Generating Demand with Content Marketing
With physical events and direct sales canceled, the idea of filling the pipeline with valuable leads may seem daunting. However, many CMOs see this challenge as an opportunity to prove that it can be done digitally, and it’s become glaringly apparent that when it comes to B2B demand generation, content marketing is king.
One such CMO, Richard Jones of Cheetah Digital, has made quality, valuable content his top priority. Why? Because he knows that a well-oiled content engine will not only help their salespeople find and close leads, it will also engage customers and attract new talent in profound ways. In this episode, Richard and Drew discuss everything from building your content strategy to measuring its success. There’s a wealth of valuable insights to be found, so be sure to tune in!
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
- How Cheetah Digital built their content marketing engine
- How good content marketing helps close sales and attract customers
- How COVID-19 shifted Cheetah Digital’s marketing strategy
Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 195 on YouTube
- John Deere’s “The Furrow”
- Michelin’s Travel Guides
- Cheetah Digital’s 2020 Global Consumer Report with Econsultancy
Time Stamped Highlights
- [0:28] Why Content Marketing Matters
- [5:17] Build a Working Content Engine First
- [7:52] A Good Content Strategy Should Guide and Close Sales
- [11:02] Content Themes Come Out of Your Call Deck
- [14:29] Quality Content Has Variety, Isn’t Dry
- [17:50] Hire Subject Matter Experts, Not Content Writers
- [21:04] Once You Build an Engine, the Content Will Come
- [23:00] Make Customer Stories Easier to Tell
- [28:32] Publish More Content, More Often
- [30:37] Original Research Generates Valuable Content
- [33:26] Cheetah Shifted to a Consultative Approach During COVID
- [37:06] Richard Jones’ Content Marketing Dos and Don’ts
- [40:39] Drew’s Wrap Up: Tech Stacks, Engaging Content, and Talent
Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Richard Jones
[0:28] Why Content Marketing Matters
Drew Neisser: Just in case you were wondering, content marketing is not a new idea. I know that may be a shock, but it’s not. John Deere started publishing The Furrow, a magazine for farmers, back in 1885. By 1912, they had 4 million readers. They still have a million and a half annual readers today.
In 1900, the French tire company Michelin published its first guide as a way of encouraging a small group of car owners to take road trips in automobiles. Imagine this at the time—in 1900 there were 2200 cars in the entire country of France, but they had a vision that someday people would be traveling a lot by car, and if they did, they’d be using the wheels or the tires of Michelin. Well, 120 years later, Michelin has sold more than 30 million copies of its guide.
These are but two examples of highly successful and enduring content marketing efforts. Both reveal the fundamental notion behind the approach: deliver useful, timely, high-quality information on a consistent basis and you’ll generate a world of goodwill that turns prospects into customers and customers into fans.
Why am I sharing this history lesson? Well, in March 2020, when the COVID curtain fell—keep that mind that I use the phrase “the COVID curtain” because I think that is really what we’ve seen here—B2B marketers who had relied on events and direct sales efforts to fill their pipeline with leads suddenly had to pivot. It was like a curtain went down. Those options were no longer available and the only place, or the primary place these marketers returned to, was digital, and more specifically, to content marketing.
Now, one such brand was Cheetah Digital, an organization that was in the middle of its own transition, having been known as Cheetah Mail for the better part of two decades, which brings us to today’s guest—Richard Jones, the CMO of Cheetah Digital.
Richard joined Cheetah about seven months ago. I love this, when we have CMOs who join and then five months into their tenure the COVID curtain comes down because that is a tell-all moment. But Richard isn’t your typical CMO who just came up through marketing. He was the CEO of Wayin, a company that had been acquired by Cheetah in 2019, so he came with the acquisition and then took over the reins as CMO. While Richard has many insights to share, we’ll be focusing this episode on how to build a content marketing machine with both the content and the tech to track performance. So, Richard with that long preamble, welcome to the show.
Richard Jones: Thank you, Drew. Thank you for inviting me.
[5:17] Build a Working Content Engine First
Drew Neisser: If you’re building this content engine, the first thing to do is figure out what content you have, what you need, and what your strategy is. Is that something that you would recommend?
Richard Jones: For me, it 100% would be and it really comes down to my journey as an entrepreneur and before that, carrying the bag as a B2B tech salesperson. Ultimately, I think one of the things that we need to always be very cognizant of when taking over the CMO role is just how much what we do influences other departments and how other departments use the outputs that we actually create.
One of the first things that I did when I looked at what needed to be done in the department when taking over the CMO role in the beginning of November—it wasn’t just content creation because we needed more leads. It wasn’t just about that. It was thinking about content right the way through the organization. So, you know, if you’re a new sales guy and you’re coming on board and you’re trying to figure out what you should sell and how to set it, you quite often go to your go-to-market portal that product marketing and marketing have set up and start looking at the content.
Ultimately, in that first meeting that a salesperson has with a prospect, the content that is created there through to the very first content that someone might see out in your advertising or out in your demand generation marketing, all of it has to be aligned and has to be delivered with quality, otherwise, the sales reps are just not going to be able to perform as well as they need to. Getting the content going was really, really important, not just for creating new leads, but also helping salespeople with existing business processes that they were operating with.
[7:52] A Good Content Strategy Should Guide and Close Sales
Drew Neisser: It’s so interesting if you start to think about your website as the thing that is going to inform your employees as to what you do. First of all, it increases the value of it, but it also makes you very conscious of whether or not you can sell from this stuff.
Richard Jones: Yeah, the rubber hits the road, always, with the interface between the salesperson and the prospect and what happens in that meeting—is there interest? Is there follow on? I think sometimes with marketing we can be congratulating ourselves because we managed to create awareness and we managed to put ourselves into the conversation, but ultimately, that doesn’t mean anything unless the salesperson, when the rubber hits the road, is able to progress a sales cycle.
Thinking about that top-to-bottom of the funnel alignment and how sales and marketing are going to pass the baton on from initial interest through to actually developing a sales process that ends in a contract with revenue, that’s really what we wanted to focus on. The measurement is extremely important, of course, because we need to know what content is working, what tactics are working, how they’re influencing things, progressing through the pipeline, etc., but without getting quality content and understanding what kind of content we need to create at the top of the funnel through to what kind of content the sales team needs to progress the sales cycle through the funnel, you’re running a little bit blind.
We’re in the process of having rolled this out and then making sure it’s optimized. What we’ve tried to do as we move forward is make sure that we have good practice. We have our overall brand message of who we are and the value that we believe we offer to the market, why people should care, but underneath that we have a set of different content themes that we’re creating content about on a continual basis across a variety of different platforms. They are essentially other demand drivers that hopefully have a hook that gets people into wanting to know more, and then the handoff between sales and marketing is really through these sales plays that we’ve created, which are all the material that a salesperson will need to progress a sale cycle. There’s different content in those buckets and different levels of granularity and different things you’ll focus on, but we’ve got a framework, so it’s all aligned.
[11:02] Content Themes Come Out of Your Call Deck
Drew Neisser: From a strategic standpoint, we know what the objectives are, we want to get people in and through the funnel and we want to help salespeople. How did you decide on the content themes and get to those from a planning standpoint?
Richard Jones: It was interesting because the content themes were, to some extent, the easiest thing to decide. The thing that required the heaviest lifting was to actually step back. Cheetah has got 20 years of heritage. To really understand the marketing problem that I inherited, you need to understand the timeline of the company, and obviously companies don’t stand still, they change.
Cheetah had become part of Experian, so you’ve got a Fortune 100, massive company, then they spun out the Cheetah Digital business from Experian three years ago at the beginning of June. When you spin an organization out of another organization, what’s not necessarily apparent to a lot of people is how much you lose as part of that process. In many effects, it’s like being in an airplane that doesn’t have any engine, it doesn’t have any tail feathers. You’ve got to build this airplane as your falling because you’ve lost a lot of stuff as you were spinning out.
Your CRM systems, marketing automation systems, organization finance systems, many of the things you take for granted have to be created from scratch because you’re coming from another company. We looked at it and there were many challenges as part of that process, but the first thing that I did was work with a couple of my other colleagues across departments and retake ownership of that first call deck. What is going to get presented to the customer when they are asking, “Who are you? Why does it matter?” This is going back to very, very basic things.
Once you’ve got that first call deck agreed and aligned and everybody across different departments knows that this is our go-to-market messaging, you can then basically spin out from that and go, “All right. Here are the various different content themes that we need that actually are going to get people interested in the thing that we’ll eventually talk to them about when we’ve got that one-to-one meeting.” It’s almost like flipping it upside down.
[14:29] Quality Content Has Variety, Isn’t Dry
Drew Neisser: How did you go about making sure that your content was a little bit better than average, that the quality was really good, and that the quality made sense for your category?
Richard Jones: B2B content has been relatively dry. There are some people that are doing it fantastically, but on the whole, it tends to be relatively dry and hasn’t necessarily mapped to the way we as consumers have been changing, the format being: “Hey I’ve got this one hour webinar or this 60-page white paper” and that’s it. That’s a big heavy lift in terms of time to get people in to do either of those two things if you’re getting your content around such large, chunky bits of content that needs to be consumed.
Make sure that the variety of the content is there. That’s talking about not just having those formats, doing things like podcasts, thinking about more consumable content that’s interactive and maps to the very short time span that we all have now as consumers. Funny enough, that’s a thing that I’ve seen through having conversations with many different CMOs at very large organizations—the CMO of Oracle, the CMO of HP—I’ve had these conversations with these folks and what was interesting is this sort of general B2Cification of B2B content that CMOs are thinking about now, which is: How do I make my content interactive? How do I make it short-form? As well as long-form, of course, because people sometimes will want to go into much more detail, they may be further down the buying cycle and they’ll have the time to invest.
Thinking about the variety and size and consumable nature of the content is really, really important. The second piece is how do you make the content not dry? You can make it small and interactive and it can still be dry. There’s no guarantee of success by making it smaller.
[17:50] Hire Subject Matter Experts, Not Content Writers
Richard Jones: I’ve probably done something which is a little bit renegade, I would say, in terms of my approach to this. I really don’t want to offend anyone in marketing by saying this, but I wanted to have people in the content machine at Cheetah Digital that weren’t professional content marketers. I didn’t want the content that we created to be formulaic. I wanted people to be coming at it from a very distinct perspective.
What I did was go out and look at bringing in new talent into the organization, into the content marketing team, that had actually used our technology, that had seen great success at it, and were able to tell stories around business outcomes because they understood being sat in that seat of a B2C marketer versus a professional B2B content writer, as it were. That was a big change.
Drew Neisser: That is a big change. The key part of this that I heard from that is, obviously, a CMO is only as good as the people that they bring underneath them, but bringing in someone who, in this case, was more of a subject matter expert who also happened to have some content wizardry inside them, but not necessarily just someone who had spent their career as content marketers.
[21:04] Once You Build an Engine, the Content Will Come
Drew Neisser: Let’s talk about actual execution and some of the things that you’ve done. What’s been working really well or beyond your expectation and what hasn’t?
Richard Jones: Seeing what a big lift in the quality, format, and variety of content you’re creating does to the organization as a whole, not just to the marketing part of it, is really, really interesting. You get this explosion of interest from other people across the organization also wanting to create content. When the platform is cool, lots of people want to be part of it.
We went from literally just two people creating content to now, where there’s a virtual team of 20 or so different people creating content on a regular basis for us across the organization. We have three different podcasts, and this was a company that had no podcasts, just as an illustration of that variety. It’s people wanting to tell their own stories. It’s not all about just the senior marketing guys. It’s not all about demand gen. We have practitioners that are experts in the services organization talking about things that are relevant for them, interviewing other expert practitioners, of course.
[23:00] Make Customer Stories Easier to Tell
Richard Jones: There is nothing more important and there is no better tool in content marketing than having happy customers telling stories around how you were able to overcome challenges and deliver business outcomes. And not just stories which are at a very high level and a bit of a platitude, but going into what were the problems, what are the issues, what were the big rocks, and how did we overcome them? Lessons learned, those types of things. That is absolute gold.
One of the problems I think we’ve always had in B2B marketing is actually getting the volume of client stories that we need and that’s primarily because we’ve been reverting back to these older formats, like, “Hey, could we have this case study signed off?” which is a 20-page document and it needs to go through the clients’ legal team. That takes forever and more often than not you don’t get it approved, so you end up creating content and it never sees the light of day.
I think it’s a very one-way process for most customers. It’s kind of like, “Well, I spent a lot of time helping you out. You create this case study document, which is really good for your sellers, but what’s in it for me?” What we wanted to do with our content platform was put in something that was a platform that was going to be good for our customers to participate on and it was going to enable them to actually tell their story which supported their goals and wasn’t just all about us and Cheetah Digital trying to create content that would help sell our products.
I think once you’ve got that platform and people can clearly see what’s in it for them, you get many more people wanting to come on and tell their stories which, by the way, also means that they get comfortable with you and they will create more of the formal case studies down the line as well.
[28:32] Publish More Content, More Often
Richard Jones: The team were almost afraid of their own shadow before I came in and made the changes that I needed to make. You’d literally have content being created and it would be going through three or four different proofreaders and multiple different people across different departments would have to sign it off. Creating one bit of content every three months is not going to change your world as a business. You need to be creating multiple pieces of content every single week.
We now create so much content that we have to create a weekly internal email for all of our go-to-marketing teams, showing them all of the new research, new webinars, new podcasts, new blog posts, short stackable pieces of content, and any kind of interactive stuff that we created every week. The only way you can do that is by giving people a framework of how the content should be created, saying, “There are the stories that we want to go after, these are our content themes, our demand drivers,” then making sure that your content team understand what is our unique voice in all of those areas, and then allowing people have the freedom to go create that content without all of these layers of governance.
Yes, as the CMO I am responsible for the quality, so I have to make sure that I am looking at the content that’s being created and there is some level of governance, but it is far, far lower than we ever had before. You can do it once you’ve got the right people in the right roles and they’ve got the right voice around the right content.
[30:37] Original Research Generates Valuable Content
Drew Neisser: Research is one of those methodologies that I still think continues to work really, really well. Talk a little bit about your approach to research and how you’re using it to generate content.
Richard Jones: I would completely agree with you that research has a really big part to play in any kind of content marketing strategy. You want to create content that isn’t just copying what someone else put out. You need to create unique content that is going to have value in the marketplace. One of the ways of doing that is through original research.
We believe in research to such an extent that we actually have a dual process for research. One is we work with industry experts around research. We just commissioned a really big piece with Econsultancy, which was a six-market piece of research looking at consumer attitudes in the shadow of COVID-19 and trying to unlock things that B2C marketers would find valuable in how you can sell to people online because that’s all that’s left in a lockdown environment, like how people’s attitudes are changing, what’s working, what isn’t, etc., etc.
We did this big bit of research and that’s really, really important, but you also need to do your own research, so we’re typically creating new, original content on a weekly basis. Once you’ve got scale as an organization—Cheetah Digital is several hundred million in revenue and offices in 14 countries—we’ve got a window into what B2C marketers are actually doing, what email campaigns are working, what kind of interactive experiential stuff marketers might be doing, and what we see trending. We have a lot of data running through our platform, so one of our goals is to expose that data for the benefit of all and to help marketers make better decisions.
[33:26] Cheetah Shifted to a Consultative Approach During COVID
Drew Neisser: I want to go back to early March 2020—what changed for you in terms of your approach to content? Is it everything that we’ve been talking about? I know you had a lot of these things in place and I just want to get to that moment in time where you went, “Oh, no events, no Salesforce. We’re going to really have to reshape what we’re doing.”
Richard Jones: The reality of COVID-19 is that it’s a digital acceleration for many businesses, if not all businesses. I inherited a marketing department that was very focused on ABM marketing, events, and advertising associated around these ABM plays. They had a very well-developed sales development team that were hitting the phones and contacting people outbound around ABM strategies, but were doing very, very little in content production and online content formats like the podcasts, webinars, and other things.
March 20th happened, and we had literally just finished rolling out all of these automated sequences in a program called Outreach that we use. We built out our marketing database by about 20x in a very short period of time. We were really investing in and building that ecosystem for people who wanted to hear about our content. All that automation gets set up and we only had a few weeks of running it, maybe a month or two, when suddenly COVID-19 hits and you’re looking at your content and all of this automation that it’s linked to, going, “I can’t be chasing people for first meetings right now. I just can’t. It’s just not what we should be doing.”
The team were up working very late, and in about two to three weeks, they completely redid all of the content that we’d done before and changed all of our sequences, all of our marketing automation flows, to map to this new content that was more consultative, helping marketers with what other people were doing and what we were seeing in the marketplace as they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a real acceleration to redo everything that we’d done in a very short period of time.
Drew Neisser: I’ve always believed that content marketing should be consultative, so in some ways this probably pushed you into a much better place. It’s just hard to sometimes connect the dots directly with a consultative approach versus, say, “Here’s our product, and here’s the story, and here’s how the customers are using it.”
Some CMOs I’ve talked to have said, “The less hard I sell, the more helpful I am, the more we sell.” It’s a theme that’s come up more in the last two months and I keep thinking, “Oh, I love that. That’s enlightened self-interest in a very positive way.”
[37:06] Richard Jones’ Content Marketing Dos and Don’ts
Drew Neisser: Give us, if you would, two dos and a don’t for all the content marketers out there as they’re reassessing their content plans for 2020 and beyond.
Richard Jones: The biggest do is, when you’re thinking about what to say and how to say it, make sure that you get people that can help you do that in a way that’s interesting. The VP of Content I hired came to me by way of being a Mötley Crüe roadie, a producer for the MTV show “Jackass,” and then into marketing technology to create his own agency using technology he got from Cheetah. You’ve got a guy with a whole arm full of tattoos wearing different hats who understands media innately and, actually, B2C media, so he knows how to make things interesting. That’s really, really key rather than having these very dry B2C deliveries.
For another do, I would definitely always be thinking about how to connect the content that you’re creating to the wider ecosystem of content creators in your company because those content creators are out there, you’ve just got to find them and let them loose. Then, suddenly, the heavy lifting of content creation is there.
From a don’t perspective, I think this comes back into the phase I’m in right now around measurement. Folks quite often go on a shopping spree when they’re putting in new infrastructure. I inherited a marketing technology infrastructure that basically had a tool for every day of the week. There were tools coming out of my ears, none of which were particularly well-integrated or being used to their full capacity.
I always believe simplicity is key, so we stripped back all of the marketing technology to the key components that were going to be our foundation, and then we went in—and we’re in the process of doing this—to make sure that all those key components have the right setup and the right foundation to actually deliver us good data out the other side.
My recommended approach would be to really get down to the core building blocks, make sure they’re set up well, make sure the data is accurate, and then layer on new tools afterward.
[40:39] Drew’s Wrap Up: Tech Stacks, Engaging Content, and Talent
Drew Neisser: Right now, in talking to CMOs about their tech stack, particularly if they had to lay off some people or furlough some employees, they’re sitting there with a 25 high tech stack. Now they have a fewer headcount and lots of technology, so there’s a lot of sunsetting going on. Really what you need are the key things as you talked about them: What matters right now? It is about being able to track the data through the system in a way that’s good for your customer and good for the company.
The keys that I took away, and I love number one: if your content is boring, stop. Full stop. I don’t care how long it is—if it’s boring, stop. Number two: the notion that there could be other content creators in your organization is a really smart way to go because there also may be some folks that may have some free time and would love to stretch there. They could be sitting in the software development area, you don’t know, so don’t assume that, just because they’re an engineer, they can’t write or come up with something interesting.