How To Use Content Marketing To Grow A *Massive* Audience With Eric Siu from Single Grain [AMP 048]
What does a true marketing leader look like? What kind of results do they get? How do you lead and develop a culture that is hyper focused on growth and routinely produces 10X results and builds audiences into the hundreds of thousands?
Today I’m talking to Eric Siu, the CEO of the digital marketing agency Single Grain, the host of the Growth Everywhere podcast, co-host of the Marketing School Podcast with Neil Patel, and a contributor to notable online publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, and more.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- What Eric is up to and his vision for Single Grain as a place to grow
- The importance of people, culture, and trust when stepping into a new company
- Hiring really good people and getting out of their way
- Sticking with the Growth Everywhere podcast even when the first year was a grind
- Batching and using systems to get everything done
- How content scales well and the importance of playing the long game
- Building out a framework to repurpose content, especially when starting out
- Focusing on one thing each day and delegating things that can be delegated
- The hiring funnel, core values and a trial assignment
Jordan: What does a true marketing leader look like and what kind of results do they get? How do you lead and develop a productive culture that’s hyper focused on growth? Not only focused on it, but routinely produces 10x results and can build audiences into the hundreds of thousands. To find out, we spoke to someone who’s done it. That person is Eric Siu.
Eric is the CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain, host of the Growth Everywhere Podcast, co-host with Neil Patel of the Marketing School Podcast, he’s a contributor to publications like Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes. Eric is everywhere.
I’m Jordan from CoSchedule. Let’s jump into my conversation with Eric and find out how to get to that growth hockey stick.
Hey, Eric. Thanks so much for being on today. We really, really appreciate it.
Eric: Yeah, thanks for having me, Jordan.
Jordan: Absolutely. Could you tell us a little bit more about Single Grain, Growth Everywhere, Marketing School Podcast. What are you doing, what are you up to, and what’s the vision for all these things you’re doing right now?
Eric: Yeah, absolutely. This is interesting because I was talking with my office guy recently, we were talking about the vision. Single Grain ultimately, that’s a marketing agency, we do paid ads, we do SEO. There’s a lot of agencies out there that do that kind of stuff. We get to work with cool clines like Uber and Amazon and a whole host of other ones.
When I look at things, it’s not just the agency. It’s not just Growth Everywhere Podcast, it’s not just Marketing School and we have other stuff going on. Single Grain is ultimately the place to grow, or where growth happens. For me, if I had to nail it down to one core value, I’m always looking to learn. If I’m not learning every day, I feel antsy. To be honest, when I watch Netflix, it sucks because I feel like I’m not being productive when in fact I should just be enjoying myself.
Anyway, long story short. The vision is our team members are growing. The companies that we work with, we’re helping them grow as well and then also looking to eventually buy other online businesses and grow those too. To me, it’s all a game. I’m having fun every single day that I’m playing this game.
Jordan: That’s fantastic and that’s a game I know a lot of us want to get better at. How did you come to Single Grain? What did that look like?
Eric: This is interesting because I was leading growth at a startup called Treehouse. Things started to really take off there. Neil, who is my podcast co-host, he said, “Hey, why don’t you come help this agency? They are in trouble.” This is when Google Panda and Penguin started hitting. Things we’re getting tough for this agency.
I never really wanted to come back into the agency world. To be able to save a failing company, that was interesting. I came from a company where things were stagnant but then things took off. The confidence in being able to change, that was interesting to me.
I made the shift and then one year into it, I ended up taking over the entire company. I’ve been at Single Grain for about four years.
Jordan: That’s huge. You’re stepping into the seat knowing that the company’s really up against it, not headed in a good direction, what do you think the biggest challenge for that company was? As a leader, you had to come in and say this is the problem and this is the solution to take us past this and turn the ship around.
Eric: The biggest thing I learned, there’s a lot of things around culture that you can’t just decide to up people in one day. I came in as the number two of the company and hadn’t really established much trust with the team members. The fact of the matter is the main service offering that we had was dying. A lot of people were about to become irrelevant.
The one thing I will say is when I came from Treehouse, 60% of us were just working remotely. I just came in, waved the magic wand. I said, “Hey guys, we’re going to switch to remote. We’re going to adjust the service offering, we’re going to do all these other stuff without building rapport with people.” I didn’t build trust with people and it became a culture of almost fear, I would say.
Nowadays, when people talk about culture all the time, I’m all for it. Back in the day, it’s all about execution and not so much about EQ. I’m not really thinking about how my decisions would affect people. I learned that very quickly.
Jordan: Oh, wow. When you came in and you’re leading the ship now and making some big changes, how did you identify that, okay, culture is something to investing because I heard you talk about this recently and you said some pretty profound things to me about having culture drive the bus in a way, especially for marketing teams. What would you say the importance of culture is and focusing on that, is something that’s going to add value?
Eric: I think it’s everything. The one book I’ll recommend for everyone, not even just entrepreneurs but any kind of senior personnel in a company. Read the book Traction. They talk about culture, there’s all these templates, things like that to help grow a business. I think by far the most important thing when you’re looking to build a strong culture, it all stems from the core values. Oh God, that’s another ra-ra thing again. Core values are super important, right? We hire and we fire based off of those.
Just to give you an example, it’s a group called Entrepreneurs Organization. When I joined a couple of years ago, when things were actually on fire, a guy that joined with me at the same time, his business was doing about $3 million dollars a year, which is pretty good. I saw him again a couple of months ago and said, “Hey, how are things going?” And he’s like, “We’re going to do $22 million this year.” He went from $3 million to $22 million this year. I said, “Spill the beans. What’s the secret?” He’s like, “Oh, basically all we did was we hired really good people and we got out of their way.”
It starts from the culture, right? If you want to hire great people that would stay for a long time, they have to be aligned and it all comes down to the core value. I don’t want to keep harping on those but if you want to read the book, you’ll learn all the stuff to get better at the stuff. I definitely recommend reading the Entrepreneur’s Operating System which is called Traction.
Jordan: That’s fantastic! Love recommendations like that. I got another one on my bookshelf. I want to change gears just a little bit. Keep talking about the team thing but one thing that’s always impressed me about you is you’re like a one man army. It seems like you’re podcasting, you got white papers, ebooks, you’re writing for Forbes and Entrepreneur and HubSpot, all these things. How do you create so much content while you’re still investing in a team? How do you balance that, leading people while still being a publisher yourself?
Eric: Great question. For me, actually I didn’t really balance it in the beginning, because when the company was on fire, I started my first podcast, Growth Everywhere. To give you a little background, that podcast, in terms of managing the company, that’s one thing. I was spending six hours a week, interviewing, writing the show notes, editing everything. I did it all on my own in the beginning for the first year or so. Guess how many downloads I was getting per day after the first year?
Jordan: How many?
Eric: I was getting nine downloads a day. It’s tough because usually people would throw in the towel by then but for me, I come from a gaming background. I’ll grind it out. I played a lot of poker growing up. I’ll grind it out on online poker, right? I just know that when I’m out there creating all this content, you’re asking probably how am I doing it, what keeps me going? The unsolicited feedback from people, like email from here and there people saying, “I don’t know why this is not more popular, blah, blah, blah.” The insights I’m getting from the podcast, that just keeps me going. That’s gone that one to about as high as about 100,000 downloads a month, now that’s translated to Marketing School which gets about 550,000 downloads a month.
For me, it’s all about batching things. On Thursdays, like today, I do all my podcasts on Thursdays. With Neil and I, because our schedules are busy. For example, this Saturday and Sunday, we’re actually going to the studio for the first time and we’re just going to knock out 40 episodes because we’re machines like that.
You’ve got things batched. What involvement do your recruit from in your team? Do you invite them into the process at all? One, you can increase your reach and ability with the team, but also, I suppose they can learn and get that DNA download from you. Is that something that you do a lot?
Eric: You’re talking about in terms of training people?
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. Do you bring your team into your process of creating and publishing content?
Eric: Absolutely. There’s no way I could do this on my own. There is a team behind it. For Neil and I, when we record, it’s just a matter of getting on the Skype call like this and then we’ll just drop the file into the Dropbox and then magically show notes appear, the audio is edited and then intros and outros are added. There is a team behind it now. Same thing for the content team. A lot of the stuff like guest posting other sites, we’ve started to sunset that and we just really focus on podcast. We’re doing all the stuff.
Neil’s doing a lot more videos now. I have a new marketing reality series coming out on YouTube. I’m publishing a book too. I just know that content scales well and eventually it’ll come back to me. I’m okay playing the long game. You hear from Gary V all the time, it’s all about patience and it really is.
Jordan: That’s fantastic. Publishing that kind of content, if you have someone right now who comes to you and says, “Eric, you’re doing all this stuff. Where have you found the most success? Where should I start where you’ve seen the most bang for your buck?”
Eric: In terms of hiring people?
Jordan: Sorry. Let me clarify that. I meant in terms of producing content.
Eric: In terms of producing content. When I look at my own behavior, if I’m at the gym, I’m fully focused on I can get the workout in but at the same time, I have a podcast inside my ear buds or I’m listening to audio books. I do think podcasts are really scalable because you have people’s full attention, they need to listen in first and that’s hard to do nowadays. If I’m watching TV, I’m going to have my phone with me too. It’s hard to keep anybody’s full attention. I think podcasts are huge and they need to repurpose them into a lot of different things.
If you’re starting out, even if you’re not a fan of audio, maybe you’re better at video, whatever it is exactly, I think it’s really important that you build out some kind of framework where you can repurpose your content.
For example, Shelaine Johnson, I think my understanding is that she’ll start with the webinar and that’ll lead to multiple blog posts and that’ll lead to a bunch of social images as well, that’ll lead to other related content too. You have a framework where you’re able to repurpose things and then move them through that flow and then you just have one piece becomes 5 or 10 pieces of content.
Jordan: Repurposing content as you’re scaling like you talked about. That first year of your podcast, you said you end with something like nine downloads a month, but you didn’t throw in the towel. How were you defining success at that moment that kept you moving forward to where you’re at now? Hundreds of thousands of people, I guarantee you, any listener would just kill for that. What made you push past that? How were you looking at success in that moment?
Eric: I have a problem where it’s hard for me to give up. That’s one thing, the stubbornness. To be practical here, when I look at podcasts, I think it’s really important to look at all the lessons that you’re learning from interviewing other people or what you’re teaching because I know that when I’m teaching something at the very least, I’m reinforcing what I know and if I’m interviewing somebody, I get to learn for free from people that have founded nine figure companies were sold for billions. I think that’s icing on the cake to get listeners.
What I look at is what I mentioned earlier, I’m looking for the unsolicited feedback out there. Am I getting email here and there where people are saying, “Hey, this changed my life. This is really good.” Marketing School for example, what makes Neil and I happy is when people are saying, I have no college degree. I just got my first job because of you guys or I just got my first raise because of you guys and I got more equity in the company, or we just started adding revenue after being stuck for 12 months. That’s amazing to me and that’s what really keeps me going.
Jordan: That’s beautiful. Really, you’re saying is my content actually moving the needle for people. That’s what success is.
Eric: Exactly. Because people like to compare their chapter 1 to somebody else’s chapter 25. People are in different stages, that’s my point. Whoever’s listening, some people might say Marketing School is too basic. Well then, go ahead and go listen to Growth Everywhere, then you get the story. But there’s a lot of people there are listening that are starting out new. It’s just good to be able to help people across the board and be able to actually get that validation.
Jordan: As you launch either new content channels or you take on new projects or clients, whatever new thing you’re doing, how do you prioritize what to do first when you have so many things going on?
Eric: Yeah, good question. Fortunately for me, I basically just look at my calendar everyday but I will say the way I prioritize right now and here’s another book recommendation, The One Thing by Gary Keller. It’s just focusing on that one thing for each day. Again, there’s a theme for different days. Thursday is a content creation day, Friday, those are my strategy days and then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I’m in the office.
It’s also continually figuring out as you grow what you need to take off your plate. I continually audit myself every quarter or so and think about what are these things that I need to take off my plate, what are the $10, $100 tasks or $1 an hour task that I need to take off my plate and then figure out okay, here are responsibilities and then start to hire out because that’s the highest leverage thing that you could do. You can build a great team around you to take these things off your plate so you could only focus on the things that you’re good at and things that give you energy.
Jordan: If you’re going to be delegating something like that, let’s say it’s “$100 an hour task.” It’s still pretty important though that it gets done well. That’s why you’re going to make sure that it gets done. How do you know who to bring on your team and how you can trust them to knock it out of the park for you?
Eric: Yeah, great question. What we always do, when we interview people, a lot of people can interview well but we often will pay people to do a homework assignment and see how they work with us, see how they communicate with us and a lot of people tend to fall flat in this area. That’s the first thing.
Also, our entire hiring process, we call it the hiring funnel. Basically, we’re checking for things that fit with our core values, everything like that and making sure that they know what they’re talking about, they have a good portfolio and everything. Usually after a while, you meet with people a couple of times. The more senior they are, we’ll probably meet with them more times. Meet with them a couple of times, do the homework and that’s more than enough to get started. Worst case scenario, it doesn’t work out, you lose all the time but it’s better than committing to something long term and being stuck.
Jordan: Okay, I have a follow-up question on that. What’s your best advice for maybe a marketing manager? Some kind of a leader in a marketing team, maybe even a company. What’s your best advice for them to improve their culture right now? What’s the single most important thing they should do right when we’re done talking?
Eric: For a marketing manager to improve their culture, when I think about from a marketing background, I think about accountability all the time. Making sure that everyone has very specific goals. Speaking of higher level here because I’m trying to not stay within the marketing manager title. But using a tool like 15Five for example. They have weekly KPIs and OKRs where you’re measuring everything. I think that’s important. A lot of companies, they tend to wiggle out of these staying accountable.
I think that’s important especially when you’re trying to run a content process like this. Let’s say you have to produce five articles a day and one podcast every single day and then one interview every single week, two or three videos. It can get really crazy and everyone needs to be accountable, it needs to be a well-oiled machine. Just having something like that, clear goals in the beginning, it seems very basic but not many people are good at that.
Jordan: I love that because really, the idea is like you’re creating a culture of shipping, you’re creating a culture that gets things done and is accountable for the work that they produce, just like a good marketer should be. Like an agency, clients pay us because we make them more money than they pay us. We have to be accountable to those results. You’re saying just flip that lens around and look at your team in the same way?
Eric: Totally. Yup.
Jordan: Alright, last question here now. Specifically about you and again, your content creation, and the audience that you’ve grown because it’s really big, but it’s also pretty diverse in multiple channels. What’s your best advice for marketers to grow their audience like the way that you have and diversified it?
Eric: Yeah, you know what’s interesting? I think the audience always been the same thing with Neil too, his audience is ginormous, but for us, I almost feel like I’m being a motivational speaker here when I say it. This stuff just takes time, nine downloads a day. Year 2 was 54 downloads a day, it’s still nothing much, right? And then it really started to take off. It’s just sticking with it.
When you look at organic traffic or example, I remember when I was at this one company in the past. We get about 100,000 visits a month, which is pretty good, a lot of people would kill for that. We wanted it to really break out. We’re doing SEO, we’re doing a lot of content marketing, and it wasn’t until eight months later where things just shot up into the right and we started getting a million visits a month.
A lot of stuff that you see in life, it’s like you would expect that it’s linear. You put in a dollar or maybe you get $2 and you just keep doing the same thing. It’s linear, and maybe the return gets better over time. It’s just up into the right, it’s a straight line. But a lot times, it can be exponential. It’s just flat for the longest time and it becomes a hockey stick and it just explodes.
Just take your time. Most people just aren’t going to take their time and they just keep trying to do all these new stuff all the time. The final analogy I can give you before we’re done is you look at success as a circle or sphere and on all the edges of that circle or sphere, that’s success. And you’re in the middle, you’re a dot in the middle and then you keep trying to get to the edge but then you keep trying to do all these different things but then you just keep going in circles and you never reach the edge. Take your time and focus in.
Jordan: I love that analogy. That makes perfect sense to me. Thanks so much for being on. Learned a lot, I know our listeners are going to get a lot out of this too. So thanks for taking the time and for giving us some of your insight there.
Eric: Yup, thanks for having me.
Jordan: Take care.