How to Build a Content Strategy from Scratch (3 Steps)

Bad news: The content marketing landscape is filled with low-quality content to game Google, without any effort to delivering value to customers. The good news is, not all hope is lost. 

My guest today is Len Markidan, the CMO of Podia. In this episode, we discuss why content marketing is here to stay, how to build a customer-driven content marketing strategy, and the most significant content promotion mistake you can make.

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Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to another episode of everyonehatesmarketers.com; the no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultant, founder and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host Louis Grenier. In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to build a content strategy from scratch and attract the right type of visitors. My guest today was behind the launch and the success of the Groove Blog, you might have read it. It’s the startup journey from zero to $100,000 a day launch that this company launched using their blog sharing stuff really transparently. I’m a big fan of their blog.

Louis: It turns out that this blog generated $300,000 in monthly recurring revenue alone for the company. My guest knows how to build a content strategy that actually works. Over the last 15 years, he’s worked as a content marketing strategist and CMO for jet.com, Groove, as I mentioned, Groove headline, and is now the CMO, the Chief Marketing Officer at Podia, which is a platform to sell digital courses amongst other things. Len Markidan, welcome.

Len: Thank you so much really. I’m excited to be here.

Louis: In this podcast, I’d like to talk about timeless foundational marketing. I’d like to talk about customer research and storytelling and persuasion and psychology because I believe that this is what will never change in marketing and then you can talk about tactics and the latest adverse feature release, but is it really going to bring long term growth to you and your business? Not really. Content marketing, you could argue that actually is just a phase. It’s just something that happens and in the future it’s going to stop. It’s not a timeless tactic, but I believe the opposite. I wanted to know before I get started, what do you think of this concept? Do you think content is here to stay? Yes, no. What do you think?

Len: I love that question because it’s something I hear a lot when I talk about content marketing. Content marketing, it was cool when HubSpot did it and then some companies are doing it now super well, but it’s fading and it’s going to fade out of existence. The reality is content marketing is not new by any stretch of the imagination. One of my absolute favorite stories is in the 1880s, there was a couple of brothers and a father, they were the Johnson family and they started a company called Johnson and Johnson, and they sold medical gauze and bandages and they were having a lot of trouble making sales. Nobody wanted to buy it.

Len: The reason that nobody wanted to buy it was in the 1880s there didn’t seem to be a problem with infections and making sure that wounds stayed clean and close. Doctors didn’t believe that this was an issue. Doctors didn’t believe that it was dangerous to have germs in the air and germs touching wounds. What the Johnson brothers did, they went to a guy named Joseph Lister who was doing some really interesting research over on the other side of the pond. He was finding that actually patients were dying all the time from infections that they would get on the operating table because doctors weren’t washing their hands, they weren’t taking precautions to keep keeping wounds clean.

Len: They essentially interviewed 50 physicians around the world and put together a book called, it was called something like, The Future of Antiseptic Medicine. This was essentially the world’s first roundup post. They published it and three years later they were selling 3 million yards of gauze every single year because they led the market to see the world the way that they saw it. Content marketing has been around forever and it’s going to continue to be around forever. It’ll look different, sure, but it’s not going away.

Louis: Another example I love to give, by the way, great example, I’ve never heard of this story before. Fantastic example for this question, I think the Bible is pretty good as an example for content marketing.

Len: Sure.

Louis: Another one that I love to talk about because it’s in my hometown, Clermont-Ferrand in France, that’s where the Michelin Tires came from, right, and where that’s when Michelin started in the 19th century, end of the 19th century they were selling tires to cyclist. They found a great way to make people use their tires more and therefore buy more of their tires and build trust by just giving them a guide on where to go next, what restaurant to go to and all of that. This is why as of still today we have the Michelin guide and the Michelin stores and all that. That came from this piece of content.

Louis: Before we dive into the actionability and the specificity of what you’ve done and how to build content strategy from scratch and all of that, let me ask you another one. Why do you think content is here to stay? If we go one step further into the psychology of people, why do you think writing content or publishing content like a podcast actually works for business? Why is it so great for the brains of the humans reading our stuff?

Len: I think it’s great because the chance that no matter what you sell, so for example, at Podia, we sell software for online courses. The chance that when you first come across our brand and at that very same moment you are ready to buy a product that’s going to help you create and sell your online courses is actually very low, unless we have really, really highly targeted advertising or marketing at the very bottom of the funnel, but that market is very small. The number of people who are willing to buy at this moment is very small.

Len: However, the number people who will get to a point where they need to buy a product in the next year, two years, three years is extraordinarily high. That market is so much more massive, but how can you ensure that when that person is ready for your product, they know where to find you, they know that you are the brand that they should be going to with their business? Well, the way that you do that is by delivering value to them before they need you, by teaching them something, by solving a problem for them.

Len: That’s where I think really, really great content is an incredibly valuable asset for businesses that is going to just continue gaining value as their content sits on their blogs, sits on their podcasts, sits on their YouTube channel. The more people that you can help down the line, the more people that get to a point where they’re going to need your product and they think, “Oh, yeah, I remember that article I read from Louis. I should go check out Hotjar. I should go check out his podcast.” That’s why content is here to stay.

Louis: Yeah. I agree with you and this is why I like to talk about content on this podcast because I definitely feel this is one of the timeless foundation of marketing that are not here to go away. Yes, channels might change, format may change, but the core principles behind them are not going to change anytime soon because humans are not going to change in the next few years all of a sudden.

Louis: Now, let’s go back to the actionability and the actual step-by-step scenario we can have together. When you joined Groove, Groove is a customer support software a bit less than Desk. You joined and you managed to turn their blog into a celebrity in the world really.

Louis:
I mean, I used to read it, I couldn’t care less about customer support. I still don’t because their transparency ad was really something and it generated, you said $300,000 in most recurring revenue on its own, that was directly responsible. Let’s reverse engineer this. Perhaps you’ve done that in the past with other companies, so you might reverse engineer their process as well that you’ve used, but if someone is asking you, okay, I understand that quantity is important. I understand I need to do something about it. Where the fuck do I start? What should I do?

Len: Sure. Well, I think we can probably start from where we were doing things wrong. That’s probably where a lot of people are sitting today and this is where we were a group for quite some time in the very early days. We saw companies like HubSpot and Unbounce and Kissmetrics that were doing extraordinarily well with their content marketing. They were building these brands around content marketing and they were getting customers and they were clearly growing.

Len: We thought, okay, content marketing, that’s what we need to do. We have to do some content marketing. We started publishing articles like 10 Reasons You Should Use Groove for Your Help Desk. Five Features You’ll Love about Groove’s New Interface, total crap that nobody wants to read. Where we screwed up there, when we looked around and we saw nobody was reading our content, nobody was engaging with our content and then we started reaching out to these companies, we reached out to Dharmesh at HubSpot and Kissmetrics and all these people that were actually surprisingly very willing to talk to us.

Len: We thought, what is it that they’re doing that we’re not doing? Well, what we realized was that their success was actually 95% under the surface. It was stuff that we couldn’t see. It wasn’t the blog. It wasn’t the fact that they were blogging. It wasn’t like checking a box, oh, they were blogging, they were doing content marketing. It was actually that hard work they were doing behind the scenes of talking to their customers, understanding the pain points, understanding the problems that they needed to solve with content.

Len: That’s what we went back to, at Groove is we started talking to our customers and we asked them, “Hey, what are the different problems that you’re facing in your business? What can we solve for you? What are the thorns in your side?” What we realized is that, at that point, was that very few people actually cared about customer service. Very few founders, very few entrepreneurs cared very much about customer service. They didn’t lay awake at night thinking about, oh, how do I do customer service better? Like you said, Louis, you don’t really care about customer service. It’s not something that is typically a burning pain for a founder. We were trying to get founders to use our product.

Len: What we found out instead was that what people struggled with was actually very much what we were struggling with as a company, as an early stage startup. Things like growth, marketing, sale, operations, hiring, figuring out how to build a business from the ground up. That’s when we thought, if these are the problems that people keep coming back to, keep talking about, keep telling us are the key problems in their lives and in their businesses, why don’t we just write about that? If our goal is to get people … Is to get our brand in front of people, why don’t we just write about the problems that we know people have and that we know that we’re having? We’re going to create the blog that we wished already existed.

Len: The one that’s going to tell people exactly what this journey looks like from the inside, the good parts, the bad parts, the really, really bad parts, the lessons that we’ve learned from all of that, and just an honest look at what the growth of an early stage company looks like. That’s how the Groove blog concept came about. Ultimately, there’s a lot of story we can tell there, but really the key part of it is, we figured out what our customers wanted to have solved for them and that’s what we started with.

Louis: Yeah. So there’s no secret there. I think this is something that has been mentioned so many times in this podcast. I’m going to repeat it until I fucking die at this stage, is that at the end of the day, every single marketing activities, every good strategy starts with the customer. It just start with the customer and then expand. It’s not about growth hacks that are geared towards copying your competitors, it’s not about anything else. The source of good marketing always comes from your customer. I’m glad you’re mentioning that.

Louis: The other thing that was quite unique and is quite unique about Groove was their transparency, right. That was part of the values that they had, which was their willingness to share shit that most people would never share. I’m going to ask you a very leading question, but do you think the intersection of what customer wanted and is called value of transparency was actually this recipe that made it even better?

Len:
I think that we … That’s a great question. I think that what made it work was that we had this obsessiveness with customer centricity and we coupled it with something very unique. I think you could replace transparency with something else that’s very unique that gives people a reason to come back because basically after we launched that blog, a lot of companies came out and launched “transparent blogs”, our journey to whatever the outcome or want is and they didn’t do as well. There’s a lot of reasons for that. The biggest reason for that is you are never going to be great simply by copying somebody else. You will never be a better group than Groove. You will never be a better Louis than Louis.

Len:
You will never be a better HubSpot than HubSpot. I think for us, transparency was the right fit. We were in a place where we were making almost no money, so we had nothing to lose and we were in a unique position where many of our customers were in the exact same stage as we are. Many of them were also very, very early stage startups, so that worked really, really well for us. That version of the recipe worked for us, but I think the key there is just making it something really unique that gives people a reason to keep coming back.

Louis:
Okay. Now let’s go into how to do it. As you said, I think it’s the right point, if you’re listening to this, it’s not only going to be valuable if you’re only starting from scratch, it’s also probably very valuable to listen to this if you have content going on, content marketing strategy, some resources behind it and it’s not necessarily working or you’re not super happy with this. Let’s take that scenario. What do you advise people to start doing? You started mentioning customers interviewing. Is it the first step to actually talk to customers or is there something else before that?

Len:
If you have customers, I would just talk to customers and I would ask them questions like, hey, what are you struggling with today? What’s on your mind? Really, really open ended questions about this space that you’re in and then try and really go deep on what problems they start to identify. What are you struggling with? “Okay, well, we’re really struggling with hiring,” a customer might’ve said to us. Interesting. What specifically are you struggling with in hiring? We’ve been trying to hire this VP of marketing for a really, long time. We haven’t been really successful. Okay, interesting. Tell me more about that. What have you tried that hasn’t worked for you?

Len:
Oh, well, we’ve gone to these job boards, X, Y, and Z and we’ve reached out to our network. It just doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere with it. Oh, okay. Interesting. Well, what are you thinking in terms of next steps? What would accomplishing this help you to achieve? And so on and so on and so on. Really understanding not only the problem but the words that the customers use when they describe the problem, the sentiment that they have around the problem because that’s all going to inform the content. After that, when you come back from those conversations with pages and pages of notes, frankly, a lot of the content ends up writing itself because you can set up the problem.

Len:
You can set up the promise for what can be achieved if you actually solve this problem and then, for us specifically, I mean, this is unique to the Groove blog, but for us, then we had to talk about our own experience with the problem and we had to solve the problem for people. We go from customer interview to testing an action where we’re creating essentially the meat of the article, then we go to writing and then we go to publication. Then we’ve got a promotion, which is a side of this coin that is as large as everything that came before it.

Louis:
Yeah. Absolutely it is. Let’s go back to the interview first. We’ve talked about interviewing a lot on this podcast, well, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this. How do you reach out to customers? A lot of people would think, oh, but no one wants to talk about this. No one would answer my email. It sometime suck to actually interview customers. What do you say to this?

Len:
It’s time consuming, but I don’t think there’s a better use of your time. When you spend time talking to your customers, you will get insights that aren’t just useful for your blog, that aren’t just useful for your content marketing, you are going to get insights that can profoundly change the product that you’re building, that can profoundly change your overall marketing strategy. In terms of actually getting people to talk, I’ve always been surprised that … I guess not surprised about it anymore, but I was always surprised at how willing people were to talk about what they’re struggling with, when it’s something that they’re struggling with and they really want solved. That’s the key is that they have to really want this problem to be solved.

Len:
We all have those annoying problems in our lives that we’re like, “Yeah, that sucks, but I’m not going to do anything about that.” Those are the problems you really want to stay away from solving because if people aren’t motivated to solve the problem, they’re not going to be that interested in your blog. But when you find problems that people actually think about all the time and need solved, that’s when you can get people talking, that’s when you can get people excited to talk to you. Tactically, the more people you email, the more people in your customer base you email, the more you’ll likely to get to talk to.

Len:
Some people do giveaways and things like that, but frankly, we were just always had a lot of success saying, “Hey, we’d love to chat for 10 to 15 minutes. I’d love to just learn a little bit about the challenges that you’re having in your business. There will not be a pitch during this call. I just want to learn more about how we can create things that solve problems for you.”

Louis:
Yeah, people love to be seen as experts and they love to talk about their problems. They treat you as their therapies for a while and you just have normal fucking conversations with people, right. You go in a bar, you meet someone randomly, you’re, “Oh, you work in the same industry.”` How would you talk to this person? Well, you need to talk the same way than you would in this situation when you have customer interviews. Recall those conversations, ask their consent obviously depending on the country you’re in, recall the conversation, get it transcribed so you don’t need to take a lot of notes and reread those transcript.

Louis:
Now, I mean, obviously it’s a bit of a simplified version, but in Podia and in other companies that you worked with in the past, how do you then translate that into a strategy, a direction that your CEO understand, that your colleagues understand, that your team member understand, saying, “This is what we’re going to write about.” What is the key between here?

Len:
Sure. The biggest thing that we do at this point when we have all of these transcripts, we have all of these notes is we go through and we look for a couple of different things. The two biggest things that we’re looking at are commonalities across all these different interviews. What are the things that people keep repeating? We’re looking for width basically, how many people are talking about this? Then we’re looking for depth. What are the topics that even if there are fewer people that talk about them, where people’s inflection really goes up, where people get really excited or really upset or really fired up about?

Len:
Those problems, even if there are fewer people talking about them, if you solve those problems for people, those are going to be the ones that people will thank you, will be in your debt forever for. From there, we’ll essentially come up with a strategy. We’ll say, “All right, well, the key problems for us are people find it really, really intimidating to create an online course from scratch. They don’t have their content yet and for them, just starting on this big project, they’re not project managers, they’re not people who typically take on these massive projects with all these moving parts. They’re intimidated by that and they’re intimidated by the tech. They’re intimidated by having to figure out how all the technology works for it.”

Len:
How can we take those problems and create a strategy that solves both of those things? For us, that means our blog, where we try and solve both of those problems for people, our webinars where we do walkthroughs and demos and get people to see how easy it can actually be. That goes to being live doing events and doing all sorts of other marketing channels. But essentially, from those interviews, what we pull is that our strategy for marketing is making people’s lives easier when it comes to creating the content and posting the content.

Louis:
In tactical terms, in practical terms, you would like, I don’t know, have a Spreadsheet or Notion or whatever else you want like an Air Table, whatever the fuck, and you have all of those transcript and you select … You basically read through them and you identify all of those things, the problems that people mentioned. You would write them down and then, let’s say, you come across this problem again in another transcript, you add another number next to it in the Excel Spreadsheet so you know this is how many times this problem has been mentioned. That gives you the commonality, right?

Len:
Exactly, yeah. Actually, I’m not cool enough to be on Air Table or Notion. What I do is I actually will take all of our transcripts and print them out and I’m usually sitting in a booth at the coffee shop with 300 or 400 pages of these customer transcripts and a pen and just a bunch of blank paper and I’m circling things and writing things. A lot of people think of this process as being really smooth and laboratory of life where everything is really, really systematized and smooth. But really just, I look like … I’m sure I looked like a freaking disaster when I’m going through all of these pages and just scribbling notes everywhere and trying to make sense of it all.

Len:
It’s a very messy, messy process, but ultimately what we’ll end up with is a Spreadsheet, a Google doc or a paper doc or something that has all those commonalities and then essentially it’s just whittling down from there. That’s really, I think the key difference of a customer driven marketing strategy versus a non-customer driven marketing strategy is when you have all of these interviews to start with, you’re basically trying to reduce things down to find the best strategy rather than starting from scratch and trying to build something out of thin air.

Louis:
Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned in this. I’m very much the same. My desk is full of paper and I love reading it physically speaking and take pen and just circling things out. I’m glad you mentioned that. That’s for the commonalities, how common a problem is, but then you have the pain, right. You have those words that people use or this feeling you have in an interview. You can look at the body language sometimes and feel they’re so fired up. They get closer to the screen or they start shouting, they start cursing, they start feeling … You can feel that when you see them.

Louis:
Again, you can’t replace that feeling with a survey research only or just by copying your competitor. You need to see in their eye. You need to look at how they behave because that’s going to stick in your mind. That usually is a good indicator of the pain. How do you then apart from that, looking at people and making notes on that, what type of words do you like to look at that tells you, this is painful, this is something that is really sore for people?

Len:
For me, the things that really indicate pain are things that people tell me they have gone through a lot of trouble to solve already unsuccessfully. Things like, I’ve read books on this topic, I’ve read articles, we’ve hired consultants on this, we’ve outsourced firms, we have hired full time employees to solve this problem and it’s still not solved. I’ve taken online courses on this and it’s still not solved. That effort that people exert to solve the problem, to me is one of the biggest indicators that you’re on to something because people are motivated to solve that problem, which means that it’s probably a pretty big problem and solving it would mean something valuable to them.

Len:
Then beyond that, a lot of it is, like you said, Louis, I think one of the really important things here in these customer conversations is that you’re talking to somebody like you’d be talking to them in a bar. You’re not being robotic and saying, “Oh, please tell me about your pain points.” It’s a casual conversation. In those conversations, when you’re talking to friends, you can pick up when people get animated. You can pick up when people get really fired up or excited or upset or engaged about a topic. A lot of it is not even necessarily the specific words that they use. For me, a lot of it is just seeing when people start to get fired up, that’s when I make a note and say, “Okay, come back to this point, come back to this,” when I see the transcript. This is something that means a lot.

Louis:
Yeah, it makes total sense. Then, once you have a good idea of the most common problems how painful they are, I suppose you prioritize them, right? You have a list of, this are all the top one we need to focus on next?

Len:
Exactly, yeah. We basically make a list of the problems that we need to solve and that’s where we go into the next stages of actually producing the content.

Louis:
You mentioned a good example. You said people struggle with selling their first course online, something like that. That’s a pain, people have gone to great lengths to solve it, it’s common. Now, that’s a big topic, right. How do you translate this problem into content that makes sense like into blog posts, webinars, whatever else you mentioned?

Len:
Sure. Essentially this is I think where a lot of people will … This is a thing where a lot of people get tripped up with, okay, I have this problem and now I’m going to solve it with a piece of content. The reality is it’s rarely one piece of content that solves a problem for your market. It’s going to be one problem is enough to fuel many, many, many, many pieces of content, especially for something as big as how to create your first online course. For us, we’ve started to try to solve it in a number of different ways. The first was we created the 12,000 word guide to creating an online course.

Len:
We did that with essentially taking these customers interviews, and seeing what these pain points were and then we did some SEO research on top of that to learn … To fill the gaps between the information that we had and then what Google would tell us would be complete for this topic. We wrote this guide. We got a bunch of experts and interviewed them and created this piece that essentially if somebody wanted to, we’d walk them through the entire process of building a course from scratch. Now, this is where a lot of people might stop because they would say, “Okay, the problem is solved now,” but the reality is not everybody wants to read a 12,000 word guide.

Len:
From that, we created a whole bunch of tangential articles that if you just wanted to solve a little piece of this problem, you can do because some people aren’t ready to jump in. They just want to come up with an idea. They just want to validate their idea. They just want to choose from five different ideas, how do you pick the best ones? We created little articles from that. We created a webinar that essentially teaches that concept and delivered it in a live format where people can ask questions.

Len:
We also created nine or 10 YouTube videos that essentially take that same exact framework for building a course and teaches it over the course of eight or nine different YouTube videos. Basically, taking that solution that you create and creating content that looks at that problem through as many different lenses as you possibly can so that you can be as useful to as many different people as you possibly can.

Louis:
So many things I want to go back to. Before that, I want to mention something. Let’s say you don’t have customers, talking about interviews, interview people who use a competitor or an alternative or interview people who fit the persona that you want to talk to. It’s okay if you don’t have customers, so that shouldn’t be an excuse. I just wanted to mention that. What you mentioned then is super important here and we need to spend time on this. If you identify a big problem like how to sell your online courses, the struggle to do that, that’s a big ass problem, that’s huge because if you think about the specificity, you can as you say, talk about all those mini problems that are part of this biggest problem, all of the steps you need to take to solve this problem.

Louis:
The biggest mistake I see online in term of content, and this is why we started this podcast by the way, is because it’s so fucking nonspecific that it hurts. You come up with a problem and you try to solve it into a 1,200 fucking word on whatever, forbes.com, how to sell on a call. You just cover each problem with two sentences and there you go. That’s actually the wrong way to go about things, right. This is why you had to create a 12,000 words guide to solve one problem because it’s so large that you had to break it down. You can’t just solve it with one blog post.

Len:
Definitely. I mean, it would be like if somebody wants to know how to build a car and you create a blog post that says, “Okay, step one, build an engine. Then step two is you’re going to build the body of the car and then step three is put all the other pieces in and then you’re done. Congratulations, you’ve built the car.” It’s just not useful to anybody.

Louis:
This is why the specificity again comes back to. We’ve done that with Hotjar. I’ve done that on this podcast. Going specific is what people crave. They want to know how to do it and they don’t want to guess anymore. When you know customers really well, you can truly understand their problem in detail and when you interview them you understand their thought processes well, right? You mentioned something I want to touch on again, which is super important is the SEO side of things. You brushed on it, but again, let’s go specific. I would agree that if you only do customer interviews, you miss some part of the picture. SEO I believe is not this number or game or whatever.

Louis:
I mean, SEO is purely based on what people actually fucking search in the first place. If you can match what people tell you and what they actually search, their real behavior, you can start basically have the full painting in front of you. How do you do that? Once you have those problems, those common problems that are painful, how do you also make sure that you don’t have any gaps from an SEO perspective in terms of what people actually search?

Len:
Sure. There are a few ways that we’ve done this. The first is and the most common approach would be to just use a tool that helps you do all this research. We really love HRS. At Podia, we use it very heavily. They have tools where you can essentially put in a topic and it’ll tell you search volume for different long tail keywords around that topic, what different people are actually asking, what different people are actually searching. There are free tools if you’re just getting started, that can definitely help you with this. Google has their own keyword planner where you can put in some topics and get some suggested keywords. There’s, I forget the name of the tool, but it was an auto complete tool that you can put a search term in and it’ll tell you all of the Google auto suggest phrases for that, which is-

Louis:
I don’t know which one.

Len:
… Yeah. These tools are constantly coming out and constantly changing. If you Google these SEO tools, they’re all going to be new by the time this podcast comes out and there’s going to be another 50 of them. Ultimately, we did that to start and then ultimately we ended up actually just hiring an SEO resource to help us do all of this because of the volume of content that we started producing. Essentially, that’s all it comes down to is making sure … The reason that you do SEOs is not because you want to write content just for Google, ultimately we’re writing for humans.

Len:
What we want is to make sure that you’ve interviewed all these customers, if you had interviewed another 1,000 people that were representative of your market, what else would they have told you that you might’ve missed? That’s really why we do SEO research, is to fill in the gaps that we have because we only have limited time to talk to humans.

Louis:
Yeah. That’s exactly how I see it as well. Yeah, to go back to the tools, the tool doesn’t really matter. Those tools are built for people like you. Let’s say you want to search for selling online course. What happens as you search for it, you know how many people roughly search for it, you know roughly how difficult it is to rank for it and then also it gives you suggestions of longer tail keywords, keywords that are longer, but not necessarily, but keywords that are in the longer tail of the search value, which means that they are less searched, but there might be more interesting because you can rank faster for them.

Louis :
The way, again, I see it is really as a painting that you start putting the foundations and all of that, but then you need the details to really add and to make it look like a fucking painting and not like a draft. You have that and with that strategy because you repurpose the same problem into many channels, because you know what people care about, you have content for a long time, right. Probably for six months at least by doing this exercise.

Len:
Yeah. I mean, we’ve been talking about how to create an online course for a year and a half now and we’re not going to be done any time soon.

Louis:
Yeah. That’s what it takes. You need to just drill down into a problem, talk about it from so many different angles, so many different topics, subtopics, longer tail keywords, channels, formats, there’s way a lot of things you can do.

Louis:
I’m super interested in another topic. I mean, it’s very related, but once you know what to write, you might not be a good writer. For example, I’m a shitty writer. I mean, I don’t like writing long form stuff. I like writing copywriting, landing pages. I like that, but longer form, I’m not good at it. What do you advise people to do in this scenario? Should they hire writers? Should they hire freelancers? What worked for you the best?

Len:
The way that we’ve always done it is my approach to outsourcing writing has always essentially been find people … In your head you might not think of yourself as a good writer, you might not even want to do the writing, which is totally fine, but in your head you probably have a decent idea of what you would love your writing to look like, what you would love your content to look like. It probably has a certain voice. It probably looks like a certain brand that you admire. What I would do is find the writing that you love and reach out to the people who wrote it. You can always go on Upwork.

Len:
You can always go to these terrible content firms. I’m not saying Upwork is terrible content firm. I’m just saying there are a lot of terrible content firms. You can always get to Upwork. The deck is usually stacked against you in most cases. It’s very, very difficult to find good writers in a sea of really bad writers. What I find to be a far more productive approach, is finding the people that are already writing the content that you love and sending them an email. You will be surprised at how many writers that you respect and admire, even if they have full time jobs somewhere, will be happy to take on freelance work. That’s where I would start.

Louis:
Interesting. Yeah, I never really heard of this technique per se and that makes total sense, right. It sounds like the first step before actually reaching out to people is probably put together what the perfect article looks like for you in a sense, so the tone of voice. How do you say that? A selection of all the things so that visually you can see how you want your article to look like.

Len:
Yeah. Like a mood board. If you were thinking about how you want the design of your site to look, you just go out and find all of the content that you really love. Just find content that you think, oh man, if this was on our blog, if this writer was on our blog, this tone was on our blog, this level of depth and richness was on our blog, I would be really happy. Just put together a list of those and you’ll have a much better idea of what your ideal content looks like and then you can share that with writers and they’ll have a much better idea of what you’re actually expecting out of them.

Louis:
A lot of good writers, freelance writers might ghost write for people, so you might come up with a good angle, or you might do all the interview of an expert, but then someone else would write it for you and then you will still alter it. That’s the common practice. How do you do that then when it comes to identifying the ghost writers, the people behind the scenes then?

Len:
I would do it the same way. Finding the people that you really want to sound like, finding the people that really seem like they can speak to your audience in a way that is compelling and rich and unique, and then reaching out and say, Hey, I have a ghost writing assignment that I’d love to chat with you on. There are also pretty good agencies out there that can help you depending on what skill you’re looking for. Most agencies will want to work with a certain volume of content to start. If you’re just getting started, I would probably go the Freelancer route, but eventually you can work up to an agency. Agencies are always more than happy to take on ghost writing assignments and then from there you can grow that into a full time in house person.

Louis:
How does it work for you in Podia at the minute? Do you have only in house writers, freelance writers, a mix of both?

Len:
Yeah. Right now, we have in house writers. We have three full time content marketers on our staff. One who is the blog editor and then two writing full time and it’s working really, really well for us. We didn’t hire full time from the beginning. Basically, that first article we were just testing the channel and I wrote it, that first create a course guide after that we hired an agency to help us produce six pieces a month. From there, when we proved the channel and saw that, okay, if we continue to invest in content, we’re going to continue to grow paying subscribers, it became a no brainer for us to say, “Okay, now let’s hire somebody in house.” And then another person and another person.

Louis:
You scaled that by testing the channel using freelancers and contractors, which I think is the right thing to do. Before we go into the next steps and maybe dive in deeper into the hiring writers type of detail, is there anything that we have not covered in the steps using your experience working with other companies and all of that, the pitfalls that you see? Do you feel we’ve covered pretty much the core steps or is there something you’d like to mention that I haven’t asked you yet?

Len:
I think that we’ve covered the core steps in the content development process. I would love for more people to do some research and learn more about content promotion because it’s incredibly important and that’s probably the biggest pitfall is people creating a bunch of content even if it’s really good content and then not promoting it, but that’s also a two hour conversation we can have.

Louis:
Yeah. Maybe I can have you on board again to talk about promotion specifically, but since you’re mentioning it then we won’t have time to cover it in detail, but if you have to select the one thing, the one biggest mistake when it comes to promotion and the best solution for this, what would it be?

Len:
The biggest mistake people make is really, really low quality promotion. That can mean a number of different things. Maybe perhaps the most common is people say, I need to do influencer promotion for my content. I need to reach out to a bunch of influencers and get them promote my content. Okay, it sounds good in theory. What it usually looks like in practice is you spamming a list of a thousand people with the same email with maybe a couple of personalization fields so that you think it looks like a personal email. That’s a terrible approach to promotion and it very rarely actually works.

Len:
What does typically work is putting in the time to build 10 relationships with influencers rather than a thousand, doing it ahead of time, well before you publish this content and then asking them during the writing process and saying, “Hey, do you have any … Here’s a draft of this article. I know this is a problem that you’ve worked to solve, but let’s know if you have any input.” Then when the article is published, sharing it with them and asking them for a share, it is a tactic that probably takes, to be completely honest, five times as long as the spray and pray approach, but it will deliver 50 times the results.

Louis:
That’s an interesting one that you picked there because I thought you would be talking about SEO and long term promotion, but I guess influencer is a good step to start. People that are being trusted by our audience who have expertise and who can share it for you. Now, I would challenge you with something though. I mean, I’ve done that in the past and all of that involving people and whatever. What I found to be happening most of the time is you get a spike, yeah, it’s cool. You get shares and a few people mentioning it, but then months after, boom, nothing. How do you solve that then?

Len:
That’s a good question and a common issue. I think that the way that you solve that, number one, is by really paying attention to that step we talked about before of doing that SEO research and making sure that your content is complete because you won’t get feedback … Usually won’t get feedback right away when you publish an article from Google that your article is really good, right. It takes a while to start ranking for competitive search terms. You’re not going to know right away that your article is positioned really well from SEO. That’s why I like this one on one outreach approach because you will get immediate feedback on what I like to think of as the green light metrics, the green light metrics of content, things like post engagement, shares, referral traffic.

Len:
These are things that a lot of marketers … Some of those metrics a lot of marketers think of as “vanity metrics” and it’s true. They don’t necessarily have a big long term impact on the business, but in the very early days they can tell you that you’re on to something. They can tell you that you’re moving in the right direction and that if you make sure that you’re following sound SEO practices and continuing to be customer centric and continuing to write good content, that if those green light metrics exist, in three months or so, you can probably expect that organic traffic to start coming your way.

Louis:
Yeah. That’s a nice way to think about it. You purposefully understand that for the first three months you’re not going to get a lot of traffic from Google, especially as you said, from competitive term and instead you can rely on more qualitative metrics that shows you actually this article solved problems, we send it to our list, people loved it. Experts contributed to it said it was really comprehensive. You have all of those credits that you’ve check list in front of you before putting it into the organic machine. Right.

Louis:
Honestly, I mean, I know things can change in the future and technology can change, behavior can change, people might do something different, but at the minute it’s pretty clear that people see and will always, I mean, at least in the next five, 10 years search for things, whether it’s via voice or text or whatever. It’s pretty clear that betting on search engine in term of a long term promotion way to show people your content when they search for it is something that you can rely on. I mean, it’s the only way to build something long term that people will find over and over again instead of just this spike of hope that you get and then nothing.

Louis:
I’ve made this mistake multiple times and that’s why I know that now we pretty much do, at Hotjar, we do that exactly as you mentioned. We have a few people that we trust. We interview them sometimes so that they can write an article from us. We do roundup sometimes, which are not shitty roundups.

Louis:
We actually ask them to contribute in depths. We ask them for feedback and then we share it with our list and we can have a feel that this article is striking gold because we do our research on SEO, and what people search and what their problems are, it usually start to show up after, depending, sometimes a week, sometimes three months, sometimes nine months, but it shows up. Len, thank you so much for going through this process with me. I’ve learned a lot from you.

Len:
Of course.

Louis:
I know the listeners would have as well. I have three questions to ask you before I let you go.

Len:
Sure.

Louis:
The first one being, what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?

Len:
I think focus. There are going to be more and more and more and more tools that are going to promise to supercharge your marketing. There are going to be more and more and more platforms that claim to be the best place to advertise. There are going to be more and more and more marketing tactics that get written up. It used to be really cool to write an article with seven marketing tactics and then that number became 17 and then 27 and now it’s to rank for marketing tactics list, you need 30 or more marketing tactics. There are never going to be fewer shiny objects than there are today.

Len:
I think a really important skill for marketers is going to be to think very critically about their overall strategy to plan very thoughtfully for executing on the tactics that they’ve decided are worth trying and when you learn what works, to be super, super focused about trying to do an amazing job about executing on what works without being distracted by the thousand things that everybody is always going to be talking about.

Louis:
Yeah. Amen to that. I would say a way to really understand what is the shiny object that you need to ignore and focus on what’s right is again, to start with your customers. This is the best way to really get clarity really quickly. If you start from customer and then you decide what to do next, you will remember those conversation, you’ll remember this research and you’ll know what to focus on. This is why strategy is important, right. The real science of strategy. There’s a good book about it called, Good Strategy. Bad Strategy that tells you what is a strategy and is three step.

Louis:
First one, you do a diagnosis of the situation. What are the problems we want to solve? Second step, you have a guiding policy. This is where we’re going to go. Third step is the action plan. That’s what a strategy is. Not any fluffy fucking blog that tells you 18 marketing strategies to win to get more customers. Those are not strategies. They are tactics, but those are not strategies. Thanks for this answer. I completely agree with you as you can see. Maybe on the back of that then, what are the top three resources you’d recommend to listeners today? It could be anything from a podcast, book, events, whatever.

Len:
Yeah, I love that take on shiny objects too, by the way. The first one I’ve mentioned already is Trust blog. If you do content marketing at all and you don’t read their blog, you should. They do an extraordinary job breaking down SEO concepts for blogging, YouTube, podcasting, everything.

Len:
The second would be, I think favorite new marketing resource that’s come out in the last couple of years is Forget the Funnel. Claire and Gia are both exceptionally accomplished SaaS marketers. Forget the Funnel is their site where they have these workshops with other marketers. You and I both run workshops on there and there are many, many, many other videos that are incredibly useful for tech marketers. The third would be, I really like Startup School by Y Combinator.

Len:
It’s this entirely free library of video courses, video content. It’s at startupschool.org/library and they just have some incredible marketing. It’s really for all startup related topics, but they have some really incredible growth and marketing content from Gustaf Alströmer, who is one of the lead growth people at Airbnb, A bunch of other people. Two videos I would look for on there, there’s one called, Laying the Foundation for Sustainable Growth, which is really excellent and then another follow on video called Scaling Growth. I highly recommend both of those.

Louis:
Yeah. The three example you gave are a fantastic example of what good content marketing is, right. You mentioned those resources naturally because they’re the best in the business because they help you solve problems that you have. Again, great example of content marketing, particularly the Hotjar blog, Forget the Funnel, the Y Combinator resource. It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to those or watch these videos, but yeah, I can concur on all of three. Thank you so much.

Louis:
Len, thank you so much once again for your time. We really appreciate how you broke down everything for us today. If people are interested and want to ask you a question, where can they connect with you?

Len:
Sure. Easiest place is on Twitter. I’m just @LenMarkidan on Twitter, love to chat with folks. Then obviously I’m always on Podia, at podia.com.

Louis:
All of the stuff that you said will be mentioned in the show notes, obviously of these episodes, if you don’t know how to spell Len Markidan, you’ll find it in there as well, but perhaps you can spell your last name out loud.

Len:
Sure thing. Yes, it’s just the @LenMarkidan. It’s L-E-N M-A-R-K-I-D-A-N, Markidan.

Louis:
Sounds like marketing a bit. That’s really clever branding, Len.

Len:
It’s a little close. Yeah, it’s a little too close.

Louis:
All right. Once again, thank you so much, Len.

Len:
Thank you, Louis. It’s a pleasure.

 

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