Does content marketing have the power to attract “whale leads?” In this episode, Brennan talks with Benji Hyam, founder of Grow and Convert, a content marketing agency based out of San Diego. Grow and Convert was started when founders, Benji Hyam and Devesh Khanal were introduced and immediately launched into a heated discussion about whether content marketing could attract high quality leads. Their debate turned into a partnership and the team set to work proving the untapped value of content marketing through hard work and simple, honest strategies.
Benji Hyam, co-founder of Grow and Convert believes that content marketing, at its core, is about trust. It starts with understanding what your customers care about and proving to them that you can deliver it. For Grow and Convert, this meant becoming the full-service company that Benji himself had looked for in the past and was unable to find. It took a few iterations for them to get it right, but eventually, Benji and Grow and Convert co-founder, Devesh Khanal, created a successful business that put customers’ interests first and turned the old model of the content marketing business on its head.
Before starting Grow and Convert, Benji was running marketing startups in San Francisco. He was getting burned out as he noticed that many content writing and marketing agencies claiming to drive leads, often just created a few social media updates and hoped this would bring the company more followers. Since having more followers doesn’t necessarily mean getting more conversions, Benji recognized that CEOs looking for ways to direct a company’s marketing funds would have no incentive to invest in content marketing — the lack of measurable ROI was completely unappealing.
It was then that Benji ran into Devesh Khanal. By chance, they both arrived an hour early to a dinner put on by fellow growth marketer, Sujen Patel, and they proceeded to argue about whether content marketing could attract high quality leads. Devesh, who has a CRO agency, was trying to attract executives from $10million+ ecommerce companies but wasn’t sure if execs at that level even read content marketing. Benji had just come from a job selling to these high-level figures almost exclusively via content marketing so he knew that they did. They both agreed that the current model was not the way to do it so with Devesh’s highly-developed analytical skills and Benji’s experience growing sites, they decided to team up. They set out to show that content marketing is measurable and that “full service” should go beyond a few tweets to include user research, content writing and promotion, and lead driving.
Finding an Audience
Grow and Convert started as a blog. They focused on showing what good content writing looks like, providing useful, real-world examples, and demonstrating measurability. In writing about content strategy, the two were proving they were great content writers, while simultaneously filling the void of real-world case studies (as opposed to theoretical platitudes) that users could learn from. Readers learned from every part of the blog. As part of their commitment to transparency and trackable data, on a monthly basis, the small company shared its stats and what they did to promote themselves. Benji says this was essential to building trust with the community. To keep readers engaged, and to give them more of a personal stake in Grow and Convert’s success, the guys publicly announced goals for the blog like the target of hitting 40K monthly readers in 6 months. Readers eagerly followed the progress of this wager.
Four months in, and still shy of the 40,000 followers goal, Benji found himself somewhat stranded in Bali with no steady income (having quit his job to focus on the business). At that point, the partners decided to back burner the arbitrary 40K followers target and pivoted towards monetization. Grow and Convert then went through a few transformations, becoming a successful phone course, in-person workshops where Benji would fly out to a business and spend a day working with their staff, and an online course positioned towards businesses rather than individuals. This last model was still not quite what they were looking for since individuals are the ones who look for courses, not companies. However, the guys gained traction by offering a service to businesses and their agency was born.
One way that Grow and Convert worked to build trust and appeal to clients was by showing measurability. They built a calculator for content marketing ROI, showed users how to track leads coming in from content marketing, and used live case studies to show followers how to drive traffic to their site. They would pick a company at random from their email list and create a post for them designed to bring in 1000 new visitors to their site or to actually surpass any of their previous posts in the first month. Grow and Convert showed results through metrics and talked about the unspoken weak points of content marketing, chiefly: deliverables. While other sites sell “4 blog posts a month,” Grow and Convert tracked stats to show that they could provide traffic and leads. Their openness and vigilant tracking created trust and thereby authority with their audience. All of these distinctions and the numbers to back them up, gave Benji and Devesh much more leverage when it came to pricing–a model they shared with readers.
From a consumer perspective, Brennan agrees that as he has looked for vendors while working on his latest site, he has opted for agencies with radically transparent operations. Although it can seem like someone is just a shameless self-promoter, showing process can be a selling point. A great example of successful transparency that Brennan points to is John Doherty who he hired to run an SEO audit on DoubleYourFreelancing.com. Even though he had never met or worked with him before, Brennan was convinced to hire Doherty based on John’s openness and frequent updates on his daily process. With blog and social media posts showing an agency’s background, results, and what sets them apart in the industry, they can show credibility that will not come through in a sales letter. Putting in this time is seriously valuable. Grow and Convert doesn’t use any outbound sales tactics to grow their own agency. They do not go through their network looking for referrals or advertising to find leads. Their goal is to gain customers based on great content marketing, following their own advice, and just by showing what they’re good at. Brennan agrees that following one’s own advice is key. Credibility comes from being able to say “here’s an example of how I applied this tactic I swear by.”
Examples have gone a long way towards Grow and Convert’s credibility. For Benji, case studies involve much more process and detail than just presenting a problem, solution, and result. He believes in doing the research to understand the pain points a company is facing. He says only his personal experience, building a content marketing company from the ground up, allowed him to fully understand the challenges others would face in the same position. They’d need to know about: hiring writers, hiring an editor, promoting content, attracting the right visitors to your blog, scaling, and search engine optimization. Understanding all of the different hiccups that pop up in the business allows an agency to tailor case studies and content directly to the real problems people are having (instead of writing what they think customers want to know). When people sign up for their newsletter, Grow and Convert asks clients, “Tell us a little about yourself, who are you and what are your main challenges right now?” with over 500,000 responses, they’ve been able to build a much fuller picture of what customers are actually looking for. The guys look for commonalities and trends and then tailor the blog posts to customer pain points. From there, if Benji notices lots of people saying “I publish a lot of content but have very few visitors,” then he can highlight 3 articles that get a lot of traffic and build the case study around what is working for them. Showing that they have addressed these challenges before, builds customer confidence in them. It is also less superficial than the stories one finds in a Linkedin article. These case studies offer screenshots and examples showing outcomes which will be much more helpful to someone struggling with these specific problems –again building trust.
Data, graphs, detailed copy about what was tried and what worked vs what didn’t are the things that Brennan says makes Growthlab a trusted resource for him. He says his most effective articles follow the Growthlab formula. Brennan says he doesn’t offer a prescription, just details and experiences his audience can relate to. Turns out, being useful and honest is a great way to stand out from the crowd.
Giving Them What They Want
When starting from zero with no customer base, or email list, Benji suggests creating a specific hypothetical customer in your target demographic. Once you know what that person’s interests and day consists of, that informs the research you do on where to find them. Though you’ll have to reach out to them cold, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) mass email/spam them. Instead, find them on Linkedin or elsewhere and try to get on a 15 minute call with them. He points out that ego-stroking is generally a good bet: “Hey I’m reaching out to you today because you are vice president of marketing and I hear you are doing great at…” He recommends reading a blog post by the customer, finding a video or quote of theirs that actually resonates with you, and mentioning it to show the lead that you have done your research. From there, Benji suggests you offer them a favor and then ask them to get on that quick call so that you can better understand their business. Brennan suggests that content itself can be a gateway to the clients you want. He recommends writing a blog post or interview series that features the person you want to get into a conversation with. This allows you to demonstrate that you can think critically about their business and it starts the conversation.
Grow and Convert has a few ways of getting into the headspace of their clients. They’ve used surveys that include questions like: What’s your biggest challenge right now? Who are you? What other marketing influencers do you trust? Where do you go to meet other marketers? Etc. but they take care to keep answers open-ended. Getting the language, real responses and insights into how the questions are perceived can all result in useful information. From the responses, Benji and Devesh have learned not only where a lot of their audience is probably struggling, but also what kinds of content and guest posts are going to be best-received and where to start looking for new readers.
Thanks to Grow and Convert’s reputation, Benji no longer has to look for leads. He says, on the consulting side, the ticket to conversion is getting customers to his services page where pricing is listed pretty early on. This avoids confusion and wasted time, and goes with the “share everything!” philosophy that is useful to the customers on the blog side of the business. Benji has found that clients on both sides of the business find their openness refreshing. At Grow and Convert, they avoid calls to action and telling readers what to do. Instead they say “This is what worked for me and here’s why.” That way, they’re aiming for the people who can afford the premium and want to hear the details (how Grow and Convert helps businesses, what it will cost etc.) and the DIYers who will never be on the consulting side of the business. These clients are different and are not a threat to each other. Benji says they attract the people who don’t have the time to learn it by showing that they know their field inside out. Meanwhile, the customers who don’t have the money for consulting, but may have the time to learn it on their own get to see the real-world ins and outs. Brennan points out that calls to action target the DIYers who tend to want an answer right now. However, the best consulting leads may be more open/flexible with their money while not having the personal time to invest in solving their problems.
Brennan points out that there are other ways to get your agency’s reputation to new audiences. He gives the example of a lawyer he once heard speak about copyright law at a local conference. After seeing her presentation on everything there is to know about online copyrights, he has never hired her, but he has recommended her many times. Double Your Freelancing has hosted several business seminars based on the “forum of ideas” concept (as opposed to trying to shove customers into a sales funnel). Attendees and viewers don’t need to hire Brennan’s agency but he points out they unintentionally become “sleeper cell agents,” who simultaneously gain the knowledge they need and familiarity with Brennan’s authority. Again, the transparency of presentations, support groups and Q&A that tell attendees when to buy, when to build, when to find something off the shelf, builds that audience trust. Benji agrees and thinks having ulterior motives is a mistake lots of businesses make. Customers don’t want spam and may rethink their entire need if it looks like they’re in for the hard sell. If your audience believes you are trustworthy and credible, they will recommend you and eventually get on your list. Valuable content should be your focus, not the number of email subscribers. “If people care about what you have to say and feel that you’re adding value, they’ll naturally want to form some sort of relationship with you.”
Guest posts are another way to build your authority and build trust, but Benji says he has published 4 out of hundreds of requests to post in the last two years. He says that when people send guest post requests they often optimize for volume rather than quality, using automation software and just plugging in a site’s or editor’s name. From an editor’s perspective, this does not inspire confidence or interest. For Benji, the requests to post that stand out have clearly done their research and look more like this:
I saw this article and loved [this one specific point you guys made]. I’ve been following you guys for a while and I’d like to write a guest post. Here is my [ONE] idea. Here are my results. I would love to share this story.”
Proper research means knowing what the publication wants from their guest posts. Benji says to ask things like:
- Who is their audience?
- What kind of content do they post,
- Do they like long in-depth how-tos or something shorter?
Then include the screenshots or evidence that shows you have a story they want to publish. Benji warns that this is not the time to take shortcuts. He says to build relationships rather than optimizing your time. Not only will that help you get accepted to begin with, it also means you could be invited back if you do exactly what the site wants.
Brennan points out that likewise, co-promotion is based on relationships rather than some kind of unspoken understanding among online marketers as some people seem to think. He often gets requests from strangers in his network asking him to tell his audience about their new product. Without the trust of a deeper relationship (e.g. having met and chatted at a conference or worked together on a mutually beneficial project), he’s not inclined to risk his reputation or breach the trust he has with HIS audience. Benji agrees that building meaningful business relationships is as simple as asking “what’s in it for the other person?” He finds the best way to get a response is to do research, think about what’s in it for them, and make a pitch that benefits both parties. Similarly, when posting new content, Brennan asks himself “How do I make it clear that in taking the time to read this article (or whatever else) I link to, [the reader is] going to be better off than they were before this?” Thinking about the other party, valuing their time, and considering how many times you say “I,” “me,” “my” may prompt you to change the behavior and present more appealing content.
Benji concludes, marketing is simply “thinking about what people want and giving it to them.” Based on this philosophy, he and Growth Lab started out with a course and ended up making a successful marketing agency. They researched where their target audience was, found out what information they were looking for, collected it, and then gave it to them. Benji and Devesh built the influence they needed to get on the radar of the high-value customers they want and developed the measurability needed to close the deal.