Strategy. Consistency. Focus. These are the key elements of content marketing strategy success in today’s content marketing world, according to my podcast guest, Joe Pulizzi. Joe is the founder of Content Marketing Institute and it’s cornerstone event Content Marketing World so he’s been teaching and living content for a long time.

Today’s agencies have to figure out the content game. You need to know when your client needs to create content, how to make it sticky and relevant and how to do it profitably. The winning content formula of strategy + consistency + focus is what it takes to build an audience and that is where the value lies – in getting, keeping and maintaining an audience. Content for content’s sake is just more noise.  

Joe and I help you to put this content strategy puzzle together by showing you:

  • What agencies and clients need to do to develop a content marketing strategy that actually succeeds
  • Why you need to focus on your email list more than people you are connected with on social media
  • How agencies can leverage their own content better
  • Why you need to focus on content in specific platforms over trying to be everywhere
  • What differentiates the agencies that do content marketing extremely well
  • Old school deliverables that still work today
  • Why you need a content marketing mission statement
  • Why the editing process is a crucial part of content marketing
  • The ways smart agencies get smart enough to create valuable content
  • Things agencies can do right now to get the content marketing techniques discussed in this episode rolling
  • Joe’s events

Joe Pulizzi is the founder of Content Marketing Institute, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s fourth book “Content Inc.” was just released. His third book, “Epic Content Marketing” was named one of “Five Must-Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. I am psyched for today’s episode. All of you, regardless of your size, or your niche, or your specialty, are wrestling with this idea of how to create really valuable, really actionable content, not only for your clients but for yourself. And I have the subject matter expert with us today.

Joe Pulizzi is the founder of Content Marketing Institute. I am sure all of you are following him on Twitter and reading his content. He also hosts several large organizations, but Content Marketing Institute is the leading education and training organization for content marketing which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World, which happens in the beautiful city of Cleveland every fall. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. He has written several books. His fourth book, Content Inc., was just released. You can find Joe on Twitter and everywhere in the interwebs. And as all of you know, if you meet him in person, he will be wearing the color orange.

So Joe, welcome to the blog…the blog. Listen to me. Welcome to the podcast. And you know what? Let’s start with why orange? Because everyone’s going to ask me if I don’t ask you so let’s just get that out of the way.

Joe: You know, Drew, first of all, thanks for having me. Second of all, I’m actually wearing orange right now. I know you can’t see me but I don’t go anywhere without putting orange on. And the reason why that took off, so I started the business, what is now Content Marketing Institute, in 2007. And just like most start-ups, entrepreneurs, I was doing whatever. I tried to get on the speaking circuit. I was writing blogs. I was trying to be this thought leader. And as I was out doing speeches, I’m like, well, our colors were orange and gray. Well, I might as well support the company colors. So I bought a couple of orange button-down shirts and just started to wear them. I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought that this would be nice.

So I started to go out and do speaking and a lot of people that were taking pictures got pictures of me. I’m wearing the orange shirt. And then I got this request from Brussels, Belgium, an agency in Brussels, Belgium, sent me an email and said, “Joe, we want you to come do a keynote in Brussels. We’ll pay you this. We’ll bring you over.” And they said, “The only problem is you have to wear a black tuxedo.” And I said, “Well, I’ll wear whatever you want. I’ll wear a monkey suit if you want me to. I don’t care. You’re paying for me to come over. I’m happy to do that. I don’t care. That’s fine. I’ll wear the black tux.” So I go over. I do the gig. They got the black tux there for me.

I come off-stage and I kid you not, Drew, I had three people and I’ve never been to Brussels before, it was the first time I was in Europe, actually. And I had three people come up to me specifically and ask me why I wasn’t wearing the color orange. And I’m like, “Really?” And I started to think about it. Oh, my gosh, they were telling me, “Yeah, we haven’t seen any pictures of you without the color orange.” And I realized that I was branding myself alongside this color. And then I realized, this might be a thing. Maybe this could be some way to separate myself in all this commotion around content marketing or social media, or whatever. And people recognize me for orange. And I realized that. And then I went off the deep end in orange, Drew. So everything, literally you look into my closet, it’s like you’re opening the case from Pulp Fiction. There’s a bright, shining orange comes out of it. And my whole…basically everything that I have outside of jeans has some kind of orange in it. Of course, that’s in our …

Drew: Even a full suit, right? I’ve seen pictures of you. You have…

Joe: Full suit. I’ve got a full custom orange suit. I’ve got many orange shirts. I’ve got, I don’t know, 15 different pairs of orange shoes. Every week or so, I’ll get a little present in the mail from somebody who will send me something orange. All around my office, my desk right now, I’ve got all kinds of different orange knick-knacks and chachkies and whatnot. So it’s become part of the brand and I’ve accepted it. I know for the rest of my life I can’t wear anything other than orange out in public. I guess that’s just…because actually a couple years ago, I actually went out. I didn’t have any orange on. I was at the grocery store and somebody saw me and asked me why I wasn’t wearing orange. And I’m like, “Come on, really? Like I can’t go anywhere without wearing orange?” But no, I can’t. So I don’t. So there it is.

Drew: That reminds me of, “Hello, My Name is Scott” and him actually having to tattoo the name tag on his chest to make sure that he always wore the name tag.

Joe: Whatever it takes to help the business, I will absolutely do and it does.

Drew: So some mornings when you’re getting dressed, though, don’t you go, “You know what/ Maybe in hindsight, this was not a brilliant plan.”? Or do you just embrace it now?

Joe: I totally embrace it. There are some days…well, for example, I coach my son’s basketball team and we’re red. Our color is red. So I wear all red but I do wear orange shoes. So still somebody can’t say, “Joe, no orange.” I still have it.

Drew: Still a little homage to the company, even when supporting the team.

Joe: Yeah, nonstop. Never stops.

Drew: Well, it probably helps that you’re in Cleveland. At least, the Browns are brown and orange, right?

Joe: Well, I wish they were a better team, but, yeah. I went to Bowling Green State University, too, so their colors are orange and brown as well. It doesn’t really matter. Everybody asks why and I tell them why. And it’s all good.

Drew: You were destined for this, clearly.

Joe: I was destined to be the color orange because, actually, I look back at pictures before 2007. I never wore orange. It’s just that we picked the company colors. That was it and the rest was history.

Drew: There you have it. So today I really want to dig into this whole idea of content marketing strategy. And, as you know, because you’re talking to agencies and companies every day, as you know, agencies in particular, I think, really struggle with this issue because they know what bad content is but they really wrestle with getting clients to recognize what good content is and what content is supposed to do. And they also wrestle, from the business perspective of getting paid, to produce good content. It’s easy to slap out a blog post or something else that really is just more noise. But as you know, and as you profess, it takes more time and thought to really do it well. So I really want to dig in today to your thoughts about how agencies that you know that are doing it well are accomplishing that, some of the foibles that get in the way. And also, before we hit record, you were telling me about another event that you guys do that sounds fascinating about the future of content. So I want to dig in there. But let’s start with, tell us a little bit about some agencies that you know that are doing content well and what they’re doing differently to make that work for themselves and for their clients.

Joe: Sure. Just so you have more background on me, so I used to work at a publishing company called Penton Media. So this was from 2000 to 2007 before I left and started the business. And we were a publishing agency. So we were within the B2B publisher but all we did was do agency work. So we executed things like custom magazines, newsletters, blog posts, webinar programs and whatnot. So I’ve got a really good feel from that side of it.

And then when I look out and we work with a lot of, what I would call, very successful content marketing agencies, traditionally out of the custom publishing realm.  And the reason why they’re really successful is that’s all they do. I mean, they really focus on the art of storytelling and helping customers tell better stories. And where I see a lot of agencies that aren’t as successful, it’s just an add-on product. And we’ve seen this a lot in the SEO space. It’s like I can’t go to an SEO agency website or a social media agency website where they don’t have, “Yeah, we do content marketing.” Whatever that means. So everybody…so here’s the deal, and you know this is true, everybody says they have content marketing execution as part of what they do. Now here’s the differentiation and here’s why I think a lot of the agencies that just focus on it get it: because they really understand strategy. They really understand and they will go in and they will help that client, their partner, really work on what the strategy should be instead of taking what the client thinks they should do and executing it.

I can’t tell you that 99% of the time, if a client gives you, “Hey, we want to do eight blog posts a month, or we want to do a digital magazine, or we want to do this podcast.” If you just take that, and I know good agencies don’t do this, but a lot of agencies out there absolutely do, they’ll just take it at face value and say, “Yeah, sure. We can execute it. Blog posts are X amount of length. Okay, we’ll do that. We’ll focus on these key words. We’re out the door and done.” And that is, you’re setting yourselves up for just short-term success, if any, at all. But you’re definitely not going to get that project ongoing.

You want to make sure…I would push back on anything you get from a client and say, “Look, we don’t know.” I would say, “Okay, I see all these content things and executables you want us to do.” I would absolutely push back and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know if that’s the right decision. We have to get a better look. We really have to go through our discovery phase and make sure we get that done.” And if you have to lose the project because of that or the client because of that, I would say, “Sorry, this is our process.” You have to have an upfront strategic session that might take two weeks. It might take a month. You have to get to know that client’s audience better than anyone else. We really have to focus on one audience and not multiple audiences.

So I think that’s where you see a lot of agencies just absolutely fall down with it. Just focusing on education and they’re not getting into how does this even make sense? Should this client even be doing content marketing? You don’t know that. We don’t know if that’s going to work.

Drew: The assumption is everybody should, but that’s not necessarily true.

Joe: Absolutely not. I think that’s the problem and a lot of people even say for us, “Hey, Content Marketing Institute. You want everybody to do content marketing.” There is nothing further from the truth than that. If you are not committed to it and you don’t really believe in it and you just think you should because everybody should do content marketing just like everybody should do social media, please, just don’t.  Because all you’re going to do is create more clutter. It’s not going to help your business. It’s certainly not going to help your customers. You might as well go buy advertising or go do something else because it’s not going to help.

Drew: So you talked about the strategy part of it and I’m a firm believer that, honestly, that’s the truth for any agency, execution is. If you don’t invest the time and energy in putting together the strategy, nothing works, whether it’s content or PR or whatever it is. But talk to us a little bit about the discovery. So if you were taking a new client through some sort of a discovery, what might that look like for you to actually diagnose if they should be doing content and if so, what kind of content and aimed at who? How do you figure that out?

Joe: Well, I think the first thing we want to figure out…there’s lots of different ways to do it because it depends on who you’re talking to. But just in general, if we go in, we’ve got to first figure out who we’re talking to, who is the audience. Let’s say you’re working with a B2B company. They’ve got what, seven to nine buyers, decision-makers, gate-keepers, influencers involved in this process? So if you want to tell a story, that’s great. But who do you want to tell it to? Generally, most B2B companies, they’ll go to market and they’ll say, “We’re trying to target the CFO, the plant manager, and the engineer with this initiative.” Really? Seriously?

Drew: Because they all read the same stuff and care about the same things.

Joe: Yeah. That’s, of course, that’s…but that’s how most companies do it. It just becomes so irrelevant. So first of all, I want to figure out, okay, who are we targeting? Then we can really figure out, well, what’s the story we want to tell? What’s the pain points of that audience? What’s keeping them up at night? So a lot of our research is going to be focused on the audience that we’re trying to communicate with. And then when we go through that whole process, at the end of the day I want to figure out, are we actually telling a different story at the end of the day? And we call this the content tilt. It’s basically the second step in the Content, Inc. model that I talk about in the book is, if you are not telling a different story, you’re not going to cut through the clutter in any way. Because how much…

When you just do a basic content audit for most companies, so let’s…and by the way, that’s another amazing thing that you have to do as an agency. I want to go in. I want to say, “Okay, now we’re getting to this point. What content are you creating? What’s working? What’s not working? Who’s creating it? When you say it’s not working, why? When you say it is working, why?”

Drew: How do we define what working looks like?

Joe: How do we…at the end of the day, what’s going to make our content marketing strategy a success? I need to know that. And by the way, I want that in the agreement. I want it to say, look, success means this. It means this number of subscribers that lead to this type of a behavior change. And another thing is, that’s going to take some time. So you have to roll this out as patient. And we know this to be true. Most content marketing programs don’t work inside nine months. It takes a year plus to get this thing going so you have to bake in patience. And this is hard for agencies, because I know. I’m trying to sell a two or a three-year plan right up front because you’ve got…and nobody wants to do that. But at least maybe you could set an auto-renew up after the first year and maybe a six month pilot program to say, “Look, this is how we’re going to start. And I want to make sure we get together at the six month mark. And we’re going to look at, where are we successful? Does it make sense? Is everybody on board with this?”

And then the other thing that you have to do as part of that is how are you going to communicate this back to the client so that the client and your client’s company can then communicate, here’s what’s happening, here’s how the program is working, here’s what we’re seeing? Because they’re going to have to…who’s ever making that ultimate buying decision is going to say, “Wait, we want to do this piece of content or we want to do that.” But you need to go back and say, “No, no, no. This is who we’re targeting. This was the content mission for that. This is the change we’re trying to see. This is how we’re trying to help them live better lives or get better jobs and go through that.” So long story short, I’m sort of rambling but I really focus on a lot of time being spent on understanding the audience and then understanding why the stories we’re going to tell is relevant to that audience. And then much later down the process is the what, figuring out your purpose and the audience’s needs and all that is up front. And then going to the what, which is, that’s…okay, blog posts or podcasts or magazines. Those things are much more way down the line. You have to figure everything else up front.

Most companies come to you and say, “I want to do a podcast, or I want to do a blog post.” And they try to skip the whole up-front basis for the strategy.

Drew: Well, and I think so much of it, what you were just talking about, is about setting expectations and being very clear about what those are so that everybody knows this is not a “get rich quick” scheme and this is going to take a while. And we can’t plant the seed and then keep digging it up every three days and moving it because it hasn’t broken ground yet.

Joe: Absolutely. I mean, you have to set as low expectations as you possibly can get away with. And then do that regular update, that regular report back to them so you can say…I guess the other thing, and I know we’re probably going to bring this up but I think this is a good time to talk about it.  Most agencies that I’ve seen go in, they don’t focus on the metric of subscribers enough.

Drew: Right.

Joe: I think that’s a huge issue. So we’re talking about engagement, whatever the heck engagement means. What I want to focus on is, I want to really figure out, the question I really want to answer is, what’s the difference in behavior between people that engage in my content and those that don’t? How do we best show that? We can best show that through subscribers. So I can very simply figure out, okay, if we create some kind of email newsletter, we’ve got people subscribing to that email newsletter, then we can patch that up and look at that against our customer database and we could say, are they buying more? Are they staying longer? What are they doing differently?

Drew: Are they buying faster?

Joe: Yeah, exactly. Are they closing faster? Is this helping the sales team in some way? I mean, you can start to measure all those things if you have something to start with.  And that’s why I’m…there’s no holy grail metric, Drew, as you know. But my favorite metric is the subscriber and I think a lot of people forget about that. It’s also the one we can control. We can’t control our Facebook likes and our followers and our fans and those types of things because Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and iTunes own all those. What can we control to the highest extent? That would be our email and our print subscribers.

Drew: Well, and I also think it demonstrates a different commitment level in terms of, if I’m willing to trade you my email address, you must be giving me something of value as opposed to me re-tweeting something which is a pretty non-committal act.

Joe: Well, yeah. I mean, I would really look…we talk about this in the book. We call it the subscriber hierarchy. And so at the top of the hierarchy we’ve got email subscribers, then we’ve got print subscribers and way down at the bottom are Facebook fans. Not that Facebook isn’t important. I think it’s actually great from an advertising stand-point. Not so much from an organic as they’ve made so much of their changes. But I don’t want you to put much into the fact that you’ve gotten 10 likes or 20 likes. That probably doesn’t mean anything for your business. So I want us to think, okay, well, how do I take people that follow me on Twitter and then how can I convert those people over to email subscribers where I can have that one-on-one communication connection?

That’s a big deal. So maybe we start looking at all the other places that we can connect with our customers and almost try to up-sell them with content and keep up-selling them to up the hierarchy into the email and print subscribers where we can actually do something with the data.

Drew: I think part of the challenge is clients are, in some ways…because content is “easy,” which you and I both know is not true at all, but the perception from clients is that it’s easy and anybody can whip out a blog post or whatever. Part of the challenge on the client side is getting paid for it. But there is no challenge like that on the agency side. And yet I see a lot of agencies really struggle with their own content strategy, if they have one. Or they do a lot of, everybody on the team is going to just write a blog and they can write about anything they want. And so, again, they’re just making a lot of noise.

Thoughts about that in terms of how agencies should and could be leveraging content better for themselves when there are no client constraints of having to educate the client or get the client’s budget. This is just about doing what’s right for your agency.

Joe: I could go all day on this one, Drew. This is a pet peeve of mine because when we get our advice…because we do advising. We don’t do any content execution, but we do a lot of advisory with Fortune 2500 Companies. And at some point they come to us and say, “Okay, we’ve worked on the strategy. We’re feeling really good about it. Who would…here’s our short-list of the people that we’re going to go and take the strategy out and see if we can execute.” And the first thing they say is, “What should we do?” And I say, “The first thing you should do is go look and see if those agencies are doing their own content marketing. What are they doing?”

Drew: And doing it well.

Joe: Yeah, what’s their story? Are they just blogging? Are they just creating clutter out there? Are they actually adding to value outside of the products and services that they offer? That’s what we really want to do. And sadly, Drew, and you know this, most agencies don’t do. They either don’t do anything. If they have a blog, maybe they did a post six months ago, or they are creating a lot of content that isn’t focused around anything at all. I’m like, seriously? You might as well not even be doing anything. So I would say, before you go out and you start selling content marketing as a service, I would absolutely get your house in order. And by the way, most agencies that I know, and I don’t know if you’ve seen this as well, they focus on lots of different areas. So they might have financial clients. They might have some government clients. They might have some technology clients. That doesn’t mean that your have to have a content marketing strategy for each one of those niches.

I would choose one. So let’s say that you’re fine getting referral business in government. You’re not marketing them through some kind of a content marketing approach but maybe you need to through technology. Well, focus on just your technology people there and then start building channels, let’s say. So there’s our technology strategy for content. It’s really working well. Then we’ll go and now we can do a financial one because when you create something, you start creating content.

You really need to ask yourself, “Well, can we be the best in the world at this approach?” You can’t just…don’t just clutter it up, like really be focused.  So, if you’re talking to financial marketers, that’s your target, be very specific, specific to that persona.  That’s going to be the person that you want to buy your services.  And so ongoing.  It doesn’t have to be just a blog.  It can be, it could be just if you look at the formula.  The greatest media companies of all time, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, if you look at TED or The Huffington Post, they all did it the same way.  They focused on, they started with one content type for the most part.  Is it textual content?  Is it audio content?  Is it video content?  Then, one platform?  Is it my blog or website?  Is it iTunes?  Is it YouTube?  Consistently deliver over time.  

So, if I’m an agency and you really want to do this, focus on one customer type.  Don’t go broad.  Do one customer type and figure out what that message is?  What’s that content niche?  What’s that story you want to tell and then go into that one content type, that one content platform, consistent delivery over time.  Before you do anything else, like start doing Snapchat or start doing podcasts all over the place.  Really get great at something.  And the reason why I love that strategy is it’s one hundred plus year old strategy and it’s still works today.  And we think just because there are so many more channels that we should be producing content all over the place.  Not true.  That’s not a winning formula.  A winning formula is to get really focused and do something great.  And then once you build an audience, then you can expand and diversify off of that.

Drew:  Yeah, I think the inclination is, I’ve gotta be everywhere as an agency because my clients might need to be there and I need to prove my expertise.  But you just end up being an inch deep and a mile wide.

Joe: Absolutely.  Jack of all trades, master of none.  I was guilty of this too Drew.  I thought, and this was back in 2007-2008, I was saying, “You need to be everywhere your customers are at.  Create content on all these platforms.”  And I couldn’t have been further from the truth.  That’s actually not what you want to do.  It’s better off focusing, and that’s what we’re seeing right now with a lot of social media channels.  We’re working with a lot of big brands that are saying, “You know what?  Maybe we don’t need to be on Snapchat.  Maybe actually having a Facebook page wasn’t a good idea.  You know that blog that we’re blogging every three, four weeks about stuff that’s really not helpful to anybody, maybe we just shouldn’t do that.  Maybe we should just focus on being great at fewer things and put resources towards that.”  

And I think what’s happened, you know, you’ve talked about how everything thinks that content is cheap.  That’s one of the problems.  I mean, when I started in this business in 2000, content marketing was a considered purchase.  

Drew:  Right.

Joe:  Because if you were going to do a custom magazine… Let’s say you were going to do an annual, quarterly, custom magazine.  You’re spending at least $200,000 to do that.  So that’s like the minimum.  Like I would go in and say, “You wanna do an issue, you better prepare to spend at least $50,000 to make sure that it’s a quality piece.”  Well, today, you can get a blog post up for pretty much nothing.  So we think, oh well, hey, content is free.  Let’s just go do it.  And I think that’s hurt in a lot of ways because now we just have all this content all over the place and it’s not doing anything and then people come back and say, “Hey, it doesn’t work.”  Well, if you really think about it as a considered purchase, you’d really do the strategy. You’d really say this is going to take some time and we want to make sure it’s right.  So, let’s do the up-front work and make sure it is right.  

Drew:  No argument there, that’s for sure.  Think about some agencies that you know that are doing it well.  What do you think their secret sauce is? What are they doing that most agencies aren’t?  Because I will agree with you, that most agencies are A – if they are doing content, it’s sporadic at best, like all of their new business efforts, sporadic at best and B – as a general rule, it’s generic.  And it’s sort of, you know, Pantone has a new color of the year and it’s purple.  You know, and that’s the same thing that 97,000 agencies have written about on that same day that Pantone sent out the email. So, the agencies that are doing it well, what do you believe differentiates them?

Joe:  Well, I think that we’ve talked a little bit about this.  One is the focus.  So, I’m not gonna say names of agencies but there is one agency that I am thinking of that focuses specifically on start-ups in the financial area.…that’s really specific. That’s really very, very specific. You know what they can do? They can tell a different story, different than every other agency because they’re focused on that audience.

There’s another one that focuses on B2B senior level marketing executives in Fortune 1000 Companies. That’s all they talk to. And you know what they do? They send out a custom magazine every quarter. Old world print, actually printed on paper, and they send it on. And they’ve been doing that for over 10 years. So if you think…one, it’s really focused. Two, you actually are telling a different story that other people aren’t telling. Three, it’s incredibly consistent over time. And then four, super, super valuable, enough that people actually want to opt-in and subscribe to it.

So I mean, this is not rocket science, Drew. This is publishing. You go out into the market. If you said you were going to start a media company, it’s the same things you do to start a media company. So I would…yes, of course you can share it out in social media. You could do all that great stuff.

Drew: You could slice it and dice it and use that information.

Joe: All that stuff, but from the core, you have to start there. So, I would just say…so an agency’s listening to this, let’s say you have a blog. Let’s get specific. So if you’re doing a blog post, and that blog post is relevant for all different types of marketers that you cover in all your different industries, I can almost guarantee you it’s not working. It’s not specific enough. Just ask yourself, can we be the leading experts in the world at that particular topic or niche or story? And the answer is most likely no. Go back to the drawing board. Then once you find that, you have to consistently deliver.

Agencies are notoriously bad for this where they’ll say, “Okay, who’s going to do the blog this week? Bob going to do the blog? Okay, well Bob’s out this week. So who’s going to do the blog? We’ve got to get that out because it’s Schumaker’s Shoes.”

Drew: Or, what a surprise. We have a client fire because that never happens. He can’t get it done.