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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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