Episode 82

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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.



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • John’s new book “Top of Mind: Use Content to Unleash Your Influence and Engage Those Who Matter To You”
  • How John’s book fits into his thought leadership strategy
  • Why staying top of mind is a great strategy for developing trust
  • Short-term to long-term memory: consistently engaging people so that they remember forever
  • Why you need to make yourself approachable
  • Why showing your failings and foibles does not diminish your thought leadership
  • Why you must understand what is truly helpful for individuals
  • Why you must help people without expecting anything in return
  • How to tell people how you helped them without it sounding self-serving
  • Why you shouldn’t be too aggressive and should build a relationship over time
  • Why you need to start small with changing how you relate to others


The Golden Nugget:

“You want to come to someone’s mind in their moment of vulnerability.” – @johnhall Share on X


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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 there. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is Drew McLellan, your host. And as often I do, I have recruited a great guest to talk to us today about a topic that I think should be on the radar screen of agency owners. My guest to for today’s episode is John Hall. He is the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co., which is a great agency. Forbes calls them one of America’s most promising companies. But the reason I’m having John on the show today is because he has a book that’s coming out at the end of April called Top of Mind. And the topic of this book, I know, is critical to agency owners and leaders, and it’s all about how to make sure that when someone needs something, you are top of mind, that you come to mind when they are looking to what it is you do.

The premise of the book is, really, what does successful businesses and leaders have in common? And it is that they are the first names that come to mind when people think about their particular industries. So John’s book explores, how do you achieve this level of trust that influences people to think about you in the right way at the right time? And so book is partially some anecdotes of his own experience and other people’s experience, but at the end of the day, it’s really a step-by-step guide where he’ll show you how to make sure to your brand stays front and center in the minds of decision makers.

Why this matters to you, of course, is because obviously, you’re all looking for new clients. Part of it is humanizing your agency’s brand, some of it is about building influence, and some of it is about being able to be a thought leader, which we talk a lot about at AMI. So John, welcome to the podcast. I’m anxious to talk about this today.

John Hall:

Thanks for having me. And good job explaining it. I’ve been on two or three podcasts in the last week or two, and I think I might just hire you to give openings. That was actually well said, so I appreciate that.

Drew McLellan:

Well, as you know, this is a topic that I have a lot of passion around. And I will also say, the listing of the book on Amazon was very helpful in me being able to articulate exactly what the book was about, so I cannot take full credit.

John Hall:

Yeah. If you were reading that off, that was nice and smooth, it seemed conversational. I will tell McGraw Hill-

Drew McLellan:

They did a fine job.

John Hall:

… that they did a great job with it. Yeah, it’s great. Well, thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You’re a busy guy, you’re busy running the agency. So why write a book?

John Hall:

There’s quite a few reasons actually. Really, from what our company does, we built a lot of thought leaders up and influencers, and it was in a very specialized way of doing thought leadership content coming from them and getting byline and op-eds published all over the major media outlets and blogs. And as we were doing that, this was somewhat of a strategic move of the company, as we looked at it and we said, “Okay, well, we’re known in this space for doing this in this specific niche. However, what’s the vision of the company? Where do we see it in five years?” And truly, we said, “Well, the vision of the company is, we see it being a leader in creating content from key employees to influence specific target audiences.”

And so when you do that, that falls under a variety of different ways you can do that. There’s different platforms, there’s different mediums of communication. And so for us, it was actually really, really big on saying, “Okay, well, a book is a part of an integrated thought leadership approach.” And we hadn’t done it as a company, and so we started, one, we partnered with a couple book publishers as well as looked at it and said, “What two truly builds influence?” And one of those things is, honestly, a book. A book is a core asset that can be used, some people use it as a glorified business card, which is fine. It’s actually a very effective business card.

Other people look at it as true thought leadership. And so for us, we wanted to be true thought leadership. And we said, “Okay.” It was hitting several birds with one stone. One, we were testing out a process and a product that we were looking at doing ourselves, so offering a service for clients to do that. Two, we truly believe in thought leadership, obviously. And we do an amazing job at getting content from us and then getting our company written about, and we’ve got those two areas down. And so we looked at that as, for us to be a leader in the space, we do think a part of it’s a book.

And honestly, the last thing was, it was a barrier from me at the stage of my own brand. There was three speaking engagement last year where they said they accepted me, and then they said, “Hey, actually, we didn’t know you didn’t have a book.” One was a Fortune event, and they said, “Hey, everybody else has a book.” When I talked to a good friend, Len Herstein who runs Brand Manage Camp, a really great guy, he said years ago, he goes, “Look, some of these speakers here, Andrew Davis, Jay Bear, a lot of these ones that are speaking at great events like his event, they have books and you don’t. And so it was a barrier too.

So those are some of the main reasons. There’s a variety. I have some personal passions of wanting to do it as well. And also, we just came upon the right topic where I think people rush into a book and they say, “Well, great, let’s do a book,” and they don’t think it through. And their first idea isn’t always their best. There was a moment, I probably had four or five topics before that I wanted to do a book about, but there was this right moment where I spoke at a couple of events and I talked about this idea of Top of Mind and engaging people at the right moment and moving from short to long term memory, and it just hit with them.

They go, “Wow.” I had several people, other speakers, that were good friends come up and say, “That was a really amazing part of your speech. I like that.” And that’s what made me be, “It’s the right time.” And I had great support from my co-founder, Kelsey, and the rest of the team, and then it’s off from there.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Let’s dig right into that core idea. So talk to us a little bit about the core idea of the book, because there’s a lot of talk and a lot of written content around creating content and thought leadership, but your book takes it at a really different angle. So talk to us a little bit about your theory around all of this.

John Hall:

At first, it was an acknowledgement and the realization of some people and myself with my own success, in addition to other people around me. I was like, “There’s a formula of how these people create so many opportunities for themselves.” There was one friend of mine where I was like, “Man… ” Jeremy Johnson is example who is an advisor to our company who started 2U, he runs Andela now. But I’m like, “Man, this guy just screams success. Every time he touches something, success comes his way. He’s smart, one, so that’s key.” But then I started looking and seeing a similarities in how people like him and others like engaged people.

And what I found out is that it wasn’t just Jeremy, it was across the board. There’s so many people that are successful because they’re so engaging to people that they stick with them. And I looked at that and I researched it and I studied it and said, “All right, well, so there’s these people that do this in this one-on-one group setting in-person, there’s got to be a way to scale that.” And then I started looking at people that have influence and saying, “Wait a minute, these people that built these massive platforms did similar tactics, but they might have added something differently or had a unique tactic that they use to stay on these people’s minds at the right time and engage them that they wanted to come back, wanted to come for more.”

And it was interesting when I looked into it across the board with all these entrepreneurs and leaders, they all had these different ways of engaging people so that they stuck with them. And so at the right times, they were given opportunities. There was one where a client of ours got a funding at just the right time, just the right moment. He’s like, “Okay, well, we got funding and it really took us to this next level.” And I go, “So instead of being like, ‘Cool, that’s great,’ you’re just awesome in this cool company.” I go, “How did that happen?” And he goes, “Simply, all I did was, actually, at first, nobody wanted to invest in the company, but every month I did a newsletter, and I did this newsletter that… and they didn’t even ask for it. I had their email, they did opt in initially, but every month I would say, ‘Hey guys, here’s, what’s going on.’”

It was a quick two paragraph, and then it would have a very transparent personal message that said, “Here’s how I honestly feel how we’re doing.” Some of those months said, “I think we’re doing pretty shitty right now, I think we need this.” Or, “I think we’re struggling.” And it was very, very honest. And over time, he ended up getting this attention from all these different investors, and he was staying on top of their mind every month. They started looking forward to it. And then all of a sudden, at the right moment when he just sent the email out and he said, “Hey, at this point, we’re going to really need funding,” they all jumped at the chance.

It was unbelievable. And all he did was he just simply engaged them every month consistently. And he was super honest about what was going on. And he ended up really sticking with them compared to other companies. And he ended up getting funding from who he wanted at the right time and he used a top of mind strategy to stick with them and an opportunity ultimately came that resulted in business success.

Drew McLellan:

Lots of people send out e-newsletters and that sort of thing. So when you looked at these people who were top of mind, who were engaging at an uber level that was different for you than everybody else, what did they have in common?

John Hall:

Oh, it’s all different types of things that they did. The similarities were that they, one, offered something that was truly valuable, they actually had something that they thought about the people rather than themselves, and they did it very consistently. And they also knew their audience well and knew what would play to them. As simple as it is, there’s some people that do the newsletters and it’s crap. You read and you’re like, “This is not good stuff.” And what I liked about, the guy’s name’s Patrick. And Patrick, what was cool about it is I just told him, I go, “So what did you do that was different?” He goes, “Well, I hate these e-newsletters, those drive me nuts. I honestly just wrote it from a standpoint of like, ‘Hey, guys,” almost like they were friends.

And I said, “Here’s, what’s going on, just the update. And I didn’t sugarcoat it.” And I think that was different because a ton of people BS how their company is doing. And in his, case he didn’t, he was honest. He said, “We’re really screwed up.” And what he did was he humanized himself to those people and they felt like they were investing in somebody they trusted more. When it comes down to it, every single one of these little things, whether it’s differentiating yourself, whether it being focused on the audience more, it comes down to trusting people.

So what I tell people to do is you’re on a trust totem pole with everyone in your life, your wife, I’m on a trust totem pole with you, Drew. Hopefully, I’m high up there at this point. I look at it as that, every time you’re engaging them, you’re trying to go up that totem pole. And there’s different things that can do that. There’s things where content only gets you to a certain level, but there’s also other things like for example, something that I just did with someone where they were very, very vulnerable, because they had just fallen out with their partner. Now, that’s where I want to be there at the right time for them.

Any time somebody is vulnerable, you don’t capitalize and say, “I’m going to take advantage of this.” No, you identify it and you say, “This is a chance for me to develop a real relationship of trust because this is when people need us the most.” And so that’s where some of these people where, for example, they saw that somebody was struggling… One of the business leaders found out one of his friends had to just let go of 70 people on their company, so it was a tough day for him. And so what he did was he bought a book and he wrote a personal message and basically said, “Hey, I’ve been through some rough times. I don’t know what you’re going through, but just know that I’m there for you, whether it to help rebuild, to help advocate, anything I can do.”

I ended up talking to the person he wrote that to, and they go, “I will never forget this guy.” And the guy who wrote it, his name was John, and he goes, “I will never forget John. He wrote me that when I was bad.” Almost like people get away from you and this person said, “I’ll be there for you.” And now I do that, I do that for every single… In the last four weeks, I’ve sent probably 10 books. The book I’m sending right now is Essentialism. And it’s written by Greg McKeown, he’s a really nice guy. And it’s about what’s essential in your life, and are you focused in the right places?

And I think the tagline is, The Disciplined Pursuit for Less. And I sent that book and I sent it to, there’s somebody who just had a really struggling part of his life. And I sent that book. And I said, “Hey, like I just wanted you to know that I don’t know what you’re going through, but at the same time, this book has been valuable to me. If I ever can do anything and be there for you, just let me know.” And I did this, and the guy came up and he gave me a hug the next time I saw him. That was such a big trust moment. Now, in a person, that’s a gift giving one, it’s hard to scale that.

But you can identify all these things that happen, but it all goes back to building trust, whether it’s through a content platform or those individual moments, I’m doing everything I can to have more people trust me, because if I do that, more opportunity is always going to come to me, especially when I do it consistently, because I’m going to be in their mind and their long term memory. And so I’m the person that’s going to come up when they say, “Here’s an opportunity, I need to call John Hall.”

Drew McLellan:

Talk to us a little bit about the idea of this short term to long term memories. Tell us a little more about that.

John Hall:

Sure. So short term to long term memory, there’s obviously some science behind it, but if you type in memory and short term to long term memory, just study it a little bit. You’re going to find out that it’s funny how it works, it’s not like as crazy as it is, it’s not hard to understand. If you’re trying to go to short term memory from long term memory, there’s these neurons that fire at once. And the more they do that, the more they fire together, the more it goes from that short term to long term memory. And I became a little fascinated by, it’s a process called consolidation. So you can type in consolidation and memory and things like that.

The more you look into it, actually, it makes sense. If you are consistently engaging people at the right moment, at the right time, you’re going to stick with them. And the example that I give in the book is my sister, this is a goofy example and you’ll make fun of me, but at the same time, my sister just got married, she’s 41, just got married. When she was a teenager, she used me as a party favor, and she had me do all these tricks and things.

Drew McLellan:

I didn’t know you offered that service, I may tap into that myself.

John Hall:

Drew, for you, I’ll do it, but not for many at this point in my life. But the thing that she would do is she, would have me come and sing to her friends and some would be like Cabbage Patch Kids’ songs, others would be like Andrew Dice Clay, it was bad.

Drew McLellan:

Wow, that’s quite a range.

John Hall:

It’s quite a range. But I was at her wedding the earlier this year, and the people that were there, my sister and other people, they remembered everything about it. It stuck out in their mind so much. And it’s because I hit on something that engaged them, and I did it consistently. I didn’t just do it once, I was there, I think she probably called me down once a month for like six or eight months. And I did that and they remembered it. And at the same time, I also remembered it. I remember singing in front of those people and doing the Cabbage Patch Kids’ song, and they were engaged with me.

I remember they were smiling. They enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. It’s something that stuck. And it was consistent. So it remained positive in my long-term memory that I remember. They go, “Yeah, but do you really remember that? You were six, or you were seven,” or whatever the age I was at. And I go, “Yeah.” (singing) So I actually could still sing the Cabbage Patch Kids song from when I was six.

Drew McLellan:

Wow. It’s such an insight into your soul right there.

John Hall:

That is a transparent view of my soul and my love for Cabbage Patch Kids. And I told that story too, a guy named Paul Spiegelman, a really, really great guy, started Small Giants and he is a culture expert. And he told me, he goes, “Man, John, that is an interesting story.” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “You know what, I want to be the Cabbage Patch Kids to everyone when it comes to company culture and be someone who’s there for them, I want to be the Cabbage Patch Kids song for them.” And I was like, “You’re right, you do.” Because 20, 30 years down the road, if Paul is still known and people stick with that, “Wow, there’s some somebody who’s really smart who’s helped me out with culture. I’ve read is content, really got me through some hard times,” I’m going to think of Paul. There’s going to be a ton of opportunity that comes to him.

And that’s where that short term to long term memory, it’s key. But you’ve got to be consistent, you’ve got to be engaging and differentiate yourself so that you… What I called is idea content. Either you need to be industry leading where it’s stuff they haven’t heard before that helps them stay ahead of the curve. You have to be data driven, so information and data that they don’t have prior, and they actually are like, “Wow, this justifies the thought behind this.” And then there’s the educational or howtos, so actually educating things to make people better in their trade or what they do so that they value that, or being a music.

So that’s the idea, how I walk through. Industry leading, data driven, educational or howtos, and then amusing. And if you can hit one of those or hopefully it’s sometimes all of them-

Drew McLellan:

Right. Or multiple.

John Hall:

Yeah, exactly. You can have at the same time, but that’s what you’ve got to be thinking of and you’ve got to do it consistently. And if you can do that, you can move from that short term to long term memory.

Drew McLellan:

I knew this was going to be a great conversation, and you were really delivering it so far. I want to take a quick second and pause because lots of our listeners have been asking how they can learn more either through our workshops or some of the other things that AMI offers. So I want to take a quick minute and answer that question, and then we will get right back into this conversation.

If you’ve been enjoying the podcast and you’ve find that you nodding your head and taking some notes and maybe even taking some action based on some of the things we talk about, you might be interested in doing a deeper dive. One of the options you have is the AMI remote coaching. That’s a monthly phone call with homework in between. We start off by setting some goals and prioritizing those goals, and we just work together to get through them. It’s a little bit of coaching, it’s a little bit of best practice, teaching and sharing, it’s a little bit of cheerleading sometimes.

On occasion, you’re going to feel our boot on your rear end, whatever it takes to help you sure that you hit the goals that you set. If you would like more information about that, check out agencymanagementinstitute.com/coaching. Let’s get back to the show.

So one of the things as you’re talking, I’m thinking about and I’m cataloging that Cabbage Patch song for later use, but I’m thinking about, a lot of people are putting out content but I know one of the things that you talk about and model in the way that your company works with other people, is this whole idea about, at the end of the day it’s still about relationship and it’s hard to create relationship with arm’s-length content. So how do you recommend someone go from, again, I’ve written a book, I’ve got a podcast, whatever their platform, I’ve been published in Fast Company, whatever their platform is, how do they go from that to actually creating and sustaining relationship?

Because underneath what you’ve been saying is, you have to be around consistently enough that on the day the opportunity presents itself or the person is ready to hire an agency or whatever that specific is, you have to be top of mind. So how do you bridge that gap?

John Hall:

You want to make yourself approachable. That’s the key thing, is that if someone’s going to reach out to you, they have to feel comfortable doing it. And it’s hard to scale to millions or thousands and thousands if someone hasn’t met you in person. I’ll give you an example of my content. I just pulled this up. This is an article I just wrote for Fortune the other day, it’s Ways to Keep Pride From Ruining Your Growth.  And when I wrote this article, it was fairly about as transparent as you can get on the issues that I’ve had with pride.

The one I put is remind yourself daily that feedback is a gift and I put, “No one enjoys hearing his groundbreaking idea wasn’t great or he says ‘Uh’ too much in his speeches or that he shouldn’t have that second glass of red w