When it comes to content marketing, it may seem difficult for a small business with limited resources to compete with mega-corporations. The good news is that you don’t have to! Nor do you, as a small business owner or marketing manager, need to emulate the strategies of those large companies. Today’s guest is going to discuss ways that small businesses can use content marketing to build an audience, meet that audience’s needs, and turn readers into customers.
I’m here with Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and of Content Marketing World, an annual event for content marketers. This interview covers the unique advantage content marketing holds for small businesses plus a process you can start using today to get the most out of limited resources. With the right attitude and a basic process, content can become a strategic advantage for you.
Let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us the story about when you understood that content marketing was valuable.
I was blessed to get a job in 2000 at a company called Penton Media. Penton is a large, independent business‑to‑business company, one of the largest in North America. I got a job in the Custom Media Department, which basically was a very unloved department at that time.
We did newsletters, we did magazines, and then we went on into blog programs and webinar programs for large B2B companies like Microsoft and Parker Hannifin. We were trying to help them tell their story better.
Basically, what happened is that if we had a sponsor or an advertiser for Penton Media Publications—which usually meant they were sponsoring trade shows or a print magazine in some way—and they didn’t want to spend money on advertising, the folks would throw it over the wall to us. They’d say, “Hey, could you get any money out of these folks?”
We would sit down with them and talk to them about their challenges and the audiences they were trying to target. Out of that came some kind of a vehicle, usually very educational, very informational.
We’d try to help them build an audience and get that audience to know, like, and trust them more so that they would solve some of their goals—whether that was, “We need more revenue” or “We need to save costs in some way.” We want to create happier customers, and we believe that if they’re happier, they’re going to buy more. So, it started with Penton.
I took over that department in 2001, and by 2005 or 2006, as social media came on, as search became more and more important, I said, “Oh, my gosh. This is going to be big.”
Why Content Marketing Matters
Content Generates Interest
Content marketing as a discipline has been around, as you know, for hundreds of years. But because the Internet has taken off, there are no barriers for us to publish as companies, and at the same time there are no barriers for our consumers to get information. They’ve got a 24/7 device with them at all times, a smartphone, they can get any information they want. They can ignore us at will.
I said, “Oh, well, if they can ignore our advertisements and they can ignore our product pitches, we’d better figure out how to tell better stories consistently over time to build that audience, because if we don’t we’re going to be in trouble as businesses.” It was about that time, 2005 or 2006 that I said, “This is going to be big.”
In 2007 I started what is now the Content Marketing Institute. What I found out as I was talking with more marketers is that they didn’t have this concept. They were really still thinking, “Oh, I’ve got this product. I’m going to run this campaign. I’ve got to generate interest; I’ve got to get more leads.” We’ve done that for the last 50 to 70 years, the same process—but content marketing doesn’t work that way.
Content Builds Your Audience
It’s all about building an audience, and if we build that audience and it knows, likes, and trusts us, then we see amazing things happen for our company. Most companies don’t think that way, so that’s when CMI was born. And we’re still in the learning process.
Most of the companies we go into, mostly mid‑sized and large companies, this is still something that they’re grappling with. They can’t put their heads around it because it’s so different from just going out and shooting out content whichever ways they can, which are a lot today. There are hundreds of different ways they can send out content, but they’re not making an impact.
We’re seeing effective interest rates as low as they’ve ever been since we’ve been measuring over the last six, seven years. This is a problem because they’re still thinking, “Oh, because we can publish, we should be publishing,” and that’s not the case.
Just because you can—and we all can—it doesn’t mean your story’s worth engaging in; it doesn’t mean it’s going to do anything for your company. So you’ve got to think up front: Why are we doing this? What is our purpose for doing this in the first place? How are we going to make an impact on that person? This is the important thing.
How do we make an impact on that audience outside of the products and services we offer? If we can do that, they’ll be more apt to buy from us, to engage with us in some way, but you’ve got to get by that it’s-not-about-the-products thing and really focus on the needs of the audience.
I think in the story you just told there’s a part that is intuitive for you, and maybe for me as well, but is less intuitive for those who are trying to implement content marketing. You said back at Penton Media you engaged clients, you asked questions about their situation, and you began to produce answers to those questions.
I’d make the argument that good content marketing starts right there: giving answers to problems. Would you agree with that assessment?
I think that’s a great place to start, absolutely. Let’s take it from the beginning.
- Content Develops Your Audience
Let’s say I’m doing a client engagement, and I say, “Okay, what are your goals?” They’re going to say, “We need more leads for this product.” I’ll say, “Okay, that’s fine, but who are we trying to target?”
Let’s say they’re a B2B company. They’ll start going through the list: “We’re trying to target the CFO for the buying decision. We’re trying to target the mechanical engineer for this,” and whatnot. They go down the line.
I’ll say, “Okay, but for content marketing to work, we have to focus on a very specific audience. If you focus on multiple audiences, you are not going to be relevant. There’s no way we can tell a story that’s relevant to those three audiences you just put on the board, so who are we going to target?”
“We’re going to target the mechanical engineer, then, because we feel that’s the one where we really want them to understand the story we’re trying to tell.”
Great. But then I’m going to say, “Is that enough? Is it just the mechanical engineer? What’s the process that this mechanical engineer is going through? Can we get more specific than that? What are some of the challenges? Is there something they’re doing that we need to know about? What specifically is it? Are they trying to get a better job? What’s their inherent motivation?” You’re really going into audience development at that point.
Mostly, when we get into these meetings, they want to start blogging, or they want to start doing podcasts right away. That’s about step 25, and we want to be in the up-front process.
Then we’re figuring out, “Okay, we’re just going to focus on this one audience.” Then I’ll say, “Well, what’s the story we’re going to tell?” “Well, we want them to buy more of our products and services.”
I’ll say, “Well, that’s not going to work, because you know what? They don’t care about your products and services at all. They care about their own needs. They care about whatever—getting that better job, or living that better life in some way. How are we going to connect with that?”
Content Helps You Connect With Your Audience’s Needs
Then it gets down to this: we’d better be telling a differentiated story that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s really going to separate you, so that they will know they can trust you at the end of the day because you’re delivering such value to them on a consistent basis.
That’s where we really get into the question of why we are doing this in the first place. What is the why, outside of the products and services we offer? We’re going to put those to the side for a second, because all we’re doing right now is trying to build a relationship with that audience.
We do that through content, but content in itself is not the asset. The asset is the audience. How do we build the audience? We do that through content.
If we can build that audience through other means, that’s great, but the asset at the end of the day is that audience, and I think a lot of people forget that. We think, “Oh, we’ve got all these blogs.”
Here’s a great way to look at it: If you were to say, “How much is the New York Times worth?”—if you’re trying to value the New York Times—you don’t say, “Well, the New York Times had 20,000 pieces of content last year. We’re going to value them at that.”
No, you don’t. You know how you value The New York Times? You value them at the audience and the buying behavior of that audience. That’s how you focus on it.
That’s why we want to say, “How do we build that audience?” That is the key to everything.
Three Little Questions
We just went through a little opening consulting engagement. That takes an hour or two hours sometimes to put your arms around, because when you go into a company, you’ve got IT, you’ve got communications, you’ve got PR, you’ve got marketing, and they’re all doing different things. We’ve got to get them all on the same page, focusing on:
- Who’s the audience?
- How can we really make an impact with that audience?
- How can we separate ourselves as the leading experts in something?
We have to do that in order for them to do something profitable at the end of the day. That’s a very, very hard thing to do.
That’s why small companies actually have an advantage over large companies, because you just need one or two people to say, “Yes, I believe in this.” If you get executive support, you can move on a very niche audience with a very specific thing you’re trying to talk about.
You do that instead of going wide and broad, which is what a lot of big companies want to do. That’s why they’re never successful. If you’re targeting more than one audience or more than one content mission at a time, you won’t be successful.
The Small-Business Advantage in Content Marketing
Let’s say we’re a smaller company with 50 people or 15 people. How do we create some relevance around the content that we decide to create? Help us better think about where a small company could be even more nimble than a McDonalds or a UPS or a Xerox.
It’s interesting. We probably should talk about those big case studies, because I would maybe say that a lot of those big case studies aren’t content marketing at all, but we’ll put that to the side. That’s a totally different podcast that you and I could go through.
With a big company—let’s just say one of our clients has seven product managers who manage thousands of products, and they have literally 30 to 40 different audiences that they’re trying to target. They want to do something big. They need scale.
So when I go in and say, “To make this work in contact marketing, you’ve got to focus on one of those audiences,” they hate that. They want something big, a big campaign. They want to put a lot of money behind it. They want 30‑second spots. They want all that type of stuff.
If I go into a small company with, let’s say, 15 people, usually it has maybe two or three products and not as many audiences. We actually have an easier road there.
The Small-Business Advantage: Fewer Decision-Makers
Let’s say that you’re a B2B company. You have 15 people. You have, let’s say, seven to nine buyers, decision‑makers, influencers in that process. Then you can really focus and say, “All right, we’re just going to focus on that one, because if we feel that we can be the go‑to resource for that one audience, it’s going to take care of all of our product and service issues. They’re going to want to buy from us.”
Obviously, we need to prove that, but that’s the hypothesis. That’s the first step: making a hypothesis. We don’t know. You just want to start there with one particular audience.
You and I can have an argument all day long about the quality of content. I would say that most of the quality of content out there coming from those big brands is not inspirational, it’s not informational, it’s not entertaining. It doesn’t do anything; it doesn’t uplift us in any way. It’s probably built more around product and service relation issues.
You could say the same for small companies, but usually that’s not the problem. Usually the problem is consistency.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
When I talk to a small company, they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve been doing contact marketing for six months now.” I’ll say, “You have? What have you been doing?” “Oh, we’ve been doing this blog.” “Well, tell me about the blog. What are you focused on?” “Oh, well, we’ll do one post a week on an informational issue, and then we’ve got something from the company Picnic, or something like that.”
I’m thinking, Okay. Well there’s something.
“Let’s see. About how many times do you send it?” And they’ll say, “Usually we get the blog out two times a week, but sometimes it’s one, but we haven’t done an update in two weeks.” I’m thinking, Oh, here we go.
I’ll tell them, “You’re not really doing contact marketing. You’re just creating content and spitting it out there whenever you have the time. You aren’t consistent about it because you don’t care enough about that relationship with that audience to be consistent.”
“That’s our promise. The content you deliver is a promise to your customers, and once you don’t deliver that, and I mean deliver it consistently ... If you say three blog posts a week, I want them sent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7 o’clock Eastern Time, and I don’t want them at 7:05.”
“I want you thinking like you’re delivering the newspaper, where we used to say if that newspaper wasn’t out on that doorstep the customer was upset. They were disappointed. We want them to be disappointed if they don’t receive it, so we’re going to deliver on that. We want them to want to engage in that content.”
If a small company can actually commit to it and say, “This is as important as anything else we’re doing,” you can deliver on that much easier because you don’t have those political battles internally. You don’t have, for example, somebody saying, “Well, I know you want to put Blog on the navigation, but that’s owned by somebody else, and I can’t give you that navigation. I’ll put something in the footer, and Google will find it, and that’ll be good enough.”
There are battles that we fight in large companies all the time that are that political, that are that silly. But in a small company you don’t have to deal with that.
A Mindset to Make It Happen
That’s why in my book Content, Inc. all those case studies are small. They’re all from people who had no resources, who honestly were just like, “We don’t know what we’re going to sell, but we know this audience. We’re going to talk about this content niche. We’re going to focus on the audience’s needs.” After 15 to 18 months of this, all of a sudden they’ve got this fairly large audience that they can start to monetize through products, through sponsorships, through events, or through whatnot.
The mindset is the hardest thing that you’re going to have to get through. If you already believe it and you get executive support in your organization, you can make this happen.
You have sometimes hundreds of people in a large company that you have to convince to get that done. So in smaller companies you can move quicker, you can be more flexible, and you can divert the resources that are necessary to make sure that you’re going to consistently deliver over time, because that’s what it’s going to take.
The Impact of Content Marketing
Sometimes a smaller company will look at the polished content that’s created by those large companies, and they say, “We can’t create anything that looks that good, that’s that polished and refined.” But you didn’t speak to any of that, because the polish isn’t the point. The point is to resonate with your audience and to be helpful.
If you have focused on that audience, and you’ve committed to delivering that value at a consistent clip, meaning at a regular pace, then they become less concerned with what it looks like. They’re more concerned with, “Is it helpful?” And you win.
Yes, just look at the way technology barriers have come down. You and I can create a podcast as good as, or better than, any large company by spending twenty bucks a month.
From a blog standpoint, blog templates are available. If you’re on WordPress or whatever, you can make it look as good as or better. And really, that’s not the point. There are some great case studies, whether you look at Marcus Sheridan or Rivers Pools and Spas.
I still look at that page. They’ve gone from almost going bankrupt to selling more fiberglass pools than any company in North America. Their page is nothing fancy. But you know what it is? It’s super helpful. It is amazingly helpful, because they’re being authentic and they’re sharing information that nobody else is sharing.
I love Jenny Doan, who works at Missouri Star Quilting Company. Look at their YouTube. She’s been doing YouTube videos consistently weekly for the last three years. They went from a very, very small company to becoming the Disneyland of quilting. People descend on Hamilton, Missouri, because they want to see her—because her eight-to-ten-minute tutorials on quilting are better than anything else in the world.
And it’s very, very low‑tech. She even has little signs. It’s not graphics. She’ll bring in the signs—handmade signs with writing on them. They’re using Sharpies.
It’s that kind of thing where you’re being creative, but you’re also being helpful, and you’re delivering consistently. There are no barriers anymore; there are absolutely no barriers with anything—with video, with audio, with textual content. It doesn’t matter anymore. We can create content as well as anybody else creates it.
There’s one more thing I want to tackle. Let’s talk about the content champion. With all of this strategic intent, someone in‑house has to make sure that we’re delivering on this content marketing promise and execution. How should we think about having someone own it?
If you look at any content marketing program, you have things that are outsourced. Writing or editing might be outsourced. Design might be outsourced. Production might be outsourced. And that’s whether you are a small company, or a large company; it doesn’t matter.
Owning the Content Strategy
Generally, most programs outsource something—but you don’t outsource the story you’re telling. You don’t outsource the strategy. You need somebody to own that strategy, to be committed and say, what is the hypothesis? What’s the why? Why are we doing this in the first place?
That’s why we want people to do a content marketing mission statement. If you are focusing on an audience, who is that audience? I like to have this written out:
- Who’s the audience?
- What are you delivering?
- What’s the outcome for the audience?
What a lot of people think—and where you get into trouble—is that outcome is you selling more stuff. That’s not the outcome.
That’s your outcome.
Right. That’s your outcome! That’s how you’re going to measure it. But that’s not how you’re creating your content and telling your stories. The outcome for your audience that is you’re trying to help them do something different. You’re trying to help them maintain or change a behavior or do something they weren’t doing before. That’s what’s exciting about it.
That’s where you can see real impact happen. Focus on those little things. And you have to have someone internal do that.
A Profitable Outcome
Let’s say you’re a small company and you say, “Hey Joe, I don’t have any resources. I can’t…” That’s fine. You don’t need the resources, but you need to make sure that you’re focused on that audience every minute of every day, so that they’re coming in.
Then when you look at those metrics, when you look at things like email subscribers and shareability and web traffic, you can start to convert that and say, “Oh, those people that subscribe to my podcast, to my blog, to my video series, their behavior is different, and it’s helping us in the business in some way.” They buy more. They stay longer. They close faster. They talk more. They market our company more. They advocate for our company.
Whatever the case is, that’s the end. Those are the things that are internal to us, that you can get more budget for. But you have to have somebody that understands: Why are we doing this in the first place? Who are we targeting? What’s their outcome?
We believe that if we solve their outcome, if we fulfill the things that they want to fulfill as human beings, we can help our business in some way be profitable. That’s just a very simple way to look at the approach to content marketing.
I think that’s enough. I think we’ve nailed it. Joe, is there anything else that you want to share with us?
I wrote two different books about this, because there are two very different environments you could be in: a small company or a large company.
If you’re listening to this and you’re a very small company, Content Inc. is the book for you. That’s the one for people who are saying, “I have no resources. I don’t know how I’m going to get this done.” It’s an audience-first approach to content marketing.
If you’re part of a big company listening to this and you’ve got political battles, and you don’t know how you’re going to do it, that’s Epic Content Marketing.
Very good. So if folks want to reach out to you, how should they do that?
I’m @joepulizzi on twitter. I’m fairly responsive. I try to get back to people within 24 hours if I can. If you want to contact me directly, everything that I do is joepulizzi.com. Then everything for the business is on contentmarketinginstitute.com. All of our free webinars, all of our free content is there. That’ll take you to information about Content Marketing World and some of the other events we’re doing.
Joe, thank you so very much for your time. I really appreciate your spending time with us today.
Thanks, my friend. Really appreciate the time. That was fun.
Joe Pulizzi is founder of Content Marketing Institute, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World.
Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. He is the author of multiple books on content marketing, including Epic Content Marketing, Content Inc., Killing Marketing, and Corona Marketing.