Joe Pulizzi is the founder of Content Marketing Institute which is now a UBM company. It is the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s fifth book “Killing Marketing” was just released. His third book, “Epic Content Marketing” was named one of “Five Must-Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine.
What you’ll learn about in this episode:
- The evolution of content marketing
- Focusing on your core verticals to help clients out with some part of the process that they’re terrible at
- How agencies can help clients build an audience of people that knows, likes, and trusts them and how that has a large impact over time
- Why elevating someone to the status of an expert with content marketing is a long-term process
- Focusing on clients that already value and have a budget for content marketing
- How delivering value to prospects on a long-term basis will all you to do business with them without going through an RFP
- How getting your audience to know, like, and trust you with content marketing will allow you to sell easily
- Some of the many different ways to monetize your customer list
- Changing the defined idea of marketing to match consumer behavior
- Why you can’t be everything to everybody and need to focus on a niche
- Why your sliver of opportunity to get started in on a niche is right now
The Golden Nugget:“There is no niche that is small enough.” – @JoePulizzi Click To Tweet
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Ways to contact Joe Pulizzi:
- Twitter: @joepulizzi
- Website: www.joepulizzi.com
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If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Batter Agency Podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and growth with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today, you’re going to love this conversation. You are going to love my guest. I’m going to introduce him to you, but you all know who he is already. So Joe Pulizzi is the founder of Content Marketing Institute, which is now a UBM company. It is the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World.
So for most of you, you cut your teeth on Joe and his team’s content. So when content became the new buzz phrase, you are heading to Content Marketing Institute and reading that content, and many of you I know have been to Content Marketing World.
Joe is also the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. He has written five books, including his latest, which is a must read for every agency owner called Killing Marketing. It just came out in September of 2017. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of the five must read business books of 2013 and it is still, by the way, a must read business book if you haven’t read it.
You could find Joe on Twitter, and we’ll put his Twitter handle in the show notes. As you can see on the video, if you’re looking at the video of me talking, you may see that Joe, as always, is wearing orange. So Joe, welcome to the podcast.
Drew, thanks for having me. I didn’t know if people would see me, but I always wear orange, so it doesn’t matter. I don’t have anything else in the closet. It’s definitely going to be orange regardless.
You would be so easy to find in a crowd.
Well, if I’m at a Brown’s game, I’ve got the orange hair on because I’m a little bald a little bit on the top as you see. Ever since I won that Lifetime Achievement Award, I lost all my hair, just the parts.
Yeah. That seems fair.
Yeah. Exactly. No. I’m orange. It caught on, whatever it was, and when I started the business in ’07-’08 and it just makes things a lot easier. I’m into the whole Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg and they wore the same thing, and one less decision to make. I’m totally in agreement with that. If I don’t have to make a decision, I’ve got, like when I go speaking, I’ve got a very particular wardrobe, and it just makes things a lot easier. Don’t have to think about it. Just go ahead and do it and done.
I’m trying to picture Steve Jobs all in orange. It doesn’t fit for me. It’s truly your color.
I might not look good in orange, but it doesn’t matter because I’m all in.
It is who you are.
It is. It is.
So I want to go back to the origins of when you started thinking about and talking about content because I think content, given the short lifespan of that phrase, even though I think we’ve been doing it for a longer time, it’s evolved significantly. So walk us through the history of where content was versus where it is today, and particularly in terms of how you see agencies interacting in that space.
Well, I mean, I worked at an in-house agency and a publisher. So I worked at Penton Media and it’s now Informa, but for those of you that don’t know Penton, at the time it was the largest independent business-to-business publisher, published events, and magazines, and I think over a hundred different verticals or whatever the case is. I came in to Penton Custom Media and took that over in I think 2002, and we were responsible to help customers tell better stories if they didn’t want to buy advertising.
So we would work on custom magazines and custom newsletters, and then into blogs, and webinars, and all kinds of stuff. What was interesting when you talk about the evolution of why are we even talking about this content marketing thing, so we called it, it was custom publishing. So when I started in this thing in the late ’90s, it was custom publishing, it was custom media, it was custom content. Some people called it branded content, all kinds of different phrases, and nothing took hold.
When I took over business development in 2002, 2003, 2004 and on, I would go meet with Senior VPs of marketing and Chief Marketing Officers and I would say, “Hey, what are you doing in custom publishing?” and they’d already be sleeping. It doesn’t mean anything, the custom publishing, custom content, even branding content. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not sexy. There is no emotional connection there, but when I started to lean and I’d say, again, I tested the term and this is probably ’05-’06 I started to test content marketing when I used to meet one-on-one with CMOs and I’d say, “So what are you doing in content marketing?” Just throwing it out there. It wasn’t even a word or phrase at that point.
They’d lean in to the chair and they’d say, “Oh, content marketing? Yeah, we do content marketing.” They didn’t know, but they’re like, “Yeah, we do it,” because it made sense to them. You got to remember, I mean, agencies that are listening to this know this. Marketers are simple people. You don’t overcomplicated it. We tend to overcomplicate it with things like custom publishing and custom content, where you don’t even know what that is. Content marketing is fairly straightforward, “Oh, I’m going to market with the use of content,” whatever, then we can get into talking about what that content is. Is it product-focused? Is it helpful content? What is a video content? Those types of things.
So then we launched what is now Content Marketing Institute in 2007 and just went all in with that for … Look, used some things like Google Trends and saw that there was an opportunity for this thing to take off, and then went all in. My first blog post in April of 2007 was What is Content Marketing? I went through the whole thing about we’re just going to call it content marketing from now on, and after that post, we never even questioned it. We said, “This is content marketing,” and then folks like Brian Clark over at Copyblogger, even though he hated the term, he got behind content marketing, and then more agencies started to use content marketing because they found the same things that I did, where you go in and you really start having good conversations with clients around this thing.
So if we talk about what that was back then, it was Wild Wild West. If you talk about content marketing, it pretty much was, “Oh, we’re going to create blogs so we get found in search engines,” or “We need a lot of content because we’ve got all these great free new channels like Facebook and Twitter and we’ve got nothing to put it. So let’s just start creating content everywhere our customers are at and it will be great.”
What agencies found out was and still maybe true today, most brands are horrible at creating valuable, compelling, and relevant content on a consistent basis and that’s why they would go out and say, “We need help doing this.” They would either do this for, “Oh, we need to go get freelancers to help us,” or “We would go find an agency that would help us with our overall strategy.” It’s hopefully part of the marketing function, but at 2007, 2008, 2009, it was still a separate things. It was still like if you went into a large enterprise and you wanted to find the content group, that would be a publications division where they were probably working on some newsletter or some magazine down the hall, maybe down the steps by the boiler, where those people are kept.
Then magic started happening in 2010-2011 where marketers started saying, “Oh, my gosh! We’ve got to fill all these channels with stuff that’s relevant or people are going to ignore us and we need followers and we need subscribers. What do we do?” I say this, I don’t know if I can be totally serious, but starting to take it a little bit more seriously about the function of this.
Now, we move on into today and, of course, it’s completely changed. All those free channels are now paid channels. So whether you talk about Facebook or LinkedIn where we thought, “Oh, we’re getting free distribution,” well, that’s not true anymore. If you want to found, it needs to be paid. What I think the good thing is, at least for brands and for agencies, is we’re going to ’18 and we’ve got to simplify the model. We can’t be everywhere customers are at because with the limited resources that most companies have, they can’t do a good job consistently to deliver something that’s going to be meaningful over time.
So if you’re an agency, you can really focus on your core verticals. You can really focus on some area of the process that your clients are horrible at. Are they really horrible at interviewing process and are they horrible at understanding what the story really is. In a lot of cases, that’s true. Are they horrible at finding the experts in their own company and/or their clients and customers to find out where the stories are at? In a lot of cases, that’s true as well.
Are they not very good at figuring out how do you build a platform of subscribers over time just like a media company would? Most companies are terrible at that. Well, agencies can come in and say, “Look, we can help you build a platform so that you can build an audience, so that your customers or prospects begin to know, like, and trust you,” and if we do that, we will see a positive behavior over time.
So what I love about the opportunity for agencies right now is this is not anything about short-term campaigns. You’re going in there and say, “We can go and do this for six months and help you out with this,” I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. I would go and say, “Look, this is a long-term approach that you have the opportunity to be the leading informational expert around this thing to this group of people, and we need 12 months, 18 months, 24 months to make that happen, and we’re going to set your expectations along that so that we know when we get to that 12 month, 18 month mark, we’re going to hit certain KPIs that are going to make a difference for you.”
So that’s what I love about it. It’s an annuities business. It always has been, where you’re not just going in for, “Oh, we’ve got this budget because we have some new product launch that we’re …” No. This is about, “Hey, we really need to be known as this in the marketplace, and to do that, we need to communicate this,” and the only way we can really differentiate ourselves today is not on products, not on price, it’s on how we communicate. I truly believe that. It’s more critical than ever before.
So I think that’s what the opportunity is is that to figure out as an agency what are you really good at, how can you differentiate yourself, and maybe you’re not in every vertical, maybe you’re the best in healthcare or pharmaceuticals or in financial services or for attorneys or small businesses or whatever. That’s where the opportunity is at to be the one or two or three key players in those markets.
Yeah. I think a lot of agencies struggle with there’s so much pressure on the CMOs of the world to deliver quickly that a lot of agencies, it’s a two-prong challenge for them. One is, “How do I get a client to invest in this long-term strategy?” Two, a lot of agencies wrestle with clients in terms of budget. So a lot of businesses, especially mid-tier business, I’m not talking about the Coca-Colas of the world, but those mid-tier businesses where the small to mid agency lives, they’re like, “Well, I can get a freelancer,” or “My wife can write it,” or my fill in the blank, right? So how do you recommend as you’re coaching agencies, how do you recommend they approach this and how do you recommend that they talk about, I mean, because one of the challenges of content is to do it well and right. It takes a lot of time.
So it’s not inexpensive. So what’s a best practice in your opinion around talking around that and helping a client understand the investment?
Look, it’s a great question. You and I have had this conversation a couple of times. It’s shoemaker’s shoes with agencies when it comes to education for their audience. I mean, most agencies don’t have their own content marketing programs.
Yeah. Well, that’s going to be my next question. So yeah.
Well, it’s all in the same. So when somebody asks me, “Oh, which agency should I choose?” The first thing I always say is, “Well, look at their own content marketing. Are they producing their own magazine, newsletter, blog posts, video series, whatever it is? Do they do really well? Are they building their own audience?” Because if they’re not, you got biz not important enough for them. I get the whole thing where we’ve got to focus on client work, and we got limited resources. I get that. This is too important if you’re going to get in this.
If you’re not going to really be all in with content marketing, then there’s lots of other things you could do. You don’t have to do content creation and distribution services. So I would focus on that first.
If you’re getting into conversations with a client and you’re trying to educate them on the need for content marketing, I would give them Killing Marketing or give them another, give them Everybody Writes from Ann Handley, give them your book, give them some book that they can educate and leave as fast as you can.
That’s really, really hard for you to educate them and get their buy in when there’s so many companies out there that already buy into it. Find the ones that buy into it. Find the ones that already have a budget dedicated to it and go after that. Just don’t waste your time doing it.
I’ve seen so many agency salespeople they just struggle and say, “Oh, I’m sending them these articles,” and that’s fine. You can do that, but don’t expect business from them for a year or two because having a one content champion in the organization probably isn’t enough. You need a group. You need the CMO.
I just did a workshop with a mid-sized consulting company and the CEO is there. They all had copies of the book. They were all bought in, and we went through and asked the questions. That’s the type of company that you want. That’s the company that’s just, “Look, we realize that we need to do this. We know that we’re not really good at telling the story ourselves, and we need help to do that.” Great. That’s fantastic.
So that will save you a lot of time right now is just to say no to all those ones that where you’re fishing there might be an opportunity and just put those to the sides and let’s just focus one ones that already buy into it.
Yeah. Your point about agencies and their content, I think it’s pretty difficult. This is something that I’m preaching all the time. I think it’s pretty difficult to convince someone that marketing strategy is a must do for every company on the planet if your agency doesn’t do it.
I’ll give you a really good example, and I can’t say the name of the company, but you’ll probably figure it out. So this is three years ago. I go into one of the largest publishers, news publishers in the world. They have a huge division of salespeople that are focused on selling content marketing. I was giving them a presentation on content marketing. It’s basic. It’s trying to help their education.
As I was going through the presentation, I have the one slide that showed, of course, you know the slide, it’s the logo slide, where it has all of our clients on there. We showed all the clients, and they’re basically all Fortune 500 companies, all really big companies that we do advisory or consulting for.
I had the person that brought me in raised his hand and said, “How did you get all that business because that’s our prospect list? Those are the ones that are buying advertising from us, but they’re not buying any content marketing services.”
I said, “Well, you want the truth?
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Well, the truth is is that all these companies, they filled out a form on our site and wanted more information. We didn’t get any RFP situation, open situation. There was no pricing discussion. We put the price in front of them. They said yes and we started doing business with them, and then we went through some more.” I said, “Most of the people that ended up becoming our customers, they had been reading our magazine or our newsletter for six months or more. They had already bought into it. We had already been delivering that,” and then we talk about their situation.
Nobody even knows this company does content marketing services. They’re not sending out information. They don’t have their own strategy. So here’s the biggest of the big companies’ unlimited resources and they’re not doing it, and here’s little old us coming in there saying, “We’re just delivering value that is beyond what we do with our products and services.”
So if you’re an agency listening to this, maybe there’s one area, maybe there’s a vertical or a type of customer that you really think there’s an opportunity, well, focus on that. It could be an e-newsletter, a mini magazine. It could be an event series. It could be a webinar series. It could be any of those things and focus on really, really educating those people over time, and then you’ll see the difference, and probably if you do it right, that’s your sales and marketing process because they’ll probably raise their hand at some point and say, “Oh, I’m ready. It’s been six months. I’ve been engaging in your e-newsletter. It’s fantastic, and now I think I’m ready to buy.”
You’re like, “Wow! That was easy.” It just took six months, nine months, a year, a bit more to get to that point.
What I find fascinating is basically we have to give ourselves as agency owners the same speech we give our clients, which is this is not short-term, this is not one and done, this is a new way of presenting yourself to the marketplace on an ongoing basis, and you’re planting seeds every day all day. Sooner or later, the seeds bear fruit, but you don’t know necessarily which seed or which fruit, but over time, the harvest is plenty, right?
I find it fascinating that, literally, every agency owner I know gives that speech to their clients, but can’t look in the mirror and give themselves that speech and actually get it done. That’s the challenge.
Yeah. I guess, do you believe in it enough? Do you believe … With our organization, so it’s a multimillion dollar division that’s just focusing on education and training, we’ve never gone out and called on somebody. So I don’t know even know if we’d end up doing that like how much bigger it would get, but I don’t want to get to that point. We just take incoming leads and we figure out which ones are the business we want to take.
Wouldn’t that be a great position for any agency to be in? So that’s what I hope for somebody listening today and say, “So you offer a lot of agencies whatever you offer a lot of different services,” but if you’re going to be a content marketing agency, you really say, “Okay. Before we start offering services every other SEO company had said, ‘Oh, we offer content marketing,’ let’s be thoughtful about it like we want, like you said, like we want our customers to be thoughtful about it and say, ‘This is a long-term strategy. This is how the marketplace is changing, and we want to be the leading provider then to do that. We’ve got to walk the walk.’”
Yeah. It’s funny. We’re offering, we’ve got a workshop coming up in January of 2018. So if you’re listening to this in realtime, listeners, you still have time. If not, talk to me about when we’re going to do it next time. Anyway, the name of the workshop is Creating Content that Creates Revenue. To me, that’s what this is all about. So one of the things that, as you know, I’m a huge fan of your work, but the book that you just wrote, Killing Marketing, is probably in my opinion the best of all of your books.
Oh, thank you.
It is a game-changer. I mean, it really forces you to think completely differently about the work we do. So as I’m reading it through the lens of an agency owner and through the lens of someone who helps agencies, one of the places where I really, really dug in and I want to spend a lot of time on the podcast today talking about is this whole idea of monetizing content. So I think for a lot of clients and certainly a lot of agencies, we think of content as something that costs us a lot of time and money to produce. I think your book really unpacked this idea of, “Well, wait a second. You don’t actually have to. It doesn’t have to cost money. Yes, it’s going to be an investment, but it can have an ROI that is much greater than what it originally cost.”
So I do want to dig in to that, but first, let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and talk about how agencies can make money creating content for their customers.
If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, odds are you’ve heard me mention the AMI Peer Networks or the Agency Owner Network. What that is really is it’s like a Vistage group or an EO group only everybody around the table owns an agency in a noncompetitive market. So it’s a membership model. They come together twice a year for two days, two days in the spring and two days in the fall, and they work together to share best practices. They show each other their full financial so there’s a lot of accountability. We bring speakers in. We spend a lot of time problem solving around the issues that agency owners are facing. If you’d like to learn more about it, go to agencymanagementinstitute.com\network. Okay. Let’s get back to the show.
All right, everybody. Welcome back. So Joe Pulizzi and I are talking about content marketing. Before the break, we were talking about the idea of monetizing. So for most agencies, one of the challenges they have going in and selling their services is they’re seen as a cost to their clients. As I was reading your book, I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if an agency could go into a client and say, ‘Hey, here’s the investment that is going to take for us to help you with your content, but we’re actually going to be a revenue stream for you’?” What a different conversation that would look like as an agency compared to the other agencies who are walking in the door.
So can you talk to us a little bit about this whole idea of monetizing content and maybe some other ways that we go, “Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t have thought of that,” and some ways that people are like, “Oh, I would have never thought about that”?
Well, thank you for, first of all, this is not like a new, new thing. I mean, when I started selling custom publishing in 2000, we used to go in and we used to work on revenue opportunities for associations and large businesses, and we’ve ran on, if you look at the inflight magazines, they don’t spend any money on those publications. Those are all revenue share opportunities.
The whole idea behind the book Killing Marketing is the fact that marketing ultimately, I believe, innovative companies will create that into a profit center, self-sustaining profit center. You’re kicking off your own budget, your own money, and you’re going to look at it in the business model just like another product or service, which I know might be farfetched, but we’re already seeing it happen. We’re seeing companies, of course, like Red Bull Media House do it. Arrow Electronics has a great case study where they have 51 different media properties that they run, a profitable division selling advertising and subscriptions and their own content service. Mondelez and Pepsi have already said they’ve got divisions within their own marketing that they’re creating their own profit centers.
So how does it get to this? Well, because any company can build an audience today. So we’ve talked about content marketing and we build an audience that knows, likes, and trusts us. They will end up most likely, if you do it right, buying more stuff from us. Well, what’s that stuff?
well, generally, if you think about traditional content marketing, it’s like, “Okay. I’m going to create a blog and I believe if we get people to the blog that we will ultimately sell more products.” That’s a general content marketing or sell more services or have higher yielding customers or whatever the case is. There’s a behavior change in people that engage in our content. Yes, but there are also seven, eight other different ways that you can monetize this.
So if you’re an agency and you go in to any company, they probably already have an audience of some kind. They have a subscriber base of some kind.
Sure, customer list of some kind.
Customer list. So they have assets. What we don’t know is we haven’t pulled out the real assets from let’s say that customer database and have them turn them into opt in audience groups. Once we build in opt in audience groups, then you can monetize it in all kinds of different ways.
So let’s take an example like Huffington Post, right? Huffington Post starts whenever they started 10 plus years ago and they had one blog, and they created one audience, loyal audience, and they started to monetize that audience through sponsorship and advertising and then onto into events and webinars and stuff like that. Then they created a second one, and now they have 400 and ended up being whatever sold for hundreds of million, billion dollars, whatever the case was.
So that’s really, really simply model. Let’s take that to you’re an agency, you’re going into a midsize company and you say, “Okay. Well, if in that vertical that we’re trying to target that audience, if we were able to build 10,000 opt in people that were getting regular information from us, how would we monetize that?”
Okay. Well, we could do it the same way we normally do content marketing. We would say, “Okay. Well, we know that people that subscribe to that, let’s say it’s an e-newsletter, they subscribe to your e-newsletter, we know that those people are more likely to buy your products and services, so great. We’re selling more products and more services. That’s two different revenue lines. Well, what if we could sell advertising to noncompetitive partners through that? Absolutely could do that.”
There’s no reason like babycenter.com from Johnson & Johnson, we talk about it in the book, they sell all kinds of advertisings. That’s a profitable entity from J&J that they do that. “So okay we could sell advertising. Well, could we launch events or a conference off of that? Well, what’s the second most valuable technology even in the world in my opinion? It’s Dreamforce from Salesforce. They could sell that alone as a standalone for almost a billion dollars if they wanted to.”
So let me think about that for a second. So they created that off of a very simple customer database and turned that into an audience where they’ve got 100, I think it was, what? Over 175,000 people in the San Francisco this year. Unbelievable, right? So then you could say, “Oh, well, if we’re doing an initiative that is a real true industry effort and it’s going to help the industry, maybe you take donations. Maybe you do a kick starter. Maybe you do Patreon or whatever you do.” You could actually take donations.
If you look at propublica.org, which is a journalism site that covers certain issues in a certain way, they’re all donation. So they get all the money for their 50 plus journalists all donated by individuals and different groups.
Let’s take selling premium product, premium content products. Look at one of my favorite examples is Zappos Insights. So Tony Hsieh wrote a great book years ago about changing the culture in the organization. He’s the CEO for Zappos, which have bought Amazon and a lot of companies because he built this audience around this new culture, this new idea, he had a lot of big companies coming to them and saying, “Can you teach us about how to build our own culture?”
So they created a whole division called Zappos Insights and they have basically a monthly subscription where if you’re a company, you can subscribe to their regular educational initiatives from Zappos about how to change your culture. This is a profitable venture.
Regardless of whose shoes you’re wearing.
Exactly. It doesn’t matter, right? Who would ever thought that we’re learning culture from a shoe company? That’s exactly what they’re doing. So these are the types of things and we could go on and on with the different types of program whether it’s you’re trying to create a services division or you’re trying to create higher yielding customers or you’re trying to do cross sales. There’s a really good example from Trish Witkowski. She has just 5,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel. She had created a regular YouTube series called The Super Cool Fold of the Week. She sells direct marketing folds and materials to a bunch of other direct marketers.
She found out that basically she was doing to get these 5,000 subscribers and every time she would do a fold, her sales would skyrocket for other product she has. Also, she wears a different T-shirt every week and she gets sales from the different T-shirts that she wears.
So if you think about all the different ways to do this, all you’re doing is you’re creating and audience and you’re monetizing it just in two ways instead of just one. You’re monetizing it on all the ways a media company does and then you’re monetizing on all the ways that a product company has always monetized content marketing. It comes to 10 different ways to look at this thing. I mean, that’s how we grew a content marketing institute. That’s how you’re growing your institute. It’s the same type of thing that once you build an audience that’s loyal, that knows, likes, and trusts you, they’re willing to buy anything that you put in front of them, and for whatever reason because we’ve always done it this way, we’ve only said, “Oh, this is the way we must monetize our marketing.” I don’t believe that’s true anymore.
So as I’m listening, I’m listening, my lens is split. So I’m listening as an agency owner thinking, I think of all the agency owners that I know. For most of them, their content is they write a blog post. Maybe they write a weekly blog post, but it’s not as narrow niched as it should be, and all the things that you just talked about.
So the idea of … So let’s say I’m a healthcare agency, and I work with community-based health systems. So in theory, I should be able to write really in depth content around the business model which is facing incredible change and challenge. I could be holding webinar events or I could be holding an annual live event where I bring those people together to talk about best practices and all of that, but I don’t see a lot of agencies taking the initiative to do that.
When you see the horizon in front of all of these companies and yet you don’t see a lot of people having the courage to step out and do it, what do you think gets in the way of an agency going, “I totally see how I could do that. I totally see how I could become the agency in this industry. I could be the sought after one to speak at conference,” fill in the blank? Why don’t they do it?
Well, there’s a lot of reasons. I think it really comes back to we have this defined idea of what marketing should be and it’s wrong. It’s wrong today. So I mean, look at the setup. We talk about this in chapter one or the introduction of the book, where we go through and we say, “Well, the marketing department itself hasn’t really changed in 50 to 75 years. Our behavior has completely changed.” The whole shift in power has gone to the consumer, but yet we’re still, no, we’ve added social groups and digital groups, and content groups, but basically, we’re set up the same. If you look at most B2B companies, they still market through press releases and trade shows, which is blowing my mind.
It wasn’t that hard a jump for me because I came from publishing. I came from different business model entirely and when you brought the publishing business model into marketing, they’re like, “Oh, my God! We’re doing it wrong. Why are we working so hard?”
The difference is is that we tend to focus on what we want to sell or what we think we should sell instead of what the audience will buy. Very, very different. So in your situation, your healthcare situation, what is you just stop for a second and said, “I’m not offering agency services right now. All I’m doing is I’m going to be the most helpful, the most relevant, the most compelling for that group of people”? What does that mean? How do I help them with their jobs or their lives in some way? What does that look like?
Then you create this consistent blog or a newsletter or whatever that really starts to be helpful. Then they’ll open up and they’ll continue to tell you other things that they need, “Oh, well, we would love to learn more about what’s going on. Can you get us around other healthcare professionals so that we can learn what’s going on and how the business model is changing?” Sooner or later, you become the expert in that industry. Why would anybody not use your services when you get to that point?
It’s interesting that you bring up healthcare. Who would have thought? So Cleveland Clinic, which is I’m in Cleveland, it’s right in our backyard, huge international network of hospitals now. They have a blog that’s called Health Essentials, basically. They generate more than seven figures of revenue from that blog. They pay for any kick off profit from all the cost that goes into that.
Now, how did that happen? Well, the person that took over, the content marketing group, they came from publishing and said, “Well, shoot! We could help the patient experience. We could do all the things that we normally do, and we could generate revenue.” Google, by the way, is paying them money on a regular basis to fill content gaps that they have in their search engine results. Who would have thought that? Are you kidding me?
That’s crazy. Right.
If you’re just looking at it differently, so that’s back to your question, just look at it, I mean, I don’t want to say look at it like a media company or like a publisher, I say just look at the audience. Just look at, “What if we build a loyal audience? What would they end up buying?” I mean, our mistake, when I launched the business in 2007, we had this matching product, and I thought that that was the greatest product in the world until we realized that only about 1% of our audience at any time could actually buy the product.
When we focused, when I went back and I looked at that time about 10,000 subscribers, what they’ve been telling me the whole time I’ve been ignoring because I’m like, “Well, we offer this. This is our product.”
“Joe, we want consulting. We want education. We want training. Is there an event on content marketing? Is there a magazine?”
They were telling me all the time what they wanted to buy and what they would spend money for, and I was over here saying, “I want to offer these services.”
Right, “But I sell this.”
Yeah, because I was in love with the product like we normally are. So I would tell any agency representing listening to this is I know you love what you do or hopefully you do, and I know you think you offer the best services, but what if you just put that to the side for a second and fall in love with your audience that you’re trying to target? If you fall in love with your audience that you’re trying to target, that means you got to be really specific, too. That means you can’t be all things to all people, “Oh, we do finance, and healthcare, and manufacturing, and education.” Do you? Really? You’re going to be better if you just focus-
Right, a mile wide and an inch deep.
Yeah. Exactly. About.com is a good example. It’s on adage. It’s adage October 17th article and it’s a really podcast about how they changed that business model. About.com was all things to all people. In 2000, 2001, 2002, that was the way you publish on the web. You became all things to all people, you had a really good brand, and that’s what worked. Scale matter.
Today, it’s specialized scale. That’s what you really need to focus. So About.com said, “Oh, we had all these verticals, and we had a million pieces of content.” Well, they moved from hundreds of different verticals to focusing on six. Now, they’re more profitable than they have ever been before by going to six verticals and being the leading destination in these six verticals and monetizing those.
So if I’m an agency, that’s when I go … I’ve worked with a lot of content agencies in my day and they say, “Oh, we can do any project,” I just leave. I’m like, “No. Don’t give me that. Give me what you’re best at. What are you really best at doing in the process and what types of people are you really best at doing that for and then we can have a really good conversation.”
Yeah. As you’re talking, people will say to me on the AMI side of my business, “How did you know to offer that online class?” My answer, which I’m sure sounds stupid to them is, “I just listen for what all you agency owners want and I try and figure out how to get it for you. That’s what I do.” That’s my very sophisticated strategy for creating more products and services inside the organization is when a bunch of people ask me, “Hey, where can I find this?” I think, “I wonder if we could do that for them,” and then we figure it out, right?
It’s almost so simple we don’t believe it. Brian Clark, a copy blogger is a great example of that.
Right? Oh, gosh!
He starts a blog in 2006, blogs for 19 months, doesn’t sell anything. After 19 months, has 100,000 subscribers. He will tell you and he’s told me many times, he said, “We’ve never launched a product that hasn’t made money, that hasn’t been successful.”
I said, “How’s that?”
He says, “We’ve only launched products that our audience has asked for.”
Now, he’s one of the fastest growing software as a service companies with his rainmaker platform and I’m like, “It really is that easy.” It’s tough for us to get out of our own way because we’re like, “Oh, this is the agency model and we’ve got to do the pitch and we’ve got to …” Do you? Here’s a better way.
Right, but it starts with walking the walk, right?
Yeah. So people listening to this would say, “Oh, I want to offer content marketing services,” or “I’ll offer content marketing services and I want to really put some momentum behind that and sell more content marketing services.” I would actually just stop for a second and say, “Do you have your own content platform? Are you building your own content platform first?” because I would invest in that because what’s going to happen is if you do that right, focus on something you can be the leading expert in the world in, focus on a niche to a group of people and really be that solution provider and give it 12 months, give it 18 months. That’s probably your new business model.
You’ll probably realize, “Oh, my goodness! This is unbelievable. I never knew this is …” and I didn’t know, me personally. I never knew this because from 2007 to 2009, we were struggling. I mean, I was all ready to go back and look for a job. I’m like, “This is not going to work,” until I was like, “Oh, that’s how it works. Focus on the audience’s needs, the audience will tell you what to sell, and then you create your suite of products.”
What did you think you were creating back in ’07? What did you think the business was before it became what it is today?
Yeah. So I mean, it’s funny. Initially, in 2006 when I was scratching down, I bought the domain custompublishers.com when I didn’t know we were going to go after custom publishing. So our goal was, “Oh, let’s match up custom publishers or content agencies with brands that need content marketing services like eHarmony for content marketing. It would be fantastic.”
I thought it was amazing idea until hindsight is 2020, agencies are cheap. Even we got a $5,000 a year service to be in the program and that was too expensive, whatever, or I wasn’t a good salesperson. It doesn’t matter. Didn’t work out. We matched up 1,000 products, but realized that only very few, like I told you, it’s only certain times when a company is ready to outsource. They first have to totally buy into it and then once they buy into it, then, well, what about the 99.9% of the other people? What do they want?
It was the fall of 2009 and we just lost another big agency that was paying us money and I’m like, “Oh, my God! This isn’t going to work. What are we going to do?” I just took two weeks about feeling really sorry for myself, but then started to go back through the emails and all the feedback and the blog comments, and you realize, “Oh, my God! It was right there in front of me the whole time. Here’s all the stuff that they were going to buy.” I jotted in on a napkin. I probably was out having a drink. Grabbed that cocktail napkin and I said, “Okay. I got all this feedback. We’re going to create the leading online destination for content marketing training and education. We’re going to create the leading magazine, educational magazine, and we’re going to create the leading in-person event around this practice of content marketing based on the feedback that the audience has given us.” We’re able to do that. In two years later, we were able to do all three of those things.
At a huge scale. I mean, you take over the city of Cleveland when your event is out. It’s not a 200-person event.
Well, it’s funny. So take that fall of 2009. We announced the event in fall of 2010. Honestly, Drew, I was hoping. I’m like, “Can we get 100-150 people to come to Cleveland? I had one room reserved at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. By the next year, we had 660 people come to the event. I’m like, “Oh, my God!” That was the first time coming up on stage for the opening keynote and the opening welcome at Content Marketing World 2011. That was the first time I said, “Oh, my God! I think this might work. I don’t have to go back and get a job.” We had whatever. We had 3,600-3,700 this year for the event, but, yeah.
Training has worked really well, and they’ve all worked, but it’s all based on the feedback from the audience. I think it’s just the better way to do it. So if I’m an agency, so go back to the agency, and you offer services, I would look at both sides of the revenue. I would look at creating this audience. So whoever that audience is in that healthcare audience of buyers that you’re going to, that you offer your agency services for. Well, if you became the leading informational provider, you cannot only offer services, but you can ultimately maybe offer products for them. You could definitely offer advertising opportunities to noncompetitive partners.
You can definitely do an event. Our event, as you said, I mean, that’s where we get most of our revenue are from event. Premium content products like the training offerings that you and I both have. We have that in our business model. So we have about six or seven different ways that we monetize that audience, and it’s a really good model. Plus, I mean, they pay you upfront. An event is a really good business model because you’re getting all that money right before the event from a cashflow perspective.
I would say we offer agencies, I mean, we don’t know execution services, but we do some teaching, consulting services. So we have that in our model as well, but, yeah, there’s no reason why an agency can’t. By the way, so will your customers. Your customers are going to do the same. We’re just talking about it. So the product business model and the media business model, which we used to think were two separate business models are basically the same model. We both build an audience, a loyal audience, and we monetize that audience in 10 different ways.
Well, in my mind, there’s no business that is better suited for this than an agency. They have all the tools already to pull this off and if they can do it for themselves, they learn how to do it so they can sell it to everybody else. So they are their own guinea pig, which allows them then to sell it to all of their clients and be able to say, “Well, here’s the social proof. I do it. This is how you’re in our conference room today is because you fell into the content funnel and here’s what happened. We can do this for you, manufacturing company,” or hospital or fill in the blank, right?
I mean, going back to 2004, so when I was at Penton, we launched a mini magazine called B2B Marketing Trends. We sent it out to all of our prospects, and we started to take subscriptions and build our subscription list, just our own content marketing platform and then we’d started to get calls. We would go in and they’ll have the mini magazine in front of them saying, “We got in the mail. We’d really like to do something like this.”
“Okay. Well, let’s talk about what you really want to do first. I don’t know if that’s the solution,” but those are the types of things that are there for us because we have the opportunity to build an audience. Before, it was much harder to do in 2000. It cost a lot more money for audience development than it does today. You can use Facebook ads and LinkedIn and Twitter and you could use a podcast and all the things to reach an audience and build that audience cheaper and more effectively than you could in the past. That’s why the business model is up for grabs and that’s why big media companies are struggling because they’re competing with not only their competitive set, they’re competing with everybody. They’re competing with you. So you can come in and then you could be the media company in that, but it’s really about that you got to focus on that niche. There is no niche that’s small enough.
I was just going to ask that question, but it can’t be for everybody, right? So what drives me insane is when I see an agency blog post about the fact that Penton has picked the color of the year. I think 3,000 agents has just wrote that blog.
Same blog post. When you’re picking, we call it, and you know from the book we call it a content tilt. Where is an area of little to no competition on the web where you actually have a fighter’s chance to break through all the clutter? Because there’s all kinds of clutter, but it’s not that you can break through. You have an opportunity to break through, but it has to be differentiated. You have to be truly different.
So do your competitive set analysis and say, “Oh, okay. Well, if we became the leading expert in this area to this audience, how many competitors are there?” Until you get to three or four, you got to keep going down. For example, today I could not start Content Marketing Institute. It’s broad. I have to start content marketing for agencies or something like that. I have to find some niche of a niche because it’s way too broad today. We could start that in 2007 because nobody else was talking about it the way we’re talking. Same thing with HubSpot. HubSpot did the same thing with inbound marketing. Could they do that today? I don’t know. Probably not.
They would have to switch it a little bit. Could Dreamforce be started today exactly the same way? No. They have the momentum. They took that market share and became the leader quickly. So go down to three or four or five competitors. If you’re into 10, 15, and 20 competitors, and that could be other agencies, that could be media companies, bloggers, influencers, really do an honest analysis, you get down to four or five and say, “Hey, if we execute this, we can be the number one in this competitive set,” then you’ve got something.
Yeah. That’s the perfect note to end this conversation on. So what you said is 10 years ago, you had the sliver of opportunity to start Content Marketing Institute, but today that sliver is gone. So for every agency listening, there are slivers out there today that are open for you that will not be open in three years or five years. So get off your duff and get started on this because this is the way you are going to differentiate your agency down the road.
Amen. I like it.
Joe, this was awesome. I knew it would be a great conversation. I know how crazy busy you are. So thank you for carving out an hour to spend time with us.
This is awesome. Appreciate the opportunity, Drew, as always.
So if folks want to track you down, I know that your role is evolving a little bit, what are the best ways? I know we’ll put your Twitter handle in the show notes. Are there other ways or other places where people can find you?
Yeah, Twitter if you’re just, yeah, poking around and you want to get my attention, Twitter is a great way to do it. Go to joepulizzi.com and that way you’ll find all the stuff I’m working on, all my books, all contact information. That’s probably the easiest place to go at this point.
Okay. Awesome. Thank you very much.
All right. That wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Can’t tell you how much I love spending this time with you. Thanks so much for listening. Hey, speaking of thanks, another way we want to give thanks is we’ve built a new tool that I would love you to check out. We’re calling it the Agency Health Assessment. Basically, you’re going to answer a series of questions and based on those answers, the tools is going to tell you in which aspect of your business maybe you need to spend a little extra time and attention to take your agency to the next level. We’ve identified five key areas that really indicate an agency’s health and we’re going to help you figure out where you need to spend a little more time.
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In the meantime, as always, I’m around if I can be helpful, [email protected] and I will be back next week with another great guest and more things for you to ponder. Talk to you soon.
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