Episode 297

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As Stephen Woessner and I teach in our book Sell With Authority, it’s critical for agencies to use content to attract their right fit prospects. When it’s done well and consistently, it can give an agency an unfair advantage over all of their competitors. But what exactly does doing it well mean these days?

Author, speaker, and entrepreneur Joe Pulizzi is credited with coining the phrase “content marketing”. His focus is on teaching marketers how they can build a business by being helpful more than relying on more aggressive selling tactics. He brings a lot of passion and enthusiasm for the work that he hopes will inspire your successful game plan.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Joe and I discuss the various aspects of content marketing. We look at how it has changed, what is being done wrong, and the many ways to improve your content strategy. We also discuss exit strategies, the importance of building a community, and new ways to think about niche marketing.

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.

Content marketing

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What has changed in content marketing and why it changed so fast
  • What is being done wrong by many agencies?
  • The need for consistency
  • The importance of exit strategy planning
  • Can a generalist agency employ a content strategy?
  • Why you need to build a community
  • How to build patience into your lead generation
  • Niche marketing
“Most of us are creating content the wrong way and it doesn’t have to be that way. ” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet “I don’t care how good your content is, if you’re not consistent, you’re not going to build an audience.” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet “Marketing is different than making a decision over what project you are or are not going to take.” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet “If you’re in the content business, you’re in the giving business.” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet “If it’s a small niche, be the leading expert in that niche and the niche will grow and you’ll create opportunities you never dreamed of.” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet “You have to create something that compels, and that’s what we don’t do.” @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Joe Pulizzi:

Tools & Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Thanks for coming back. As always, I want to remind you that I am very aware that you are busy, and so carving out some time to hang out with me and my guests I know is a luxury that I get to enjoy, so I thank you for doing that. You are going to be super glad you did today. My guest is I’ll give you a little… I will actually tell you who my guest is. I know a lot of times, I mean, tease you and don’t tell you until I’m ready to intro them into the room, but my guest is Joe Pulizzi, former owner of Content Marketing Institute, author of several amazing books including the brand new second edition of Content Inc., the subtitle of which is Start A Content-First Business, Build A Massive Audience and Become Radically Successful with Little to No Money.

Drew McLellan:

That just came out in May of 2021. Great read, completely looks at content differently than the first edition, really talks about the variations between the two, so you’re going to want to get that. But before I introduce Joe, and bring him into the room as it were, I just want to remind you of a tool that we have available to you on the website for free, because I think we’re going to… I guarantee you that Joe and I are going to talk a little bit about niching. I know you get tired of me talking about this topic, but I think that it’s certainly critical with content to have some unique point of view, or as Joe calls it, a tilt to the way you look at the world.

Drew McLellan:

One way to do that is to have a niche. If you are wrestling with if you should have a niche, and which niche is the right niche for your agency, I have built a little report card, a criteria chart that you fill out. It’s an Excel document, and basically, it just walks you through some thinking around niches and which ones might be best for you based on some criteria I’ve identified that I think are important. If you go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/nichecriteria, that’s all one word, niche criteria, you can download that Excel report card, and give yourself the test and see how you do, so highly recommend that.

Drew McLellan:

It’s been super helpful, I think, to the folks who’ve used it, so I’m hoping it’s helpful for you. All right, so all of you are very familiar with Joe. He is credited with coining the phrase content marketing. Before there were directors of content marketing or certainly before he created the Content Marketing World event, he was the guy who coined the phrase, and began to teach marketers how they could market by being helpful rather than trying to sell in a more aggressive way. As you know, if you have ever heard me talk before about the book that Steven Woessner and I wrote, Sell with Authority, what we talk about is really a content strategy specifically for agencies.

Drew McLellan:

It really walks you through how to do that. I think our book dovetails nicely with Joe’s. I’m sure he didn’t write it with that in mind, but it just worked out that way. We’re going to have an interesting conversation around a lot of things. Joe always brings a lot of passion and energy and enthusiasm for the work and for the people that he works with and the people he works for. I know we are up for a lively conversation. I don’t want to make you wait any longer, so let’s get right to it.

Drew McLellan:

Joe, welcome back to the podcast. Thanks for coming back.

Joe Pulizzi:

I am so happy to see you and talk to you. It’s been so long. Of course, I’ve been seeing you travel, and you’re getting back to the real world and all that good stuff.

Drew McLellan:

Slowly but surely.

Joe Pulizzi:

It feels right, doesn’t it? It feels like we’re coming out into the bright light and in a good way.

Drew McLellan:

It feels like spring in every way, shape and form.

Joe Pulizzi:

It does. Absolutely. It’s good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. Well, and I’m looking forward to seeing you in August.

Joe Pulizzi:

I can’t wait for that. Actually, it’s a presentation I’ve never done before.

Drew McLellan:

I know.

Joe Pulizzi:

We’re really focusing on how an agency can do what we did at Content Marketing Institute, so I’m going to be breaking it down. I’m excited because not everyone says, “Oh, Joe, do you talk content marketing?” Which by the way I’m fine with, because we’re going to talk about some of that today, but I really like focusing on, “Okay. You’re a business owner. You’re an entrepreneur. Here’s the decisions you have to make now so that in five years, you can have that exit, whatever that is that you want.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. I’m excited about it. I’ve asked all the speakers to give presentations that they haven’t given before. All of you are coming to the table with stuff that you’ve always talked about over a cocktail or over coffee, but just not from a stage, so I’m excited to bring that to everybody.

Joe Pulizzi:

It’ll be fun. I’d love talking about exit strategies these days, because nobody has them, so I love bringing them up. I mean not the whole presentation, but some of it is out there.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’s going to be great. Plus, we’re going to be together in person. I mean, that’s… I think the Build A Better Agency Summit may be one of the first in-person conferences for agency folks in 2021.

Joe Pulizzi:

I would have met… I can’t see anyone else beating you on that. Even the international ones aren’t… They won’t start happening either, so I think you got it.

Drew McLellan:

I don’t think anyone’s rushing to beat me either.

Joe Pulizzi:

You have to get some kind of an award for that.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’s the perseverance award. This, as you know, is the third dang date, so we’re doing it.

Joe Pulizzi:

I remember just seeing that. I remember he’s like, “Okay, we’re going to do it.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Then he’ll go, “We’re going to do it.” I don’t know, and that’s like, “Okay, now, August 2021, we’re doing it.”

Drew McLellan:

It will feel very good to be back together, that’s for sure. Absolutely. All right, so I have 12 hours of things I want to talk to you about, so I hope you packed a snack.

Joe Pulizzi:

Good. I got a very large Snickers bar here.

Drew McLellan:

We’re good then. Let’s start with the book. What prompted you to go back and relook at content marketing now?

Joe Pulizzi:

I don’t want to make this too long, but 2015, I wrote the first version of Content Inc. as you know about. We’ve talked about it before. I sold Content Marketing Institute in ’16, took a sabbatical year in 2018, and became, I guess, a novelist in 2019, wrote a book, a thriller, called The Will to Die. It did fairly well, won a couple of awards.

Drew McLellan:

Hang on. Hang on, before you go on, I want to remind you I have like 100 of those books in my closet, because we’re going to give them away. I bought it-

Joe Pulizzi:

Thanks God.

Drew McLellan:

I bought it when it first came out, which it’s a spectacular book. I love mysteries. I thought it was great, but you and I decided that we were going to give away. You’re going to sign a bunch of books, and give them away at our presenting sponsors booth in May of 2020.

Joe Pulizzi:

That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

I have boxes of your books in my closet for the last year. I’m excited to ship them to Chicago, so we could give them away.

Joe Pulizzi:

Think about that. That’s how long that you had to wait because I’m on to the next book.

Drew McLellan:

I know.

Joe Pulizzi:

I didn’t even… First of all, thank you. I’m excited to give those books away finally. People will love it.

Drew McLellan:

Me too.

Joe Pulizzi:

What’s crazy is it stars… The protagonist is a marketing agency owner. You’ll dig it. You’ll love the insight into that. Then COVID hit, and I’m like, “Okay, I could write another,” which I started. I was going to write version two of The World to Die. Then I started to get a bunch of emails and messages from friends of mine, some agency owners, some marketers, some entrepreneurs who were like, “Joe, this Content Inc. model, does it still work? I’m out a bit… I need a new job, or clients aren’t going well. I need to do some things different.” I said, “Maybe this is having resurgence because content creation has taken off to another level that we never thought of before.”

Joe Pulizzi:

I called my friends at McGraw Hill Education, and I said, “I think there’s something about this book. I think we might need to redo it.” They looked at the data and whatever data they looked at, Drew, and said, “Okay, I think there is something. I don’t know why it’s happening, but people are buying the book. People were listening to the Content Inc. podcast, which was dead for two years. I said, “Okay, there’s something here,” did the whole thing again, interviewed dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs trying to figure out, “Okay, is the model correct six years later? What’s happening?”

Joe Pulizzi:

We have a brand new model. We’ve got new case studies. We got a whole new section on exit strategies, a whole new section on planning, all new platforms. You know there’s been all kinds of new social platforms, and what I believe is that if you’re going to launch a content marketing initiative, or you want to launch a content-based business, this is the business model for it. I believe in it more than I believe in anything else I’ve done besides my novel that I wrote. That’s it. I’m excited to bring it back out.

Joe Pulizzi:

With more people creating content than ever before, there’s more people doing it wrong. I would like to help people live better lives, get better jobs, whatever they can do, especially for entrepreneurs, and in your audience of agency business owners. Most of us are creating content the wrong way, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Drew McLellan:

Let’s talk about that a little bit. Two-part question, one, it seems like it shouldn’t have changed that much. It’s not that much time, but I know, having read the original book and the current book, that things have changed. Let’s talk about some of the things that have changed and why you think they changed so quickly. Then two, or maybe wrapped up in that, what are we getting wrong?

Joe Pulizzi:

Oh man, there’s a lot of… First of all, we had a whole section on… If you remember the first one, there’s a whole section you have to be passionate about the content you created [inaudible 00:10:25] which you found in talking to a lot of content creators. That’s not the case. Passion is helpful, not necessary. We want to be passionate about our businesses, but you don’t necessarily have to be successful. You have to be differentiated. You have to deliver consistently over a long period of time. I wanted to double check and make sure, “Okay, is this one platform a real thing?”

Joe Pulizzi:

As you know, in the model, the third step is building out the base. You build out on one platform. You don’t go and say, “I’m going to do YouTube and a podcast and a blog all at the same time.” You build on one. You build an audience there, and then you diversify. Most businesses we look at that are creating content, they throw content on every channel that become a jack of all trades, master of none. They don’t build an audience, and it never works. We did say, “Okay, that is the model.”

Drew McLellan:

Well, I see that with agency folks all the time. In the book that Steven and I wrote, Sell with Authority, we talked about this. You gotta create a cornerstone. You’ve gotta have one anchor, platform and piece of content that you can then use the other platforms, the other channels to share that content out. One of the things I see a lot of agency owners doing as they build content out for themselves is they think, to your point, that they have to be everywhere, and so they exhaust themselves for about three weeks. Then all of a sudden, their consistency goes down the tank, and they’re done.

Joe Pulizzi:

Sadly, that’s about 99% of all cases out there, and that’s where I… That was funny. I was just on a Twitter chat, and somebody asked me, “What’s the biggest problem in businesses right now with content creation?” I said, “Well, okay, besides not having a content till…” That’s your differentiation area. You’re not doing the same thing as everyone else. It’s they diversify too quickly. They basically say, “I’m going to be on YouTube, and I’m going to be on Twitch, and I’m going to do the blog, and I’m going to do the podcast.”

Joe Pulizzi:

I get that. I don’t you probably hear about this all the time, too. When I sit down with an entrepreneur that wants to be a content creator and a content entrepreneur, they always say they’re doing three or four things at the same time. I say, “Look, I love your ambition. I haven’t heard of a successful model ever, ever that has done this unless they’re throwing a billion dollars at it. So if you don’t have unlimited resources, you need to pick one, and you need to build an audience on that one channel, and do that for about 12 to 18 months, and then you can diversify.”

Joe Pulizzi:

I’m not saying diversification because you’ve diversified really well, but you already built your channel. When we started Content Marketing Institute, we basically just blogged for 22 months, and we build a loyal audience around that blog.

Drew McLellan:

You blogged every day. That content was deep and rich and valuable, and people got addicted to it. I think that’s the… You’ve gotta have one place for people to go and know that they’re going to get your best stuff.

Joe Pulizzi:

Well, here’s another good example. There’s a business owner that said, “We have a YouTube strategy, and we’ve got really good content on YouTube. I don’t know what’s happening. We’ve been doing doing it for over a year.” I’m like, “Okay, who knows, right?” I go and look at the channel. Well, basically, what they did is they have one episode go up in one week. They skip a week. Have two episodes going up the next week. Then skip a week. Then they have three episodes, and some other thing going up there. I’m like, “I don’t care how good your content is. If you’re not consistent, you’re never going to build an audience. It’s like must see TV with NBC, it still is a thing.”

Joe Pulizzi:

People think that, “All because of social media, I can just throw it out there at any time.” No, you have to… As Andrew Davis always says, you have to set an appointment. You want that audience to say, “Oh, it’s 8:30 on Thursday morning, and the newsletter comes out today. I want to get it.” It still works that way, but a lot of people forgot that.

Drew McLellan:

I think you’re right. What else changed? Why had things changed so quickly? It can’t be just the platforms.

Joe Pulizzi:

It’s not just the platforms. It’s the… What we also realized is that success… We didn’t have this in the first book. When I wrote in 2015 the first version of Content Inc., I had not gone through the exit program of selling Content Marketing Institute. First of all, I learned a lot, and the whole thing is in the book now from how do you sell? Who do you go to? You don’t want to spend a lot of money. What’s the LOI? How do you do that legally? All those things. If you’re ever looking at selling your company, I go through the whole process, and we talk to entrepreneurs like Brian Clark and Rand Fishkin.

Joe Pulizzi:

They go through exactly what they did, because they sold parts of their company. From that standpoint, but what we also found is that most content creators that are having trouble being successful is they have no exit plan at all. You and I talked about this. Obviously, you’re in the book as well, and you’re in a section of exit strategy, and that’s what you were saying, “This is the one time where I’m actually starting to think about it.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. By the way, I have no intention of exiting anytime soon.

Joe Pulizzi:

There you go. Exactly. I don’t want people to think you’re exiting.

Drew McLellan:

I’m not going anywhere, everybody, but I want to be thinking about it.

Joe Pulizzi:

You need a plan.

Drew McLellan:

I want to lay the groundwork now so that down the road, when I do decide to exit, I’m ready.

Joe Pulizzi:

That’s right. It affects everything along the way. Basically, our seven step is a new step. It’s called sell or go big. Are you going to sell? You have to plan this. Who do you want to sell to? What kind of company do you want to sell to? Do you want to sell it all? Do you want to leave it to your kids? Ask all those questions, or you might say, “I don’t want to sell.” I’d like to create a lifestyle like John Lee Dumas who does Entrepreneurs on Fire podcast. He says, “I want to keep this thing forever. I want to have a lifestyle business. I’m super happy.”

Joe Pulizzi:

I’m like, “Okay, good. You have your exit strategy. You know exactly what you’re doing.”

Drew McLellan:

I think that’s the key. There’s nothing wrong with the exit strategy being, “I’m going to set a date, and I’m going to lock the door at the office on that last date and walk away feeling good about what I just did for the last 20 or 30 years, which is how many agencies, especially smaller agencies, how they wrap up their career.” I think it’s often looked at as a less than desirable outcome, but if you’ve built an agency, and you’re using it as an ATM machine to take care of your family and to build wealth outside of the agency, there’s nothing wrong with closing the door at the end.

Joe Pulizzi:

As long as that’s the plan.

Drew McLellan:

The plan. Right.

Joe Pulizzi:

I talk about this in the book. I had a workshop for about 50 heating and air conditioning contractors, all small business owners. All the businesses were between two and $5 million. We were talking about exit planning and exit strategies. I said, “How many have a formal exit strategy that you’ve actually written down somewhere, and you look at it on occasion?” Nobody did. Then, of course, I picked out some people from the audience, and we were talking, I’m like, “Okay, what are you going to do with your business?” He said, “Well, I might leave it to my kids, or I might sell it to somebody.”

Joe Pulizzi:

I said, “Okay, well, those are two really different things, so you should be planning for that. By the way, you don’t need to have the answer now, but you have to go through the discovery process if you’re a business owner, because then you’ll know the strategy completely changes. Because if you’re going to leave it to your kids, or you’re going to have a lifestyle business, or you’re going to sell to somebody else, that’s a three to five-year process that’s completely different.” But I think people just say, “Oh, I get to this point, and then I’ll just do it.” I’m like, “No. Don’t. No. Silly, you don’t do that, and you don’t want to be in a position where you’re being reactive and not proactive.”

Joe Pulizzi:

Like, “Oh my God, somebody got sick. My number one project manager left. What am I…” You don’t want to be in that position, so you have to plan the right way.

Drew McLellan:

Yes. Every week, I have a conversation with an agency owner that says, “I went out in two or three years.” Great. What’s the plan? “Well, that’s why I’m calling you to put together a plan.” “Okay, that’s not enough time.” I mean, it is enough time to do some things, but we are eliminating some of your options if we’re doing this in 18 months.

Joe Pulizzi:

Well, no, you’re exactly right. The one thing… I shared this in the book, which is a lot of people don’t believe it, but this is what got me to selling the company in 2016. In 2008, I started writing down all my goals, and I started my exit planning at that point. In 2008, I had no money, and we were majorly in debt. I just started what became the Content Marketing Institute blog. I’m trying to figure this thing out. I wrote down, “I want…” I wrote it in past tense. I’ve sold the business in 2015 for $15 million. A lot of people think that’s like, “How can you even do that? You don’t…”

Joe Pulizzi:

First of all, I’m like, “Okay, that takes a lot of ego to do that, but that was the goal.” There was a specific reason for it, because I wanted to have 10… My wife and I wanted $10 million after taxes by 2015, because we wanted to spend 15 and beyond with our two boys. I wanted to be out of the day to day running of the business, so it made sense, and then we built it up to that point. Now, we started everything at the right time. We were a little bit late, but we did everything we wanted to by 2016.

Joe Pulizzi:

But if I wasn’t reviewing that goal every day, the business would have been entirely different. I made decisions on who to hire, who not to hire, what products to launch so that we could create the value. We purchased three media companies in that time, because I said, “If we purchased that company, I can hit this other goal quicker. This would make sense.” I want more people to write those