How to Level Up Your Content Marketing Career: Work at Animalz

The best way to accelerate your career is to seek out an environment that facilitates rapid growth. That means surrounding yourself with great people and challenging problems. Animalz is that place for content marketers.

As a content marketing agency, we live and breathe writing, editing, marketing, and strategy. Our business model incentivizes us to train and retain talented content marketers. We have a great team that cares about delivering top-notch content to our customers. We aspire to be the best content marketers in the world.

We’re hosting a Q&A session about working at Animalz.

Join us on May 24, May 31 or June 7 at 11:30am ET for a 30-minute Q&A session with our hiring team. Signup here.

If you’re a good content marketer, you have options. Here’s why we’d like you to consider Animalz. (If you’re already sold, check out our jobs page.)

Broad Exposure to the SaaS Industry

We work with a number of well-known SaaS brands. Each comes to us for content strategy and creation, but all have different challenges to overcome. In some cases, customers are eager to grow organic traffic. In others, they want to use thought-leadership content to share ideas. Some customers need content to support a lengthy sales cycle, some are interested in long-form ebooks and white papers, and still others want content but need help putting together a strategy from scratch.

Beyond their content needs, each customer has a different business model, budgetary constraints, cultural influence, technical infrastructure, goals, timelines, personalities, etc. No two customers are alike. Learning how to manage accounts, set expectations, build strategies, and write great content is what makes a well-rounded content marketer.

Feedback from Professional Editors on Every Article

There are very few SaaS companies that employ or contract with an editor to support their content team. It’s easy for in-house content marketers to get feedback on content performance, but not structure, tone, style, ideation, and grammar.

Our business only succeeds if our content is top-notch, which is why we have a team of editors and copy editors that work with writers on every single article. Each new piece of content is reviewed at least three times, meaning that writers get personalized feedback on every word they write. If you want to level up your writing skills, this will condense a few years of progress into a few months.

Access to Training and Workshops

Our team members have diverse and interesting backgrounds. We have a Cambridge-educated neuroscientist, the former executive director of Boston Content, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, and a hedge fund analyst, just to name a few.

We spread each individual’s knowledge to the rest of the team through workshops, training, and office hours. Opportunities to learn and grow are cherished here.

Part of a Growing Startup

Everyone on the team plays a vital role in growing this business. Yes, we have many of the same growing pains that all startups experience, but here’s how we think about it: We have a lot of interesting problems to solve, and we want your help solving them.

Here are just a few examples of interesting problems we’ve been working on:

  • Calculating the unit economics of a flat-fee service business
  • Building workflows that eliminate overhead and repetitive tasks
  • Mapping out the career trajectory of Animalz employees (see below)
  • Developing new products and services to (1) sell to existing customer and (2) open the door to new business

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s compelling work if you’re a person who likes to solve problems.

A Clear Growth Trajectory

It’s easy for startups to say they care about their employees, but it’s another thing to draft a plan for each person’s career growth. We want our employees to grow and succeed within the company, so we created a career trajectory that encourages people to:

  • Land: hone their content and writing chops
  • Expand: develop specialized skills
  • Specialize: turn those specialized skills into new lines of business.

Perhaps most important: There is no speed limit. We promote people as quickly as they make progress.

A Great Team

It’s hard to quantify this with data, so you’ll have to trust us on this one: Our team is first-class. People care about the work and about each other. We work hard, we celebrate our victories, and we support each other through challenging situations.

We’re always looking for more great people to join our team, so check out the jobs page if we’ve piqued your interest.

Episode 18: The Secret to Content Promotion

Ryan Law joins us to talk about his recent post on the blog and the idea of distribution-first content marketing. We walk through three distinct examples of successful blog posts, from three different channels, to unpack just how each one was constructed to operate within the constraints of a particular channel’s audience and rules.

You can listen right here, or on iTunesOvercast, or Spotify.

Jimmy: Cool. Well welcome back to the Animalz Podcast, after a brief hiatus we’re back to chat more content stuff. So Jimmy here. We also have Jan. Say hello Jan.

Jan: What’s up?

Jimmy: And then we have Ryan. Ryan welcome.

Ryan: Hello! Again.

Jimmy: I think it may be useful for people who have not listened to the podcast much in the past or if it’s your first time just to sort of say, “Hello. Who are we? Why are we here?” I can kick that off. So Animalz, content marketing agency, we’re a team of distributed writers, content strategists, and editors.

Jimmy: We primarily do content for B2B SaaS companies but increasingly are working outside of that demographic. And I’m Jimmy. I’m one of our marketing directors, we have two marketing directors which is a story for another podcast. And yeah. So anyway that’s a good little quick intro. And then Jan and Ryan would you guys just introduce yourselves too?

Jan: Yeah Jan. I started Animalz a couple years ago. And today my focus is a little more on the thought leadership side of the business trying to help writers assume the voices of your favorite founders, VCs, CEOs, CMOs, other executives, working on strategy for those kinds of customers. And … hiring. All that kind of stuff. So that’s me.

Ryan: Nice. I’m Ryan. I’ve been at Animalz for, coming up to a year and a half now. I’m a content strategist. So I focus on coming up with new strategies for new customers, keyword research, ideation, all the kind of really fun, geek out stuff side of content marketing.

Jimmy: Awesome. I love it. Well I’m glad we get to chat with you today Ryan. So Ryan recently wrote a blog post for the Animalz blog titled, “The Secret to Content Promotion is Hidden in Plain Sight”. And we’re going to dive into that. But I think the place that we should start is moisture-resistant flooring adhesive.

Jimmy: So Ryan could you … ? Okay so you’ve worked in content for a long time. You tweeted earlier this week about some of your kind of past gigs in content marketing, this was one that definitely stood out to me and I’ve heard you mention it before, could you enlighten us a little bit?

Ryan: I absolutely could. Yeah one of my biggest customers when I was working a few years ago was an enterprise flooring company. I’ve worked with lots of niche B2B companies before, but this was like the most niche, the most B2B of all of those companies and it was kind of intimidating trying to come up with content marketing strategies for it.

Ryan: As yeah … literally it is adhesive that you affix to different types of flooring. If you have issues with sub-floor moisture management, if you … the rising water tables start to leech out through the concrete, nightmare. Billion dollar problem. And I was helping the company educate people about this problem and generate leads for their business.

Jimmy: So did you approach this in the way that a lot of B2B content marketers approach content? Like do your keyword research, figure out, what are your short tail opportunities, what are your long-tail opportunities and … and write for search? Like was there a different ideation process?

Ryan: I’d like to pretend I was that organized a few years ago but SEO was the primary mechanism we went for. It was really difficult. The post I wrote for Conversion XL about like niche B2B marketing strategies was focused on the solutions we came up to this because it was such a weird niche industry. Lots of really short tail keywords, not a lot of volume. Had to get quite creative.

Ryan: We ended up going for a lot of topics that were tangentially related to software management stuff that the customers would also have problems with. Keywords that had more volume and then almost self-selecting through really specific call to actions, eBooks and stuff.

Jimmy: I love it. How did it go? Did it work?

Ryan: It worked pretty well. I think we … I hoped it would work better than it did. But I think with lots of B2B content it’s a slow burn. We kind of didn’t realize how slow it would be. I think the last time I checked in, the site was doing something like 20,000 searches a month from like nothing. So yeah we were happy with it in the end.

Jimmy: That’s great. I would imagine those customers are paying a high dollar for those services too.

Ryan: Yeah. Absolutely. It was … I think the average customer was something like, it was a six figure deal size or something so you didn’t need many customers to come to fruition for it to have like a pretty substantial payoff.

Jimmy: Yeah. Yeah. I would like to do a blog post about that exact topic at some point which is the volume requirements of content and how dramatically it changes depending on your business model. Like Animalz is another example of like we just don’t, we don’t really require a ton of volume in terms of traffic in order to network for lead generation. And there’s lots of other businesses out there like that, it’s just SaaS is not one of them.

Ryan: Yeah definitely.

Jan: Are those like expensive keywords Ryan?

Ryan: We went like really, really niche. So a lot of them, not very expensive because there was very little volume for it. We just kind of, we ranked for a lot of them in aggregate. That was kind of the plan we went for.

Jan: Right.

Jimmy: Well you kind of set this up perfectly Ryan to segue into the article you wrote which is about promotion and distribution which is something … I mean of all the things that people ask us about, that’s probably … it’s in the top three for sure. And I love the way you came up with this very simple, helpful, useful model for thinking about content promotion. I assume it’s something that you learned and applied in previous jobs too. Could you just kind of walk us … walk us through it.

Ryan: Yeah absolutely. I think … there is a lot written about the process of content marketing. About writing, about ideation … and the one part of it that always struck me as still really mysterious, still really unpredictable, is promotion. I think a lot of us are writers, we spend a lot of time fixating on great ideas, great execution of that. And then we get really frustrated when they just languish in the quiet backwaters of the internet.

Ryan: So I just wanted to reverse engineer some of the really successful we’ve seen, we’ve worked with, and try and identify what was it that made them different? Why were they successes? I think the one, the single defining characteristic they had, was they approached distribution right from day one. They viewed it as a challenge to solve, they created content designed explicitly for a given distribution channel. Which I think is quite different to how a lot of content marketers today approach distribution.

Ryan: I think people are quite keen to view promotion as sharing it to social media sites. Can we share it to Growth Hackers? Or Reddit? Without really thinking whether the content itself is appropriate for those channels.

Jimmy: Okay. So let’s dig specifically into organic search because that’s the first example you highlight that is in our experience the biggest opportunity for essentially any B2B company. If you want … not cheap traffic, but if you don’t want to pay a lot of money for traffic and spend a ton of money over a long period of time, you’re basically forced to focus on organic. How do you think about that? There’s sort of a way to go about it where it’s possible to write an article that’s perfectly optimized but is also not very interesting, right? And it’s also possible to write stuff that’s very interested and not optimized and finding that balance has proven to be a challenge, not just for us but for all content marketers.

Ryan: Yeah I think probably the best way to approach it is to optimize the structure of an article for search. I think there’s a lot you can do in terms of like the title tag you go for, the H2 headers, these kind of structural elements that tailor it off towards search, that still allow you a lot of breathing room to be creative, to be interesting, to differentiate yourself from all the existing content that’s out there. I don’t think search needs to be limiting in that capacity.

Jimmy: Yeah how do you think about this when you’re working on leadership thought content? Are you thinking about distribution ahead of coming up with angles and actually writing the articles? Does search play into that? Yeah how do you think about that?

Jan: Search is tricky. Actually I think Ryan may have better perspective on that just recency bias-wise because of his work with a customer where this is relevant. But I will say for my part that thinking about social distribution is usually the key. Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit being the major places and LinkedIn to a lesser degree. But I think if you’re not thinking about the channel specifically where you want to send something to then you’re probably going to fail unless you are working with a big name or you have some really crazy ideas.

Jan: And it’s more than just looking at … because I think that the playbook people have talked about for a while is, “Okay figure out … if you’re going for social, you have to know that ahead of time.” But social today is such a huge landscape of different types of tools and the same post that succeeds on Hacker News is not going to succeed necessarily on Twitter within the certain core group of users you want it to succeed with. So you really have to look at the specific channel. Sorry not just channel but platform where you want posts to succeed.

Jan: So yeah I would definitely be looking at those ahead of … even coming up with an idea for a post most of the time.

Ryan: Yeah I think this is like the central thesis of the argument. Like there was a time, jump back like five, ten years, where you could put content out into the world, not have to necessarily concern yourself too much with a particular distribution channel and you would still stand a good chance of it performing well.

Ryan: There was less content out there to compete with generally, I think people were slightly less discerning because they hadn’t been exposed to as much, and you could do this kind of catch-all approach. I think today it’s just too busy, too crowded, every network is clamoring, full of marketers wanting to get their pieces out into the world. The only way you can stand out in that is to have something that is absolutely tailored to that one channel that you’re sharing it on.

Jimmy: Yeah. You just teased an important thing which I think we should pull that thread a little bit which is expectation-setting as you’re thinking through content distribution. And so with organic specifically, there is this problem where the keywords that have the highest volume are the most competitive because people chase that volume. They tend to be short tail and just kind of pretty broad searches which makes them challenging to go after and even if you are able to achieve those rankings, not particularly valuable in terms of qualified traffic.

Jimmy: And so as we talk to clients, [inaudible 00:11:20] and you got the long tail, middle of the funnel-ish opportunities because they’re easier to get those rankings, they’re better-qualified traffic, et cetera. But there is this problem of expectation-setting, right? Where people’s eyes get big when they see big volume and they think about those big traffic numbers. And it’s a really imperfect kind of way to go about your content strategy, right? When you’re just chasing big keywords. So I guess Ryan a question for you is how do you think about that? You talk to clients all the time. And as you’re talking to them about promotion and distribution and what the strategy’s going to look like. What are you hearing from people about traffic? Their expectations? Are they comfortable with sort of the low traffic, longer tail opportunities in general?

Ryan: Yeah one of the things that strikes me, I think a lot of customers don’t actually view SEO as a distribution mechanism, which is actually a really interesting challenge.

Jimmy: That’s a great point. Really a great point.

Ryan: Yeah we create lots of different buckets of content. SEO content is always the one that gets banded about, it’s the one that people always want to create. I think they don’t realize that in the same way that you would create thought leadership to maybe be shared on Slack or resonate on Twitter, SEO content is designed for that particular channel, that particular mechanism. In terms of like … going after keywords as well, I’ve probably spent my entire career going after hundred search a month keywords.

Ryan: Few people do it. As you say people’s eyes go big when they look for these huge numbers. But quite often in aggregate, which is, I’m going to come back to this phrase a lot I think in aggregate, articles that go after these can have substantial volume. No article will ever rank for one keyword. There’s a kind of disconnect between how we think about targeting SEO content and how it actually functions in reality. We come up with one core keyword, we create an article designed to work for that, but that article can then rank for thousands, literally thousands, of related keyword variants.

Ryan: Even if some of those have like ten searches a month, in aggregate, that is a substantial amount of traffic. I think a lot of customers leave that on the table when they go for the big, really competitive, really seemingly attractive keywords.

Jimmy: Yeah definitely. All right so one question I get on sales calls all the time is, “Okay so you guys write articles, they’re great, you optimize them. Then what?” How do you actually ensure that … they are able to get traffic as they compete with a bunch of other articles that are really good and also well-optimized?

Ryan: Yeah I … a lot of them, even customers, content managers at Animalz that I talk to, they always approach SEO like it’s a really complicated thing. They don’t know how to match up the article they’re writing to this algorithmic black box. But I think a lot of the time it boils down to really simple heuristics. Coming up with a primary keyword that is feasible for your domain strength, it has topical relevance to other things you’ve created before. That’s obviously a good starting point.

Ryan: I think building out secondary, like related keywords is also really, really important. So this is the example we actually included in the post. Something Ad Espresso did beautifully with their content, they wrote about Instagram hashtags you should use for every day of the week. Now obviously the core keyword there is like Instagram hashtags. But within that there’s a subset of information which his kind of essential to the narrative of the article which is … hashtags for Monday, hashtags for Tuesday and so on.

Ryan: Each of those related keywords has their own volume. It makes sense to include it within the scope of this one article and in doing so you can rank for this huge base of related keywords. This is what I think a lot of people started using Clearscope for as well quite interestingly. Basically scraping existing articles to see which keywords and which topics appear most commonly and using that as their own heuristic for the information they should include in their article as well.

Jan: The cool thing too about that piece is that going back to what you were saying earlier Jimmy about the tension between creating content that ranks and content that’s good. Is that is the longest, most densely packed with data, most valuable piece of content on Instagram hashtags that you can find.

Jan: If you google “Instagram hashtags” every other post on the front page is … I would say a third or a fourth of the level of detail and resolution. And to me, I think from Ad Espresso’s point of view, it’s almost like kind of like their own thought leadership. It’s like they are just showing via the sort of brute force needed to create the article that they are sort of the most useful, the highest minded Facebook ad resource that’s out there. And it creates a brand, right? It leaves that indelible impression in your mind after you read the piece about them. So yeah I think there definitely is a way and that’s kind of like identifying those opportunities where you can create something really great that will also potentially rank really highly and give you traffic or give you the targeted kind of traffic you want.

Jan: That is maybe kind of like an implicit idea in this section that’s like, those are the things you want to pursue with this distribution strategy. You want to find those kinds of things. I don’t know does that make sense Ryan?

Ryan: Yeah totally. That brings me to another point as well which is that … I think whenever you’re creating content for search, obviously the intention is to outperform the existing content. I think a lot of people are familiar with this skyscraper methodology where you are effectively … you are trying to beat it on the dimension of length or comprehensive nature of the information. That is … in a lot of cases that works beautifully. I think Ad Espresso executed that flawlessly. I do have this kind of hypothesis that is becoming less and less effective. The more content we see in the world, the more of this skyscraper stuff we see implemented. And it’s a bit of a race to the bottom I think.

Ryan: We’re going to end up with search results that have 10, 30,000 word articles in it and it’s just, it’s bad for the user experience. Nobody wants to sit and read through all of that. So I think some of the most interesting search plays I’m seeing of people that are finding new and different dimensions to outperform content. Which is why a lot of the stuff Jan actually does, with like the thought leadership side of things, finding these narrative angles, these narrative hooks, stuff that is … it matches the intent but it’s also contrarian as well or it offers a perspective that is different. That is another really great way to outperform content without escalating in this arms race of length.

Jimmy: Yeah definitely. Actually the question I wanted to ask you Jan is like … there’s leaps that need to be made to get from the keyword, right? So you start with a keyword. You have to make this leap to get to what’s your topic? And then make another leap to what’s your angle? How are you going to approach this? And I feel like we often see that content marketers can make that leap from keyword to topic but that usually is just like “Best Practices for X” or “Ultimate Guide to X” and getting to that next level, I think that’s where the really good stuff is. But that’s also the really challenging part.

Jimmy: And this goes way back to an article you wrote for the Animalz blog about how to find the right angles for the topics you write about. How do you think about that in terms of … when you’re sort of forced to go for a certain keyword, how you make those two leaps?

Jan: Yeah totally. Yeah I think Ryan’s totally right with everything he just said. And I think one way that … like for example with Ad Espresso, one way they sort of circumvent that is by just using a ton of the data that they collect from users and from … themselves and from stuff that they notice in their product. That’s how they rank so high for Facebook ads cost which is obviously a hugely searched term. It’s because they actually have a ton of data on how much people end up paying for their Facebook ads at different times of day, across different countries, marketing to different demographics, that sort of thing.

Jan: So I think for Ad Espresso for example, the topic Facebook ads cost, the angle is, “We have proprietary information, right, that we’re going to share. And that’s what makes our content more valuable and that’s why people click on it often and it ranks higher than everything else.” So that makes sense. Say people don’t have proprietary data that they can share or they don’t have that kind of data, for them, often you’ll have … a company establish a … that was just to establish a voice and an angle on topics.

Jan: I think some good examples of this, Wistia, Drift, both different but really voice-driven companies and you can instantly tell if you’re reading a post from a Wistia blog even if it’s not on the Wistia blog. So you can sort of build a voice in that way. Kind of that narrative way. Yeah. There are a bunch of ways to do that. I think you can also use special expertise that you have. We talk about Slab later in this article but Slab for example, running a company that does knowledge management. Like they help you … Slab is a tool for building an internal knowledge base, right? So they are the world’s foremost experts basically in knowledge bases because they spend however many hours a day, days a week, working on that topic specifically.

Jan: So they can come at everything from an angle of being the experts in knowledge management. The key is being honest and identifying what your actual angle is. If you’re not an expert don’t try to pretend to be an expert. It’s going to be really hard to compete with just a undifferentiated ultimate guide as you point out. So you have to find … your angle, I would say first, and then topics. Over time, it gets easier because once you identify an angle that works, it’s not like you have to reinvent the wheel for each article. And that’ll actually help you produce articles a lot faster, a lot better, once you have sort of hammered that out. But you have to figure it out first. Does that help?

Jimmy: Yeah. Yeah no that’s great.

Jan: Yeah.

Jimmy: That makes me think of something that I saw this week which I thought was interesting but also stressed me out which was that some companies, so you have expertise in the thing that you do so maybe that’s like an internal knowledge base but as you grow a business you develop expertise in other things too. And so some companies write about those things and so Buffer is a great example. And so recently I saw a post from them that was about how they were addressing their gender pay gap.

Jimmy: And so they’ve developed this expertise as they’ve studied this problem and tried to address it in their hiring and their salaries and whatever. And the human being in me thought that this was, I was thrilled that they were writing about this and it’s really interesting. And the content marketer in me was sort of stressed out because I was thinking about how if this post gains traction in search for terms like, “gender pay gap” that it’s going to skew the conversion rates because the traffic is not qualified in terms of people signing up for a social media scheduling tool. And that really stressed me out.

Jimmy: And I bring this up only because it is an example of … sort of, this happens a lot, right? Where people have great ideas and they get optimized for search and it still may bring in unqualified traffic but it’s still worth doing. I think. If nothing else than just for the greater good of the world.

Jan: Yeah and for the positive signals to Google that gets sent by you getting a lot of Traffic, right?

Jimmy: That’s true too. That is true too.

Jan: And they would agree.

Jimmy: Ryan could you? So there was two other examples you highlighted, Jan, to use one of them, could you just quickly run us through the two other examples that you included in this article as successful case studies of the one article, one channel idea?

Ryan: Yeah totally. So I had SFOX as well, which is a cryptocurrency trading platform. Again, one of like super-niche companies. They actually focused on Twitter distribution. Like if you spend any time on Twitter kind of vaguely engaging with the cryptocurrency talk that goes on, you realize that crypto-Twitter is this huge, thriving community. Always see all these memes about huddling with cryptocurrencies I’ve never heard of.

Ryan: So what they did, they created this community-collated guide pulling together expertise of different Bitcoin experts, all of which happened to have very active, very engaged social media followings on Twitter. So not only was it this great kind of community-driven endeavor. It wasn’t just a jaded marketing piece. It also has distribution built into the absolute structure of the article.

Ryan: Basically if you make people look good in an article, it takes care of distribution. You’ve incentivized them to share it for you. So I think that was a really, really smart example.

Jan: It takes a lot to get people to recognize you if you’re new in a space like SFOX was. And they didn’t have the best name brand at the time. And … the way I think about this now, looking at this tweet, it’s like, this is how you sort of can seed, you seed your existence with … in this case important people but also a lot of other people. And it just sort of plants, it plants your brand in their head so that when they see it again later on, they might, they’ll have a different impression of it. Probably a positive impression because they were mentioned in a piece. But they’re also like –

Ryan: Yeah endorsement by association kind of thing.

Jan: Yeah. They’ll be like, “I heard of that before.” And they’ll be willing to look deeper into it and create the sort of small associations over time.” I think that’s powerful.

Ryan: Yeah so I loved that article as well. Especially when it’s like, it is very niche. And although we always talk about social media, vanity metrics, not obsessing over that kind of thing. I think when, as Jan said, your primary intention of recognition within a space that is hugely valuable for a platform like SFOX so retweets, likes, mentions, and stuff, actually quite a valuable metric in their instance.

Ryan: The other option was … like another company that Jan mentioned as well, Slab, team knowledge base tool. I love this article. I love all of these articles. I think they’re genuinely interesting to read. Which, as a jaded marketer, is like … is always a very cool thing to come across. This one example was how Jeff Bezos turned narrative into Amazon’s competitive advantage. Which I think saw a traffic spike of Hacker News of like just shy of 15,000 page views in a single day. This was really cool. It’s a concept that’s kind of done to death like Amazon, positioning, business strategy. Not only that it was done with an audience of really savvy people that have been exposed to all manner of content marketing over the years.

Ryan: But I think what they did really well was position it in a really interesting way. Took a novel approach to a really overdone story. They voice an opinion as well, it’s quite a polarizing thing to do. But even people disagreeing with you is a great way to raise awareness of something. Prompting discussion. I even got a response from an actual Amazon executive which has to be like the gold standard of this kind of content.

Jimmy: Yeah that’s awesome. And I know that some people are skeptical of Hacker News because the spike is … it sometimes, it’s just like, it’s like a hit of endorphins but you don’t actually get a lot of value from it. Not always true. Right? Like I just plugged this article into HREFs to see how many links it has and HREFs is reporting 1500 links from 177 unique referring domains. Which his absolutely insane.

Jimmy: And like Jan was saying earlier, those are all, whether or not this is the article that ends up converting a ton of customers. The positive signals make it easier for you to rank the thing that is super-close to the business next time.

Jan: There’s also a huge difference, right? Between a spike that comes as a result of … either paid … promotion of a post or coerced promotion of a post where it’s like people don’t really like it but you’re sort of gaming the system and a post where yeah maybe you tailor it for a system, a distribution channel like Hacker News but the result at the end of it is a lot of links which are useful.

Jan: Yeah this post is interesting because we actually had some internal debate over whether … as you’d mentioned, Amazon is just so overdone and even talking about Jeff Bezos, all the sort of things mentioned in the piece like the six page memo writing. That’s even been done to death. And so … we were kind of wondering, do people actually still care about reading about Jeff Bezos? And I think that the success of this post reminded me that I think a lot of the best ideas in content are probably just ones that have succeeded before and that we can reinvent right for now.

Jan: And you shouldn’t be afraid necessarily of things that have done really well before. But it might just be that there is … an internal obsession that we can tap into.

Ryan: I love that totally.

Jan: Yeah. And also just for full disclosure we should admit that this post also went live like a few days before the National Enquirer story about Jeff Bezos. So I think we were helped a little.

Ryan: We were in no way involved with the blackmail. That was pure coincidence.

Jan: Yeah no. We had nothing to do with that at all.

Ryan: Yeah so the thing I love about this, people spend a lot of time trying to reverse engineer promotion and what ways that that makes content successful. In a lot of cases the answer to that is literally in plain sight. All it takes is looking at these platforms. Looking at the high-performing content, and picking at a handful of characteristics that cause content to kind of naturally rise to the surface.

Ryan: In search you can reverse engineer the structure of it. You can look at the keywords, the headers, the topics they use. So in like Hacker News, there are some topics which are just almost guaranteed to resonate with people. We always talk about Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos. Even though it is done to death, it’s kind of done to death for a reason. There is this kind of mystical fascination with these people.

Ryan: It’s actually not that difficult I think to look at any target distribution platform and come away with a handful of actionable takeaways that you can apply to your content going forward.

Jimmy: I love it. All right guys I feel like we should start wrapping this up because the average commute time in the United States is 26 minutes and we’re just over that. Yeah that’s like our benchmark. We want to be wrapping up as you pull into your parking spot.

Jimmy: Okay. So let’s try something new for this episode. Let’s just go around the table and … everyone has an opportunity to offer a closing thought and since this is new and I’m springing this on you guys, I’ll go first so you have a minute to think about it.

Jimmy: The … okay one thing that was not highlighted in this article is email. And it was not highlighted because there’s not a lot of good examples of companies that do a great job with email. And so I would love to see someone put together an email first distribution strategy. Sort of like what Mattermark used to do right? They did their own content, they had this massive email platform on which they could distribute and that’s an equity-building endeavor, right? To grow an email list. And so I would love to see more SaaS companies leverage email. It’s old-fashioned but it still works really well.

Jan: I think we should see the insights for that probably.

Jimmy: That’s a good call. That is a good call yeah.

Jan: Yeah. I’ll go next. As far as jumping into this, practical advice, I feel like I’ve worked with a bunch of customers now who sort of come in with zero channels firing and it’s always how do we get the machine to start running? Because ideally you’re sort of choosing between all of these. But some people aren’t at the point yet where they’re getting enough traffic to make those kinds of decisions.

Jan: And I think … you really got to experiment and sort of take all these in and think, “We’re going to run a test and see … ” Each channel, and maybe you have some preferences but try each channel, figure out if you can get the needle moving on any of them and then double down on that one for the foreseeable future. But … don’t waste time on a channel where you’re not getting the results that you want to be getting. And … if you are not getting the right results, make sure that you’re approaching it correctly vis a vie this article. Closing thought.

Jimmy: Nice.

Ryan: Closing thought in one move I’m going to try and improve the state of content on the entire internet. I’m just going to say simply, “Stop sharing SEO content to social media.” SEO like search is a distribution channel. If you’re going to do that, customize the post to search. Don’t worry about trying to share it on Twitter, Hacker News, or Reddit. There are much better formats for those channels.

Ryan: I think if we do that, all of our content will be better suited to the channels it appears on, we’ll have to deal with less hideous spam in all of the nice social places on the internet as well.

Jimmy: That’s beautiful. That’s a beautiful way to close this out.

Jan: Nice. Good one.

Jimmy: Cool. Awesome. Well as always we’re hiring and you can hire us. So that goes both ways. We’re always looking for new, awesome people to join our team, and we’re taking on more customers. So you can learn all about that at Animalz.co.

Jan: And if you’re listening to this on your way to work, have a good day in the office.

Jimmy: Actually if you come work for us you don’t have to commute anymore because it’s a remote company.

Jan: Nice. Nice, nice. Exactly.

Jimmy: Cool awesome thank you guys.

Jan: Thanks Jimmy. Thanks Ryan. Bye.

Ryan: Absolute pleasure.

Episode 17: Ask “Why?”

Nicole Kohler joins us on the podcast to talk about her recent post on the Animalz blog, about doing content for a wall coverings manufacturer and later, for Automattic, and more.

You can listen right here, or on iTunesOvercast, or Spotify.

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Be the First Round Review: 3 Content Lessons from Camille Ricketts

The First Round Review, the content arm of First Round Capital, has earned a reputation as one of the best publishers of startup and tech content on the web. That’s thanks largely to its first content hire, Camille Ricketts.

Camille joined First Round after stints at Tesla, VentureBeat, the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Digital Service. On her watch, the Review distanced itself from the thousands of other sites writing about startups. First Round’s ethos is to “get out of the way and let experts speak directly to you about what they believe is most important.” This is a noble mission—and one that Camille and the team achieved in spades—but it’s not a one-size-fits-all content strategy.

Camille was kind enough to let us pick her brain about her time at First Round. We’ll share some of the excellent insights she passed along, but first, we need to explain why not all content marketers should aim to replicate the Review.

Draw Inspiration, But Create Your Own Formula

In a 1974 speech at the California Institute of Technology, the famed physicist Richard Feynman explained an idea he calls “Cargo Cult Science.” Feynman describes an island in the South Pacific that was introduced to airplanes for the first time in World War II. Here’s Feynman (PDF):

During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right … But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.

The default content strategy is to borrow someone else’s formula, but what makes First Round successful is exactly what makes it hard to replicate.

We often hear content marketers say, “We’d like our blog to be the First Round Review for [X].” Yes, we’d all like our blogs to break new ground, earn massive traffic and set a new bar for quality. But Camille’s strategy may not be the right one for your company.

First Round is a venture capital firm, which means they think about content and ROI completely differently than a SaaS company or a startup. Their goal isn’t to convert people to a free trial or grow their email list—it’s to expand the First Round brand and increase awareness among their potential partners.

This changes the way you think about content strategy. “The model was non-traditional compared to what content marketing is generally trying to achieve,” says Camille. “This business was not conversion-driven for me. We wanted to build as big of an audience as we possibly could to expand the group of brilliant founders that we could work with. It was a broad awareness play.”

This is distinctly different for most SaaS companies. Experienced content marketers know that a key tenet of good strategy is to follow the money. Prioritizing beautiful prose over trial signups or demos won’t get you far. Because First Round is a VC firm, they are highly motivated to (1) reach a broad base of entrepreneurs and (2) help the companies they invest in hire great talent. You absolutely should draw inspiration from her content advice, but we also encourage content marketers to acknowledge the company’s business model before blindly embarking on an interview series.

Now that we have this very important caveat out of the way, let’s look at lessons from Camille that every content marketer can benefit from.

1. Match Your Content to Your Business Goals

Camille started the Review with this in mind: “What is the number one thing that all of these early-stage founders want? They all want to be able to go to coffee with somebody who’s already done everything that they are thinking of doing.”

So she created coffee meetings at scale. The interview series unlocked knowledge from operators that would otherwise never see the light of day. She essentially outsourced subject matter expertise and focused her time on honing interview skills to extract the most useful information from the operators that she spoke with.

“With SaaS companies,” she explains, “there’s a major temptation to publish a lot of customer stories where their product is the solution. I think it’s more valuable to start with a few questions,” like:

  • Who are these customers you’re trying to reach?
  • What are their personas?
  • What are the other problems that are extremely painful in their lives?
  • How can your brand work on solving those, whether they have anything to do with your product or not?”

Asking these questions ahead of putting pen to paper should steer a content strategy in the right direction. Instead of writing a lot of content and seeing what sticks, ask the fundamental questions over and over again.

2. Develop a System to Maximize Quality

Camille developed an interview process designed to extract the kind of detailed answers she knew readers would benefit from. This is an art in and of itself.

Interviewees tend to offer vague answers to nearly all questions, so Camille came up with a three-tiered system for getting better answers. “You might ask something like, ‘How did you build that extraordinary team?’ A lot of people will give you an answer like, ‘We only hired the A players.’ And that’s where I think a lot of content stops.”

“We would move instead to a second tier, where we’d ask, ‘Well, how would you do that?’ We were looking for very granular details. What was the interview process that you used to hire said A players? What questions did you ask during the interview?”

And it doesn’t stop there. The third tier is where she asks for examples. “If you look back at most Review stories, you can see it: here’s the general advice, here’s exactly how it was executed and here’s an example of it working in practice. I think that that ended up being really sticky and high leverage for readers.”

Camille’s system resulted in great content over and over again. By establishing the three-tier system upfront, she didn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time she interviewed a new operator. She focused on finding interesting subjects, then plugging them into her proven system.

3. Obsess Over the Details

Writing only scales if it’s interesting. This is a fundamental challenge of content marketing.

Instead of publishing interviews as Q&A transcripts, Camille invested time developing a narrative for each piece. “People don’t speak in full sentences and paragraphs,” she notes. “It’s really hard to turn verbal communication into written text.” This is the sausage-making that turns an interviewee’s scattered thoughts into a valuable resource for a reader. It’s slow, tedious work that puts the reader first.

When First Round hired a second writer, Shaun Young, he and Camille spent time editing each other’s work line by line, explaining each change so that they could absorb each other’s styles. They landed on a combined style that championed non-obvious tactics and kept the content very consistent.

Camille also obsessed over the site design and user experience. She worked closely with boutique web design agency Marquee to build The Review’s site from scratch. She wanted a great reading experience, easily accessible content and an emphasis on photographs and other visuals. They actually hired a photographer (Bonnie Rae Mills) and an illustrator (Alex Garcia) to make sure the people they interviewed were front and center.

Interestingly, the great experience on the site helped level-up the writing game. “It looks good, so you feel like the work you put there has to be as good as the experience is. Paying that extra attention is compounding,” she says. “It adds up over time.”

Looking Ahead

We’d like to thank Camille for her generosity and her significant contributions to both the content marketing and startup communities. She has recently joined Notion, and we’re looking forward to seeing what new ground she breaks there. You can follow Camille on Twitter at @CamilleRicketts.

The First Round Review continues to deliver excellent content under the guidance of editor Jessi Craige Shikman. Recent pieces on Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra and Suki CEO (former Flipkart CPO) Punit Soni make it clear that the Review isn’t slowing down.


Episode 16: Blake Thorne

We chat with Atlassian marketing manager Blake Thorne about how he went from working as a journalist to working in content marketing, how that’s informed his work today, and self-serve sales (and how content plays into that) at Atlassian.

You can follow Blake on Twitter here and read his piece on gaining subject matter expertise here.