about ready to hire someone or perhaps have two or three good candidates and need to decide between them. This project ultimately helps both the company and the candidate make the right decision and find a fit.

There are dozens of ways to assign a project, but my favorite approach is the following:

  1. Give the candidate three headlines for blog posts you'd probably want to publish yourself, along with a tight deadline. Give no more details. A good writer will figure out the rest by reading company content to determine voice, data, industry trends, etc. They may reply with questions too, but don't offer that window proactively. See what they do on their own.
  2. Let the candidate choose one of the three headlines to write as a blog post. (I like to ask them why they chose a particular post after the draft is submitted. This provides another data point into their thinking and approach.)
  3. Read the draft and mark some notes privately. I say "privately" because, next, you should ask the candidate to edit their own work and reply with those proposed edits. You want to see their edits but also compare to your own.
  4. Along with their edits, ask that they submit 10 ideas for potential headlines, plus their pick for which headline they'd actually publish.
  5. Lastly, in addition to their edits, 10 headlines, and pick for the winning headline, ask that they also reply with an idea (a few sentences of description) for one "pillar" piece of content that could relate to this topic, like an ebook, white paper, template, etc. (This piece would be a call-to-action that would go into the blog post to convert subscribers or leads -- a familiar playbook that good marketers understand.)

To me, steps 3-5 are the most revealing. Do they get content marketing, or do they just like to write? You can do a lot with someone who just loves to write, and we need to embrace that profile much more often in our industry. However, when someone nails all the steps above, you should initiate Step 6: Do a happy dance on your desk.

Why? You've pulled the rabbit out of the hat, my friend. You've found someone who gets both halves of this job: writing/creation AND marketing. They possess the "sight" -- the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, which is the most important soft skill of a good content marketer.

Talent in this field is tremendously hard to come by, given the need to think with both halves of the brain, the recent uptick in demand, and the relative newness of the career path. But if we're indeed riding the wave of a massive industry shift, then it's high time we shifted our approach to hiring along with it.

Posted on November 17, 2014 .