By Roger C. Parker published September 13, 2012

This 7-Step Content Marketing Plan Earned an $87 Million Paycheck

In a recent interview, Marcus Sheridan referred to content marketing as the “weapon Davids use to slay Goliaths every day.”

Marcus’s words resonated deeply with me. That’s because, long before content marketing came of age, I watched it help a David Seattle retailer slay its Goliath competitors and go on to an $87 million buyout and a nationwide presence.

Although the internet was not available when the story takes place, the 7-step content marketing plan that worked then can still work today for you and your clients.


When I was recruited from Boston to Seattle to be Magnolia Hi-Fi’s advertising manager, it had recently transitioned from a neighborhood greeting card and photography store into an audio specialty store.

I was the store’s third non-family employee. My responsibilities included helping the store deal with the price competition that’s always been a big part of consumer electronics retailing and develop a foundation for a solid, profitable marketing plan.

It was a blank slate. The store was doing little or no advertising, other than occasional advertisements in a free local neighborhood weekly newspaper.

Here’s the content marketing plan that changed everything.

Step 1: Refocus your prospect’s attention

The first challenge was to give prospective buyers something to focus on… other than price. The store’s Goliath competitors all ran large ads, cluttered with numerous separate components; i.e., speakers, receivers, turntables, etc., accompanied by big “savings.”

The advertised products were loss leaders; something to get prospects into the store where they would regularly be switched from the bait to more expensive alternatives, accompanied by whatever else was needed to complete a music system.

Price-oriented advertising, of course, comes with big disadvantages:

  • Endless competition. No matter how low you price an item, there’s always someone who will undercut your price. Price competition is especially dangerous when you’re a David competing with well-funded Goliaths.
  • Incompatibility. Price competition involves a basic disconnect; stores are advertising parts, but most customers need ready-to-use solutions; i.e., complete music systems ready to hook up and enjoy.
  • Lack of story. Focusing on price doesn’t engage buyers, beyond the urge to “put one over on the store” (an unlikely scenario). There are no emotional hooks, no word-of-mouth stories for readers to pass along to their friends.

Ultimately, we committed to “system selling,” creating a few, key systems — or pre-chosen combinations of components at popular price points; i.e., $399, $499, $599, $999 (in ’70s and ’80s dollars).

This preliminary merchandising gave us something to talk about — topics for relevant educational stories we could tell over and over again… stories that got stronger and stronger with each retelling.

Have you identified the core topics for your content marketing?

Step 2: Create a hub for your content marketing

There were very few marketing platforms suitable or available in pre-internet marketing for educating prospects and telling stories.

For the hub of our pre-internet content marketing, we decided to create a series of stereo buyer’s guides, which we’d distribute as pre-printed newspaper inserts. The format offered numerous benefits:

  • Space: Our 8-page, tabloid-sized (11 by 17 inch) inserts provided space to tell how to buy a quality sound system and space to show why each of our core systems represented the best values at their price points.
  • Low cost per unit: We printed the inserts on newsprint using black plus a second highlight color. By preparing the inserts well before deadlines, we were able to negotiate even lower prices for printing during times when the presses were not being used.
  • Long life: Although we created our buyer’s guides as newspaper inserts, it soon became apparent that they were equally valuable as in-store handouts. Because they weren’t tied to specific promotions, we could hand them out for months after their first appearance.

Today, of course, blogs provide the perfect content marketing platform: lots of space to tell a complete story and — thanks to search engines — long life.

Do you have a hub in place for distributing your message?

Step 3: Offer relevant assistance in your content marketing

We devoted 60 percent of the space in our buyer’s guides to educational editorial material answering questions like:

  • What should you look for when buying a receiver?
  • Should you buy a single-play turntable or a record changer?
  • How do you compare speakers?
  • How do you hook up a stereo?
  • What kinds of accessories can enhance your listening pleasure?

We used approximately 30 percent of the space in each issue to talk about our “core” systems and why they offered such great value. We used the remaining 10 percent of space to describe our store’s philosophy and how we backed up what we sold.

Are you educating your prospects to shop for value rather than savings?  

Step 4: Use design to set your message apart

We used a professional graphic design firm to produce not only our buyer’s guides, but also in-store signage and our weekly newspaper ads (even though newspapers will usually lay out ads free of charge).

The benefits of professional design soon became obvious, in terms of consistency, recognition, and easy reading.

Beyond quality, the investment paid additional long-term benefits. For example, after the first buyer’s guide, we based subsequent issues on the same template, reducing costs. As we grew, we were able to amortize design and production costs over multiple newspapers.

Do you view quality design as a long-term investment?

Step 5: Nurture your content

Just like today’s content-filled blogs need consistent promotion from Twitter and other social media tools, we supported our buyer’s guides with an aggressive, multimedia marketing program.

Although we became known as the buyer’s guide place, our guides only came out three or four times a year. This meant we had to maintain momentum to keep each issue alive in our stores as long as possible. This involved:

  • Print media: Rather than allowing our ads to “float” throughout each Sunday newspaper, we committed to a location where our weekly ads would be found by those looking for our competitor’s ads. Since the dominant player, at the time, had a contract for the center spread of the Times Sunday TV Section, we purchased Page 5 — the first right-hand page in the TV listings with advertising. Each ad invited customers to our store to pick up a copy of our latest insert.
  • Broadcast media: We promoted our buyer’s guides at the end of each of our radio ads. We also primed the market before each buyer’s guide came out, and saturated the airways the day each insert appeared.
  • Special events: To reinforce our authoritative, content-based image, we held frequent seminars and workshops inviting the leading names in audio and video to present at our store, during our Meet the Inventors series.
  • Image-building: Occasionally, we purchased ads in regional editions of national publications, such as Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. After the ads ran, we purchased laminated reprints to display in our stores.

Are you nurturing your content hub by sending traffic to it from other sources?

Step 6: Scale your content market

Then, like now, content marketing success is scalable. Once you identify the core elements and create a process, you can increase the velocity of your marketing as resources become available:

  • Broader distribution: Originally, we only inserted our buyer’s guides in newspapers delivered within our immediate area. As sales increased, we added additional residential areas of the city, before expanding to the key suburbs, then going for full regional distribution (which reduced per-copy costs even more).
  • Bigger ads: Our original newspaper contract was based on the minimum size that would dominate a page and prevent other advertisers from appearing on “our page.” Soon, however, we upgraded to the full page, before adding Page 4 — the facing page.
  • Broadcast frequency: Our original broadcast schedules targeted key listening blocks (like morning and afternoon drive-time). As our resources improved, we didn’t buy more stations, but we did buy more time throughout the day on the stations where we were already known.

Is your content marketing plan scalable to accommodate growth?

Step 7: Sell your content marketing to your staff

A successful content marketing program requires more than creativity and quality production; it also requires strong and dedicated management.

From the start, we spent a lot of effort internally, selling our content marketing plan to our sales staff and keeping them informed about upcoming advertisements and promotions.

A commissioned sales force responds with Pavlovian speed to competing prices. In the early days, we often heard comments like, “They’re killing us! Why aren’t we fighting back?” In fact, sales and profit margins were increasing, and — soon — we were killing them. But, it was not always smooth sailing.

Over time, this became less and less of an issue as the buyer’s guides became increasingly popular and the store’s quality image grew. Soon, the best sales candidates in the area — and beyond — were approaching us looking for jobs.

Are you and your staff taking a long-term view of your content marketing?

Content marketing’s big paycheck

Within 18 months, our original small store in an out-of-the-way neighborhood was joined by a huge store in Seattle’s high-traffic University district, two blocks from a major Interstate 5 exit.

This was quickly followed by two more stores in fast-growing, high-traffic retail locations south and east of Seattle. Expansion then took place throughout Washington and in Oregon and California.

In 2000, the father-son partnership sold Magnolia to Best Buy for $87 million.

Now, there are more than 350 Magnolia Home Theater locations in Best Buy stores throughout the United States.

Content marketing for entrepreneurs

Content marketing not only helped Magnolia go national, but the same principles also helped me develop a national following.

I left the store after its second doubling in size, and I began to write a monthly marketing and advertising column for a leading consumer electronics trade publication.

In exchange, I was given a monthly advertisement to promote my modular “do-it-yourself” newspaper insert templates.

I created them for retailers to complete on their own, with the help of their local newspaper or printer. I offered several versions; i.e., back-to-school, tax refund, graduations, car stereo, etc.

In each case, all of the heavy lifting — the design and editorial content — was complete. All dealers had to do was insert their core systems in the designated locations, along with their logo, locations, and financing options.

Coincidentally, the first retailer to purchase my original Holiday Buying Guide was Richard M. Schulze, the owner of a Minneapolis store… who later founded Best Buy!

Looking for more content marketing case studies? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Roger C. Parker

A lifelong content marketer, copywriter, and author, Roger enjoys helping clients write books and simplify their content marketing. Follow @RogercParker on LinkedIn at ContentMarketingHelp. Download a free copy of his 4-page 8 Commitments of Content Marketing Success.

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  • Barrett Rossie

    Roger, I love the case study and your personal story. Thanks for sharing it!

    • Roger C. Parker

      Dear Barrett:
      Thank you for commenting. It was a great time of life, and I appreciate–thanks to Joe Pulluzzi @juntajoe and Jodi Harris @jodirama –the opportunity to share it.
      Best wishes,

  • Bhaskar Sarma

    This is a great playbook for content marketing. Your story illustrates how crucial it is to take a long range view and not play only for the short term when it comes to content marketing.

    Did you have any previous experience with content marketing or was Magnolia the first place where you cut your teeth?

    • Roger C. Parker

      Dear Bhaskar:
      Thank you for commenting.

      Re–previous experience–that’s a spectacular question. Right out of college–when I discovered that music, stereo, and stereo were more fun than becoming an assistant, adjunct college history professor–I was hired by a Harvard Square, Cambridge, audio store to do their advertising.

      Actually, since I was spending some much time acting as “unpaid salesman,” the owner made me an offer: I could come to work for him, or I could be barred from the store.

      So, I actually cut my teeth on content marketing–in terms of educating prospects, keeping in touch, sending thank you letters, and–most important–constantly upselling by describing the benefits of “new and better” to previous customers using newsletters.

      After I left that store, I prepared newsletters for retailers around the country on a freelance basis, including syndicating some interviews I had with Dr. Ray Dolby, of noise reduction fame, when he was licensing consumer versions of his Dolby Noise Reduction System.

      Then, during supper at sunset at Seattle’s Space Needle, I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse!

      But, thanks for asking and sparking these pleasant memories.

  • Peter Awad

    Love the story! Thanks for sharing.

    • Roger C. Parker

      Dear Peter:
      Thank you for commenting. I appreciate it.

  • Monica Hall

    We are about the same age, so I was instantly transported back to that time. Definitely a different era, wasn’t it? Short of writing a novel [or at least a novella], I can’t express all the reasons that I enjoyed your article, Roger.

    You’re a trail blazer with a writer’s heart, so I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the history. As a marketer, I was applauding your ingenuity and creativity.

    Having also started in marketing during the ’70s, I can’t help thinking how foreign your plans must have seemed at the time. It was to your boss’ credit that they not only listened to your innovative ideas, but implemented them. Quite a leap of faith considering they were unproven at that time.

    I started selling real estate at 18, so I know what a challenge it is to have your age held against you. In today’s age of 20 year old, billionaire CEOs, we forget that youth was more of a liability than an asset in the ’70s.

    Suffice it to say that I will be sharing this through all of my social media channels. Thank you for the memories AND the lessons!

    – Monica

    • rogercparker

      Dear Monica:
      Thank you so much for your kind words.
      Your words are extremely perceptive; you picked up on a point I now view quite differently.
      As I look back on the whole experience, I now have a much greater appreciation for the faith that my bosses had in my vision for the power of content than I did at the time.
      What I often thought of at the time was over concern and undue conservatism was really justified by the investment required to reinvent the criteria that customers used to spend their hard-earned cash.
      Best wishes–

  • Bruce Lee

    Greatly enjoyed your article, especially with the advantage of having first-hand experience with the Buyer’s Guides. (Hell, I probably have a few of them still stashed in boxes somewhere.) I hope no readers inadvertently diminish any of the lessons conveyed due to allusions to newspaper advertising. With all due respect to Marshal McLuhan, sometimes the message is the medium, and the points you make are timeless lessons for effective marketing.

    • rogercparker

      Thank you so much for your commentary, especially since you and I share so many points of intersection in the Seattle area. I only wish I had met you earlier.

  • predsicker

    What a story. So much to learn from this Roger. Thanks for sharing.

    • rogercparker

      Thank you, Patricia:
      As an avid reader of your CMI posts, I’m especially pleased.

  • Leena

    Wonderful educational material put across so well. Thanks for sharing

  • Conor

    Great story. The mediums change, the mechanisms don’t seem to…

  • Emmet Ryder

    Finally a real post to help us all out with out trying to sell something! This was very helpful. Thanks!!

    • rogercparker

      Dear Emmett:
      Thank you very much for your kind words. I appreciate them.

      BTW, I’m hosting a Once in a Lifetime, Million Dollar MasterMind Group and it’s just about filled. g)

      Thanks, again–best wishes.

  • Jono Smith

    Roger, great story. How were you able to establish the connection between your content marketing and revenue growth?

    • rogercparker

      Dear Jono:
      Thank you for a great question.
      In my case–which is strictly from a self-employed professional point of view–I value content marketing’s contribution from both a quality and a quantity point of view.

      The quality point of view reflects the caliber of the prospective clients who contact me for assistance. Quality is also measured by seriousness and practicality of their goals, i.e., are they looking to build their brand from an expertise point of view, or are they looking to write a book to retire to an island paradise.
      The quantity point of view is measured from the number of individuals who download my 99 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing and Self-Publishing a Brand Building Book as well as the number of individuals who attend my free monthly teleseminars or inquire about my upcoming mind mapping seminars.
      However, having said that, I encourage you to explore resources like Joe’s Epic Content Marketing and Jay Baer’s Youtility which go into the topic in greater detail.

      I hope this helps. More importantly, how do you currently measure the ROI of content marketing?

      • Jono Smith

        I haven’t found a satisfying way to measure the direct impact of content marketing on revenue. Attributing causation where cause and effect may not really exist is what concerns me most content marketing. Hence my question about how Magnolia was able to establish that there was a correlation between the Buyers Guide and revenue growth.