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My email list just crossed the 1,000 subscriber mark, and I thought I’d use this occasion to share with you my experience of growing my list from 100 to 1,000 subscribers (actual numbers are 121 to 1,016, but I’ll go with round numbers for ease of typing), what I’ve learned along the way, and what you can do to avoid the mistakes I’ve made.Getting from 100 to 1000 subscribers took almost exactly a year. The first 6 months were a completely unimpressive climb from 121 to 250 subscribers. Around that 6 month mark, I figured out something that worked, and membership grew from 250 to 1016 over the next 6 months.If you’re interested in growing an email list in order to help you sell more high priced consulting services or mid-priced educational products like e-books, then this article will be particularly interesting to you. At ~4,500 words it’s long as hell, so get comfy!
The N00b Months
For quite a while, I bumbled along. I knew quite a bit about what works for other people for list building because I’d read a lot of great articles online about how you do it. But as I found out, there’s a big difference between knowing how something is done and actually doing it yourself.I think about that a lot with my mentoring program. Why is that seemingly tiny gap between knowing how something is done by others and doing it yourself so huge in practice? Is it fear? The unknown? Muscle memory that hasn’t been developed yet? Is it something else?Anyway… during the n00b months, I had two different sitewide opt-ins I tried. The first one was the Drip toaster widget (have I told you how much I love Drip?) with an invitation to “join my list for tips on building your authority”. That delivered a roughly 1.5% opt-in rate.
Opt-in Rate Realtalk
Quick story time. Have you seen Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise? In that movie, a kid needs a job and so he starts selling vacuum cleaners door to door. He apprentices under the most coked out, sweaty, slimy character I’ve ever seen Timothy Spall play. It’s an wonderful film if you’re in to dark comedies.I actually had an experience like that. A wanted a job during a high school summer break, and so I hit up the classified ads. (This was the early ’90s, and classified ads on newsprint was just how you found out about jobs if you didn’t have IRL connections, which I did not.)One job promised the ability to make like $500/day, and so I was there the next morning to check it out. It turned out to be this sleazy-feeling door to door sales gig. Every morning they would give you a black velvet roll of jewelry, and you’d hit the bricks to sell them any way you could. I rode along on day one with this more experienced sales rep(tile) to learn the ropes.There was no day two of that job for me. I’ve since come to embrace selling, but only on my terms, and in a way that fits my introverted personality.All that to say, the world of conversion rate optimization can feel to me a bit like the slimy world of door to door sales. “What persuasion tactic or button color can we use to get more opt-ins?”With my efforts to grow my list, there was always this devil-angel dynamic happening. What I really wanted was a super high quality list with subscribers who:
- Were interested in what I have to say
- Open emails and stay subscribed at a healthy rate
- And most importantly…. become subscribers who have paid me money for something
I researched a lot into conversion rate optimization tricks. That is one way to get a bigger list, but I was never sure it was the best way to achieve my high quality list goal.Opt-in rate is a number worth paying attention to, but it’s not the only number worth caring about. That said, I wasn’t very happy with my 1.5% sitewide opt-in rate for “tips on building your authority”, so I looked around for ideas on what would perform better.
The Opt-In Paradox
One of the ideas I took as gospel (and still do) is that your list opt-in should offer no-strings-attached value. This suggests that piling on more value into your opt-in offer will increase opt-in rates. Paradoxically, that’s not the case.I was struggling at this time with finding an answer to this question:
What list opt-in offer will deliver a lot of value without requiring a lot of work to unlock that value and will appeal to people who would make good consulting clients?
I found a better answer than I’d previously had when I came across this podcast episode with Clay Collins from LeadPages. Here’s the TL;DR: LeadPages has a lot of data about how various opt-in offers perform. They found a somewhat paradoxical thing…Large, impressive opt-in offers–like a free 100-page e-book–performed worse than opt-in offers for things that offered good value but were small and easy to digest. Things like 2-page PDF checklists or lists of useful tools were performing way better than things like big impressive free e-books.The reason why is that the big, impressive e-book comes with an implied workload. To unlock the value, you have to read 100 pages of stuff! That’s not a small amount of work. A smaller, easier-to-consume opt-in offer has a better return on time invested, and makes it easier for a site visitor to say “yes” to your offer.What’s amazing is that the smaller, easier-to-consume opt-in offer is also easier to build!After I learned this, I spent–no joke–3 hours putting together a PDF guide to the tools I use to quickly create blog articles. I called it the Education-Based Content Marketing Resource Guide, and I made it my new sitewide opt-in offer (aka lead magnet) for my site. I’ve since retired this lead magnet, but you can still see it here.My opt-in rate immediately doubled to ~3%. Much better!In off-the-record conversations I’ve had with big names in the world of online education & marketing, I’ve learned that a really well-tuned, optimized sitewide opt-in can achieve an opt-in rate of ~10%. I haven’t heard anyone claim better performance than that, though targeted non-sitewide opt-ins are a whole different animal with much better performance potential, as I’ll explain in a bit.
The Third Opt-In Offer
In December 2014, I released a book called The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms (TPM). To be honest, I wrote the book kind of on a lark, after reading Amy Hoy’s excellent book JFS. But now that it was out there, I wanted to promote it.So going into 2015, I had a thing to promote–a product that was separate from my services. Something I could talk about in the third person.I had heard amazing things about the power of podcast guesting. In fact, I had been on one podcast myself (my friend Nathan Powell’s podcast) and had enjoyed the experience. I think I must just like hearing myself talk :). I also knew a few podcast hosts via online connections, and so I decided to try promoting TPM via podcast guesting.As usual, my first attempts were a bit clumsy. Podcast hosts always end the interview with “so, Philip, how can listeners find out more about you?” and my first few times “at bat” I directly pitched my book, which is a high-friction offer at $49. In other words, a podcast listener has got to be pretty darn excited about what they just heard me say to dash off and drop $50 on a book. That’s what I mean by “high-friction offer”.Of course, while I was starting to set up more podcast guest spots for myself (yeah, it’s a thing you do for yourself. You don’t sit around and wait for someone to invite you on their podcast, though that sometimes does happen, it’s mostly a thing you make happen for yourself through outreach to show hosts), I was looking into the best way to create a compelling end-of-show call to action (CTA). I heard that podcast-specific landing pages as your end-of-podcast CTA is the bomb, so I tried that on my appearance on Brennan Dunn’s Business of Freelancing podcast and my appearance on the Web Agency Podcast.This worked better, though I don’t have great numbers to share because I suck at doing analytics on my site.Then…
I Struck Gold
In March, 2015, I had become convinced that I could create a better opt-in offer than the PDF tools guide (the Education-Based Content Marketing Resource Guide) I had been using. I had this e-book that was starting to sell, and people seemed to be interested in learning more about positioning. It made sense to extract some content from TPM and use that content to create an email crash course. So I did just that.I also got a vanity domain name (http://positioningcrashcourse.com) for the crash course because I knew I’d be verbally telling people about it and needed a memorable, easy place to send them. I created a quick and dirty LeadPages landing page there and started getting a consistent 34% opt-in rate on that page.If I was into linkbait-ey headlines, I’d title this article “How I Got a 1,133.33% Improvement In My List Opt-In Rate, Even Though I’m a Complete List-Building N00b and Suck at Analytics”.I’m pretty sure the magic here is not in using an email course instead of a PDF lead magnet, though I think email courses have a lot going for them as a list opt-in offer. Rather, as I’ll explain in a bit, I think the magic is in the alignment of the opt-in offer with the CTA. Again, more on that in a bit…Ever since March, 2015, The Positioning Crash Course has been the mouth of my marketing funnel. About that time, I replaced the Drip toaster widget I was using with a bunch of visually loud, intrusive Thrive Leads opt-ins and popups for the crash course. So you’d go to pretty much any page of https://philipmorganconsulting.com and a big, visually loud slide-in would cover a big part of the screen and ask you to opt in to the Positioning Crash Course. There was a bottom-of-screen ribbon opt-in as well. Overall, those opt-ins got about the same 3% opt-in rate I’d seen on every other site-wide opt-in I’d tried. Meanwhile, my targeted opt-in at http://positioningcrashcourse.com got a steady 34% opt-in rate.Then, after feeling sorry for my site visitors getting interrupted all the time by opt-in forms (and getting sick of my slow site load time and going on a WordPress plugin killing spree which you might have read about in your news feed–“Dozens slain as frustrated consultant goes on WordPress slow plugin killing spree! Consultant still at large, plugin developers grieving their dead…”), I removed all the slide ins and pop-ups except for a reasonably subtle SumoMe ribbon bar with a simple button that sends people to http://positioningcrashcourse.com. I also retained a few exit intent popups and button-triggered modal popups on key pages.
A Formula That Worked
Finally I had something that was actually working to build my list in a way that felt really good to me. Even better, some of those list members were giving me money by buying my book or hiring me to consult for them.I was educating anonymous people via my podcast guest appearances (11 of those to date) and if they liked what I had to say or were curious to learn more, I had a perfectly aligned offer on a landing page inviting them to sign up for an email course where they could learn more about the exact topic I was discussing on the podcast–no strings attached.This formula was the primary engine that pushed my list membership from 250 to 1000 over 6 months between the end of March and now. It’s not the only thing I’ve done to send people to http://positioningcrashcourse.com, but it’s the thing that’s been the most reliable and effective. (I should tell you about the time I spent $42 to acquire a single new list subscriber via Facebook ads…)A few other things have contributed to the subscriber growth I’ve seen since March. For example, I got a very nice mention of my now-retired service My Content Sherpa on the Smart Passive Income podcast by my friend Brian Casel, and that drove a fair bit of traffic to http://mycontentsherpa.com and added perhaps 50 or 75 members to my list.
I Like My List-Building Formula
I really like this teaching-based list-building method. I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy teaching from my cozy little home office, especially when someone else does all the hard work of building an audience, asking good interview questions, and editing and publishing the resulting content. That’s essentially what podcast guesting is, and again, it’s the single biggest driver of my climb from 100 to 1000 list members.If I’ve spent 30 or 45 minutes talking about positioning with a podcast host, there is simply no more perfect call to action than to send listeners to a free email course at an easy-to-remember domain name with a reasonably well-designed 1-action landing page. The CTA is 100% aligned with the thing it follows, and it extends (adds value to) the podcast guest spot perfectly.
All The Numbers
Here are some numbers for ya:
- Subscriber growth: As previously mentioned, my list grew from 121 to 1,016 subscribers over the last year.
- Unsubscribes: During that time, there were 124 unsubscribes, giving an 11.71% global unsubscribe rate.
- Open rates: My open rate ranges from 40% to almost 70% across a number of campaigns.
- % of subscribers who have paid me money for something: 369 subscribers have given me money for something, which is a 29.1% free -> paid conversion rate according to Drip.
- Of the people who join the Positioning Crash Course, about 11.5% become TPM customers (the rest of that 29.1% global free -> paid conversion rate is from people who purchased TPM without going through the Positioning Crash Course first).
Sidebar: It Ain’t All About Gettin’ New Subscribers
I know in this article I’m going on and on (and on, and ON…) about new subscribers, but I just want to say: that’s just the beginning. There’s the first date, and there’s the ensuing relationship, and you gotta focus on both.To be honest, I (and a lot of my clients) struggle with this. No, not my real relationship. My wife is very happy with our relationship thankyouverymuch :).What I and every “list person” I know wants to do is send out original, new 5-star content every week. Articles where where the natural response is “woah, where’s that Instapaper button?” or “You’re going right into my Evernote archive for useful stuff! Thanks Philip!”.I think this is a good goal, but I don’t think it’s 100% necessary. You’re certainly not a failure if you can’t reach this bar, and I often wonder if sending 3,000 words of content every week wouldn’t get rather fatiguing. In a way, it puts a lot of pressure on list members, doesn’t it? I’m convinced that frequent shorter emails can work just as well. I’d love your thoughts if you want to tap REPLY and weigh in on this.Either way, you do need to think through what’s next after a new list member has completed your email course or downloaded your lead magnet. For my list, you get an email at the end of the Positioning Crash Course asking if you’d like to go deeper and inviting you to join one of three other crash courses by clicking on an opt-in link, and moving you to a “list warming” campaign where I send out emails like this article.I’m also “working on” (meaning it’s pretty far down my TODO list, but it’s there) repurposing episodes of my podcast, The Consulting Pipeline Podcast as list warming emails, but I think there’s more to doing that right than just pasting in transcripts of podcast episodes and hitting publish.In general, I like the “more crash courses” strategy. After someone has completed your lead magnet or crash course, what else can you teach them that they might be interested in? Or after they’ve bought your book, how can you add more value through periodic emails? It sure makes it easier to sell your next book if your list has been hearing from you periodically post-purchase.Ultimately, the “what next” question comes down to your own personal answer to whether you will try to produce epic content on an irregular schedule vs. easier-to-produce content on a regular schedule vs. putting real time or money resources in to creating (or paying someone to create) epic content on a regular schedule. In general, though, put every damn thing you create for your list into an autoresponder sequence (a Campaign in Drip) instead of using one-time broadcasts (unless it’s time-sensitive like a webinar reminder) so that whatever you do create gets leveraged as much as possible.
Now, About the SELLIN’ Part of Things
Having a list of over 1,000 subscribers is nice. It’s now how I introduce myself in social settings.“I’m Philip Morgan, and I periodically email my 1k-person list.”Kidding… But that does bring up a big question…
Why build a list at all?
I think there are two reasons for a professional services provider to have an email list:
- Your list helps you become a name. You become familiar to the engaged list members, who learn about your philosophy and approach to things. This makes you referrable by them. They may never need your services or never have hired you, but when they are talking to someone who does, they’ll actually refer you because they feel like they know you! This is actually one good reason to sprinkle in more personally-revealing, relationship-building content and not have every single article you send your list be epic educational content. Your list also helps keep you near the top of your list members’ mind, recruiting the availability heuristic as a member of your sales team.
- Your list helps you sell stuff. Products, services, events, and so on.
On my list I don’t sell hard at all, with the exception of quarterly-or-so launches and new product announcements. Mostly I just link from relevant email content to a sales page or ask people to tap REPLY so I can start a conversation with them.A launch sequence is usually a week’s worth of emails leading up to a full on pitch. Basically they’re a sales page dripped out over a week’s worth of emails (and OMG does Drip make it so easy to create smart, flexible launch sequences!). I usually segment launches so they don’t go to all 1,016 subscribers–just to a segment I think will dig the offer.
Becoming a Client
When someone moves from free list member to paying client (not customer of an ebook, but consulting client), it happens real fast or reeeeal slow.Here’s what it looks like when it happens fast:30 days seems to be about the “magic number” that divides those who are gonna hire me soon and those who won’t ever, or will require a lot of nurturing before they hire me. I call this the “30 day club”–people who have joined my list and then gone on to hire me less than 30 days later. There are only a few of these people so far, but see below for my ideas of hatching more of them.I’ve also personally experienced the “referrability” effect I described above. I have a list member who periodically replies to emails with a short verbal thank you and a “this rocks” kind of message, and he’s recently referred me to what may turn out to be my biggest client yet.I use Drip’s Lead Scoring feature. This looks at subscriber activity like email opens, link clicks, and page visits, and when enough of those happen, Drip tags the subscriber as a lead and I use automation to send out a “checking in” email.Right now my Lead Scoring setup is aimed at encouraging subscribers who look like they’re interested in what I’m doing to contact me, so I can explore via email whether there might be a fit for consulting services. But I think I’m going to change that so that Lead Scoring encourages subscribers who have not purchased a low-priced book from me to do that. I’ll send a discount code or something like that, preferably with a built-in time limit to create scarcity.I think Seth Godin is right when he says that the biggest price barrier in the world is the chasm between FREE and ONE PENNY. In other words, the move from free to “paid you something, anything at all” is the highest point of friction for list subscribers, and it stands to reason that offering a $9 or $19 e-book is an easier way to get more people over that free to paid threshold than offering $thousands of consulting services.Just recently I started writing a book called The Positioning Strategy Guide that is a lower-priced offer that will change my funnel from “Positioning Crash Course –> offer The Positioning Manual” to “Positioning Crash Course –> offer Positioning Strategy Guide –> offer The Positioning Manual”. I hope that increases the number of list members who pay me money for something, and with that change I’ve also added Brandon Hilker’s conditional CTA widget to show people who’ve opted in for The Positioning Crash Course a different CTA at key places on my site.
Getting To The Next 1,000 in 3 Months Instead of 12
Having a list has been a pure, unmitigated good thing for my business.I now have the somewhat audacious goal of attracting 1,000 more people to join my list in the next 3 months. That means I’ll have to do some things differently, and some things I’ll just have to do a better job of.Here are my ideas for accomplishing that goal:
- I’m going bigger with my podcast guesting ambitions. I’ve been on some awesome podcasts so far, and I plan to build on that success by targeting bigger podcasts with bigger audiences. I haven’t really started even the research for this yet, so I’m not sure it’ll yield results within 3 months, but I’m confident it will pay off over the next year.
- Guest blog article writing. I gotta be honest here–I’m not sure this works as well as it used to or as well as some people would have you believe it does (I’m lookin’ at you, Jon Morrow). I just don’t hear the kind of success stories from my peer group that I’d need to be hearing to continue to believe in guest posting. When it does work, I think the key is alignment. (There’s that word again!) If your end-of-guest-post call to action is 100% aligned with your post, then I think a prominent guest blog placement can pay off in list subscribers, but I think the payoff pales in comparison to a higher-fidelity educational experience like a podcast guest spot.
- I’m planning to do more e-bombing. That’s Amy Hoy’s word for going out into the online world and finding opportunities to answer questions people have. I’ll probably automate looking for new results to these searches and look for opportunities to point people back to http://positioningcrashcourse.com via hand-crafted, artisanal answers to people’s questions about positioning.
- Content upgrades on blog articles on https://philipmorganconsulting.com. I think I’ll start with the top 25% by traffic. Here’s a great example of a content upgrade.
- I’m going to start thinking of the “30 day club” like emergency room doctors think of the golden hour–the first hour after a traumatic injury when the effect of prompt medical treatment is most likely to save a life. I think if I focus more on doing some smart selling to new subscribers during that 30-day window I might get more people into the 30-day club. I know this isn’t a list growth goal per-se, but more of a list leveraging goal.
- Content syndication. Paul Jarvis has written the best article there is on doing content syndication, so I won’t re-hash what he’s already explained so well, but I do think that content like this very article would do well if I cross-posted to Medium and other outlets. Maybe I’ll even go with that linkbaitey article title from above. 🙂
- Better CTAs and an overall better show structure on my podcast. Almost 1000 people a week download episodes of The Consulting Pipeline Podcast, and I think some of those may not be list subscribers. With some slight tweaks to my show format I think I can better leverage this marketing channel to drive list growth.
- A local IRL educational blitzkrieg. I will be the #1 expert on positioning professional services firms in the Bay Area of California in a year or two. I have zero doubt in my mind about that. I plan to achieve this goal–which will have a beneficial spillover into my list size–through local workshops and classes. I’m in discussions with General Assembly at the time of this writing about my first local class on positioning, and I plan to do a lot more of these in the coming months.
- Webinars. This will simply be an online extension of the local IRL educational blitz.
So there you have it–my ideas for attracting 1,000 more list subscribers in the next 90 days.
Takeaways For You, Gentle Reader And Future Custodian of a 1,000-Person List
What about you? What if you too would like to have an email list of 1,000 people? After all, I don’t spend 4 to 6 hours writing an article like this to feel better about myself. I do it to share what I hope is an interesting journey and pull out some things you can apply to your business.So here are my two simple takeaways for you if you want to grow your list:
- You do have an email list, don’t you? If not, start NOW. In fact, if you happen to have a time machine, go back a few years and start THEN. But absent a time machine, start NOW–like TODAY. Sign up for a MailChimp or Drip account, build a lead magnet some time this week (no matter how basic it seems to you), and STOP bleeding the opportunity cost of not having a list.
- At the end of the day, there are really just two ways to get new list members. You can earn that attention, or you can buy it (by paying advertisers to show your message to their ad audience(s)). I suspect that the better list members–ones that pay more attention to you and spend more as a whole–come from earning it. Teaching them something then providing a free, no-strings-attached way to learn more by joining your list. And if you’re doing that, it makes no sense for your “learn more” CTA to be “visit my site”. Instead, take the extra few hours of time to set up a landing page to send people to. This, BTW, is exactly one of the lead generation techniques Brennan Dunn teaches in his Double Your Freelancing Clients class. Go out in the world somehow–in a way that suits your personality–and TEACH. And have a CTA that extends the value of your teaching event. So that could be podcast guesting, to a certain extent podcast hosting, giving talks, hosting free workshops using a borrowed audience, or hosting/co-hosting webinars.
Now For Some Sellin’ Of My Own!
I can help you with this stuff. If you have the time to DIY it but not the know-how or the support, I have a pretty great group mentoring program. If you don’t even have the time to implement yourself, I can do it for you.As you can see from this article, I’m not a born list-building genius, but I have learned a thing or two from my own experience, and that might be worth hiring me to gain direct access to. Or maybe not. You decide. 🙂
- A sitewide opt-in is where you have the same opt-in offer, maybe even the same from, displayed on every page throughout the site. ↩
- To be completely accurate it’s somewhat lower than that because I’ve given away some copies of TPM that still count as conversions even though no money changed hands. I don’t know exactly how much lower because see the above about me sucking at analytics. ↩
- The more professionally-run podcasts have a month or three worth of shows in the can ready to publish, so even if I recorded a huge podcast guest spot tomorrow it might take 2 or 3 months to air. ↩
The question “how do I use content marketing to benefit my professional services business” comes up a lot. If you Google that exact query string, you’ll get a lot of useless advice.Advice on the benefits of content marketing. Reasons why you should do it, even if you’re a small services business. Listicles with 59 benefits and 19 reasons.In reality, it’s not that complicated. Here’s how I think about it:
Content marketing is how you prove your claim of expertise.
Content marketing is how you prove that you have the expertise you claim to in your positioning, and it’s how you build trust with prospects.That’s a nice, neat definition, but it really doesn’t tell you:
- How should you spend your limited time or money resources on content marketing? (DIY vs. outsource)
- What forms of content marketing will deliver the best ROI for your time or money?
Here’s a very clear criteria you should use to answer those questions:
Would this piece of content marketing make a compelling call to action (CTA) for a podcast guest appearance, in-person talk, or high-profile guest blog post?
So here’s how this criteria works…Imagine that you’ve just been invited to be a guest on the The Big Web Show or The Shop Talk Show podcast. Or your application to speak at An Event Apart or Pressnomics has been accepted. Or your pitch to write a guest post for 99U.com or WP Tavern has been accepted.Do you have any content marketing that would make a good CTA to place at the end of that guest spot, talk, or guest blog post?Here’s what would make a very weak CTA:
- Join my list!
- Check out my blog!
- Go to my site’s home page and read stuff!
These are all weak CTAs because they do not extend the value of your guest spot, talk, or guest blog post! They’re about as value-added as saying “look me up in the phone book”.The holy grail of a content marketing CTA is getting some of the audience members of the podcast, conference, or publication onto your email list, where you can build relationships and trust at scale. If they’re already on your list, the purpose of the CTA will change to something else, but if we’re talking about your public-facing content marketing, the CTA’s job number 1 is to get anonymous people onto your email list.For your CTA to accomplish the job of encouraging someone to join your list, it has to offer a really good reason for someone to hand over their email address to you!And I believe that’s the acid test for good content marketing. Does it offer enough value that someone would invite you into their inbox?If you’re out there in the world publicizing yourself through podcast guesting, giving talks, or contributing content to an established publication with a big audience, would your content marketing (or a specific part of your content marketing) be a compelling reason for someone to join your list?Let’s revisit the previous three example CTAs in light of this acid test:
- Join my list! OK, but WHY? If I thought this thing you put out into the world was great, how will joining your list give me even MORE great stuff? In other words, what’s in it for me?
- Check out my blog! Again, WHY? What’s in it for me? I wasn’t born yesterday–I know that most blogs are usually full of all kinds of unrelated content produced with little editorial value-add and published on an inconsistent schedule. I may have thought your guest blog post on the business value of test-driven development was great, but HOW EXACTLY will looking at your blog take me deeper, teach me more, or make me more awesome at what I do?
- Go to my site’s home page and read stuff! Again, what’s in it for me? ’Nuff said.
There you have it: three forms of content marketing that fail the compelling CTA acid test.So what will pass that test? What kind of content marketing is compelling enough that someone would willingly hand over their email address to gain access to it?Well, it depends, but here’s a list of several forms of content marketing that pass the test:1) An Email CourseAn email course offers value on its own (for example: “learn how to solve problem X with solution Y”) and it can also extend the value of a podcast guest appearance, talk, or guest blog post. It’s a great way to say, “if you found this interesting or valuable and want to go deeper, head over to this web address and check out my email course.”I’ve added over 400 email subscribers to my list using this exact technique as my CTA on 6 or so podcasts. My standard podcast CTA is, “Check out my crash course on positioning at http://positioningcrashcourse.com”. The positioningcrashcourse.com vanity domain is super-easy to remember, it makes the course look more like a thing with standalone value, and the landing page there converts at a very respectable 34%.Obviously, the email course needs to be topically-related to your podcast guest spot, talk, or guest post, but there’s no reason you can’t develop multiple email courses.After list subscribers complete your email course you should send more useful content their way via email automation, but you’d want to do that anyway to keep your list warm and build trust over time.2) A PDF Lead MagnetA PDF lead magnet could take several forms, including:
- A guide to solving some very specific problem
- A “cheat sheet” summary that is a useful reference
- A list of useful resources or tools
- A deeper treatment of some specific subject, perhaps presenting some original research or thought
No matter what the subject matter, a PDF lead magnet needs to be short, easy to use, and hyper-focused on solving a specific problem or providing value in a specific situation. Being super-specific about the audience the lead magnet is for and the result it will help them create creates that “gotta have it” emotional response that leads to filling out an opt-in form.I hear you asking: “What about infographics? I’ve heard those are really viral.”The answer: if the signal to noise ratio of the infographic is high enough, then yes, it may make a “CTA-able” content asset. Most of the infographics I’ve seen do not have a really good signal to noise ratio, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.3) An Educational Resource Center: When most people think of content marketing, they think of “blogging”–semi-regularly writing stuff and posting it to your company blog.I think that’s a terrible idea. Instead, I recommend you take the same basic format–a list of articles–and design it as an educational resource center instead. Here’s what that looks like in practice:
- http://www.remarq.io/consulting-value/ (Built by PMC)
- http://marcusblankenship.com/become-a-great-manager/ (built by PMC)
Building an education resource center is quite different than “blogging”. Instead if sitting down weekly (or much less frequently, as it turns out for most busy shops) and asking yourself “what shall I write about this week?”, you are designing a focused, valuable, multi-part piece of content that’s designed to solve a problem for the kind of client you hope to attract.You set yourself up for a closed-end project (which, as a professional finisher of projects I wager you know how to do successfully) instead of an open-ended whole new job role (Amateur Content Marketer, which usually turns into Professional Avoider of Sitting Down to Write Blog Posts). Most people have much more success with the project approach vs. the new job role approach.The content in your educational resource center does not have to be written content. It could easily be screencasts, audio, interviews, useful resources like a code library, and so on. The important thing is that it is cohesive, it addresses a relevant problem your ideal client has, and it’s easy to make use of the content it contains.If the value is high enough, you can put most or all of your resource center’s content behind a registerwall (kind of like the New York Times paywall but free) and use that logged-in experience to deliver even more value to visitors.The icing on the cake is that you can actually promote an educational resource center. If you’re a SaaS that helps photographers get better at marketing themselves and you create an educational resource center full of useful marketing resources for photographers, you have a very CTA-able content marketing asset! One that beats the pants off of saying “check out our blog!”.4) A Curated listIf you just do not have the time to create original content, there is another option: the curated list. This is another very CTA-able form of content marketing where instead of creating original content, you take on an editorial role and sift through the metric crap-ton of content that’s produced every week or month, pull out the minority that’s great, and send it to your list subscribers, perhaps with your own commentary or editorial perspective added in.When done well, this works so well that some people have managed to build an entire business by running one or more curated lists and renting ad space in the list to advertisers. If you use a curated list as a content marketing asset the purpose is to build trust with your list members and position your business as an authority, not to sell ad space.As a side note, the day to day work of running a curated list is easier to delegate to a junior employee. Instead of asking them to generate content to educate your ideal client–which requires experience, taste, and a feel for your clientele that a junior employee is unlikely to have–you can ask them to sift through the last week’s worth of content from the top 10 news aggregators in your space and tag the best articles for further review. That’s a job that a) they’re likely to enjoy, b) will help with their professional development, and c) they can probably do a great job at.Wrap-upSo there you have it! Four forms of content marketing that pass the “good CTA test” with flying colors.Even if you never plan to actively promote your content via guest podcasting, speaking, or guest posting, you should consider whether a CTA that points someone to your content marketing would be compelling. It’s a great acid test that helps you design really effective content marketing assets!If you enjoyed reading this article, check out 3 Content Marketing Ideas For the Time-Constrained Dev Shop next!
I just finished reviewing Dan Norris’ new book Content Machine.This is one of the better books I’ve read on content marketing, and it’s chock full of good advice on how to do excellent B2B content marketing. In particular, his chapter 4 on differentiating your voice is excellent.Here’s the problem I see with Dan’s advice: I don’t think it applies very well to a resource-constrained environment, particularly where that resource is your time.I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: DIY content marketing can be a second job. Delegating that job to a junior employee is appealing, but you often end up with topics like, “How We Configure Our Development Environment” and “Upgrading to Ruby 2.x.y”. These junior staff can’t easily connect the dots between the business value of what you do and the nuts and bolts of how you do it.If senior staff are charged with content marketing, it’s rare for them to be able to consistently prioritize doing it. So you end up with better content than if your junior staff did it, but inconsistent output.The right solution may be to hire help with your content marketing, but I’d only recommend doing that if what that help costs you per year is 75% or less of the average lifetime value of a new client. (My services may hit this price point or they may be too expensive…)So, if you are still in a situation where a DIY approach to content marketing is best for you, here are 3 ideas for low time investment, high yield content marketing:
1) A Podcast
Audio content has amazing reach. The barriers to entry on the iTunes store are exceedingly low. Getting a podcast that sounds better than 80% of what’s out there can be done for $300 or so in up-front equipment cost and $500/mo in services.My podcast spent over a month on the New and Noteworthy list after I launched with 9 episodes and about 10 ratings I begged for from my list (thank you, longsuffering list!). This podcast gets a bit over 700 “listens” per week (really downloads that may or may not turn into listens). I spend 2 to 3 hours a week producing it (would be half that if I outsourced the editing).My point? It isn’t hard to make a bigger dent in the podcasting world than you might be used to in the written content world.
2) An Audio-First Workflow
Maybe you and everyone on your staff sounds like Nardwuar and you’d rather not put your literal voice out there. You can still start with audio and end up with good written content. I talk about doing that here and provide a complete workflow plan.
3) A Curated Newsletter
Finally, you can write almost no content yourself and still build a list. Here’s how to do that using a curated list approach.And here’s a great example of that in action: http://itbinsights.com/ If you’re stuck in “neutral” with your company’s content marketing efforts because you’re short on time, I hope this helps you get in gear!
Do you hate writing?Well, I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news first.Done right, content marketing begins to attract clients to you, lowering your cost of new client acquisition.But, content marketing requires that you create… content. Most folks automatically think writing when they think about creating educational content.If you want to do more content marketing, I can’t eliminate the need to create your own content (though I can do it for you). And your content still has to be good, meaning it must be appealing, accessible and drop-dead useful.In this article I’d like to show you an alternate workflow for content creation that keeps you from having to write very much at all. This is the good news that I promised you. It’s called an audio-first workflow.An audio-first workflow largely takes writing out of the content creation process. You’ll still end up with a lot of textual content for search engines to rank and for people to read. The bonus with an audio-first workflow is that you’ll almost never be staring at a blank page, wondering what to write this week.
An Audio-First Workflow
Let’s walk through an audio-first workflow.
1) Do a Little Bit of Planning
Start with some planning that answers these questions:
- What are the top 3 business results your company creates for your clients?
- What are the top 3 problems your clients ask you to solve again and again?
- What are the top 3 areas of interest in your specialty that clients like to hear about?
- What are the top 3 broader issues affecting your clients in their industry in the next 12 to 24 months?
- What issues or changes in your specialty are your clients concerned about or interested in?
If you come up with three answers for each of those questions, you will have a fantastic list of topics to create content marketing around.The main point in your planning is that your content should not be random; instead, it should be focused around what your clients find interesting, compelling, or valuable.
2) Record Interesting Conversations
Even if you don’t think your voice sounds great, even if your microphone skills are weak, you can use an audio-first workflow to kick off the content creation process. After all, you don’t have to turn your audio recordings into a public-facing podcast, you can instead use them to drive the creation of text content. Here’s how to do that.Expand your topic list from the previous step into short outlines. So for example, if one of your topics is “Client concern: how will the prevalence of mobile web access affect my e-commerce business now and in the next 3 to 5 years?” then you might expand that into an outline that looks like this:Getting Your E-Commerce Business Ready For the Mobile Web
- The mobile web is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Head in sand is not an option.
- If you don’t take action, here’s the dire consequences you can expect.
- The good news: it’s pretty easy to start adapting to the mobile landscape now.
- Three simple changes you can make to get ready: A, B, C
- Conclusion/CTA: Hope this is helpful. BTW, we have been solving this problem for clients now for 5 years. We can help you…
Next, figure out who in your company could have the most interesting or most educational conversation about this topic? Maybe it’s:
- The company founder and the lead developer
- The project manager and the lead developer
- The company founder and the salesperson who has closed the most business in this area
- The lead designer and a client who just finished a successful project in this area
You get the picture. One person having a monologue can be interesting, but probably won’t be unless they’re a great speaker. But two people who have been deeply involved in the topic at hand almost certainly will have an interesting conversation.Next, record those people having that conversation for about an hour. Do your best with the recording (quiet area with no background noise, decent equipment, etc.) but don’t obsess about it. Obsession begets more obsession, but it rarely moves a needle that’s been stuck on zero.If the audio sounds good and you want to have a podcast for your company, then release your recordings as a podcast!Podcasting Protip #1: Get about 4 or 5 episodes recorded, edited, and finished before you release your podcast to the world. This will validate that you can consistently follow through on your podcasting schedule and hopefully keep you out of the embarrassing graveyard of 5-episode, abandoned podcasts.Podcasting Protip #2: Unless you are a budding audio engineer or have lot of time to kill, just pay someone to edit the dang podcast for you. Devreps and podcastmotor are excellent, and I’m sure Fiverr and Odesk are rife with other options too. After you get certain one-time items like opening music, intro voiceover, and general workflow issues sorted, a budget of about $120 per podcast is about enough to turn a raw 60-minute recording into a finished podcast.
3) Transcribe the Recording
Send the recording to a transcription service. Both Rev.com and Castingwords.com are excellent and affordable options. Rev is both cheaper and faster ($1/minute, 24-hour turnaround) but Castingwords is probably slightly higher quality but slower and more expensive ($1.50/minute last I checked).
4) Maximize That Transcription
Take the transcription for your podcast episode and turn it into one or more articles! Either do so internally (risky because I guarantee that you will back-burner it and probably never get it done, especially if you have a deadline or are busy with client work), or just pay a writer or editor to do it for you.A budget of $200 per article should be more than enough to cover having a competent writer turn your hour of conversation–which will be around 6,000 to 8,000 jumbled words of unrefined gold–into pure gold. In fact, you may get 2 or 3 articles out of one 1-hour conversation. Need a writer or editor? I can refer you–just let me know.Either publish these articles to your blog (making sure you remove the publication date and call it something other than a blog) or publish them in your Resource Center.Send the articles to your list (you are building a list, aren’t you?) and make sure the best ones are part of your “list welcome experience” (the email sequence someone gets when they join your list).Repurpose articles into SlideShare decks. I use a tool called DeckSet to make this easy and keep me out of my personal hell of Microsoft Office.Take your articles and turn them into spiffy-looking PDFs. I use Remarq for this, but other tools will also work. When you are having sales conversations with clients, email them relevant PDFs to help them see how you’ve thought through issues of importance to them. Use the PDFs to spice up your press kit if you have one.
BOOM! The $520/mo Content Marketing Program
There you have it! For around $520–and let’s say about 6 to 8 hours of staff time per month– you can have a content marketing program that involves almost no writing! That doesn’t even cover the low hanging fruit offshoots from this audio-first workflow, which could easily include screencasts, speaking engagements, and podcast guest appearances.
Some Educational Resource Center Examples
Previously, I mentioned that you should kill your blog, take any on-topic blog content you have, and then integrate it into an educational resource center on your site. I’ve gotten a few questions about exactly how to do this, and I thought it would be helpful to show two examples of what an educational resource center looks like.Check out this quick 11-minute screencast where I walk you through those examples and show you a live example of the results of an audio-first workflow:
Finally, on Reach
In terms of reaching your audience, it’s interesting to think about where and how they can engage with content that’s been produced using an audio-first approach.
|Setting||Content Types That Work Well||Notes|
|At a desk, in front of a computer||Written, Audio||This modality has the most flexibility, but it has the most competition from other stuff like work, YouTube, the whole rest of the Internet, etc.|
|Away from desk, in front of a desktop or laptop computer||Written, Audio||Again, lots of flexibility, but potentially lots of competition from other stuff.|
|Away from desk, mobile device, filling idle time||Written, Audio||In this context, attention spans are shorter and so interesting audio content and shorter form content–even micro content like tweets, Facebook posts, and Tumblr content–play best.|
|Away from desk, mobile device, doing something else like exercise, driving, etc.||Audio||In this context, only audio works. For some people, this is a lot of time you could gain access to!|
Keep these differences in reach in mind as you are thinking about how to use your limited time and energy to produce educational content marketing. An audio-first approach may be a very efficient, effective way to get it done while also capitalizing on the wide reach of audio content.
OK, enough high level stuff. Let’s get into the nitty gritty.The #3 job of your content marketing is to help prospects understand if you’re the right fit by showing what it’s like to work with you.The #2 job of your content marketing is to increase familiarity by appearing regularly in front of your prospects.For software development shops, job #1 of your content marketing is to increase trust by demonstrating expertise. The central question of doing content marketing right becomes…How do you demonstrate expertise most effectively?
So many ways….
There are many ways you can demonstrate expertise. Here’s a short list:
- Articles that explain how to solve a problem.
- Screencasts that teach something
- Podcasts where you really go deep into a subject
- Talks where you explain a topic very well
- Slide decks where you teach something
- White papers that explain a topic
- Case studies that summarize how a project went and what challenges you addressed
- In-person or remote training where you teach on a topic
Your imagination is really the limit in terms of how you can demonstrate expertise, but the list above covers a lot of the popular approaches.As I hinted at in the previous lesson on planning, you should play to your strengths. If you’re a boring writer but a more engaging speaker, then don’t make written articles the foundation of your content marketing (or hire a good writer instead of DIYing it).Choose methods where you have an execution advantage. If you’re both a strong writer and a good speaker but have a much easier time getting in front of a microphone consistently and recording a podcast episode, focus on that over writing.
Getting your geek on
Once you actually get serious about content marketing, you’ll be faced with the question of how tactical/geeky your content should be.If you’re a Rails developer, you’ll probably be thinking about writing articles on setting up your development environment or solving particular Rails-specific programming challenges.If you’re a front-end developer, you’ll be tempted to blog about Angular vs. .These kind of tactical-level content marketing pieces do demonstrate expertise, but don’t let them make up 100% of your content marketing.Instead, they should make up no more than 50% of your content marketing. This is because you also need something that speaks to the people who make the decision about hiring you.
Getting your suit on
You also need to market effectively to the person or people who make the decision to hire you, allocate the budget to hire you, or have authority over the business unit that hires you.This person also needs to trust you before you can make the sale, but they have different concerns. They want demonstrations of your expertise in:
- Lowering risk for them
- Skillfully getting results on time and under budget
- Helping them make good decisions that pay off for their business
The other 50% of your content marketing should demonstrate that you have this kind of expertise. Expertise in turning your tactical skills into valuable business outcomes.Case studies tend to work well for demonstrating this kind of expertise, though they are not the only way. Educational content aimed at business decision makers also works really well.For example, if you created a thorough and unbiased guide that explained the business-level considerations around integrating a modern ERP system into a particular e-commerce platform, you would do a lot to build trust with any potential clients who might hire you to help with that kind of project.Here are some of my favorite examples of this kind of content:
That’s it for this lesson! In the next lesson, I’ll give you some hacks for creating content marketing with less effort and disruption to your business.Please email me if you’ve got any questions.If you’d like my help with your content marketing, Content X-Ray is for you. You’ll get an actionable, custom-tailored report that will help you optimize your content marketing, eliminate confusion about next steps, and support you with an exclusive private library of how-to content. Check it out here.
This article won’t be very actionable. You’ll be tempted to skip it, which would be a huge mistake.You’ll be tempted to skip it because planning a successful content marketing campaign is hard stuff. It seems much easier and more productive to get busy writing some blog articles.But without a good plan, any effort you dedicate to content marketing will be mostly wasted.Do I have your attention now?Good! The Elements of PlanYour content marketing plan will need to include some decisions around:
- Who you are trying to reach
- What your content will accomplish for them
- How you will get that content in front of them.
Who are you trying to reach?Knowing who you want your content marketing to reach is very important. I personally spent months writing blog articles that no one wanted to read because they lacked clarity about who they were meant to reach, so I can tell you from personal experience it doesn’t work.Imagine this: you want to impress some potential buyers for your services and demonstrate that you are the go-to company for a certain thing. You’ve spent months preparing a killer talk and now you’re ready to pitch it to some MeetUp groups so you can get in front of their audience.What’s the smart thing to do?Option 1: Build a list of 20 MeetUps, run rand(1..20), and pitch your talk to whatever MeetUp the random number generator tells you to.Option 2: Pitch your talk to the MeetUp that has the kind of attendees who need your expertise the most.Investing time into content marketing without knowing who you are trying to reach is the equivalent of Option 1.That seems like a silly example, but I can’t count the number of dev shop blogs I’ve seen that appear to be using option 1 for their audience strategy. Their blog listing is a seemingly random assortment of topics, ranging from content meant for their peers (stuff like how to set up a development environment) to announcements about staff changes, new case studies, and new portfolio pieces. That is what a lack of a plan looks like.So if that’s what “no plan at all” looks like, what does “100% clarity about who are trying to reach” look like?It looks a lot like a job description. Here’s a quick off the cuff example:
Our content will help the manager of sales at $10MM to $100MM commercial construction companies understand how custom code can increase sales by delivering better information to the right sales staff in a more timely fashion.
That’s like a 1-line job description for your content marketing. And if you can get that kind of clarity about who you are trying to reach, you are 1/3rd of the way there to much more effective content marketing! And here’s a real-life example of content marketing built with that kind of plan: http://marcusblankenship.com/become-a-great-manager/That example leads into the next important point your plan needs to address…What will your content do for them?Or in other words, why would your intended audience take time out of their already stressful, distraction-filled day to pay attention to what your content marketing is saying? What’s in it for them?In the world of B2C marketing, you can create content marketing that is entertaining (SFW example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYu_bGbZiiQ) or informative (examples: http://mag.splashnology.com/article/35-fresh-interesting-infographics/8548/), and if it’s well done and well-distributed it gets clicks and eyeballs and is therefore declared a success. This is the content marketing equivalent of a Superbowl TV ad. If it’s funny and people share it, it’s considered a success.B2B content marketing for small and mid-size professional services has an entirely different goal, which is to earn trust before the sale. You do that by creating content marketing that demonstrates your expertise.This demonstration of expertise can happen in thousands of ways. Here are a few examples:
- Providing the solution to a painful or urgent problem your ideal customer often faces. Remember, ideas are cheap and successful implementation is valuable, so don’t fear that you’re “giving away the farm” if you describe how to solve a problem that’s core to your business.
- Putting what you’ve learned “in the trenches” or on the cutting edge of your industry into summarized form. This is often called “thought leadership” and may take the form of opinion pieces, white papers, and the like.
- Stories about problems you have solved for specific clients. Aka case studies.
Here’s the bottom line on this part of your plan: if you can’t easily describe how your reader will be better off after they’ve read, listened to, or otherwise experienced a piece of content marketing you are planning to create, then you have a problem that you should solve before beginning work. It would be like building software without a spec or user stories.Here’s the hardest part…A content marketing plan with no provision for distribution is like a web app project with no plan for hosting. And distribution is usually the most challenging part of your content marketing plan.Unless your company’s domain starts with redd*, mediu*, news.ycomb*, or a handful of other high-traffic names, you’re not going to press publish on a new piece of content marketing and get immediate results. Instead, you’ll need a plan for actively getting results from your content marketing efforts.I hear you saying:
Wait–I thought content marketing was inbound marketing, and the leads would just start piling up after I publish a few epic pieces of content!
Well, if your timeframe for success is 6 months plus, then sure, you can probably rely on search engines to bring you a limited amount of traffic, and you can rely on your on-site lead capture system to generate leads. But if you want bigger or faster results, I’d advise having a content distribution plan, which amounts to you getting your own traffic for your content.Here’s an example of a content distribution plan from Paul Jarvis, who uses content marketing very successfully to drive his business: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-jarvis/my-7day-cycle-for-generat_b_6934984.html (in particular Paul’s Monday and Tuesday sections are what I’m talking about in terms of distribution)Here’s another example of items you might include in your content marketing distribution plan:
- Hit Publish on a new blog article.
- Schedule social media mentions on biz account and ask employees to help out too
- Directly ask the following 10 people to tweet about it: [list of 10 business buddies or friendly “influencers” who would help by getting the word out and notes for how best to ask them for their help (email vs twitter DM vs other methods)]
- Send a link and teaser for the article to this list of current and past clients, ask them to forward it to a specific type of business contact they might have: [list of current and past clients who would probably be helpful in this way]
With more substantial pieces of content you may have an outbound cold emailing strategy in place to get it in front of people. Cold emailing people is a totally different game when you are offering them value instead of asking them for business.So freaking plan how you’re going to get your content in front of the right people! It’s a critical part of doing content marketing right.The part I haven’t mentioned: mediumThe part of your content marketing plan I haven’t mentioned yet is medium. As in, what medium do you use to create awesome content marketing? Should you write articles, record screencasts, guest on or host a podcast, or use any of dozens of other mediums?I haven’t mentioned it yet because it really depends. I’m a huge advocate of using a medium that is somewhat natural to you, is easy for you to consistently work in, and shows your “best side”. If your voice sounds like Steve Urkel, maybe podcasting is not your best medium. Or maybe it is, if you know how to turn a possible weakness into a strength. It’s not by accident that he was a memorable character!So pick the medium that exploits your natural preferences and makes it easy for you to be consistent.
I know this was a long article. BUT I’M NOT SORRY, because it’s important stuff! The success of your content marketing will very much depend on how well you plan.Ready to start putting your content marketing plan together? Head over to this planning page, respond to the questions, and you’ll get emailed a copy. This will help you think through the important parts of your content marketing plan. Click here to start planning.
The #1 problem with content marketing is that it’s a job.Doing content marketing well and consistently is. a. job. It takes specialized skills, time, effort, and a calendar.This crash course is here to:
- Show you all the shortcuts I know about
- Help you avoid wasting time doing content marketing activities that won’t work
- Build content marketing that’s specifically designed to sell professional services (not SaaS apps and not B2C stuff, which is what a LOT of content marketing advice is geared towards)
There are other ways of acquiring leads for your dev shop, each with benefits and drawbacks:
- Paid acquisition through advertising or pay-for-leads services like letsworkshop.com (an awesome service BTW)
- Cold calls and outbound sales (example: http://carb.io/)
- Giving talks, workshops, training events, or guesting on podcasts (al forms of content marketing that are more outbound in nature)
Paid acquisition requires only skill and money to produce leads, but it stops working when you shut off the ad budget.Cold calls and outbound sales can get immediate results, but they also don’t work unless you put time and/or money and effort into them.Referrals are amazing, because they come with unbeatable pre-established trust (that you didn’t have to build up over time with that particular prospect), but they are largely out of your control.Giving talks is another heavy hitter in terms of rapidly building trust, but unless the talk is recorded or repurposed in some other way, it can be a 1-hit wonder limited to those in attendance. When it does get recorded (like a podcast guest spot), it may end up on someone else’s platform where you have little control.Unlike these methods of acquiring leads, content marketing works 24×7 on your behalf, years into the future. It is (usually) published on a platform you control and fuels a marketing funnel that you own and benefit from over the years. It quietly and steadily builds trust and generates leads without you doing anything after it’s published. But… producing it is a real job.
I’d like to tell you what the true purpose of content marketing is.First, you should understand what content marketing is not:
- A quick win that produces overnight results
- A band-aid for a broken sales process or other business problem
- The least expensive marketing channel
I expect by now, you’re saying to yourself, “wow, Philip, you don’t sound very upbeat on content marketing!”Actually, I’m very upbeat on content marketing, when it is used effectively. 🙂Using Content Marketing EffectivelyContent marketing is a very effective way to build the confidence of your audience–and add new members to that audience–if you have positioned yourself or your business as a differentiated expert in a narrow market niche. On the other hand, if you have not positioned yourself as a differentiated specialist, it will be difficult to use content marketing effectively.Allow me to unpack this a bit for you.First, positioning. As you know from the previous crash course on positioning, the purpose of positioning your business is to become clear on who you serve, what problems you can solve for them, and how you do so different than others doing something similar. As a quick example, my company positioning goes like this:I help development shops get more qualified leads without hiring a sales person. I use education-based content marketing, marketing automation, and digital outreach to make that happen. I’m also the author of The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms.That’s a pretty good level of specificity about who I serve, what I do for them, and how I do so differently than other marketers.Figuring out your positioning is the first step in an effective content marketing program. You do not have to position (or re-position) your entire company, but you do need to develop a positioning that will guide your content marketing effort. Positioning is a force multiplier for your marketing efforts.A positioning makes a claim of expertise. It says, in effect, “because I have chosen to focus my skill on a narrow range of problems, I have developed considerable expertise in solving those problems.” (Higher rates and more selectivity in which clients you work with are two benefits that flow from that kind of expertise.) Your marketing is how you back up that claim of expertise.People wonder a lot about what kind of marketing is best for their business. Having a clear positioning will help you answer that thorny question. Instead of the question being, “which marketing channel is most effective, or which is the most popular/trendy at the moment?”, the question becomes “which form of marketing will do the best job of demonstrating my company’s expertise?”.That’s a much easier question to answer!It happens that content marketing, specifically content marketing that is designed to educate your prospects, is an incredibly effective way to demonstrate that you have the expertise your positioning says you do. And that’s why, for technical firms like programming consultancies, web development shops, and even SaaS firms, education-based content marketing is a fantastic marketing tool.That is the true purpose of content marketing, to demonstrate your expertise in a way that convinces your prospects and helps them believe the claim of expertise your positioning makes.
The term “positioning” was coined in 1972 by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and big product brands have used positioning to gain competitive advantage ever since then. I interviewed Al Ries (the co-author of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and many other gold standard marketing books) about how the concept of positioning applies to professional services businesses.Q: Is a modified approach to positioning required in light of today’s communication landscape, most notably the Internet?As time goes on, every concept needs some modification. There are two things that have affected the positioning concept.
- Visuals have become more important. Positioning was a totally verbal strategy, yet there is a lot of evidence that the best way into a mind is not with words. It’s with visuals. My daughter Laura Ries has written a book on this subject called “Visual Hammer.
- The Internet is used primarily as a tactic, not a strategy. Yet there is one difference between Internet brands and retail brands sold in physical stores.
For brands sold in retail stores, there’s always room for a second brand. Coke and Pepsi. Red Bull and Monster. Retailers always want at least two brands in every category so they can play one against the other.Not so on the Internet. That’s where you will find brands like Facebook, Twitter and Google which completely dominate their categories leaving little room for a strong second brand. Q: What is fundamentally different or noteworthy about positioning professional services compared to positioning a product?Nothing.The problem is that owners of professional services think their services are so important that they can’t focus on one feature. They need to be experts in everything.Take marketing consulting. Do you know of any marketing consulting firm that owns a word in the mind?We do. We call ourselves “focusing consultants.” But few of our competitors focus on anything specific. Q: How do you recommend professional service providers get greater clarity on their positioning? Are there some specific key steps that a firm’s leadership must go through to develop an effective positioning?That’s too broad a question for any specific answer. Let’s just say that most companies focus their attention on such issues as, What they are, What they are good at, What experiences they have had, etc. In other words, it’s all about the organization and its people.Positioning is different. You start by looking in the minds of your prospects to see if you can find an “open” hole. Then you make changes inside your organization to fill that open hole.As a general rule, advertising is about communicating something to customers and prospects. Marketing is about making changes inside your organization in order to be successful on the outside. Q: A professional services firm–particularly a smaller one–cannot simply invent a position that matches its core competencies for the reasons you have outlined in your books: the position must align with existing market perceptions. How then does a professional services firm find a viable position that also matches its core competencies?That’s the essential problem of marketing. Most marketers spend all their time trying to “verbalize” the core competencies of their companies. As a result, the “positions” that come up with are too broad to penetrate the minds of prospects.Think of a position as a knife. It’s hard to cut into a mind with a dull knife. In other words, a position that encompasses almost everything.It’s much easier to cut into a mind with a sharp knife. A narrow position.How does a professional services firm find a viable position in prospects’ minds? Narrow its focus so it stands for something unique and different.Emery Air Freight was the leading air-cargo carrier. What services did Emery Air Freight offer? All services. Overnight, two-day and three-day deliveries.So Federal Express narrowed its focus to “overnight” service. When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.Was overnight service a core competency of Federal Express? Probably not. But it was a great position to own in the mind. Q: A very new professional services firm may not be faced with any existing market perceptions. What should they keep in mind as they attempt to influence market perceptions for the first time?Start with strategy. What can the new service offer that its competitors do not? Then try to pick a name that reflects the strategy.White Wave wanted to get into the soy milk business. Instead of using the White Wave name, the company took the words “soy milk” and telescoped them into “silk.”Now when consumers want soy milk, the first brand they think of is Silk. Q: In selling professional services, human factors like trust and personality are very important. Do these factors play a role in an effective position for a services firm, or should they be secondary to some other factor?Remember when Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook?”Did the American public think to themselves, I always thought he was a crook but now I know that he is not.Marketing is filled with abstract words like trust, honesty, loyalty, premium-quality, consumer-oriented services, world-class products. Very, very few of these words register with consumers.If you want your marketing messages to be believed, they need to be brought down to earth. You need to use specific words that generate visual images rather than abstract words that are meaningless to most prospects. Q: Do you recommend professional services firms anchor their positioning around a particular expertise, customer service, or some other kind of attribute?Only if that attribute is unique to the professional services firm.A better direction might be to narrow the focus of the firm’s market. Instead of being a generalist that can handle every aspect of a business, a company might focus on one aspect.A marketing consulting firm, for example, might focus on “start-up” companies only. Q: In general, a consultant can grow revenues by scaling fees, volume, or both. Firms that attempt to add additional lines of services may face the line extension problems you describe in your book on positioning. Are these problems as dangerous for a services firm as a major product brand? If a firm is determined to diversify, is there a way to do that without harming their position?What is the strongest position any brand can own? It’s leadership.Heinz in ketchup. Hertz in rent-a-cars. Hellmann’s in mayonnaise.Before a company even considers a line extension, it should try to dominate its existing market. That’s the best protection an existing company can own.Look at the advertising business I grew up with. Back in the Mad Men days, the leading advertising agencies were Doyle Dane Bernbach, McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and many others.Today, those leading agencies are still in business. It’s the smaller agencies that are gone. Nothing protects the future like leadership. Q: Are there common mistakes a professional services firm should be aware of as they develop their positioning?Positioning is not about you. Positioning is about the minds of your prospects.Every company should start a strategy session by asking themselves, What do we own in the minds of our prospects? And what do our competitors own?Then decide what position the professional services firm can own in the mind? And typically this requires changes in the firm itself.Years ago, Jack Trout and I wrote a series of “positioning” articles for Advertising Age, the leading marketing publication. As a result, we received many letters from advertising agencies around the world, complimenting us.At the time, there thousands of advertising agencies in America, but very few of them had global offices.So rather than try to compete against American agencies, I wanted to use our positioning contacts to build a global chain of agencies. In other words, franchise the “positioning” concept. Q: Are there any patterns that you see successful services firms following in their positioning?The most successful firms tend to be the ones that can generate favorable publicity. What you say about yourself is mostly a waste of time. What others say about you, however, is usually believed by most prospects.Look at the advertising used by producers of motion pictures and Broadway plays. They are devoid of traditional “marketing” copy. All the quotes are taken from media reviews of the movies and plays.A professional services firm should do the same. Generate favorable publicity in the media and then use media quotes in their marketing material.
You can learn more about Al Ries at http://ries.com
You can listen to this post instead of reading it:Or… you can read it:
In my coaching and consulting work, I’ve encountered several situations where my client sees the benefit of building a list but feels quite nervous about putting themselves out there by writing content for a list.
I have an idea that I think will help. But first… the problem.
Think about it–it’s actually quite personal to create a bunch of content for a list. You’re putting your expertise and your opinions out there for the world to criticize!
I’ve been doing this for a while now and I’ll level with you–people will criticize you.
- They’ll unsubscribe, which feels like rejection.
- They’ll react in harsh, negative ways to a sales message, which makes you feel like the jerk for trying to offer more value to your list.
- And they’ll ignore you, which feels… well, like being ignored!
All these are reasons you might use to talk yourself out of starting an email list.
You Can’t Afford to Let the Problem Stop You
Every successful consultant I’ve talked to says the same thing:
I wish I had started building my list sooner.
The reasons why a list is so important are simple:
- A list helps you build trust with potential clients
- A list helps you scale your trust building
- A list can position you as an expert in your niche
So… what do you do if you want the benefits of having a list but don’t feel confident about writing your own content for a list?
Here’s a very simple idea that is picking up momentum as we speak. I’ll explain the idea in a moment, but first I want you to know why it’s going to be a hit.
As you probably already know, content is king on the internet. Both for work and for pleasure, people head online when they want to find useful, interesting, and funny content.
The overwhelming volume of content online and the increasing skill with which marketers promote that content creates a new problem. Information overload.
I don’t need to explain information overload to you because, unless you live in isolation, you already understand it. You live with it every day.
A very relevant solution to information overload is content curation. Curators are those who have the willingness and ability to look at a lot of content, filter out the junk (most of it), and present the world with the best of what remains.
Curators–if they’re good at what they do–solve the information overload problem. Curators do something else too…
They build an audience that trusts them. I hope by this point you’re seeing how content curation is a potential solution to the “I want a list but don’t want to write” problem.
Imagine that you run a development shop that has just decided to position the business as specialists in educational tech software. You’re excited about this new focus on a growing, lucrative ecosystem of clients. But, because this focus is new and you don’t have a long list of case studies to draw from, you feel nervous about writing original content and trying to build a list.
Here’s the question to ask yourself: if you ran the best niche newsletter on ed tech, what would that do for your business pipeline?
If you play your cards right, it would do a lot of good things for your pipeline.
What would publishing a very good ed tech newsletter do for the trust that list members feel towards your business?
If you consistently curate great, useful content, it would increase the trust of your audience.
Why will this be good for your pipeline?
It won’t change things overnight. It won’t flood your inbox with leads.
But… it will:
- Position you as a leader in your niche
- Position you as someone with strong subject matter expertise
- (If you read a lot anyway…) Leverage time you’re spending anyway in a way that helps your marketing
If this idea sounds interesting to you, I’ve put together some resources to help you learn more and get started quickly.