Episode 103

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John Hall is co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency that helps companies and individuals extract and leverage their expertise to create, publish, and distribute content to their key audiences.

In five years, John has grown Influence & Co. into one of the largest providers of high-quality expert content to more than 1,000 of the world’s top publications. Under John’s leadership, Influence & Co. was ranked No. 72 on Forbes’ “Most Promising Companies in America” list in 2014 and was named Empact’s “Best Marketing and Advertising Company of 2014” at the United Nations. Influence & Co. was also recently mentioned in Inc. as the No. 1 company dominating content marketing.

John has weekly columns for Forbes and Inc. and has contributed to more than 50 publications, including  Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, The Washington Post, and Mashable. John was recently recognized as a “must-see” and one of the most authentic speakers in Forbes. His talks have inspired thousands of leaders, marketers, salespeople, entrepreneurs, and others to improve their performance.

 

“If you don’t work hard on thought leadership, you will be passed by a competitor who does.” - John Hall
 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Thought leadership: why it’s something you have to do
  • Creating a thought leadership content marketing blueprint
  • Why your blogs should have the author’s name for a byline — not the agency’s name
  • Strategies for creating content that isn’t generic
  • How to build thought leadership into your schedule so that you actually spend time on it — and what to do if you can’t
  • Finding the ideal mix for publishing content on your own site vs. externally
  • Big mistakes agencies make with their content
  • Why thought leadership content marketing is here for the long haul

The Golden Nugget:

“If you don’t work hard on thought leadership, you will be passed by a competitor who does.” – @johnhall Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

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 Better Agency podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Thanks for coming on back, or for joining us, if this is your first episode. As you all know, my goal is to bring you interesting folks who are going to talk about how to grow and build your business so that it serves you and your employees and your clients to your dream’s content.

Today’s episode is going to be awesome. Lots of us have talked about the idea of thought leadership and the importance of it. And many agency owners really want to tackle thought leadership, but aren’t sure how to do it. And our guest today is going to tell us all about it. So let me tell you a little bit about him. John is actually a repeat guest. So my guest, John Hall, is the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co., a company focused on helping brands and individuals extract and leverage their expertise to create, publish, and distribute content, to gain influence, visibility, and credibility with their key audiences.

In less than four years, John has grown the company into one of the largest providers of high quality expert content to the world’s top publications. They have been recently named by Impact the best marketing and advertising company of 2014 at the United Nations, Inc. recently mentioned them and called them the number one company dominating content marketing, and they’ve won lots of other accolades as well. John as well has been recognized by Forbes as the number one keynote speaker for digital trends. And I’ve heard him speak, he’s a great authentic speaker and offers a lot of value and content, so I know that today’s conversation is going to be rich for all of you.

He has a weekly column for both Forbes and Inc., and has contributed to more than 50 publications, including Business Insider, the Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. He lives in Missouri with his lovely wife and his daughter, and has a great passion for sharing his experiences and expertise with students to help them create more opportunities for themselves. John, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

John Hall:

Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

Just full disclosure to the listeners, I have been a client of yours for the last several years, and you guys certainly have helped me position myself and AMI as thought leaders in the agency space. So I can speak from firsthand account that what we’re going to talk about today really works and can be very powerful in growing a business. So just want everyone to know that John and I know each other professionally that way as well. So, John, let’s talk about this idea of thought leadership. It seems like in the last few years, it’s like a hot buzzword, but it’s not really something new, is it?

John Hall:

No, not at all. This sort of strategy has been around for a while, and it’s the same thing as content marketing in general, is that the last five years to six years it’s become a big buzz word. But John Deere was one of the first… a while back. I think it was in the ’20s or ’30s or somewhere around there where they started a magazine that was a content marketing campaign. Same thing with thought leadership, is that thought leadership, there’s been the leaders of companies that have been out there communicating and educating audiences to ultimately gain trust for years. It’s just now becoming such a trend. There’s a couple of reasons: one, content marketing is obviously growing. But also there’s this natural connection and human to human connection that people want with a company.

That hasn’t become as important until recently, where people… I guess we’re in the era of the informed customer. And people know there’s information out there about companies, about products, and so they know they can find it, but… Just think about how you prefer to consume content. Do you want to say, “Hey, this is Apple talking to you?” Or, “This is Jim from Apple or Sarah from Apple who’s educating me on this, where I know that they know their stuff and I’m naturally have followed them and paid attention and they’ve earned my trust?”

So there’s progression and there’s trend towards this authenticity and the human to human connection within brands, which is putting a lot of budgets, which is putting a lot of focus on investing in thought leadership, and instead of being this vitamin where people are like, “Hey, it’d be cool if we did it and took this vitamin, it’ll make us stronger.” Instead, it’s saying, “Hey, this is a painkiller. We have to do this because if we don’t do this, our competitors are going to do this. We’re not going to control the information out there about our company or our service, which is going to be a problem. So this is something we have to do.” So, that’s the reason why it’s become a bigger thing recently.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think the other influencing factor is just the internet and the access to the channel. So while John Deere might’ve put out a magazine, they had to go to A, the expense of publishing the magazine and printing the magazine and getting it to the right people. And now, I think with the internet, I think that’s part of the explosion of content, is the distribution channel has gotten so much more accessible, do I think?

John Hall:

Oh, absolutely. You’re hitting the nail on the head right there. Like I said, we’re in this era, the informed customer. And what that’s meaning, there’s so many channels to consume content and distribute it that didn’t exist before. And you have to differentiate yourself. And also, people are starting to realize that they want to control the content that’s distributed. In the past, PR was like, “Okay, well, if I get picked up here in this outlet, that’s great. I’m thrilled about it.” But that’s not controlled. You’re basically at the mercy of the reporter or the journalist. And things can be worded differently depending on what the situation is, but with this, there’s so many ways to distribute and you can also control and make sure you’re getting the right information coming from you.

Drew McLellan:

One thing you said that I thought was interesting was this idea of, rather than the company talking at you, you really want a person talking to you. And I know that for a lot of agencies, they may have a blog or any newsletter, but the author is genericized or absent because they want it to come from the agency. Can you talk about that choice and the pros and cons of that?

John Hall:

Yeah. I don’t like that, honestly. It’s subjective. I would say we do more of getting the by-lines from the authors. And the reason why we went that route is because we looked at how people were engaging and interacting with content, and what we realized is that there’s this natural… I guess on the buyer’s journey. What I always tell people is that you can obviously test this out yourself, but also, just be logical and think, “Okay, well, if I’m a potential customer, how am I interacting with this content?” Now, if I immediately look at a piece of content and I just see it as a general article, I end and I’m like, “Okay, well, that was a good article.” And I might look somewhere else to read a piece of content, but as I am really intrigued, I’m naturally curious where it came from a lot of times.

And so, if you see that, “Oh, it’s from Rebecca Johnson,” you’re kind of, “Okay, interesting.” And there’s a couple of things that can happen. A, you can be like, “I’ve met her at an event when I did interact with this company,” or it comes to this where I want to know more stuff that’s coming from her, and you might check… it might give them a reason to reach out. And so what we learned is that for clients that initially just had a branded content with no person at the end to humanize it, less people ended up reaching out to the brand. And so granted, it was that person, which if you don’t want people to reach out to that person, then it changes things there.

But what we realized is that people, when it was coming from someone, they not only followed more, but they also reached out more. When I interviewed them afterwards and said, “Okay, you’re interacting with the content, what did you like about it?” And there’s like, “Oh, well, now I actually follow all of Rebecca’s content.” Even if it’s not on the site, it could be on her Forbes column, it could be on this column. And so then you start creating this really good following. However, the only thing that goes against that is that then when you start building up a following for someone, a lot of companies freak out, is that they say, “Well, what if that person leaves?”

We spend a lot of time on building up a brand. For agencies, for example, if you invest in one person, they leave the agency and you didn’t have a non-compete or something, you just built up a brand for someone that could go to another agency and take off things. It could actually hurt. What I say is that it doesn’t mean you don’t do this, what typically I advise companies is that don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A lot of times you can. If it’s a sole proprietor or if it’s a small company, it’s fine because most of the time that person has an ownership stake that they’re not going anywhere. But for me, we invest in Kelsey’s… we invest in getting content from Kelsey, myself, Alyssa, she’s our VP of client services, Brittany, who’s leads our content, Josh, who does a lot of our biz dev.

We’re in five or six people that we’re investing and getting content from them. And if one of them were to leave, it’s not as much of a worry because we’re getting so much consistent content that people overall are not just looking at individuals, they are following our brand. And so what I would say is that we’ve obviously seen benefits in creating the people behind the brands, but you also have to be fairly thoughtful about, “Okay, well, what happens if they leave and what happens here?” It’s situation by situation, but I would say in 90% of the cases, it makes more sense to make sure it’s coming from an individual representing the company rather than then just always speaking from brand point of view.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think it’s tough to form a relationship or trust a company in a different way than it is to make a connection with a person. I’ve been blogging since ’07… Maybe it was ’06. Anyway, a long time. And a lot of times I’ll meet somebody who’s been reading the blog for years and they’ll say, “You know what? I feel like I already know you. And for my agency, it shortens the buying cycle significantly because they already feel that connection, or further down the know, like, trust funnel, right?

John Hall:

Yeah. Something that I was going to add to it that’s a funny story, and we just saw each other at a BOLO, and it was something that Tyler, one of the guys that throws that conference, he came up and he said to me, is he goes, “Man,” he said, “Dude, you’ve been on my mind this whole last year.” And it was really funny just because it came off, I’m like, “Really, I’m on your mind a lot?” Joked around with him. And he goes, “Well,” he’s like, “Your content has just consistently stayed on top of my mind. I feel like we’ve still talked a lot this year, when in reality, I haven’t seen you in a year.”

And so that was a clear example where we last hung out, is that it was simple as people have this natural connection to people. And so if I didn’t have that byline on there, Tyler, when I said, “Hey, you’re staying on top of my mind,” and it put us in a situation where it creates that trust even more. And so for what you’re saying, I completely agree.

Drew McLellan:

For agency owners who are thinking about creating a thought leadership position for their agency, one of the things that I noticed that a lot of agencies do is they write generic marketing pieces that any agency could put their logo on. How to do video marketing, or whatever it might be. How do you help your clients, or how would you suggest agency owners think about their content creation in a way that is really content that they can own and it’s unique to them? How do they go about that thought process?

John Hall:

There is a couple things. If you can almost imagine a Venn diagram, I look at content in a couple of ways. I say, “Okay, well, how can you truly…” exactly how you described, “have this kind of unique spin on it?” And I look at… A lot of times, it’s the expertise of the firm. Firm has unique expertise, dealt with this specific type of client or area enough where they have information that other people might not have. And so there’s that factor where it’s relying on the expertise. And then there’s also content you know that this audience is wanting.

And that’s where… I’ll give you an example, the trends articles I just did. I just did three trends articles in Forbes and Inc. Is that a piece that other people can’t do it? No, there is a lot of trends articles. However, we took some of our unique expertise and we added that into the content of what they were wanting. I was just going over with our marketing team, just those articles brought in over 400 leads to us. When I mean leads, I mean people that filled out information, we have their information, getting them on the phone. When you look at that, that was a clear example where it’s like, “Man, they wanted to hear this.” And especially when you look at our content compared to the other trends articles, it outperformed the other ones that were going in the area. And so you’ve got to look at, “Okay, what are these kinds of overlaps and these unique things that’s related to us?”

Also, something that comes up with a lot of agencies and people that I advise, I say, “Well, what are your content triggers?” You’re living in your own business, so your VPs, your leadership should all have content triggers. So, the question is, what is a content trigger? Well, content triggers, any time you are explaining something to someone that’s a potential client or a potential, let’s say, stakeholder, that’s valuable to your brand, you’ve got to write that down. You have to jot it down. Whatever is the easiest way, send it to your marketing team or whoever’s in charge of this. And they need to know that as a content trigger. So if you’re talking to someone, the other…

It was a few months ago when someone was asking me about, “Hey, I’m freaked out on the nearest Google changes and how it’s going to affect our SEO and this, and how it affects my own content.” I explain things to them and I wrote it down and I gave it to marketing. And now we have, in queue, a piece of content to answer that question, because that’s something that… After I explained it, he goes, “Man,” he goes, “I get what you’re saying.” And he’s like, “This will be helpful.” And so that’s a trigger to me. It was question really wanting an education, really felt it was valuable. Someone who would be a great client and partner to us. And so that’s what I would say, is that you can do a content trigger process, which is a very tactical way of doing it.

The only thing that I would say last is the differentiating factor. And the differentiating factor, Joe Pulizzi in Content Marketing Institute, he referred in one of his speeches as content tilt, and I could relate to it because it’s what tilts you towards someone or a brand because it is unique or it is different. And for us, I’ve always just held that the differentiating factor is that you can either do it by the way you’re communicating it. So like Rand Fishkin did whiteboard Fridays or whatever, where that was a different way to communicate a message, which differentiated him, or you could do… Which is hard, because it’s hard to nail the next Periscope, Instagram, what’s going to be the next [crosstalk 00:16:33] investment?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

John Hall:

There’s a lot of ways you can… Look, and that’s a little harder. What we try to do is for us, written content online is the easiest to scale at a quality level and that’s why we focused on it. And so really it falls into places. You’ve got to nail down the expertise, the unique content triggers, and then also what the audience truly needs to hear.

Drew McLellan:

For agency owners who are listening and thinking, “That sounds great, but how do I get it done?” I think a lot of agency owners want to build a thought leadership position for their agency, but it gets lost… it’s the silly cobbler’s children have no shoes argument. They have a hard time getting it done inside their own shop. And certainly, they can hire folks like you to do it, but if they want to do it internally, do you have any best practices? How do you get it done for yourself? You’re obviously not hiring it outside of your own company. In the midst of your crazy day, where it’s clients calling and fires to be put out, how do you make sure that you get your content done? How do you stay disciplined to do that?

John Hall:

Sure. Well, honestly, I hire my own company out. I’m actually a client that goes through the exact process that you go through. So to say that I actually hire myself the same way, but what I would say is that if you break down the process or the do-it-yourself model, what I always tell people is that you’ve got to do it right, from the start. So you’ve got to look at it and you got to have to say, “Okay, what falls into when I am doing thought leadership content or any form of content coming from me?” Well, first of all, it’s the strategy. So it starts with a blueprint. It’s a crazy stat, but it ranges between 30% or 50%. Everybody throws different numbers, but it’s less than 50% of people actually document their thought leadership strategy. They just do it. And that’s a first challenge, is that you don’t even have a blueprint to go off of or something to touch base on how what we’re doing… Are we just following goals?

So you’ve got to sit down. The first thing that I would tell you is that to write a blueprint. I don’t care how simple it is, but get that outline, get that down. Then it’s, “Okay. Well, how do we get this knowledge and developing the content?” For me, that’s challenging. To be honest with you, Drew, I’m not a good writer. I know I write all over the place, but I actually have never had it as a great strength. However, when I go through our process, that’s where I actually get to extract my knowledge and they develop into content.

You’re a lot better of a writer than me so it’s a different process for you, but when it comes to the agency owners that are listening, you have to look and you have to say, “Okay, am I like a Drew where I’m a better writer than a John? Well, in that case, I’m just going to need a process that has me where I’m putting down thoughts from my blueprint and actually getting it to a pretty finished form where then somebody can develop the content.” For me, I need more help. And so you’ll have to look at it and say, “What do I need to do to execute? Well, I can do an interview and somebody can record it and then develop it from there, but I need to get a solid writer in place.”

But you’ve got to get a content creation process that fits what you need, and don’t try and half ass it. If you start just saying, “Oh, I’m going to do everything myself,” then you start pulling away from your agency. You start pulling away. And then you have this opportunity cost, is, am I developing content all day, or am I running a company? And so that’s where, whether it’s hiring… And from my mind, it could be just looking at other resources as well, and so you’ve got to get that down. And then it goes to the distribution, where, how are you distributing it? Are you going to form the relationships on your own? Well, it’s hard to immediately go after a Forbes or Ad Age or something like that, so you’re going to want to start targeting niche publications.

Let’s say you know Jay Baer, or you know one of those people, you know Drew. You say, “Hey, I’d love to contribute to one of these places.” And you start there. Don’t start off trying to take over the world, because as soon as you try to get on the one place you want to go to and you don’t get it, you get frustrated, it gets turned down and you stop doing it. So start targeting niche sites, places that you can… the low hanging fruit, get a content process going. And then once you get that going, those opportunities are going to come because you’re consistently getting that content out there where people are catching and they’re seeing you a little more, and it’s a little easier to aim for those higher sites. And so that’s the natural do-it-yourself model, is that you’ve got to nail those three things down.

What I would tell people who want to do it yourself, create that blueprint, get the execution plan. If you honestly feel like you can do it, then do it. Do not hire it out. If you can do it and it’s not going to affect running your company, every time I would advise someone to do that. If you can’t, then you for sure need to go and find a resource. It might be one part of that. It could be all of it, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself on, what can I do really well? What can I not? If you can do it really well, do it yourself. If you can’t, then you need to find the resources in each one of those specific areas to execute.

Drew McLellan:

Let me see if I can paraphrase. Number one, build content triggers. So every time you answer a question that you think is more universal than the one person you asked it, have a way to collect that, whether that’s Evernote or Wunderlist or a Post-it note, whatever it is, so you’ve got content ideas. Number two, have a pretty good sense of your own skillset. So both where you have strengths and weaknesses, and then augment that either with your own staff or hiring it out if you need to. Number three, it’s about consistently publishing and recognizing that you have to walk before you can run. So odds are, you’re not going to have the cover story of a trade pub in your area of expertise or niche right off the bat. But if you start creating content for perhaps regional associations or their trade publications, you can grow into the A-list publications that you want. Right?

John Hall:

Yeah. And the only thing I would add to that is that with the publications, if you end up… The whole goal is consistent content here, because you want to stay on top of people’s minds. That’s the beautiful goal of thought leadership content marketing is that you can stay on someone’s mind in a very natural educational way where they think of you when they’re going through the buying process or when they can help you or draw attention to your brand. And so the thing about those niche pubs and those places, a lot of times they don’t have the two-month wait time. You don’t get stuck in their pipeline. And so, no matter what, even me, if you look at me right now, I’ve been doing this for three years. I’ve published pretty much every major site you possibly can. I still love contributing to HubSpot, I love contributing to CMI, I love contributing to niche places all the time.

They’re not a name like Forbes, but they’re really, really good in specific industries. And I know that that content, even though if I would try to get in… let’s say, do an HBR piece, the pipeline there, it’s probably going to be long. And if my audience is waiting for a piece or they haven’t seen anything for me for a while, it creates a problem. So, it’s really think about top of mind marketing, because that’s one of the key mindsets that you have to do for a successful thought leadership campaign, and it definitely includes a big part of niche type sites and things like that, even if you can get into those larger sites.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that I always get asked by agency owners is, how much? How often do you think is the ideal mix to get published? Is it once a week? Is it once a month? And is some of that your own internal content? So is that owned content like your own website? What do you think the appropriate mix is?

John Hall:

Sure. The way to do it the right way is to look at it from a standpoint, is that, where are people going to come the most or where do I want them? Well, you want them the most on your site. That’s where you convert the most by far. Even if people see external content, they go to your site to