By Joe Pulizzi published August 21, 2012

Using Content to Close the Sales Loop: An Interview with Marcus Sheridan

Marcus Sheridan

Marcus Sheridan

Marcus Sheridan began his career as a pool entrepreneur, selling fiberglass pools in the Virginia-Maryland area. Five years ago, he embraced content marketing out of necessity to revive a business hit hard by the recession. In 2009, River Pools spent $250k in advertising to produce $4 million in sales. After two years of content marketing — and despite being in an industry where the average pool builder was down 50 to 75 percent — River Pools cut its advertising budget to just $20,000 while increasing its business to $5 million in sales. Now Marcus educates others about how to be scrappy and successful with content.

Joe Pulizzi: I’ve heard you say marketers tend to overthink content marketing. Rather than make all sorts of complicated plans, they should just get started and figure it out as they go. Where does that kind of no-nonsense attitude come from?

Marcus: I’m blessed to have come from the blue-collar world of a swimming pool company. I didn’t go to school to become a marketer. If one of my kids came to me and said, “I want to be a marketer and I want to go to school for marketing,” I would be scared to death it would ruin them.

I’ve written about the curse of knowledge more than any subject on my blog. The curse of knowledge is something I’ve thought a lot about and I see so many people suffering from it — especially online. Some of these “leaders” online that are talking about marketing, you can tell they’ve been wrapped up in their world too long. I read blog posts and don’t know what the heck the person just said because it was so nebulous and in the clouds, saying nothing concrete and having no application. That’s not who I want to be.

JP: You talk about respect and courtesy on your blog. Do you see examples of disrespect in business publishing or blogging? What kind of advice do you give to bloggers about that issue?

Marcus: Frankly, I don’t see enough opinions. The majority of businesses, especially B2Bs, live in this world of gray. They’re so afraid to have any opinion at all that their blogs stink. They’re looking to appease everyone and so they don’t get any traction.

People ask me all the time, “How did you take a subject that was not very sexy (i.e. swimming pools) and get such a huge following?” First, it’s written in a personal voice. I write like I talk. Second, my blog is opinionated. I don’t live in the world of gray. I live in black and white. We have a dearth of thought leadership because everyone is afraid to take a stand.

Now, you have to be respectful. I don’t come out and say, “This guy is such an idiot.” I’ll never do something like that. But I will say, “I’m looking at this product, service or belief, and it doesn’t make sense to me — and here’s why.”

If you’re not causing people to raise eyebrows in your industry, I don’t think you’re going to make it big time. Not today. There’s too much content. I talk about something I call CSI, the Content Saturation Index. The CSI in every industry is growing daily by leaps and bounds. It comes down to quality. Quality initiates the social side of things.

JP: You discuss the pros and cons of different tech platforms on your blog, like Alexa rankings and Livefyre. Which apps and platforms do you think bloggers need to know about — if not use — to be successful?

Marcus: The one that I talk a ton about is HubSpot. HubSpot was the first company that was a true all-in-one (e.g. blogging, analytics, email marketing, lead nurturing, social media). HubSpot goes way deeper in terms of getting to know your leads’ behavior than Google Analytics.

Here’s the thing: If, as a blogger, you cannot say, “I know my blog made me at least ‘this many’ sales in the past year,” there’s a good chance you’re not measuring stuff the right way. You need to do better than just Google Analytics. Google Analytics tracks traffic but it doesn’t track people and names. There’s so much more power in being able to say, “Jeff visited my site today and he filled out a form. And Jeff viewed these five pages of my website.”

The reverse is that Google Analytics says, Today I got 1,000 visitors on my site and these are the pages they looked at, and this is the bounce rate, and these are the places they clicked.” Well what the heck is that? As a salesperson, I want to know what Jeff did; I don’t care about the other 999. I really, really want to know what Jeff did. That’s why we need to be good inbound marketers and we have to get people filling out forms on our website. We’ve got to be able to see true behavior, not have all these hypotheses based on what Google Analytics is telling us. Google Analytics is fine, but it’s clearly not the depth you need from a sales perspective.

I wrote a blog post a while back, “My blog made over 2 million dollars in sales: How’s that for ROI?” That was an eye-opening moment for a lot of people because they saw, “Wow, you can actually close the whole loop. You can say this is a keyword phrase the person typed, this is the article that they landed on, these are the pages they visited, and this is the form they filled out to become a lead.” Once that person became a lead (we’ll call him “John”), we started the sales process and began tracking him, not just based on the website but all our communications with John. When John eventually turns into a customer, we close him out in our analytics and track it back to that initial keyword and that initial article. At that point, you can say, “If I didn’t write that blog article, John would never have visited the site and become a customer.” Therefore that blog article is a direct reason for the sale. And that sale for that particular customer, John, was $75,000 for my company. That’s a beautiful thing.

JP: You share a lot about yourself, your family, your faith — a lot more than the average business owner. Tell me why.

Marcus: I want you to start to develop a relationship with me early on. I want you to know, first of all, what I look like. That’s important because you have to be able to put a face with content. Second, I want you to get a feel that I’m just like you, a real person with a real family, with real struggles, triumphs, tragedies, etc. So when you read my stuff you can say, “I know who’s talking to me.” Even if I’m not a lot like you, you know that I’m a real person.

The number one need we have in life, in my opinion, is to feel understood. When I was just a “pool guy,” I would knock on a customer’s door and literally, the lady of the house would come out and give me a hug. She would address me like we’d known each other for years and talk about my kids. Sharing personal stories really tears down walls. This is deep. As marketers we talk about social media but yet we want to be anti-social; well, screw that. I’m all in, literally. All chips in the middle of the table. I’m here to be social and this is who I am!

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Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Sarah Santacroce

    Great interview, thank you Joe & Marcus. It’s so true, people want to know who’s behind the blog. I wrote a filler post once when I was on vacation – it was called “Who is Sarah Santacroce?” Funny thing is, that filler post is in the top 10 list of my most visited posts. Human Nature is curious … 🙂

    • Carmelo

      Yes, is sure is Sarah. But, ya know? The reason for all this social media stuff is that people feel isolated. We crave not only attention but connection. And when we do something like you did it’s a way for us to make life more personal and rich. 🙂

    • Marcus Sheridan

      GREAT point Sarah. People want to know the face behind the words—or better, the soul behind the words.

      Most businesses prefer to ignore this reality, but it’s true.

      Thanks so much!


  • Jenna Markowski

    This is an excellent interview, Joe! I love Marcus’ no-nonsense approach to content marketing. I also really appreciate how he said that Google Analytics isn’t enough. It’s so true that you want to track exactly which links the readers who convert to customers followed.

    “If you’re not causing people to raise eyebrows in your industry, I don’t think you’re going to make it big time.” — That’s my favorite quote in the article. Truer words have never been spoken. Among the overwhelming amount of content that’s out there, brands really need to push the envelope in order to stand out!

    • Marcus Sheridan

      Thanks Jenna, I really appreciate that!

      Here’s to standing out! 😉

  • Jon Nugent

    I was expecting to read how to close the sales loop using content and what I read was an expose on Marcus and references to his blog.

    We don’t intend to emulate the personal style of Marcus by literally hugging our customers and we don’t go door to door. We use HubSpot as well as a variety of inbound and outbound marketing techniques to achieve our revenue goals.

    My question is how do you use content to increase the conversion rate of lead to sale using content.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Jon…sorry for the confusion. I would look at this article for specific content ideas at different stages of the buying cycle within the funnel.

    • Marcus Sheridan

      I think you’re not at all seeing the forest through the trees Jon.

      This article isn’t about hugging people at doorsteps that I’ve never personally met, it’s about relationships of trust that form from giving valuable content to prospects, thus pushing them down the sales cycle. (i.e. closing the loop).

      In fact, every point here deals with establishing relationships with readers that induces trust.

      I talk about my family…why?….to be open and induce trust—which closes the loop.

      I speak of writing frankly and concisely about the stuff consumers care about—their questions. Fact is, most company don’t even do this on their website, which means they aren’t viewed as the premier educational experts in their industry which means they don’t establish relationships as well through their web and other content.

      Again, that’s about closing the loop.

      But like everything else in this industry, that’s just one man’s opinion,.

  • Carmelo

    Hey Joe, thanks for seeking out and interviewing Marcus. Important ideas for bloggers. Marcus is the genuine article too, Joe. Perhaps not everyone wants to “make it big time” but most bloggers and marketers do want to make a difference and to do that, you have to stand out. So, whatever that is for them … that’s it! Be yourself and show it.

    • Marcus Sheridan

      Yeah, I do think every blogger wants to stand out Carmelo. That’s also why I readily admit it. In fact, I’ll also readily admit that I want to push thought in this industry for a long time and be a leader within this realm. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think enough people are honest with themselves about that.

  • Barry Feldman

    Really loved this. Same goes for all of that “all in” stuff that we get from Marcus. Super sweet where he gets into that dreadful gray stuff that blends in with the crowd. I like to say you can be remembered or be forgotten. I suspect we’re talking about the same thing.

    • Marcus Sheridan

      Yep, certainly talking the same thing Barry. Thanks for the kind words bud and keep up the great work!

  • elivela

    One of the BEST blogs I’ve read in a long time! I am going to add Marcus’ blog to my reader. It’s not about the pool it’s about making true, honest to goodness contact. Thanks for posting this.

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