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An Interview with Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi

Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi gave a powerful talk at Confab Central this year. iAcquire sat down with him just before he jetted home for insights into the content marketing world that he has seen grow from infancy. Here, he shares how he steered CMI toward success, the lessons he learned along the way and the value of understanding your audience.

Joe Pulizzi

In less than a decade, Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute, has established himself as a thought leader in an emerging, ever-changing space. Few who inhabit the content world haven’t heard of him. So when iAcquire had the opportunity to sit down with the seasoned vet in the moments after his Confab Central breakout session, “How to Build and Execute a Dominant Media Strategy,” it was a pleasure to hear Pulizzi speaking frankly of CMI’s long road to success. Below, Pulizzi gives insights into the seven-year journey that has brought his company to the mega heights it sits at today and shares his thoughts on influencer marketing, defeat and ROI.

Joe Pulizzi interview

I want to ask you about Content Marketing Institute. I didn’t realize that you had a vast history of pivoting…

Of failure? [Both laugh] That’s probably the best way to put it.

content marketing institute

You’re successful now, but what was your journey like?

Well, we always knew content marketing was the direction. I felt it was going to be big. I felt that more brands were going to become publishers. Enterprises would have to have to work this out, but our solution was, “Oh they’re all going to need content, so let’s hook up the agencies that provide that content with the brands, and we’ll be the middle person.”

This, by the way, worked really well. I didn’t go into detail in the presentation, but as you know agencies don’t like to spend money, just to be honest. I have a lot of agency friends. They don’t. So it didn’t work really well from a financial standpoint. So when we pivoted to the media business model, it started working really well. We went after enterprise marketers with: How do you structure a content marketing team? How do you create better blog content? How do you integrate social media? We thought about those types of things and created a structure around it. It’s just worked out really well. Now it seems like everyone is struggling with content marketing. It’s not a buy in issue anymore. Everyone’s buying into it, but we’re just in the first few innings of this thing really happening. So we have a ways to go before we see this mature into something.

It’s a total trial and error industry.

Absolutely.

Tell me a little bit about how you found your sweet spot and your audience, you mentioned in the presentation that you really focus on one core audience with your blog and essentially all the content that you provide.

First off, we and a lot of companies make this mistake where they target two, three, four, five different audience groups. “I want to target CEOs. I want to target CFOs. I want to target CIOs.” Well, you’re going to make a big mistake. And we were like, “Let’s target CMOs. Let’s target the marketing directors. Let’s target social media people.” No, let’s just target the doers in marketing in large companies and focus everything on that. And the more niche and fine-tuned we were going to be, the better it was. More people were talking about us. We were getting more subscribers to that content. That was making more sense.

The other thing is, the problem with falling in love with your product, and this is maybe something a lot of people have when you’re a startup. You’re like, “Oh, this products going to be great, everybody’s going to love it.” Well, not everybody loved it, and because we didn’t fall too much in love with it, we said, “Well what are our customers asking for?” And they said, “Hey, we need training. We need consulting. We need ongoing help in this area. Would you come in and do an advisory day?” And we were like, “Maybe there’s something here,” and the product then changed. The good thing is that we had that core content that was the base. We just said, “We’re not going to offer this matching product anymore. We’re going to take it into a business media model.” So we went and got sponsors, and we went and got paid registrations to Content Marketing World, and we just funded it differently. In essence, though, the content plan never changed all that much.

You touched on this in your last answer, but what is the content mix that you have currently at Content Marketing Institute? I saw the vast and long list, the crazy numbers involved with the number of blog posts you publish a week, the number of podcasts, just any sort of content.

The one thing you can take away from it is: you don’t need a very large team to do a lot of content if you need velocity. Not everybody should have a blog every day, but we do. So we have a blog every day and it’s connected to a daily newsletter. We have two webinars a month. We have a weekly e-newsletter. We have a workshop about every quarter. We have two big events—one in Australia and one in Cleveland, Ohio in September. We have a podcast every week. So it’s a little bit of everything, but with each one of those we ask the questions:

“Who is the audience? What is the content mission of that? How does it fit in the overall mission?”

Then we understood that, even though those do all make money in and of itself, the event is our presentation, we call it the grand slam. That’s the ultimate driver to everything. All this other stuff is marketing. We’ll just keep adding content if it makes sense, but if it doesn’t make sense, we’ll gear back. Some things we’ll cut. We were a book publisher for a while. That didn’t work well. We did paid content for a while. That didn’t work. We failed a lot. You’ve got to try a little bit, but you’ve got to give it enough chance. You have to give it at least six to nine months in everything you do, or you don’t give it enough chance to see if it’s going to work.

I was going to ask the length. That’s a really good suggestion.

I say, if you’re going into content marketing, and your time frame is less than nine months, go buy ads. Don’t even waste your time, because everyone says, “We’ve been blogging for three weeks. What’s happening?” Oh my God, don’t even look at anything by then, because it takes a long time to build a loyal relationship with an audience—sometimes 12 months, sometimes 18 months. In our case, it took about three years. It takes a long time.

When you said the word loyalty, it made me think of influencer marketing and that’s something that’s also a Graceland for you, too. Can you talk about how a company can target influencers and site case studies from CMI?

The first thing you want to get is what we call, an influencer hit list. So think about where your customers or audience are hanging out when they’re not on your site.

“You have to figure out: Who is our audience and where are they hanging out?”

Make a list of five, put that together and say, here’s where they’re at, and then you create an influencer social media strategy around that, and really what that has to do with is: “I’m going to share their content to create a relationship with those people.” So let’s say Twitter: I’m going to tweet out their content on a regular basis, more than my own, more than my sales pitches, and I’m going to grow a relationship with them over a month or two, and then take their content and bake it into your own content. Bake it into your eBooks, into your white papers, whatever, because then if you’ve built a relationship with them up front and you’ve baked them into your content, they’re more likely to share that content. Because what do we want? We want to steal their audience, not to be nice about it, but it’s true. [Both laugh] We want their audience to become our audience, but if you just reach out to influencers and say, “Oh do this for me, it’s never going to work.”

It’s got to be a two-way street, really. It takes a lot of nurturing.

I think that’s why we have so many shares on the Content Marketing Institute site, just because of the fact that we have a lot of people that have been influencers who share stuff, and are sharing our stuff on a regular basis, and then it reaches more people, and that’s what we want.

How do you measure your content at CMI?

There’s no Holy Grail to content marketing, but if there was one, it would be the email subscriber. It drives everything we do, and what I want to know is: what’s the difference between someone who subscribes to our content, like our daily newsletter, our blog, versus those who don’t? It takes a lot of data, right? We knew we weren’t going to figure this out overnight. It took us about 18 months to get there, where we found out that those people who subscribe to our daily newsletter and multiple things, they stay longer as customers. They go to more events. They buy more. We’ve created better customers because of that. So you have to figure out what that is for you. Do they buy more? Do they stay longer? Do they close quicker? Do they talk more about your company? What are the things that they do? So just ask yourself, okay I’ve got a subscriber list, what does that mean? That’s how you sell it to your CMO or CEO and say, “These subscribers are valuable, because they do this different.” If you can’t show behavior change, you’re not going to get funded for your content marketing project.

For more content marketing inspiration from Joe Pulizzi, follow him on Google+ and Twitter.