How CoSchedule Markets Multiple Product Lines (and How You Can Make Major Pivots With Confidence) With Nathan Ellering From CoSchedule [AMP 228]
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CoSchedule started as an editorial calendar WordPress plugin created by an agency that co-founders, Garrett Moon and Justin Walsh, ran called Todaymade. Since then, CoSchedule has grown. Not only has the core content calendar gone through a lot of changes, but so has the company.
Today’s guest is Nathan Ellering, Head of Marketing at CoSchedule, which now offers multiple different product lines under one brand name. Nathan explains how CoSchedule made pivots and tackled some risks and challenges. His advice will help you navigate from being one company that makes one product and expand to one company that makes four products.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Product Positioning: How to funnel people in and say the right things
- Marketing Automation: Where to build out those funnels and nurture people
- Marketing Design: Make sure everything published is visually built and modern
- Customer Service: Incorporate customer service much more with marketing
- History of CoSchedule: How core marketing calendar software evolved
- Company Philosophy: Start where you’re at with a smaller test product
- Marketing Work Management Software: Organize everything in one place
- Content Calendars: Meet deadlines and manage work effectively, efficiently
- Agile Marketing Tools: Hire product to finish work, deliver projects, prove value
- Current Products: Marketing Calendar/Suite, Headline Analyzer, Headline Studio
- Academy: Marketing education platform for marketers to understand, build skills
- Mission Statement: CoSchedule wants to help every marketer do amazing work
- CoSchedule Experience: Get the right messaging to get them into a product
- True Tenants of Agile: Where to ship, measure, learn, iterate, and begin
- Testing Culture: Launch something new with other people’s market research
Ben: Hey, Nathan. How’s it going this afternoon?
Nathan: Pretty good. Yourself?
Ben: Not too bad. Just enjoying that balmy 30-degree weather outside today.
Nathan: It is a nice change of pace. Oddly enough.
Ben: Yeah. For listeners either at home, in your office, or perhaps on your commute, we are based in North Dakota where it is winter for 18 months out of the year, so we are enjoying some just barely above freezing spring weather.
Before we get too sidetracked, Nathan, obviously, you and I have known each other a long time but for our listeners who may or may not recognize your name, would you mind just giving yourself a brief introduction?
Nathan: Yeah, definitely. Happy to be here first, Ben. It’s fun to be back. I’ve been on the podcast before. For anyone who’s listened for a while, I had the pleasure or honor of hosting some of these things when we first started the show. It’s really fun to be back.
I’m Nathan. I work on the marketing team here at CoSchedule. Been with CoSchedule since 2014. Right now, I work with all of the different marketing teams here. We’ve got Ben’s team which is our inbound marketing team. Ben’s our mastermind at search engine optimization. That’s really what I like to say about that but obviously, a great podcast host as well for all of you guys.
I work with our product marketing team quite a bit. Actually, I probably spend the most time there just because it’s a lot of product positioning, how do we funnel people in, are we saying the right things? That kind of works into marketing automation where we’re building out those funnels and making sure that we’ve got people who are being nurtured correctly. Then, of course, marketing design where we make sure that everything we publish is really well visually built and modern.
Tim—if you’re listening to this—who’s our senior visual designer, I’m not using the right words but he is just amazing so big props to him. Then, a new thing that I’ve started to take on is we’re starting to incorporate customer service much more within marketing here in CoSchedule.
We filled lots of different questions from our prospective customers—people who just discovered us—and we’re aiming to create experiences that help out people who really are being marketed to if you want to call it that way from a customer service perspective. That’s been really fun so far.
Ben: Very cool. Next, would you mind giving our listeners a brief history of CoSchedule as a company and how our core marketing calendar software has evolved to the point where it is today? Because the product today is nearly unrecognizable from where it would’ve been back when the company was founded back in 2013.
I should say even back in 2013, CoSchedule wasn’t a company. It was a product made by another company. Clearly, there’s a lot of change that’s happened. It’d be great if you could give our listeners a full rundown.
Nathan: Absolutely. I think you nailed it, Ben. 2013 is when CoSchedule was being built. We launched it I think on September 23rd, 2013.
Our philosophy there like Ben mentioned, we’re in Fargo in Bismarck, North Dakota. We just started where we’re at. Starting where you’re at means likely, you’re just a smaller test product—at least it was for us.
CoSchedule really began as a WordPress plugin. We positioned ourselves as the editorial plugin for WordPress—even the social media editorial account or plugin for WordPress. Over the years, we identified more needs from marketing teams.
At the beginning, we were working a lot with bloggers and we discovered many years ago that marketers are starting to turn to blogging as a great way to do content marketing. They’re very concerned with publishing content that attracts people in that they can nurture and convert—very similar to the strategies of today. Understanding those marketing teams really helped us get into a different frame of mind for the product offerings that we have today.
By talking to those people, we identified the need that they had to just organize everything in one place. We say those words all the time. They really resonate with people. We wanted to help marketers organize everything in one place and really want them. For us, after we started researching, it was marketing work management software but people don’t use that term really.
We hear the term content calendars a lot, and so marketing calendars but there are many synonyms for that. That’s really where we’re seeing the future, not so much in social media publishing or anything like that, but in content publishing making sure you’re hitting deadlines, managing your work, doing it effectively, efficiently, all those sorts of things.
Over the years since 2013, we’ve gone through lots of different iterations of that core content calendar product. I could name off a bunch of different planned names at that time. It was what we called them, the Individual Calendar, Blog Calendar. We had Growth Calendar, but today, our content calendar offerings are there, too.
It’s a marketing calendar and really, that’s meant for simpler marketing organizations. Our positioning on that stuff is take control of your process, see all of your projects together, and share your progress. Those would be the reasons to hire a product like that.
Marketing suite is much more targeted at those complex marketing organizations. We define it as a family of agile marketing tools. You’d hire that product to conclude more work, deliver projects on time, and prove your marketing team value to stakeholders.
Within the suite, we have several different products. Just different classifications for helping people understand why they would hire the suite and those we call organizers. There’s a calendar organizer which is a marketing calendar with a whole lot more built into it. There’s a content organizer which is content marketing software. There’s a word organizer sign which is more of that marketing work management, task management side. Lots of different automation there.
Then, asset organizer once you’re done in completing assets, somewhere to store it and just share it out with people like sales. It’s much more of that integrated platform. We’ve been working toward that end solution ever since 2013. It’s been really fun to be along for the ride for all of the iterations of that core offering.
Ben: That is an awesomely detailed and thorough telling of that story. I appreciate that.
Most folks these days know us for our marketing calendar software. I think if you ask most people who know who we are, what do they think we do, they would probably say, oh, it’s a marketing calendar. It’s a content calendar. Maybe some folks would still say, oh, it’s a social media calendar. It has that functionality, sure.
In addition to that, a lot of people are probably familiar with our headline analyzer, but some people might think that CoSchedule is the headline analyzer and they might not be aware of the calendar product at all. They might not even be aware that our marketing calendar software, our marketing suite software, our headline analyzer, and now Headline Studio all come from the same company despite our best efforts. It’s been challenging in some ways for us. It seems to help people catch up because we move so quickly.
To help clarify exactly who we are and what we do, I think these are going to be overlapping answers in some ways, but would you mind helping clarify to our audience who we are, what we do, and really breaking down all of CoSchedule’s current product lines today?
Nathan: Actually, I don’t think this is too overlapping with the prior because as the brand CoSchedule, this is something we would get with customer services. People would write in a question to us and they are really happy.
They’re like, oh, we’ve been a CoSchedule customer forever. We look it up. They’ve just been using headline analyzer from CoSchedule. It’s actually really interesting where CoSchedule is our brand name. It’s a company that provides multiple different products.
Our core offering, like I’ve mentioned before, has been those content calendar products being Marketing Calendar and Marketing Suite of today. Even internally, we thought about our content calendar software as CoSchedule for some time. We just say, hey, do it on CoSchedule. Even internally, we’re breaking some of those habits and truly calling those products by what they are.
At CoSchedule within our marketing team, we use Marketing Suite to organize all of our work. Even that has been an interesting pivot for us because we are a software company first and foremost.
When you call your core offering the name of your brand, that’s something that we’ve been trying to work toward recently. We’ll be working toward this quite a while to help people understand that CoSchedule is our brand name, our company that offers products.
That’s been challenging in and of itself. We’re continuing to work through it, but leading up to that question I guess is CoSchedule does offer several different products actually.
Ben, you wrote a book. Gary wrote a book. That was some of our first stuff into, hey, we can provide things that provide value to marketers, namely in sharing our education of the marketing industry, some of those things we made, or successes we’ve had—sharing those things to help people.
Some of that is actually a precursor to one of our products that we’ve been putting a lot more time and investment into recently which is Academy. That’s a marketing education platform and it’s really geared at helping marketers understand and build the skills that they need to be successful in marketing.
Ben: Something worth keeping in mind is that when CoSchedule really took flight and became its own company, our co-founders sold the assets for their agency, hired all of their staff to work for CoSchedule, and kept pressing on building new and better products. It was a bold move that was not without risk but it paid off.
There were a lot of lessons learned marketing-wise in terms of what it takes to really nail your product research, product positioning, or product pricing. Old school for a piece of marketing-type stuff that remarkably still applies even in a modern tech startup environment.
The way that we’ve been able to make it all work is by staying scrappy and remaining agile so that we can test new ideas and see what might work before we fully commit to any one thing. When you have data on your side, it does a lot to remove the fear that ambiguity can create and make it possible to make major pivots with confidence.
Now, back to Nathan.
You can see some of that evolution there. Academy is something that we’re really trying to market and build up. We just want to help people. That was an interesting first product that we had outside of content calendars.
People rely on CoSchedule for our blog. Ben, you could even chime in on this, but we’ve published tons and tons of really helpful ‘how to’ content there. You’ve created the marketing strategy guide that is really geared at helping people.
Academy is basically that, just the next level. That’s why we thought that that would be a great product. People trust us for education stuff.
Then, you mentioned this. We have Headline Analyzer. People are trusting us for content analysis with that, so recently, we have built out Headline Analyzer 2.0. We’re calling it Headline Analyzer studio or just Headline Studio. That’s a content optimization tool, obviously helping you write better headlines, helping you with some SEO side of things, outperforming competition.
With our two newest products if we can call them that, we are just maximizing the success that we’ve had from the recognition we have had throughout the industry for Headline Analysis, Marketing Education, and trying to provide even better experiences with those.
Ben: Yeah. Again, that’s a very thorough, very precise answer that hopefully clarifies some things for our listeners. I’ve been privy to some of these conversations. I’m going to ask a question that I already know the answer to—which I guess all of these fit that description—but it’s really for the benefit of our audience. How did we make the decision to pivot toward being a brand with multiple products rather than CoSchedule being considered a singular product itself?
Nathan: That’s a great question. Maybe about two years ago, we really looked at our mission statement as a company. Our exec team got together and we tried to think through where do we want to be as a company in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years?
We came up with a very simple mission statement which was CoSchedule in every marketer’s toolkit. We knew at that time that that doesn’t necessarily mean a content calendar in every marketer’s toolkit or we would’ve aborted it that way. Content calendar in every marketer’s toolkit.
We’d be just fine with that by the way, but what we want to do is provide some sort of experience here at CoSchedule that is influential in a marketer’s life whether that’s through education. We mentioned even if it’s just a blog, even if it’s just a marketing strategy guide, or a headline analyzer, whatever, we want to help every marketer do amazing work. That’s the mission.
When you think about our core software offering of content calendars, yes, we can get so far with that. Obviously biased, but every marketer can do better work with a content calendar yet we can help marketers in many different ways. The mission statement I would say is one of the things that we really looked to to say, hey, CoSchedule can be in every marketer’s toolkit. We might just have to try some different things.
With CoSchedule, the fun thing that we have going for us this late in the game, again, started up in 2013, it’s 2021 already. We have a really well-recognized brand in the marketing industry. It’s been really fun. Been a while since we’ve gone to conferences, but the content marketing world will be there.
People just come up and say, hey, I love X about CoSchedule. Hey, do you know Ben from CoSchedule? Ben, that actually happens quite a bit. We just have this recognition. What we’re trying to do is use some of that brand recognition and expand it into these other product lines, helping marketers get organized, do better work, and find value through their experiences with our brand. That’s really why we started with Headline Studio and are putting more time and investment into Academy.
Ben: Very cool. I still think it’s funny to me when you say that people are like, oh, do you know Ben? Because so much of that was just driven by my name being attached to emails that I had written and we have sent out, but I’ll take it.
Nathan: You should take it.
Ben: I’ll never decline my own hype. That’s funny.
Something I’ve always been curious about is I’ve been looped in on a lot of these decisions while they’re in-flight and then some cases maybe after the fact. You’ve been involved in a lot of the thinking, the strategy, and the decision-making behind this pivot from the get-go.
I imagine that there were probably a lot of conversations that cropped up about potentially what kinds of challenges or pitfalls we might run into that we would want to be mindful to avoid. There’s always a risk when you start playing around with your brand and your identity. Anytime you launch new products, it’s far from a sure thing, too. There are a lot of risks that have been involved in the strategy, but we’ve handled them pretty well.
From your perspective, what challenges have we faced in making that pivot? How have we either solved them in the past? How are we working through them right now?
Nathan: That is a really good question. The reality is that we are still solving these things, but what’s interesting about that question is again, our adjacent company and the core software that we’re selling is a content calendar software. We’ve had years to perfect how we sell that, how we market it, how we package it, who we target with it, who should use it, why they should hire it, the problems that it solves, the outcomes it provides—all those things. We had one funnel and now we’re building for four funnels. Really separating off those two content calendar offerings—Headline Studio, and Academy.
How do you get people who may be interested in headlines into a headline funnel versus calendars into a calendar funnel? This has been the biggest challenge. We want to make sure that whatever experience that person is having with CoSchedule, they’re getting the right sorts of messaging to get them into a product that would help them be most successful and is most relevant to their interest right now.
Building that alone just takes a lot of ideation, lots of troubleshooting, lots of guessing, shipping, measuring, and then changing everything you just shipped. That’s been the biggest thing. You can’t just go into it with a guess, ship once, and move on.
It’s really much more of a program to begin with where the true tenants of agile where you ship, you measure, you learn, you iterate, and you should begin. That’s really been something that we’ve learned quite a bit recently. You just have to embrace that. You don’t know what you don’t know, but gathering data is very important to help you learn what to do better. That’s been probably the biggest thing for us.
Ben: Yeah. To piggyback off of that, I would say if anyone is skeptical as to whether agile methodologies work, they can look to our company and the products we put out to see the kinds of results that one can drive that way.
Nathan: They could, probably. It’s just a great example of that. In the fall of 2020, we were testing different offers for our Academy product. One sort of packaging that would work well that people would gravitate toward, where they thought would be valuable to them, grab their attention, help them understand it, and actually ultimately buy the product.
We tested maybe 7–10 different ways of positioning the Academy until we found one that worked. Now, we could’ve just done one thing, shipped it, always gone that way, and been fine with it, but the results weren’t what we wanted. I highly recommend that idea of a testing culture especially when launching something new because all the market research you do is other people’s research. Your own data and your own audience, gathering it that way is always going to be more effective.
Ben: Yes. Absolutely. The last question I’ll throw your way. What tips would you have for marketers who are in a similar situation where they’re either responsible for marketing multiple product lines that exist under one umbrella brand or are in a situation where they’re considering a similar pivot?
Maybe they’re like us. They’re a SaaS company. They’ve got their core product offering, they’re starting to branch out, and maybe aren’t sure. How do you deal with building brand recognition without cannibalizing people’s understanding of what you are right now?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s completely fair. If the company is already underway with the product, you might not have to do the first thing that I would recommend. But at least for us, we looked at market research or just research in general.
Headline Analyzer is a really great example. It was a free tool that helped people analyze headlines and helped them write better headlines essentially as a whole point to that little, free tool.
We knew that the demand for it just through search was great. We asked ourselves, well, if we invested our resources into creating a premium version of that that would help what we thought was 10X more, would people be willing to invest in it? Would they purchase something like that? Would they find value in it?
The truth was overwhelmingly yes. Market research is just asking existing customers, asking your audience—however that is—why would they hire this product? Can you provide additional value for those things?
After that, for us at least, it was persona research. You can guess that we already have done quite a bit of this at CoSchedule. All of our personas in that research, we were trying to understand content calendars. We know that these are the same marketers however, so we just needed to talk to them and figure out from a different angle instead of thinking about getting organized or why they would hire a word management solution. What are you looking for with headlines? What are you looking for with marketing education?
We basically built some profiles off of that, know your audience—aged, old thing, right? Once you know your audience then, positioning comes into play. What’s the unique value proposition? After all of that, that’s when we really delve into the funnel side that we’ve touched on.
I just mentioned this in the introduction but customer services as well. We were thinking about the long-term. How can we help people find value in our product offerings for the long term?
We want every experience at CoSchedule to be a positive one and one that lasts a lifetime of you being a marketer actually. That would be great. We’re thinking a lot about retention that way, just in general onboarding people so that they are successful with the products we offer.
Ben: Yeah, that’s a great answer. That’s also a great point to leave this off. Before I let you go and then see you down the hall about 100 feet away in 2 minutes, do you have any parting thoughts or anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on yet?
Nathan: I don’t know if I have too many other thoughts on this but if anyone’s curious, Ben and I here are just normal folks. We like to talk shop. We might be interested in having a conversation with you guys if you are either going through this yourself or have done something similar.
I would say to you, Ben, thanks for having me on the show. Thanks for taking this show to the next level for CoSchedule. It’s been really fun to listen to the newer episodes. I think you are now the longest-running host we’ve ever had for the show which is amazing. You’re doing a great job, so keep it up.
March 30, 2021