Interview with Joe Pulizzi by Adam Fraser
This a transcript from this podcast interview with Joe Pulizzi.
Adam: I’m delighted to welcome Joe Pulizzi to the Echo Junction podcast. Joe is an author, speaker and evangelist, and a content marketing expert, dedicated to helping companies grow profits by creating better content. One of the founders of the content marketing movement, Joe launched what is now the Content Marketing Institute back in 2007 as a true online resource for those interested in content marketing and brand storytelling. Joe started using the term content marketing as far back as 2001. Joe writes one of the most influential content marketing blogs in the world, and writes a column, as well, for entrepreneur.com, as well as being as a LinkedIn influencer.
You could also hear Joe in his podcasts, This Old Marketing and Content Inc. Joe is the author of three books, “Get Content, Get Customers,” “Managing Content Marketing,” and “Epic Content Marketing,” and is about to launch his new book, “Content Inc.” Joe, a very big welcome to the Echo Junction podcast.
Joe: Adam, you read the formal bio. I mean, you read…that’s the formal bio of Joe Pulizzi, you just read it. Hopefully, there are people that are still listening…
Adam: I did the research. Joe, no one can say I don’t do my research before these podcasts. But that was actually an abridged version.
Joe: Yes, I have many versions of the bio. You did a great job. It’s a pleasure being on. I always loved talking content marketing, as you know. So I am glad you’re having me on.
Adam: Look, great stuff, Joe. So, look, we want to jump into your new book, “Content Inc.” but before we do that, I felt it would be almost remiss of me if we don’t talk a little bit more about the broader content marketing space. Look, but before we do that, I am sure most people listening will know all about you. But for those that don’t, maybe just give a little bit more color to your back story.
Joe: Well, I started in publishing. I started working for a company in 2000 called Penton Media. And I luckily, I mean, fortunately, ended up in the custom media division. So that basically, we did the content marketing services for mostly large B2B brands that didn’t know how to tell good stories, and we helped them with their blogs and webinars and custom magazines and whatever else we could help them with. And then took over the department in 2001 and had the entrepreneurial itch in ’07, really felt this content marketing thing was going to be huge. And started what is now the Content Marketing Institute in ’07 and have written a couple of books. I think I’ve traveled to 15 or 16 countries now.
I’ve done over 400 speeches on it. My job, as you said, is an evangelist. I’m supposed to go in and talk to marketers and communicators and all size companies and help them understand that, I think there is actually a better way than advertising. And most companies are focusing mostly on paid media. I would really like that to change, and so that’s kind of what I am trying to do these days.
Adam: Look, Joe, it is a term that is used in so many different contexts. Look, set the scene for us. I’ve got you on the podcast, what is your definition of content marketing?
Joe: To me, content marketing, there’s an art and a science to it. It’s the idea as an organization, how can I create valuable, relevant, and compelling information, on a consistent basis, to a targeted audience, with the hope of changing or maintaining behavior in some way. The goal of content marketing, in my opinion, there is a Holy Grail to content marketing.
It’s to create a loyal audience. An audience that knows, likes, and trust us so much, that they’re willing to ultimately buy something from us or for our corporate objectives. Maybe it’s help our sales close faster, or help them buy more when they do buy, or help them stay longer as customers, whatever that overall goal is. And I know, we will talk about Content Inc. But the idea of Content Inc. is, it could actually be your business model as well, if you’re a small company.
That’s the overall idea, is instead of interrupting customers with the content they want to engage in, just become the content. Just be the content and service your customers that way, and deliver value every day, every minute of every day. And if you do that really well, as great media companies have been doing since the dawn of time, your customers reward you, and they usually buy more from you, and that’s what we like to see with content marketing.
Adam: Joe, you’ve sort of had a battle over the last seven, eight years to make this sort of ingrained industry term. And still there is a number of other terms, custom publishing and a whole bunch of others used to broadly describe, I guess, the activity that is content marketing. If I can pick on one term, we had someone with 20-plus years PR experience on the podcast, recently, and he used the term brand journalism. Is that something that represents the same thing as content marketing, or is that from a pre-digital era and something slightly different?
Joe: You know, it’s interesting. David Meerman Scott, who, I think, we both know, uses brand journalism more than content marketing as well. And I don’t like that term, actually, because I think, when you think about journalism, I think of how do I keep my opinion out of this? Because I am trying to cover both sides equally, and I’m trying to tell a story around that, and I’m not taking any sides to that. Well, in content marketing, you absolutely take a side. You have an opinion, you have a point of view.
Now could a brand, as part of that content marketing effort, try brand journalism or have a brand journalism component where they are trying to cover the news? Sure, they could. But even if you look back…and the Verizon sugar string deal, I don’t know how much you know about what Verizon was trying to do there. But they were trying to cover a particular aspect of technology news, and it’s very hard for a brand to do that. Verizon ended up stopping the whole program. But it’s hard to say, “We are going to cover both sides equally,” when you absolutely shouldn’t. This is not journalism here. We are selling stuff. This is marketing.
Now, could you take some of the best ideas around journalism and how you attack a story from a journalistic point of view? Sure, you can. But I don’t call that journalism. Could you hire a journalist and have them work on your content marketing program? Sure. But I am not going to call that journalism. So it’s a fine term. If people are going to, basically, do different things with their marketing that are better than advertising, then that’s fine with me. But I have not espoused to that term at all, and I think it gets marketers confused that they are actually in a different business than they are. When, actually, they have a marketing and sales objective at the end of the day.
Let’s not get it cluttered up with any journalism, like church and state stuff, because that’s not what we are talking about at all, in my opinion.
Adam: No, got it. Yeah, certainly distinguishing. Yeah, and it’s a great point that ultimately, there is a marketing focus to this, hence marketing is word number 2 of the content marketing phrase. But, in essence Joe, we hear the phrase often about enterprises should become media businesses, and arguably you definitely take a media first approach, building audience. What would you say to people – and I know this is something actually more…you covered in “Epic Content Marketing,” your last book, not your current book – who say traditional media is struggling.
Print, in particular, is struggling, but arguably TV and radio, to a lesser extent, clearly on the decline. If someone said, “Hang on, Joe. Traditional media is struggling. Why on earth should I, as a brand or an enterprise, become a media company?” What would you say to them?
Joe: Well, actually, I would first disagree with the premise. Traditional media is not struggling at all. If you look at the numbers between any media company that I deal with, and I deal with some of the largest companies on the planet when it comes to media, all their numbers are up. Subscription numbers are up, views are up, visits are up, subscribers are up. You name it, their everything is up. What’s not up is the business model. So there is nothing wrong with media itself. Media is working just fine. They are creating great and valuable audiences.
The problem is they are trying to monetize that, typically through advertising. And that’s a tough way to go. You know, Robert Rose and I, on our podcast, This Old Marketing, just today, we talked about a media company called F&W. F&W, the media company around very consumer enthusiast brands, like Artistry and painting and woodworking and what not. They’ve completing transformed the company into selling e-commerce products.
So they don’t generate the majority of their revenue through advertising anymore, or print, which is what they were about five years ago. Everything is around selling products. That’s exactly what we are doing with content marketing. So there is nothing wrong with traditional media as it comes to engagement, if you want to call it, or building audiences. The problem is the business model is broke. That is now the opportunity for brands, because brands can come in, and they don’t have to monetize it through advertising. All they have to do at the end of the day is sell more products and services. That’s been proven over and over again to work really, really well.
Whereas everybody is moving away from advertising, people are still buying lots of other stuff. So that’s where I would just take umbrage a little with “Traditional media is in trouble.” No, the business model is, but not how they’ve been able to build audiences over the years.
Adam: It’s true. That’s a nice segue to where I actually wanted to go next. I’ve often heard you talk about there’s the so many different business models. Once you have an audience, there are so many different ways to monetize that audience. Training, education, conferences, products and services, consulting, etc., etc. Yeah, again, we had Joseph Jaffe on the podcast a few weeks ago. We were talking about the obsession with advertising is almost on both sides.
On the media buying side, brands just seem determined, no matter what the stats show – eighty-plus percent of my budget is going on paid media. And, equally, the traditional businesses, as you’ve just said, just seem weaned on an advertising-only business model. Why, on both sides of the fence, is change not coming through, do you think?
Joe: Well, we’ve been stuck. We were talking about my third book, “Epic Content Marketing” before, I go through that old period of time, where we were just stuck in mass media. I mean, it’s so interesting, as if you look in the history of marketing, and this is what we are actually trying to prove. We don’t have enough data yet. But I think we’re pretty close to showing that the original marketing looked a lot more like content marketing than it did like advertising.
Even if you go back to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, I mean that was a content marketing initiative of the 1700s before it was advertising. So it’s interesting to see. Now, when we got to the 1950s, basically with the dawn of television, big brands started to realize like, “Oh, my goodness, this is amazing. We can reach so many people through these mediums, because there are publishers and media companies that figure this thing out. Oh, I am going to advertise in magazines, in newspapers, in radio and television, and I’ll get 80% of my target audience.” And you know what? They were right, because consumers didn’t have any choice.
Before 1990, there were only eight different ways we could get our information. Well, now, there are hundreds. So when there are hundreds, and you take the power away from big brands, big budgets, and media, and you move that power to the consumer, advertising doesn’t work as well, because they don’t have to sit through the ad. They can simply go and do whatever they want to. They can engage in whatever content they want to. It’s simple enough to look at…it amazes me like, I don’t remember the last time I watched a commercial. Because if I watch television programming, I DVR and watch it on delay, so I don’t have to watch the commercials.
Who does this? Do people still watch commercials? I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. Unless it’s a sporting event, and you want to see it live or something like that. So I think that it’s just interesting to see that, yes, now this is happening. But, really, it’s only been happening the last couple of years. We’ve still been in this, let’s say, 60 years, almost 70 years of this targeted mass media thing. That’s worked, for the most part, pretty darn well. And it’s hard for these brands that have been around for a long, long time, and these marketers that, by the way, found success for a long, long time doing this, and media planners and agency executives finding success to do it.
They’ve all been doing it that way. And, really, what I see more than anything else, is “Hey, let’s sprinkle a little bit of social media on there,” but it’s all the same. “Well just keep doing paid.” But now what do we really see? What’s the truth? Every year, a little bit of advertising gets taken away, and we’re doing other things. Brands are doing other things. Now, the really innovative ones are going into content marketing both feet in. And the larger brands that have been doing things the same way for a long time, it takes a cultural change to make this move. And it’s harder for them to do it. So it just gonna take time.
I don’t know when. Is it ten years? Is it 15 years when we even out the amount of spending on content creation distribution versus advertising? I don’t know. Right now, it’s about 75 paid to 25 content marketing stuff. So how long is that going to even out to 50/50? I don’t know. Right now, I think we are just seeing a correction in the market. It’s almost like we put so much money into one stock, now we have to wean it back and diversify. I think that’s what we’re seeing with content marketing, is they put so much into paid, “Well, we’re not gonna take it all at once. We’re gonna take a little bit out every year and then at some point, we’re feeling good, we’ve got a more diversified portfolio.”
Because I don’t think advertising is bad. I think advertising can absolutely work in certain situations. I am just not as big of a fan of it than creating an audience that knows, likes, and trust you and will love you for the value that you deliver every day, instead of saying, “Hey, look at me.” I just think there’s a better way to do it.
Adam: Yes, it’s almost like the rationale and the logic is in place; to continue a stock market analogy we are overweight advertising and underweight everything else. And it’s just almost a change management issue industry-wide. We just need to evolve and change. And human beings, guess what? They take time to change their behavior.
Joe: Well, even look at the startups. I mean, I’ve been interviewing so many startups and entrepreneurs. They don’t even barely look at advertising. Maybe a little pay-per-click, maybe a little social media promotion. Maybe it’s a fact that they just can’t afford it at first. So they are not even going to look at it. But they’re all about, “Hey, how do I build an audience with a content first strategy and those types of companies?” They add on advertising much, much later in the process, but it’s such a small percentage of their overall marketing budget.
I think that’s the future we’re going to see. I think in a lot of cases where really innovative companies, they are going to advertise, they are going to get into it a little bit later. They are going to advertise, but it’s definitely going to be a smaller amount of their overall marketing spend than I think owned media or building audiences in whatever verticals they’re in.
Adam: Great. Look, Joe, just one final question on the macro market, if I can call it that, before we dive into “Content Inc.” Content marketing and social media, where do you see the intersection of those two strategies, and has that changed in the past couple of years?
Joe: I probably have a view of social media, and most people don’t like to hear. Social media to me is just distribution. I mean, there is definitely communities that are built around social media, and that’s fantastic. But, in most cases, if you look at a media business model, there are places that we can distribute our content in a way that makes sense to the platform, and then we can ultimately drive new audiences. I think that companies like Buzzfeed have done this really well. Vice Media has done fantastically. The New York Times is starting to do it really well. They get this, but they really do understand that first and foremost we want e-mail subscribers over followers on Twitter or fans on Facebook, because we don’t have any control over that relationship. Facebook has all that control, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube. They have all that control, because they can decide at any point, “Hey, you know what? We were letting you communicate with your audiences today on Facebook, but tomorrow I’m not going to let you,” and of course we’ve seen that happen already, because they’ve been doing that as they change their algorithm.
So the way that I get up in the morning and I look at social media platforms is, “Oh great, today I can promote my content on Facebook, but I’m going to wake up tomorrow and I’m absolutely going to be prepared that they’re not going to let me. That’s how I look. Now, are they ever going to do it? I don’t know, but I don’t care, because I don’t have any control. I can’t call Zuckerberg and tell him to keep the lines open.
Zuckerberg can do whatever he wants. He could change the algorithm tomorrow. And I don’t want to be beholden to anyone else. That’s the whole idea of goddamn marketing, that we can communicate directly with our audience and our customers instead of having to go through a middle person. Facebook to me is becoming the new television. I want to access to an audience, so okay, well maybe Facebook. Well, let me put this content on there. And in most cases, it’s pay to play anyways. So it’s really similar to television.
It’s just interesting to see how that’s evolving. I think that if you’re going to be successful in social media, really successful for whatever you deem success, you have to first have a content marketing strategy. I don’t even know, what do you…Maybe you have a listening strategy, but social media, but without content, but what else do you do on social media if you don’t first have a story to tell? I have no idea. Maybe just advertising and listening.
I don’t know what else you would do if you first don’t have a content marketing strategy, and that’s why I’ve been going to all these social media conferences as the content guy, saying, “You guys are all…”You need a documented content marketing strategy first and then you can look at what channels you should be telling that story in, not the other way around.
Adam: It’s the old, “Don’t build your house on rented land.” We’re talking shared media or earned media with the social networks, but I guess as part of a holistic content marketing distribution in 2015, would you still advocate people publish on say LinkedIn Publisher and Medium and YouTube and spaces where certainly audiences are there, but absolutely you don’t control ultimately and you don’t get the data as well?
Joe: My preference is always on a blog site or a website where I have the control over that., but let’s say that you’ve deemed that your story that you’re trying to tell in the content niche you’re trying to be the leading informational expert for, that’s best told in let’s say 10- to 15-minute video chunks. Well, you’re not a stupid person, so you’re going to say, “Well, YouTube is probably the place to launch that, because people are, or my audience is probably already there, engaging in that kind of content.” You can get the data. You know that they’re out there, you can build a network. You can work, do the things you need to work with relationships, and get that content found on a regular basis.” So you’ll go on YouTube and do that.
Now, let’s look at all the biggest YouTube stars that are out there and let’s look at all the entities that use YouTube really well. Let’s say a Jimmy Fallon or something like that. They do a great job leveraging YouTube. What you see, especially with the experienced ones that have been around for a couple years, whether you know who PewDiePie is or whether you look at Smosh or you look at those types that have 20, 30 million subscribers on YouTube. You know what they’re busy doing all day long? Is trying to convert those people into e-mail subscribers.
PewDiePie’s a great example. That’s all he’s trying to do, because he has no power over those subscribers. They could get subscriber burn, and YouTube could say, “No, I’m sorry. Your content isn’t performing as well as Jimmy Fallon. We’re going to throw Jimmy Fallon’s content up there instead of yours. Sorry,” and his business is now down the tubes. Everything he’s doing is trying to get people to his website. That’s all his calls to action, and trying to get e-mail subscribers.
The point is maybe you have to start on an iTunes or a YouTube platform, and something you cannot control our own, but when you do build that audience wherever it makes sense to build that platform, then you’re going to have to convert ultimately to something that you can control.
Adam: Got it. Great answer Joe, I understand. Let’s shift gears and jump into your new book; “Content Inc.” Before we get into the detail, obviously there’s a pattern here, “Call me Sherlock Holmes.” You wrote, “Get Content Get Customers” in ’09, “Managing Content Marketing” in 2011, “Epic Content Marketing” in 2013, and two years later here comes “Content Inc.” I’ve heard from the many podcasts I listen to writing a book is absolutely a labor of love. It’s a somewhat painful process, so what on earth gave you the drive to write yet another book?
Joe: That’s so funny when you say it like that. I use the word “content” a lot, so it’s definitely a bad one for sure. First of all, I have a goal about making sure that every two years I write a book. That’s just a personal goal, personal career goal that I have, and as you can see, ’09, ’11, ’13, now ’15, so I’m already thinking about, what I’m going to do for ’17? Anyways, that’s one thing that I’m trying to do.
I always like to focus on what I’m passionate about or where I think there’s a content gap out there, and we’ve been fairly successful with Content Marketing Institute building this content-first approach. I said, “Well, I think that small businesses that don’t have a lot of money or resources need to hear about this,”, but then I said, “Well, I don’t just want it to be a book just about Content Marketing Institute. That’s horrible. Like who would read that? Nobody. That’s not going to be helpful.” I basically started to go out and look for case studies, cases out there of companies and small businesses and entrepreneurs and startups that did the same thing. Did they go out and build an audience first, build a loyal audience over a year plus time and then monetize that audience second? Unbelievably, there were dozens and dozens and dozens of these, as you saw in the book, that we were able to find.
As we went through, we found out that, “Oh my goodness,” as we reverse engineered it, there is a model here. There’s a model, these six steps that I talk about in the book that every company…The timetables are different, but they all go through these six steps. And I’m like, “This is something.” I don’t know if this is just my own bias because I’m so knee deep in it right now, Adam, or what it is, but I really do honestly believe that this is a better way to go to market than believing that we’ve got an amazing product or service and then trying to sell it out there traditionally and hawk it and do whatever you need to do.
And it’s probably at the end of the day not right anyways, because you’re going to have to pivot and change. Wouldn’t it make sense if you served an audience really well through whatever content program you’re going to do? You build an audience over time, and then, because you know that audience better than anyone, you’re able to figure out really quickly what products or services make the most sense. That’s what we talked about in the book, and whether it’s iTunes and audio or YouTube and video or blog posts and textual, we found all these amazing examples.
As you can see, I’m pretty passionate about that idea. I’m out there telling every venture capitalist and angel investor and startup and entrepreneur out there to say, “Look, this could be your business model. This really can,” and I completely believe that. As I think about all these other ideas for businesses that I always think about, I’m like, “Oh, the best way to do is just go out and build an audience first, and then you’ll naturally figure out what makes the sense to sell to that audience, and find a content area that you’re really passionate about, that you can work it.”
I don’t know. I’m super passion about it. I believe that the model that we took and the approach we took at CMI that it stumbled into was unbelievable opportunity for us, and then we found all these other examples. Now that we can go out and share it with these startups and small businesses and entrepreneurs or people that are stuck in companies that they don’t want to work in anymore and they want to do something different, I think this is the way to do it, and we call that the Content Inc. Model.
Adam: I’ve been lucky enough to being given a pre-order copy, and it’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend the book. There’re so many things, Joe, to unpack in what you just said. If I can start at the sort of higher level, because I’ve actually had some previous experience in venture capital. You obviously it sounds like know venture capitalists. The Harvard MBA way, it’s always, “Where’s your five-year plan? What’s the product? Who are the customers going to be?”
This is a pretty…It’s flipping the file and it’s turning things on its head. It’s building the audience first, really without any detailed knowledge of what the ultimate business model will be. What do traditional investors say when you talk to them about that model, because I don’t know if it needs some blind faith or just underlying confidence that ultimately there’s a niche there, but it’s certainly a different way to approach a new business startup. What do people say to you?
Joe: They look at me like I’ve got two heads. To be honest with you, they think it’s absolutely crazy. What’s interesting is I’ve talked to a number of seed companies that I talk to as part of the book, and they’re very anxious for the book to come out., because what they want to use it for is if they feel that the idea that the entrepreneur has needs a little bit more seasoning and needs to go back, and they need to work that plan a little bit more, they say, “Look, this Content Inc. Model is something you should take a look at.”
Because what happens, and you know this, somebody’ll have an idea, and you’ll get the investors looking it, and they’re like, “You got to tweak it this way” or “There’s no product market fit here, and you got to do this,” and they’ll be talking about all kinds of other stuff. I believe that most of the VCs and investors out there are looking at the marketplace in exactly the same way as they’ve looked at it for the last 20, 30 years, and the consumer behaviors have changed so much, and the technology barriers for publishing and content creation and building audiences have come down to nothing. Why not take out the risk of, especially if I’m spending money and investing money with somebody, doesn’t it make more sense if I invest into somebody that can actually build an audience that has almost confirmed that there’s a need somewhere because 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people have signed up and said, “Yes, I want to engage in this regular newsletter or podcast or whatever it is?” Yes, I totally agree with you Adam, I think that most VCs investors would think this is crazy. I think they do today.
In five years, I’m hoping they won’t. I’m hoping they’ll say, “No, this is actually much smarter.” If I’m getting out of MBA, you should all be doing your Content Inc. Strategies and building your audiences. Even if you’ve got that product idea, you can say, “Okay, that’s great. This is the product we want to launch or this is the product we’re working on. What’s the problem? Let’s focus on that problem and let’s be the solution to that problem that’s not our product or service. Let’s build ongoing content experiences around that problem, and then when we launch our product we’ll already have buyers. We’re almost creating a customer list without having a product or service yet.” I don’t know. That’s the way that I think about it.
Of course, there’s dozens of examples in the book talking about it, but it’s very hard when you talk to investors. They do look at you, look at me personally, like I’m crazy, but I’m hoping maybe in a few years they won’t.
Adam: Look, I was about to say that exact point, Joe. The great thing about the book is there are literally dozens of hard, factual examples of people that have followed this model, and that’s the whole point of the book. Maybe at the time people didn’t realize the steps they were all independently going through, but people have built very successful businesses on this basis. Again, Brian Clark was on the podcast a while ago, and Copyblogger is a great example of what you’re talking about.
Look, Joe, let’s just chunk it down a little if we can. The six steps you outline in the book are Sweet Spot, Content Tilt, Building the Base, Harvesting the Audience, Diversification, and then most importantly of all, Monetization.
Adam: Show me the money. But just at a very high level, obviously an entire book was built on these six steps. If you could just summarize for the listeners each of those stages.
Joe: Sure, absolutely. You start with the sweet spot. That’s at the beginning of the process. If you’re an entrepreneur or startup or change agent in an organization, you’re going to say, “Okay, on one side, what am I really passionate about, or what is a severe customer pain point?” And if you’re a startup, you’re going to look at the passion side. If you’re an existing business, you’re going to look at, what’s that customer pain point? Then you’re going to intersect that on the other side with, what do you have a skill and a knowledge area that you have some authority around?
You really have to be honest. You can’t go out and create a Content Inc. platform if you have no authority to give your to communicate about it. A lot of the examples as we talk about in the book, they went out, and they weren’t naturally…They were just curious, and they became experts. Like Andy Schneider, as we talk about, is the chicken whisper in the book, which is one of my favorite examples of all time. He was just curious. He wanted to raise chickens in his backyard, and he’s like, “How do I do it?” There was no information on it. He started to study up on it and he started find all this information, and he became the world’s leading expert in raising backyard chickens. I think that’s so funny. So that’s the sweet spot.
Then you go into step two, which is the most important, which most companies don’t do, and that’s called your content tilt. Where do you find an area or a content niche of let’s say little to no competition that you can actually position yourself as the leading resource in the world on that? I really do believe that. People look at me like I’m crazy. I say, “No look, literally, where can you be the leading expert in the world, because you’re going to compete with all these different content options out there, and you have to be the best, because if they’re going to choose you, and why are they going to leave what they’re engaging with now to go engage in your content? It better be really good.”
Then you move from the content tilt over to building the base. That’s when the work gets done. Sweet spot and content tilt is all about the strategy. Building the base, that’s actually when we’re going to execute something. We talked about this a little bit before. What’s my content type? Is it audio? Is it video? Is it textual? What is my content platform? Is it my own website or blog? Is it YouTube? Is it iTunes? How do we distribute that content? We’re going to distribute it ongoing consistently and we’re going to do it over time. We’re going to be patient.
Generally, the case studies we talk about in the book, it takes well over a year for them to get what Brian Clark from Copyblogger calls minimum viable audience, enough that you can actually sell products and services to. That’s building the base, and then at the same time you build that base we want to harvest that audience to step four.
We’re actually trying to generate subscribers. The number one best way to do that is email subscription, although we talked about other ones, like, “Hey, if you get a YouTube subscriber, we want to move them ultimately up the chain into email subscription.” Subscription is where all the magic will happen for your monetization. We’ll get to that in a second. That’s step four.
Step five, we have a minimum viable audience. We’ve built the platform. Now we want to diversify. We want to go into things like let’s say that we have a YouTube program. Now let’s say we’re going to diversify it into a podcast or into a print magazine or into workshops or events. Basically, it’s the whole model of, “Can I create the leading print vehicle, the leading digital vehicle, and the leading in-person vehicle?”
We see a lot of this happening with the examples in the book where we look at these three legs of the stool. And you know what that is? That’s called publishing. That’s been done since the dawn of time. Digital print and in-person, so those are the three there.
And then, as you said, the most important thing is monetization. Now that you have an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you, how are you going to monetize that? And by the way, just because it’s step six doesn’t, and I talk about this in the book, because I want people to know. You want to monetize it immediately. You’re not just going to wait and say, “Oh well, we’ll see.” All of the entrepreneurs in the book, they continually tried to monetize throughout, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, and it didn’t work, because it didn’t have a big enough audience yet or an audience that was valuable that liked them enough at some point or that referred to them as the credible experts in the area.
But Step six is where, “Okay, Am I going to sell a product like Brian Clark sells, Rainmaker Platform? Am I going to do events like us; Content Marketing Institute? Am I going to sell advertising like Matthew Patrick in game theory sells mostly advertising? Am I going to do consulting? What am I going to do that’s going to monetize that platform? As I said, there’s nine different ways. We talk about all nine of them in the book. Some of them are even donation if you’re a non-profit, so there’s lots of different ways to do it, but those are the six steps.
Every one of the entrepreneurs and cases we looked at in the book, they all go through the six steps. Some of them are a little bit different, but that’s the model. I think that hopefully that’s the model that will save some entrepreneur or startup or change-agent organization a lot of time when they think about their content marketing strategy.
Adam: Great summary. Joe, is it primarily targeted at entrepreneurs, startups, or is this a model that even larger enterprises and brands can look at as well?
Joe: Initially I thought it was only for entrepreneurs and startups. I basically said, “Hey, when it was 2007 and I didn’t have a nickel to my name and I was trying to launch this business, this is the book that I needed that would have gotten me to the next step.” I initially thought just entrepreneurs and startups, but as I was doing interviews for the book and as I was sending it out to let’s say marketing executives at rather large companies, they were totally buying into this. What I’ve heard from a lot of marketers at larger brands is, is that this is a really good way to build a platform or a platform for an audience within a large brand if you’re trying to target a very specific audience, which hopefully if you’re doing content marketing anyways, that’s what you’re trying to do.
I do absolutely think the primary audience is entrepreneurs and startups, but if you’re within a large company and you’re really trying to build an audience and create a platform for your company, I think that the model works the same way, actually.
Adam: Great. Joe, a question about…I guess it’s a combined about sweet spot and content tilt. It’s all about finding your niche, finding the area that you can be a leading authority in. Mark Schaefer wrote the post about content shock, and just intuitively, any of us that read blogs or subscribe to newsletters, there’s just a swathe of content. It can almost seem overwhelming at the moment how much content’s out there. YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs etc. What would you say to people that think, “Okay, I’ve found my sweet spot. I’m expert in basketball or 4-wheel drive cars or organic juices,” and then they do some research. They go, “Oh, yeah, there’re 300 people already blogging or writing or trying to produce content in this area.” In 2015, what would you say to people looking at a crowded market and struggling to perhaps find the niche that they can develop in?
Joe: First of all, I love Marc Schaefer, but I don’t believe in content shock at all, and Kirk Cheyfitz, who is CEO of Story Worldwide, he talks about this all the time. He says, “There’s always been too much content. Since the dawn of time. He says, “Still today there are people that haven’t gotten around to reading the Bible.” It’s just like if you think about it that way there is always too much content, so this is nothing new, but we always make time for valuable, important content.
And even the whole thing about snackable content. Yes, there’s a time for that kind of content, but you still have people that are binging on House of Cards over a weekend and spending 30 or 40 hours with some…So you can’t sell that to me, no.
The second part is, how do you find that content tilt, the most important part. We go through like eight or nine different strategies to look at that about how you do it. One of my favorite ones and the easiest one is just using Google Trends to keep digging down into different areas or breakout areas.
Let’s say your passion is around basketball. Well, maybe you keep going, use Google Trends. It’s going to look at the different keywords. Maybe there’s breakout terms into the rules behind basketball or basketball in certain countries or maybe some weird niches around basketball that you didn’t realize that you also have a passion for. There’re so many niches ,and I really do believe there are riches in niches. There are so many. You can just keep going down and finding these small areas.
Our next great media companies, that’s what happens. Our next great B2B trade publications are all about focusing on that very small, very particular niche. The problem is we usually go too broad at first instead of going really narrow. You’ve almost got to force yourself to go down narrow and look at and keep asking yourself that question. Like you said, basketball, or whatever it is, knitting. “Well, can I really be the leading informational expert in that?” Pet supplies. You might say, “Well, there’s Petco and PetSmart. They’re spending billions of dollars in that area. It would be very hard.” Let’s be realistic, it would be very hard for you to start a blog or a podcast and get any traction.
But if you said, let’s say, “Well, what if I talk about pet supplies very specific to people that like to travel around in recreational vehicles in Eastern Europe?” That’s really niche.” There probably is a really good audience for that. By the way, there’s a magazine called RVs and Dogs, which shows you how niche, which by the way it’s a profitable magazine, which shows you how niche you can get. There’s never been more opportunity to do that, but we’ve got to ask ourself the tough questions to find the tilt.
Adam: You’re almost saying Joe, because the other thing, as I read some of the great examples in the book, whether it’s John Luma, about Facebook, Rand Fishkin about SEO, obviously Marcus Sheridan about swimming pools, to some extent there was an element of first-mover advantage. Maybe they were one of the earlier ones to have a crack at the industry they’re talking about, but you’re saying don’t be too disheartened if you already find people.
This isn’t about a land grab, it’s not about being the first in a broader sector. It’s all about diving deep into a niche.
Joe: Actually, in the book, look at Matthew Patrick. Matthew Patrick was literally late to the game on YouTube. PewDiePie was already out. There were already all kinds of video game and Nintendo-based YouTube shows, but he really took a look at the specifics around analytics and data as it came to video games. He took a very particular content tilt and made it his own and his own story, so he was already late to the game.
There’s an opportunity tomorrow for somebody. There’s an opportunity in six months, in six years I think when you look at it this way, because there’ll always be a new niche as you move forward. I think that a lot of our benefits from Content Marketing Institute was first-mover advantage, but the practice of content marketing had been done forever. The only difference, our content tilt, was we called it different. We called it something different. That was it. I talk about that in the book. HubSpot did the same thing with inbound marketing.
Were they doing anything different that had been talked about before? No, they talked about it differently. We talked about content marketing differently. There’s a lot of different ways to do it, and if you have enough passion behind it, I think you can make it happen.
Adam: Great segue, because my next question was actually about the passion aspect. The intersection you’re looking for is not just knowledge and expertise, but you also feel that passion’s needed? If I’m a leading expert in accounting standards or industrial solvents, you’re saying that’s not enough. I’ve really got to be passionate as well. Why do you think that’s the case?
Joe: It’s interesting. I interviewed Jay Baer in length about this, Jay Baer, author of “Utility.” Fantastic marketer, one of the smartest people I know. I took his commentary and put it in the book. He basically makes the case, and there’s a lot of research behind this, that if you’re not passionate about a particular area, you don’t put the work in. And that’s what we see, is that you can get up for three weeks or three months and you can talk about your industrial solvents, and you’re fine, but one day you’re going to wake up, and like, “I’m not doing it today. I hate this. I hate my life. I’m not doing it anymore.”
That’s where you really do have to…and that’s why we see in every case they’re really super passionate about, like Andy Schneider is passionate about backyard poultry. You’ve got to be, right, to get up every day talking about chickens. You literally have to. I have to be passionate about content marketing or I would go crazy. Matthew Patrick has to be passionate about video games. He’s a geek over them, he loves them. He has to, because every hour of every day he’s talking about them.
If you don’t have that, I just don’t think you’re going to have the motivation to build the base, because that’s where the work really comes in., because it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s going to take you many months to get there.
Adam: Joe, let’s jump forward to number three, building the base. You outlined why it’s so important for people to follow or focus on a single platform in the early months/years. The temptation for everyone can be, “Oh, yeah, I need a blog and a podcast and videos, and I’ve got to be to be on every social network,” so just outline, why is it so important to just have focus on a single platform when you’re starting out?
Joe: This is part of the history buff in me, and we went back, and you look at the start of whether it’s Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, ESPN, and then Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. Really go and look at what they did. Yes, did they leverage other channels? Sure they did, but their core was one channel at all times. One platform that they focused on, and ESPN’s a great example.
You can argue that there weren’t as many available, but literally they were doing cable television for 30 years before they did anything else, and then they started to diversify into other areas. New York Times is just a newspaper. Now they do lots of other things. They built the audience first. It’s interesting. Then let’s go back to today, Matthew Patrick basically just had the YouTube channel, and just about game theory. Well, now he’s branched and he’s diversified and he’s talking about movies now and he’s getting into podcasts. He’s doing all kinds of different things, but started with just that one platform. I think it’s that focus that makes you an expert in that area.
I think that a lot of brands, specifically large brands, are like, “Oh, we got to be on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube and Snapchat,” and whatever else they’re going to be on. No you don’t. You don’t have to. What you have to do is you have to be really good at your craft to start with, so focus on being great at something. Create amazing value on an everyday basis for that, and when you do that and when you feel like you’ve really done something special, then we can look out and do some other things.
I wish more companies would do that and even when we go and talk, and as you know, Content Marketing Institute, we mostly work with really large brands. Generally we go in and we’re telling them to stop creating content rather than creating more content.
Usually they’re just all over the place creating content in every possible platform to every possible audience. And we’re like, “You know what, let’s focus on one audience doing one thing really well to help that person every day, and maybe we don’t need to be doing all these other things.” And it gets them focused on what’s really important instead of just having to do it because we feel we need to be in all these channels, which usually they don’t need to be.
Adam: That’s so interesting, and focus on any aspect of business, including content, never a bad thing. Do a small number of things very well rather than a large number of things in an average manner. So we built the base. Now, this was a really interesting part of the book to me. In terms of harvesting the audience, in chapter 14 you talk about something called the subscriber importance hierarchy.
I think you’ve already touched on spoiler alert. E-mail is the most important, but e-mail’s been pronounced dead so many times, and again in this digital era with so many new tools and platforms. Just talk to me, why e-mail is still the most important subscriber mechanism?
Joe: It’s interesting. The two at the top, the first one is e-mail, the second one is print subscribers, and every social media person’s probably looking at that like, “What! This person is…Is this person even on social media at all?” But I’m looking at it from a…I grew up as a publisher. I grew up looking at what assets we can control, and those are the assets we can control. And it’s not that Facebook fans and YouTube subscribers aren’t important, but again, we talked about it. I could get up tomorrow, and those could be gone.
Now, what’s interesting, and these are very recent as of this morning I read the article about, “The New York Times just launched 12 new newsletters.” They now have 33. They have 12 people just in their e-mail newsletter department. They have added millions and millions of people subscribing free to their e-newsletters, and why? Why would you do that?
Well, first of all, they’re getting in some cases 50% to 70% open rate on the email newsletters, which is amazing. The second thing, which tells you that people are still paying attention to e-mail, you could still cut through the clutter if it’s valuable. So that’s the key. It’s not that email is dead, it’s that it’s tougher to cut through the clutter, but you absolutely can if it’s of value.
The second thing is, and this is the one that I love, and this is all content marketing thing, what they found out is that those people that subscribe to one of their free e-newsletters is two times more likely to become a paid subscriber. You look at that as a CEO or a CFO, you’re like, “Let’s get some more subscribers, because this is making an impact on the business.” That is a pure content marketing play.
You don’t have to be the New York Times to do that. You could be Cisco Systems, you could be Red Bull, you could be Microsoft. Doesn’t matter. That’s the same rule. It goes along with that, so that’s where I really love the whole idea of e-mail is you can really cut through the clutter with that. You have more control over it than you do with any other area.
The question that I always want to ask is, what’s the difference between my subscribers and my non-subscribers? And the best way to tell that, at least from a data standpoint, is e-mail, because I can ongoing have a heavy communication and relationship with them and learn more about them and gain more data and then create better content that we can see more positive behaviors from them down the road.
Adam: I understand. Joe, just being respectful of your time and cognizant coming towards the end, I just want to sneak in a couple of final questions on the monetization phase, if I can.
Joe: Sure, absolutely.
Adam: Step one, I’m sure it may vary by sector or niche, but do you have any rules of thumb for how big your subscription audience needs to be before you should think about moving to the monetization phase?
Joe: That’s a great question, and this minimum viable audience is something that is just so compelling, and what does it take? For Matthew Patrick and YouTube, it seemed to be 500,000 subscribers. For Anne Reardon, who is the baking queen of Sydney, it seems to be a million. For Michael Stelzner in Social Media Examiner, it was about 10,000 e-mail subscribers. It was about our case as well at Content Marketing Institute. It was a little bit more for Brian Clark.
It’s interesting. What I would say is always continue to test the monetization. Even though we talk about like, “What is that,” this is the one area that I don’t even have a great answer besides you want to continue to test it., and I think that is lying. If you’re getting up in the morning thinking you’re revenue, you’re probably not trying hard enough. The issue is, is that, when do we get to that point where we’ve harvested enough audience to go? And I think that you don’t know until you continue to test your revenue models against that.
I’m assuming if you talk to any, and I’ve talked to some of them, but if you talk to any one of the entrepreneurs, they would have said they would have tried to monetize it as soon as they can. They just couldn’t do that. Michael Stelzner in particular I had this conversation with, and he said he made the decision that he felt that 10,000 was the number before he would try to draw any money away from them, because he felt that anything smaller than that would not be enough revenue to make material impact.
That’s probably the best way to look at it, is that if you got 200 or 400 or 500, do you even have an audience? If you convert a small percentage say 1% to 2%, could you even do anything with that, depending on what you’re going to sell? So I think that’s what it comes down to is, what are you actually going to sell?
Now, let’s say you’re going to sell million-dollar pieces of equipment. It only takes one person then, right? Only takes two. If you’re trying to sell $39 online product training seminars in some way you’re going to need a lot more to get you to a point of profitability.
Adam: Great. And look, final question, which almost loops back to the earlier discussion we had on advertising, Joe. Ways to monetize, and I suppose advertising still is one, but just talk briefly, there’re so many different examples in the book. Once you have that minimum viable audience, what are some of the options for monetizing their audience?
Joe: I think the first opportunity would be, can you sell a product or service against that in some way? Do you have something? Brian Clark actually has software-as-a-service product that he could sell. Moz same way has a software-as-a-service product that you could absolutely sell. So that’s one.
Advertising and sponsorship. At Content Marketing Institute that was the first way we went to market. We actually went out and supported Content Marketing Institute, the funding of CMI. We went out and reached out to sponsors. We called it a benefactor package. I talk about in the book. We went on and said, “Hey, would you all kick in X percentage of money?” We limited it to 10 sponsors. We were able to get those sponsors to sign up, because they believed in what we were doing even though we were unproven. And that was our first foray into advertising and sponsorship.
And especially with the rise of native advertising or sponsored content in some way, once you build a loyal audience, there’s plenty of opportunities to do that if you wish, and we cover all of those in the book, of course. Subscriptions is a really good one, so paid subscriptions in some way, just like the New York Times that we talked about. You have an ongoing paid subscription program., Digital Photography School from Darren Rowse. He has e-book subscription, so you can actually purchase e-books ongoing for your photography to get it for enthusiast photographers.
The same way for John Lee Dumas, an entrepreneur on fire. He’s got different programs that you could subscribe to. Premium content, you could sell e-books and white papers at a premium, conferences and events. Content Marketing Institutes’ big revenue-generating activity is Content Marketing World, our big event, and our second and third and fourth biggest revenue-generating activity are all events as well, so we’re alike in the event business. That’s the best one, best opportunity.
Some other ones down the road could be micro payments, donations are a big one as well, so the whole philanthropy idea. So there’s all different kinds of ways to do it. Basically you think of a business model where you’re selling something, I’d absolutely and insert this into the Content Inc. Program.
Adam: Joe, fantastic stuff. Thank you so much for your time today. The book is “Content Inc.” I’ve read it. I highly recommend people grab a copy. Joe, when does the book come out?
Joe: The book actually launches at Content Marketing World in Cleveland, so September 8th through 11th. The official day it’s supposed to be ready is September 8th, but I know you can get it on Barnes & Noble’s and Amazon before then. The audiobook’ll be ready by then. So just in a couple weeks from this recording we’ll be out there and going, and we’ll see how it goes, but obviously I’ll be speaking all over the world talking about this as well, but September 8th is the official launch.
Adam: Great. So Joe, we like to lighten things up a little bit at the end of an EchoJunction Podcast, so before I let you go, are you all set for the Quick Fire Round?
Joe: Oh, let’s do it. I’m ready.
Adam: Joe Pulizzi, author of “Content Inc.,” founder of Content Marketing Institute, if you could only use one social network for any purpose in the next 30 days, which would be choose, and why?
Joe: Can I use e-mail?
Adam: Answer any way you like.
Joe: I would focus on building a website that had amazingly valuable content and put everything I could into email first and foremost., because that’s the most important thing to our business is e-mail. Even though I love Twitter and I love LinkedIn and I love Facebook, e-mail is our most important revenue driver of all.
Adam: Interesting answer. The first time we’ve had email. That’s great stuff. Question two, what’s the most influential and impactful business book you’ve ever read?
Joe: If I had to name one…I have many, many, but if I had a name one it would be “Think and Grow Rich” from Napoleon Hill. A bit dated. I believe it came out in 1937, but if you think about the type of mental demeanor you need to be successful in business, I don’t think there’s any better book out there than “Think and Grow Rich.” I do have to warn people though, he’s a little bit of a chauvinist. It was written at a time it’s all he and man and whatever, but super, super valuable and usually every couple years I’ll get that out and reread it.
Adam: Great stuff. I’ll link that up in the show notes. And final question in the Quick Fire Round, Joe, if you could only follow three people on Twitter, who would they be?
Joe: Jay Baer would have to be one of them. I always get something valuable from Jay. Elon Musk would probably be number two. I just think that what he’s doing is amazing, and probably number three would be Warren Buffett. I don’t think know if he tweets very often, but I’ll follow whatever the guy says.
Adam: Great answer. I will link those handles up as well. So look, Joe, thank you so much. Where would you like to send people that want to learn a bit more about and your new book?
Joe: Sure, absolutely. So anything on the new book is content-inc.com, anything on me is joepulizzi.com. Contentmarketinginstitute.com is our home for content marketing, and I’m @joepulizzi on Twitter, and I try to get back to as many people as I can. So if you write me something personal, give me 24 hours, and I’ll probably get back to you.
Adam: Great stuff, Joe. Thanks so much for being with me.
Joe: Adam, thank you so much. That was great.
Adam: There we go, ladies and gents, Mr. Joe Pulizzi, absolutely fantastic to have someone of Joe’s caliber and reputation on the podcast. As you could hear, great insights on the market more generally, and really interesting to dive deep into some of the premises behind his new book “Content Inc.,” which as Joe said is out next month, and recommend people jump online and get a copy of that book. Thanks again to Joe for being on the podcast.
Here are the show notes to this interview with Joe Pulizzi.