Today we’re talking with Shane Snow, CCO & Founder of Contently, a platform that works with big brands to reach their goals of publishing high-quality content. They’re growing quickly with about 100 enterprise clients and 50,000 registered journalists.
Shane reveals how he grew the company step by step, some of the struggles he faced, and some key things you can do to improve your own content marketing strategy. Stay tuned to the end because he reveals a very interesting productivity hack that I can’t wait to use myself.
The Realities of Modern Journalism Pushed Shane to Help Fellow Journalists
After studying computer science and business in his home state of Idaho, Shane realized that journalism was his true professional passion and moved to New York to get a masters degree in the subject.
He became a freelance journalist writing on topics he loved like technology and startups, but realized that nearly every single one of his friends who went to expensive journalism schools were also freelancers. And being a freelance writer comes with a whole slew of problems that have nothing to do with writing… like setting up a website, marketing and ‘sales’ to get work, and so on.
Shane was interested in what he could do to solve these problems, so he turned down a nice full-time job offer he received after freelancing for a little while to start Contently.
He was inspired to help people like himself who were in a hard spot, and since he had a friend who wanted to hire journalists to build out some blogs, he knew there was a market fit.
Where Contently is Today (& How Helping the Market Helped them Grow)
Since its inception in 2010, Contently has grown to have 100 enterprise clients – many of which are from the Fortune 500 list like Google, GE, and American Express.
They’ve also got about half of the journalists in the United States (50,000) on their platform, ready and willing to produce content for companies if their profiles match and their quality is up to par.
They’ve gained so many quality writers by solving a need a lot of freelance writers have: They created a tool that lets writers store their portfolio pieces, display their clients’ logos, and drag and drop their content pieces so they have a presentable website they can use to help them get more work. In effect, the tool did their marketing (for writers, anyway) for them.
Shane’s Advice for Startup Content Marketing
Even though Contently’s tools and pricing schemes are made to fit enterprise-level companies than they are startups, Shane’s been in the startup phase and has some great advice for startups who want to succeed in content.
Contently also has an online magazine, The Content Strategist, that gives you all the information you need to know to knock out startup-level content marketing on your own.
First of all, rather than worrying about tools and technology, he says the first things you’ll need to get started with are WordPress, a couple of writers, and a whole lot of hustle.
But, rather than jumping into building a publication (like a blog) directly on your own site right away (because it will be a lot of work and you won’t have a big audience to make that work pay off), Shane suggests shifting that energy to establishing your company’s founders and executive team as external thought leaders by guest posting on industry publications where the audience you want already exists.
A Content Investment Budget for a Startup: Time Over Money
According to Shane, content marketing is one of the most effective ways to build and brand a business. Because even when you don’t have anything else, at least you have what people think of you… and one of the best and fastest ways to influence that is through quality content.
When Contently started out, they couldn’t even afford a $2,000 per month content marketing budget – so there’s no right or wrong answer to how much you have to spend, the quality and getting in front of a pre-existing audience is ultimately what matters.
For Shane, it seems that the importance lies in having a budget for content marketing, no matter how small.
He says that people do iterations and MVPs for products, then jump to deciding to build a huge blog where they over-reach and end up producing a lot of crappy content. They don’t take the time to figure out who their audience is, where the gaps in education are in existing online content, and how to reach their audiences.
What to do When You Have a Fear of Being Wrong
Sometimes I (Eric) get scared of writing crappy content because I’ve spent too much time wrapped up in running my company and I get out of touch with the content world.
Apparently, it happens to Shane sometimes too, but he doesn’t worry too much about it.
He says that during the conversations he has throughout the business day, he’s formulating story ideas based around what’s being said… and anytime there’s something he’s unsure of or doesn’t know about, he turns that into a research-based story opportunity.
He also says that the process of writing somewhat forces you to be a little more aware of what’s going on around you.
Getting the First 10 Enterprise Customers
In the early days, Contently’s first customers definitely weren’t enterprise-level businesses.
In fact, they found themselves with a bit of a chicken and egg problem where they couldn’t attract businesses without writers, and they couldn’t attract writers without having readily available gigs.
To solve the problem and get things moving, they sunk some of their own money into creating fake assignments in the system to attract writers.
Once they had some quality writers, they went through the sales process of approaching businesses who would want to become publishers and working through their networks to take on any clients they could find.
Eventually, it became a game of seeking out companies who were one step bigger and better than the ones they had listed as their clients. Shane said he found that most companies were willing to take a risk on a service company who served businesses one ladder rung lower than them, but not five.
After nine months of solid hustle, they landed American Express as their first corporate-level client by showing them that they performed will for Mint.com (Intuit) and other finance-related clients.
From there, they used the American Express logo to get more finance-based clients and to side-step their way into contracts with companies like General Electric.
At the enterprise level, they use an enterprise sales process. They have an inbound and outbound marketing strategy to help them land meetings with company decision makers.
Their inbound strategy is to get ‘Account Dude Derrick’ to latch onto their content and feed ideas up to his CMO, and their outbound strategy is to figure out who they want to talk to to get in touch via LinkedIn and go through a few in-person meetings.
One of the Hard Ones: Determining Their Pricing Strategy
In the early days of the business, Contently simply charged a 15% fee of whatever was paid to the writer – but the struggle there was finding companies that could afford to pay the rates that meant getting quality work from quality journalists.
To do this, they needed a sales team, which involved paying commissions every time a sales person landed a contract. And with just 15% margins, it was going to be really hard for them to scale with that new expense.
So, much like they built a tool to help facilitate finding writers, they started building tools to facilitate the content marketing process: from project management to workflow and so on.
Once these tools were in place, they realized they could start charging a fee for access to those tools, and now charge anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per month plus the cost of content (which they still earn 15% from).
Once they set out three different price points according to a company’s needs vs. their willingness to pay, they had to figure out how to incentivize their sales people to focus on selling the higher packages.
What do Most People do Wrong in Content Marketing?
Shane says that even though most companies talk a lot about quality content, most of the stuff you see online simply isn’t high quality.
He gives 3 elements that need to be present for a truly quality piece of content:
Shane also says most companies need to shift their mindset about how they view the measurable results of content creation.
For starters, most companies simply don’t go through the exercise of attributing revenue to the content they create – they just write it of and say it can’t be measured.
The next problem is that people who do measure it are measuring the wrong things. For sites like Business Insider who make money from ads, counting page views makes sense. But for businesses, the more important things to measure are how often people come back, how engaged they are, what it takes to turn a visitor into an email subscriber, and how much engagement is needed for a conversion.
The more important metric, says Shane, is how much one minute of content engagement is worth to your bottom line.
To start measuring your own content correctly, Shane suggests Contently’s free PDF guide (you don’t even have to put your email in to get it) called The New World of Content Measurement.
The Struggles of Finding Good Writers
One of the hardest things for Contently to do in the early days was to screen good writers out from bad writers… especially since desperate writers were willing to jump through any hoop you gave them, and the better writers who weren’t quite as worried about finding paying work were skeptical of a long sign-up process requiring samples.
By creating their build-you-own portfolio tool just for freelance writers, they created a sort-of LinkedIn for journalists that collected and showcased their past work. This helps them get more writers into their system, but on the backend, the software supporting the portfolio tool has a robot that can figure out who’s a crappy writer and who’s a writer that produces quality content and matches well with one of their clients.
A Piece of Advice to His 25-Year-Old Self
“Don’t worry about things that don’t matter.”
He also wishes he had been better at saying ‘no’ to things that were good, but not necessarily important.
He presents a rule of thumb based on a 10-year timeline: If you have a problem or decision, make the decision you’ll remember, or at least won’t regret, in 10 years.
When writing, type as fast as you can.
“Research shows that when you’re writing, the faster you type, the better your writing becomes and the better thoughts you get out,” says Shane. “If you could type 95 words per minute vs. 50 words per minute, you actually end up producing better material and smarter thoughts.”
This works because our brains operate faster than our fingers, so you lose so much of your ability to create value simply due to the physical constraint of typing.
One Must-Read Book (And a Note on the Importance of Autobiographies)
Shane recommends The Autobiography of Ben Franklin because he was a lateral thinker who came at problems sideways, not linearly. To top it off, he was a journalist, an entrepreneur, and an inventor. In fact, in Shane’s list of favorite books, this one is at the top of the list.
Shane says that reading biographies and autobiographies lets you see the patterns in how smart people think as they discover breakthroughs… in fact, there’s an entire segment in his own book (Smartcuts) dedicated to the topic of autobiographies.
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Eric Siu (@ericosiu) is the CEO at Single Grain, a digital marketing agency that focuses on paid advertising and content marketing. He contributes regularly to Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes and more.