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How to Deliver Quantifiable Content Marketing Success With a Small Team


Our goal is not necessarily to keep users engaged within our website, but instead to try to move them from the web to email or phone because that’s where the sale is going to happen.

With only 21% of B2B marketers saying they are successful at tracking content marketing ROI, it’s inspiring to see success in an unexpected (even perceived as stodgy) environment: academic medical centers. We’re proud to share the story of Wake Forest Innovations, the commercialization arm for Wake Forest University and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. I was fortunate to speak with its Director of Marketing and Business Development, Vishal Khanna, who is a finalist for Content Marketer of the Year. (Editor’s Update: Vishal was named Content Marketer of the Year at Content Marketing World.)

Vishal was chosen as a finalist for his dedication to performance in content marketing. While you may not work for an entity in an academic medical center or a university, you will find insights and lessons to learn from Vishal’s story. He and his staff of one full-time-equivalent employee and two 30-hour-a-week contractors rock performance by executing a content marketing strategy that an agency helped them develop.

First, a look at performance

Let me set the stage. Vishal came on board in 2012 to lead marketing for an entity that never had a formal marketing program. His mandate:

  • To build awareness and introduce new technology licenses that can be purchased by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as to promote the initiatives to investors in the biotech space
  • To increase demand for use of Wake Forest Innovations’ laboratory research and testing services

Vishal, who believes in the power of storytelling to change the world, built a marketing program that aims to manage the conversations with scientists and business development executives at pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies to achieve the organization’s goals. He developed what he calls a “brand engine” composed of MailChimp, Pardot, and Salesforce, and evaluates that engine’s performance to drive momentum across the buying cycle.

Let’s look at that performance from 2013 to 2014. Wake Forest Innovations saw:

  • A 600% increase in web-based marketing-qualified leads, which are defined in Salesforce as the system of record: A lead is defined as a person who shows interest but only becomes an opportunity when a project is defined with dollars on the table.
  • A 183% increase in interactions as a result of responsive email design and marketing efforts as measured through MailChimp and Pardot: MailChimp holds the general pool of contacts. As contacts become leads, they are moved into Pardot. The goal is to get them to Salesforce.
  • A 100% increase in revenue as recorded in Salesforce
  • A 100% increase in trade-show traffic due to an aggressive digital approach to promote Wake Forest’s participation, as well as collection and follow-up with leads from the events

Vishal’s brand engine has achieved success any marketer would welcome. Now, he shares the journey of how a small team was able to make such a huge impact.

Getting started with content marketing

Vishal realized quickly that there were not a lot of content marketing models from academic medical centers to use as examples for building the brand engine that he envisioned. He hired an agency to help him develop the content marketing strategy and web presence in 90 days. With no similar industry examples, Vishal’s team and agency partner created much of the strategy from scratch by translating models in other industries to the academic environment.

Taking Wake Forest’s story to market

Vishal and the agency chose to develop five websites because each audience target of Wake Forest Innovations is distinct. He wanted to develop specific, targeted databases and had different goals for each audience. By focusing individually on sub-brands, the model was built to facilitate content marketing projects quickly to create better experiences for each target audience.

Wake Forest Innovations is the primary hub for the commercialization effort.

  • Purpose: The site is used to establish the brand and serve as the showcase for technology licensing for therapeutics and vaccines, medical devices, diagnostics and nanotechnology, and computer software.
  • Audience: Scientists and business development professionals from pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies, as well as investors in the biotech space. The audience also includes faculty who also buy the services.
  • Tactics: Generating leads and inquiries through landing-page forms and meeting requests, and sending an e-newsletter for further engagement.

Preclinical Research Services is the second primary site for Wake Forest. It showcases its animal studies services that apply learning from animals to the betterment of human health.

  • Purpose: The site details the medical device and therapeutic testing services to industry and other universities to help them make regulatory submissions as they progress (i.e., bringing new products to market).
  • Audience: A smaller population of approximately 10,000 scientists and business development executives interested in this service.
  • Tactics: Automated nurture-following lead generation, including an e-newsletter, video on YouTube, LinkedIn sponsored updates, paid ads via Google and organic search, regional trade shows, and focused insertions in print publications.

Core Laboratory Resources offers services to help pharmaceutical and medical device companies get products to market more quickly.

  • Purpose: The site is a passive marketing effort to build awareness of specialized research services using equipment or processes for micro-sized projects (e.g., Can your laboratory analyze these specimens for me?)
  • Audience: Academic researchers and small start-ups.
  • Tactics: Emails with links to content, e-newsletters, regional online ads, and optimization for organic search. Leads are handed to the head of Core Labs for pursuit.

Wake Forest Innovation Quarter showcases one of the fastest-growing research centers. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is the anchor tenant. The center houses residences, 50-plus businesses, 26 academic departments and groups, and draws more than 2,000 medical and graduate students each year for education and training.

  • Purpose: The site is used to engage local entities and make them aware of business and community services, facilities, education, events held on site, and a broad array of scientific R&D services, as well as lofts for residential living.
  • Audience: Local population, scientists, clinicians, start-ups, established companies, and city planners.
  • Tactics: Content on the site, Facebook, Twitter, emails, an e-newsletter, a few trade shows, search, and billboards.

Wake Forest Ultrasound Education provides information on courses teaching the art of ultrasound for treatment and diagnosis.

  • Purpose: The site is used to reduce the investment needed to fill seats in the courses by driving visitors to leave the site and register for the courses through an accredited group.
  • Audience: Physicians, sonographers, radiologists, and other allied health professionals.
  • Tactics: Optimization for organic search, email, e-newsletters, and evaluation of lists of residency directors in the United States to increase awareness and reach.

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Identifying hurdles to executing content marketing strategy

Vishal and his team encounter challenges similar to those many content marketers face. They include:

  • Getting time with the scientists and other subject matter experts: These sources operate like CEOs of their own micro-company. Careful planning and scheduling far in advance is helpful. (More on that process below.)
  • Securing necessary approvals: Multiple permissions are necessary to prevent the untimely release of information that could jeopardize the center’s activities, such as discussing a new discovery before the patent is filed.
  • Achieving SEO success with a limited budget: The team focuses on long-tail phrases and optimizes website content to match them instead of competing for common keywords (e.g., “diabetes research”).

Developing the content marketing strategy

Vishal knew that the biggest contributing factor for creating specialized content was to use the subject-matter expertise of the scientists. Their information is used to create the bulk of the content for the websites. As Vishal reinforced in our conversation, “All of the content distribution revolves around faculty members.”

Wake Forest has 1,100 well-known scientists so it also was important to help them boost the brand by showcasing exceptional breakthroughs with authentic storytelling at industry conferences. It also was essential to the Wake Forest brand to create faculty and scientist biographies that claim the scientists for Wake Forest. Now, their Wake Forest bios appear in the first five results when someone searches for them by individual names.

While an agency helped to develop the content marketing strategy, Vishal and his team create and produce the content. According to Vishal, “Our in-house marketing group is able to check the pulse of the institution. We know who our researchers are, we understand the latest in findings that are happening at the institution, and have intimate relationships with the people and the resources we promote and utilize — something that no outside firm could do.”

The content-creation process maximizes the limited time he and his team have with the subject matter experts. A 90-minute interview with a scientist yields:

  • At least three content assets that illuminate the scientist’s research, which could be published on up to three of the Wake Forest websites, feature articles published on LinkedIn, as well as an article for the internal audience to broaden awareness across the faculty of the work being done.
  • If applicable, a video of the scientist discussing the research or demonstrating the work for the website.
  • Images of the scientist to accompany the bio, as well as be used in areas of the sites that highlight the scientist’s area of expertise.
  • A bio of the scientist and his or her research to help prospective customers learn more about the expertise Wake Forest can bring to their projects. The bios are intended to make the faculty superstars by sharing why they’re special, how they work within the industry, and how they work with people. The goal is to get the prospects to contact the scientists about their work.

Vishal’s team also creates collateral for sales team members, supports their efforts at trade shows with pre-show emails, and deploys nurture programs for leads to help convert them into contracts.

Powering great performance with less

Vishal says the goal is to be able to do less with less. It’s about choosing not to do everything by deciding what’s most important. In just a few years, Wake Forest Innovations’ performance shows that its strategy is an outstanding success.

The faster Wake Forest Innovations can get a prospect from the website to phone or email, the more effective the conversion will be … This relies on understanding the buyer journey and matching a strategy to that journey.

–Vishal Khanna

Wake Forest Innovations’ Vishal Khanna was named Content Marketer of the Year at Content Marketing World this September. To learn more about our Content Marketer of the Year finalists, we’ve put together a new SlideShare, Get Creative: Profile Of Six Content Marketers Of The Year Finalists. In it, you’ll find evidence of what made these marketers stand out. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute