We had an opportunity to talk with Brian Clark about his blogging strategy that helped him build Copyblogger.com into a multi-million dollar company from the ground-up.
In this interview you’ll learn . . .
Read the full interview with Brian Clark . . .
Brian, you’ve written extensively about copywriting, keyword research, email marketing, content marketing, and so much more. How do you keep coming up with such great content week after week?
Brian: Well, fortunately it’s an area that really has a lot of ground to cover. We talk about online marketing in general, but as time has evolved and different practices have come and gone, the thing that really works is using engaging content as a way to draw people to your business. It's less of a pitch and more about being helpful and educating people. We’d like to say we’re educating people enough to do business with us. I started Copyblogger.com as a one-person blog that was very focused on applying certain principles of copywriting to content to make it more likely to spread in social media. But I always had a broader picture in my mind of what I could do to expand the range of topics. If you do anything long enough, you feel like you may be repeating yourself. But when you have a fresh flow of new people becoming exposed to you and your business through your content, it never gets stale to them.
You’ve now developed a huge resource for anyone (or any small business) that wants to learn about content marketing, keyword research, and selling online.
Brian: Yeah, and we’re coming up on six years. We’ve got more than just a huge archive. We’ve tried to really make it organized and useful. We recently redesigned the site, and we have tutorials dedicated to copywriting, content marketing, and what that actually means for a small-business owner. We’ve also tried to organize years of content into these useful multipart tutorials as a way to really get you up and running, so as you follow along with our new content, you've got the fundamental knowledge to work from.
You not only provide great tutorials and daily advice to help small business owners and bloggers, but you’re also providing the tools. Can you talk a little bit about the tools you promote?
Brian: Yeah, there are many small to medium-sized businesses out there. They know what they sell, and they need to find out an effective way to reach people online through social media channels. Tthat’s where the content comes in.
I started the opposite way (by developing useful content first), not knowing exactly what we would end up selling. But if you pay attention to what people are struggling with and problems they face, it informs you on needs in the marketplace. That’s really how we evolved from a blog into a software company, which has been kind of a dream come true for me.
I remember six or seven years ago looking at 37Signals.com and saying, “Wow, that’s really great. Too bad I don’t know how to make software.” And I still don’t. But because I was able to build an audience that needed solutions, I was able to get the partners and the resources I needed. And now we are a multi-million dollar software company that provides the publishing and marketing tools people need to do online content marketing. So like I said: we’re educating people enough to do business with us. If we teach you what to do, you still need the tools to get it done. And we have the tools to help. And many people have been very nice to say that we provide the best tools out there, especially for WordPress, which has become the biggest content management system. It’s not just for blogging anymore.
Anytime you’re creating content, it’s got to be on a regular basis and needs to be fresh. WordPress has become the easiest way to get that done. So we’ve built our tools around WordPress because that’s what we personally use for our business. We’re content publishers and marketers. If we need it, there’s a good chance you’re going to need it because you’re doing the same thing we are.
I love that you started Copyblogger.com from a passion – and didn’t even know how you were going to monetize it.
Brian: Right. It really did evolve. Everything that I needed inspired a discussion about how we could actually build it. And then once we built it, we felt that we should share it with everyone else. And that became the basis of the business, so it worked out really well.
At the beginning all I knew was – I had been publishing online for seven years. I built three successful service businesses using the same principles. Now, I was ready to move away from services to something else. I knew that I could teach about copywriting, content, and how to use that to build a business (whether it’s an existing line of business such as real estate or something new where you listen to the audience, and they give you indications of what you should develop).
It’s a much safer approach than the traditional way, which is where someone comes up with an idea, then they make something and try to find someone to buy it. Sometimes, no one wants to buy it. The new way of doing things is to build an audience and listen intently. Then you’ll have a better chance of delivering something to them that they actually want.
You just shared some valuable points for small business owners and entrepreneurs here: 1) build your audience first, 2) listen to what they want, and then 3) develop the product.
Brian: Yeah, sometimes they can’t tell you exactly what they want. You know, Steve Jobs said that people don’t know what they want . . . it’s not their job to know what they want. But that doesn’t mean they won’t give you indications. Usually it’s in the form of problems, frustrations, and/or desires. And then it’s up to you as an entrepreneur or a businessperson to help solve the problem or satisfy the desire.
Social media is the greatest free-market research environment ever because people out there are acting on their own and being more honest than they’ll be in a focus group. You can survey people, but if you ask the wrong questions in the wrong way, they’ll tell you what you want to hear. You want to hear the truth because you don’t want to make an expensive mistake developing the wrong thing.
So by listening, you found that people needed certain tools to help them with their own blogging efforts like your Scribe SEO tool. Your tools have all been birthed from listening to your audience.
Brian: Yes, and a lot of times, it was also a software expression of what I was trying to teach. You mentioned Scribe -- that technology was actually developed by Sean Jackson, who is now a partner in Copyblogger Media. But at the time, I didn’t know him at all. He had built the software on the principles of SEO applied to content that I had been writing about for years. He saw that it worked, and he wanted a way to help other people, other writers be more efficient at applying those principles. That’s really how Scribe started.
Now, from people using Scribe, thousands and thousands of people have given us feedback, and now Scribe is about to be in its fourth iteration. Radically different. Much better. Yet it started with solid principles that I had been teaching, and evolved with the needs of our user base. So if you've heard of agile software development or anything like that, it’s kind of coming out with something fundamental that’s simple, and then evolving it in line with how people actually use it.
What advice do you have for the small-business owner who is having trouble coming up with engaging content?
Brian: I think it’s a real problem. We’re at a time where it’s no longer novel that you need to create engaging content. People understand it. Now the challenge is actually getting it done. And so, early on with Copyblogger, I was talking to the do-it-yourself people, the people who were writers already, business people who liked to write, entrepreneurs who could write. But not everyone is cut out to create great content.
So I think we, as a publication, have a larger responsibility now to change the tone a little bit and say, hey, we’ve got all of this great information if you want to do it yourself, but we also need to start talking about how a small business owner can start seeing himself or herself as a media producer. In other words, not someone who is sitting there writing or creating content, but making it happen.
The analogy might be to a film producer who is really the business person who gets things done rather than the director or the writers or the actors. Instead of traditional avenues of marketing, such as the yellow pages or maybe some print ad or maybe even television or radio spots, you’d have to start thinking about online media as a channel and its own media. You’re not paying someone to access an audience. What you’re trying to do is build an audience. And I think that there’s a big opportunity out there for freelance writers and other people who are creating content because I think the small business people need to connect with content creators in order to get things done.
I think it’s really just the shift away from a lot of traditional media to new media. It requires someone in the organization, whether it be a marketing person or the founder of the company, to think in terms of how to build a media asset and an audience that grows my business through lead generation and conversion into the customers.
Brian, you always write "eyeball-grabbing" headlines for your content and know how to pull in people. You even devote a whole section of your site to writing attractive headlines. What inspires your titles?
Brian: Headlines are the the first thing that people will see, and often, unfortunately, the last thing they see of your content because a shockingly large amount of people will be scanning Twitter or scanning their e-mail inbox or RSS feed reader. You basically live or die by the headline. So if you don’t grab them there, you've lost. This is why headlines are so important.
From there, you’re trying to convey something useful. The key to content marketing is "Here is some useful information that is going to help you with a problem or a desire." And the useful or meaningful aspect needs to be in a headline. Then there’s got to be something else, some sort of fascinating or entertaining element, or ultra-specific high value for why they should read it. I’ve got an 11-part series on headline writing.
There’s an art and a science to writing good headlines. And the science is when you see how much higher a percentage of attention your content gets, versus when you might not try so hard with your headline.
Some people are better at writing headlines than others. But I’m fairly certain that anyone who applies basic principles of headline writing can become better at it. So even if you’re not doing the writing as a business owner, you should be able to spot a good headline when you see it. I think that’s a skill that everyone ought to have.
A while ago, you asked your readers to submit headlines to you, so that you could rewrite them. You even provided great explanations for why you changed them. What elements are you looking for in a great headline?
Brian: Well, there’s some rules of thumb that you sort of check off when you’re learning to write headlines. Later, as you become more experienced, it becomes second nature to you, so you don’t consciously do any kind of checklist. I mean, you just look and you’re, like, that’s either great or good or not very good and needs to be rewritten.
Headlines should be ultra-specific, and it’s something people struggle with. They write these vague headlines and wonder why their otherwise great content is not getting the exposure it deserves. It’s because people glance at the headline and in half a second determine if it’s worth their time. The problem is they’re looking for reasons to say no more than they’re looking to say yes. That’s the kind of battle for attention that we’re in.
Headlines should express something ultra-specific, useful, and unique (such as a pop-culture tie-in, or just something fascinating where they want to see it now).I think if you check off those three things, you’re doing pretty well. There’s another set of three criteria that some people use, which is, again, specific, useful and concise (in this day and age of Twitter). You know, you've only got 140 characters to work with.
You've built several online companies just based on producing really great content. You started from scratch, and you know what it feels like starting a new website with no traffic. Can you share some advice for the small-business owners or even bloggers trying to promote their new sites?
Brian: Right. We’re now multi-million dollar software company, but we started with no venture capital or angel investments. I think I spent about $1,000 before we ended up profitable. Now, that does not account for all my time. It’s pretty remarkable that you can start a website and create content and never spend a dime on advertising because the content is shared through social media channels by people who find it valuable.
It’s the most amazing kind of marketing there is, and yet, you’re right, it’s not exactly second nature to people to be creating content, to think like a media company. When you’re in the business of selling widgets, you think that’s your business. But in order to get more of those widgets out the door, you’ve got to find a mechanism by which people come to know, like and trust you as a company. And online, that works with content.
I remember back during the first three months of Copyblogger, I was completely unknown. I’d been creating and publishing online for seven years, but I did it in the field of real estate and law. I wasn’t involved as an internet and marketing person. I was just doing it for my own businesses. So no one knew who I was, but I had a plan.
I started writing that first set of tutorials, Copyrighting 101. And the hard part during the initial phase is you've got to promote your content. You've got to get people to notice you because it doesn’t happen by itself. That’s probably the biggest misunderstanding about content. Eventually when you've got an audience, they will spread it for you. You don’t have to go beating down doors to get people to promote your stuff anymore. The trick is getting there.
Back then, I was writing high-value content, and then I was trying to do these premium kind of content events, like a PDF report or just some other kind of thing that would draw attention and try to get the word out. So along the way, you know, I started attracting links by reaching out to people in the space. I said, “Hey, I just wrote this post about headlines. I know you've written about blog titles before. Your audience might get a lot of out of this.” And Darren Rowse of ProBlogger was my first big link.
It didn’t happen naturally. It happened from me emailing Darren, who is a wonderfully nice guy, and saying, “Hey, can you take a look?” These days, that kind of cold emailing, especially to big sites, is not going to work. It just doesn’t. Back then, blogging was much more wide open. People were much more generous about linking.
Back then, it was almost unheard of to let someone else on your blog. But how I started was when Darren Rowse wanted to go on vacation. I offered to write a couple of posts to cover while he was gone. Then I wanted to go on vacation about eight months later. So I reached out to five people who were good writers in the little Copyblogger circle that existed at the time. I asked, “Hey, how would you like to guest post while I’m on vacation?” They did, and people loved it.
And now, we’ve had more than 100 of writers who have shown up. The amazing thing about that is they all write for free because they are accessing our audience which I had built initially in order to develop their own audience. So the two smartest things you can do is to build relevant followings in the places where your people are at in social media. That can be Facebook, Google+ and/or Twitter. For B2B, you’re probably best working LinkedIn. So choose two out of the four based on where your audience is.
Then develop a strategy where you contribute content to other people’s sites, which, again, seems counterintuitive. "I’ve got to create all of this content, and you want me to create more and give it to people?" But that’s how you get attention. They’re not just going to link to you, but you can link to yourself by helping them out with a good piece of content for their sites.
The first six months are kind of lonely, but you keep at it. Over the years, your traffic exponentially grows. And hopefully, you're doing smart things as far as converting traffic into actual customers and clients.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. We have a whole bunch of guidance at Copyblogger.com. It’s all free, so have it at it.
In a HubSpot interview you did back in 2009, you mentioned that your favorite business bloggers were Seth Godin and Chris Brogan. Do you have any others today?
Jay Baer. His site is ConvinceandConvert.com. He’s a very bright consultant in this space. Very pragmatic. He understands that there has to be a business purpose behind all of this. It’s not about flowers and penguins and ideals, necessarily. It’s about being able to make social media and content work for you. He has a great site.
Seth Godin is still as great today. He does tend to publish more esoteric little nuggets of wisdom as opposed to how-to content, but sometimes that’s the kind of stuff you need to get started in the morning. Also John Jantsch over at DuctTapeMarketing.com.
Since social media went mainstream and content marketing is becoming the norm, you’re starting to see publications like Inc. magazine and Entrepreneur featuring popular bloggers. So, you’re starting to see it all start to come together to a certain degree. But the difference between old media and new media is becoming superfluous. We’re all one big mess now.
Learn more about Brian Clark and ways to create great content for your website by reading Copyblogger.com.