I had the pleasure of visiting Susan Su, Head of Marketing at Reforge, at their office in San Francisco. Susan and her team were apparently the only ones working that day, prior to a national holiday. Their office itself skips the typical San-Francisco-office style, positioned in a rather quiet space away from the Financial District, a few blocks from Duboce Park. We can say nothing that day was playbook-oriented. And that’s 100% suitable to what I learned from her right there: not following every content marketing playbooks can, in fact, create new paths to success.

You’re welcome to watch the whole interview in the video above or read through my favorite takeaways on this article.

And here goes the first one:

Following on the steps of a success case from years ago won’t work

Susan Su started our chat being very honest and straight to the point about content marketing cases and previous successful strategies:

“Be careful about following any kind of case study or template or best practices from companies that started with content in 2010 or 2011 or 2007 or even 2013 any time prior to the last couple of years ago… Their stories are not very applicable anymore.”

You might be asking yourself why.

The main reason why you can’t do something someone else has done a couple of years ago and expect the same outcomes is not the plain fact that your company, team, purpose, market, persona, product (and so on) is unique. According to Susan, there is another factor that intervenes even more than all that: the ecosystem.

“And it’s not that it’s completely not applicable or that their success is invalid. It’s very valid. It’s just that the ecosystem has changed so much.”

So not only is your company unique in its form, but it is also growing in a different environment. Platforms have changed, consumption patterns have changed, people have changed – and technology is probably the one to blame. The faster things change, the less what worked before will work right now for one simple reason: the situation is not the same anymore.

That means that, when it comes to content, it seems like a lot of the practices that have helped companies and professionals get well known out there, might not be applicable right now.

But if trying to follow on someone else’s steps won’t work, what will? What has changed (and how)? How can we adapt our strategies to it? Susan explains how adapting to this new ecosystem will demand a different approach to investing time and efforts in content:

“It’s no longer the kind of thing where you can just sort of outsource it [content] to your lowest common denominator and expect to achieve good results. You actually have to sort of what I call ‘in source’ and ‘up source’. So that’s actually really costly, right? That’s an increased investment in resources if you have your leadership team involved in content instead of a junior content marketer. So we have this trend towards more investment into content in general as well.”

Here are the 3 main reasons why you should create your own path

What Susan means is that although it may look like content marketing is just another strategy you can outsource to a content company from across the world for cheap, it’s not quite like that. Outsourcing simply won’t work. She points out three main reasons for that.

1) Increased volume

“Basically every company (and, you know, their mother) wants to do content now. And is doing content now.”

People are not only writing more content, but they’re also trying to distribute all that content. You have probably noticed that whenever you open your Twitter or LinkedIn newsfeed, there are a lot of posts that are certainly part of a business content strategy. So all that competition for attention on social media forces you to be much more assertive with your personas, your language, your headlines your hashtags, your images and so on.

2) Changes to the algorithm

“For example, to prioritize posts from friends and family as opposed to links.”

That’s what has been happening with Facebook – and Susan goes beyond that and explains how changes in Quora also impacted the way marketers can leverage the platform nowadays.

She points out that Quora used to be a better source of backlinks for companies around five years ago. But then the platform also figured out how marketers were using it. And you probably already know what happened next: change in the way their outbound links are set.

So, how do you adapt to those changes? The answer is simple.

“You just have to do the approach differently.”

And that leads us to the third reason:

3) People are doing better content

“There are more people doing more content – that is also better content. So there’s what I call this ‘content arms race’ of companies trying to outdo each other.”

That means that if you ever considered following someone else’s steps to build your online brand authority, you’re not alone. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there trying to the same. But don’t be fooled by what seems to look like a shortcut for success. Instead of learning from what others previously experienced, you should be learning with your own experience. That means testing your own ideas and analyzing its results before going for another round of tests.

Considering all that, I asked:

“What’s the playbook that will win from now on?”

“My hypothesis is that it is a combination a couple of different things. One is quality.”

And how do you measure quality? How do you know your content has enough quality to make an impact on social media for your specific audience? Susan suggests we should ask ourselves how thirsty and hungry we are to consume that content right away. She explains that’s how honest you have to be. If you are not that thirsty or hungry about a piece, why would your audience be?

“If your company creates a piece of content and you’re not thirsty and hungry to consume it right away then why would your audience be? So I think that’s really critical to very sort of honest with yourself about this.”

How do you make sure you are creating quality content?

Questioning yourself about quality is even more valuable if you have a profile that’s similar to your audience’s. And, as pointed out by Susan, that’s the reality of the vast majority of companies out there. The reason is quite simple: when you create a product, you probably create a solution to a problem you know too well and don’t want to face anymore. So you probably are similar to your audience after all.

Now, if you work in a B2B company and your audience is in a completely different role than you are – chances are their decision journey is completely different from what yours would be. So, it wouldn’t make much sense to take your personal opinion in high consideration. And guess how you can solve that? I’ll let Susan answer that one for you:

“I mean, this is gonna sound the most obvious thing in the book but it’s true: start with really deep qualitative and quantitative customer research. And when I say deep I literally mean putting in the time to set up a dozen if not multiple dozens of phone calls, in-person sessions – things to just really put content in front of people and listen to them.”

When doing that, Susan suggests you should start from scratch. By the way, if you haven’t yet done that, here are some simple questions you can use to learn more about your audience:

  • What kind of format do you like?
  • What do you actually consume?
  • Why do you consume that?
  • When you find a limitation, where do you go?
  • What social media do you open every day?

Once you’ve gone through your interviews, you’ll have a much better idea of what your personas should look like and you can even use a template like this to turn all that information into a visual profile.

If someone is zigging you should probably be zagging

When it comes to deciding on what strategy, channel etc to invest your time on, Susan advises marketers to stop looking around at what others are doing and start looking closer to what you can uniquely offer your audience. She explains that, although tempting, trying to repeat someone else’s formula is usually a waste of time. And you don’t really want to have your time wasted, right? As Susan wisely stated:

“If somebody else was able to do that you probably won’t be able to do that.”

She explains that at Reforge, they do their best to keep their eyes on the audience and choose channels and formats that are uncommon when compared to those that the rest of the market is using at the moment. They don’t follow the obvious. In Susan’s own words:

“At reforge we’re playing around with different formats that are and when I say different I really mean very divergent from what everybody else is  doing so where everybody else is zigging we’re zagging.”

That doesn’t mean you should entirely ignore your competition. Getting to know what they are up to is still valuable to study your competition and the ecosystems so that you can do something differentiated.

To go deeper into your audience’s consumption habits, ask broader questions

I was interested in understanding more about how Susan suggests a marketer should tackle the concerns and problems of their audience in market interviews. That’s when she revealed that on top of understanding the problems and how they can help potential customers in their daily lives, the secret sauce to a content strategy may be how to actually reach that audience. So quality content is great, but the format and channel that content is going to be published on are what will guarantee assertiveness.

And what is the best way of figuring out the preferred channels and formats your audience is actually interested in? By asking them! But in order to get the answers you need, your questions will probably have to be broader than what you might think.

Susan adverts that although we feel tempt to ask narrow questions like:  “Where do you consume marketing technical content?”, we should actually be aiming at broader questions that help both the interviewee feel comfortable sharing (and remembering) his behavior and us understanding their behavior as a whole. That understanding will grant us access to multiple connections and insights on what amazing things we can offer our customers and how and when do that.

So, instead of holding up to those narrow questions, you can rely on broader questions like: “What are you reading this week?” or “What did you read today?” or even “What did you listen to on your commute today?”. The idea here is to help them share all the pieces of their day:

“Go through those days and really have them remember. That’s a really great way to get sort of an honest footprint of what’s happening with your audience’s lives.”

How to create quality insourcing and upsourcing content

One of the main challenges for marketing managers today is actually to put everyone on the same page and to make the team engage. And when I mention ‘team’, I mean the whole team, not only the marketing team. Some of the most precious content for a content strategy will probably come from your leadership or sales team – or even customer success team. So, I was naturally interested in how Susan works on engaging her team on content creation. This was her answer:

It’s a huge challenge so related to an earlier point I made about insourcing up-sourcing. I really think the future of content (and not all marketing but specifically content) is that it needs to be a leadership initiative and so that’s where the leadership team and execs get involved as creators.

As a content manager yourself you probably know how much of a challenge that is. At the same time, you probably also understand the importance of that. As hard as it may be for a leader or executive to take the time to create content, Susan explains that there is hardly a way out of it – and the job a Content Manager might be to make sure such people understand how crucial their involvement in content creation is.

“It’s really important to tap into this very precious knowledge of people who are the highest off. If content is really an important initiative for your company, then they need to be able to make the time. Otherwise it’s very hard to make it successful.”

She mentions that a good way to help executives understand why they should be content creators is to explain the ‘trickle-down framework’:

“You want your highest level person to be sharing their knowledge because of this cascade effect downward to all the other people that are in your audience. Your audience are most likely not going to be as experienced as maybe the CEO of your company and so that’s the perfect person to have an authoritative voice to speak to them now.”

And, of course, Susan has a great tip for those who are looking for a never-ending source of content ideas. When it comes to content ideas you can always count on your sales and customer success teams:

They can tell you the actual words to use and sort of what is the qualitative feeling behind that language. So they may not be a direct creator but I would definitely tap into those teams as a way to sort of source qualitative contributions.

Using the knowledge of other teams in your company sounds familiar to you? Having your sales and customer success teams suggest ideas and even help out with the choice of words and expressions, is a great way to go beyond your marketing funnel and transform it into an hourglass.

Over to you!

How do you feel about your content marketing strategy – and how do you plan to improve it? One of the most important takeaways from this short interview with Susan Su is the importance that’s placed on your own guts and data. Learning from others is surely important, but you should always do your own planning and run your own experiments if you want to find ways to approach your audience in a unique way. I hope this interview has inspired you as much as it has inspired me. Let us know in the comments how you feel about it and what you plan to test for your audience next!