When the stock market bumbled to an alarming low on Oct 10, 2008, Marcus Sheridan, CEO of River Pools & Spas and author of The Sales Lion blog, was among the hardest hit. His business was built upon homeowners taking second mortgages. When the economy tanked so did the demand for pools and spas.
Rather than call it quits, Sheridan employed a tenacious content marketing strategy to not only save his business, but turn it into a Google magnet on the Web.
In his keynote at Content Marketing World (CMW) on Sept. 6 in Columbus, Ohio, Sheridan demystified the world of content marketing and discussed the strategy that worked for him.
Mystery #1: Getting Started, Then Staying Inspired: Sheridan said that the notion of creating a sea of content can seem daunting and frustrating, but it's actually easy to get started. "If you want to be great with content marketing there's one rule—they ask, you answer," says Sheridan. "The ultimate content strategy is listening."
When embarking on a company blog, start with the questions you get every day, and write them all down. "If you don't come up with at least 50 questions, you haven't tried hard enough," says Sheridan. Take those 100 questions, and you turn them into 100 blog posts with those questions transformed into the titles.
"If you write two times per week, that's a whole year's worth of content," says Sheridan. Afraid your content won't be "sexy" to readers? Sheridan says that businesses don't define what's sexy in terms of content, consumers and customers do.
Mystery #2: In Google We Trust: If someone is going to buy a swimming pool—the first question they ask is price. They next search for problems with the product, then compare to other manufacturers, and lastly they search for product reviews. That's why Sheridan built his content strategy around the idea that when people search for anything involving questions about pools, you won't be able to avoid River Pools & Spas.
The company became the number one pool manufacturer in Google search resultsbecause they bothered to answer every single question. "You have to stop thinking like a business owner sometimes and start thinking like a consumer and answer the questions you would have—that's how we, as a little pool company out of Virginia, outran the major manufacturers," says Sheridan. "Because we don't have any red tape in the content creation process, we can be little Davids and circle the Goliaths."
Mystery #3: Addressing Competitors: People try to act like their competitors don't exist, but your potential customers know they do—they've already Googled them, said Sheridan. In one blog post, he listed the five best pool builders (competitors) in Virginia, and didn't list himself. Now, if you search for "best pool builders in Virginia," River Pools & Spas will come up in Google, even though they weren't on the list. In fact, if you type in his competitors' names, reviews/ratings, Sheridan's company will show up. "That one article made $150,000 in sales," says Sheridan, who tracks the analytics for every blog post.
Dan Grantham, editorial director at CE Publishing, who led a session on brand storytelling at CMW, also endorses the practice of mentioning competitors. When working on behalf of Chevy, his team could compare it with Toyota, Mazda, etc. "That's what Car and Driver and the customer are going to do," says Grantham. "Did we put in all the areas that we lost? No, but we put in a handful, and showcased our advantages—you have to be transparent and make it look fair in the eyes of the customer."
Mystery #4: Thought leadership: Sheridan wrote an eBook titled How to Buy a Swimming Pool the Right Way, From the Right Company, at the Right Price. Over the next few months he started getting calls from around the country from people asking questions about fiberglass pools and from manufactures to evaluate their process. Here's the kicker: Sheridan has never even installed a pool. He can, however, consult his installers and communicate how it's done.
Mystery #5: Addressing Both "Price" and "Cost" Questions: If you go on a Web site and look for how much something costs, and you can't find it, you'll go somewhere else—it's only natural, says Sheridan.
That's why, the first article Sheridan ever wrote was titled, "How Much Does a Fiberglass Pool Cost?" all the keywords he had went to number one in Google search results, and now, half of his most popular keywords in terms of traffic are related to cost.
Mystery #6: Moneyball Meets Content Marketing: Similar to Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, in which Oakland A's General Manger Billy Beane built his team around a single statistic he thought was the most undervalued, Sheridan dove into his Web analytics to see which types of visitors were most primed for a sale.
The number he came up with was visitors who read 30 pages: if they could get someone to read 30 pages of content on the site, they would buy a pool 80% of the time on sales calls. "The content is the greatest sales tool in the world—not us or our sales guys," says Sheridan.
We have no idea how much information viewers will consume on our Web sites until we give it to them, says Sheridan. Content marketing isn't about tools—it's about developing a culture of creation, education and communication. It's time to start building, or in Sheridan's case, start digging.
Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg