In this SaaS marketing workshop, we’re excited to feature Brian Sun. He’s the former Senior Content Manager at Autopilot and current Lifecycle Marketing Manager at Opendoor. He’s a pro at creating content strategies for working humans.
Brian has a background in writing and worked his way up from contributor to strategist through his career. He noticed habits within the industry that weren’t always leading to success. He knew content strategy needed to be more comprehensive—and optimized—to be successful.
“I think our industry has bought into this narrative of more-more-more.” He explains. “[But] I think we’re transitioning to better-better-better.”
We were very lucky to feature Brian in our SaaS Marketing Workshop series. Here are the highlights from his talk:
Don’t “just blog.” Build a holistic content marketing strategy.
A “holistic” strategy is one that takes overall business goals into account. Every content initiative needs a reason or direction.
Designing a holistic strategy also requires considering different content other than blogging. As Brian puts it:
My definition of content marketing is creating resources people can read, watch, see or hear, then promoting those resources to generate traffic, leads, sales, repeat sales and referrals.
What I appreciate about this definition is it opens up the possibilities of what you can create and frees you up to focus on what content and what medium is best for each stage of the customer journey.
When I say resources people can read, watch, see, or hear, it’s more than just blogging. It’s more than just the written word. It can be video, it can be podcasts. It’s even thinking of how Netflix is content or the podcast you’ve listened to this morning, it’s a piece of content. What are resources you can create for your business that can engage people in all these different ways?”
Every content initiative should link to a business goal.
Does your content strategy support your sales team? How about your other marketing initiatives? What role does it play in your customer’s journey?
This seems like a simple idea. But Brian says that we should in fact scrutinize each piece of content to make sure it’s doing a job.
“I think we get caught up in the vanity metrics of things like, ‘oh, I just want to drive traffic’ or number of posts produced, but at the end of the day we actually care about obtaining new subscribers, starting new trials, and attracting new customers. It’s asking of how can content help drive all of these things, and specifically how can we promote the resources that we create to generate all these things?
Brian mentioned a common trap that content marketers fall into: Focusing on the production cycle (i.e. producing the content itself) and losing sight of the purpose the content needs to serve.
“If you’re getting started in content marketing, what I want to encourage you to do is to take this approach of thinking of goals, initiatives and then content pieces based off of this. It’ll help you think through the bigger picture of your content and how the pieces fit together and it’ll save you from just getting tunnel vision and focusing on just blogging or producing.”
Link the content to each customer journey stage.
In his talk, Brian talks in depth about how content can serve every part of the customer journey. The stage of awareness isn’t as set as you think!
“Just taking the customer’s journey into account, the mindset we need to transition from thinking of the funnel (i.e., ‘what content do I create for the funnel’) to thinking through ‘what kind of content do I create for the entire customer journey.’
How can I create content to help people move from anonymous to known, from known to raw lead, from raw lead to qualified lead, from qualified lead to customer?
Brian goes on to describe how he implemented this mindset into his work at Autopilot. We encourage you to watch the video to see visual aids detailing his process.
Nail down your content structure.
When it comes to working within a strategy, you should set up your individual [pieces] to work together. Using anchor content and specifically tracing a piece of content’s links will set your brand up for effective content strategy.
“This is about, again, being intentional about how you create and structure your content…All of [these] are strategic frameworks in which you can brainstorm, otherwise it’s easy to get the blogging tunnel vision.”
We again encourage you to watch Brian’s talk to take advantage of his super-helpful visual aids.
Create a content marketing metrics dashboard.
Each brand has different needs regarding their content’s role. That’s why it’s incredibly important for content marketers to develop a shorthand method for tracking the conversions associated with content.
Brian doesn’t consider himself an “analytics person.” But he offers this advice for marketers starting out (and learning what they need to tell the analytics person on their team!)
The way that I think about content marketing metrics is: 1) what question do I want answered? 2) what’s the metric to answer this question? 3) where’s the source of truth?
The source of truth is important. It’s like how people use Facebook paid ads and people use AdWords… If you look at those independently and then add them together, it could count as two. But in reality it could be one. You need to define a source of truth for particular metrics. That’ll be the definitive correct answer.”
Have a strong content brand.
It’s not enough to provide content that is useful. The content you create has to reflect your company’s brand, and provide a lasting impression that encourages customer loyalty. A strong content brand will keep people coming back—and sharing your content with even more potential customers.
As Brian puts it:
“You want people to think of your business and think, ‘wow, so and so’s content is really good across the board throughout the whole experience, from when I first became a customer, on the acquisition side, and even just with onboarding.’”
Brian’s advice is sure to help you build a content marketing strategy to pull in leads primed to receive what your company has to offer. Your boss will probably have a few nice things to say too.
Watch The Workshop 👀
About The Workshop Host 👋
Lifecycle Marketing Manager at Opendoor
In just a year and a half, Brian’s role has gone from writing blog posts to building out a team of content producers. Brian’s passionate about developing content for every stage of the customer journey. Autopilot is visual marketing automation and customer journey software.
Get The Workshop Resources ⚙️
Read the Full Transcript 📓
Brian: Hi everybody, my name is Brian Sun. I’m the senior content marketing manager at Autopilot. Just a little bit about Autopilot, it’s visual marketing automation software for automating customer journeys. People use it to onboard new users, nurture existing leads, and lots of other cool use cases.
A little bit about my background before I hop into the meat of my talk. A lot of the stuff that I’m covering today is really birthed through the experiences I’ve had over the past two and a half years being at Autopilot. I started out as a content marketer who was hired to do three blog posts a week, and that was my job because I was skilled at writing. I knew a little bit about marketing, so I was brought on to write and create content. For people in the crowd who may be starting out with content marketing or maybe just getting started in marketing, that’s a similar position that I started in. I started out with like, hey, I’m just going to be a producer.
Brian: I’m going to write a couple of posts a week and that’s going to be my job. Over that time I got promoted to the senior content marketing manager and then my focus changed from this idea of just blogging to focusing on holistic content marketing strategy. That was holistic content marketing strategy that’s focused on business goals and tied to the larger business. Really this stuff I’m sharing today came out of pain of the role.
When you’re starting out, you know, you write a post, you do a few tweets, you do the newsletter thing, and then you get trapped for a few days and then the traffic to your blogs like tanks, right? It’s the worst feeling. We still blog at Autopilot and there’s been benefits from it, but I think our industry has bought into this narrative of more, more, more. I think we’re transitioning to better, better, better, better with whole P content and people being overwhelmed with just a sheer amount of stuff out there.
Brian: We’ve created over 300 articles around target topics, driven a good amount of traffic, and use the articles to fuel a lot of our communication with customers through our newsletter, through lead nurturing. I felt the pain of just thinking of this just blog mindset and knew that there had to be a better way.
This led to a few different outputs. The first is a more generous definition of content marketing and the second is linking every content initiative to a business goal. It was a transition from just blogging to holistic content marketing strategy. I want to give you my definition of content marketing. My definition of content marketing is it’s creating resources people can read, watch, see or hear, then promoting those resources to generate traffic, leads, sales, repeat sales and referrals.
What I appreciate about this definition is it opens up the possibilities of what you can create and frees you up to focus on what content and what medium is best for each stage of the customer journey. When I say resources people can read, watch, see, or hear, it’s more than just blogging.
Brian: It’s more than just the written word. It can be video, it can be podcasts. It’s even thinking of how Netflix is content or the podcast you’ve listened to this morning, it’s a piece of content. What are resources you can create for your business that can engage people in all these different ways? Then the promotion element is important too.
I linked it to traffic leads, sales, repeat sales and referrals because I think we get caught up in the vanity metrics of things where it’s like, ‘oh, I just want to drive traffic’ or I just get caught up in number of posts produced, but at the end of the day we care about all of these different things. It’s asking the question of how can content help drive all of these things, and specifically how can we promote the resources that we create to generate all these things? First thing I learned in the transition of just blog to holistic content marketing strategy was this more generous definition of content marketing. The second is linking every content initiative to a goal.
Brian: These are the goals that are on my radar right now in my day job: Organic search traffic, content downloads, free trial signups, customer enablement, sales enablement, and ultimately with the end goal of more revenue. All of these are our steps to people becoming customers and also staying customers.
When I say organic search traffic, the reason for that is what I’ve discovered is that there’s two main ways that content’s life can be extended. One is organic search traffic, and then two is putting it into an automation flow. Like I said earlier, when you write a post, if you just post it on social a couple times, send out your newsletter and it’s not optimized for search, you may get an uptick in traffic, but then it just levels out and then all that work you spent on producing just goes to waste. Prioritizing organic traffic and learning how that works with search (how to create content that works for search) is about most importance.
Brian: Content downloads for us and particularly in SaaS, we’ve noticed that there was a step in between people who come as visitors to our site and people who sign up for free trial. The trust isn’t fully there yet to give the product a shot, so content downloads around topics people care about has been something that’s important for us.
Then, the customer enablement piece or let’s go to sales enablement first. Example would be case studies where salespeople can use that to help close the deal. Then customer enablement, that’s top of mind too because the longer people stay customers, the more revenue that we make as a business and the more value that they get on the product as well. I have all of these goals that I want to accomplish and ultimately revenue.
I think we often jump to, well, here’s all the types of content I can create, you know, let’s just do webinars. Let’s just do infographics. Let’s just do workshops. Like that’s going to be the catchall solution. I don’t think the mediums in and of themselves are the solution. The key is tying these particular things that you can create to business goals and being intentional about the customer journey stage that you tailor the content for.
Brian: Here are the goals that I am going after linked to initiatives. For organic search traffic, you notice there’s two things. There’s anchor content and blog. Anchor content, I’ll explain that later actually when I show you a different diagram. But we got anchor content, lead magnets, blog, Flight School, customer stories, use cases.
What lead magnet is we talked about that, getting people to opt in, blog, driving the search traffic, as well as building a cadence for people to stay in touch with your brand. Flight School is an academy that we have that enables our customers to use Autopilot and grow as what we call customer journey marketers. That’s built for the customer enablement side. Then sales enablement, customer stories is significant.
I remember one time I heard one of our sales guys talking on the phone recommending an article that I wrote about a company that made a lead nurturing journey and saw like $30,000 in ARR from like a journey that just took a couple of weeks to create. Then the use cases piece fits in with the enablement of showing people how to use the product and getting really detailed like, hey, here’s how X company used it and Y company used it and how you can do it as well.
Brian: I don’t have a slide for this next part, but from here with the goals and the initiatives, I brainstormed content pieces. I would do brainstorm five pieces of anchor content based on keyword research I saw and the topics we want to own. Lead magnets, based on the things customers have been telling us. Brainstorm a list of five for that blog, the different topics that we want to highlight and dive deep into. Same with Flight School, customer stories, use cases. It’s more of a holistic thinking way.
You start with a goal and go to the anchor content or lead magnets and then brainstorm your content pieces based off of this. Do you see how different this is from just blog mindset where it’s like, ‘oh, we’re going to produce three pieces of content a week or 10 pieces of content a month and just pump those out.’ It’s moving from a mindset of just producing to a strategic mindset where you see the bigger picture.
Brian: I remember when I showed this to my boss, he absolutely loved it because of the bigger picture thinking, because of the thinking holistically. If you’re getting started in content marketing, what I want to encourage you to do is to take this approach of thinking of goals, initiatives and then content pieces based off of this. It’ll help you think through the bigger picture of your content and how the pieces fit together and it’ll save you from just getting tunnel vision and focusing on just blogging or producing.
Brian: I’ll cover how to measure all of this stuff a little later because first I want to show you a few ways to think about your content and the context of the customer journey, which I know Amy talked about the customer journey last week. Thinking through the content for each customer journey stage, content marketing is typically thought of as an acquisition play. We end up thinking about it like a funnel.
Brian: This is actually something that we’ve taught at Autopilot before. Having the early stage of the funnel, there’s a certain type of content that fits well for that. Thought leadership, industry trends, it’s the stuff that’s not related to your company but that’s related to your industry that builds trust with people. Maybe use an authority on a topic.
If you’ve been in content marketing for any stretch of time, you’ve heard of these kind of articles before. Mid stage is more showing that people have had success with your products. Whether that’s through sending them G2 Crowd reviews or sending case studies or customer stories, use cases. Late stage is call to action, where you invite people to take the next step and sign up for a free trial, where you invite them to request a demo and then ideally after that, they’d buy. When we think about content as related to the funnel, our heads usually go here, but like Claire and Gia have been teaching us over the weeks, we really want to forget the funnel. There’s a lot more, there’s a lot more going on with customer experience.
Brian: We know that it doesn’t just end at purchase, that our customers are on a journey from their first touch to becoming a customer, to becoming repeat purchasers who end up promoting our business. The way that content fits into that, I’m going to show you another diagram. This is our lead’s life cycle diagram on Autopilot and there’s a lot of stuff going on here. I want to sit in it for a little bit.
Claire: I love this slide. By the way, just to add, just to interject for a second, I love that it takes the funnel and puts it on its side because this is I think a more natural way to think about the relationship as opposed to a funnel. Thinking about it as a journey. Just to say, I love seeing the acquire, nurture and grow piece of this, but yeah, this slide is amazing.
Brian: 100%. Thank you so much. Back into it. A couple of things happening here. One, I want you to notice how it says anonymous to known to raw lead to qualified lead to customer. Autopilots in the B2B space, the way that we think about the customer’s journey is anonymous to known to raw lead to qualified lead to customer. That’s the journey that people are on. Then the acquire, nurture, grow, that comes from the marketer’s job. That comes from the marketer’s job of what they have to do during that particular stage.
Just taking the customer’s journey into account, the mindset we need to transition from is thinking of funnel, what content do I create for the funnel to thinking through what kind of content do I create for the customer journey. How can I create content to help people move from anonymous to known, from known to raw lead, from raw lead to qualified lead, from qualified lead to customer?
Brian: If you look at this diagram, there is content everywhere. In the ads and demand gen box, you have search, you have webinars, trade shows, content, SEO blog, content, media apps and workshops, content. Go to the known section, Flight School, content, content download, also a content. Move to people becoming customers, lifecycle nurture. We repurpose content to send to people who are in our system but don’t sign up for a trial yet and so we send them like blog content and Flight School content. Excuse me, I just burped really loud … To nudge them to sign up for content or to sign up for a trial. If they become a trialist and then leave, we still stay in relationship with them with content. Then once they become a customer, there’s an onboarding flow where we teach-
Claire: Sorry to interrupt. I’m just getting a little bit of feedback, the screen is a bit fuzzy. I don’t know if it’s possible for you to zoom in at all because it’s not legible right now.
Brian: Okay, sure.
Claire: The blue one.
Brian: Let me go to the toolbar.
Claire: If you can zoom in on… Because those titles in the blue.
Brian: You see that?
Claire: It’s great. I think that is better. It’s better for me.
Brian: Okay. Even on the customer side, like an education course series, that’s the Flight School thing. People who are customers, that’s content that we’ve created to help them continue to engage with the product and combine our product updates, community updates, et cetera. The whole point of this diagram, and we’ll share this after the fact too. Well, first, this is actually what we use at Autopilot, like this is our big machine for the whole customer journey. But the key takeaway here is that it’s fueled by content and so because we’ve expanded our thinking that content is more than just like blogging articles.
You can create content for the whole customer journey and so your role as a content marketer doesn’t just have to be in the acquisition side. Even if other departments in your company own different parts of the journey, you can create ideas, brainstorm ideas based on how customers are using the products, based on your own research.
Recommendations of content to create for different parts of the journey. Even if it’s not your particular responsibility, you can go and say, hey, I want a seat at the table, I asked some ideas for how we can use content to fuel our growth across the whole thing and then add value in that way. That’ll help you move from just being a producer to being really, really strategic. We have our goals that we’ve covered. We have initiatives, we have customer journey stages, and the last big picture thing I want to show you before we move into metrics is how to nail down your content structure.
Brian: This is the SEO spiderweb. I totally stole this from Will Blunt over at Blogger Sidekick. Huge fan of this. I remember the first time I saw him present on it. This is about being intentional about the content you create since none of it occurs on an island, like all of your content is interconnected.
Brian: We have that thinking of content through the customer journey and then this is how to structure it on the context of your website. If you look at, like for us at Autopilot, we produce over 300 blog posts and we’re transitioning to this right now of having this anchor mindset. What content anchor is, is think of it as like a definitive piece of content around a particular topic.
It could be like a six part chapter series, like I saw the Unbounce did this for landing page articles. They have like 10 articles and a page that has all of them and then a lot of pages link back to that. Right now we’ve just produced a bunch of blog posts and they interlink with one another, but they don’t have a strategic mindset of linking back to an anchor and then there’s the back links that link back to your anchors as well. We’re transitioning from just having a whole crap ton of posts to restructuring things or we have anchor around a topic, say lead nurturing.
Brian: Then all of our lead nurturing blog posts we link back to that and every guest post we link back to the lead nurturing. We link back to that winner training piece. This is about, again, being intentional about how you create and structure your content. A lot of this is for search stuff as well because you want to get the most return on the time and energy and resources that you spend creating, creating content. That’s how the SEO spider web works.
We’ve covered goals, initiatives, journey stages, website structure. You notice we haven’t even talked about specific pieces of content yet. All of the [inaudible] are strategic frameworks in which you can brainstorm, otherwise it’s easy to get the blogging tunnel vision that we talked about earlier. Say you’ve created a bunch of stuff for all these initiatives within these frameworks, how do you know what’s working and what’s not? How do you know if your content marketing is successful? I want to show you the content marketing dashboard that I’ve created and I’ll show it to you and to be honest, it’s still a work in progress.
Brian: There’s two parts to this. The first one is I want to get a bigger picture view of the traffic and the organic stuff, but then remember the second step was the content download and then how that’s influenced free trials. Assisted conversions, it’s like for people who became customers, what pieces of content helped in that process? The number of customers who came from downloading [a] piece of content or even just showing up through an organic search, and then how ultimately that affected revenue. Then here, breaking it down through the details for each content anchor, each lead magnet. That’s the first half.
The second half is this spreadsheet is actually a lot longer. What I want to highlight here is what I have at the top. The way that I think about content marketing metrics is one, is the question of what question do I want answered? Two, what’s the metric to answer this question? Three, where’s the source of truth? The reason that the source of truth is important, it’s like how people use Facebook paid ads and people use AdWords. Both of the platforms are inherently selfish in the sense where you could have a conversion on both that’s registered as one conversion on both, but in your system accounts or if you add both accounts, it’s two.
If you just look at those independently and then add them together, it could count as two but in reality it could be one. You need to define a source of truth for particular metrics. That’ll be the definitive correct answer. Then here, what dashboard does this live on? Then, is it automated reporting? I am not an analytics person, I am a content marketer who knows a little bit about SEO. The reason I want a dashboard and automated reporting is because going and pulling reports is manual process and I’m just really bad at it too. I just want that work done upfront where I can go to the dashboard. The dashboards come to me.
Brian: For this, there’s a lot more stuff here, even how it influences revenue, assisted conversions. I’m going to work with our analytics and ops person internally to get all of this stuff so I know what the metrics for all these questions I want answered and then how to make decisions based off of that. Actually, that’s everything.
Brian: With goals, initiatives, journey stages, website structure, solid metrics dashboard, you’ll be equipped to use your own creativity, your own qualitative and quantitative research to create a holistic content marketing strategy with the end goal of building a great content brand, and ultimately growing your business. When I say build a great content brand, you want people to think of your business and think, ‘wow, so and so’s content is really good across the board throughout the whole experience when I first became a customer on the acquisition side and even just with onboarding.’ Onboarding and continuous education, so that’s everything that you need to create a content marketing strategy that your boss will love.