GE 139: How Content Marketing Institute Founder Joe Pulizzi Got 165,000 E-mail Subscribers with 10x Content (podcast)

Joe Pulizzi Content Marketing Institute

Hey everyone! Today’s interview is with Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute whose mission is to advance the practice of content marketing through online education, print, and in-person events. Joe is one of the leaders behind the entire content marketing movement and the author of Content Inc.

In today’s interview, we talk about why web traffic is a meaningless metric, the biggest mistake that startups make when it comes to content marketing, and how to deliver value to your audience that has nothing to do with your product or service.

Storytelling for Brands

Joe got into the publishing industry in 2000 when he worked for a large B2B company where he ran the content marketing unit for that publisher and started storytelling for big brands that didn’t know how to tell stories. By about 2006-2007 he wanted to start his own business and could really see, what with search engine optimization and social media, how big content marketing was going to be.

He launched this thing called Content Marketing Institute, struggled for a few years as startups usually do, until about 2010 when it really started to turn around. And now here we are in 2016 and they host the annual event Content Marketing World which is the largest event in the content space with attendance of over 4,000 people. There’s still a lot of education to be done, but business is good.

Rundown of Content Produced by CMI

In addition to all this, for the last seven years they’ve been doing the benchmark research for the industry. Basically, you name it, they do it! Everything they do is focused on education and training for the audience—and then they monetize certain parts of that to run the business.

Web Traffic Is a Meaningless Metric

CMI did over $10 million in revenue in 2015 and are a 3-time Inc. 500 company so they’re growing at a rapid rate. From an online traffic growth standpoint, they have 165,000 e-mail subscribers (their key metric) and add about 200 per day. It’s not their key indicator, but traffic is consistently good – last year they had 7 million visitors to the site (in one year) – which translates to about 15,000-17,000 per day. Their key consideration is that they want to sign people up to be ongoing subscribers to their content, and then they can open up opportunities to sell them things that they need.

But at the end of the day, web traffic is a meaningless metric—unless you can say the more we get this kind of web traffic, the more we can convert those people into our loyal readers. And then you can look at behavior, because you want to make sure that that traffic is your reader, user, customer, etc. And then you can start to say how does that reader’s or user’s behavior change because of the info you communicate with them and how likely are they to buy something?

Where to Start When it Comes to Content Marketing

Focus! Be very focused on who your target audience is, because like it says in his book Content Inc., how do you build an audience first? If you build a really close relationship with your audience, then you can sell them whatever you want. A lot of startup companies just say “Here’s the story we want to tell” and basically throw that story up all over the web. That is not a winning proposition.

When they researched dozens and dozens of these startups in his book what they found is that they all follow the same methodology:

To build a relationship with your audience with content, it takes a long time, usually more than a year. This is a media strategy, this is a publishing platform—that’s why they do 3-year plans in publishing. So you have to be patient because it’s not going to happen overnight.

If you really need to see hardcore revenue results in 6 months, go buy advertising, don’t do content marketing. But if you want to build a long-term asset that is going to drive your organization and get closer to your audience and build long-lasting relationships with them, then a content marketing approach is a good one.

Joe recounts that Professor Scott Galloway from NYU did a great presentation on the Fab Four—Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon—and he talked about advertising spend. The really high-growth companies today are NOT spending money on advertising and instead a lot of what they’re doing is content driven, they’re building these followings, these inbound methods, to really bring an audience to them instead of having to go out, find them, and interrupt them. It’s a longer-term approach, but it absolutely works.

High-growth Startups that Are Really Killing it with Content Marketing 

Buffer is a fantastic example because they’re so transparent with their finances. A couple venture capital companies are doing some great work – OpenView Venture Partners and NextView Ventures – they do some great work focusing on education to attract startups to them, so if you’re a startup, you have to check them out.

HubSpot is not a startup anymore, but they built their entire program on content. They are a billion-dollar company because of what they’ve done with their content marketing approach. And then look at SalesForce – what would be the value of DreamForce if you separated it from SalesForce? It would easily be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That is a real value and is amazing what they’ve been able to create.

If you just think of the most successful startups out there and what they are doing, they’re really communicating differently – they’re not going out there talking about how awesome their product is. BaseCamp is another great example – they really focus on their customers’ pain points and solving those pain points for them.

You have to provide value outside of the products and services that you offer. This is really tough for startups because all they want to communicate is their features and benefits. And I get that – they’re looking for product/market fit – but if you are going to take the content marketing approach, you have to create a system so that you’re delivering value to your audience that has nothing to do with your product or service.

How Do You Differentiate Yourself? 

Step 1 – you have to make sure you’re telling a different story. What is your passion as an organization and what is your authority to communicate around that?

Step 2 – content tilt. Are you really telling a different story? If you’re not sure, just look at your blogs, webinars, newsletters – is it any different from anything else out there? If it’s not, you’re going to have a problem.

Five years ago you could do the quantity game – throw as much crappy content out there as you could with the right keywords and you could absolutely gain the system. You can’t do that today. You have to break through with something that is truly different and truly helpful. If I’m going to spend my time and my resources on something, then I’m going to make sure it’s really different and I’m going to really focus (whether it’s a podcast, video, blog).

If you look at every successful media company, they all start the same way: with one content type on one platform consistently delivered over time. Startups don’t do that – they’re all over the place. So focus on something that you can be the greatest in the world at.

It Typically Takes 12 Months to Build an Audience 

An audience is somebody who actually wants to receive your content. Who is that? Let’s say you’re a B2B technology startup. You know that you have 7-9 decision makers in that process: main buying decision maker, influencers, gatekeepers, etc. If you’re taking a content marketing approach, you’ve got to choose one of these. You can’t target all three audiences – it won’t work – so just focus on who that one is and what their pain points are.

A good example is Huffington Post – a billion-dollar valuation, recently sold again, really successful, that has 250-300 different blogs. But they started with just one – one blog to one particular audience. So set a number of subscribers (e-mail, YouTube, iTunes) for yourself, whatever that number is for you – 5000? 10,000? If you’re a consumer technology startup, then maybe it needs to be 100,000 or 500,000. Just do everything you can and don’t worry about monetization until you get to that target number.

What Is a Buyer Persona?

Persona is just a way we can make our audience more real to the people who are creating our content. Because most startups create content based on the objective of the piece – like “we’ve got to sell this many widgets” or “this is what we want to talk about.” But you have to focus on them – what is the customer’s needs? what’s keeping them up at night? what do we want them to get out of it? better job? better life?

A lot of people call the personas by names so that when we’re writing we have that particular persona in mind with their particular pain points. And the biggest reason to have personas is that it helps us realize that we are not the audience for our content. The number one mistake that startups make is they think “This is the kind of content that we would like” – but it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters what your audience likes. So you need to get a good handle on what your persona wants and needs – that will help you focus on making content that is compelling.

Does Content Marketing Institute Have any Persona-Creating Tools?

There are different ways to do it. At CMI they’ve got a couple different templates. If you go to and type in “buyer persona” it’ll come up with some different ones.

It doesn’t matter what you use, so so long as you’re asking the questions. Joe’s number one thing is the audience outcome. Let’s say you’re doing an editorial calendar or a content marketing calendar and you’re going to do a blog – you’ve got your topic, keywords, target audience, etc. Then add a section called “audience outcome” – what’s in it for them? If you really focus on that and you understand what your buyer persona is and you get to that audience outcome, then you focus on the outside-in approach and it really works well.

How Can Startups Create Content and Get it Out There? 

First of all, make sure you understand where your audience is hanging out right now, because if you’re creating a new content marketing approach and going after your audience, they’re already engaging in content. You’re competing with Google, you’re competing with Yahoo, you’re competing with someone else, so you’re going to have to pull the audience’s attention away from that source.

So make a list of where they’re hanging out – blogger sites? association sites? are they small media companies? Make a list of those places, about 5-10, and then figure out what you’re going to do on that site – share that person’s content, comment on their blog, get involved in their community. Because at some point, maybe a month or two after that, you’ll reach out to them, maybe do a co-branded webinar, maybe an e-book, maybe you want to guest blog on their blog. Basically, you want to steal their audience!

So make sure you have a strategic approach in place to bring the audience over to your blog. Also, you should be using paid services – not paid promotion of your products and services, but paid promotion of your content, like:

Once you’ve built up an audience, then you can wean yourself off the paid platforms.

Finding Great Content Creators

First, go through that whole competitive analysis we talked about and figure out who the thought leaders in your industry are and build those relationships over time. Yes, you can absolutely pay writers to create content on your platform but there are also people out there who would like to be on your platform as you grow.

That’s how they started with CMI. April 26, 2007 was Joe’s first blog post. For the first year, it was just him, then he added Michelle Lim, then they started to build that influencer community, and now today he blogs about once every two weeks and the rest are created by influencers. Last year they had about 150 different authors and get about 4-5 requests a day.

One Piece of Advice He’d Give To His 25-Year-Old Self

He probably would’ve started the business sooner. He always thought that he needed to be ready, like there was going to be some magical moment where he knew it was the time, but of course there is no such thing like that—you just launch it when you can launch it.

Also, he would be reading more. The biggest difference between now (at 42 years of age) and back then is that he reads a lot more now (4-5 books in January so far!). Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the more you read, the more it changes your perspective on everything, you get more ideas, expand your thinking, become more innovative.

Favorite Info-Consuming Hacks 

There’s so much content out there, but you still have only so much attention span and time at the end of the day, so you have to focus on the things that are going to be helpful. So stay off Facebook as much as you can or the things that are a time-suck! Refine your lists in Twitter, get off of e-mail (check it at like 10am and 3pm for 30 minutes each time). 

One Must-Read Book

Non-fiction: Between these two books, that’s how he puts together his daily routine on how he focuses on his goals.

Fiction: This is his favorite book of all time. As an entrepreneur and startup, if you want to understand passion and focus, read this book.

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About Eric Siu

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.

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