Great content requires great storytelling. One thing many brands forget is that their own journey is likely one of the best stories that they can tell. More than being a great story, it's often an essential story to tell.
Most brands have to work very hard to build credibility and trust with their audience. Your audience, your prospects, your customers don't care about you, or what you're selling. They care about their problems. The only care about what you're selling if it solves their problems. They're not going to give your solutions a second look if they don't think you understand their problems.
If you're selling to the right audience, then telling them how you got to where you are today will show them why you understand their space. It will give you credibility. It won't sell anything to your prospects and customers, but, if it's done right, will make them listen when you tell them how your products and services can help solve their problems.
To demonstrate this, we're going to talk about ourselves. In this article, we'll tell you how we evolved, and the lessons we learned along the way that we apply to our clients every day. You'll see how you can apply those same lessons to your brand to accelerate your growth.
Techies Who Can Talk
In 2000, I didn't have a marketing company. I had two business partners, and together we had a loose arrangement that, as the lawyer who wrote our articles of the organization put it, ran on an "eat what you kill" model. The three of us went out and found our own customers. We made our own deals. We worked independently. We shared some expenses and the same website. That was it.
We did well. We'd come from backgrounds in technical training where we'd learned to explain complex technologies to anyone. We leveraged this skill selling ourselves as "techies who knew how to talk" and worked with big companies like Microsoft to build "technical content." It was product launch marketing content. We learned all the new features of products before they were released, made presentations and demos to show business value, new features, and time savings. That content was a key part of the marketing collateral published when new software was released. But we weren't marketers.
We were successful. Without realizing it, we had learned three critical lessons:
Play to your strengths.
Find your niche.
Look for people who need what you do. They'll pay for your services.
If you're doing it right, those three things flow easily from one to the next.
Three Headed Monster
Two years in, the three of us were burned out and looking for ways to scale. Our income was time bound. There were only so many hours in the day for each of us to work. We started hiring help, but we'd made our business about each of us. It wasn't a process or methodology, or mindset. Our value was tied directly to each of us. When that's the case, it's difficult to explain to clients why someone else is working on their project. It was a problem.
We tried to solve it. We met. A lot. We tried to find ways to scale the business. Efficiencies in recruiting, personnel, projects. We even hired outside consultants. Of course, we couldn't address the problem because we had three heads. We each did different things, and each of us wanted to keep doing what we wanted to do.
We were three businesses that shared a website.
One partner bowed out to do his own thing. The other two of us realized that there was wisdom in this decision. Everything was amicable, but the three of us felt like we'd messed up. Although it took some time to digest the lessons from this phase of my evolution, I did realize the following key things:
Eating what you kill is a good recipe for an independent contractor, it doesn't work for a company.
There needs to be a single vision backed by goals, and the entire company needs to work towards that vision and those goals.
Don't waste time trying to turn a bad fit into a good fit.
Making the Whole Greater than the Sum
When I took the solo helm of my agency, I felt focused and liberated. I could finally make the decision to implement my vision. I soon found that putting all the right pieces in place to do that would be one the most challenging task as a business owner. I knew some good techies who could talk, but I needed more than that. I needed designers, developers, animators, and videographers.
We stumbled through this process for many months. We interviewed candidates based on their resume, experience, and technical knowledge, but we didn't interview them for team fit. We ended up with some great people and some who were not great fits. Some didn't believe in the importance of what we did; some just wanted to show up and collect a paycheck without contributing. Others had personal priorities. A project or a business goal, and working for me was just a way to pay the bills until that became a reality.
There was churn. A Fair amount of churn. There was also a lot of great work produced. Websites. Apps. Content. Campaigns. A lot of good work. We grew our business, expanded our customer base. We partnered with other good companies to provide services we didn't to fulfill the needs of larger contracts. And we refined our service to fit a niche. We called it technical marketing; it was really just content marketing for technology companies. We launched products, educated prospects and current customers on product and service features, explained why buying or upgrading could achieve business goals and laid out the business value and return on investment. We achieved a lot of great results for a lot of great customers.
As with many young companies, we slowly sorted out the people issues. We had several great people who rose to the challenge. They got work done, they collaborated and brought great ideas to the table, and they helped recruits come on board, and get their footing. And we refined our hiring process and learned to qualify candidates based on their technical abilities, and how well they worked with our team, and fit in our culture. Just before 2008, we had nearly 40 people under three project managers doing content marketing, and development. We learned the following about growth, teamwork, and execution:
Getting the right people internal is key. Every day they come to work they have to show up, 100%. They have to like what they're doing, respect the needs of the clients they're trying help, and work well with their colleagues.
Getting the right external partners is key. You can't always do everything. Finding good partners that respect you, your goals, and your clients, and can add their capabilities to yours are invaluable for growth.
Collaboration is essential to the creative process. So much of the great work we did came from seven or eight different people sitting around a table. Collaborating, brainstorming, solving problems. For me, that was the most fun part of the job. Figuring out how to make a great piece of content, or a great website or a great app to help a client achieve their goals. Getting a variety of opinions around the table is key. You can always say no to something, but you can't say yes to an idea you never hear.
A Strong Belief in Work-Life Balance
For all the churn and lack of a good recruiting process early on, we did something right from the start. I worked as a contractor an for many agencies when we were starting out. I have never been a fan of agencies that build hyper-competitive environments that some agencies build. A culture of working late most nights, and pitting opinion versus opinion in meetings to 'motivate' employees to work harder.
Those cultures don't drive creativity. They foster an every person for themselves mentality. That type of culture stifles or burns out the people who work there, but it's worse for the clients of those agencies. When the way to get ahead is to get signoff for your idea, then getting signoff for your idea, not doing what's best for the customer, becomes the driving force. I spent a lot of time in meetings with these types of agencies asking, "Is this really what the customer wants?"
I've always felt that I've been at my best when I have a good work-life balance in an environment where ideas are allowed to thrive. I've found that our team is at their best in the same circumstance. When people are happy and feel like they are part of a team, they help each other be better, and keep the focus where it should be, on what's best for the customer. We created just such an environment from the start, and that has paid dividends in the form of good work, and great people, and happy clients.
Social Media And A Seismic Shift in Content
We were growing, and doing a lot of great content and campaigns for a lot of great customers. But there was a shift. This new technology of social media was changing how people connected with each other. I looked into it as Facebook and Twitter started gaining momentum. I dabbled in Facebook, but I loved Twitter. I could share content, reach an entire set of people, and have conversations in ways I'd never imagined. Watching some content go viral was what prompted me to start my blog. I had to grab hold of this lightning bolt and drive traffic to our website.
At the same time, I saw some clients experimenting on their own. One client offered a free download for following their Facebook Fan Page. Once they did, the client had a new conduit to those people. They saw updates and announcements in their Facebook feed. I didn't know the term inbound marketing at the time, but the inbound philosophy gelled for me at that moment. Use these new channels to share content which will drive traffic. Establish these new lines of communication, and use content or other types of offers to build deeper connections, and grow email lists.
This shift was seismic for us in two ways. It opened a new line of business with new customers. People and groups that wanted to use social media for marketing, to drive traffic to their website, and capture leads. We started doing social media consulting. As we did more and more of that, we saw ourselves moving away from our more traditional customers who weren't so quick to embrace this new type of marketing. That was a good thing because those customers saw the landscape changing too. They stopped doing some of the types of work they had traditionally come to us for. If we hadn't had those new clients to fill the gaps, we could have been in trouble. Three lessons have stuck with me from this period:
Stay in tune and be responsive to the changing landscape. You have to determine how it will impact your business. What opportunities it will create, and which ones might go away.
Share your perspective. We got many of those new clients by starting simple, ad-hoc discussions about how we were using social media to market. Just opening those conversations lead to some engagements, and the insights from those conversations drove must of the content that we put on our blog.
Lead your clients. We didn't communicate well with our larger clients about what we were doing on social. We talked to them, but, to them, we did launch content, we didn't guide them on marketing strategy. But we could have. I just wished I had pressed the issue more, and showed those clients some of our successes. It's a mistake I wasn't going to make again.
As we were getting traction on social media marketing, the Layman Brothers collapsed, and the Great Recession kicked in. Our clients, even the big ones, throttled their external marketing spend. We had to do what we could to survive. We had to downsize, and we had to refocus. We learned one big lesson here:
It's good to take stock of those lessons you've learned over time.
Since we were smaller, we focused on the thing we did best, content marketing. We worked to keep the best people and partners so that we could still execute while times were tough and grow once the economy recovered.
As the recession ended, we started to grow again. Now we looked more like an inbound marketing company. We were strong believers in all the components of inbound, strong SEO, great content, cross-channel promotion on social, and a mix of advertising driving traffic to focused landing pages designed to capture contact information so that clients could use email marketing to drive leads down their funnels and convert them, into clients.
I was building a name for myself on social media, authoring social media courses for the National Institute of Social Media, and becoming an influencer on Social Media Today. But we found that we had two big problems:
We had positioned ourselves as social media experts, and so had 50,000 other people!
Doing inbound marketing well is hard, and take lots of time and lots of tools to do right.
The two problems were related, and solving one naturally lead to a solution to the other. On one level, separating ourselves from other 'social media experts' was easy, we're an agency that provides comprehensive service. You're not hiring one person; you're hiring a team. But that argument often fell flat on clients. It took us a little while to figure out why. The answer was simple, we were selling social media marketing when the service we were providing was inbound marketing.
It's a subtle but important difference. For many, social media marketing is associated with social promotion and community management. That's not what we were about. We were about lead generation and customer acquisition. That took a lot more comprehensive approach, a lot more time, and a lot more tools.
Enter the tool problem. To do inbound right, you need tools for SEO, tools for content planning, tools for content development, tools for content publication, tools for social media monitoring, tools for landing page optimization, tools for email marketing, and so forth.
Doing inbound well for one organization (ourselves) is difficult, doing it will for others (our clients) is more difficult if you don't have a handle on the process and tools, and the fact of the matter is, we didn't. We were using a variety of tools. That, in itself, is fine, everyone doing inbound is using a variety of tools, the problem was, our growth stack kept changing. We kept finding inefficiencies or gaps in capability for our clients or us.
As we started to examine these problems, we discovered we had a third problem -- we were targeting the wrong customers. We had started out working with companies just starting out in social. We were four years beyond that and, while what we were selling, and what we were doing for our client's had evolved, our mindset hadn't. The services we offered were about moving the needle with regards to leads and sales, not about getting likes and followers. What we did took more time, required more and better tools, and cost more money.
The lessons we learned at this stage were:
Monitor new services and solutions as they evolve. Evolution can be subtle. You add a service here, expand your process there. At some point, it becomes something completely different. Don't just be prepared for it, plan for it.
As you grow and evolve, reassess your ideal customers to make sure the products and services you offer still align with the customers you're targeting.
Leveling Up Our Service, Tools, and Partners
The first thing we needed to do to solve our problem was clear. We had to target customers that needed what we provided. It wasn't social media management or marketing; it was lead generation and customer acquisition. We helped companies grow, and that's what we had to sell. It was more expensive, required a longer commitment, like annual retainers, and companies that could afford to invest for the long haul and reap the benefits.
We rewrote our personas and developed new target customers. It was clean. It made sense. It felt like something we could sell in nice packages. Until we got to the tools piece. We still had a hodgepodge of tools. We needed something more unified. Something that allowed us to track everything from website visits to content clicks to email opens. And we wanted something that could give us that all in one place without having to set up 14 Zapier rules to sync between tools!
We started looking at the bigger marketing automation suites, and it didn't take us long to decide on HubSpot. They had a great track record, they were an industry leader, and they continued to innovate. Most of all when we looked at HubSpot we found their growth stack was all about the things we were doing - generating leads, acquiring customers, engaging clients, and getting real traction and competitive advantage. Beyond that HubSpot offered a great academy with lots of training to help our team ramp up quickly, and a partner program that helped us engage clients and prospects to make the HubSpot growth stack work for them.
This was the key, HubSpot not only addressed our tool problem, it also provided a much better martech stack for our clients. Since HubSpot has done a great job fostering integrations, it was a solution that could work well even if clients had different CRMs or email marketing solutions.
After implementing HubSpot and learning the tools, we were delighted at the visibility we had into visitor and prospect interaction. We used those insights to inform both our content and to customize our engagement in the sales process. As we've grown this last year as a HubSpot partner, we've seen HubSpot continue to be a leading innovator for inbound marketing making strides to integrate website chat, Messenger marketing, and AI.
We're excited as we move forward because we feel we can deliver better results for our clients, today, and into the future even with the rapidly changing landscape of digital marketing.
The lesson's we've learned from this phase of our evolution (thus far):
A martech stack that provides a unified view of how prospects are interacting on your website, on social, and with content is invaluable for customizing and personalizing your sales approach.
Whatever martech stack you choose has to be something you can reliably and repeatably implement. For an agency like us so that our clients can use it. For regular companies and organizations so that you can bring in new people as your team grows or as team members move on.
Choose great partners. Great partners work with you to help achieve your goals. Great partners listen, respond, lend a helping hand, and pick up the phone when you need them. Great partners make you better.
The Next Chapter...
We're still writing it, and we hope you'll be a part of it.