E-Commerce secrets to scale

029 - Developing A Content Marketing Strategy With Jason Randall

029 – Developing A Content Marketing Strategy With Jason Randall

E-Commerce Secrets To Scale is a marketing and entrepreneurship podcast that revolves around hearing the stories and strategies of successful entrepreneurs and e-commerce professionals to uncover scaling secrets that will impact your online store.

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Tanner:

This week on the show, I have Jason Randall, who is the content manager at UpCity. Jason and I talk about content marketing, what it is, how it can help you grow your business, and what goes into developing a content marketing strategy. Jason is an awesome guy. He’s full of energy. You’re going to love this episode. Welcome to show, Jason. I’m really excited to have you. Go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience.

Jason:

Hey, thanks a lot, Tanner. Thanks for having me on. My name is Jason Randall. I am the content manager for UpCity out of Chicago. And you know, it’s funny because I’ve been with UpCity for just over a year now. And when somebody asks me, what does UpCity do? I can tell that it is a little bit confusing on our website. So the most bare bones way that it was explained to me when I was interviewing was, do you know what Angie’s List is? And if you know, Angie’s List is somebody looking for maybe a plumber or some kind of service provider to come to their home. UpCity is very similar to that in a bare bones way, but just in the B2B space. So for example, a landscaping company might not be big enough to have its own accounting department or HR department, but they still need some of that done for them.

So they’ll come to UpCity and they’ll find a local HR company or a local accounting firm that can help them. So it’s a way for businesses to connect with one another, you know, those seeking services and those providing services. And so that’s the core capability really of what UpCity does. Now, we’ve got more beyond that. We have white label marketing services, we have SEO help and a number of other things that can help businesses and service providers be found online, you know, credibility, visibility, review help and whatnot. So we’re growing, but in its bare form, UpCity is truly about connecting businesses with one another, businesses that customers can trust. So there are certain things that you have to have achieved in order to be listed on UpCity.

So we want to make sure that it’s not exactly just a pay to play type of model there. Know you, you must meet certain requirements to be listed, so we feel comfortable in making those connections. Like I said, I’ve been with UpCity for about a year now and, you know, I’ll take it all the way back to start. I started off actually in the newspaper business. My first job out of grad school, I was the sports editor of a really small weekly newspaper. And to be honest, I had to take that job because my lease was running out. I had no money, you know, my refrigerator had some coffee and then some cheese singles in it. So it was time that I needed to take a job. And so it was a tiny little paper, but it was great experience.

I was basically a one-man sports team. So when you’re talking about a small paper like that, you’re talking about high school sports and the likes, but I was doing the writing, the editing, the page layout, you name it. So from there, I moved on to a daily newspaper in Danville, Illinois, then went on to write and be a copy editor at the News Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. And it was there that I really got to do a lot of a lot of fun things. You know, I would cover some college basketball there, obviously that’s big 10 country. So the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, you know, and then I started to cover NASCAR. And that was the time when, I’m sure you might remember this Tanner, but NASCAR, there was a time that it was very popular, not nearly as popular now as it was, but there was a time in the mid-2000’s or early 2000’s that it was the thing.

So that was kind of cool. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, but we learned on the fly when the dark clouds of newspaper layoffs started to circle though, I was about to get married. And I was like, eh, you know, I can’t be unemployed here and I didn’t get laid off. I just decided to make an early jump over to the corporate communication side. So I started working for a small health insurer in their communications department, and we did a number of things, basically kind of the central hub for all outgoing messaging. We would work on everything from educational materials to obviously traditional marketing type of things, PR media relations, event planning and the likes for this health insurer. And my career has been all over the place because shortly after that, I moved to a company called Horizon Hobby, and what they do is they develop and distribute high-end RC products. So like the drones that are so popular or RC trucks, or you know, boats and jets and even model trains and the likes, and, you know, it seems kind of silly, but there’s folks that will spend, I’m not even joking, like $10,000 on an RC jet. It’s a very serious niche circle. I worked in web content for them, merchandising, online e-commerce online merchandising. And then it was one of those things where I kind of had a no-brainer type of offer to work for the corporate headquarters at State Farm in Bloomington, Illinois. And I worked in customer communication management. So we handled everything from, hey, your bill’s due to actual more opportunity management things and kind of really understanding the customer in that, hey, somebody is insuring a diamond engagement ring, that might mean that they are getting married soon and might be looking for a house soon.

This is a great opportunity to perhaps offer something like, hey, did you know about our homeowners insurance or did you know about things like that? So it was a nice way to kind of put the old Gantt chart up and move the cards around and figure out what goes where. I also worked alongside their mutual funds department. And, you know, sometimes it’s not all the glitz and glamor of the insurance world. It’s writing about how their mutual funds are doing. So it was a whole lot of education very quickly from the State Farm though, I moved over to DocuSign and DocuSign is obviously going very strong. Now they’re in the whole e-signature world, they’re integrated with all kinds of software. And you know, I was actually focused on the real estate side of things.

So we worked in what we called digital transaction rooms, so marketing that software predominantly to eight real estate agents and brokers which gave me a number of interesting ways to develop personas, speaking to folks in a more targeted way. You know, because brokers and agents have much different things that they’re worried about in their day to day. The agent obviously wants to sell homes quickly, wants to get through paperwork quickly and doesn’t want to be chained to their desk, the broker, he or she has the whole business, the overarching business, to worry about. And so their needs are different, but the product could be used in a number of different ways, different tiers of the products and whatnot. So it was understanding who it was you’re speaking to. And that was a great exercise in that I’ve bounced around at a couple of agencies from then worked at a another very niche company called Stenograph, which develops the software and te hardware for court reporting, believe it or not. So manual speech to text. It’s funny because there’s not really that many court reporters anymore. There’s probably somewhere around 25,000 in the country, and it’s very difficult to be part of, but folks can make some decent money as a court reporter. It’s just that it’s a whole different type of keyboard. It’s not your QWERTY keyboard that you’re used to. It’s unmarked little panels and these machines are extremely high tech. But these folks have to write something like 225 words a minute and it’s done in this steno shorthand type of thing, but still, that’s blazing fast. So that’s another place where I’ve gotten my feet wet and even wetter with very niche marketing. I then have worked in tech, ed tech. I spent a brief amount of time at a ed tech company called Power School. And then here I am at UpCity. So I know that was a long, winding journey. But it’s been one that’s been rewarding in that it’s taught me so much in all kinds of different avenues.

Tanner:

Yeah. That’s a wild ride for sure. But I think it’s great to, you know, experience all those different perspectives. And like you said, you got to know the needs of several different types of customers. Right? And I think knowing your customers is obviously the most important thing when it comes to marketing, but I think it’s even more important when it comes to content marketing. So that’s what I brought you on to talk about. How would you define what content marketing is and why is it important?

Jason:

Sure, absolutely. So for me, content marketing is the production and distribution of any kind of material. So we’re talking print digital video, any kind of podcast, even here, that either educates, offers a different perspective to folks, evokes certain ideas and then ultimately drives a target audience to partnering with you or doing business with you in some way. And obviously, let’s not forget about the folks that are already customers. You want those to hang around as well. And oftentimes the idea is, well, we’ve got to get new customers, sure. But you also got to make sure that they’re not leaving out the other end.

It’s a constant cat and mouse game, but it’s a push pull and constantly learning and then delivering and learning a little bit more and delivering.

You know, I think a lot of times people don’t focus on that churn aspect and content marketing can help because one of the ways that I think that you can help reduce churn, is that the problems that you were trying to solve for a customer when they’re new, if they’ve had a long relationship with you, it’s likely that their problems have changed. You know, maybe you did solve that one problem they have, but as time goes on, as technology changes, you know, as, as pandemics hit, they’re likely going to have different problems. It’s a constant cat and mouse game, but it’s a push pull and constantly learning and then delivering and learning a little bit more and delivering. And content marketing is the backbone of everything else that your company puts out. It’s kind of the source of truth for any kind of customer-facing messaging that you have. And so if you can educate and provide a value in some way, that’s really where you’re going to make some strides rather than just talking about a cool feature that doesn’t solve anybody’s problem. So for me, content marketing is one that actually helps solve relevant problems. That stigma shows the customer that your company is going to stick with them. It’s not just a, hey, give me your money. And we’re going to forget about you kind of thing. And it’s something that, hey, we’re going to grow together. You know, let’s help solve these problems that you have. And then let’s learn from one another and see how we can make things work down the road as well.

Tanner:

I really liked that definition. I think it’s really thorough. And I think you hit the nail on the head, and I really liked that you touched on, you know, just customer attention, right? I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve signed up for a new software tool and I can’t figure out how to even use it. And they don’t have a knowledge base or tutorials or that kind of stuff will keep me a customer. And of course it’s obvious keeping a customer is 10 times cheaper than finding a new one, right?

She always talks about withdrawals and deposits, so we want to make sure we have plenty of deposits in there to give folks good things where we’re not asking them for their money.

Jason:

A hundred percent true. And, that’s the thing, too, is you have to have valuable content for folks. You know, it can’t just be the hard sell all the time. You can’t always be doing that. My boss, our SVP of product marketing, Heidi Sullivan, she always talks about withdrawals and deposits, so we want to make sure we have plenty of deposits in there to give folks good things where we’re not asking them for their money. You know, we’re not asking them to dig into the wallet. Again, obviously we’re all in business because we want to have a nice living. I get it making money is part of business, but you can’t always just be sticking your hand out, hoping that somebody places cash in it. It’s one of those things where we make those deposits, use withdrawal sparingly, but give that push, pull, that back and forth.

Tanner:

Yeah. So I’ve actually used that analogy ton of times, and I really liked that, but that applies to anything in business, not just content. I mean, you’re posting on social media. I mean, that’s all you’re doing in email marketing. All you’re doing is sending out offer after offer after offer. You’re not, everyone’s going to unsubscribe and unfollow you because no one you have to add value and the value has to be in your content. And also if you want that content to be found, it needs to be high quality, too. And I think it has a lot to do with SEO, as well. Speaking of that, how do you think content marketing and SEO work together?

Jason:

I think real close together, you know, for me, it’s hand in hand especially if you want to get that content seen. I mean, you can have the most beautifully written or beautiful video in the world, but if it’s buried it’s not going to actually get seen then you might as well just be screaming into the void because, you know, it’s just one of those things where I really do believe in a very tight knit group, when you’re talking about your content team, your creative and the SEO side. It’s actually interesting because at UpCity there’s times that we don’t have your traditional creative brief before going into a project, instead, we’ll have an SEO brief where our SEO folks will put together, hey, you know, obviously these are keywords. This is the research that’s out there right now. Here’s what’s ranking, you know, here are certain ways we should be naming things to be seen. And so it really all comes out to you know, making sure your work gets seen, making sure it’s not too much alike, to where it still kind of fits in that zone. And so for me, I really need the SEO and the content teams to be really close together.

Tanner:

Yeah. I would agree with you. I would say that you can have SEO without content marketing, but you can’t have content marketing without SEO.

Jason:

At least content marketing that’s getting seen that’s for sure. You know it’s one of those things where, with SEO, it’s nice to learn the must haves that need to be in that content, the nice to haves, but not necessarily deal breakers. And then you can go on to maybe more of the traditional marketing speak, but let’s make sure that it’s actually going to get eyeballs so that we’re doing things for a reason.

Tanner:

Right. And if you’re putting together pieces of content, I mean, are you just going to shoot in the dark and hopefully someone’s actually searching for it? Or are you going to back up your topics with research and search volume?

Jason:

Absolutely. No question about it. You know, that kind of leads me into just putting together a content strategy, you know, SEO, obviously I want them in the room. I want them to be part of it from square one. For me a good content strategy starts with careful planning, truly thoughtful planning, months in advance. You know, ideally none of us work that way. You know, we’ve always got the next fire to put out, but in a vacuum in the ideal world, months of careful planning and I think the most important thing when you do start is to truly know yourself as a company, you know, like what value are we actually bringing to potential customers? Is it time to revisit our company’s mission statement? How have we changed or grown over the years?

What problems are we trying to solve again? Always you have to think about the problems you’re trying to solve, because that is, I swear that’s different than it was 10 years ago than it was 15, you know, even two years ago, if you think how fast things are changing now, you know? And so it’s one of those things where if you’re constantly solving the same problem over and over, that might work in some industries. I mean, but look at Gatorade, for example, a sports drink and alternative to water that is supposed to hydrate you better. And that’s really all there is to it. And then the rest of it’s just kind of packaging now, what is this? They have an energy drink now called bolt or all kinds of things where really it comes down to they’re solving the thirst problem.

You’ve got to figure out who it is that you’re talking to. That’s going to have the most bang for your marketing dollar.

But with things like with people and UpCity, I know with the ever-changing world of a digital marketing agency, things are changing rapidly and you have to be agile. And so it starts with knowing yourself, what is it that we’re here for? And then you and I talked about it just now, personas, personas, personas. You’ve got to figure out who it is that you’re talking to. That’s going to have the most bang for your marketing dollar. I think this pandemic has truly shown that gone are the days of casting the wide net and just being happy with whatever it drags in. People don’t have time for that anymore. And we do business differently. Now you have to speak precisely to who it is you’re wanting to partner with. It’s when I was with Power School, it’s interesting because Power School would have all kinds of different software solutions for different parts of a school district.

So, you know, there’d be times that we’d be talking to the chief information officer of a school district. Other times we’d be talking to the HR folks or even the teachers that were in the classroom. And those are wildly different when it comes to the messaging that that goes into it. So you have to be able to know who it is you’re talking to as well. Obviously, you know, if last year taught us anything, it’s also the ability to be able to pivot and be somewhat agile. So I know you’re like, wait a minute, I’m supposed to be agile, but I’m also supposed to plan for months. Well, you know, I think part of that plan has to plan for the plan for the pivot. So it’s one of those things here, what kind of wrenches could potentially happen down the road that would make us have to do this and then being patient, you know, being consistent with your messaging, let it play out, let it work. I think there’s too many times that people are pulling the rip cord a little early on, on things when, you know, hey, it’s okay to let something brief for a while and let it attract the right folks.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, content is something that’s going to take a very large investment of time and it’s not going to stay right off the bat, nothing in marketing does. Right? And so you have to be willing to wait it out. I mean, something like a podcast, you’re probably not going to gain any traction for at least two years. So you’ve got to be able to just stick it out and hope for the best, be strategic and obviously make the right news, but it will take time.

Jason:

Absolutely. I mean, I remember back in the day, remember blogger, blogger.com or whatever, you know, how many of those that I start and then after, you know, a week, oh, I’m not getting anybody reading those. So I just would shut it down. You know, it was just one of those things. Well, it’s going to take a little bit, it’ll be okay. Don’t panic.

Tanner:

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, it just takes a very long time. So, Jason, what do you think content marketing has done with UpCity? I mean, how has it impacted your growth?

Jason:

Absolutely. So to be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a huge dependency or reliance or leaning towards content for awhile. UpCity has been around for 10 years now, going on 11, I think. And, you know, it’s been largely focused on that marketplace hub, you know, the connecting trusted business and service providers with those seeking the services. But we’ve turned a corner here in 2021. We’ve got a fairly robust plan for 2021, we’re bringing in some more content folks and focusing on providing more than just the place for businesses and potential customers to meet. We want to be a resource for folks. And so we have an expert posting program where our partners can write and choose to write in, and we will publish their piece of their blog or, you know, guides to certain issues that are relevant with their business.

And those are resources that we see as more being for the buyers, for the potential customers. On the other side is the UpCity blog. We’re now focused on providing resources for the businesses that are listed on our site. So that’s kind of the two diverging paths there. And I think that a greater focus on content is going to reap a number of awards for us, obviously in the SEO space, ranking in more positions. But then also continuing to establish ourselves as thought leaders. It’s not about just, hey, give us money and be on the site. It’s about, you know a go-to a place that people can come to learn, can exchange ideas. You know, we’ve heard a number of times where our expert posts from companies that are partners with us actually get traction with other service providers on the site.

Hey, that’s great. I’d love to pick your brain a little bit about that, and that’s just kind of collateral, not damage just from those programs and further connecting with folks, but we’ve got a number of really fun plans this year. So we are thinking about getting in the podcast game as well. Definitely video, video, video we’ve done virtually nothing with video. And so this is the year we want to have a better social presence as well. You know there’s not been a heavy focus on our social either, and it’s time for that to change as well. So a number of different avenues, and we’re excited about things to come for us.

Tanner:

So let’s talk about video for a second. You know, I think someone that does a really great job with their content marketing strategies, Ahrefs, which is an SEO software out of South Korea, oh it’s Singapore actually. But anyways, they’re big pieces of content that are probably the most valuable to people like me. I’m in their target market. Of course they have a video at the top of each post. They say, would you prefer to watch the video instead of reading it? And I always watch the video cause who doesn’t, right? I think that as a society, we’re moving away from written content because no one really has time. And usually what happens is you just end up skimming it, looking for what you’re looking for. Right? And you probably don’t get as much out of it as you would if you watched the video.

Jason:

Yeah. You know, and I think that there’s different folks too. I think that the growing preference is certainly to watch that video. There’s also folks though that are just there for the skim and don’t want to sit there through the video and see if they can kind of scroll their thumb and am I going to hit the parts that I actually care about? So I see it in both ways where it’s certainly beneficial to have both, but with anything, especially with video though, I believe, this is in my UpCity bio on the website, but I believe in the three C’s of content marketing and that’s be clear, be consistent, and be concise because no one has time to read that stuff, even if they did have time, hey, what are you doing with your time?

Do you read that kind of thing? Or do you do something you actually want to do? So it’s one of those things where you’ve got to put out the most important stuff. If you’re writing it upfront in a video, you know, it’s obviously a little different because they’ve committed to playing that video, but obviously you want to keep them there as well. You don’t want them pausing or clicking away from it early. It’s one of those things though, where if you’re clear and consistent and concise, and you tell the user or the viewer or the reader what it is they need to know right now and what it is that they can or should do about it right now, that’s what matters. Everything else can come later, but how does this affect me and what do I need to do about it?

Tanner:

Yeah. I really like that. I mean, get rid of the fluff. It’s really not needed. I also want to emphasize that it’s not a good idea to just go straight video. You still need that written content. Like you said, some people are still going to want to skim, but what’s most important about that as you want your content to be consumed by search engines. So Jason, what’s one piece of advice you could give to anyone that’s just now getting started with their content strategy?

Be very thoughtful and purposeful in whatever you’re doing.

Jason:

Sure. So this is one thing that really resonates with me because I’ve worked at places that did this and were really sound in the development of their strategies, and then there’s been ones that were not so much. And so the first thing I want to say is be purposeful in whatever activities that you’re pursuing. Don’t do things just because you think you have to be doing something. So many times there are folks that feel like we should be doing something. So let’s just have some kind of weird knee-jerk reaction and crank out a bunch of stuff. That’s probably not that useful to anyone and probably won’t actually generate leads or help convert someone online. It just is busy work. You’ve got to resist the urge to fill in gaps with work. That’s not going to actually do anything for you.

So that’s my first thing: be very thoughtful and purposeful in whatever you’re doing. You have to understand why you’re doing something. Not just, we should be doing something well, why, and depending on the size of your organization, if you’ve got a creative team that’s doing a bunch of work that they don’t even understand why they’re doing it, then that’s a huge problem and the quality’s going to suffer, you know? So it’s all about planning, but it’s also really knowing what it is you’re trying to achieve when it comes to developing your strategy. And we talked about that a little bit, you know, about knowing yourself, but it really does come down to don’t spin your wheels on things that aren’t going to amount to much. None of us have time for that anymore. And if you think about it, what are you paying folks for to do this work?

That’s not really going to have any kind of ROI benefits for you, you know? So I am somebody who is very much a proponent of quality over quantity. Now there’s some people that are just those content hubs are those houses that just shovel it out the door. Okay. If that’s your thing, that’s great. And if that’s what you’re wanting to do is just flood the market with information, fine. In my experience though, eventually the algorithms start to understand that this is just junk and all of a sudden it gets buried and you’re not being seen. And then you’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time creating stuff, that’s, you know, basically worthless at this point. So I guess, a long winded way of saying, be purposeful in what you do.

Tanner:

Yeah. I think that’s great advice. I mean, we shouldn’t be posting on our blog just to post on our blog. So, Jason, what would you say your secrets to scale are?

Jason:

For me, it’s don’t be afraid to do things. One of the things I always talk about is don’t be afraid to reuse and repurpose content marketing pieces too many times. Folks want to try to reinvent the wheel. Oh, we’ve already done these taglines and we’ve already created pieces like this. So now we have to do something new. I feel like when you’ve got too many different kinds of messages out there, it really muddies the waters. All of a sudden your customer’s like, I’m not sure what’s going on with this company. I don’t know what it is. Earlier they were telling me A, now they’re talking about B, you know? And so it’s like, especially even something as simple as how you named things, and this goes back to those three C’s: clear, concise, and consistent. You have stay that way. And again, the patience part of the long game, don’t be afraid to reuse and repurpose copy. Don’t be afraid to reuse and repurpose videos and the likes, it’s going to be okay, let them breathe a little bit before putting new messaging out there because you’re going to end up cannibalizing yourself. If you’re trying to cover up messages that were fine last quarter, there was nothing wrong with them. Let’s hit that. I understand having many campaigns with themes and the likes and there’s a time and a place for that, of course. But when you’re talking about the foundation of your overall marketing plan, content marketing plan, especially as it relates to scale, you have to have a really solid, strong, evergreen type of foundation of messaging that you can always go back to. Use as that source of truth and the backbone for everything else that your business produces.

Tanner:

Yeah. That, that’s a great point, Jason. Thank you for sharing that. So thanks again for joining me, Jason. What’s a good way for anyone to get in contact with you?

Jason:

Sure. So email obviously at [email protected] I am at Jason M. Randall on Twitter. I promise I’ll start actually tweeting again. It’s been kind of baby steps for that. But otherwise, you can find me on the UpCity website as well and email and yeah, that’s where I’m at. I’m just kind of everywhere and you know, as much as I lament it, I am on Facebook and Instagram as well, and LinkedIn, you know, LinkedIn.com/in/jasonmrandall.

Tanner:

Cool, man. So we’ll make sure we link that up in the show notes and thank you again.

Jason:

Hey, I appreciate it, Tanner.

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