I know, I know. I used one of those link-bait titles. First, I used a number (which, to be honest, almost always performs better than non-numbered posts). Second, I made a big promise – that content marketing domination in an industry category is actually possible.
Well, this post is all about what is possible.
But before I detail the six steps, let me take you back to 2014.
One of my ongoing personal goals is to publish a book every two years. Get Content Get Customers was published in 2009. Managing Content Marketing was in 2011. Epic Content Marketing was published in 2013. So that means, you guessed it, time for a book in 2015.
Selfishly, with this next book, I wanted to tell our CMI story. I wanted to talk about how we built Content Marketing Institute as one of the fastest-growing training and media companies on the planet, and, in the process help teach entrepreneurs, small businesses, and even change agents in large enterprises how to make content marketing work with deep focus and a tight budget.
That was the initial thought behind my 2015 book, Content Inc. (which launches at Content Marketing World in September, but you can pre-order it here). But as we began the interview process for the book, a funny thing happened on the way.
Over the past year, we’ve had the opportunity to interview dozens of the fastest-growing businesses led by entrepreneurs who used a “content-first” business model (more on that in a second). The more we interviewed, the more similarities we found among their business models. Actually, as we analyzed the businesses, we discovered that each followed the same six steps to building industry-leading platforms. This is what we dubbed the Content Inc. model.
You can read the long story in the book. The short story is this – each and every business followed the exact same model and these same six steps.
The story of Copyblogger Media
Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger Media, shares his story in both the foreword of Content Inc. and throughout as a case study. Brian, a recovering attorney, had some amazing ideas about how businesses should market online. Unfortunately (or maybe I should say fortunately), he didn’t have a product to sell.
For one year and seven months, Brian developed amazing content on a consistent basis to a targeted audience. He defined his ultimate mission:
To create media assets that depended on the permission to contact my audience, not the permission of a media gatekeeper.
In shorthand: Become the expert resource that attracts the right audience without having to buy advertising on someone else’s platform.
And Brian did just that. Today, Copyblogger Media is one of the fastest-growing SaaS (software-as-a-service) companies on the planet.
The Content Inc. model
Whether you work in a large, complex enterprise or are a “solopreneur,” one of the biggest mistakes companies make with content marketing is trying to monetize the content before a loyal audience is built. It takes a plan and patience to build an audience that is more likely to be willing to buy from you. Almost automatically, especially in big businesses, we try to turn our audience into customers so early that we never give our content marketing programs any room to breathe. When we do that, our content isn’t building a subscriber base, and we’ll never see a behavior change due to the consistent influence of the content.
In looking at the multiple case studies from the book, the average time to monetization of a content marketing program was between 15 and 17 months. For CMI, it took 15 months. For Copyblogger, it took 19 months. The model to be successful in that time period encompasses the six essential steps.
Any company in any industry can see amazing results by following this model – if you build in the expectations of time and consistently deliver on your content promise.
First, uncover a content area around which the business model will be based. To make this happen, we need to identify a sweet spot that will attract an audience over time. This spot is the intersection of a knowledge or skill set (something in which the business has a competency) and a passion area (something the business feels is of great value to society or inherent value to the target audience).
For example, Andy Schneider has built an entire business around his celebrity persona, the Chicken Whisperer. Andy’s knowledge area is backyard poultry. To put it mildly, Andy knows more about raising chickens in a backyard than just about anyone else. At the same time, Andy has a passion for teaching. Andy loves helping his friends with their backyard chicken-raising whenever he can.
2. Content tilt
Once the sweet spot is identified, the business needs to determine the “tilt” or the differentiation factor to find an area of little to no competition.
Claus Pilgaard is one of the most well-known celebrity figures in Denmark, all because of the extraordinary way he talks about chili peppers. Claus’ YouTube videos have garnered millions of views, including one where Claus conducts the Danish National Chamber Orchestra playing Tango Jalousie while eating the world’s hottest chili peppers. That video alone has more than 3 million views (that’s more than half the population of Denmark).
Claus’ sweet spot was the intersection of his skill at performance art and his passion for chili peppers. But what Claus realized was that there was an abundance of content and experts around the “heat” behind chili peppers, but a content gap around the taste of the peppers. As he explains:
I was actually sitting there in this little summer house getting a little bored and I had my camera with me and thought, “What if you talked about chili peppers in the same way as you were told about raising wine?” You talk about all the different kinds of tastes, not about the alcohol but what it tastes like. Is it coffee, or is it food? What is it? So instead of telling about how hot these peppers were, I was getting around the peppers and talking about the different varieties. And then my body started to tell another story [while eating the peppers]. Maybe that’s why [the videos] became so popular.
Claus always had a passion for chili peppers, but it wasn’t until he started telling a different story that the business model grew legs. The “tasting” addition to the sweet spot was the tilt.
3. Building the base
Once the sweet spot is found and the tilt occurs, a platform is chosen and a content base is constructed. This is exactly like building a house. Before we get into all the paint and fixtures and flooring options, we have to plan and install the foundation. This is done by consistently generating valuable content through one key channel (a blog, a podcast, YouTube, etc.).
The base includes:
- Content type: Text, video, audio, etc.
- Content platform: Blog, iTunes, YouTube, etc.
- Consistency: Same time every day, week, month, etc.
- Time: It almost always takes over a year to build the base enough to be able to monetize the platform.
Today, Content Marketing Institute offers a print magazine, research papers, podcasts, ongoing workshops, and more … but for the first four years, it was just a blog – the core channel that initially drew in the audience. The blog originally started as just me, writing approximately three times per week. In 2010, we opened up the blog to additional contributors at five times per week. In 2011, the blog went daily, even on weekends.
Not until success was found in the blog (the platform) did CMI diversify to other channels.
4. Harvesting audience
After the platform is chosen and the content base is built, the opportunity presents itself to increase the audience and convert one-time readers into ongoing subscribers.
This is where we leverage social media as key distribution tools and take search engine optimization seriously. At this point, our job is not just to increase web traffic. By itself, web traffic is a meaningless metric. Our goal is to increase traffic to increase the opportunity to acquire an audience.
Here’s how Michael Stelzner, CEO of Social Media Examiner (SME), explains this step:
We were arguably late to the game, because by the time we launched SME there were thousands of other blogs that were dedicated to social, but I saw that as marketplace justification more than anything else. But I didn’t doubt once I began because I knew how to track metrics; I knew what mattered. I knew email acquisition was the key metric and I had decided that we weren’t going to promote (meaning “sell”) anything until we had at least 10,000 email subscribers. And we got to that number so quickly that I knew we were really onto something.
… last year we had 15 million unique people visit SME. We have 340,000 people that we email every single day. We currently publish eight to 10 original articles every single week.
The critical acknowledgment for this area: While many metrics analyze content success, the No. 1 metric is the subscriber. It’s almost impossible to monetize and grow your audience without first getting the reader to take action and actually subscribe to your content.
Once the model has built a strong, loyal, and growing audience, it’s time to diversify from the main content stream. Think of the model like an octopus, with each content channel being one of the arms. How many of those arms can we wrap our readers in to keep them close to us (and coming back for more)?
ESPN, originally started as a sports-only cable television station in 1979, began with a $9,000 investment by Bill and Scott Rasmussen. Now, almost 40 years later, ESPN is the world’s most profitable media brand with operating earnings of more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.
For 13 years, ESPN directed its attention to one channel for 100 percent of its audience-building focus – cable television. Then, starting in 1992, the floodgates opened on diversification, first with the launch of ESPN Radio. ESPN.com (originally called ESPN SportsZone) launched in 1995, followed three years later by ESPN the Magazine.
Today, ESPN has a property in almost every channel available, from Twitter to podcasts to documentaries. Even though the channels were limited in the 1980s and 1990s (compared with today), ESPN didn’t diversify until the core platform (cable television) was successful.
It’s time. You’ve identified your sweet spot. You’ve tilted to find an area of content noncompetition. You’ve selected the platform and built the base. You’ve started to build subscribers, and you’ve even begun to launch content on additional platforms. Now is when the model monetizes against the platform.
By this time, you are armed with enough subscriber information (both qualitative and quantitative) that a multitude of opportunities will present themselves to generate revenue. This could be consulting, or selling software, or keeping customers longer, or having customers ultimately buying more when they do buy.
Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz (originally called SEOMoz), started his blog on search engine optimization insights in 2004. In less than five years, Moz had over 100,000 email subscribers.
Rand originally monetized the audience through consulting services, but in 2007, Moz launched a beta subscription service for software tools and reports. By 2009, Moz closed the consulting business entirely and focused on selling software to its audience. Moz had less than $500,000 in revenue in 2007. Today, it is north of $30 million.
Or let’s looks at a larger business example.
thinkMoney is a print and digital magazine produced by TD Ameritrade for active traders (who sometimes trade hundreds of times a day). In the early days, the program was under ongoing review about whether it was worth spending money on the magazine. But the leaders persevered, and after approximately two years, received the information they needed.
The best part? Moz and TD Ameritrade’s success looks amazingly unusual, but it isn’t. The more we’ve researched this, the more we’ve found that these are typical numbers for a Content Inc.-model business. The key is following the six steps as outlined and being patient enough for the model to work.
Want to learn more about how to make this a reality for your business? First, you can pre-order the book here.
Impatient? Download this e-book – 6 Steps to Build a Content Inc. Empire. It goes into each of the six steps and includes exercises on how to execute this model in your own organization.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute