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What’s the best way to market and grow a business? Do you often lock yourself in a conference room to avoid distractions and answer that question? Does one idea keep coming to mind? Guest writing for influential publications.
Aaron Orendorff does it. He is the VP of Marketing at Common Thread Collective as well as the previous editor-in-chief of Shopify Plus. Guest blogging was a foundational ingredient to scaling his personal brand. Aaron’s used guest writing to build clients for his own business and help land a job at Shopify. He shares the importance of writing for such publications, where to start, how to find ideas for articles to be accepted, and how to pitch articles.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
For a recent sampling of Aaron’s work, take a look at his guide Writing Copy That Sells or the article he calls “the crowning achievement of my life in direct-to-consumer ecommerce so far.”
Nathan: If you’re anything like me, you lock yourself in a conference room at least once a month. The goal there is to avoid distractions while finding the answers to a very simple question, “What’s the next best way to market and grow this business?” If you’re anything like me, there’s one idea that keeps popping up over and over, you hear it all the time, guest writing for influential publications.
Now, imagine what it could mean for your company if you wrote articles for pubs like Entrepreneur Inc, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Fast Company, you name it. Today’s guest on the Actionable Marketing Podcast has written for all of those publications. Since you’re a marketer, there’s a really good chance you’ve read some of his work too on some pretty influential blogs in the marketing industry.
Aaron Orendorff is the founder and CEO of iconiContent and he’s also the editor in chief at Shopify Plus. Aaron’s used guest writing to build clients for his own business and that ultimately helped him land a dream job at Shopify.
Today, you’re going to learn why it’s important to write for influential publications, how to find ideas for those articles that will get accepted, how to pitch your articles, and where to start with all of these. I’m Nathan from CoSchedule. Now, let’s get to it with Aaron.
Hey, Aaron. Thanks a lot for being on the podcast today.
Aaron: I’m pumped to be here. You have been one of my favorite secret and not-so-secret crushes in the content marketing world. I love keeping up with what CoSchedule is doing and all about. It is top-notch so I’m legit excited to chat with you.
Nathan: I think what you’re doing is also top-notch which is exactly why we wanted to talk to you. For those of us listening in who might not know you, or iconiContent, or Shopify, could you just share a little bit about you.
Aaron: I like how you reverse engineered that with, people who might not know me, might not know iconiContent and then Shopify. I don’t even want to assume anybody knows what Shopify is because I’m constantly breaking the hearts of my family members when I tell them who I work for. I have to immediately follow-up with, “No, no, no. Not Spotify. Shopify. I cannot get you a free music subscription.”
I work for Shopify which is a little known massive ecommerce platform up in Canada. Although the platform now extends to entrepreneurs, medium-large enterprise businesses across the globe. I am the editor in chief of Shopify Plus which is the large and enterprise arm of Shopify. That grew up about 3 ½ years ago or so. I’ve got to be a part of that really from about 2 ½ years ago. It’s just been fantastic be part of something at such a rapid, high-growth environment.
Aaron Orendorff is the name I go by in more personal relationships, iconiContent which kudos to you for saying that correctly, that’s my freelance agency where I cut my teeth and built my online reputation which nobody usually says properly. Because I tried to be clever when I branded with one C in the middle so, I get icon-i-content and all kinds of deviations on that.
Nathan: Well, to me it was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s definitely what it is.” I’m glad I got it right.
Nathan: I think that you’re pretty well-known out there. You’ve done a lot of this through iconiContent. I know that you’ve done a lot of that growth through guest blogging. To use that term from Mark Schaffer Nolan, I was wondering if you could just fill us in how does guest blogging helped you become known?
Aaron: It was the foundational ingredient to scaling my personal brand. Getting people to give me money to do the thing that I wanted to do anyway which is write online. I started 5 ½ years ago and spent the first 2 ½ years of my online writing career—I was 30 when I jumped in. I didn’t even have Twitter account when I jumped in—I spent the first 2 ½ years guest posting, guest blogging, writing articles for every publication under the sun like a mad man. I had logo envy. I go to all the sites of the people that I respected and wanted to be like when I grow up and I’d see those shiny logos from Entrepreneur and Fast Company, and Copyblogger.
I didn’t have any clients when I started. I didn’t have a name when I started. The way to short cut that for me was I simply began building relationships, yes, but honestly, cold pitching a crack ton of editors anywhere and everywhere I could get ahold of email addresses.
Nathan: You had mentioned that you’ve been doing this for 2 ½ years, I think when you’re just starting out there’s probably tons of different things you could be doing, how did you choose guest blogging over the other things you could have been doing to grow your business?
Aaron: Well, I don’t have very good direct response marketing skills. I’m a content dude. I really enjoy writing and telling stories and I can see product into that sort of content marketing approach. If I had come at this as a direct response marketer with old school copywriting skills, I probably would have invested in things like Facebook ads, and targeting, and maybe AdWord ads–things to drive revenue directly to my freelance business. What I really did was I put up say, 5-10 articles on my personal site that I launched when I first jumped in iconicontent.com. The only reason I put those was just so it didn’t look like a ghost town. I removed all of the dates and I still don’t have dates on my personal site from my blogs or anything like that because I didn’t want people to see that I just jammed through all of these in a three to four-week period. I wanted it to look like there was something going on.
Because I had that logo envy and because I knew enough about psychology to understand social proof is one of the most powerful levers to convince somebody to enter your funnel or to start talking to you online. I knew if I could just make it look like–so I’m all about less effort and hopefully not faking it but really borderline faking it, the more logos I can get and social proof, validation that, “All of these big publications trusts me, you should too,” the better off I would be.
It was sort of a deficiency on my part in not really understanding how to market myself in any sort of direct way. And then also, paying attention to what other people were doing on their sites and trying to replicate that and get my name up as quick and fast as possible, as far and wide as possible.
Nathan: You had mentioned that you started with cold pitching. How did you do that right away? If this was your first one, what was that process like?
Aaron: I spent some time reverse engineering what I thought would be popular topics. I spent a lot of time, in a previous life, in academics. I was a voracious reader and researcher. I’ve learned there one of the core elements of persuasion is speaking the language that your audience natively speaks. That’s not just about linguistics language, English, or French, or Spanish, but using the terminology, the sources that they already respect.
When I first started pitching, especially mainstream publishers like Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Business Insider, are honestly, publishers that I had no real business writing for. What I would do is, I would use simple tools like Buzzsumo to find out what are the most popular social media most shared post on these sites. What are the headline formulas? If I just picked the top 10 most shared articles from Entrepreneur then I click through, what’s the word count on them? How long are they? How did they use images? How are they interlinking? Is it every paragraph? Did they like a lot of data?
I would pick up these little differences on those sites so that when I would cold pitch, I would never send an editor a list of topics or possible headlines. I would always send them a complete article tailored just for their publication. I would learn that by studying what are popular post that already exist on their site.
The second step in that then was, are there holes between publishers? If Forbes has a massively popular article on something like etiquette and punctuality, is that reflected on entrepeneur.com or Fast Company? Is there a competitive hole that doesn’t exist where one site has already proved it’s popular and this other site should do the same thing.
The third little string—and I can’t remember how I stumbled into this—but I would also go to Google trends and instead of looking at what are the popular search terms right now in like business, that’s one-for-one, I would go to entertainment. I would look for ways to tie in pop culture references to these articles. It would sort of be like this perfect storm of, “This is tailored just for your site with interlinking the use of data, the use of images, the length. It’s filling a hole that your competitors are already filling and you should do it too. Plus, it ties into a popular search term in the entertainment pop culture realm.” That combination and firing up complete articles opened every door that should not have been opened to me by doing that over and over again.
Nathan: Did you write that up in the email? Did you pull out like, “Hey, you guys are missing these things.” How did you go about actually pitching the full article then?
Aaron: I learned over time to go shorter, and shorter, and shorter. What I would start with was, “So and so, this article, Forbes is killing it. You don’t have this piece so I wrote this piece to reflect that and I’ve written for blank, blank, and blank to try to provide why they should listen to me” those sort of things. What I learned over time is shorter, shorter, shorter. After about the first three to six months, I sort of stumbled into it and I noticed what got responses from editors.
Honestly, what got responses was doing all of that behind the scenes. Putting it into an article and then simply sending them like a three-line, two-line email with the attached article as a Word doc. It was really just like, “Hi, name. I’ve just finished a piece on blank,” then I insert the headline, “Let me know if it’s a good fit for whatever the publication is. It’s attached.” That was it. That sort of format what’s got me into Huffington Post. It’s what got me into Business Insider who was really, really tough. It’s what got me into Lifehacker and they’re also notoriously difficult, have high editorial standards, straightforward, just simplified it. But it showed in the piece that was attached. I think that’s the really important part. It’s like more of the showing instead of telling.
Nathan: I love the research into it and you figured out how to write that pitch. How did you know who to email? Where did you find the editors? How did you do that?
Aaron: The way I do this—and I still do this today even though the people I’m targeting now from time-to-time are in The New York Times or Harvard Business Review because I haven’t got open doors there yet. I’ve gotten responses but nothing actually went live at those places—the way I do it is I usually go to the, I don’t know what they call it, like the banner page, the about us page at these publishers where they just list out all the editors over different sections like the business section, or the online contributing editor. You can usually find it from those publications. Larger publications have that list. Really where they actually have the email addresses of the people.
There’s a little tool cold an Email Permutator spreadsheet. If you Google it you can find it, you can download a copy from a Google sheet or something like that. What it does is basically you enter the person’s first name, the person’s last name into two separate cells in the spreadsheet, the .com–so like entrepreneur.com, or fastcompany.com, and then the email permutator creates 20-30 variants using those. Maybe like, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
It just generates these 20-30 of these different versions of it and that’s what I would do at the beginning is, I would just scour entrepreneur.com. I’d grab a whole bunch of names, I’d run them through the spreadsheet and then I would copy all of those variations with Blind Carbon Copy, so they wouldn’t look like they were getting spammed. I would just BCC all of them to the particular editor. I’d send it out to 8, sometimes 10 different editors, sometimes 5 at these publications. That was the first way to do it and you can still do it that way fairly easily.
The other thing, and I have no idea how this is still legal, Sujan Patel turned me onto a fantastic tool called ContactOut, ContactOut. It’s a Google Chrome extension that you can use on LinkedIn and it pulls email addresses and sometimes even phone numbers, from the backend of LinkedIn somehow, and you’ll get Gmail addresses, you’ll get the person’s official email address, whatever they’ve put in behind the scenes, it just pulls it out and it’s free.
Nathan: That’s awesome. That would work for outbound sales too which is really interesting.
Aaron: Oh, absolutely. I’m sure outbound sales has even more advanced things than that but for my purpose is the free tool, beautiful.
Nathan: This is quite a bit of work to do in a one article and you’re creating it beforehand and not knowing if it’ll get accepted, what would you say to those people who might think, “Ahh, man. There’s so much risk.” What’s the risk to reward ratio? How would you address that?
Aaron: I have had probably three out of hundreds of articles I’ve written over the last five years not go anywhere. The reason for that is when I craft something as a guest article, I start with the hardest publisher first. Today, if I was doing it, I would write something for HBR or for The New York Times. Now, with them, you have to pitch the editor and build the relationship so it’s a big different than just giving them say a complete article. But if I wasn’t starting with HBR, The New York Times, I would start with Fast Company.
I’d write an entire article just for Fast Company, I will send it to the editors and wait to get rejected. Once that rejection came through, I would then go down to Business Insider, and I would tweak things like use a different images, interlinking—so instead of linking to other Fast Company articles I would link it to other Business Insider articles—but 90% of the article stays the same. If Business Insider rejects it then I go down to Entrepreneur. If Entrepreneur rejects it then I go down to say Mashable. I would just work my way down this list of the most difficult to somewhere unfairly sure it’ll get published. By doing that, the risk goes way down because I’m basically repurposing and just editing slightly these articles as they go through rejections.
Nathan: Super smart. Aaron, let’s just say on whatever one gets published, when things have gotten published, how do you maximize that beyond just being able to say, “Here’s a logo that I’ve done.” How do you promote those articles after they’re published? How do you maximize some of those opportunities, those pretty influential publications have provided?
Aaron: Back in the day, before I had social media savvy, I really didn’t maximize them and that was fine. The first time I pitch a publications, it’s all about them. What’s going to serve them? What’s going to get them clicks? What’s going to get them attention so that the editors would say yes to me not only the first time but then when I come back. After that first initial yes, the doors open. It’s far easier to write for publications a second, a third, a fourth time.
About three years ago, I saw this really rich niche for all of these SaaS cases, and even in some cases physical companies that were doing some sort of communication like the Skypes, the Polycoms–there’s a whole bunch of these digital communication companies out there that sell and need content. I would open the door with an article that was just a straight-up almost like clickbaiting type thing, to make the editors happy. Then, I would come back behind it with whatever niche I was focused on at the time, I bake those keywords into it. That was the way I never got a lot of traffic from these articles.
I never really built up a lot of SEO or domain authority. It wasn’t about that. It was just about getting in the door, showing off those logos, and then unleashing after that a series of articles that were very much focused on whatever niche I was trying to go after at that time. That worked brilliantly to pick up one sometimes two clients from those niches off of those articles moving forward. They would come to me through the article because somebody was paying attention to it. Sometimes I’d write about them, I’d write about something that they’d recently done, or I’d write about their competitors, so that it would get their attention in organic search or just simply through notifications like Google alerts that a lot of these companies have set up in their PR departments.
Nathan: What had been some of the results that have come from all of these work that you’ve done over the past few years especially when you’re starting up and you said you’re working on it for 2 ½ years. How has this helped you in your career?
Aaron: Three ways. Number one, when I wrote for a more niche marketing publications, Copyblogger, Content Marketing Institute, Unbounce, GetResponse, when I wrote for these places, the big benefit there was I would get the attention of their editors and other writers at that publication because they all have their own tribe. Copyblogger is a great example. Copyblogger has it’s tribe of regular writers and these people are crazy busy and yet they get requests all the time to write for clients. Henneke is a great example. Henneke, I don’t know how many leads she handed to me after the first time I wrote for Copyblogger because she’s a regular writer at Copyblogger. She constantly gets email solicitations from possible clients. As soon as she and I connected and she liked something that I wrote, and comment on it, and we built relationship, she sent me one to two leads a month for a two-year period. It was incredible. Part of it is just the showing of I get close with or you can get close with the people that can’t take on new business but you impress them because you’re writing for the places that they also write for.
The second was my first big article for Lifehacker was very intentionally engineered out of this focus on the communication apps and SaaSess and products. I wrote a piece that was all about online etiquette. I name dropped different webinar tools, different instant messaging tools, things like that. It ended up getting the attention of my first enterprise client. They came to me through that article. They followed it back to my website and it was the easiest close I’ve ever had. I’m writing about something in their niche, I’m demonstrating value in the content realm from the jump. Gosh, I must have build them into the six figures over about 1 ½-2 year period, just a huge client.
The third, man, my whole relationship with Shopify started because of this. I wrote a piece for ConversionXL. I was using a now-defunct tool that Sujan Patel was running. I don’t even remember the name of it but it basically let you pull out all the names from an article, look up their Twitter handles, and then drip out tweet directly to those people saying something like, “@soandso, I just featured you in my latest ConversionXL article. Could you check it out here and make sure I got the link right.” I’ll do something like that. I will just blast out 15-20 tweets the day after something went live and just drip them 45 minutes or so apart. I’d no idea what I was doing. I ended up sending a tweet to @tommywalker or @tommyismyname, he was the former editor at ConversionXL, turns out he was the editor in chief at the time at Shopify Plus. he was looking for writers. It’s just by throwing out a ton of these hooks, these baits out into the world, Tommy writes me back, and the rest is sort of history. He was like, “Hey, this is a great piece. You want to write for me?” and we were off and running.
Nathan: That’s unbelievable. I was just going to ask too, it’s got to have influenced your role there at Shopify so it’s fun to hear the story behind the scenes with that.
Aaron: Oh, absolutely. Just a random automated tweet from the tool that doesn’t even exist anymore because Sujan Patel couldn’t figure out how to monetize it or something. I got the benefits. The fact that it existed for six months and I’ve built a career off of one automated tweet.
Nathan: Oh, man. That is such a good success story too.
Aaron: It’s wild. Yeah.
Nathan: Alright, Aaron. I think we’ve got time for one more. I just want to pick your brain on something that’s pretty basic but I think you’d have some amazing advice for this. Let’s just say that I’m new to this but I want to start this up and start writing for influential pubs or start guest writing and all that, if you were to summarize it in just a few steps, what would you recommend that I begin with?
Aaron: One, write complete articles tailored for specific publications. Do not send pitches. Pitches are a homework assignment for editors. Give them something that is plug and play. Help them instead of giving them a homework assignment. Number two, do that by reverse engineering what’s already popular at their site, as well as their competitor’s sites. Those are the two steps that unlocked this world for me.
Nathan: Awesome. Let’s end it there, Aaron. I just want to say thank you so much for taking a little bit of time out of your day to share all of these with us. I’m definitely going to be bringing this back to the team too here at CoSchedule. Hopefully, we’ll see some of our stuff on some of these influential pubs too.
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