Episode 262:

Creating content is both a huge opportunity and a big challenge for agencies. How do you elevate your efforts so that the content is actually meaningful to the audience and attracts prospects? How do you properly price your content efforts so you get paid fairly? If you’re looking for good writers – what are the clues that they’ll be able to do the work? All of these questions affect your bottom line. Luckily, there are principles you can follow to ensure your content creation is on-point, whether you are outsourcing writers or doing everything in-house.

My guest for this week’s episode is Steve Pockross, Owner and CEO of Verblio. Steve brings more than 20 years of startup, Fortune 500, and nonprofit experience to his role at Verblio. As CEO, he applies leading marketplace and SaaS principles to create an industry-leading content creation platform with 3,000 writers supporting thousands of clients with their digital marketing.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Steve joins us to talk about trends in content creation. He explains what agency owners can do to work better with outside writers and breaks down the traits you should look for in prospective writers if you want to build out a content creation team of your own. Whatever route you choose to take, Steve’s experience will provide you with insights to take full advantage of the content revolution.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Agency Owners | Simplifying content creation

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Current trends in content creation
  • How we can work better with outside writers
  • What agency owners should look for in writers as they build out their own writing staff
  • How to achieve quality at scale
  • How the agency landscape has changed since COVID hit
  • How content is being refreshed and repurposed to create an immediate impact for clients
  • How we will consume content differently in twelve months
“When it comes to content creation, the iron triangle is out there in full effect. There is quality, scale, and price, and most agency owners think you can only have two. But I don’t believe that at all.” @spockross Click To Tweet “Unless you have a motivated writer who is excited to write your content, you’re not going to get good content.” @spockross Click To Tweet “No matter what we do, creating content is a co-creation process that requires inputs on both sides. It requires a lot of work for the client, even as they are paying the writers or the platform. We want to make that as pain-free as possible.”… Click To Tweet “You want enough breadth and availability so that you have the right number of skills and voices to deliver your service consistently.” @spockross Click To Tweet “Great writers can learn how to write about every industry, but every industry specialist can’t become a great writer.” @spockross Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Steve Pockross:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR. Whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Built a Better Agency podcast, presented by White Label IQ, will show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. Let us help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want, down the road, sellable. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience is both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your hose, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Glad to have you with us again, if you are a repeat listener. And welcome if this is your first time. My goal with this podcast is pretty simple. My goal is to teach you something maybe you didn’t know or remind you of something you did know or get you thinking about something that’s been nagging at the back of your brain for a little while.

But overall, what my hope with the podcast is, is that you listen to an episode and you have something to do. Like you’re going to research something, you’re going to check somebody out or something out, you’re going to stop doing something, you’re going to think about doing something differently. That is my goal, and certainly this episode I am hoping that I can help you think about how you create content either for your own agency, but really much more so about how you create content for clients. And what are some of the trends and things that we should be thinking about around that?

Like all of you, I’ve been creating a lot more over the last few months because I haven’t been traveling as much. So although I’m super productive on a plane and in a hotel room, there is something about being stuck at home. Not that being at home is a bad place, but being stuck at home, that has allowed me to write more and create more, and one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is what are some of the ways content’s being consumed and are we making sure we’re creating content in all of the ways that people prefer to have content?

So that’s really what we’re going to get into, I think, in this conversation today. But before I introduce our guest and before we get started, I do want to remind you that we are always glad to have you subscribed to our e-newsletter. We send out content every week that I work super hard to make sure is valuable. A lot of you, I’ll get emails from you back saying, “I’m pretty sure you’re bugging my conference room. How is it that you wrote about that this week?”

So I try and stay super relevant, I try and stay super focused on what I think will be helpful to your business. And we would love to have you subscribe to the newsletter, so all you have to do is head over to Agency Management Institute backslash… I guess you don’t have to say backslash anymore, I guess the cool kids say slash subscribe, and that will take you to a form, and all you have to do is give us your email address, and then you’ll hear from us once a week. So we’d be happy to have you join that list and of course, if you don’t find it valuable, there’s an unsubscribe button at the bottom of every email. But my goal is to give you enough value that, obviously, you choose not to click on that button.

All right, so let me tell you a little bit about our guest. So Steve Pockross owns a company called Verblio and they are a content creation tool, team, SaaS, but what they’ve got, what Steve has done, is they have curated some pretty remarkable writers. So unlike some of the other content creation resources where they’re going to have tens of thousands of writers, Steve’s philosophy is much more about fewer writers, better writers, and they have an interesting curation model of how agencies and writers get paired as well.

But because he’s working with tons of agencies and they’re creating thousands of pieces of content every single month, my goal is to find out from Steve what are some of the trends in content creation, how do we work better with writers if they’re outside of our staff, how do we find a good writer? What do we look for in a good writer if we’re trying to build a writing team on staff? And what’s coming around the bend?

So without any further ado, let’s jump into that conversation and start picking Steve’s brain. Steve, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being with us.

Steve Pockross:

Drew, it’s a pleasure.

Drew McLellan:

So tell everybody a little bit about your background, and the company that you own and run today, and how you intersect with agencies.

Steve Pockross:

Sure. So my name is Steve Pockross. I am from Denver, Colorado. I spent about half my life here and about 20 years in other geographies, including a couple years in South America and about 15 years in Silicon Valley doing the startup scene, school in the east coast, school in the middle. So my career has really spanned going from nonprofits to large companies to startups, and startup is definitely my home. But all of my experience really bridges all of those.

One of my foundational experiences was my first startup that I was with about eight years, which is a company called Liveops, which was one of the first marketplace services companies. They grew to 150 million dollars plus in Silicon Valley and it was really figuring out a lot of gig economy SaaS ideas for the context center world before those names existed, and I was in charge of developing new businesses and strategies on top of that platform, and that is really what’s motivated me through much of my career. How do you use this concept of the changing workforce being more freelancer, skilled economy, taking advantage of that, taking advantage of SaaS platforms, and then also services on top of it to create something new and different in business models and capabilities that had never existed before.

So that all brings me to Verblio, where I’ve been the CEO for four years. I actually took over this company from the founders. The founders were a journalist looking to find more opportunities for his writer brethren and also a technical co-founder. They started this in 2010 and turned over the keys to me in 2016. And it really has a lot of that same idea of what I was talking about with Liveops, which is why it really resonated with me, which was really focused on the future work and how to create new capabilities, and the capabilities it was focused on were how do you create quality content and scale for every niche, do that consistently?

And so I rebranded the company in 2018 and we put our flag in the ground and said, “We are going to be the best content creation platform focused on digital agencies out there.” And so we work with 500 plus digital agencies every single month creating content in 40 different verticals and create 70,000 pieces of unique content for them every year, mostly written, but we acquired a video company a couple years ago as well and they’re moving much more towards multimedia as well. We’re about 25 people and 3,000 writers.

Drew McLellan:

Wow. Okay. So I’m sure as everyone was listening to that, they were like, “So basically, you farm out freelance writers,” but your model is pretty different. The fact that you are niched down, your writers have niches and specialties, and I think one of the things from the conversations that you and I have already had is the skill level of your writers and also just the volume of content you create. So talk a little bit about how your business is diff-

So every agency I know is struggling to manage creating enough content, to create content that is actually valuable for either themselves or their clients as opposed to generic content, and be able to get it done in a price point where there’s margin for them because either they’re buying writers for $25.00 an hour and getting what you get for that, or they are finding that the writers are so expensive that they can’t… then there’s no margin in the middle for them to make a buck on that with their client. So how are you different than all the other writer farm systems out there?

Steve Pockross:

That’s a great question and I completely embrace that question, which is that every agency has tried and been burned by [crosstalk 00:08:52] content farm somewhere.

Drew McLellan:

Somebody, right.

Steve Pockross:

So I would say is we are trying to evolve that model to the next generation and we spend all of our cycles thinking about how do you do this. And the trick is finding… so the first… I’m going to call this… in marketplace models, the first step is finding scalability and with good enough content, which is, I think, where everything started in the mid 2000s, late 2000s, 2010. And I think that’s where a lot of companies stopped.

So the question is, we think all the time is, how do you actually create quality at scale? Which I think is incredibly hard for every marketplace business. I talked to a venture capitalist who invested in one of our competitors and said, “I don’t even think you can do it.” Basically, the concept of the iron triangle is out there, which is there’s quality, there’s scale, and there’s price, and you get to have two. And I [inaudible 00:09:47] don’t believe that. I believe that that’s just limiting your mind when it comes to content creation. So here are some of the ways that we think about tackling this problem differently and why we think we’re driving quality up and why we think it’ll continue to go up as we keep investing in the system.

So the first is starting with the writers. So our company was founded by a writer and we think about writers as our core. We think unless you have a motivated writer who’s excited to write your content, you’re not going to get good content. And so we have three areas that we think about. One is obvious, we pay more. And we think that the drive to the bottom in the classic… can’t remember, I think it’s Seth Godin who talks about how every marketplace is a drive to the bottom and all you’re doing is commoditizing all of [inaudible 00:10:33] labor.

Think that’s kind of how the models are right now. Right now, you have a choice of the Uber model where humans are just widgets in the machine delivering a high user experience in service or you have the Upwork Craigslist model, which is you can find a great freelancer, but you have to work for it. There is no curating in this labor and there’s no delivering as a service. So I think skilled labor combined with SaaS is really the next generation where this comes from. I hope to be part of a movement. Right now, there’s a few of us. There’s Topcoder doing this in the engineering space, there’s Testlio that’s doing it in QA and a few others out there, and I really hope that this becomes the next big movement.

All right, now that I’ve dodged your question for sufficiently long enough I will tell you about [crosstalk 00:11:20]…

Drew McLellan:

Oh, I would have gotten back to it.

Steve Pockross:

Okay. I did remember the question. So first was treating the writers… thinking about them differently. The first is higher pay, the second is we give the writers… the writers have a choice of writing about whatever they want and so that might sound intuitively strange, you might want your vertical writer for every single write, but they are looking at… they’ve already written 100 finance blogs that month or 200 medical blogs in the last couple… they want to have more breadth of their knowledge and be able to write about what interests them. And I’ll talk about our business model in a second.

And the third is career development. We want the opportunity for them to move out, to become a specialist. This is more of what we’re moving towards, but you should be able to manage other pools of writers, you should be able to move into QA, career development where you write about more, you become a specialist, an SEO, and I really think that’s the future of what makes… I want to be the B corp, otherwise known as the social impact good responsible company on how to deliver freelance labor.

So the second is the client. As we have, I think, the largest technical team and product team in the industry and we are constantly focused on how to create a better user experience. We think we have the best white label platform out there for agencies in particular, editing systems, and just making the content creation experience as user friendly as possible. No matter what we do, creating content is a co-creation process. It requires inputs on both sides and it requires a lot of work of the client, even as they’re paying the writers or the platform.

And so we want to make that as pain free as possible and as easy to manage. We have clients doing 1200 unique articles with us every single month. We have clients that are doing 400 legal articles all reviewed by JD editors, and that has to be a manageable process or it just becomes excruciating. And so what we put on top of that is… so we’ve got the marketplace, we have the clients, and then we also have a unique business model.

We really thought that the reason that we were getting generic content as an industry was because the incentive structure was misaligned, which is that the writers, I believe, should be choosing our clients. And the reason I do that is you as a client, an agency or your end client should be stating what you’re looking for, what expertise, what style, give examples, and the writer shouldn’t be chosen based on who’s available or what their profile picture looks like, which also has diversity and inclusiveness issues to it. It should be based on the quality of their work.

And so the writer takes the risk in that they might not get paid for their work because they only get paid if the client accepts it. But when they do, they basically find a client for life through our system. And by giving that extra risk, the incentive is on the writers in order to match themselves. We think that’s a model that scales quality, which is a really hard thing to do. And so that’s one of the other key areas.

The fourth area is professional services, which is we learn from agencies along the way. We originally thought that… we had a self service marketplace and thought agencies would all want that because they’re experts in content, this is what they do. But as agencies evolve and focus more on the areas where they put the most value to the client, they’ve asked us to do more and more of the content creation services as well, which enables us to basically plug into their ecosystem at any level they want with an account manager or a semi account manager.

So as a longer answer, there’s a lot of reasons that we think we’re different. In general, we think about the problem differently, we think about how to scale quality all the time, and the segmentations of writers where we started is a big deal too.

Drew McLellan:

So in working with agencies, what disadvantages do we bring to the process? I think you’re right, it is a co-creation, but I think part of what agencies want is they also want to be able to hand it to somebody and have it be done, right? Like I want to place my order, bring me my steak, and I’m good. So as long as I tell you I want it rare and I want the baked potato without chives, bring me what I want. But I’m guessing that that’s not particularly helpful in this realm.

Steve Pockross:

So agencies are really interesting. Every single one of them is a unique snowflake. They all have their… I love asking them about their origin stories, as they all came from places I would have never possibly imagined. And so they’re all their own entity, but the one things… they have a lot of things in common as well. And so I think best practices for agencies… let’s see. When I was listening to one of your recent podcasts about customer experiences, one of the issues that agencies have with clients is the brief wasn’t good very good about the beginning, the project wasn’t [inaudible 00:16:04] that well.

We have the exact same problem, particularly if our brief isn’t laid out well, that’s an issue. Another one that you had was a discussion about you would much rather have the client who’s worked with another agency before. I would so much rather have an agency that’s worked with another outsourced partner on writing before because it basically gives me every advantage. So until you have those expectations set, it’s really hard to set those. So I’d say the two biggest challenges of working with agencies is, number one, they always want to pilot our platform based on what we would write for their agency, wanting to be a complete thought leader in their own field in a way that’s really different than what they’re looking for for their client.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, that’s interest.

Steve Pockross:

Is a big challenge for us, so pilot us with one of your clients and see if they like us and see if we’re a million times better than what they’re already getting. And the second is the briefs. So some of them are really great with it before, they’re giving the writer everything they need, and they’re downloading their thought leadership in to bullets so they really give a clear structure and the writer knows what to run with.

But agencies, more than any of our other clients, will just frequently not fill out… basically say, “Give me thought leadership, five [inaudible 00:17:19] on reasons we’re the best agency at SEO,” and then be upset with the quality that comes back. So I feel like the feedback is pretty similar.

Drew McLellan:

Garbage in, garbage out, right?

Steve Pockross:

That sounds about right.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think one of the challenges for agencies with this sort of outsource service is that I think they wrestle with the idea that they should be doing this in house. And I think they wrestle with it because A, it’s more cost effective to do it in house, whether it is or not. B, as content becomes a bigger part of every agency’s offering… I don’t care what kind of agency it is. It just feels a little weird to be outsourcing a core offering to somebody else. How do you integrate with agencies and at what point do agencies bring you in to have these conversations? Is it pretty much we’ve landed the client, we’ve done the content calendar for the month or the year, here’s your assignment? Or do you guys sometimes get involved in… do you or your writers sometimes get involved in strategically thinking about what content makes sense and how to create that content?

Steve Pockross:

Yeah, I think [inaudible 00:18:34] try to break that into a couple of pieces, all really important questions and pretty diverse based on the different types of agencies. So you have the agencies who outsource everything. That one’s pretty easy conversation. They just bring us in right from the beginning. You have agencies that really focus on content as a competitive advantage of theirs. It’s one of the big core values they bring. We’re here to supplement that team and to amplify it.

So any partner that comes in and says that we’re going to take over your team and we’re going to replace them is rarely going to do well. What I think we do really well is we amplify your existing team. So if you have a great content strategist on your team or a content writer, make that content writer your content strategist. I can produce, with this team of great vetted journalist writers, 50 to 100 pieces of content that they can edit and you still get your same stamp of approval on it.

We usually are looking for a 70, 80% draft and you can do so much more with your existing team and it’s still a core value of yours. And I think that’s the second way that companies find is, is they’re looking to scale, they ran into it. The third is they’re looking for a new vertical expertise. They were all focused on HVAC clients and all of the sudden they took over all of home services and now they have financial services clients and they’re like, “I got one writer. They’re just making up stuff about everything.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah, they’re looking on the Google and getting it. Right.

Steve Pockross:

That’s a really good time to have a marketplace. And then the number one way that agencies fine us is when your in house writer quits.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure that’s true. So I’m curious, in a way you have a interesting lens into agency life and into what’s going on with agencies. So what have you seen in the last six, nine months since COVID hit? What’s changed in the landscape that you’re observing since agencies started dealing with COVID?

Steve Pockross:

Got it. Yeah, we do really- it’s a really fun lens. It’s interesting because I don’t market myself as a content marketing master. I think that you are that and the agencies are. I’m more of an observer of best practices of what the best do, so I will report back to you on those. So the trends moving forward, I think you know some of the big trends that were happening ahead of time, there was a giant move to long form. The amount of our content was… in 2016, we had 5% of our blogs that were or are more than a thousand words, now it’s 65% in four years. [crosstalk 00:21:04] guys an idea of if you’re not already doing it, that’s where the market is. Video and multimedia had become a big part of it and verticalization in niches. Basically, we’re following all the big trends in agency land. We are preparing for and trying to serve those as well.

The big changes since March were… the first is a giant portfolio change, which is the small guy started doing less and we lost a good chunk, I would say 15% of our smallest agencies and our smallest businesses. Through April and after April, they were replaced by much larger midsize to large agencies who took a much bigger plunge into content. So my message there is that the small guys basically are fighting for survival and that wasn’t where they could invest or were investing and the mid to large size guys were taking a much bigger bet on content than ever before and it has been quite the infusion of large clients.

Drew McLellan:

So define midsized and large for me.

Steve Pockross:

It’s interesting. So in my size client… so it’s less about the number of employees. I know that you guys at AMI have your really cool model for what fits both. I would say less than 10 employees type of businesses are the ones we’re struggling with. But we find there’s very little correlation between how much content an agency does and their size. So one of our absolute largest clients that does Rankings.io, that does 400 pieces of legal content every month, I think they’re 20 people. And our other largest client is probably 250, so agency world’s interesting that way, as far as how they leverage their clients. But I would say mostly the smaller guys, 10 or less.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, okay. So other than that, are you seeing differences in requests for the type of content or…

Steve Pockross:

We are. So a couple of the other big trends are more immediate impact of your content. So in your book, you read about how six to 12 months is the normal content market strategy before you start to see on a return on investment in this big move. Agencies mostly are using us for their clients, and their clients don’t have that type of patience and that type of runaway. [inaudible 00:23:16] they’re working on shorter term impact, so they’re doing a few things there.

One is content refreshes are really on the rise. If you’re not thinking about that as an agency, I would definitely consider it, especially with any client that you have that has a large amount of content, refreshing the words, refreshing the keywords, seeing if you can get them to rank something that already shows that it has legs. So we’re doing a lot of large projects like that, up to the hundreds to thousands of articles for larger companies.

The second is repurposing, which I think fits some of your talking points as well, which is we are getting a lot more… taking this ebook and turn it into 100 blogs. We’re taking this… this is the podcast that I’m on. I’d like to repurpose it. Can you turn this into seven blogs? Take all of those and turn them into an ebook. So basically, all of the existing content… one of your… Who was it? Michelle Prince was talking about you need to talk to each one of your prospects in a language that they understand and the channel they understand, and so we’re doing a lot more of that work lately, which I think is great.

And then I think they’re selling a lot more sales collateral pieces and basically thinking of their content as multipurpose, like this could be a white paper, this could be a case study that I could send out for my sales team, and which would have an immediately impact on my sales funnel in addition to just growing my audience.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, makes sense. So when you are refreshing and repurposing, is that really for the… well, the refreshing for sure, that’s more of an SEO play typically, right? And then the repurposing is really I’m either slicing and dicing something big into a bunch of little things or I’m converting it from a written document to a video or some other channel.

Steve Pockross:

Yeah, that’s about right. I’m trying to come up with a catchier way of saying it, but basically take small and make big, take big, make it small. Take one form, turn it into another form.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, sort of translation. Right, yeah. So from your perspective… I mean, you work with thousands of writers, so when it comes to somebody who’s writing great content, what does that writer look like? So if I want to hire someone who’s awesome, what would I be looking for?

Steve Pockross:

So that’s interesting. So nobody really teaches… Most of the writers who went to school didn’t go to school to learn SEO content writing. So it is a new skill that has developed, and so we’re not testing for who is a great journalist as much as who is a great SEO writer. And the only way that we test that is by… I’ll tell you how we curate because this is part of the magic, the secret sauce of how do you get 3,000 writers.

First thing I will tell you is that when I came to this company, we had 10,000 writers. I took that down to three and now I took it down to one, so we’re basically in the process of going down… There’s a right size marketplace, which is you want to have enough breadth and availability so that you have the right number of skills, and you can find the right voices within that, and you can make sure the service always gets delivered consistently.

But more than that… and you’re actually diluting your quality and losing your ability to control. So for every one of our clients, we’re trying to create the right size team of freelancers that all get you, that all understand your preferences. Small enough that you can communicate to them through feedback, but not big enough that you start to lose them. And so we have to think really heavily about how do we create that pool of writers and what are the incentive structures?

So number one is the real basics like the core objective. Are you a good writer? Do you know the basic writing test? So we have a really stringent writing test. We accept… I think 4.5% of applicants pass the writing test that we put out. My head of writers told me that I passed it by one question and I’m not sure if I really did or if she just felt like it would be a really bad look for me.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, right. Tell your boss that he failed the test, right.

Steve Pockross:

Yes. Exactly. I think she was ready for the, “You just made it.” So that’s the first step. The second is we QA your first post. QA can’t be a big heavy part of it. For any marketplace that scales, this… incentive structures have to work. So a lot of the incentive structure is are writers applying to the clients, basically posting their work and their clients saying if this is a fit or not. So the more positive feedback that they get and the more they get accepted by a client into their writer team pool, the more work they’re going to get. And the more they get rejected, the system purges them out naturally. You have to be pretty persistent to have got rejected 10 times and go in there. We don’t put all of the onus on the clients. We try to see each client with a bunch of writers that we think will be a good fit too.

Drew McLellan:

Of course, right.

Steve Pockross:

But it’s that incentive system and the feedback system that we really think is the power to scale quality.

Drew McLellan:

We’re going to take a break, and then when we come back, if I’m hiring a writer today, how do I as an agency owner replicate the testing? What am I looking for in a content writer today? So let’s take a quick break, and know that that is the question up when we come back.

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All right, let’s get back to the show. All right, we are back with Steve and we are talking about content writers. And the question I posed before the break was if Drew wants to hire a great writer, what is he looking for today and given the content that we’re creating today?

Steve Pockross:

Got it. Hiring an individual writer is not the business that I’m mostly in, but I will tell you the qualities that I look for and that will probably be transferable. So the first is you want a writer who is available with the amount of work that you have. So in general, the reason that working with one freelancer is really hard, where a full time hire…

Drew McLellan:

I’m talking about if I want to hire them as an employee.

Steve Pockross:

Ah, got it. Okay.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, yeah.

Steve Pockross:

Got it.

Drew McLellan:

So I’m looking for a great writer who’s going to be my in house writer, even if I’m going to outsource some of the other writers.

Steve Pockross:

Got it. You’re looking for somebody who gets you, who you feel like you can have good communication with. Taking feedback is a really hard thing in the creative world and many creatives have… the hardest part of their job is actually taking that feedback and moving it back. I’d say that’s number one. Second is be very clear with them on how repetitive the work is. If you’re hiring a writer who’s going to just have to bang out 50 of the exact same blog every single month, you better be aware of that. And the smarter they are and the more passionate they are, the less they’re going to want to do that.

So think about the work and be clear about that communication and what you’re looking for. And then think really hard. That’s how you find the writer. Whether they’re local or not, I think in this age everything is remote anyway and I think we’re all more comfortable with that. Vertical expertise is interesting, right? Because nobody’s going to know your company as well as you do and are gonna have to have an onboarding process anyway. I think one of the areas that I’ve had the most discussions with agencies about is how important is vertical expertise before we start? Our point of view as Verblio is we believe if a journalist could write it, then our writers could write it. And if it has to go beyond what a journalist does, then it’s up to the client to basically bring in their level of expertise because we’re not going to get there.

So if you’re going to bring on a writer and have to train them in your level of expertise anyway, just be very thoughtful on whether you need that or not because finding a great diesel engine specialist writer who fits well into your company is going to be a lot harder than finding a great writer, and we come from the belief that great writers can learn how to write about every industry, and every industry specialist can’t learn to be a great writer.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I think that’s true. As a writer, I think I am confident if I had the right source material, I could write reasonably about almost anything and get it pretty close to right. Not always spot on, but I think it gets back to what we were talking about before, which is the creative brief and the co-creation. If I had to write a super technical article and I was given nothing, I would fail miserably regardless of how good a writer I am.

Steve Pockross:

Yeah, I think so too. [inaudible 00:32:18] my mother is a writer. She’s written three books. My brother is a professional writer and my wife’s a professional writer.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Steve Pockross:

And she writes for social impact documentaries and turns them into curriculum for every possible subject in the world. So what I see her do every day is a skillset beyond anything I could even imagine, but it inspires me that once you have that skill of not just communicating… and I think so many people focus on the written word and what comes down, but the organizing structure and understanding what to say to me is a gift of clarity that I wish I had more of.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But you’re right, a good writer will have that sense. Yeah. So I’m curious, as you’re watching, again, you have this really interesting lens into agencies. So how are you seeing agencies evolve? And I don’t know if this is a COVID question or if it’s just a… [inaudible 00:33:11] you’ve seen it happening over the last couple years. But where do you think agencies are headed in the next couple years?

Steve Pockross:

So it’s an interesting view. So we did a big survey at the beginning of the year with a couple hundred agencies about how they were thinking about content, and then we tried to pull out what company… with agencies that just… they committed to saying content is very successful for us, what they’re doing. Out of that, we learned some really powerful principles. Some of the shocking things that came out of that for me is after I’ve heard about all these trends of agencies niching down, and we’re at the life cycle, the maturity cycle of digital agencies where they should really be focusing on niche. I think it was 60 to 70% still said they were generalist agencies. I was really surprised by that. I’d be shocked if that didn’t have to change in the future. It’s just every marketing trend follows this, that you have to become more specialized as the trend evolves.

The second was not just about the niche, but also about the product sets. So being super wide horizontally, we thought there were going to be a lot more SEO content agencies, a lot more ad agencies, and the overall majority, I think it was also around 50 to 60% said basically they were doing five or six different specialties. So I think both of those are going to change pretty dramatically. I think the channels will always change. Whatever is hot, it’ll [inaudible 00:34:35] all the stuff you write about as well. It’s going to be something hot for the next day.

I really like what you say in Sell With Authority, that agencies are going to have to be thought leaders, they’re going to have to be strategic partners again, or they’re going to be vendors that are basically focused on one tool. I completely believe in and I think it’s going to be a small segment that do. So the ones that move there quicker I think are going to evolve faster.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I certainly have seen that in COVID, right? As I’m watching the 250 or 300 agencies that we interact with on a regular basis, it wasn’t that they didn’t get hit as hard as the generals because some of them absolutely did. But them coming out of that spiral, they came out so much faster and stronger and I’m talking to agencies that are specialists that literally have landed their biggest client in their agency’s history during COVID. So again, it does, to your point, speak to the value of that specialization and how clients are valuing it more and more for sure.

Steve Pockross:

Yeah, that’s good to hear. Yeah, I’d love to hear more about what you’re seeing as well. One of the other things that we’re hearing about the specialization is even agencies that niche done into a space like restaurants that got blown up and all their business went away could much more easily pivot. Because they were still seen as thought leaders, they could provide [inaudible 00:36:01].

Drew McLellan:

Well, and there isn’t an industry… just like any economic recession, there isn’t an industry that was hit by COVID that’s not going to recover in some way, shape, or form. We’re not going to not have restaurants, we’re not going to not travel ever again. So when you’re an expert in the space, you pivot as the industry pivots and you’re ready to go with them.

And the other interesting thing that I find fascinating about people pushing on the, “Well, I don’t want to be a specialist because when there’s an economic recession or whatever, if my industry is the one that goes down, I’m screwed.” Why would you make that decision for the six months to a year of bad and not harvest the bejeezus out of the other nine years that were good? Right? That just doesn’t make sense to me.

Steve Pockross:

No, that is appropriate math, I think.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So as you look out over the horizon, how do you think… so we’ve talked a little bit about long form. How else do you see content changing in the next year or so? What are the trends that you guys are watching and preparing for? So you said longer form, you said video. What else are you seeing or what are you paying attention to knowing that you’re going to have an increased demand for that down the road?

Steve Pockross:

Yep. So I think a few things that we’re thinking about are… so going back to long form, video, and also podcasting and how all of these mediums fit in together. They’re going to become… this is going to need to be productized as one type of product that you produce for all of them, and so we’re thinking about how do you create a product that does all of these as a solution as opposed to a menu item as you’re trying to figure out along the way?

Drew McLellan:

So help me understand what that means. Give me an example.

Steve Pockross:

You’d come to our site and you would say, “Here’s our three podcast content products. One of them is… products is podcast [inaudible 00:38:03] outs.” We’ll give you 600 words, it’ll basically wrap it up. The second one is podcast long form, which is 1500 words. It’ll give you quotes on what happened, it’ll give some of the highlights, it’ll break it down into the sections, and then it’ll have the time breaks at the end where interesting things happened. It’ll have a little more SEO juice to it.

And the third podcast option is the multi thousand dollar option, which is turning this into thought leadership for me. I want this to become five. I’m going to buy a series of 10 of these, and by the end I’m going to turn that all into an ebook. And that would all be on a landing page and you could just select that for yourselves or for your clients.

Drew McLellan:

So if I’m an agency and I’m guiding clients down the content path, how does that translate to the client? How do you think we’re going to be consuming content differently in 12 months?

Steve Pockross:

I think the multimedia… not really sure if I can answer that differently. But the multimedia approach of consuming content in all three formats I think is only going to grow. Everyone’s heard about the growth rates of video. We’ve all been planning on… What we don’t know is how that works with content marketing and I don’t think anyone’s been able to solve that yet. We think about it a lot. We acquired a video company and are trying to figure it out, that solution. We’re going to be doing some more things with podcasts and toying with our own podcast as well.

Drew McLellan:

So here’s what I think I’m hearing you say, which is how do you take an idea or a lesson, if you will, and how do you deliver it in the written format and audio format and a video format in some sort of seamless set of tools? Yes?

Steve Pockross:

[crosstalk 00:39:48] how do you turn it into a package? So it’s basically like a… first we learn from agencies or agencies tell us what’s working for them, and then we turn them into products and offer them to all agencies so they can basically say, “These are the three best practices and now I can give them to my client as seamlessly as possible.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, interesting.

Steve Pockross:

And the second big trend is actually… so that’s more of a… if you think of productization as a horizontal play of different products, is vertical focus of going deeper in how do you create thought leader- or real industry… But I don’t know about experts, at least the next level up. And so the example of that is that we have this JD editing program for our legal program, where we have done, I think 2,800 pieces of content that have been reviewed by lawyers per day. That provides a lot of value to the legal industry. It helps their client stand out. It gives Rankings.io a huge advantage when they go to the personal injury attorneys that say, “Look, all of my content’s reviewed by attorneys and it’s higher quality. You’re not going to have to worry about it and it gets delivered on time.”

When I have this large pool of labor of skilled workers, I know that within there, there are so many other content businesses. So right now, we’re Verblio and we should be Verblio/legal. We should be Verblio/medical which takes the idea of having segmented writers, but also puts professional editors on top of them so that you as an agency can come and know that you have a higher level option if you are working with some home services client that knows that everything has to be reviewed by an architect or something at that level.

So today we’ve been reliant on our agencies to come to basically bring us the program to customize and tailor for them, which has been great. It’s also slower moving. The command and control model we think will be… we’re going to pick out four or five of those top verticals and see if we can really make a difference and help some agencies offer a different level of service that’s not available to other clients.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So my translation for that is part of the challenge for content is that we’re kind of relying on the clients to be the quality control because they’re the subject matter experts. And what you’re saying is, as agencies, we have to figure out a way internally or externally to layer in some quality control so that the client feels like our… and this is probably more true for highly regulated industries, financial, healthcare, legal, right? That… insurance, yep. That we’ve taken care of the vetting of the content so that they don’t have to.

Steve Pockross:

Yeah, so so far we’ve vetted for great writers and the next step is vetting for deeper level of industry expertise, which is really hard to do if you don’t have it on your staff. So we have to bring that from our marketplace forward.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, interesting. So last question before I let you go. But how do you deliver incredible customer service? I would assume that that’s a key component. I think agencies have high expectations in terms of when they partner with someone. They are used to running and gunning, and then stopping midstream, and then literally waiting until somebody waves a green flag, and all of a sudden they’re off to the races again. And I think they expect their partners to be able to be that nimble and be that responsive, and I think that’s a challenge for agency partners because we as agency people are so used to client texts you at 5:00 on a Friday? You bet we can do that for you by tomorrow. Right? That’s our world.

Steve Pockross:

Yup.

Drew McLellan:

And I think one of the challenges with outsourcing is it’s not always the outsource partner’s world. So how do you guys think about customer service with agencies and how do you match your customer service to their world?

Steve Pockross:

Yup. So I think about in that two. So I think one is just the scalability of our quality writing and what can you rely on. So we want to be there… if you sell a giant deal where you can sell 500 more blogs a month by next month, we’re going to be able to deliver that. We created a unique model that brought together all of these different elements that’s hard to do. So you sell that client, the next day you set up your account, and you can do it yourself or you can use your account manager and we will have that done. We had a client that added 300 additional blogs two months ago and we hit every one of them. So our model is set up to do that.

The other piece of it is how do you fit into our ecosystem is we want to… we think we speak fluent agency. Maybe I haven’t represented that as well today as I can. I am not from an agency. But we wanted to be the friendliest content creation platform in the business. So one of the first things that we did is so many of the competitors that we started off with won’t talk to clients. We will do a demo with absolutely anyone at any time. We have followup calls, our people are available, and we’re trying to bring on board the friendliest staff possible that you want to interact with.

So we think we have the friendliest staff and we also think we have an easier customer experience to work through, so [inaudible 00:45:13] just overall more pleasant. For all of our clients that are above $5,000.00 a month, we have a free account manager that’s your go-to person. You can talk to him about any new project coming up. That’s true for smaller clients as well. We just charge for it. But we have account managers who can set up all these projects on the fly and do things off platform if necessary to make it all work. Our whole goal is to deliver… go above and beyond and blow away expectations of what’s been done before and so we try to hire the people that are completely aligned with that philosophy.

Drew McLellan:

So how many of your writers have worked inside agencies before?

Steve Pockross:

I don’t actually know that. So we have done a vertical test of who’s worked with marketing agencies. So it’s our biggest segment who write for SEO and write for marketing. I think of the 3,000 it’s the broader pool. I think it’s at least a third, so about a thousand of them. The number of their… have actually worked for agencies, I’m not exactly sure, but man I wish I knew that.

Part of our next big data project is to do a lot larger dissection of the skills of the writers. Are you a nurse? Are you actually a licensed insurance person? So that we can start to bring all those together.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I would think somebody with an agency background would get the life of agency better and be able to rise and tolerate the life that we lead on the agency side. Yeah.

Steve Pockross:

They do get feedback from hundreds of agencies every month, so I think they at least get the idea from the outside and most of them are inbound certified and things of that nature, so they get SEO. But yes, the more that we get from that world, the better.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This has been fascinating. I am grateful for your time. Thank you for spending an hour with me chatting about all of this. If folks want to learn more about you or reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to get in touch?

Steve Pockross:

Cool. I appreciate it as well. So the best way is www.verblio.com, V-E-R-B-L-I-O. We try to make the website as fun and engaging as possible, so I hope you enjoy being there as well. The second is our podcast. My podcast is The Verblio Show. You can find it on iTunes or anywhere. And the third is you can just follow me on my LinkedIn profile, Steve Pockross, and I give lots of updates there on best things that we’re finding out. We’re trying to provide lots of industry insights and also leadership from other thought leaders across marketing to agencies on that site and in the podcast.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.

Steve Pockross:

Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

All right, guys. This wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Hopefully this was helpful getting you think- I know that for many of you, figuring out how you’re going to get content created that isn’t generic, that really does move the needle for your clients, I know this is a constant source of challenge for you and hopefully we gave you some ideas of A, whether you’re trying to hire in house or find a partner, some ways to do that, and also some ways to anticipate what’s coming down the pike in terms of content marketing for you, for your clients. So hopefully that was helpful.

A big shoutout and thank you to our friends at White Label. They make this podcast possible. So as you know, they are a great partner and source for White Label PPC SEO work and also dev and design. So they have worked with many AMI agencies and get rave reviews, so we’re grateful to them. If you want to check them out, head over to Whitelabeliq.com/AMI. And as you know by now, probably, they have a special deal there just for you. So thanks for listening.

Would love to have you come hang out with me and some of my friends in December and January. We have some great workshops. They are all on Disney property. Our plan right now is absolutely to deliver them live, so we’ve got Money Matters in early December and then we have two biz dev workshops in January, at the tail end of January. So head over to Agencymanagementinstitute.com and under the How We Help, you’ll see the workshop section and you can check that out. So would love to meet you in person and spend two days teaching you what we know and hearing what you know. Our workshops are very much built that everybody shows up ready to both learn and teach, so we’d love to have you there. All right? I’ll be back next week with another episode, and in the meantime you know you can track me down at [email protected] Talk to you guys soon. Thanks for listening.

Thanks for spending some time with us. Visit our website to learn about our workshops, owner peer groups, and download our salary and benefits survey. Be sure you also sign up for our free podcast giveaways at agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway.