If you are a marketer, then you have probably heard of Rainmaker Digital’s Copyblogger and read some of its articles. Copyblogger is one of the most iconic marketing blogs in the world. It is kind of a big deal, and there’s a good reason for that. The team at Copyblogger works hard to publish specific content that the audience finds extremely useful and valuable.
Today, we’re talking to Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital and creator of Copyblogger. Brian and Copyblogger are recognized by many as the most influential blogging resources. If you haven’t got the hint yet, Brian knows his stuff! So, learn all about audience, value, and generosity from him.
Nathan: Rainmaker Digital hosts one of the most iconic marketing blogs in the world. It's copyblogger.com. What I'm saying here is that if you're a marketer, you’ve probably heard of Copyblogger before, you’ve probably read some of the articles there, you know that Copyblogger is kind of a big deal. There's a really good reason for that. The team at Copyblogger has worked really hard to publish content that a very specific audience will find extremely useful. They publish content that is really generous.
Those articles provide massive amounts of value, they're the best on the internet for the topics they cover. All that harbor through content marketing has helped build an audience that subsequently has helped Rainmaker Digital become an eight figure business with zero venture capital investments. In short, what you're about to learn from today's guest, works. It works really well.
Today, we're giving it up for Brian Clark. He is the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital, he's the creator of Copyblogger, and he's a serial starter of a handful of other businesses just to say the least. Dun & Bradstreet says, "Brian is the most influential person to follow on Twitter for small businesses." By the way, his handle is @brianclark, so go follow him. Tons of publications recognize Copyblogger and Brian among the most influential blogging resources in the world, resources like advertising age, the guardian and business week among others, say that sort of stuff. If you haven’t gotten the hint, Brian knows his stuff. Today on Actionable Marketing Podcast, you and I get the rare opportunity to pick his brain. I'm Nathan from CoSchedule, now let's learn all about audience, value, and generosity with Brian.
Nathan: Hey Brian, thanks a lot for being on the show today.
Brian: Happy to be here, thank you.
Nathan: We're happy to have you, I was wondering if you could just kick this off by telling us a little bit about what you're working on these days.
Brian: Lots of stuff. There's some stuff that I can't talk about but will be apparent by the time this episode comes out, that's an interesting situation. I feel like we're getting back to basics in a lot of ways, we spend a lot of time doing kind of intensive development of our hosting products, and then our SaaS businesses, and that is a huge challenge for a bootstrap company.
Fortunately, we have always been able to make enough money to fund our own projects. But we have gotten to a point where there's not so much development work, and then you just kind of dust yourself off and look around and go, "Okay, where are we heading from here?" There's a lot of interesting things happening in the realm of content marketing, and digital marketing, personalization, better uses of marketing automation, things like that without losing sight that it's still the human being in the middle of it that matters most.
Nathan: The thing about automation and personalization is that it's almost like a delivery engine for you to get better content to people who would care about it, would you mind just like chiming in on that.
Brian: That's absolutely right, and that's the way it should be used, but that comes from knowing your audience, not just employing some neato technology. Especially with marketing automation over the last five years. I've seen it, you probably have, too. You've seen some really poor use cases of where it's either creepy, or just kind of ineffective instead of it really should be the right content at the right time for the right person.
I feel like we're getting there, but I think people start playing with new tools before really understanding, "How do you apply this within the fundamentals of a sound digital marketing strategy."
Nathan: Right, yeah I couldn't agree more. The tool doesn't make the strategy, there is ideation that comes first and then you implement the tool to run it, correct?
Nathan: Brian, one of the things that I followed with you for quite some time is this idea of audience first content, and since we're talking about that, could you fill us in a little bit more on what you mean by audience first content?
Brian: Well, really audience first is a concept that stands alone really from content although it's so closely aligned in the sense that that's how you build an audience, but audience first is really the idea that you build that group of people by providing them value. Then you pay attention specifically to that group of people, and this is what we've done over the last 12 years over and over again. Every year we'd launch a new product, we never had a failure because we really just felt like we understood and knew what the audience needed at the product or service level from serving them first with content.
That's really the gist of it as opposed to building a product and then trying to find someone to buy it. Audience first means, you've got a group of people that are paying attention to you because you're giving them something relevant to their lives, and they'll give you indications from that of what they're struggling with, what are the problems, what are the desires, you can see that expressed because you're not trying to serve a generic market, you're serving these people who happen to be part of a broader market, and you can learn from––you can launch to this group and depending on how that goes, you can expand.
I think that's a mistake a lot of startups make, which is, they've got the idea for a product, they start building it, and then they realize that maybe no one wants that or they don't want it the way you decided to build it.
Nathan: Sometimes software companies or SaaS companies start by publishing content first and then building the product, is that an approach you might recommend and if so, how would you start doing that?
Brian: Yeah again, that's what we've done every time. Start with the content that attracts the audience and then develop the products. It's more common now and that's a good sign. A decade ago, that was kind of a novel thing, but it always made sense to us, and by us at that time, it was just me at first and then Tony Clark who was my first partner and is now our COO and we kind of have that classic CEO-COO relationship where there's a dynamic between the two of us, and we tend to see the same patterns, and we tend to agree on things, but we always talk it through to make sure that we're not drinking our own Kool-Aid to a certain degree.
Nathan: That's good, I want to just ask you about the Copyblogger story, Brian, because I think that’s super cool, I mean you guys have been around from the beginning, the Copyblogger blog has been called the Bible of content marketing, which I mean I've been following it forever.
Something that's really interesting there is that you never took a venture capital and made to eight figures in annual revenue without advertising. I was wondering if you could explain more of that. Can you tell us the story of how Copyblogger became a business or even multiple businesses like you've been talking about with Rainmaker?
Brian: It goes back to the whole audience first thing. Before Copyblogger, 1998 through 2005, I started three service businesses. I used to be an attorney from '94 to '98. I was in a big law firm environment. I left that because I hated it. Then I started publishing online, my very first company is the only one I've ever had that failed because I had no clue, I was a Liberal Arts major with a law degree, never taken a business class, never had a marketing book, but I was just entranced by the internet and the ability, and of course I aspired to write, but writing novels or screenplays didn't really do it for me because you're just kind of, you need someone to say, "Yes, this is good." You have these gatekeepers, and the internet, there was no gatekeeper, you just could get on there and publish web pages, and publish your writing to audiences.
I started that first company and it had an advertising business model because back then, the idea of making money with content, it was all about advertising or sponsorships right, that was the offline model to a certain degree, of course we did have paid models but, it was '99 after a year of succeeding in building audiences. but not having a clue how to make any money from it. Then I read a book called Permission Marketing By Seth Godin and that was just a light bulb. That’s the first marketing book I ever read. It was it was completely tailored to the new realities of the internet even though Godin made the analogy that the internet is a direct marketing medium, but it's not like direct mail where you're buying a list of people.
Online, you have to build an email list, or an audience, and then you had to have something to sell them. That was really kind of the epiphany to me. I'm sitting there, my money is running out, and the first business hasn't made more than maybe for $4 or $5, early Amazon affiliate fees, but I was like, “What do I have to sell?” And really, the only thing I had was a law degree and a law license.
Again, practicing law wasn't a joy for me, but it was better when I did it for myself. So basically, I took the same principles of email marketing that I was using in the other business to start a legal newsletter related to the internet because I was a young attorney, but a lot of the more seasoned attorneys had no idea what was going on online, and I did.
That was what I could write about and developed some authority. Pretty soon, I'm getting more clients than I really wanted. I was only trying to make enough money to just keep things going, and ultimately, I started turning away prospective clients because I didn't want to get in that trap.
It crosses your mind because developing clients is the hardest part of being an attorney, the attorneys who bring in the business are called rainmakers, so you can kind of see where that name came from.
All of a sudden, I was developing business. It was amazing to me, but that was a moment when I realized, okay, maybe I'm not a pure writer, I'm more like an entrepreneur who can write and that was the moment when I started planning to start the next business and ended up with another one after that.
Those were in the real estate industry, but I did everything online. It was a time when they just started allowing MLS listings to be online. At that time, I was in Dallas and that was one of the first MLS regions that approved that program and I immediately saw that's what buyers want.
So if you can put that on your website, combine it with content, build an email list of prospects, then you can have a successful business. I chose real estate not because it was again some passion of mine, it was a business that you could start for a small amount of money and make a lot of money, and that's what ended up happening.
Nathan: Marketers ask me things like, "How much should I be giving away for free in my content marketing?" Because you're giving away so much of your knowledge, how would you answer a question like that?
Brian: Yeah, that question has been posed since 1998 as far as I know. Look at it this way, my first three businesses were legal, and then real estate. Both require a license from the state and yet, you would have lawyers and realtors going, "I'm not going to share all this information for free. Then they won't need me,” I’m like, “You're licensed by the state,” because it's a difficult thing to handle, it's complicated, there's a lot of money involved. If they could do it without you, then maybe you need to be in a different business, that's what I'm thinking from that standpoint, that just mystified me.
Now fast forward to two Copyblogger and the years that followed that, my opinion is to tell people everything, share as much as you can especially if you're selling something. For example, if I'm sharing content and education related to copywriting, and content marketing, and yet my business model is to sell web hosting and SaaS, what am I losing by sharing that content by sharing that content? I'm not, I'm gaining sales of a related product.
My philosophy is, be super generous because it's competitive out there. You have to find a way to stand out. I mean there's more than just the amount of value in the content. There's your voice, the way you connect with the audience, all of that is important.
But value has got to be the first thing, and if someone else is giving away better information than you are, and they're a competitor, they're probably going to win the business. That's just the way I look at it.
With content marketing, you're not trying to convert everyone who reads your content, that's impossible. The test is, are you getting more business than you would have if you weren't doing content marketing? And for us, the answer has always been yes.
Nathan: So we're talking about content, and building up that audience, trying to find those methods of monetizing even a sample size of the visitors to your blog, or to your website, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that story from your perspective of how you turned that corner from content creation to revenue generation, were there any big steps that you could share with us?
Brian: Well, so the first 18 months of Copyblogger, I didn't have a product to sell or anything, I did a little bit of affiliate stuff, which is a great way to validate what your particular audience will buy, that's like market research that you get paid for. Assuming that someone buys what you're promoting.
A few things led me to understand that contrary to some of the kind of more crazy opinions at that time, I remember Robert Scoble was a big blogger and he's trying to tell everyone that no one would ever pay for information again, and I’m just like, “Oh my goodness. This is just ridiculous.”
I took it seriously that that attitude was out there, but in 2007, I basically put out this free report that made the argument that online education was going to be gigantic, and that people who got in on it early as long as they understood what they were doing, would have an advantage, and so that was our first course which was also kind of meta, but it was a related topic, it wasn't, “Here's a content marketing course, or a copywriting course,” it was effectively an instructional design course, how to create online courses that that people will happily pay for.
We launched that, we went from zero to six figures in a week, and we were at seven figures in a year. That was the beginning, and then every year, the next year in 2008, I entered the WordPress Premium market with a design framework, 2009 we released a SaaS called Scribe which was basically––it started out as an SEO copywriting tool and kind of evolved into more sophisticated content marketing software. Then in 2010, we merged all the companies together, brought studio press into the company, and that’s been I guess you would call the rainmaker era, 2010 to today.
Nathan: I really like that idea of that report. I know that you gave that away for free, but I'm sure you have some advice on this. As we're creating this content, we're giving a lot away for free. I was wondering if you could give us some advice on, when you start charging for certain parts of if your content is a product, how do you productize content if you were to sell it as a course or anything like that?
Brian: Yeah, so that report was effectively, I mean it was a persuasive argument, or you could say it was a part of a sales process that basically removed all the objections people had to becoming an online course creator. That's the principle of copywriting. If they have a doubt, or a question, or whatever, those things are objections and they won't buy. You have to methodically take down those objections. That report was free, but it was really when you think about it, it was persuasion that ultimately resulted in them buying the paid product and honestly, I don't have a firm tabulation on it.
That report may be the most profitable thing I've ever written. We made so much money for so many years. It was really that document that was always the beginning of each cycle of it. You just have to understand what the objective is for what you're doing, and you wouldn’t want to charge someone to read a sales letter, that's why you give it away for free, but it still had value, it wasn't just a pitch. In fact, it wasn't a real pitch at all, it just set the stage for when we made the offer.
Nathan: It actually it makes me want to try reports, like do you have any advice on where to get started there?
Brian: That was the way things were done in 2005-2006, that timeframe. This is before social media went mainstream, it's before content marketing even had a name. YouTube was around, but it wasn't what it is today. There's so many other ways that you can do this, you can do free email courses that point to videos, because if you look at the broader population, video is the most popular format for content, but at the same time, Copyblogger people are generally writers which makes them readers.
We don't do a lot of video, and even with our podcasting, we get a much smaller audience for those because a lot of people are just like, I can't sit there and listen to that, I want to read. You have to know your audience in order to determine the right format.
If you're selling something to people who hate to read, and you issue this 20-page report that they never read, you haven't accomplished anything. it's really understanding your audience, I'll say that over and over again, how you speak to them? What format you speak to them? The price point that you want to sell at––all of that is determined by your ideal prospect or customer.
Nathan: You probably learned a lot by publishing content and then analyzing its successes and failures, for someone who's maybe new to this understanding, would you recommend surveys, or polls, or case studies, or how would you recommend someone to kind of get into the shoes of their audience?
Brian: It's interesting up until the last couple of years, we never did surveys. I wasn't a big fan of asking questions, I wanted to more observe people just in the environment out there. The internet is just the greatest market research environment in the world especially now that social media went mainstream. Now the problem is not that you don't have enough information, it's how do you manage how much information there is.
That's where I always start, online, finding where the type of people that you're looking for hang out. In the early days of blogging when commenting was such a big part of it, social media kind of killed that a little bit. A lot of what I learned about the people that were showing up at Copyblogger was from the comments that they left, and there was a lot of them, so it was really useful. These days, generally what I'll do, let's say you want to go into a certain niche, let's say personal growth.
The first thing I do is go start looking for the prominent competition, if you will, the people who are already are creating content in that area and have audiences. So you can see how they're positioned, you can pay attention to the people who follow them whether that be Facebook, Twitter, comments––what have you, and then start figuring out, “Okay, are these my type of people?” And if they are, “How can I do something different from this existing publisher in order to attract these type of people as well?”
It doesn't have to be a zero sum game, I mean people who are into personal growth tend to subscribe to a lot of different stuff. They pay attention to a lot of different information. By understanding what's out there and what's resonating with people, you can discover not only who they are, but a way to position yourself, so that you're a unique new voice that they also want to pay attention to.
I generally start off by looking for existing audiences, and then just start digging deeper into the type of hash tags they follow, the keywords––the keyword research is still incredibly important, not necessarily for SEO, it's just the language people use when they're searching for certain topics, that's an incredibly valuable information that we wouldn’t have access to without search engines.
The fact that when you mirror that language back to your audience, which is what good marketing is in the first place, that's also a cue to Google that, “Oh, okay, so if people like this content and it's about this topic, then it should rank better for those terms.” Then from there, you catch on to a rabbit trail and then that's when you have to sometimes pull back and go, "Okay, I'm drinking from a fire hose here, there's too much,” and also you just have to realize that you're not trying to appeal to everyone, and that's the biggest mistake people make, they don't want to say anything that might turn someone off and accordingly, they're not saying anything that anyone cares about.
Nathan: That's an awesome advice Brian, probably a good place to end this episode. I just want to say thanks so much for being here with us today, for letting me pick your brain. This was amazing.
Brian: Awesome. Thank you.
Nathan is the Head of Content & SEO at SimpleTexting. He's a demand generation enthusiast, content marketing advocate, and team player. He enjoys spending time with family and friends, running ultra marathons, and canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.
Connect with Nathan on LinkedIn.