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How to Build a Business on the Back of Content with Michael Stelzner and Brian Clark

If you’ve ever struggled to figure out how to use content to grow your business, the keynote session this morning at Content Marketing World presented solid ideas to overcome this problem.

In an interactive Q&A session moderated by Aaron Kahlow (Founder, Online Marketing Institute), Mike Stelzner of and Brian Clark of, both founders of their  fast-growing online marketing sites, described how content has lifted them up to the top.

Here are some of the topics that were discussed this morning:

Q. What are some of your content marketing weaknesses, and how do you overcome them?

Brian: Behind the scenes of Copyblogger things get very crazy. We’re not always as super professional as we appear to be from our blog. But we have a great team that works well together, and we’re able to overcome some of this madness and produce content that people love to read.

Mike: I’m a perfectionist and I have to have my finger on everything. The problem is I just don’t have the time to deal with it all. I’ve recently hired an assistant to help manage the process and things have gotten more manageable lately. The lesson here is that you need to find good people who you can trust to bring into your team. You can’t do it all.

Q. What is your formula for content success?

Brian: For us it’s practicing what we preach and taking nothing for granted. We’re very careful about the structure of our blog articles. They must be reader-friendly and able to capture the reader’s short attention span. We’re able to do this by using strong headlines, digestible chunks of content, and visual enhancements in our content.

Mike: Our focus at SocialMediaExaminer is on ultimate user experience – delivering the kind of content that people want. It’s about getting into the reader’s brain and trying to figure out what they want to experience in terms of the site’s design, layout, content, and so on.

It’s also about working with other people. In the early days, I actively sought out people such as Brian Clark to guest-blog and offered my help to support his brand. What I learned is that by working with other people, they have lifted me up in return. The lesson is to freely give of yourself to other people and they will someday return the favor.

Q. How do you know what kind of content to write?

Brian: I don’t ask my readers directly; I rely more on observation (which is time-consuming, but it works for me). By reading other blogs and finding the gaps where content needs are not being met, I position myself to write the kind of content that fills those gaps, e.g. basic copywriting skills.

The key is to find out what people are struggling with and what their desires are and then to provide those solutions in your content.

Mike: We’re big on surveying our audience (I use We ask open-ended intelligence questions to find out what people want to read. For example, once we asked our audience, “What is the No. 1 question you want answered about social media?” Based on those answers, we decided to write a report (which now comes out every year, as we continue to do these surveys). This has brought tons of traffic to our site. So the lesson is to figure out how you can use open-ended questions to discover what your audience wants to read.

Q. How do you draw the line between writing content that’s interesting to others and content that’s interesting to you?

Brian: You’ll always have more success if you produce content that’s sharable. That’s the bottom line.

Mike:  You can post content that’s personally interesting to you, but make sure that it’s interesting to your audience as well. Another thing too is to share other people’s content. Ultimately, you will become an authority in your category if you share relevant content generated by yourself and others.

Q. What metrics are you using to measure success?

Brian: Traffic is a big metric of course. We also want to know how a particular piece of content performs based on sharing, open rates, comments, and so on, but you still have to keep the big picture in mind and track your sales.

Mike: We look at page views, re-tweets, and the number of comments on an article. For SocialMediaExaminer, 1,000 retweets is the minimum measure that we’re looking for in a good article. Business-wise, we look at the growth of our subscribers, Facebook fan-page growth, and sales. We’re implementing programs and launching products that drive sales and enhance growth.

But keep in mind that perception is also very important, and social proof is important to project a strong brand. Unless you’re just starting out, try to show your audience how many subscribers you have, for example. It’s encouraging to your readers.

Q. How do you decide between personal and company branding?

Mike: I want people to see SocialMediaExaminer as being separate from me. I want people who come to the site for the first time to perceive that it’s been here for a long time and somehow they just missed it.

I also showcase other writers as well, and I’m trying to build a company that transcends me so that I can be free to do other things.

Brian: If you’re a consultant, you want to focus on your personal brand to showcase your own expertise.

Q. How involved are you in the editorial process of your publication?

Mike: Very much so. Everything goes through me, and I have created a four-page editorial guide to analyze the quality of each article. I also know what I’m good at (writing headlines) and I capitalize on that gift to give direction to my blog. However, if I find someone else who can do it better than I can, then I’ll relinquish control.

Brian: I do check everything, but occasionally I have allowed small mistakes to pass in order to provide a teaching moment to my writers. I’m not too worried if one article doesn’t perform as well. It’s more important for me that my writers understand what works and what doesn’t.

Q. What are some of the most common content marketing mistakes you’ve observed?

Brian: Not focusing on the audiences’ needs; e.g., no bullet points, long paragraphs, poor headlines, and so on. Serve others by providing content that’s readable and enjoyable.

Mike: Self-promotion in content. Understand that no one cares about you or your products and they’re not reading your blog to see your pitches. So don’t pitch your products or services in a call to action that says, “If you like this article please buy our products” and so on. Use content to build your back channels (email list) in order to market your products, but keep your content commercial free.

Key takeaways

Mike: Use great content to build your subscriber list and keep giving your readers what they’re craving. Your email list is the backbone of your business.

Brian: The ultimate goal of content marketing is for people to take action and buy from you. Give them value so that people keep paying attention to you and your products.