Content Strategy Lessons from Marcus Sheridan

The uncontested star of Mesh Marketing 2011 was Marcus Sheridan, a “swimming pool guy” from the States who had some straightforward (and highly entertaining) advice about content marketing based on his own experience.

Marcus’s Story

Marcus sold and installed in-ground swimming pools – a business that was humming along well enough until the crash of 2008 wiped out many Americans’ home equity and, along with it, their financial ability to invest in their homes. Faced with a steep decline in business and intense competition in what was suddenly a much smaller market, Marcus turned to blogging to differentiate his company from competitors and draw customers to his website. The results (as Marcus proved with a graph of his site analytics) were stunning: a huge increase in organic search traffic, thousands of website visitors, and a steady stream of new customers and revenue even as the economy continues to lag. Best of all, even while his revenues grew, Marcus’s advertising costs shrank, as he found that his new content strategy drove more leads than traditional advertising at a fraction of the cost.

How He Did It

Two key insights form the heart of Marcus’s content strategy:

  • Potential customers for his business have a lot of questions – and if people are asking him the same questions over and over again, it’s safe to assume they are also typing those questions into search engines.
  • Search engine rankings for topics like his are “low-hanging fruit.” While the Internet is bursting with commentary on some subjects (technology, for instance), there is relatively little high-quality content in other areas, particularly on topics that require the expertise of skilled tradespeople.

Based on these insights and his own experience, Marcus foresees a “blue-collar blogging revolution” where  companies with smart online content strategies are able to achieve market dominance.

Content Lessons

When I tried to mentally sum up Marcus’s philosophy of content creation, the phrase that came to mind was: “virtue is its own reward.” His story is emphatically not about creating a content farm – the key to his success is high-quality content that responds directly to real user needs. As Marcus himself admits, most of this is common sense – but it’s surprising how many content creators ignore the obvious.

  • The best content ideas come from front-line staff who work directly with customers. “If you pay someone to answer questions on a daily basis, they should be creating content.”
  • When starting a blog, brainstorm a list of the questions your customers ask you most frequently and use those as the topics for your posts. Then every time you hear a question, ask yourself, “Have I blogged about this yet?”
  • Become “a company of listeners.” The best keyword tool is your customers. Make a note of what they’re asking and how they’re phrasing it.
  • It’s worthwhile to target long-tail queries (longer, more specific, and less frequent search phrases) for a couple of reasons: it’s easier to gain a high search engine ranking for these queries, and also, these are the kinds of searches that serious potential customers are entering. (Marcus gave the example of someone just searching “pool” vs. someone searching “how much do fiberglass pools cost?”)
  • Don’t be afraid to address sensitive issues like cost/price, your competition, or potential problems with your product or service. This is exactly the kind of information users are searching for, and you need to own the discussion so you can set the tone. Addressing the questions that everyone else is afraid to answer will give you an edge over the competition. And not having a definitive answer is no excuse for saying nothing: addressing a question is not the same as answering it.
  • Your blog is for customers and should be written for them. Save the bragging (AKA marketing copy) for your website.
  • Beware “the curse of knowledge” – avoid jargon, acronyms, and technical language your customers won’t understand. 90 percent of your readers are looking for basic information.
  • Quality content will bring rewards no matter which metric you look at – search engine traffic, comments, inbound links. Obsess over the quality of your content, not any one metric.
  • Every blog post you write is like a bullet in your gun – it’s ammo!” This remark, which greatly titillated Marcus’s Canadian audience at Mesh, memorably makes the point that a collection of great content can deliver ongoing value. You are building a portfolio of excellent responses to common customer needs.
  • Some of the best content engages users through good teaching. Marcus says he would love to hire kindergarten teachers as his marketing team – they know how to convey content in a simple way that everyone can understand.
  • When you think about content as a teaching tool, you also need to consider the variation in individual learning styles. Some people learn better from video content, and many start their searches on YouTube.
  • And finally…don’t try to argue that your business is an exception. There are potential customers out there trying to find good information about every conceivable product and service – even soap! (To Marcus’s delight, it turned out that there was a soap marketer in the audience.) The fundamental rules of content strategy apply to everyone.
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