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.
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
Ways to contact Steve Pockross:
- Website: https://www.verblio.com/
- Podcast: https://www.verblio.com/show
- Twitter: @spockross
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.
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.
Drew, it’s a pleasure.
So tell everybody a little bit about your background, and the company that you own and run today, and how you intersect with agencies.
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.
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?
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.
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]…
Oh, I would have gotten back to it.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, that’s interest.
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.
Garbage in, garbage out, right?
That sounds about right.
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?
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.”
Right. Yeah, they’re looking on the Google and getting it. Right.
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.
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?
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.
So define midsized and large for me.
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.
Yeah, okay. So other than that, are you seeing differences in requests for the type of content or…
We are. So a couple of the other big trends are more immediate impact of your content. So