Content Marketing Lessons

We recently launched an ambitious content marketing initiative… for ourselves. Since we do similar projects for clients all the time, I figured that we knew what we were doing. Surely writing for ourselves, about subjects we knew so well, would be easier than the ghost-writing, prodding, and project management that goes into a typical client project. It hasn’t been.

Starting our own marketing initiative was an eye-opening experience. And it’s yielding some valuable lessons.

The Project

We came up with the following scope for Phase 1:

  • 100 short “Q&A” articles
  • 18 “medium” articles
  • 3 “long” articles
  • 3 Interviews

Total = 124 articles over roughly 3 months. This works out to about 2 articles per week for each full-time employee (all of whom are participating). We reckoned about 4-5 hours per employee per week, plus some contract project management and editorial time. We kicked off on November 13th.  This article was started as we completed article #30 and was published as article #40.

Why We’re Doing It

We believe that content marketing is going to become an increasingly important component of virtually every company’s overall marketing program. Engaging with buyers in a meaningful and educational way will become the primary path for brands to establish trust and build sales.

Since we believe this is the future, it only makes sense that we would embrace content marketing as the primary way in which we ourselves should seek new customers. So it’s a tool for new business development.

But content marketing is also an increasingly important service that we provide our customers. A service that requires an extraordinary amount of back and forth between agency and client. Clients create much (if not most) of the raw content in this process. So we felt that it was important for the whole team to see the content marketing process from the customer side and not just as the agency side.

We have found more than just specific techniques and tricks that we’ll be able to share with our clients. We’ve found a tremendous amount of empathy and nuggets of inspiration.

Content Marketing Lessons: What We Got Right

We did a few major things right from the very start:

1. Hold a solid kickoff meeting.

great kickoff meeting is central to any project so, after two weeks of initial preparatory work, we gathered our entire team to get everybody on board. In a four-hour session, we talked about the centrality of content marketing to our agency’s future — both as a service offering and as a new business development tool. We reviewed the overall scope and timeline, individual responsibilities, and resources that would be made available. Then, we spent the last two hours answering questions, brainstorming topics, and discussing nuts and bolts.

2. Get team buy-in.

I was extremely gratified at how enthusiastic the whole team has been about this project. Although I have great faith in my team, we are very busy; and I was secretly anxious that I might face rebellion at the size of our undertaking (at one of the most demanding times of the year, no less). But there was no (audible) grumbling — just practical questions and solutions on how to make it work.

Every single person has shown a remarkable amount of energy and enthusiasm. We did a lot of great things in 2013, as an agency. But the enthusiasm and dedication shown for this project is what I’m most proud of. (Thanks everybody!)

Although it’s true that we have a uniquely awesome team, I think that every team will step up to the plate when they understand the reasons behind the content marketing effort and are given sufficient resources to get the job done. Everyone likes to talk about what they do, and everyone has something interesting to share about it. You just need to give them a reason and a forum.

For more on getting your entire team involved in content creation, see what Marcus Sheridan has to say on the subject. I can’t say enough about how much he has inspired our efforts. If you haven’t already you should really go see him speak or at least read his book.

3. Set an insanely ambitious editorial calendar.

This might be counter-intuitive. But I think it was one of the secrets of our success. Here’s why:

  • Internal projects usually take a back seat to client projects for most marketing and advertising agencies. Plus, enthusiasm (for any project) inevitably wanes as time goes on. We needed to achieve escape velocity before the pull of day-to-day projects zapped our will and strength. But if you never slow down, you can’t stop. And the massive dose of new habits inoculated us from any potential lethargy.
  • People needed to find their voice. This was harder for some than for others, but after three weeks of intense work, everyone has started to discover what works for them. Like anything, intense practice over a short time period makes for a much shorter learning curve.
  • Camaraderie. We all went through this intense process at the same time. We laughed. We cried. We typed. A lot. This was easily the best organizational bonding experience we’ve ever had.

4. Create a long list of topics…  then change it.

The worst part of writing is staring at a cursor on a blank page. Don’t let this happen to your people. Give them a topic. Any topic. We brainstormed well over a 100 topics inside of 40 minutes and then assigned them based on relevant expertise. This helped get everyone started.

However, almost everyone quickly decided that the list of topics they had sucked; they wanted to write about something else. These new topics often came to them while trying to write on the old ones. The new topics turned out to be much better.

5. Accept imperfection — at first.

Taking a cue from our startup clients, we burst through the dam of paralysis by shipping a minimally functional product and committing to continuous improvement. From content to design to SEO, we’ve been constantly polishing our work, but nothing has stood in the way of publishing.

6. Hold fast to deadlines.

This is critical with internal projects: commit to the calendar. There’s never a reason why you can’t change it, which is why it’s absolutely essential that you never do. Deadlines MUST be met or you face an ever-cascading avalanche of diminished expectations (and output).

7. Take a breather.

Taking time for introspection is key, both for individual pieces and for the overall project. We realized that we needed to give people enough of a buffer between initial drafts and publishing dates to fully think through their pieces. Likewise, we utilized the holiday break to reflect on the overall topic list before proceeding.

8. Dedicate a project manager.

Like every project worth doing, this one requires active project management to keep everyone on track. Initially, we thought both this and the editor role could be combined; but they really are two separate functions.

We wanted someone who wouldn’t be conflicted by competing client deadlines, internal politics, or anything other than getting the articles completed on schedule. So, we chose to bring in an outside project manager for this task, at least initially.

9. Keep it simple.

We almost came out of the gate with half-baked plans for a few videos, some Slideshares, and an info-graphic or two. Thank goodness we listened to Joe Pulizzi and picked a single medium to start with. It would have been a mess otherwise. We’re concentrating on writing short-medium length articles for now. Once we feel we’ve got that process nailed, we’ll expand to other media.

10. Eliminate distractions.

Everyone needs focused time to write, and the buzz of a busy office is distracting. We all ended up frantically writing Sunday night to make our weekly deadline — until we instituted a one and half hour quiet time twice weekly, wherein we switch off email and IM; power down our web browsers; and only answer the phones if it’s a client. And then…we just write. I’m pretty sure it’s become everyone’s favorite time of the day. And now we get some drafts done before Sunday at 11pm.

Content Marketing Lessons: What We Got Wrong

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. In the first thirty days, we screwed up a bunch of stuff.  Here’s what we learned from those mistakes:

1. Respect the editorial process.

Everyone benefits from a strong editor and we’re no exception. The first thirty articles ended up with a somewhat haphazard editorial process and it shows. Some of the articles could be tighter, the headlines aren’t great, and there are some stylistic quirks that should be cleaned up. More importantly, I think we need a stronger focus on specific themes. Expect to see this emerging in the coming months.

2. Take workflow seriously.There is no content marketing fairy. Dammit.

We’re adamant about maintaining an airtight workflow for client projects, but when it came to our own project, we somehow thought the content marketing fairy would take care of it for us. We have some basic posting and tracking processes in place through a combination of Google spreadsheets, Dropbox, WordPress, and email. But a refined workflow is key to success. For everyone. So we’re trying to work smarter as we move into the second half of the project.

3. Visuals need serious thought.

I’ll at least give ourselves credit in that we saw this coming. Finding great imagery is hard, time consuming, and sometimes expensive. Scattering random cheap stock images across the page looks tatty. Commissioning every image from a single source is both expensive and can create a somewhat monotone look. To date, we’ve wasted too much time looking for images with a ho-hum result. We’ve got some ideas to try out, including commissioning different types of images from a variety of artists.

4. Many topics take longer to address than anticipated.

I’m not really sure why we missed this, but we brainstormed 100 initial topics that we thought would be 2-3 paragraphs each. Instead they were mostly 4-6 paragraphs long and some required more like 12.

As my colleague Melanie Barter always says, “nothing takes five minutes” and “everything is more complicated than it first appears.” This is truth.

The result? We’ve written probably 2.5X more words than we anticipated in the first 30 days. And not just as a result of sloppy editing. The topics needed more attention and respect than we initially budgeted for.

We vowed to write 124 articles by March, so we’re not budging from that goal, but the arbitrary classification of short, medium, and long articles now appears to be very arbitrary indeed. We’ve therefore abandoned the idea of writing X numbers of each length. Going forward, we’ll just assume an average longer length and classify according to subject or approach.

5.  Write what you know; not what you were assigned.

Some folks took on assignments in which they didn’t feel they were already experts, even though the topics were at least tangential to things they already DID know very well. The research on these pieces was extremely time consuming and the articles themselves were the weakest we produced.

We realized if you can’t write 90% of the article without any research then you’ve picked the wrong topic.

This is now our golden rule and our number one takeaway after 30 days and 30 topics.

Early Results

I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of measurable results at this point; our focus was strictly on process. However, a quick look at our website analytics for December shows a 98% increase in website traffic; a 22% increase in pages per visit; and a whopping 214 % increase in average visit duration. Our bounce rate even dropped by 11%.

Organic search visits are up 20% with the rest of the traffic increase coming from social.

Advertising expenses were minor and essentially identical to last year’s $500 spend but instead of Google Adwords we dropped the money on Promoted Tweets.

We’ve also had several qualified new business inquiries, which compares favorably to a quiet December in 2012.

More to Come

I hope these lessons are useful to you in your own content marketing efforts. We’ll post an update after the end of Phase 1 in two months.

Update on April 8, 2014: We haven’t hit the full 124 articles yet but I’ll provide an in-depth look at the lessons learned, especially around building an audience, when we hit that magic number… probably around early May. In the meantime, I’ve provided an short update on our progress here.

Rich Quarles
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  • Jim Keenan January 16, 2014  

    Great article! I’m curious if this summary was part of the overall plan (your assignment), or if it was something you decided to do later.

    Either way, thanks for sharing some valuable insights.

  • Rich Quarles January 16, 2014  

    Hi Jim, I’d love to say that we planned on writing this article from the beginning but I’m afraid that we didn’t have that much foresight.

    It became clear how much we had to say on the subject during the informal conversations and staff meetings after the first week of posting. The bullet points were started at the end of week three but it was written mostly during our break and polished the week we got back to posting.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Marcus Sheridan January 17, 2014  

    A huge congrats is in order here Rich. VERY well done sir,and props to you for taking it to the next level and making it part of the company culture. Thrilled to see this. 🙂

  • Rich Quarles January 17, 2014  

    Thanks for the inspiration Marcus. Have been thinking about doing something similar for over a year, but it was your talk at MarketingProfs Boston that pushed us to actually take action.

  • Marcia Yudkin April 8, 2014  

    Can you please say something about placing the articles? Were all the articles intended for your own website? If not, who was responsible for placing the articles, and what did that involve? In my experience, placing articles can be just as complicated as writing them. Thanks in advance for your reply.

  • Rich Quarles April 8, 2014  

    Hi Marcia,

    Thanks for reading!

    When we conceived the project, we intended for all the articles to be placed on our own website. We were initially (and are still) primarily concerned with the process of creating, rather than promoting, the content. However, it’s obviously important to build your readership and we’re starting to put more and more focus on that. One of the ways that we’ve done that is to start exploring guest authorship opportunities– for instance the condensed version of this article that got published on today.

    I’ll publish a followup article on additional lessons learned in a month or so. I think a lot of the focus in that will be on building readership.

  • Rich Quarles April 8, 2014  

    After a deluge of traffic from a condensed version of this article appearing on MarketingProfs, I posted an update on the project here:

  • David Fabbri October 14, 2014  

    Rich. The intensity your team used to attack this initiative is extremely impressive and inspiring. We have been plodding along for some time on our content, with only intermittent bursts of energy. We’ll definitely be looking to take a page from your playbook. I’ll keep you posted.

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