Building a Business on the Back of Content

To kick off the second day of sessions at Content Marketing World In Cleveland, Thursday’s opening keynote panel featured an interactive Q&A session moderated by Aaron Kahlow, founder of Online Marketing Institute with Mike Stelzner of and Brian Clark of Founders for two of the fastest-growing online marketing sites detailed why content has lifted them to the top.

Q: Aaraon Kahlow: What are some of your content marketing weaknesses, and how do you overcome then?

Brian Clark: Trying to think like a publisher and media producer. You have to realize that the creative process is crazy, but that’s ok. Embrace that, because the end result of content marketing is dignified and wonderful by creating content that people love to read.

Michael Steizner—I’m perfectionist and I have to be involved in everything. My fingers are involved in everything that comes out from Social Media Examiner. The lesson I’ve learned is you need to find great people you can trust, and you can’t always strive for perfection.

Q: As extremely successful people in content marketing, what are the biggest components to your success?

Clark: We’ve been very transparent and taken a reader-based focus. We like to think that if the substance of the content is enough, but it’s not. It’s a war out there. Everything from your headline to how your content is structured has to be reader friendly. Attention spans are fragmented, so you have to make digestible pieces with chunks of value that pop out.

Steizner: Anyone familiar with Nordstorm? MY formula of success if to give the Nordstrom experience to everyone in terms of customer service. We want someone to think, wow, there’s something different about that. In order to do that, we have to create content people want. Secondly, how do we get in to their brain? To do that you have to go through the eyes, so we spend a lot of time on the design of our site. Visual design, along with layout, is essential. Working with other people is crucial.  In the early days, I actively sought out people such as Brian Clark to guest-blog and offered my help to support his brand. Have a servant attitude and make sure you’re always lifting other people up, because then you’re creating movement and they can lift you up in return.  

Q: From a process standpoint, how do you decide what kind of content to write?

Clark: I’m not a big fan of asking directly what our readers want to read; I’m more observational. Social media is its own great free market research. I figured out what people needed with Copyblogger, and instead of creating a blog about blogging, I started out talking about copywriting with content and from that focus I was able to expand to content marketing as a whole. The need was there and was observable—what are people struggling with, and what are their desires?

Steizner: Brian and I have different approaches. We use Survey Monkey, and ask open-ended intelligence questions to find out what people want to read. One of the questions we asked was—what is the biggest question you want answered about social media? The subsequent report was 40 pages long, and the entire team analyzed the data and we decided that these are the topics we need to do, and every year we ask the question and create the report.

Q: How do you define and look at this thing we’re calling “content marketing?”

Clark: Content marketing is giving away some valuable information to sell something related to that information. With social media, content is what people share, and it shows that you’re being generous and showing your own expertise. That’s incredibly powerful for us, because our initial readers shared our content everyday.

Steizner: Content marketing is developing information that your audience loves. Ultimately that will either help you develop raving fans, earn more traffic to your Web site, build an email list or help you sell a product. It’s giving people what they want, with no holds barred. I believe you should give away all your best stuff.

Q: How do you draw the line between writing content that’s interesting to others and content that’s interesting to you?

Clark: The data shows people have more success in content marketing when they produce more content, but you have to be an editor as well and decide where there is value while sharing.

Steizner: The litmus test is if your audience is interested in it. Like Brian, I believe you shouldn’t be just sharing your own stuff. We’re always looking for outstanding content, because if you become a reputable source of content people will stop looking elsewhere. They will ultimately refer others to you, who will then become customers.

Q: Metrics—what are the big metrics you guys are looking at to decide where you’re doing something well? (you have to go with your gut and your intuition)

Clark: We look at Web traffic of course, and sometimes it’s not that meaningful, but it can show if you’re doing something generally right. We look at how a particular headline or piece of content performs, which we do by comments, open rates, retweets and sharing. I have a holistic approach—you’ve got to keep the big picture in mind. I do pay an intense amount of analytical time, but then ultimately make a decision from intuition as well.

Stelzner: From a content perspective we analyze three things—page views, number of comments and retweets. One metric that we follow is that 1000 retweets’s is a minumum standard for a decent article. From a business perspective, we look at sales, whether we’re achieving growth and growing our subscriber base. We also look at Facebook (57,000 fans) growth and implement programs with the goals of getting to a certain level.

Q: How do you decide between personal and company branding?

Clark: If you’re a consultant, you want to focus on your personal brand to showcase your own expertise.

Steizner: I realized I could only go so far. With Social Media Examiner, most people don’t even know it’s me, and I like that. I like the fact that if I want to, I can sell it someday because it shines on other people and not me. I don’t do a lot of public appearances. I love my freedom, and I’d suggest being careful about your personal brand.

Q: When you start developing a company with other writers, how do you cover a;; parts of the process so you can scale your business?

Clark: We’ve been training senior editors for years in a mentoring process, and they have competitions about who can get a headline by me, and now they are trusted to publish their own content—but that took 3 years.

Steizner: We put together an editorial guide, and constantly work with my team and tell people that if they didn’t think this article hit the mark, it shouldn’t make it to my desk. It took a process of training my staff, but there’s always going to be my finger in there. We have to realize that people in our organizations have gifts, and I just know that I have a gift for writing headlines.

Q: Are you finding Google+ interesting as a channel?

Clark: Google+ is a giant data farm for Google search. Logistically, the platform itself is fun and multimedia rich. Twitter is our main channel still, but if it does take off—and I think like Mike that it will—you should get started on it now to build you audience.

Steizner: Google+ for me is better than Twitter, because I like that conversations are aggregated in a little stream. Google+ will be a force to be reckoned with because of the little red +1 button that is part of every page. When they come out with Google+ for business, it will give Facebook a run for its money. It’s not perfect, but after a couple failures, they’ve gotten it right.

Q: A key metric you mentioned was subscribers—how do you build it?

Clarke: The whole goal of content marketing is ultimately get people to take action. The first action you should strive for and one to always keep present is to get subscribers. The content is a cookie, and you readers should want more of it.

Q: What are some of the most common content marketing tripping points you’ve observed?

Clarke: Not focusing on the audiences’ needs.  e.g., no bullet points, long paragraphs, poor headlines, and so on. Serve others by providing content that’s readable and enjoyable. 

Steizner: Self-promotion in content. Nobody cares about your stuff—they care about themselves. When you have a little message that says at the end of content to buy our product, they now know you’re not there to serve them, you’re there to convert them.