About the episode
Benji Hyam, the co-founder of Grow and Convert, coined the term “community content promotion” a few years ago. This strategy means using Slack groups, social media platforms, or niche websites to get your content in front of your target audience without needing to build a community yourself.
As platforms consolidate and focus more on advertising, community content promotion is returning diminishing results every month. Benji Hyam joins host Matthew Kammerer to talk about this shift, its impact on content marketing, and how marketers can use paid strategies to supplement the loss of traffic.
Don’t have 30 minutes to spare? Jump ahead to key sections outlined below, or keep scrolling for a full transcript of the episode.
- [08:24] How has community content promotion changed?
- [14:00] How are paid content campaigns performing on your end?
- [16:00] Are you taking any tips from native placements to inform content campaigns?
- [19:09] How are you using bottom-funnel content in paid campaigns?
- [26:16] Do you ever test gated content in paid campaigns?
- [29:50] What kinds of calls to action in content do you find work best?
Episode is brought to you by
Matthew KammererShow Host
Matthew: I want to start by better understanding how you first got started in marketing.
Benji:I figured out that I wanted to do marketing in high school. I took a marketing class, which is kind of rare for people to take in high school, and fell in love with figuring out what people wanted.
Then I decided I wanted to go to university for marketing. I ended up going to San Diego State. I studied integrated marketing communications, which was a newer degree. I took half business courses, part marketing, and part journalism. Which lends itself to where I ended up in my career.
The first job I got out of university was at a company called Vistage International. They do CEO coaching for companies that make over a million in revenue. I joined as a social media coordinator at the time, which was an undefined role. It was part social and the other part of my job was to figure out something to do with their blog.
When I joined they had about 1,000 monthly visitors on their blog and it was kind of given to me to do what I wanted with. The goal was to grow traffic and try to generate leads for the company. At that time, I really didn’t know anything about content marketing. I started reading and taking courses and just experimenting. Through trial and error, I ended up growing their blog to 20,000 unique monthly visitors over the course of a year.
From there, I wanted to branch out into different areas of marketing. I got cross-trained in SEO, then paid search, and my goal at that time was to run marketing for a company. I wanted to build skill sets in different areas on top of just doing content marketing. That was the path that I took, so three years after that I ended up joining a company in San Francisco as the first marketing hire, and the idea behind that was to learn how to grow a company from the ground up. The path I chose in that company to grow was content marketing.
It was a software development company and in analyzing the space I realized there was an opportunity to really educate people on how to do software development properly because not a lot of the firms were really sharing a lot of advice and education around that. I grew that company through content marketing, grew their blog from zero to 35,000 monthly visitors in six months. That ended up driving a majority of leads for the company.
Then I got poached to do the same thing over again at another startup in San Francisco. At that time, I kept having people ask me essentially how I did what I did and grew the blog so quickly and generated leads through content marketing. I realized it was a need that a lot of people had, and there wasn’t a lot of advice on. That’s how I transitioned into starting the Grow and Convert blog and eventually the agency that I have now.
Matthew: That’s awesome. So did you start the blog before you left and started the agency full time?
Benji:I did. So the blog was actually just a side project. I started it with my now co-founder Davish, he had a background in conversion optimization and analytics and he has a CRO agency. He was doing some consulting at the time for people like Ryan Dean of Backlinko and Brian Harris of Videofruit on blog conversions. I had grown blogs doing content strategy and promotion, so that was my skill set.
So, we combined both of our skills and started writing about how to do content marketing for companies, B2B companies specifically. The idea at the beginning was let’s just grow an audience and share our advice and see where this goes. About three months into the blog, I decided to quit my job and I moved to Bali and basically tried to get this business off of the ground.
We went through a number of iterations before we landed on the agency. Two different courses, one was a phone consulting course, in-person workshops when I came back from Bali, and an online course. Through all those experiences, that led us to the agency that we have now. We do full-service, end-to-end content marketing for our clients.
Matthew: So let’s dive in to talk a little bit about content promotion. How has content marketing changed since you first got started in it?
Benji:We first started our blog by launching a challenge of growing our site to 40,000 unique monthly visitors in six months. The idea behind that was two-fold. One, I wanted to beat my own personal record of growing a site from zero to 35,000 in six months, so that was more of a personal challenge for myself. But really the idea was we were unknown in the space, so people had known what I had done in San Francisco, but on the internet I had never really written about any of the content marketing work that I had done before.
So to really build the trust, we wanted to grow a blank Wordpress site quickly and share what we were doing in order to do that and get people to follow along. The idea was if we’re sharing what we’re doing on the content strategy side, we’re sharing where we’re promoting the content, that would build an audience. That’s kind of what we did.
We started producing articles just sharing how we did content marketing. At the end of every month, we would share a recap of what we had written about that month and why, and also where we had promoted the content. Largely at that time, we were using Facebook groups, sites like GrowthHackers and Inbound.org and Reddit to get the content out into the wild and in front of the audience that we wanted to get in front of, which was marketers inside of B2B companies.
That was largely the strategy that worked for us. In the first month we got 1,500 or so visitors. In month two, 3,000. And I think by month 4 we had grown it to 16,000 unique monthly visitors and 22,000 sessions. That was where we capped out by being able to promote on these communities and also at that point, I had a need to shift focus from just growing an audience to making money. We felt we had built the trust with our audience and kind of proven that we knew how to drive traffic through content, so we started shifting the focus from purely traffic growth to testing different products and trying to turn the site into a business.
Matthew: You recently wrote an article about how the content promotion strategy is changing and what marketers should do to adapt a bit to that. Do you want to give a quick summary of that article?
Benji:Yeah, so we’ve been doing the same thing for the last two years. So community content promotion is a term that we coined on our site back in 2016. I saw a lot of people trying to build an audience on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn through their company and then just share content out from their company accounts.
The challenge with that is it typically takes time to grow an audience there, and you’re not getting that many clicks and traffic from just sharing it on company accounts unless you have a massive brand. The idea behind community content promotion was to really flip that model.
Some company or some person has already done the work in terms of building an audience somewhere online, whether it’s through these private communities like Inbound or GrowthHackers, or whether it’s Facebook Groups, people have already collected all the people that you’re trying to get in front of. Community content promotion is about finding the communities that already exist and then sharing your content in those places as a way to drive your target audience back to your website.
For our own site, this was the strategy that we used mainly to grow the site from 2016 to now, and it’s still pretty much the only thing that we do. A year and a half ago when we started our agency, this was the way that we promoted all of our clients’ content regardless of the industry, whether it was marketing, sales, software development, or any of the clients we worked with. We would research communities online—for the more technical audience it might be sites like Hacker News—and we’d share the content in these places.
The shift really happened in the beginning of this year when we started to see diminishing results in sharing the content in some of these places. It’s due to a couple of things. One, I think on a macro level, Facebook and LinkedIn and some of these larger platforms stopped caring as much as about engagement and started caring more about making money. From an algorithm perspective, a lot of the shift was towards paid products instead of organic distribution in some of these groups. We used to be able to post articles in groups and it would have a lot of people be able to see those in their newsfeed, but that has become less and less over time on both Facebook and LinkedIn. Us sharing a lot of content from the same clients in the same places also gives us diminishing returns over time.
The other thing is we started writing about this and more and more people caught on to this. You just had a lot of people sharing content in the same places, and a lot of the content shared there was subpar. It hurt this promotion tactic overall.
Matthew: When you were sharing those, did you use personal or company accounts?
Benji:We were using our own personal accounts. The important thing here is we weren’t just going into these communities and randomly sharing articles. Again, going back to one of the things that hurt this tactic, that’s what a lot of people were doing. They would join a group, and before providing any value or engaging in the group, they would share a piece of content. That doesn’t really work well. In order for this process to work well, you have to approach this in a really authentic way.
I would find a group, I would scroll through the feed and see what conversations are taking place, add value where I can, I would form relationships with the group owners or community leaders and ask them what content would be valuable to the group and where I could help. Only after I’d built that relationship or started to become known in the group would I start to share content. That’s the more authentic approach that works over time and allows you to share a lot more content in these places and gives you better traction. Often times, marketers only look at the short-sided results and they have their own numbers that they’re trying to hit so they don’t really think about the impact of what they’re doing and maybe try to take shortcuts.
Often times, I’d see people immediately join a group and try to share stuff and be banned, or this wouldn’t work. That’s kind of the difference in the way that we approach it and the things that are important to do in these groups versus the way that a lot of people started to approach this tactic.
Matthew: Fair enough. So you’re seeing that diminishing return start to happen on the community side and moving into the paid promotion side. Tell us how those early tests are going and what you’ve learned so far.
Benji:I think I really started to notice this in about March or April of this year. So one thing that we really started testing was Facebook ads. Since we were seeing diminishing return on the organic side, can we pay to get the content in the same places and in front of the same people?
We started out by basically seeing if we could use community content promotion as the primary way that we drove traffic and the secondary way was to piggyback off of the work we had done on the manual promotion side, and then see if we could build lookalike audiences off of the traffic that we could drive manually and get the pieces in front of new people that way.
There are a few different tests that we ran on the Facebook side. We started running interest-based targeting, so just audiences based off of personas, lookalikes based off of the traffic that we had already driven to our content. The idea there was if we’re already seeing conversions from the manual effort, we know we’re driving the right audience there. So can we create a lookalike audience that reaches more people like that audience?
The last thing we did was retargeting. We were doing it straight from sign up pages and from the homepage to see if we could use content as a way to soft-sell people. Most people think of retargeting as just straight pushing people to a product sign-up page or services page. The idea here was to see if we could use some mid or bottom of the funnel content to get people back onto the website and add value in some way, and potentially convert them. We’ve been running tests like that on four to six of our clients, and we’ve started to see some pretty good results.
Matthew: I’ve noticed you’re using mostly the social networks now. Have you ever considered taking a native placement that would traditionally be used for direct response and turning it more into a content syndication play?
Benji:I’ve thought about it. I think a lot of the best ideas come from looking at what works on direct response and testing it in content. This is not as much on the promotion side, but one example I’ll give is from when I was at the ThinkApps company that I grew blog traffic for.
I kept questioning what the right conversion mechanism was to convert someone directly off the blog. Conventional wisdom at the time was that the only way to convert people off your blog was to nurture them and turn them into a lead. But my thinking was, in the software development space, you either have a need to build something or you don’t. There’s no way that nurturing someone over time will convince someone to build a product.
That whole idea of nurturing someone didn’t really make sense. I looked at some of the blog posts that were ranking for organic search or had some intent behind it. An example of that would be should you build an app on iOS or Android, so I tried to put myself in the customer’s point of view. I asked, if I’m reading this post, where am I at in the buying cycle? I determined they’re pretty far along in the research phase and probably have an idea of what they want to build but they might not have a vendor or know exactly how they want to build it. So if we can get on the phone with people at this stage, this would probably be a great lead for the company.
The direct response call to action that I started testing was I created a pop-up that would come up after two minutes of reading the post. It just said, if you’re interested in learning more about building on iOS vs Android and you didn’t get enough information from the post, hop on the phone with one of our mobile development consultants and we’ll just weigh out the pros and cons with you.
This worked really well. This is how we started generating a ton of leads from the content we were producing, by just really figuring out what the intent was behind the reader on the blog post and then just getting them on the phone with a sales person. It was a more consultative sales approach. The people weren’t ready to purchase at this time, but the people we helped in this early research phase would typically come back to us 2 to 3 months after we helped them because we had built the relationship and trust with them on the front end by helping them out. Before they got into researching other firms, we had built that relationship.
Matthew: Yeah, absolutely. Are you looking for a multi-touch conversion path for content on the bottom of the funnel? It’s interesting to hear it flipped a little.
Benji:We’re seeing direct conversions come through on some of those. But usually it takes multiple touchpoints to convert someone, so even the retargeting list, those people might have come from another piece of content or a completely different channel. It’s definitely a multi-touch point.
For some of our bottom-funnel content, we’re seeing basically someone come in and convert in the same session. It just depends. The majority of the conversions come through first-touch attribution, so as an agency we measure both first-touch and last-touch attribution. First touch meaning someone came to the article as the first interaction with the website and converted at some later point. I would say the last-touch attribution is far less than the first-touch attribution, meaning we’re seeing less conversions come through and convert in the same session. But yeah, that’s how I view content anyways. Content is usually the first level of awareness someone has about your brand. If someone sees your article and starts reading it, that’s usually the first touchpoint that someone has. And then it usually takes some time to build trust with the person or user on the other end until they convert.
Matthew: On that consulting side you’re talking about now, who are the stakeholders and do you always create the content?
Benji:On the second point, we always do create the content. Sometimes the ideas will come from their team because they’re a lot closer to the customer and have a better pulse on what the customer cares about and what the top questions are being asked to the sales team or on the customer success side of things.
Sometimes the ideas will come from the team, then our job is to best educate people. The way most people produce content is they go hire a freelance writer. Let’s say the idea comes from the company, they would just go tell the freelance writer to go write a blog article on this topic. The problem with that, especially in the B2B space, is that you’re trying to educate a really experienced buyer and the writer doesn’t have the expertise to be able to speak at that level. If we’re trying to educate a VP of marketing on content promotion and then we go tell some writer to go write an article about content promotion who has no experience in the content marketing industry, the article isn’t going to resonate and the VP is going to be able to tell that the writer doesn’t have subject matter expertise. That loses the trust before the person even starts reading the article.
The way that we get around that is we pair a writer with a subject-matter expert either in the company, so someone on the marketing team or has real experience doing whatever we’re trying to write about, we might interview a customer or someone in the industry to get the real experience and subject-matter expertise into the article. And then the writer takes a back seat and are more like a journalist who is creating marketing content versus them trying to write this piece based purely on their own research.
In terms of who the buyer is, it is a marketer in house. It’s typically the person who runs the marketing team. They’ve attempted to do content marketing on their own before and have failed for a number of reasons. From my perspective, the reason they fail is because it’s really complex to execute content marketing well.
We have a four step process: user research, content strategy, content promotion, and then conversions. All those pieces require multiple skill sets. In order to do user research you have to be able to talk to customers, ask the right questions, be empathetic. Then you have to translate that user research into a content strategy which takes someone who has an understanding of what content is going to do well and has some experience doing content marketing previously. Then you have content promotion, which is a whole other beast and job. You have to figure out how to drive traffic, test stuff, be able to reach out to people and not be scared to do that. And then you have to have the more analytical mindset in terms of looking into analytics and determine where the conversions are coming from and figure out ways to optimize.
So, the reason why this is so hard for companies to execute on is because they’re typically hiring one person to do all of this, and most people don’t have all of these skill sets. They’re usually strong in one or two areas. And another mistake a lot of companies make around this is they usually try to hire a writer to run their content marketing because they have a short term problem of just getting the content produced.
The challenge with that is the writer is only good at writing typically, they don’t have the strategy background or ability to do the content promotion or conversion optimization. Companies that hire a writer can usually produce a lot of content but it usually doesn’t produce a lot of results in terms of traffic generated or leads for the company.
Then companies that try to hire a single person that are usually good at the content strategy part fall short of building a writing team or editing or the conversion optimization side. So it’s a really complex problem to solve because it requires a lot of different skill sets and a lot of things to fall into place in order to get the results needed.
Matthew: When we’re looking at the top of funnel vs bottom of funnel content campaigns, how do those vary in content type? Do you ever test gated content at the bottom of the funnel?
Benji:We have tested gated content in terms of bottom of the funnel. The reason that we don’t do gated content is because in order to convert someone, you typically need to convert someone twice. When you run the math on that, it typically doesn’t beat trying to get someone to go directly to the call to action that you want them to take.
For example, if you were to put a content upgrade on a blog post, typically 1-3% of the readers of the blog post will convert to an email subscriber or content upgrade subscriber. The way that companies typically follow up with those people is they run nurture campaigns or they send emails to that list and you have another 30-40% opens and another 3% click through. If you multiply the number of people that convert by the number of people that even click through, not even to conversion, that number is usually pretty small.
From a conversion strategy perspective on the bottom of the funnel content, and actually all of our content overall, we typically try to push people directly to the call to action that we want them to take. So, sign up for a free trial or hop on the phone with a sales person.
In terms of the different frameworks between top of the funnel and bottom of the funnel, on the top of the funnel side we use a lot of narratives so we might tell stories about a company that did something well in the industry or really interesting stories that people would want to read that typically get passed around and aren’t salesy. We also use data pieces: we might conduct industry research or get data from the company that’s unique and do some sort of data analysis. Those typically garner a lot of traffic and do pretty well and get shared around, and those have a lot of PR potential and stuff like that.
Case studies can be somewhere between the top of the funnel and bottom of the funnel. When I’m talking about a case study, it’s not just problem-solution-result. Typically we find a customer and really try to tell their story. It’s not really selling the product but telling the story about a problem one of the customers had before they came across this product and how the product improved things in some way and made their life better. From a reader’s standpoint, they can typically see themselves in the eyes of the whoever we’re talking about and relate to them. That usually leads to more trust in whatever we’re trying to push them to.
We also do opinion pieces. Those are more of the thought leadership type of content where someone might take a really big stance on a certain topic. Those can sometimes be top of funnel or bottom of funnel depending on what the topic is there.
Those are mostly our go-tos there. On the bottom of the funnel side, the comparison pieces and a lot of the pieces that weigh competitive options tend to work well, too.
Matthew: I’ve never heard gated content explained that way. I really like it, that you have to convert twice to do anything anyway, so it may be worth opening it up. When you talk about pushing to a call to action, is it an embedded button, a sidebar banner, a sticky notification? Where do you find the most traction?
Benji:Good question. We don’t use pop ups or anything, but the way we’ve found that best works to convert people is just a call to action in the post that looks really natural. Maybe five years ago, the pop ups were the hot thing on the blog conversion side. We just wanted to create a better user experience.
How can we put a call to action that looks natural and part of the post? What we try to do on the conversion side is put a call to action that’s contextual to whatever’s being talked about in the article. For example, if we were talking about content promotion in an article and we were trying to push people towards our service, one thing we might do is say, “If you liked a bunch of these tactics on content promotion, our full agency service creates and promotes content for you. Learn more about our service here.”
Whatever’s being written about in the post relates to the call to action and the goal that the person is trying to achieve by reading the article. We’ve found that typically lends itself to higher conversions than a generic pop up or sidebar call to action.
Matthew: What advice would you give to a marketer looking to grow in their career?
Benji:Early on in my career, I found mentors and people that I worked for that I wanted to learn more about why they did and gain experience on what they were really good at. I think often times people try to go out on their own or just learn something new without getting mentored or taking the time to learn it.
I would say even for me in the first job I had, a lot of the skills that I learned on SEO and PR were all from other people who were very experienced experts in their field and they took the time to work with me. I asked them a ton of questions and they took me under their wing and taught me a lot of what I know. I think my foundational experience came from learning from others that were more experienced than me. That’s something I’d recommend.
I know a lot of people say it’s hard to find mentors. But I don’t mean a mentor in terms of going out and asking someone for their advice, I looked at companies that I thought did a really good job in marketing and I applied for those jobs and thought that if I worked for those companies that were doing something I respected, that I would be able to learn something from the people that worked there. That’s probably the better approach than just reaching out to mentors cold.
Another thing is reading. I read a ton in marketing. I don’t read a ton of marketing books per se, I read a lot of stuff on consumer behavior and psychology. I think it’s important to understand how people make decisions and being empathetic and understanding people is the most important thing in marketing, less so than the tactics and growth hacks that a lot of people are talking about today. I would recommend reading a lot about psychology and consumer behavior, and just reading in general because it gives you a broad foundation for everything that you need to know. I took a lot of courses early on and I went to a lot of conferences and heard a lot of different people in the industry speak.
The last thing is experiment. There’s a lot of advice that people give that’s blanket advice and tries to walk you through a step-by-step process. It’s good to learn from the ideas behind what they’re teaching, but the only way to truly learn is to take some of those ideas and experiment on your own and come to your own conclusions.
Matthew: Trying to get people to read is just creating more consumer for you. I see what you’re doing there.
Benji:Read books! It doesn’t have to be our blog.
Matthew: Fair enough. So online, where can listeners find you?
Benji:On our website, growandconvert.com. We share a lot more depth on each of these individual topics from conducting user research in your company to content strategy to promotion and all of that stuff. I’m very active on Twitter as well, @benjihyam. Our email list too, if you sign up you’ll get an email from me asking you to introduce yourself and your top challenge. I do respond to every one of those.