Agency Unfiltered - Angela Pointon from 11 out of 11

Scaling Content Marketing Beyond 2021

Angela Pointon, President of 11 out of 11, comes on to talk about content marketing and how to scale it out as a service offering. We talk about onboarding subcontractors to systems, processes, and a standard of quality, how to enable a client’s thought leadership in content, and finding the right clients for a content marketing engagement.

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Episode Transcript

In today's episode, we talk to Angela Pointon, president of 11outof11, about content marketing, specifically her approach to working with contractors and how she onboards them to the systems, processes, and standards of quality her team uses. We talk about thought leadership and how her team surfaces a client's thought leadership in the content that they write, as well as the types of prospects she looks for and works with in this new normal. Agency Unfiltered, let's do it. 

KD: Hey, Angela. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered. Thanks for dialing in today. 

AP: Hey, Kevin. Good to be here. 

KD: Obviously, this would have been in person, but we'll pivot a little bit and do it remotely. Where are you dialing in from today? 

AP: I'm in a town called Ardmore, Pennsylvania. It's just a couple miles outside of Philadelphia. 

KD: Very cool. Philadelphia is on my short list of places to go. So I would imagine you have a favorite cheesesteak place, right? How committed are you to a particular location for a cheesesteak? 

AP: I can't speak to the cheesesteak thing, not cheesecake either. 

KD: If you had a cheesecake place, I'm open to that, too. 

AP: Yeah, I was a vegetarian for about 25 years. 

KD: You know what? That makes a whole lot of sense. So you're staying out of the cheesecake wars. That's fine-- and cheesesteak wars. Well, you know what? We're not here to talk about cheesesteaks. I think we're here to talk about agency service offerings, and maybe more specifically, content marketing, which is exciting. It sounds like you and your team have a ton of experience there and some insights that hopefully I can dig into today. So maybe the best place to start is how have you been able to scale out your content marketing service offering, so if there's any insights or some table stakes information that's worth sharing as to how you think about content marketing, how you approach it, and how you've been able to successfully scale it thus far. 

AP: Yeah. So our approach is that content marketing should be rhythmic and systematic, meaning that it's not helpful to most companies if you're dripping out content a little bit in January and there may be a couple of pieces in the summer and so on. So our team is comprised, primarily, of subcontractors. So we pull people in based on industry expertise or discipline expertise, as it relates to content marketing, and that's how we fulfill our client work. But on top of that, a big part of our promise to clients is that we are producing content every single month, if not every single week, for them, depending on their particular scope of work. So part of our team's expertise is in creating that content in a rhythmic way so that their audience and Google, let's face it, is consistently seeing that they're releasing new SEO-optimized content. 

KD: You know, the word rhythmic visualizes the process really well. You even used the example, you can't trickle out some content January, maybe later in the summer and hope that's going to do the trick. But it has to be consistent, reliable, and, to your point, rhythmic. I love that. Let's dig into the subcontractors. I would imagine a number of agencies or HubSpot partners or service providers rely on a network or a bench of subcontractors for delivery. From your experience, how do you make sure that when you bring in subcontractors, they align with, are onboarded to your systems, your processes, your standards of quality? What does that onboarding process look like? 

AP: So when we first started 11outof11 and we had a small handful of clients, I was able to tap in my network of people I knew, I had worked with before, networked with before, or maybe they were a vendor at a prior job of mine. So I knew that their quality of work was good. But obviously, I quickly exhausted that network as we grew. And so we developed a pretty systematic interview process. So we do go through an interview process with subcontractors, just like you would with an employee. We do talk about culture and all those things that are traditionally applied to what would be a W-2 employee. Because let's face it, they're a member of our team. And then once somebody makes it through that process and is brought on board, we sign an agreement with them, but we also go through an onboarding process that is similar to what a company would do if they were a full-time employee. And so I think that's critical and probably something that perhaps other agencies miss. Our onboarding process isn't months and months of in-person meetings and trainings. It's pretty streamed down, and it's all done remotely. But nonetheless, we are teaching and helping them understand how to integrate with a team of other subcontractors. 

KD: It sounds like the rule of thumb here is you have to consider their onboarding very similar and just as meaningful as somebody that would be, as you put it, a W-2 or a full-time employee. You have to invest in it just the same. Any nuances that you found when onboarding folks, like how to help subcontractors engage with and collaborate with other subcontractors? Are there other nuances there to that process? 

AP: So when bringing on subcontractors, it's common that they have other things going on-- side gigs, other clients that they're working with. Maybe they have a small agency of their own. So every business behaves differently. Every business has different expectations. We have expectations of how communication is delivered. When you're delivering something to a client, what does that email look like? How friendly is it? So we have examples of those sorts of things for our subcontractors to look at, and we expect that despite they might have their own client work, that they adopt our persona and how we professionally deal with clients whenever they're representing 11outof11. Between the other subcontractors, like how they work together as a team, we lean on project management tools. We use Slack. So we do go through that in our onboarding and teach them how to use those. It's pretty straightforward stuff, but still, we teach them what's expected. For instance, if there's a piece of content that needs to be written and designed and loaded into HubSpot, there's expectations on how long that takes and how to interact with a team member to make sure they're committed to that deadline, et cetera, et cetera. 

KD: I think both sides of that coin make a ton of sense. And I'm not sure how many teams are thinking about intentional training around, OK, just so you know, in client comms, this is our tone, our voice, our personality. You mentioned friendliness as an example but professionalism and friendliness and being very intentional with this is how you represent our agency from a voice or tone perspective. Yeah, that's great. Let's pivot back to content marketing more specifically as a service offering. Other than just rhythmic, consistent content marketing, do you find yourself niching even further in any sort of regards? Is it a type of client? Is it an industry or vertical? I'll leave it at that. Any other niche element to your service offering or your prospective client? 

AP: We very commonly work with B2B companies. And as far as an industry goes, I feel like we've worked and written for just about anything. Every single prospect asks-- it doesn't matter what they do-- they always ask, how are you going to write for my business? How I answer that is we've written for everything and, obviously, showing them some examples of the diversity of content that we've written, from industrial thread to pharmaceutical compliance. It really runs across the board. And for some reason, maybe because of that, a lot of highly-technical clients are attracted to us, people who have struck out, either having internal team members write their content or other freelancers that they've maybe brought on board. And so that's a successful niche for us, even though it's hard. It's not the easy path by any stretch. And I would say that the kinds of clients that we try to stay away from, because I don't think we've developed expertise in that area, is, obviously, B2C and especially e-commerce, when the buying experience is not one that is often nurtured, if you will, or long. A lot of our clients have relatively long sales processes. 

KD: Makes sense. Yeah, the role of content in content marketing is completely different for a considerably long buying process versus the instant e-comm, B2C-type motion. And it's interesting. I find that folks that do decide to go down specialization for an industry or vertical, they use that as a point of distinction to say, no, you should hire us because we are the experts on your subject. But you find the inverse to be the distinction point, the differentiation. It's like, no, we can write anything for anybody, and that, in and of itself, is the distinction for us. We can learn any industry and put out remarkable content. That's really interesting. 

AP: Yeah. Well, look, we seek to be a partner with our clients. They will always know their business more than we will, as hard as we may try. And their role is really to be that thought leader about how they do things, how they do things differently, the market that they're in. Our role is crafting impeccable content that converts and gets found. And so when you marry those two together and you create a good working team with the client, magical things can happen. 

KD: Yeah, that's great. That's a really great point. You mentioned thought leadership. I do have a question on that. Let's put a pin in that for one quick second. But as it relates to content marketing and how prospective clients are thinking about it or how that service offering looks like for your existing clients, has it changed from pre-COVID client engagements to this COVID-induced reality that we're in right now? Is there a distinction, pre-COVID and post-COVID, for content marketing? 

AP: I think we've been very successful, and gratefully so, during the COVID experience. And I think the primary reason why that is is clients who are wise see that this is an opportunity to dig in and do something that their competition is not doing, especially in the earliest months of COVID. But I think as we go into whatever we go into in the future, the opportunity is still there. And that is because a lot of companies are fearful right now. They're battening down the hatches. They're trying to save on costs. They might be reducing marketing capacity. And what history has taught us is even though that is your gut instinct as a human, it's the wrong instinct. History has taught us that while competition might do that, this is then a huge opportunity to do the inverse of that. 

And so clients have come to us, which is so exciting to me, as an entrepreneur, thinking, I know this is my shot to really get out there more so than we were doing, use this as an opportunity to, while everybody is kind of sleeping and hibernating, propel our business forward. And so that's been super fun to work on and to see those companies grow and excel. And let's face it, they're in technical industries, and people that we work with are not impacted in the same way as restaurants and bars. And so I want to put it out there that I understand that many industries, you really do got to batten down the hatches right now because it's kind of life or death for your business. But for the ones that we work with, leveraging this opportunity has been a super fun thing to participate in. 

KD: Sounds like it's built this new type of prospect or client where they recognize the opportunity. It's just an opportunistic prospective business that's just, hey, yeah, this is our time to turn the jets on, and content marketing may help us there. That's great. All right, let's go back to thought leadership for a moment. Just in content marketing strategies overall, from your experience with the clients that you work with, where and how does thought leadership fit in? And do you find that it's commonplace for your clients to be motivated by the thought of thought leadership in their industry? 

AP: I do. And when we ask the question in our own discovery process with the prospect of would you like to be seen as a thought leader in your industry, their eyes light up because who doesn't? And it gets them even more excited than just simply talking about blogs and e-books and all the content-related items. And with every piece that we write, we might not need to do a formal interview, but we do a micro-interview even so to say, OK, what's your viewpoint on this thing, whatever it is? Where are you contrarian to what most people think? How does your business maybe do this a little bit differently? Even if it's a paragraph within the piece of content or a page within the e-book, it's important to get that across. Otherwise, we're just writing content for the sake of getting found in search, and it's not that compelling, right? So getting that thought leadership across, if it's a paragraph in each piece, suddenly, at the end of the year, you've got a little bit of a differentiation strategy-- or a lot of it-- in your content strategy, which is really what we're shooting for here. 

KD: Yeah, I think the piece I like the most out of that is the question around the contrarian perspective. That's how you can get it from cookie-cutter to differentiated. Like, hey, how do you go against the grain amongst your peers or your competitors? I love that. 

AP: Yeah, and it's really exciting, right? I mean, if everybody's doing everything the same, that's boring. We had a client who helped kids with autism. She had a particular way of approaching her treatments and her practice, and we wove that through every piece. And it was contrarian. It was something more widely accepted in other places in the world but not yet in America. And so come end of the year, her audience, they're educated about this way of treating these children and helping these children in a way that if she didn't get that voice across, they wouldn't be. 

KD: Yeah, that's a great example. And actually, it's a perfect tee-up to my next question here, and it's actually to dig into the inverse of that. So on these types of conversations, I'm kind of a fan of horror stories, big and small. And you can take horror story however you want. We'll use your definition of that. But have you ever had a client who wasn't a fit for your agency? I'd be interested to learn, where in the process did you both kind of learn that? And whether it be service or your approach or otherwise, has there ever been not a fit identified post-sale? And what were the big takeaways for you? Did anything about your process become more informed after that? 

AP: Yes. I think in the early days of owning an agency, for any agency owners listening, we can all relate to taking on a client that we shouldn't have, for whatever reason. 

KD: It's hard to say no, especially in the early days, right? How do you say no rev ever? 

AP: Right, exactly. And we get better at it over time. I think I'll speak for the entire community when I say that. And so I mentioned before, we don't do much of anything with B2C. If the client has a B2B arm, we will, obviously, consider that. But strict B2C, we don't do a whole lot with. And e-commerce we don't do a whole lot with. Well, of course, in our early days, we were introduced with a lovely company that primarily sold online and sold to consumers. And they did, actually, have a B2B arm of their business, but we were very focused on the B2B side of it. So anybody listening knows, well, that's a bad fit for 11outof11. Not only that, the content that was being requested of us was what do you think of this promotion, what do you think of that discount, can we try this discount code and measure that. And look, there are plenty of agencies that would have been superstars in that scenario. It just was not us. It wasn't a good fit for us. And so we both got through their busy season and, at the end of that, decided to part ways. And it was absolutely the right decision. They still gave us a glowing review because we did try to hustle and deliver what they needed through that experience. But that was super educational in finding where your team fits beautifully and is rewarded through good work and where they don't. 

KD: You know where the process in your system works for a certain type of client, and so you just have to be comfortable and confident in when to say no. Because again, that's going to impact the client experience, but I can imagine the employee experience as well. I think that's what you kind of alluded to there. 

AP: Yeah, that's critical. I used to work at agencies. Anybody who has knows what it's like to work on an account that's either not a good fit from a work perspective or from a personality perspective, and it's draining. Those are the ones where Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you're dreading Monday. I don't want that feeling for anybody who's on our team. I don't want that feeling myself. And the client doesn't want to be working with a team that's having that feeling. So we've gotten better at it. And I think, through the sales process, if you catch that early on and you tell the prospect, look, I don't think we're the best fit for you and here's why, it's so appreciated because we're not wasting their time or looking like we're trying to steal their dollars. It's just the right thing to do. 

KD: Yep, there's an appreciation aspect from the client. I can imagine it just builds an immense amount of trust as well. That's great. Angela, we're coming up on time here, but I do have one final question for you. This is a question we ask all of our guests, so we try and wrap every episode with this. And from your experience, what is the strangest part of agency life overall-- or weirdest, or strangest? 

AP: I think for our market, they're not used to hiring agencies. And so when you've worked at agencies almost your whole career and you understand them intimately, it's weird to sometimes experience a prospect who doesn't know what they're really hiring and the value of what they're hiring. Now, of course, without any sales process, it's your charge to help them understand that. But when you're serving the market that we are, where it's not huge, huge companies but more mid-sized market companies that are in this technical field that's not very sexy-- like you think about Mad Men, like what they're educated on that level-- versus what this is really like, there's a disconnect. And so it's funny sometimes to answer the questions that they have just because they've never been through it. Look, when we, as a family, adopted our first dog, we were like deers in headlights. We had never gone through this experience, and they're talking to us and educating us on the way out the door. It's similar. To a family that always had dogs, it would have been like, duh, of course. So that, for me, is a little bit strange and will probably always be strange, but it's just part of the deal. 

KD: So I think the takeaway there is for some businesses, hiring an agency is like a family adopting their very first dog. 

AP: That's right. 

KD: You're like, hey, it's going to be a learning curve for us both here, pal. That's a great answer. That's awesome. Angela, thank you so much for coming on, for dialing in. This has been super helpful and super insightful, so I appreciate it. Yeah, thank you. 

AP: Thanks, Kevin. 

KD: So we'll wrap here, but this has been another episode of Agency Unfiltered. 

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