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Thought leadership: You’ve no doubt heard the buzzword, but do you know what it means? More importantly, do you know why it matters when it comes to building and growing your business? Today we are going to talk to John Hall, the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co., is going to chat with us today about how thought leadership can help you scale your business and take it to the next level.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Nathan: Thought leadership is somewhat of a buzzword in marketing and public relations lately but what exactly is it and is it important? John Hall from Influence & Co. knows that thought leadership content helps you grow your business. John recently published a book. He writes articles for big publications like Forbes and he’s a keynote speaker to top it off.
He has tons of experience with positioning himself and influencing leaders in their market. He’s sharing everything he knows with you on this episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I’m Nathan from CoSchedule. Let’s check in with John. Hey John, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
John: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Nathan: I’m excited to have you so let’s just kick it off. Tell me about Influence & Co.
John: It’s just the best company ever. No. We’re about a five year old company. Kelsey, myself, Brent, found a team member, started it on the idea that marketing and communication was changing in a way that it was becoming more and more important to build trust with specific audiences rather than just selling to them all the time and advertising to them.
The idea behind what we came up with is we decided to look into what are the best forms of trust and how you create that. What we landed on is that one of the best forms and most scalable forms is to get content from key employees at companies and create content, distribute that to the audiences that they’re trying to gain trust and educate or sell to. That’s where the idea started, how we do that.
We started looking at all the challenges that come with it. A lot of people don’t have time or they don’t have the resources or connections with publications or places where large audiences are. We just specialize specifically in that and we looked and we said, “Okay, what type of teams, technology, relationships does it take?” We built out a network and publication relationships with editors specifically focused on getting them expert content which allowed us.
It was perfect timing because a lot of publications were cutting down their editorial resources so we could go in there and be a big source of content for them. We worked in companies like LinkedIn to help test out their contributor platform and other major pubs. We ended up, I would say honestly, just the perfect timing to form those relationships.
The next thing was developing the technology behind it which was a software that manages the process where I guess I could just tell that one of my things that I was pissed off about PR and content marketing before this was that you never knew what was actually happening and it was just like, “Okay, this might get published someday. This might happen.” You didn’t know how things were changed, why you use this writer.
It’s just a lack of transparency and so we created a software to basically go against that, to be so clear on what’s going on, where things are getting published, the analytics behind it, who is involved. It’s turned out to be a pretty great, we call it core, but core technology for content creation and distribution and most importantly how we’re extracting that knowledge and managing that knowledge.
There’s that side of things but then the main focus is on the service of helping busy individuals and companies create content from their key employees and get that placed in places where their audience is reading. We also can do things like creating the support docs, the sales enablement, the white papers, the things that support that expertise. In addition, we can also get influencers and contributors to write and refer to that expertise and that content as well.
We started out like I said five years ago. We’re about somewhere full time between let’s say 80 and 100 employees when you put the people in the office all together and then we have about 60 or 70 contract to that as well. It’s been a good ride and it’s been exciting.
Nathan: It sounds like a really smart idea, something that definitely needed to happen. You mentioned you’re part of the founding team. I’m wondering what exactly do you do at Influence & Co.
John: I’m the co founder and CEO and then we have Brent, when I was talking about finding a team, it was just initially from the start when idea conception kind of happens. Brent is the chairman of our holding company that is the investor here. And then we have Kelsey who is the co founder and president. The breakdown, Kelsey and I are on managing the company, Kelsey does a lot of the operational in house stuff, dealing with the staff ideal, primarily external, and then with strategy and then with our senior leadership.
Nathan: Nice. John, obviously, Influence is a big part of what you do. You just published a book, congrats on that, called Top of Mind: Use Content to Unleash Your Influence and Engage Those Who Matter to You. Tell me about that.
John: It’s a part of the natural evolution of sharing your expertise. We’re starting to offer this service as a service to our clients since we know that sharing expertise, a big part of that is also at some point potentially doing a book. When we saw that opportunity as a service that we could provide, I wanted to obviously be one of the first people to test it out so we can work out the kinks. It was a process that was great.
It’s a lot of time, I’ll tell you that, but what was nice was my team, as they were doing the service, it allowed them to focus on spending the time to get the right content. What I was responsible for was just brain dumping my thoughts, my anecdotes, the experiences. It made the process a lot more enjoyable because I wasn’t involved in the nitty-gritty, a lot of that. It was a great experience.
It started because of this idea that I kept hearing the term top of mind, top of mind, top of mind. It’s that that’s the goal of all marketers. It’s a goal that all the CEOs that are wanting to stay top of mind with investors or ahead of recruiting. That’s one state top of mind with the best recruits. It just was always being said. When I was speaking at BOLO a few years ago, I was introduced by a guy named Tyler and he said, “I haven’t seen John in a year but he’s been on top of my mind so frequently.”
He said in like a very funny way that I enjoyed it because of the fact that I hadn’t talked to him but he had paid attention to my content, certain things that I have done that he felt close enough to me that he booked me for the keynote there. I was like, “Wow, this is such an amazing thing that I can actually scale this trust where he’s thinking about me in this way and it’s obviously positive since he booked me.” He was talking positively about me at the time.
I looked and I was like, “Wow.” A part of the speech did really, really well. One of the speakers afterwards, a friend, his name is Rohit Bhargava, he wrote Likeonomics and Non-Obvious. He even pointed out. He goes, “Man, when you talk about going from short term to long term memory and this idea behind engaging people to this, I guess you could say in the right way at the right time so that they think of you in the perfect moments, that’s super valuable, and so I always try do that.”
There were all these little signs that came up. There are probably say 15 or 20 after that where it would come up about engaging people in the right way, earning trust, being in the long term memory at the right time and so it creates an opportunity for you or your company. It just kept happening and I just finally went to Kelsey, my co founder and I was like, “We need to do something about this. This is something that I think we can really help people out with. I think it’s aligned with what our company believes in, what you and I believe in and I think we can help people.” That’s how we started it.
Nathan: Obviously, you wrote this book. Would you recommend for those looking to build influence to write a book?
John: Not rush into it, absolutely not. I would say that you do it at the right time. You first be focused on building your content platform and getting people to pay attention to you in a way that you have some credibility, you have some sort of tribe that sees you as an expert out there. And then yes, absolutely a book at the right time. It’s fantastic but do not rush into it because there’s a lot of people that do books.
You hear about the books that are successful. You don’t hear about the books that aren’t successful and there’s a ton of them. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of those happen and it’s because people don’t understand the goal behind the book. A book is a tool as a part of a larger content strategy.
For us, it’s played an amazing tool by building credibility at the right time for us and then also I have a big enough tribe and following people that we can actually get it distributed and people are paying attention to it. I would say that the short answer no, don’t rush into a book. The long answer is yes, let’s talk about that at the right time. This can be a perfect fit into a content strategy and an influence strategy.
Nathan: Let’s just say that we’ve built a following. Someone like CoSchedule, we have this big following. If someone were to start a project like that and I know writing a book is a big thing, what would you recommend their first steps to be?
John: That’s how I got connected to you guys in the first place. I think you built a following that makes sense. People are pretty familiar with your brand and like you guys. I think I would recommend that at some point for sharing your content strategy that one of your either founders or leaders or something in some way, somebody develop a book that the company can use. Yeah, I think that you guys are a perfect example.
What I would do first and I think you guys are doing because I think you’re working with us on certain things with content strategy. For that, I would say that once you start developing more of the external thought leadership, you’re consistently getting the voice out there which I think you guys are great and deserve to. It’s saying, okay well, now that we’ve seen this context that we’ve created externally and we see what people engage with and you guys also have on site content that people pay attention to as well.
You look at that and you say, “These are the engaging factors that we really think that our audience is going to get a lot of value from.” That’s what forms. That’s what I live about blogging and external content guest writing and even PR and ways is that you can actually figure out things that are engaging before you spend the time writing the damn book about it. And so, that’s what I would say.
I wrote two or three articles about some of this stuff that’s in the book and it did extremely well. One of my chapters is about helping others so that at the right time, they think of you as a helpful person. I have three articles in Forbes that have done almost I think total a million or maybe I think a million and a half or something like that views when you put all of them across what I’ve written about that topic. That is huge. It’s very easy to see that people recognize it and they engage with it. I would say that’s the first. It’s identifying what’s truly engaging to the audience.
The next thing is how are we going to set up a process so that we’re getting the right information at the right time and create a blueprint because you want the blueprint to be very clear on we’re getting this type of content in here for this reason because we think it’s engaging in this way and this is how we can use that in the future. A lot of the values of a book are what you use after it’s published and how you’re leveraging it. We use it in our sales process to educate people. We use it to potential recruits. We give it to them to get them excited about the company and to get to know us better. Once you identify those things, you can really maximize the value of doing a book.
Nathan: I think that’s really smart advice. Like you hinted, I know we’ve hired Influence & Co. to help us pitch ideas in articles to some of those more influential publications. Let’s talk about that just a little bit because I think it connects into what you’re talking about with this book and building your following. How can a marketer find a great idea to pitch to an influential publication?
John: It’s got to be focused around the audience and their audience. Knowing what they accept, what they don’t accept. It can’t be about you, especially the first ones. Too many people leave with promotional pieces or ones that have slick links in there. I was just talking to a publication yesterday and they’re like, “You think I’m stupid that this article has five keyword links in it and it was very clear why this article was written.” I was laughing. This was an article of various videos making fun of a contributor that I know. I just told him.
Especially when you’re going out there initially building that, you can get away with some promotion and if you look at some of my pieces, some of them will obviously be about thought leadership content marketing, the PR aspect, those things that we do, which no matter what, in some ways promotional because that’s the area that I practice in.
Now, if I wrote about my first struggles in building the company and how I cried myself to sleep these nights and this is how I got past that, that’s not as promotional. It’s actually sharing an experience. What I tell people is that there’s always a time to be a little more promotional but out the gate, when you’re pitching publications, be so focused on what’s best for them, what’s best for their audience.
As soon as you get that opportunity, put a lot behind it. So many people get published somewhere and they’re like, “Great, I got published.” The content under performs. It can be an amazing article. If you don’t do things to leverage a content, the chances are less that you’re going to perform. I was at the journalism symposium at University of Missouri, which is a great media leader event. One of the journalists there said, “No, if you just create great content, it will go all over the place. It will be viral.”
There’s so much great content that you never see. I’ve seen some of the smartest people write an article that they publish on their own LinkedIn site or they publish on their own blog and five people saw it. That’s where I think you got to be honest with yourself and say, “Okay, out the gate, when I’m pitching these publications, I need to be very focused on what’s really valuable to them, what content is going to be engaged and how I can leverage the crap out of it so a lot of people see it.” Because I can promise you this, if out the gate, you get an article that does extremely, extremely well, that publication is going to be a lot more willing to work with you in the future.
You always keep the audience in mind and the publication in mind but then once again, you got to really walk out that promotional line because if you start just promoting your product, you’re going to lose trust completely but you got to start up right off the bat. Be very focused on trust, doing what’s valuable for them and engaging people, and then typically, things fall into line after that.
Nathan: What are some other tactics or methods you’ve used or seen be successful for building influence or positioning yourself as an authority?
John: When you think about building influence, it comes in a couple of different ways. There’s the perception of influence and there’s actual influence. There’s a lot of value in both of them. Let’s say the perception of influence. Somebody, like for example, contributed to Forbes yesterday, they could say that they contribute to Forbes and they do say it. That stuff happens all the time.
I’ve been writing for Forbes for five years. Average view is well over let’s say 5,000 an article. When you look at those two differences, what I have is I started to turn into real influence but that takes time and it’s hard. Trust me, a lot of resources went into that and it certainly wasn’t easy. What they did, where they’re saying that they have contributed to Forbes, there’s a perception of credibility there. As much as people say anybody can do this post or Forbes, even now, they’re saying the larger or even the times types site, everybody’s hating on, okay, everybody can do it. But in reality, no. Anybody cannot do it.
Specifically my editor for Forbes is very particular. Lauren is an old school journalist that is very good at seeing talent and he does not let anybody contribute for sure. There is some credibility with actually doing certain things like that that have credibility stamps on it. Have you written a book? That’s a credibility stamp. Do you speak and have keynotes and a video of that? That’s credibility stamp. Have you done thought leadership content? That’s where you’re contributing as an expert in these places. That’s credibility stamps.
Those are all things that build the perception of credibility which is very valuable. When people are deciding if they want to deal with you or not, they look at these things. We do it all the time. We measure people all the time. We measure companies up. We have this natural sense of we don’t trust people or companies. That’s why people stalk online. They’re like, “Oh, what about this? Now, I got to learn this.” Because we know information is out there that can help us make a better decision and trust who we’re working with.
For people who say how do I build influence? I say what type of influence? For example, I have some credibility and reach this audience, you can do for example a PR piece that talks about you well and then really amplify that, target the specific audience, and then just use that piece to get in front of them a lot. That’s a very different strategy than true thought leadership in the industry where you say, “Hey, I want to get in these publications consistently. I want these contributors, influencers, to talk about me. We want to be developing content on site that people are paying attention to.”
There are different layers of influence. What I just tell people when they ask me, “What should I do first?” It’s like what are your goals? What are we trying to accomplish? Because if you’re just doing a product launch or something like this, you’re not wanting true thought leadership when you’re only doing one product and move on and do another one. You’re wanting to just sell and draw attention and build credibility around a product.
For me, it’s like Apple has products that everybody, I mean not everybody, but they’re one of the most valuable brands. I think I just tweeted something about their brand is worth $170 billion dollars. I think that if you are very serious about building an actual company that has long term value, you have to be focused on building real influence and true thought leadership. That’s where from the start, you got to set it up right. You’ve got to actually say, “Okay, we’re going to commit to this.”
I told somebody the other day that I will never commit less than $5,000 a month no matter what company I’m with, no matter what I am doing, to invest in thought leadership just for myself. That’s just for myself. That’s not even a company. That’s not even other things. Some of you go, “Whoa, that’s a lot to just be spinning.” But if you want to truly lead an industry, you have to invest in yourself as someone people trust in that industry.
That’s where I say is that I’m always going to do that. No matter what company I work for, I’m going to be very, very big on that because I don’t want to work for companies that are one and done. I want to work for companies with long term brands that can roll out different products, different services, involved with industries, and ultimately succeed in the long run.
I think that it’s important to look at how you can build real influence in the long run and that’s where it takes time but you map out a blueprint, you invest in it, and you commit to it. You don’t do it for a couple of months. You don’t do it for six months. You commit to it.
Nathan: I can definitely see the value there. You’ve talked about making sure that you’re investing in this. Something that I’m wondering is how do you measure things like brand awareness, thought leadership, and influence?
John: Some is qualitative and some is quantitative. That’s where I believe, it’s like years ago, Gary Vaynerchuk was like, “How do you measure the value of your mother?” That’s how you look at PR and these things. Honestly, I could probably put some numbers on it. I’m just joking but I can honestly look at things and say, “Okay, well qualitatively, here’s where my mother instilled in me these values and these different things.” Even though there’s not an exact dollar amount, you can say, “Wow. I know I had a great mom because from these things that are important in being a mom, she just nailed it.”
I think it’s the same thing. when you look at thought leadership, you got to look as one is qualitative, one is quantitative. Quantitative is actually, you can track if you have content aligned with it on site, how much traffic? It’s not going to be a ton on by lines and opt-ins because those are not things that bring millions and millions or thousands and thousands of traffic but they’ll be quality. Typically, it’s lower but at the same time, there is some value to that.
There’s value to how you’re leveraging the content. For example, you can look at when we have someone in the sales process and they interact with our thought leadership content and then ones who don’t, who spends more? There’s a lot of data that we’ve seen that shows that when people interact with thought leadership content as a part of the sales process, they spend more, they stay on longer as a client, they’re more educated, and they feel closer to the company.
For that, I think it was HSPC years ago, a sample I used, I think they tracked that and they saw that based on when someone interacted with their thought leadership content and content marketing efforts compared to direct sales, the content marketing efforts and the thought leadership, the client spent I think 50% more with them or they made 50% more of that client. I think that that’s something that people don’t think about but it does help there.
I look at metrics and I say, “Okay, qualitative, what we do know is that when we get published in these types of publications, there’s some credibility value in addition to we will reach an audience for brand awareness. We want to get this many hits that are thought leadership. We want this many hits that are influencers and contributors talking about us. That is our very qualitative brand awareness goals because it’s in the deliverable form.”
You can measure brand lift and things like that but to be honest, I look at it and I say you’ve got to have smart people trust them and say, “Hey, what is the best thing that’s going to have bang for the buck with this in the long term of our brand?” Looking at that, committing to that, and then saying you’re next thing.
What are some other things that factor into that? For example, SEO is something that factors into PR and thought leadership content. Does that mean that SEO drives what content you’re getting out there? No. But you don’t want to be an idiot and get content out there that doesn’t benefit your SEO at the same time because it helps organically, you show up. Also, the publication because they have all these articles that are showing up for search and they’re getting more traffic as well.
That’s a factor where you can quantitatively look at that. You can say how many. We have one article that I did for Trends last year that brought in a ton of leads to us. We have another article for PR where there was a contributor that wrote about us that brought in tons of leads. Quantitatively, we can look at that but that was true thought leadership that a contributor and influencer was writing about us and referring your expertise in this way. I didn’t finance that as thought leaders.
Then also, on the other side, the by line article was a Trends article that ended up doing very, very well. It had some decent calls to action referring to blog and content on our site. It brought in a lot of quantitative results. You’ve got to walk through all these different things and be honest and say this was qualitative which we’re happy with, this was quantitative.
What I tell people is I go, “If you can just get remotely close to breaking even on quantitative metrics with thought leadership, you are winning.” Because you know there’s a lot of qualitative value there and so that’s where it’s like get there and then anything about that, you know, you’re getting a decent amount of value just purely on the qualitative stuff and the halo effect that thought leadership has.
Recruiting is one of those things that people just discount all the time but I can’t tell you how many of the best talent that we had refers to our thought leadership content when they said we are really excited about working for you. We saw this article or right after we got off this LinkedIn ad, we saw your content, we loved it. There’s so much value there. You just can’t discount them.
The number one problem that happens is that you get somebody in charge with thought leadership that’s siloed into one goal. This happened this morning where somebody is, “What are the metrics, how many leads am I getting from this exactly?” I’m like, “If you’re only looking on this exact lead and this quantity metric, I would not spend money with us. I would absolutely not if you’re only looking at that in this short period of time how many leads. I can suggest two or three other strategies that in the short period of time, doing this will be better for you.”
That’s a problem you have to look at holistically for the company. The different values that it brings and you can ultimately create a ton of ROI when you look at it that way but if you look very siloed and very specific, you can really get some problems.
Nathan: I’m a new person. I haven’t really done this stuff. What’s your best advice for someone looking to position themselves as an influencer? Where should they start?
John: You got to just start writing, getting content out there and being thoughtful about it. You start with a document, a blueprint of taking steps because it’s going to be frustrating at first. My first year, I was not publishing to major publications. I didn’t publish for a major publication until it was month seven or eight of really focusing on it.
You’ve got to just create that blueprint and say, “Hey, here are my goals. This is where I feel like I have expertise or knowledge or experience where people can get value on. This is the audience I want to reach where this stuff can be valuable too. This is the type of text that reach those people. Here are the blogs that reach those people. Here’s my LinkedIn, another medium that we can use if I can’t get published there. This is the money I’ve set aside to maybe do some paid amplification to get more eyes on this.”
There are all those factors. Starting out with documented strategy and then looking at what are those first steps and then take it every three, six months and learn what worked, what didn’t and then evolve from that. Once you find out what works, then you can do more of it and then typically, that leads to other opportunities where you can keep leveraging and keep leveraging and keep leveraging because it’s like once you have certain things, speaking has become a lot easier for me to get when people see that I’m contributing places. People are talking about me more. I’m getting on lists and things for speaking list.
You gotta start somewhere and then you can keep leveraging it and then keep going that stepping stone to the next step. At first, it can be as simple as you’re interacting socially and you’re looking at and building an audience. They’re communicating, sharing people’s stuff out, getting articles. Don’t be frustrated by the lack of audience at first but just keep building and building. Talking to people let’s say at conferences and then say, “Hey, you should follow me here.” Or “Let me get your card. I’ll add you to my email list.” Or “I will add you to the newsletter that we sent out that has my content.” Or “Follow me.”
Or you speak at a small entrepreneur group of 20 people and then on the last slide, you say, “Hey, you can follow me here.” Everything builds on each other and it’s hard to make it happen overnight. It can happen if somebody gets lucky with some crazy opportunity but I wouldn’t play on that. Build off it and keep building off of it over the years. In year two or three, there’ll be massive differences when you look at your three to one.
Nathan: John, I just want to say thanks. I think all of this was awesome advice, thank you so much for everything that you just shared today about building influence. This was an awesome episode. Thanks.
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