Joining us this episode is Sheila Mitham: CEO of Inbound Fintech. Serving primarily in the B2B space, Sheila educates us on how she incorporates thought leadership into her client engagements to address customer pain-points and build valuable, credible content.
Hi folks, my name is Kevin Dunn and welcome to Agency Unfiltered, a biweekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners around agency operations, growth and scale. Nobody knows how to scale agencies better than those that are already doing it and they're happy to sure an unfiltered look into what has worked and what hasn't. In this episode, we have the CEO of Inbound FinTech, a London based financial services in fintech marketing agency. Sheila discusses the role of thought leadership in client engagements. Specifically, how she helps improve the credibility and value of client's content and content offers through multi-participant, thought leadership driven, content curation. Low quality white papers are a thing of the past with Agency Unfiltered.
KD: Well, Sheila, thank you so much for joining us, today, on Agency Unfiltered.
SM: Thank you for having me.
KD: I think this topic, or subject, is going to resonate a ton with the viewers. Now, what we're here to talk about is this idea of thought leadership and how it can be a powerful aspect to your go-to-market strategy or marketing strategies. So maybe the best place to start: why don't you just teach us what your definition of thought leadership is and why you've decided to invest so many resources into making it happen?
SM: Okay yeah, great, so we predominantly work with B2B companies. So thought leadership is, how do I describe thought leadership? So it's really getting a piece of collateral, it could be sales collateral, it can be a content offer, which is really valuable and insightful to the prospects. So, so many companies come to us and say, "Yeah, we've got a bunch of thought leadership, "we've got a huge amount of content." But content, often a typical company or a typical subject, there is so much content out there about it. So we try and make it very different and thought leadership is offering a piece of insight, not selling. It's a really piece of credible thought leadership, insights and valuable content to address the pain points or a hot subject about a subject matter. And we often use experts in the field to participate, onto a multi-participant paper, for example, to give their opinions about that. To make it a really credible piece of collateral.
KD: That's great, how do you draw the line between, I don't want to say regular content, but the content that you know moderately well versus, "no this is the quality of something "we'd consider thought leadership." Does that make sense, how do you make that distinction?
SM: Yeah, totally makes sense. So we often come up with an evergreen campaign and the evergreen campaign can be used for inbound, outbound, ABM, SEO, organic. So we come up with this idea and we look at the industry and we look at what's lacking. So really you have to look at what's out there, about the subject matter, and what are the objectives of the campaign. So we come and we say, "Okay, this really would benefit "from a piece of multi-participant entries "onto a piece of paper or onto a white paper "that will then be really insightful." It's a different approach to a white paper, a white paper on a subject matter from one source. Often a piece of thought leadership is from multiple sources or links to credible sources. So it has that differentiation against a piece of content.
KD: So it sounds like the important piece is that element of having multiple perspectives—whether it's citing or linking to other sources. Or just having multiple contributors to the actual piece of content.
SM: Absolutely, it not only turbo-boosts the power of the thought leadership, it becomes an evergreen campaign, it has aspects of SEO. Often our clients need to raise their credibility and brand authority. So it really elevates them. Trust, we work in fintech, financial markets and capital markets, and it's really a relationship building thing for our companies with prospects because often the sales cycle is very long. It can be a year or two year. So that nurturing, it worked perfectly with inbound, because that nurturing is massively important. So yeah, to have people like credible thought leaders in that marketplace putting an aspect of their perspective on a particular subject matter onto a white paper is highly credible.
KD: You mentioned there you work with fintech and financial companies—how important is aligning yourself tightly to a particular industry or vertical, does that play into thought leadership, do you need to have a target market before you can start creating that content?
SM: Yeah, massively important for us because the ecosystem is only so big, so everybody knows that the journalists, that the real well known bloggers, the thought leaders on banking, payments, and so on. So we have a relationship with them. So we can reach out to one of the guys and say, "Hey, we're doing this white paper on X." We don't pay them, "This is going to be a really good piece of thought leadership, "we're going to link back to your site, "our client X would really like you to participate "and we just want your opinions on the matter." So we're not selling the products and services for our client, our client is endorsing this piece of collateral, which comes from multiple different companies. It might be a bank, it could be a payment provider, it could be a compliance officer. So when you create this, and it takes six, eight weeks to create because you've put interviews into it, research, keyword research. When you have this really heavy duty white paper with multi-participants into it, it's just got this evergreen approach and it raises and elevates the brand authority of the client and it gives them the relationship with the ecosystem, with the industry.
KD: So it sounds like by aligning around that target market, that industry, that vertical, you get a better feel of the landscape of who the other perspectives are that you should be reaching out to.
SM: Absolutely, and also, really importantly because we know the landscape really well, we know the sales cycles of our clients and we know what aspects where in the buyer's journey the persona is. So when you're putting together a piece of thought leadership, you can't go out there with a decision based, "Buy, buy, buy," because the persona's not ready for that. They're collecting research and information about a subject matter and elevating our client by HubSpot, "Don't sell, start helping." And doing that it really elevates the trust and it just adds another trust and credible factor for our client, which makes them download the white paper, which makes them go into a nurturing workflow, or an MQL or an SQL and so it all ties together and it works really well.
KD: That's a great point, so it's not even just looping in the right people at the beginning, or the content creation process, but you know exactly where in the buyer's journey this content fits and what the sales cycle looks like.
SM: Massively important. So that's massively important. So we normally have this cluster of content offers and in the middle will be this piece of thought leadership, it could be a case study, it's often a multi-participant white paper, it's an event where we have a round table and we invite thought leaders onto a round table, and could be a video. And surrounding that cluster content, that topic cluster will be various, we'll do a pre-blog, a post-blog, a video, and so it has this supporting material that we'll then use for inbound.
KD: So it's a very campaign-focused initiative.
SM: Massively, evergreen campaign.
KD: Going back to the multi-participant white papers or thought leadership pieces, how do you build those relationships if you were just getting started? Or any tips for anybody that wants to start building those relationships?
SM: For us, we hired people who were in capital markets, had no marketing experience and they were journalists who have those relationships and they act as a segue into that ecosystem 'cause we're only two years old. So that was really important that we hired people really well know who really, not only understood the right people to go to and introduce us to and were a part of our company, but very importantly knew what the pain points are of the personas and that's really the most important thing. That you are talking their language. If you don't know about equities, or faster payments, it's so technical that you have to resinate, you've a blink test, five seconds for that prospect to see the image ad and then think, "Will I, or why don't I download "this piece of thought leadership." So those keywords, not only for our quality score on LinkedIn or AdWords, but they really have to just tick the box immediately with the persona and we know the personality of the persona and we know what's important and we do a huge amount. So we look at it from an inbound perspective, content from an inbound perspective. Persona workshop, keyword research, industry research, buyer's journey, full funnel and then that's how we approach it.
KD: It sounds like to be able to pull all of those levers, you're intentional with your hiring in that it sounds like the folks that you bring onto the team are from the fintech or financial services industry, and so that's how they build relationships, can speak the language of the persona uncensored.
SM: Absolutely, I can go in there and talk about marketing and sales, and HubSpot, and inbound and outbound, and ABM, and SEO, and PPC—
KD: And HubSpot Academy.
SM: —and HubSpot Academy, 100%. But having people that actually can go in there and talk about a trading floor, right? We have trading clients and the bi-side and the south-side of financial services, you need experience, you need to be one of them. It's kind of like a closed member club. So we hire from the market and it's served us really well and then thought leadership, it becomes a really valuable piece of thought leadership. It really is not just a white paper on a subject that you can find on Google, it really is quite considered valuable, insightful piece of information.
KD: That's great. You said that they might take six to eight weeks, especially as you bring in more participants in a couple of different formats, so that's a lot of time, right? And so a lot of bandwidth and a lot of resources go into this effort. So how once you hit go, or publish, or start the campaign, how do you track the results, what's the baseline to make sure that you're getting a positive return on all this content work?
SM: Great question because we have to align expectations of the client. Because it's a lot of money and effort that goes into these pieces of collateral. So what we tend to do is we use an ABM approach, an account based marketing approach, on LinkedIn and on AdWords, more so, for us, on LinkedIn works really well. And we come up with this multi-participant paper or this campaign, usually a campaign, and we put it out there and what happens is then we find out that the thought leadership really pulls in some fantastic leads and those leads are of high quality. So in our marketplace it isn't about volume and more so, for all agencies, it isn't about volume of leads. We're not a performance agency, we're a sales and marketing inbound agency. So it's not about volume, our clients have a high considered value, so their deal value can be hundreds of thousands of pounds, or dollars. So it's about the quality of the lead, so when they download the white paper, or if we target specific accounts with specific information on account based marketing, and they download it, it's then linked to HubSpot, and then we start to nurture or lead score and it will go to an SQL. So we always align content, outbound content, inbound, MQL, SQL, opportunity, closed-win. Always, non-negotiable for us.
KD: You've mentioned ABM, account based marketing—how does that tend to resonate with your prospects, if they're still in the sales process or your customer or your clients, how do you speak to it in a way that makes sure it resonates and they understand the value? Because it's a shift from, to your point, of standard, maybe inbound strategy. So how do you sell them on that vision?
SM: We are really keen on, I don't want to call it paid media or outbound, but often inbound takes time, it takes time to get results and from our industry these are legacy guys who haven't touched a website in dinosaur years and they're like, "It doesn't matter about a website "because we go to events and we spend 20k "on a Financial Times ad because we have to be in the FT. "And that's what we've done for 20 years, "so that's what we're doing. "And we'll go to Sibos or we'll go to an event "and we'll spend 50k on an event." But they're not measuring the success. So for us, when we talk about SEO and inbound, and for financial markets it's about, they don't want to be seen to pay for an ad because they think that's cheating, they think it's cheap, they think it's not them. They're a credible hedge fund or they're a credible investor bank. They don't pay for ads, they have an ego. So we say, "Okay, we're going to go down "the account based marketing route." So we describe account based marketing and we're going to go down account based marketing and we're going to nurture them because, "We know your sales cycle, "you've told us it can be nine months to two years. "And we know your deal value "is hundreds of thousands of dollars "and we know you want Bank of America as a client. "So we're going to target Bank of America "and this is how we're going to do it." So we talk to them really in simple terms. They don't want the details. So we say, "It's uber targeted, "uber target account based marketing, "so we will go after only the people "that you want us to go after. "There is minimum wastage, "only the people who we want to see the ad will see the ads "and it's not labeled ad. "It's a credible piece of thought leadership that you need, "you can use in your sales process, "we can have a brochure about it "and it will help online and offline." And then they understand that. And then they see themselves organically ranking for a piece of content because it's keyword rich, it has the right search volume, it resonates with the target market. And more importantly they see it turning into leads and we give it to the sales team and then they can see opportunities and closed-win. And then once it's the light bulb moment, once that happens for them they're like, "Oh, my God, this is amazing."
KD: "I get it, let's do more."
SM: "Can you roll it out "in Australia, can you roll it out...etc." Beause often our companies, our clients, they're big enterprise clients, but they're hugely cautious on this whole, "Digital stuff," they call it, "Ooh, what is this fluff?" So we have to prove it and we do that by ABM and inbound and SEO mainly.
KD: It sounds like the thought leadership piece, that real foundational piece of contents, the backbone of it all helps to sell the whole process and show that it works.
SM: Yeah, it is, that's why I wanted to talk to you about it today, because it's not just for us, for fintech, it's not just for for financial services. If you a piece of thought leadership in any sector or vertical it would have the same value and it's evergreen. I've got one client who we put a campaign out there two years ago, right at the beginning, it was our first multi-participant paper, and it has just, just keeps on going. This thing never dies, it's just brilliant.
KD: That's the dream. That's the ideal state.
SM: Yeah, yeah, it's evergreen.
KD: For the thought leadership component, ABM, as you rolled it out for any of your clients, I don't know if you had any particular stories, but was there one that just didn't work? Or were there any pitfalls that you encountered that if somebody else wanted to start a new, they can learn from any of those problems?
SM: Yeah, my goodness. We've made some mistakes in the early days when we're like, "Oh, this is so simple, "we'll watch a video on it and off we go." And it's just like AdWords as well. You have to know your stuff. More importantly, what I would say for the pitfalls of account based marketing, it's two fold. First of all, it's the creative, if you don't so your homework and you don't talk the right language, or understand, for example, we use different types of LinkedIn ABM and account based marketing has evolved hugely over the last five years and LinkedIn is just way ahead of everybody else because it's affordable, it's measurable, it integrates with HubSpot, it integrates with Google Search Console, it's just brilliant. So you've got that whole closed loop reporting. So a couple of pitfalls which we had from the early days is we're like, "Oh, okay we'll do a lead generation campaign." So a lead generation campaign is you use a piece of content, thought leadership, and you put an ad on LinkedIn to download this white paper and you link the white paper to HubSpot, to their portal and you turn it into an MQL, SQL and opportunity closed-win, etc. And we're like, "We put this creative out there." Which we thought was just fabulous from our graphic designer, "This is great." And nobody downloaded the white paper. And we're like, "The audience is right, what's going on?" So I'd say two things, the creative has to really resonate with that target market, test it, test it with someone from that target market, "Would you download this based on this banner ad?" 'Cause all they can see is a banner ad, at this point they can't see what's in the paper. So the creative is vital and it has to be not too fancy, just simple, brilliant call to action that really resonates at the right part of the buyer's journey.
KD: It's an art and a science to feel that, yeah.
SM: It is, and the other side of it is know your audience because we often use one of our journalists or our technical content writers from the financial markets to check the audience for us before we set live a campaign. And he's like, "I wouldn't go with those job titles," or, "Can we go skills based? "'Cause I really think it's going to look well." Or, "Well, add in these keywords." So setting it up is vital. If you make one error, you're going to waste a huge amount of money. Or the audience might be too big, or the audience might be too small. You can go too niche and you won't get the right volume. And the other thing we've learnt is once you have a campaign running, we're like, "This is fantastic, we can just sit back now." And then on a particular vertical the audience tends to exhaust quite quickly. So we now know the pitfalls of not letting that CPL, that cost per lead, rise to much before we change it out and keep changing out the creative, so the audience doesn't exhaust. So when I say the audience exhaust, if you keep spamming the same people, your cost is going to go up and you'll be de-scored, so you have to be really on it and optimize it.
KD: So you can't set it and forget it, right? You cannot.
SM: Yeah, and if you do the audience incorrectly or you just guess it, you're doing a spray and pray. And spray and pray you are going to waste a huge, it's a big mistake.
KD: It's impossible to make a relevant message to everybody.
KD: But again, to your point, you don't want to go too small, there's a sweet spot.
SM: Yes, there's a sweet spot. And it's not an exact science and it comes with expertise. And we now know capital markets, we know financial services, we know fintech and we know now, six weeks in, we've got to refresh it, let's optimize it, let's look at the quality of the lead. And that's the other thing, on a lead generation campaign, for example, what we often find is on LinkedIn, on ABM, you're targeting like you might use your Gmail not your company name. So one of the things that we did wrong at the beginning is we didn't capture, on that lead generation form, the company name. So we're like, "Okay, we've got firstname.lastname@example.org."
KD: How are we supposed to do anything about it?
SM: "Who the hell is he? "We can't match him to a company." So we've learnt the hard way. And similarly, on those forms, if you ask for too much information, you're going to get an abandon rate on the form.
KD: Too much friction, right?
SM: Yeah, too much friction. It's like, "You're going to ask so many questions, I'm done, "this isn't worth it."
KD: So obviously, it sounds like real multi-participant white papers, text-based content seems to be the meat and potatoes of this strategy. Is there anything that you're excited about, what could these pieces of content look like in the next three, six, nine months? Or is there anything that you're testing, a new experiment, what does the next step look like for you that you're excited about?
SM: Yeah, gosh, HubSpot are releasing so much all the time and we take these content pieces, so one of our clients, for example, it was all based on this, it was the one we did two years ago, and we turned it into an event. So we used the multi-participant and we used lead generation with the multi-participant paper to push them into inbound, MQL, SQL, appointment to an event, the event then turned into a video and the video of them we used as a next content offer. Which was already based on the white paper, on the multi-participant we did. So I think video is going to play a big part, it's already playing a big part in our workflows and in our sequences. Personalized content as well, ABM, you can target that specific person and re-market to them by video, podcasts as well. We're doing a lot of podcasts as well. And just increasing and expanding the exposure of our clients by elevating them as a thought leader in the industry as well.
KD: And it sounds like a key takeaway here is that you've taken that multi-participant white paper and continued to repurpose the content in there.
SM: Yep, absolutely.
KD: So by the time a video comes out or a speaking engagement or something like that, it's not a lot of net new content creation it's easier to acquire net-new leads.
SM: And it really works, so I'd say try and really focus on, and one of the pitfalls we had as an agency, it was like, when somebody signs a retainer with you, it's like, "We're going to produce four blogs a quarter, "one white paper, one this, one that." And you can get hung up on the volume. So we don't do that anymore. We say to our client, "We're just going to do this asset set "of content and lasts as long as it lasts. "And we're repurpose it "and we're going to really put effort into making this piece of thought leadership. "Instead of just banging out 800 word blogs "four times a week."
KD: Is it project based, is there a time frame in which you're going to deliver that whole pack?
SM: There has to be, so what we tend to do is, because everybody is on a time clock, right? They want to see results. You've promised them this magical inbound thing, but inbound takes time, so what we often do is we start the setup, CRM setup, inbound, that takes a couple of months to onboard them, talk to their sales team, training, onboarding, CRM, inbound, out and sales as well. We usually tend to sell an outbound and inbound and sales with SEO. So we try and get the full funnel. But they want results, so what we often say, "Okay, here's what we're going to do, "we're going to kickstart an ABM campaign. "It's going to bypass their really crap legacy website, "we'll have a campaign landing page on HubSpot, "we'll just create that out of the box. "And we'll have a lead generation campaign "which will download the leads "and go straight into HubSpot." So it just bypasses and negates the use for their really poor website. And then we work on the CRM, we work on everything in the background. So by the time we've finished a setup, they have leads. Because at the end of the day, we always say, "We're not a performance agency." But everybody needs to measure ROI and everybody wants quality leads, period.
KD: So it's an acceleration to drive some results, while obviously, for every engagement, the first few months are always tech setup and some of those foundational, systematic, backend type stuff. So you partner it with, or you pair it. Yeah, that's great.
SM: We do, we pair it with an ABM campaign and get it out the door as soon as possible.
KD: Final question for you. Ask this to every guest, definitely didn't prepare you for this one. What would you say is the strangest part of agency life?
SM: Oh, wow, okay. Agency life or working with clients?
KD: Either, that fits into agency life, I'd say.
SM: Okay. Yeah, I guess in our industry it's working with some really legacy clients who don't understand the terminology. And they just don't get it. They're often 60 year old CEOs in a white tower who have a budget to pay for events or media, as they call it, an ad in the FT. And strangest thing for us is, because I hire tech savvy, straight out of university, go getters, and they come bouncing into these events and these rooms, and they're full of jargon, they've got ideas, and ideas, and these ideas are fantastic, and then when you just see these blank faces on our client's faces like, "What the, I have no idea what you're talking about." So, and I'm guilty of just dropping all the jargon, ABM, SEO, PPC and people are like, "Sorry, can you rewind?"
KD: "Let's slow down here." Yeah, yeah right.
SM: So it's funny when people come in to our office and we're sitting around a table and we're chewing the fat with all of us and we're just talking jargon and we've got short terminology for absolutely everything. And people will come in and go, "Wow, it's like listening to a foreign language, you guys. "I have no idea what you're talking about." Or my husband who often says to me when I'm on the phone, "Sorry, you just spoke acronyms for 10 minutes there."
KD: "You just said letters," right?
SM: "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever." I'm like, "No, no, they get it. "We just talk in short hand the whole time." So that's quite funny we've got our own little language.
KD: Yeah, honestly it's true, but I think for your team and your audience it's education, right? You just gotta get 'em up to speed which is a whole unique set of challenges. But that's it, that's all I have for ya. I really appreciate you coming on.
SM: Thank you very much, thank you.
KD: But this has been an episode of Agency Unfiltered.
SM: Thank you, thanks for having me.
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