Today’s interview is with a man widely regarded as the godfather of modern content marketing. He’s the bestselling author of Content Inc., Killing Marketing and Epic Content Marketing, which was named a must-read business book by Fortune Magazine. He’s founded four successful companies, received a lifetime achievement award by the Content Council and is quite simply the authority on all things content. That man, of course, is Joe Pulizzi, and today, he’s going to be talking to us about content marketing within B2B and professional services.
Joe, thank you so much for joining us.
Before we dive into it, I just wanted to ask how the pandemic had been for you really, because obviously with a lot of the businesses that listen to this, it’s been a pretty tough 15 months or so, a lot of them operate in a very kind of conventional way, and have had to kind of migrate a lot of their methods and operations from a traditional medium across to a digital one. And perhaps that was a good thing that needed to happen anyway, but it’s been a hell of a change. I just wonder how the period has been for you.
Joe: I think, well, from a business standpoint, the biggest change is the fact that I’m not speaking at five events every month. So, I mean generally, in a decent year where I’m going full time talking about content marketing or whatever the case is, I’m generally doing 30 to 35 keynote speeches. Well, that didn’t happen.
Now on a different take, I’m doing a lot more virtual speeches. I’ve done a lot more international stuff because, of course, I can do it from my office at home. So from that standpoint, it’s opened up some new opportunities, but I think more than anything else, we’ve just had to change our tactics and how we reach people. It’s just focusing on delivering value online in core formats and building subscribers. And then if we focus on that and we do that, all those other opportunities are going to be there.
I guess what I see going on, at least in the US, now Delta variant aside, who knows where this is going to go, but in the next 18 months, the in-person events scene is just going to blow up. I mean, I’ve already seen so many people reaching out saying they’re rebooting their event and they’re putting more money into it or whatever the case is. So you’re going to see a lot of investment in that area, you know, right at the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it was a really good time for large B2B companies to buy events because a lot of these media companies were going out of business. They didn’t have the money. Before a lot of the monetary help came from the government, you could have snapped up some really good event brands and launched them later. But, you know, if you didn’t get that opportunity, that’s gone now, but hopefully, we’re getting back to some kind of normalcy, whatever the new normal is. In the US, most people have got their vaccine and are feeling pretty good about it. And then you’ve got a good portion that are still in denial that anything happened. So, I don’t know if that’s the same as where you’re at?
Dan: Yeah, I suspect it’s the same everywhere, sadly.
But, on the subject of events then, the sort of more physical, conventional events. I’ve been talking to people about this recently within the B2B world, and I have a feeling that actually if anything, the next – and if I’ve understood you correctly, I think would perhaps alluding to this – I feel like there’s maybe never going to be a better time than the next 12 to18 months to be running some physical events. I feel like some people are climbing the walls and desperate for that physical engagement.
Now I don’t doubt for a second that there’s a proportion of people who are just absolutely not going to be interested and there will be a need for that kind of hybrid experience. But I actually think it’s going to be a really exciting time. And sometimes in a world of digital saturation, those more traditional, physical encounters can be the ones that enable people to really cut through the noise. I wonder what your take is on that?
Joe: It won’t be in the next 9 to 12 months, just simply because there are too many barriers going on right now. The one is, I mean, in most cases, I’m going to an event in Chicago in a couple of weeks, I have to have my vaccine card uploaded. Everyone has to be vaccinated. So there’s a couple of things going on there. The bigger issue is, you know, I’m dealing with mostly business to business companies, they just don’t have the budget yet because they didn’t put that line item in for 2021. That will open up in 2022, 2023.
So, if you’re asking me when boom time is – and you’re right, people just want to meet in person – that is something that’s absolutely going to happen, but budgets will align about a year from now. So 2022, 2023 is when I see just the event business being as good as it’s ever been before. So that’s kind of what I’m seeing.
To your point about new forms of engagement or new old forms of engagement, I’m also big behind print. I think the fact that you have a channel that, depending on where you’re at in the world, somebody is delivering the post 5 or 6 times a week, and there’s not a lot of value being delivered there right now outside of, you know, Amazon packages or UPS or whatever the case is. You’re not getting a lot of really good information. So that’s where I think that also in the next two years.
You’re going to see some big brands start some magazines because a lot of the traditional media companies went away from that, they’ve gone digital-only, they didn’t think they could survive. Well, who’s increased their direct mail budgets? Amazon, Walmart, Lego. I mean, these companies are pretty smart when it comes to direct mail and marketing in general. So that’s going to be interesting. In-person events and print magazines are where you’re going to see huge growth. And now, of course, you’re seeing TikTok and everything else grow, but from business to business opportunities, I see those two, you’re kind of going back to the future here with some opportunities.
Dan: I think it’s really interesting. I’ve seen some really interesting stats about engagement levels via some of those more traditional mediums. And I mean the most impactful bit of marketing that I’ve probably been involved in recent years involved handwritten letters for a physical event. I mean, it couldn’t have been more un-2020.
Joe: It works. That absolutely works. And I think, and especially I talked to somebody the other day about how niche you could go with a content marketing programme. And I’ve worked on programmes for a hundred people. You know, if you’re targeting somebody that has a multi-million dollar responsibility, I mean, you can do some really creative things with handwritten letters and sending books. There are a couple of professional service firms that my colleague Robert Rose works with, where they basically do a book club, they send out a book a month and they send it in the physical mail and they send a little handwritten note from the CEO. I’m sorry, that stuff works. I mean, they’ve seen big results from it.
So I think that everybody’s digitally focused and I get that. And that makes perfect sense. But you have to realise that people don’t just engage in their smartphones or on their desktops all day long. There are other opportunities to reach them.
Dan: Yeah. I guess you’ve gotta look for the fringes, right? And 10 years ago, that was probably in the digital sphere and now it probably isn’t.
Joe: Everything levels out and those things don’t go away. They don’t die. Radio doesn’t die. Radio never died even though with all the podcasts and everything. Television didn’t die. I mean, you could make a case that we’re in the golden age of television right now because of the number of excellent shows on it, just depends on where you’re going to watch that. They’re just changing. None of these things go away. I think the same is happening with print. The same is happening with events. And if you’re a smart marketer, you’ve got to realise that it’s not just all digital. I really think if you are all digital, you’re probably setting yourself up for the competition to take some market share from you.
Dan: So from a general content perspective, and as we’ve just kind of alluded to there, content can mean all manner of mediums, but from a sort of broader content strategy perspective, I just wonder, and the answer might be none at all. Are there any significant differences, in your mind, from a B2B compared to a consumer perspective or actually, are all the fundamental principles of a great content strategy pretty universal?
Joe: I mean, you’re talking to human beings, everyone’s a human being. Everyone has their own emotional cognitive desires, so fine. You’re dealing with that on a level playing field. But if you’re asking me, especially since, I mean, I’ve grown up in B2B, it’s where I’ve spent 20 years. And then I’ve worked on consumer programmes as well. B2B is a thousand times easier. Now, you have to make decisions there because if you have six to nine people in the buying process, really with a content marketing strategy, you’re only targeting one, or you should be only targeting one. Are you targeting the CEO? Are you targeting operations? Are you targeting the plant manager? Like who are you targeting with that? What are their informational pain points? What keeps them up at night? And then how can you deliver information that’s as good or better than anything else out there on a consistent basis in order to change their behaviour?
So that’s what I’m focusing on from a B2B standpoint. I can do that easier than say, I’m Netflix, and I want more people to subscribe to my channel. Okay. Well, how am I going to start there? But if you’re targeting somebody and saying, I’m a manufacturer and we’re really focusing on this new line of parts. Well, who’s my decision-maker? And then you could say, okay, here are the things that my parts solve. What’s the information that does that. So you want to say, okay, this is not product content. I’m not talking about that. Well, what’s the information? So if you’re a professional services company, I am saying, okay, here’s the target decision-maker. And I am going to give away my secret sauce and tell them everything possible because you have a competitive advantage as a lot of service firms won’t do that. They don’t want to. Oh no, that’s proprietary, whatever. Well, you know what, if somebody then takes that information and uses it themselves, you don’t want that customer. You’ve never wanted that customer. You want the ones that say: “Oh, I love that thinking. I trust that firm. I trust that individual who’s sending it.” You become loyal to them because you’re sending that over a consistent period of time. And then that will affect your buying decision long-term.
So if I have a choice between B2B or B2C, I’m always going B2B because I mean, yeah, you can target a hundred people. You can target a thousand people. Consumer programmes are much more unwieldy. It takes a lot longer. I think you’re more limited with channels. Like you can’t do events and print like you could on the B2B side. So I’m all in on B2B.
Dan: And I think so what you mentioned there, you know, the ability to be able to target very small numbers of people. I think in a funny way when you’re targeting exceptionally small numbers of people, it almost forces you to think a little bit laterally because you start thinking about that individual human being, you know, it’s a name on a spreadsheet. It’s not a persona. It’s not a general concept of a person, it’s a very specific human being with a name and a job role in a particular company, particular habits. And suddenly you realise that actually just because everyone else is on this platform, engaging with this kind of content, actually this individual human being is doing something entirely different.
Maybe they’re in law, but maybe they’re most active on Instagram. Maybe they’re really interested in cycling or a particular thing. And you start to look at that individual in such a specific way that forces you almost to think a little bit more laterally, a bit more creatively.
Joe: Yeah. And informationally versus entertainment. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with delivering entertaining content on a regular basis. I mean every company wants to do that, but a business to business company can really focus on the informational pain points. How is this person suffering in their career? How can I help them get a better job or live a better life in some way, from that standpoint? I like that challenge. I’m up for that challenge versus saying: “Okay, well, what do we need to do to make sure that this is fun? Well, okay, that’s fine.” There are a lot of agencies paying a lot of money to figure that out, but I’d really sit down and say: “Okay, well, what do they need to do to take the next step in their career? And how can we be the expert solution provider for them?” That’s what a business media company has done forever, except now any company can do that. So there’s an opportunity there.
Dan: So one of the challenges, and it’s probably a challenge for every business person, I guess, but particularly within professional services, I think. There’s always a big emphasis on short to medium term ROI. And, with a lot of this stuff, you have to take a bit of a leap of faith and believe that the change you’re seeking to make is one that matters, that people buy into. And if you can do that and you can build an audience, then the commercial benefits will come in due course, whether that’s in 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, but there’s gotta be a level of belief that goes into that. And there isn’t always space for that kind of thinking in the conventional sort of corporate environment.
I wonder how you would encourage a professional or company to look at that? And what sort of metrics should they be basing their success on during that tricky period, the first sort of 6 – 12 months where might not yet be evident that this thing is actually paying for itself?
Joe: Well, content marketing programmes in professional services companies fail for two reasons. One is because it stops. Somebody has said: “Ah, well, I don’t believe in it, whatever”. And then six months in, I don’t get the research, whatever. Or it’s not consistent. You don’t deliver every once in a while, or you have a campaign focus. Most of them work from the 12 to 18 month mark. So you’re saying, yeah, I’ve got to get to 12 to 18 months. So if I’m a professional services marketer, you have to work on your internal marketing. You have to set the expectations that this is not a direct mail campaign. This is not a short-term advertising programme where you should expect some results quickly. This is something where we’re trying to build a relationship with a group of people over a long period of time. And that behaviour is not going to change instantaneously.
We’re trying to build a loyal audience. So that’s the metric that I want. So that’s the super metric. The super metric is subscribers. So if you’re saying, okay, well, what does that mean? That means that you probably have some kind of email or membership offering that people are subscribing to, that you deliver over a long period of time. So it probably means you got to get your email newsletter in shape or whatever. Up to that point, there are all kinds of vanity metrics you could look at. You could look at engagement, you could look at follower counts. Although I hate them. There are so many bots out there, who knows. So what I want to do is I want to focus on a minimal amount of channels.
Generally, when you look at the content marketing awards and who’s winning, they’re the ones that have programmes go on for 2, 3, 4 years. But you have to get to that point.
So let’s say, okay, we’re talking B2B. So you might say, let’s look at LinkedIn and Twitter, and you’ve got some consistency, you’re basically using those channels as your influencer channels. You’re sharing other people’s content. You’re becoming known as experts in that area. And then where you want to ultimately drive them to once you’ve built a following on those channels is your subscription offering. What is that? Is that a quarterly book club? Is it a webinar series? Whatever that consistent thing is that you say, this is our jam. This is what we’re really good at. You want to see some subscriber numbers go up and then as you do that, you want to measure behaviour change. So what I want to do, and you’re right, you can’t do this in 6 to 12 months to the 12 month mark, you can say, okay, let’s say you’ve got 5,000 subscribers for the email newsletter. Then you can start to look at say, what do those 5,000 people do differently than everyone else? Do they buy more? Do they stay longer as customers? Do they talk more favourably about us on social media? You can start to measure those things. Generally, when you look at the content marketing awards and who’s winning, they’re the ones that have programmes go on for 2, 3, 4 years. But you have to get to that point.
So everything that you’re doing as a marketer is setting up. And that’s why, if you don’t have an internal marketing programme to whoever’s paying the bills on this thing, whoever your chief financial officer is, or chief marketing officer is, you need to say, this is a long-term initiative. This is going outside the campaign cycle. This is going outside of the annual budget. You have to do those things. And then the great news is, there are all kinds of case studies out there. From Arrow Electronics on the B2B side to Red Bull Media House on the B2C side that you can say: “Wow, look at these. These companies have produced multi-million dollar media groups that could be sold independently outside of the company themselves that are so valuable.” This is what we’re trying to do, but you have to set it up that way.
Dan: I think I can guess what your answer would be. I could be wrong, but if you had to encourage these companies to focus on one channel – and it’s interesting this, cause I’ve heard a lot of people in the past talk about, from an efficiency perspective, you invest time creating incredible content. You want to spread that as far and wide as possible. You want to get it across every channel. But I also know from watching a lot of your content in the past, that you’re a big advocate for really nailing one, or maybe a couple of specific channels. If we assume that you’re going to say the latter is the right thing to do, which for a typical B2B professional service organisation if you had to pick one channel, what might that be?
Joe: Well, if you’re forcing me to pick one, it would absolutely be email. Because on any other channel, I have no control as a marketer, as a business person. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, whatever, they can block me, they can change their algorithm so they don’t show. I mean, I could have a YouTube channel and I get a subscriber, but YouTube changes their algorithm and they’re not going to show my stuff. Absolutely. It happens all the time. People get blocked from Twitter, as we know, I mean, these things happen. So, why would I give more control to those channels and continue to build those platforms? It’s not that you shouldn’t use them. But what I’m saying is if you’ve got a choice of one, you want to pick the one where you have the most control, and you’re delivering to that on an ongoing basis. I can set to send to my opt-in subscribers whenever I want to.
So that’s the way that I’m going. But you might be asking: “Oh, why only one? Or why a focus on a couple?” When you look at the greatest case studies in the world, this is for media companies and for content marketing examples, you don’t see spread content everywhere, be successful. It’s not because you only have so much, I call it content energy, in organisations – I don’t care how many resources you have, what your budget is, you only have so much content energy – and you can’t take it and spread it all over everywhere. Because what you create is a mountain of meh or just a bunch of mediocre content. It doesn’t breakthrough. If you look at the greatest content creators in the world right now, they’re bloggers, they’re you tubers, they’re on TikTok, they’re doing Instagram, they’re doing one thing really well. And then once you do one thing really well, then you diversify.
So look at Huffington Post. It started as one blog to one group of people, and now they got 400 different blogs, but they started out with one, right. Financial Times. It just started out with one newspaper. Now they do a hundred different things. Ted Talks just focused on doing the 15 to 18 minute talk. That’s what we’re focusing on. They built their brand that way, and now they do everything. They do all of it.
So you have to build the one thing great first. Build that, what I call a minimum viable audience, something that you can see, some behaviour change, and then you can go ahead and diversify and then become that multimedia platform.
So if I’m just starting in this, I’m probably picking my email newsletter or secondarily, if I had to choose, it would be a podcast. Cause I’ve got a little bit more control over those things and can build a following. And then I’d probably pick two at the most social channels to really spend my time. And then on the other ones, so let’s say Facebook, or let’s say Instagram, you’re there. And you’re there probably to listen and to use it as a customer service channel or whatever the case is, but you’re not consistently delivering anything on that channel because you want to be creating these other things.
Dan, I wish I could tell you that you could blast it all over everywhere and it would work, but I’ve been in this doing this for over 20 years now. It never works. It never works. Focus on doing one thing great. Become great at that thing. And then once you do, then you can move on to something else.
Dan: It makes so much sense. On the subject of email then, specifically the question of building that list now, of course, you need a great hook. I love the thing you mentioned about book clubs, for example, and just thinking a little bit creatively about how you can capture that audience. I wonder what your view is on – slightly contentious topic this – building this more aggressively scraping data, because I usually, you know, 9 times out of 10, when I have these conversations, everyone’s kind of in agreement that it’s, you know, it’s not what companies should be doing. But every now and again, I’ll be dealing with a business and they’ve aggressively scraped together this list of X million people and it’s delivering massive returns for them. And actually, it’s a really effective foundation for them to build their content strategy on. And I always feel a little unsure about how I feel about those conversations. What is your take is on that more aggressive approach?
Joe: Well, I’m not a fan. Yes, sometimes we’re seeing results. I think long-term, those things are going to affect you. I think you’re going to get flagged somewhere. You’re going to become a spammer. I mean, I get it all the time. I’m sure you do as well. So I’ll be on a podcast and somebody will just add me to their email list. I’m like, well, how did that happen? Or get into some nefarious actions by whatever data you’re trying to get on the web. And you can get it, right. Now, I’m definitely open to buying lists and doing a promotion to content. I’m all in, I’m all in for doing influencer programmes, partner lists, co-creation, anything where we can get that out there to a new audience and give them an offer. I’m all for advertising our content offers. All those things, I’m open to, if you’ve got a really good content product that I’m into.
But if you are not doing double opt-in right now, and you’re thinking that you can short circuit that or go around and say, oh, we don’t need to do that. You’re setting yourself up for something bad because everyone wants to give their permission. And the other thing is, again, I’m not talking about a short-term hit here. I mean, if you want short-term results, don’t do content marketing.Go interrupt people. Go do ads and billboards and all that kind of stuff because, because with content marketing, you’re building a long-term relationship with an audience. So it’s much, much different, and that’s why you want to do everything right.
And I’ll give you an example. So my new company is called The Tilt, and we focus on content creators who are just getting started, individuals. We bought a company and we bought their email list and we started going out to that list. Well, there were about 3000 people that never opened anything for six months. Well, we sent them a final thing and said: “Hey, you know, you’re off the list if you don’t open.” We had a couple of people open it. And then those, most of those 3000 are gone. We will never touch them again. Never do anything again, never promote anything. That’s just the cost of doing business with a long-term programme.
I want opt-in and I want high open rate and I want high click-through rate. And I want to make sure that, you know, if you, if you’re got an email newsletter and you’re only getting 5% or less open rate, you’re in trouble, but you really should be north of 20% if you’re doing something well and you and I both know most companies aren’t getting a 20% open rate. So you’ve got to focus on excellence. So yeah, take the shortcuts. You could try it, but long-term, I don’t think it’s going to work for you.
Dan: Slightly, different question. So I wonder from your experience – particularly within B2B organisations – how you see sales and marketing working together, if at all on this stuff. Because it often strikes me that some of the best communicators within an organisation and the people who often have the greatest insight into the customer’s world, and also the need for insight into the customer as well, it’s all within the sales function and it can be quite unhelpful sometimes to have what I think could be a slightly artificial separation between sales and marketing when they’re all trying to achieve the same end. I wonder if you have any experiences of where a sales function has actually been quite proactively and constructively involved from a content strategy perspective? Whether that’s in gathering information, deploying that information. Would any examples spring to mind, or from your experience to the two functions still operate very, very separately from that point of view?
Joe: Well, I would like to think that they’re all on the same team, but you and I both know that most of the time, even if it’s a sales and marketing department, they both function completely outside each other. We’ve been trying to fix this forever, and it’s very tough to do because generally they’re compensated differently. So that’s the issue that we’re having.
So the one example that I love, if you look at a company called Xerox, which I think most people know, they were having this issue as well, because marketing was creating a lot of different content and sales wasn’t using any of that content. Sales had insights because they were talking directly with the customer, but the marketing team wasn’t using any of that insight. So finally they said: “Okay, what do we do to bridge this gap?” All they did was they created a weekly email update which said: “Here are the five pieces of content that we created in the last week that we think would be helpful.” And to do that, they had some of the salespeople on there, checking out the content, testing out the content. So basically, instead of going out to all 300 salespeople, they had a core team that worked with them to make sure this content is working. Is it the right kind of content you’re looking for? And are we looking at your lead gen? Is this content that we want to use to increase loyalty? Do you want to send a nice update to your customer? Do you need something to put on LinkedIn for your personal profile? I mean, these are all things that I think in a lot of cases, marketing makes these decisions in a bubble and they don’t consult with sales.
So put together a little team. It’s not that hard to do, reach out. Some people will be very interested in that, especially the ones that want to put stuff on their own LinkedIn profile and make them look like experts, which is a growing number of people. So put that together and then figure out, okay, we have all this marketing content. That’s helpful. How are we going to get sales to use it?
I wish I could tell you the name of the company. But there’s one company, which is a top 10 size company in the world, that the salespeople in the sales team actually hired their own independent agencies to work outside of the marketing team because they basically had their own little agency to work with just them and create all the marketing materials for the salesperson. These are obviously the salespeople that are making a million-plus dollars a year, so they could hire a little agency to do this. This is mad, right? You have a marketing department. And they’re taking it and they’re making their own stuff. And the marketing department was just like, are you kidding me? This is actually a thing.
So look, salespeople aren’t necessarily going to reach to marketers and say: “Hey, would you help me?” But marketers, you absolutely have to do this because you want people to engage in your content.How do you reach your customers most easily? Well, your one channel is absolutely through sales. You’re not just doing lead gen to a list all the time. So I would put that team together, get them in a room or on Zoom or whatever the case is, and talk about the issues. Ask the salespeople what kind of content helps? What doesn’t? What are you missing? What are your customer’s pain points? What keeps them up at night? What are the questions you’re getting more than anything else? That’s gold to a marketer. So as you’re creating all your surveys and everything else to get that information, you might as well leverage sales as well, because they may be the best piece of information you have.
Dan: That’s awesome. Look, I could ask questions all day. I’m conscious of your time because we’ve already gone over the limit that I promised we wouldn’t.
Joe: I do that all the time.
Dan: I’m so, so grateful and thank you so much. I knew this was going to be good, but it’s surpassed even my lofty expectations. So thank you. I think like everyone else, just look forward to seeing what you get up to next. Just very quickly just remind me what you mentioned at the start that you’ve got launching tomorrow.
Joe: So basically, thetilt.com, we’re launching some original research on the content entrepreneur. This is actually relevant to any content creators because we wanted to figure out, okay, who are successful content creators out there, influencers, how are they creating content? What’s working? What’s not? It’s a lot of this stuff that we talked about, focus on one channel, focus on an expertise area. So basically we go through that, that’s available on thetilt.com and then it also aligns with my new book that’s out, it’s called Content Inc. And content Inc. talks about how any company can build an audience. And then once you build a loyal audience through the regular distribution of content, how do you monetise that in 4 or 5, 10 different ways? So those are the two things that we’re talking about right now.
Dan: That’s awesome. That sounds amazing. And I look forward to keeping an eye on it. Well, thank you so much, I really, really appreciate it.
Joe: Thanks, Dan. Appreciate it.