Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Brenner, one of our industry’s most accomplished marketers, speakers, authors, strategists and executives – as well as an extremely nice guy.
Before making the jump to helm his own agency – Marketing Insider Group – Michael was Head of Strategy for top content platform NewsCred, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy at SAP, and on and on.
During this conversation, he shared many brilliant nuggets including:
- The one metric that reveals the most about your content marketing
- The secret to creating magnetic content
- Two B2B marketing events he must attend (I couldn’t get him to choose just one)
- The single most important book every marketer should read
- And much more.
So without further ado… a conversation with Michael Brenner
On Getting Started with Content Marketing
Q: For a small organization with a limited budget, is content the best place to invest? Or is there another activity that you’ve found more impactful?
Michael Brenner (MB): I think content is the only place a small company should be investing. For one simple reason.
The large scale advertising used by most large companies is, number one – expensive, and number two, of questionable viability. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying you can’t point to any one ad and say it’s producing “XYZ.”
Otherwise, what are you left with what… PR?
I think Seth Godin said it best: “Content marketing is all the marketing that’s left.”
What this comes down to is the definition of content marketing – and a lot of people, and this always surprises me, still don’t truly understand the definition: turning the expertise you have as a company or as an individual and demonstrating that expertise to your customer. Becoming the hub for answers and the place they turn when they have questions.
What company in the world wouldn’t want this?
Q: One of the challenges I frequently see folks struggle with is a lack of focus. They’re trying to do 20 different things and as a result get very little traction with any one activity. For someone who has a small budget and limited resources, what’s the one activity you would advise them to focus on?
MB: For me, the answer to this question is in the definition of content marketing. But still today, as you point out, many people truly don’t understand what content marketing truly means.
Here’s what content marketing truly means:
You are the best answer for your customers question
The content you publish is housed in a hub
The content is owned by you
It has to be in a hub. This is the difference between content and content marketing. So the answer to the question is to start blogging, or creating some type of venue where your prospects and customers can subscribe and follow you on a regular basis.
For example, I do pro-bono consulting for a number of non-profits. I’ve seen small organizations drive exponential lift in results just by telling their story a company blog.
The trick for a very small company, even say, a 5 person company, is to mine your salespeople and customer support staff for insights.
Every employee provides answers to customer questions via email. Every salespeople understands common questions or FAQs. You can develop a years worth of content just from mining that treasure trove.
Q: Most people do this the opposite way, they start with gated content. What role should gated content play in content marketing?
MB: I would never say to stop creating gated content. Gated content is important in the middle of the funnel. But for most marketers, the problem is they can’t find enough people that are interested in that middle of funnel content.
The key is to drive that interest at the top-of-the-funnel. So once you offer gated content, you’re delivering it to an already engaged audience and providing deeper value.
If you think about a relationship, the gated asset is like delivering the ring. You’ve been talking for a while, now it’s time to take things to the next level. But you don’t just offer the ring cold.
Q: In your book, The Content Formula, you mention one of the defining characteristics of content marketing is that it isn’t campaign based. Understanding that, how do you structure content? Do you recommend specific themes or “pushes”? Do you like the traditional magazine editorial structure?
MB: A magazine is a great example of how to structure content. For example, Sports Illustrated does a swimsuit issue in the dead of winter when people want to be on a warm sunny beach. Forbes does it’s “richest people” list at a certain time of year.
Themes can be organized in any way you like, but two of the ways I recommend are event/trigger driven or a rolling approach.
For example, publishers – brand or media – they define a series of categories that define the things they want to be experts at. They publish on a regular basis on all those categories. For example, go look at RedBulletin. Focus changes throughout the year.
In the business realm, there are some exceptions though. I had a client in the financial services sector that was targeting origination of student loans. There is absolute seasonality to loans – 80% are secured in a certain 3 months of the year. They do a “campaign” with a big media push around that time of the year.
I would never tell them to stop this. But what I did say is that, the more we’re in front of parents and students the other 9 months of the year, the more likely you are to be the one they go within in that key period.
On Accelerating Results
Q: What are the keys to creating compelling content?
MB: Here are two things someone can do.
The first: “Create the best answer on the internet. Win the internet with the answer to a customer question.”
One of my favorite, and most viewed articles was my favorite examples of content marketing. This did really well. So I up-leveled even further and created “99 Amazing Content Marketing Hub Examples.”
I always want to be the best answer on the internet, whenever I can be.
Another way to drive engagement is to say something controversial. For instance – “why corporate websites are dead” or “why you should stop promoting in your content marketing.” When you truly believe it, it is authentic. Sometimes it pays to take a stand.
Here are another couple ways – be the first to present something really visually. Use great multimedia along with text.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give someone to accelerate audience building?
MB: This one is a bit controversial and I actually have fights with people on stage about this – but to me the answer to this is volume. Publish a lot.
For example, Hubpsot look at 4,000 websites and found that when you move from once a month, to once a week, to once a day, conversions rose exponentially. The assumption made is that these are average quality articles – and they are simply publishing more.
Do this, and you’ll see more reach, engagement and conversation. The research shows no diminishing return.
We live in a world where there is no loyalty. So if you are producing content more frequently, then you’re a lightbulb that is blinking more often.
Q: If the content is low quality, is there a potential to damage your brand?
MB: Think about it this way. Think about the amount of time most brands spend crafting their home page content. Now, for the average website, only about 10% to 20% of traffic is going to the home page, 80% to 90% is just visiting the article. So that means 8 or 9 out of 10 visitors is just concerned about your article.
Think about all that time spent on the home page content, and what the true impact is. Now, to take it a step further. When you look at an article page – 90% of people only ready 20% of the content – just the headline and first two paragraphs. Maybe they will scan for bullet points within.
The implication of all this is simple: You need to define what is “good enough” and work on driving volume at that good enough level.
We overestimate the value of perfection. As well as the price of perfection. Yes, if what you’re providing is total crap, you might be ruining, rather than building, your brand.
There are times when I read a blog or article I wrote six months ago, and see a spelling mistake, and usually I just leave it there. Sometimes faster is better. I’m actually one of the worst editors of any of the prolific blogers in the world, and I think that’s OK. It lets my humanity show through.
Q: If someone hasn’t yet gotten traction with content marketing, or isn’t getting the results they hoped for, what is the one metric they should focus on improving?
MB: Subscribers. It gives you a view into the size of audience, level of engagement, and then conversions. In this one metric, you’ll get a snapshot into your entire funnel.
A content subscriber is someone ideally in your target audience, who is now engaged. There’s an absolute correlation between brands that build a subscriber base, and their success in content marketing.
Subscribers, and tracking subscribers, it is the key to content marketing success. Companies that don’t focus on this struggle. Companies that do this well, succeed.
On Honing Your Craft
Q: What’s an example of a company marketers should look to emulate?
For a bunch of examples, check out the slideshare “99 Amazing Content Marketing Hub Examples.”
But if I had to choose one, it’s a blog called VanWinkles. This is a blog created by a company called Casper. Casper is an online mattress company which builds the most comfortable mattresses you’ll ever sleep on. I’m a customer and I love these things.
They’re trying to disrupt the whole process – from bad mattresses to pushy salespeople, etc.
They started with this great blog called “pillow talk” that lives on their corporate website. What they found as they started publishing was that there was this “sleep obsessed” society – this underserved group of people. These people have all sorts of questions, for example, “why do I dream in color?”
So they started VanWinkles which is a blog that lives independently. It’s a great example of where things are going. I really like this particular example because:
They created it based on a customer insight which revealed an unmet need
They hired a guy from Gawker and are really creating a great vehicle
Q: What’s your top 1 go-to information source for marketing?
MB: If I have to choose one, I would say Content Marketing Institute (CMI).
Each take a different approach, and if you look at all the information they publish, you’ll really become an expert marketer.
Q: If you could only go to one marketing event every year, what would it be?
Q: What’s the one book all marketers should read? (Hint: It needn’t necessarily actually be about marketing)
Joe Pulizzi’s “Content Inc.” It’s a must-read for every company, every business, every entrepreneur.
Your Next Steps
Want more of Michael’s wisdom? Here’s where you get it.
- Subscribe to MIchael’s blog (take the time –it’s definitely worth it): Marketing Insider Group
- Follow him on Twitter (great stuff you won’t find on the blog): @BrennerMichael
- Read his book (I read it, it’s awesome): The Content Formula
More Great Stuff
1. Hubspot Study: Lead Generation Lessons from 4,000 Businesses
2. Great Content Hub Examples: “99 Amazing Content Marketing Hub Examples.”
3. Michael’s Favorite Marketing Book: Content Inc. by Joe Pulizzi
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