Inbound marketing powerhouse HubSpot is proof that compelling content doesn’t just sit on a blog or within the pages of an ebook; it has the power to fuel connections with potential customers, serve as an indispensable industry resource and create a unique sense of identity that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. That’s why we had plenty of questions for HubSpot content strategist Shannon Johnson. Read on to learn how Shannon and her team have inbound marketing down to a science—literally—and where she sees the content marketing industry going in the future.
How do you view content’s role within HubSpot’s overall business vision?
Content is center to everything we do at HubSpot. It’s also something we’re known for. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to be familiar with HubSpot solely because they’ve consumed a piece of content we created. Only after landing on our blog or downloading one of our ebooks do people sometimes realize we actually sell inbound marketing software.
Our content starts the sales process by attracting new people to our web properties, but it doesn’t stop there – it plays a role to bring a prospect all the way through the sales funnel, and it continues to educate and inspire our customers even after they have our marketing software at their fingertips.
Simply put, all marketing promotions rely on our content. Without it, it’s a heckuva lot more difficult to come up with an email worth sending or a tweet worth tweeting. Other internal teams rely on our content to varying degrees as well: Our support team uses our blog posts, ebooks, templates, and guides to answer customer questions, and our sales team depends on our content to both initiate and advance the conversations they’re having with prospects. Other than our software, which we use for our own marketing, content is the most powerful tool we have.
In a blog post of yours from earlier this year, “7 Unglamorous, Unpopular Truths About Content Marketing,” you advise against acting like you have content marketing all figured out. How do you know when it’s time to switch gears and try something new?
Sometimes knowing when to switch things up is a matter of comparing content performance to your benchmarks and goals, which you want to continue to grow and become more challenging. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting direct feedback from your content consumers (we get a lot of replies to the emails we send). And sometimes, it’s about keeping your team on their toes by always asking questions that keep you thinking about what’s next: Why do we do it this way? What are we doing that’s driving the most value? What haven’t we tried yet? Are we doing this because it’s tried-and-true, just plain easy, or because we’re in a rut? Bottom line: if we’re doing something “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” it’s time to reinvent.
Figure out what works consistently, create some efficiencies, and get creative within that playbook. But don’t get complacent because the same playbook won’t work forever. You have to constantly be experimenting with new promotional channels, content formats and topics. The only constant is change. The web evolves, as does the way we consume information. To be a content marketer, I think you have to have a heightened curiosity to test, try, and improve upon your routine.
HubSpot’s blog has fresh content daily. Do you have any idea-generation advice for someone who might be struggling to constantly come up with new things to write about?
Here’s what I’d suggest:
- Plug in a few keywords into our Blog Topic Generator to get a handful of blog post title suggestions.
- Interview your customers and answer their unanswered questions.
- Interview team members for ideas that have surfaced in their client- or customer-facing conversations.
- Do some keyword research. Which keywords are driving people to your existing web pages and blog posts? Do the keywords match the content on those pages? Is there an opportunity to expand on that topic?
- Keep a backlog of ideas and write them down immediately when they arise (Evernote is great for this). Content ideas strike at very unexpected times.
- Read industry news or get inspiration from BuzzSumo to see what article topics are trending in your industry.
Fill in the blank: A successful blog post_______.
… teaches your reader something new and strengthens the affinity he or she has toward your brand.
It’s no secret that readers have a short attention span online. What are your go-to tactics for keeping them engaged?
Across the board, we strive to make the value proposition of an individual, educational piece of content very clear. We aim to craft tweets and other social posts, landing page copy, email copy and all promotional blurbs in our blog posts in a way that conveys what the reader will learn or gain from the content resource we’re promoting.
We also spend a decent amount of brainpower coming up with really good titles. Titles sell the content: they represent it in search engines, in email and on social media. Our blog team members are title-writing extraordinaires, so it’s not uncommon to pull one of them into a back-and-forth title brainstorm in a group chat room.
Visuals are definitely key as well. My teammates and I (long-form content creators who I’d best describe as hybrid designers/writers/project managers) design promotional images for all of our landing pages, and we’ve started spending a lot more time designing images specifically for use on social media.
What are your top do’s and don’ts when working to convert readers into customers?
I’ll openly admit that nurturing readers or leads into customers isn’t my strong suit. My role is to create the content that gets the lead generation and nurturing process started. We have a blog optimization manager who specializes in converting readers into subscribers and subscribers into leads. Leads are then primarily nurtured through ongoing communication from our email team.
That said, here’s some general advice:
- This is kind of a no-brainer, but create content that’s actually useful, and make sure you create content that aligns with different stages of the buyer journey.
- Promote that content more than once on more than one channel.
- Personalize communications wherever possible, especially in email and on landing pages.
- Add context
- Create content consistently. Not publishing anything is worse than publishing something that’s mediocre. Just don’t let mediocrity become the norm.
- Don’t be too shy to call out your product in your content as long as it’s relevant and not overly salesy.
- Don’t overcomplicate email nurturing with heavy design. Plain text works well when it’s to the point.
- Don’t present your prospects with the wrong content or call-to-action at the wrong time. For example, someone who has only downloaded one of our ebooks is probably not ready for a demo of our software.
How do you measure the success of your content?
At HubSpot, the primary purpose of creating content is to generate new, qualified leads that we can hand off to our sales team for follow up, so the metrics we care about most are the volume of leads generated, the quality of those leads, and the volume of customers generated. These metrics help us identify which content assets are driving the most business month over month, and which assets fall below our benchmarks.
However, there are “fluffier” metrics we care about that are a means to generating leads. For example, you need traffic before you can convert anyone, right? That’s why HubSpot’s lead generation content comes in two primary forms: blog posts and “offers”: long-form content such as ebooks, templates or webinars. Again, the purpose of both is to generate leads and customers, but our blog content is measured very differently than our offers content. The blog’s primary purpose is to amass a growing volume of traffic that we can then convert into leads. The team does this by writing ungated articles that expose visitors to our longer, more substantial content that requires readers to provide their contact information in exchange for a download.
The blog team measures total blog traffic, visits per post and which blog posts directly attributed to lead generation. It also measures the growth of its subscribers. Traffic and subscribers are the vital metrics for our newer blogs because those become the critical mass of dedicated readers who will share and evangelize our content to bring in even more traffic we can later convert. Once these blogs grow a sizable audience, lead generation will become a more important metric.
What steps do you take to make sure your social strategy is in-line with your strategy for content?
We have brief weekly pow-wows so that our content creators can connect with our campaign manager and the marketers who man our major promotional channels (email, social media, paid). We use these meetings to work through anything we’re struggling with, to brainstorm blog post topics and to generally just align on which content campaigns are coming down the pike. Our social media manager takes that information and figures out a 50/50 promotional balance of all the new stuff that’s launching and all the older, evergreen stuff that continues to deliver value month over month. One of my coworkers did a solid dissection of how we promote content—including on social.
How does HubSpot make the most of your social media channels? Do you have individual strategies for each outlet?
We definitely use our social channels differently. We’re present on all major social channels, but we invest the most time and effort in Twitter and LinkedIn. Twitter is our strongest lead generation channel by volume, but LinkedIn converts better, so LinkedIn is where we typically promote new content we want to gain traction, or evergreen offers that have historically converted really well. Over the last year we’ve depended on Facebook a lot less due to declining reach in the News Feed. We use Instagram and Vine primarily to showcase HubSpot’s culture.
How should companies distribute their content besides organic publishing on their blog and social media?
The short answer? Promote your content wherever your audience is active. My general recommendation is to have some sort of home base (i.e. blog) where you can house all of your content, and to primarily conduct promotional activities to drive people to that home base.
If you write an ebook, write several blog posts about it, and include a call-to-action in the post to encourage readers to download the longer, more comprehensive guide. Promote the blog posts repeatedly on social media, but don’t stop there. Create additional multimedia assets like images, GIFs and videos to help the content spread, and consider uploading them independently to content-specific sites. Content-specific sites like YouTube, SoundCloud and SlideShare are also search engines in themselves, so you can garner a ton more visibility by uploading and sharing your multimedia “breadcrumbs” on those platforms. Nowadays, there’s so much digital content competing for our attention that marketers have to work harder to simply get our content seen.
To get something to spread as far and wide as possible, don’t forget to solicit some word-of-mouth assistance from your coworkers. An often-overlooked distribution channel is all forms of internal communication. If you have an intranet or wiki, post your content there and send an internal email to your team complete with pre-written social posts to get your colleagues to share the content you worked so hard to create.
For someone just getting started with content marketing who has limited resources to make their strategy work, what would you say is the most important thing to know?
Not everything has to be perfect. It has to be good, but not perfect. You can update, optimize, and re-promote later. Consistency is the most important factor to success— especially at the beginning. Once you have a robust library of content assets, you’ll want to spend more time optimizing and updating the old stuff to keep it fresh.
Don’t underestimate the value of repackaging and re-promoting content, either. If you invested heavily to create a video, ebook or a white paper, transform the core of it into different content formats. Create visuals to promote those different pieces of content on social, and don’t be afraid to do so repeatedly. I think marketers sometimes overestimate how much people are paying attention to our promotions when in reality they may need to see it several times before they decide to care.
How do you see content marketing changing and expanding in the future?
Content marketing has gained a lot of speed in the last few years. Organizations that take it seriously have gotten better at creating content routinely and promoting it through select channels. When I think about what’s next for content marketing, though, I think the industry could improve in three departments: distribution, quality, and personalization.
Most time and effort goes into creating the content, and distribution is either a checklist of repeated tasks or a mere afterthought. Eventually, publishers will get better at thinking about packaging and distribution from the onset of an ongoing campaign. They’ll get better at creating something once and syndicating it or repackaging it for every channel that makes sense. There are countless ways to breathe life into one idea, but it seems like many marketers hastily move on to the next one before they’ve exhausted all the tools in their promotional tool belt to give the first one the best chance at success.
Quality matters a lot more when you ramp up your distribution efforts. Heavy promotion is extraneous if the content isn’t exceptional—cogent, well-designed and presented in a way that makes it effortless to consume. More importantly, though, fantastic doesn’t waste the viewer’s time. There’s a lot of content out there that was created just to meet a deadline, or with only the brand’s goals in mind. As more and more marketing content floods the web, the stuff that will rise to the top will consist of better writing, better design, more interactivity, and greater audience personalization.