Len Markidan, author of The Value Of Being Valuable, is a content marketing strategist and the chief marketing officer at Podia. He spent the last 15 years as sort of the brains behind really successful content marketing strategies, he’s worked with a huge range of clients, everybody from Fortune 500 to even Fortune 50 companies like Prudential, and he’s worked with Jet.com, Groove, Cheg, Groupon, and Health Line.
Len has learned that creating meaningful content wins over customers for life. The reason this is so valuable is because if you’re a company and you’ve been doing content marketing wrong, you’ve probably just dismissed it as it’s a passing trend or that it “just doesn’t work for us.” The truth is that content marketing is one of the most effective ways to build a profitable, long lasting relationship with your customers.
Content marketing is not going anywhere. It’s been around forever and will continue to be around for a long time. By the end of this episode, you’ll know exactly why some of your content marketing hasn’t worked and you’ll know more importantly how to fix it and take your business to the next level.
Len Markidan: I was running marketing for a company called Groove. We were a software company in 2008, and looking around us, everybody seemed to be succeeding with content marketing. Everybody seemed to be putting out blogs and doing super well in building these successful businesses on the backs of these blogs. We were a really young startup, we had very few customers, and we had to be scrappy because we had very little money.
In fact, when we looked at the burn rate of the money that we had in the back, we were going to run out of cash, probably in four to six months.
We saw these companies succeeding with blogging, and we thought hey, we should get in on this. This is the meal ticket right here.
We put our heads down, wrote a bunch of blog articles, posted them to Tumblr at the time, and launched to crickets. The crickets remained—week one, week two, week three…we published more articles because we thought it would get us more traffic…week four, week five, publish more articles because we thought it would get us more traffic…And this entire time, we were getting closer and closer to that out of cash date.
“Nothing seemed to be happening.”
We weren’t getting customers, we weren’t getting people reading the content, we weren’t getting any traction at all. Nothing that we had hoped for, none of this kind of promised land opportunity that it looks like when you look out into the world of these successful software companies building big businesses off of content—not just software companies, all kinds of companies.
We thought, “Clearly, this isn’t working, but why does it feel like we’re spinning our wheels? Why does it seem like everybody else is succeeding?”
We couldn’t really come up with an answer, because on the surface, it looked pretty similar. We were writing blog content that didn’t look all that dissimilar from the other blog content that we were seeing out there.
We decided to dig a little bit deeper, and we started reaching out to people behind those successful blogs that we were looking at, and we were reaching out to the chief marketing officer at HubSpot and the CEO at Unbounce and Kissmetrics. All of these software companies at the time that were doing super well with content marketing.
We would ask them questions like, “Hey, what are you doing that you think is different from what we’re doing? Take a look at their blog. What are we not doing? What is it that you feel the secret is that’s responsible for your success?”
What was interesting was that people were really willing to talk. We were emailing these super busy, super accomplished people and they saw that we were putting in the effort.
I think a lot of them, to an extent, took pity on us, but they were willing to talk. They saw that we were trying really hard. It wasn’t like we were emailing out of the blue and saying “Hey, I’m thinking about starting content marketing.” You know, “what are the top 40 things I should do,” which is what a lot of the emails they get probably look like. We were actually showing that we were committed to this, and people were very willing to get on the phone and talk and give us feedback.
“What we learned in that process was that 95% of success in content marketing was beneath the surface.”
It was what we couldn’t see. We were looking and what we were seeing was certain kind of article, certain kind of content. We would just copy that part. We were copying the 5%, but we were missing the 95% below the surface that was actually responsible for this company’s success.
That led us to essentially take the blog down because we’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.
We put our heads down for another four weeks, relaunched it entirely, and we actually ended up launching a blog that, within 24 hours had, I think a thousand subscribers. Within a week, we had 5,000 subscribers. To this day, Groove is the number one driver of new customers for the business. The company is a multimillion-dollar/month company and it is all being driven by content marketing. All of it was from this realizing that we were just completely failing and spinning our wheels and trying to dig in and see what people were doing that we didn’t know.
That’s really why I ended up writing the book. More and more people that I spoke with were also not realizing that 95% of the work is what you can’t see.
When You Think You Know
Charlie Hoehn: For the people listening at home, give an example of something that you thought was working?
Len Markidan: Sure, that’s a great question. I’ll give you one example, one of our earliest articles was “10 Reasons You Should Sign up for Groove.” Anybody who has been in content marketing for any amount of time and has seen this kind of thing play itself out would look at that and laugh, because it’s terrible. Nobody cares.
It’s because it was all about us.
What we learned was the level of research and the depth that these businesses and content teams would go to really understand their audience, to really understand their readers, to understand their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their problems—and not just what the problems were but how the readers actually talked about those problems, the specific words that they used.
The amount of research that went into that and the amount of time that was spent on that was just mind-blowing to us, because we weren’t doing any of it.
Charlie Hoehn: What kind of changes did you make after you talked with all those people?
Len Markidan: I think the most profound change that we made was Groove was a customer support software company. We sold software that lets you answer customer support tickets and chats and social media posts, and support teams would use it. But typically it would be a solopreneur businesses or three person or five person or even eight or ten person businesses.
A lot of our content early on was very customer-support focused.
As we started to survey our audience, as we started to have conversations with our audience. I think we did like 300 phone calls those first six months and tried to understand what their problems were and what the biggest thorns in their side were that we could solve with content.
We found out that we actually weren’t hearing a lot about support.
The businesses in our market actually weren’t spending that much time thinking about support. When we asked CEOs—who are the ones buying our software—what they were worried about, it was almost always sales, marketing, growth, hiring, operations, things that really had nothing at all to do with customer support.
“Those were exactly the same problems that we were dealing with.”
We’re also not really thinking about support. We’re a six person company, we don’t even have the luxury to have this be a problem for us. Why would we care about reading “19 customer support tips” yet?
What came out of that, people clearly struggled with all these things, all of these business-related entrepreneurship related problems, and yet, we haven’t really found a great business blog that covers all of this from a perspective of an entrepreneur who is learning about these things as they go along.
That’s what we decided to launch. The blog was called “A Startup’s Journey from Zero To 100k In Monthly Revenue.”
We decided to document everything. The wins, the losses—actually the call to action in the subscription box was, “From aha to oh shit, we’re sharing everything we learn on our journey to 100K, we’re learning a lot, and so will you.”
The content that we were producing before just wasn’t relevant. It just wasn’t something that was relevant to the people that were buying our products. We launched this thing, and what we saw very quickly was people were really responding well to it. It was resonating with them, they would leave comments like “I can’t believe that there’s no other blog like this…I can’t believe I’m just stumbling on this now.” We would hear things like that, and it was like our seventh post, three weeks after we launched.
I think the blog probably has 3,000 articles on it now, but we certainly became optimistic after hearing that first wave of feedback.
Getting It Wrong
Charlie Hoehn: What are the costs of getting this wrong?
Len Markidan: They can vary from pretty bad to the greatest cost of all, which is the company just dies. That’s what we were in danger of. If we didn’t get this right, we had no money to invest in other channels, we had nothing. I had no other options at this point.
If we got it wrong, there would be no Groove now.
There are a lot of companies though that have built in audiences that have a little bit more security that started doing content marketing. The problem, and the risk of doing it wrong, and there’s a lot of different ways to do it wrong: you lose trust.
You don’t really get very many second or third chances with your audience, so when you start putting out content that your audience uses, tone deaf or useless…you can use a lot of extreme words to describe it, but really, the very worst one is boring.
If people think that your content is boring, you’re not going to get a second look.
“It’s really worth it to try and do it right.”
Because there is at the very basic level, there’s a very low barrier to entry to do content marketing, right? You need a blog, I think you need to write and publish it. You’re doing content marketing, right?
If you do it badly, you didn’t really invest much time into it, and you didn’t lose much.
If you’re a company, if your company decides to buy a Super Bowl ad, you’re going to spend 30 million bucks on it. You’re going to make damn well sure that every T is crossed and every I is dotted and that thing is perfect.
For these low barrier to entry channels, it’s so much easier to just phone it in. What happens very often is people will phone it in, they will put together some half-assed blog post or they’ll go out and they’ll hire a content farm to write some generic commodity content for them.
They’ll publish it on their blog, and nothing will happen, and they’ll say, “Content marketing is not a good channel for us. This is just not a channel that’s going to work for us.”
Getting It Right
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about how do you create content that really connects with your audience?
Len Markidan: That is the million dollar question, and it really doesn’t start where you know, as we learned, it doesn’t start where we thought it started, which is you know, when you put paper to pen or when you put fingers to keyboard.
It really starts with conversations with your customers, it starts with figuring out what their problems are, what their challenges are, your product, whatever it is that you’re selling…that’s going to be a really powerful solution for them, it’s going to be a really powerful product for them to purchase and it’s going to change their lives but it’s not going to solve every problem for them, right?
They probably have a lot of different tangential problems that, if you can help them solve with content, you’re going to get that built in trust. You’re going to get that relationship with that customer, so that when they’re ready to buy your product or service and they’re looking at you and they’re looking at a fewer competitors. You’re just the no brainier choice, right?
Figuring out what those problems are, asking questions like, “Hey, what is it that you’re struggling with today—just curious, what would you say the biggest thorn in your side is right now?” Then digging deeper and saying, “Okay, that’s interesting.”
“Processing expenses for your team, can you tell me a little bit more about that? What do you find challenging about that, what do you think was different?”
Taking that feedback, taking those responses and testing out some content, turning those into content pieces that attempt to solve those problems and I’m using content pieces as kind of a universal term, but I mean, blog articles or YouTube videos or videos of any sort or infographics or whatever it is that your strength is. Just play to it, a lot of people ask what the best channel, the best medium is.
Charlie Hoehn: The one that you’re good at.
Len Markidan: Yeah, exactly. Just do the one that you’re good at and this is what Michael Jordan learned when he tried to do baseball. Just do the thing that you’re really good at and it will work out so much better for you.
It’s trying to solve those problems and then getting feedback as rapidly as possible and just iterating until you start actually getting feedback that says, “Man, that was actually really helpful, thank you.”
Charlie Hoehn: That’s really good and it is the upfront work. It is similar to like if you were going to build a house, you wouldn’t just immediately run to Home Depot and be like, “Okay, I’m going to grab some wood and then I’m just going to take it over to the site” like no. You would sit down and map out, “Okay this is the design I am thinking of and you would get experts aka your customers in on that process to prevent you from making something that was completely useless.
And I feel like this is setting the blueprint and getting a team, again your customers involved so that it’s actually useful and if it is useful to one or more of them, it is bound to be useful to a ton of them.
Len Markidan: 100% and I absolutely understand the temptation, the seduction of wanting to go to Home Depot and just start by buying the fanciest grill they have, right? Just getting the fanciest gadgets, the fanciest toys, and you now the content equivalent of that is.
I want to start by picking some really, really powerful CMS, really, really blogging software. I want to invest some money in Facebook ads to use. Which podcast microphone is going to help me break into the top 10?
When you put it into terms that are relatable to the person asking the question, it is easy for us to see how ridiculous it is but when you are asking about something, you don’t really understand…I think it was Stephen King who said something like the most common question he gets is what pen he writes with.
When he goes to his author and talks to them, the most common thing people ask is what pen do you write with, and it’s just so funny when you look at Stephen King’s story and look at interviews with Stephen King. This guy has been writing prolifically for I don’t know how many years now, and every single day, he does not take a day off. He just writes all day every day.
It is not the pen, right? It is the work that you put in up front and it is the same thing with content marketing.
Charlie Hoehn: So the tools don’t matter, but platforms that you choose do matter because you want to reach people where they are.
Len Markidan: This is something that also highlights how important that research part of that is, that conversation with your audience really is because there are so many businesses that are writing content that is great.
Their content is really, really good, and if you are listening to this, you might have content that is really, really, really good, and you are wondering why it’s not working and there’s a very good chance that it’s just, because it is not getting in front of the right people.
If you do that upfront work of doing the research and you’re asking questions like you know, “Hey, what blogs do you read? What Facebook groups are you a member of? What Slack channels do you participate in? What websites do you visit? What sub-Reddits do you frequent at? What are you subscribed to?” Just doing that work and figuring out where your audience hangs out online can save you massive headache and heartache down the line.
“This isn’t one of those things where there are a lot of great shortcuts.”
This is why I am probably not going to sell as many copies as The Secret, but the only real way to get that message to your audience is to do the work, so finding out the communities where they’re spending time online, going into those communities, joining those communities, being a part of them, providing value, answering questions, contributing to those communities, just as a community member would.
Eventually, you build up a grounds full of people that know who you are that know what you do, that find your website, share your content, and then other people who know people. The people your content is for—that is, a lot of people—will end up stumbling on your content as well and so, you can’t understate how important it is to actually do the work on the promotion side of things and get it in front of the people that need to be reading your content.
That was something that we probably spent 80% of the time on. If we spend 20% of the time researching and writing content, we probably spend 80% of the time going out, finding people who are influential in the circles where our audience hangs out, getting their feedback on content, getting them bought into our story, bought into our mission to share this stuff to the world, and getting them to share it with their community.
So we ended up building a small army of people who, every time we publish an article, are thrilled to share it with the world because we have invested them in the process.
Reaching People with Your Message
Charlie Hoehn: What were you doing distribution wise to get your message out?
Len Markidan: So we had a list of about 150 people before we launched this blog. We went out and we put together a list of a 150 people who we thought essentially held the keys to our audience.
These were bloggers, other entrepreneurs, people who are influential on social media or Twitter or LinkedIn at the time, and we began to reach out to every single one of these people one on one.
This wasn’t like an automated CRM thing. We emailed every single one individually with a personal email and we said, “Hey we are getting ready to launch this blog. We have a draft with the first article, here is what we are trying to do with it. We’d love to get your feedback, would you mind just taking a peak at it and letting us know what you think?”
“We weren’t doing this in a sneaky or backhanded way.”
We genuinely wanted the feedback because we wanted to create things that were actually going to be valuable for people, because that is the only way long-term to build a successful content operation as we had learned. To our surprise again—I don’t know why we kept getting surprised by this—but to our surprise again, people were more than willing to help and people would reply and they say, “Yeah, sure. I would love to take a look.”
They would give us feedback—we probably got feedback from 50 or 60 people in that first round, and we did actually end up changing our first launch article based on that. We published the article, and on day one, we were then able to email back 60 people. We emailed all 150 again, but we were able to email 60 people who had all taken part in writing this piece of content, who all felt some level of ownership for this piece of content because they had helped us write it.
And said, “Hey, we just shared this. We would really appreciate your support, would you mind sharing this with your audience?”
Right away, I think our site broke three times that day. I think our very first article, Gary V. commented on it, and we have all of these people that we had built relationships over for the last—not very long, it was six weeks, but we did a lot of work to get them and right away, all of these people were validating this content.
They were sharing this content with their audience and you know that quickly, we had a thousand subscribers but it again, it was probably 5% because of what we did in the 24 hours after we launched the article, and 95% of what we did in the six weeks prior.
Charlie Hoehn: A lot of companies likely don’t do this because it’s work, because it takes planning. It really takes consistent effort. I mean you can go and publish a blog post and get it up within the hour or you can take this six week approach probably longer even if you are talking to a lot of customers beforehand and really do it right.
And I guess The Value Of Being Valuable is so good because it’s the hard stuff that people aren’t willing to do but if you do it, it pays off beyond your wildest dreams.
Len Markidan: I love that you pointed out that this is the model, because it just works and it has always worked. It will continue to work if you execute against it properly. I mean people think of content marketing as something new. People think of content marketing as something that HubSpot invented or some web 1.0 company invented, but the reality is, content marketing has been around forever.
I tell the story in the book of those in the 1880s. The Johnson Brothers starting a company, they are calling it Johnson & Johnson because they were incredibly clever. They were originally selling gauze, and it was an antiseptic gauze for use in operating rooms to keep patients from getting infections after surgeries.
“Nobody was buying the gauze because surgeons didn’t actually believe there was bacteria in there.”
It wasn’t widely accepted at the time that this was an actual risk to patients.
It wasn’t something that the medical community rallied around. So what the company ended up doing was they created what was probably one of the most impressive pieces of content marketing in history. They went out and they found this guy, Joseph Lister in the UK, who was studying bacteria and how it can infect open wounds and how when doctors wash their hands or disinfected their hands, patients had better outcomes and when gauze was used, patients had better outcomes.
They asked him if he would be the lead author on a book that they then went and got quotes from 53 of the leading surgeons at the time supporting this theory that this is the future of medicine. That being mindful of bacteria, being mindful of infection, and preventing infection is the future of surgical medicine. What ended up happening was they published the book and this company went from being close to bankrupt to selling 3 million yards of gauze a year.
And obviously now, they’re mega massive goliath company, but who do you think originally promoted that content? It was Joseph Lister and the 53 people that they interviewed.
Doing the Work
Charlie Hoehn: Can you share maybe a case study, something that you are most proud of in working with your clients and helping them with this stuff?
Len Markidan: I mean to be completely honest, the best part of every single client engagement that goes well is exactly the same, and it is that first 48 hours of customer research. We have sat in the room after the first customer interviews were conducted and we have read the transcripts and we look at customer responses side by side with the company’s existing content.
And when the content teams and the marketing teams see the disconnect between the content they’re publishing and what their audience actually cares about and wants, it’s incredible.
There’s this transformation that takes place when they realize that the reason that they’re not being as successful with their content as they like it’s not because their content is bad. It’s not because their content team is bad.
It is not because they’re necessarily not promoting it the right ways.
They are spinning their wheels, they are not spending enough on advertising. It is just because they are missing the mark. If you have already got that momentum, it doesn’t take very much to do the work required to start hitting the mark and to start actually producing content that will resonate with your audience.
Every time I see that transition from “I don’t know why this isn’t working” to “Oh wow, I not realize exactly why this isn’t working” to “Hey, I can’t believe that is all that took to change things.”
Connect with Len Markidan
Charlie Hoehn: What is the best way for listeners to connect with you and follow you?
Len Markidan: The best way to find me is I actually spend a lot of the little free time I have rambling on Twitter. So you could find me there, twitter.com/lenmarkidan, or you can go to my site, lenmarkidan.com. I send out an email every Friday, with whatever is on my mind, content marketing related or not. Some folks find it useful, and maybe you will too.
Charlie Hoehn: Excellent. The final question I have for you is to give our listeners a challenge. What is the one thing that they can do this week that’s from your book that will have a positive impact?
Len Markidan: So it is going to be uncomfortable for a lot of people because we are not used to doing this, and it was really uncomfortable for me the first time I did this. Get a customer on the phone, and even better, get them on a video chat, and even better, get them in person and ask them what their challenges are.
Ask them what they are struggling with, and if they start to ham and yawn say, “Yeah, yeah there’s nothing really that comes to mind right now,” push them on it.
Try to really understand what the thorns in their side are that you can help them with, with your content.
It is something that is really, really hard to do the first time for a lot of people. If you are not naturally inclined to talking on the phone all day with your customers—this isn’t hard for sales folks, but for a lot of my clients, this is really, really challenging. It is hard to do, but it gets addictive.
“I promise you, you will absolutely fall in love with it when you start seeing the results.”
Charlie Hoehn: How often should they be talking to customers? What is a good rhythm for them to get into?
Len Markidan: At the company where I run marketing right now, I do at least two customer calls a week personally. We do a large scale customer study where we get on the phone with 40 customers and send out a survey to everybody else. We do that twice a year.
I would say just try to get to the habit of doing it every week, even if it is just a little bit, and then try to go really, really deep on it at least once or twice a year.
What you’ll find is that the pulse of your customers change. People’s needs change, people’s demand change, and really, your customers change too.