The paradigm for how to build sustainable success online has shifted in some important ways, and a key to building a 7-Figure Small business is understanding these shifts and being prepared to capitalize on them.
One of the biggest shifts is what Brian Clark was alluding to when he stated on a previous episode of Unemployable that “people are still teaching content marketing like it’s 2010.” Listeners keyed in on that quote and have let us know that they want to know more about what Brian meant.
In this episode, Brian explains what he meant by that statement. He also explains that while the fundamentals of content marketing may not have changed, the context absolutely has. And this shift should have an impact on how you approach your strategy to build a 7-Figure Small business.
You'll learn the important difference between curation and connection; what the “power trinity” is for a 7-Figure Small; and how adopting a mindset of connection will help you not just in building an audience but even in helping you figure out your business model.
This is a loaded episode that is filled with useful insight and context, and it teases where Unemployable is headed moving forward. We hope you'll listen in. If you have questions or comments, tweet them using the #unemployable hashtag or send us an email. (We give out our email addresses in the episode.)
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Why Connection is the New Content Marketing
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Jerod Morris: All right, Brian, we are going to take a break from our interviews and from our mailbags and our news roundups to take a step back and talk big picture this week. Because the paradigm for how to build sustainable success online has shifted in some important ways. I think you and I both agree that a key to building a 7-Figure Small business is understanding these shifts and being prepared to capitalize on them. And so, we're going to kind of take an overview of some of those today.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we've had some questions, because I think people have noticed that my approach to my new projects has shifted from what they saw years ago at Copyblogger, and as it should.
But, well, I suppose you're going to run this interview, so I'm not going to say too much.
I've said some things, I'm doing things. People are watching, they're scratching their heads going, “What's going on here?”
What Do You Mean by “People Are Teaching Content Marketing Like It’s 2010”?
Jerod Morris: Yeah, you stated on a previous episode that “people are still teaching content marketing like it's 2010.” I thought that was a really interesting comment. Other Unemployable people have keyed in on that, as you mentioned. They want to know more about what you mean.
What do you mean when you say that – “People are still teaching content marketing like it's 2010”?
Brian Clark: Well, content marketing, as it became known in 2008, as we were doing it when we founded Copyblogger in 2006, and then moving forward until social media went mainstream, which was roughly 2010, I would argue was an anomaly, a period of time where certain things worked specifically with content that no longer work.
I think everyone knows it. And yet, if you look at the way this is a major industry now, and people are just talking about, “Create better content and this and that.” I’m like, “Guys, this is not the case anymore.” I guess I don't begrudge too much, but really things have changed. And if the old ways of doing things are still viable, then I'd be doing them still.
Let me just say that content marketing during that period of time, as it emerged and became a force to reckon with online, was really geared towards search and social. Both of those environments have changed radically to the point where the strategies that worked certainly 2006 to 2010, and then 2010 to 2015, they just simply don't work anymore. And yet, I don't see too many people in what we consider the “vanguard of content marketing” really acknowledging that too much.
Whether people use the terminology or not, content marketing was really geared towards building authority sites. Some people just call them “content sites.” I would argue all sites are content sites, hopefully. But you were really creating a lot of valuable content. You were using social media as a distribution platform. Put something good out in front of the people and the people will click and they will share and then people will link and then Google will notice, and then you will outrank your competition. And there you have it.
Authority in that sense was really about search engine rankings. That was great until content marketing exploded and search is super competitive now. I mean, you hear people talking about 10X content. It's getting to the point where you have to create something so ridiculous that I would say the average freelancer or solo entrepreneur would be way better served focusing their time on something else.
And then, of course, there's the volume of content that used to be created. Hey, guilty as charged at Copyblogger. I mean, we were putting out at least five pieces of content for free a week and creating much more content in our membership areas for our paid customers and all this stuff. It was just a content creation machine.
I'm not sure it set a bad example, but I think it is kind of out of reach for most people.
Jerod Morris: It set some unrealistic expectations.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and when you pair that with the fact that it's not going to work, then you're really in for a world of hurt with people who are just jumping in there and thinking that that's going to work for them today like they saw it happen in the past for not just Copyblogger, but scores of successful sites built their businesses on, again, what I call “an anomaly in time.”
Jerod Morris: That's how I built up Midwest Sports Fans. It was the same way. I remember on Super Bowl Sunday for about two years, there was this incredible window where I could put out a post “What time is the Super Bowl?” and get 100,000 hits in two hours, because no one else was doing it. And now you see every big site with all of the SEO stuff. And I'm like, “I was doing that before.” But it's like, “Okay, but that's over now. So, get over it.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, but that makes it a great point.
When I started Copyblogger in 2006, I was basically going against the grain of what blogging was supposed to be. It was very brief, daily, personal. It was more about the blogger than the audience. Of course, that was everything that Copyblogger railed against and said, “No, it's about the audience.”
So, I come out and I'm writing 800 to 1,200 word educational articles. Only two a week, but I was systematically building essentially an authority resource on the topics that were relevant to what we were talking about at Copyblogger.
The thing was when you produced high-quality content in a low-quality content environment, then yes, you're exceptional. You stand out. And that, to some degree, was how the early days of content marketing, the sites that understood how it worked, really succeeded.
But it was really the nascent social media at that time. Again, before Twitter and Facebook really went mainstream, we had sites like Delicious, Popular. It was basically just bookmarking. We had Digg, which was social news where people could up vote usually on the strength of the headline.
How do you think we did at Digg back in the day, Jerod, with the headlines?
Jerod Morris: Well.
Brian Clark: Yeah. And the fact that our content actually backed up the headline, unlike so many that tried to follow that path, it was really helpful.
Right now, we're looking at an environment where there's lots of crap still. Let's not dodge that. But there's a lot of really good content out there and the hardest part now, I think, is determining what's worth your time. So, I think that that requires a different mindset.
The value of original content creation can be harder to justify in this environment. So, you have to think very carefully about how you invest your resources.
Basically, what you do is you zig while others zag. I did that in 2006. The tide has changed, so now I'm zagging while other people are following the playbook that is, in my mind, obsolete for the most part.
That doesn't mean that the fundamentals have changed. But the fundamentals in the context of the fundamentals have changed, and you basically need a new value proposition in order to build an audience.
How a Shift in Context Leads Back to Fundamental Strategies
Jerod Morris: So, what is that new value proposition?
Brian Clark: Well, it goes (I'm going to give a little history lesson here) further back than 2006. I'm talking about the late ‘90s when I got started. Ironically at the time, email newsletters were the thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But I could write and I tried to be interesting and entertaining with the projects that I was working on. But at that time, man, people would sign up for anything. I mean, it was just so new and shiny.
I don't know if you remember this, Jerod, but it was obnoxious when new people got an email account. They would just forward jokes relentlessly to everyone in their address book. And it was actually okay, because we didn't have the volume of email that we do now.
Anyway, there were no courses or conferences or books on how to do this stuff. So, you just had to watch what other people were doing. People like Chris Pirillo and others were doing the email newsletter thing.
When I started my own newsletters, I was building audiences of 10,000, 20,000 people easily and not making a dime, because I had no idea what I was doing from a business standpoint.
Every time I credit Seth Godin's Permission Marketing as being the aha for me (this is 1999), there's a big reason for that. And it's not only still viable today, I think it's become more relevant, again, than the intervening period of what I'll call “the free social media love fest” that is now over.
Obviously, once social media went mainstream and gained traction, then the rules changed. Facebook, most notably. You then had to pay, you had to advertise to reach the very audience that you built on Facebook, the Zuckerberg bait and switch — there were actually about five of them, but they were incremental.
Over time, it just got worse and worse and worse. The next thing you're like, “Oh, Facebook is an advertising platform, not a social media marketing platform.” Advertising is distinct from marketing in the sense of the way you think about ROI.
Permission Marketing was the aha moment for me, because Godin is an old school direct marketer. People don't remember that. When people think about direct marketing, they're thinking about direct mail and other response mechanisms like those radio commercials that are trying to get you to call a number, or infomercials. That was all the formats before the Internet.
But Godin saw that, yes, the Internet is a direct medium and we can't argue with that. We establish direct relationships with our prospects, our customers, and consumers by building an email list. For a while there, we thought RSS might take over – nah, it didn’t happen.
The insight I gained from Permission Marketing was, yes, we build audiences now by getting people to voluntarily opt in, as opposed to, say, buying a mailing list from Publishers Clearing House or Reader's Digest or list brokers – one of the many ways that direct marketers would build their list.
I understood that part and I was good at it, but then the second part of it was, then you have to have something to sell, not advertising. With Godin, he was selling his books at the time and now of course, he's doing courses and all sorts of other stuff. But that was the insight.
That's really what started me on the path of content marketing, which was okay. If you have an audience of people who have raised their hand and want to hear from you and you have something relevant to sell them, then you can create a business, you can make a lot of money.
And that's been the historical genesis of this. Once I understood that this was a direct marketing thing in a very new context, that's when I taught myself copywriting. And that was about ‘99 to 2000, 2001.
I created two additional businesses from there. And then once I started Copyblogger, it was the observation that with the nascent social media, when you applied those copywriting techniques to content, you went viral, because that's what copywriting is. It's about catching attention, sustaining attention, and action.
In that context, it was catch their attention with the headline, write the post in an engaging, relevant way that holds attention, and then ask them to do something, which was to subscribe one way or another to Copyblogger.
I won't say that's irrelevant. I'm just saying that unless you're advertising on social, you're not going to get any reach. It just doesn't happen naturally anymore. Unless it's some crazy joke or political thing, those aren't generally good for business building.
Now, here's the irony — we're right back where we were when Godin said, “This is a direct marketing environment,” except now we're having to be more disciplined like direct marketers are.
Imagine if you had to pay for postage for every message you send out.
Jerod Morris: Oh my, that would change the mindset a little bit.
Brian Clark: You would be very careful about what you send out. You would be very strategic about what you send out. And that's where we are right now. So, that fundamental shift, really back to old school.
Everyone likes to talk about how everything's new and shiny. Really, it's more back to the fundamentals of return on investment, advertising, copy, audience, and what you're selling, just like it used to be.
What is the Difference Between Curation and Connection?
Jerod Morris: To me, and I think to a lot of people who have followed along with you and what you're doing, especially with Unemployable, with Further, with other things, it seems like your new model is based on curation, and even with what you just talked about there.
But here on the show, in private conversations you and I have had, you've been using the word “connection.”
What's the difference and why is that difference important between curation and connection?
Brian Clark: Yeah, so technically what I'm doing in almost every new business — we'll talk about Unemployable, we'll talk about Further, we'll talk about my local site, Your Boulder, even to a certain degree with where we're going with Copyblogger, it is curation.
Now, “curation,” I still like the word, but I'm hesitant about it. Because number one, it's a geeky word from the world of museums really, and art. A curator is someone who has taste and education and aesthetics that allow them to assemble relevant thematic pieces to form exhibits and what have you.
I'm not saying that it's not audience-focused, because ultimately it is, but it really is about the curator themselves. And, as we know, Jerod, if you give the average person the opportunity to make it about themselves, they will.
That's why we always are hammering people over the head, “No, it's not about you. No, it's not about you.” You're a part of it, but ultimately it's about the connection between you and the audience.
Also, the term “curation” is known within digital marketing circles going back to the blogging days and the link post. Now, again, when blogging was young and people were writing self-absorbed 250-word posts, and then on Friday, they couldn't even bring themselves to do that, they just threw together a bunch of links that they had saved probably on Delicious. To be a content creator in that environment was awesome, because we were going for those links ultimately to boost search.
When you're creating great content with great headlines, it's compelling. You're going to get linked to a lot, including within these curated lists. Some weren't bad, most of them were just lazy.
That's the other aspect of it that kind of makes me hesitant. That it's got this, I don't want to say a “stigma,” I want to say an “association” where people think curation is just slapping together some links that you find interesting as the blogger or the owner of the list or whatever you have. And it's not. It's much more strategic. It can be just as valuable and strategic as original content creation, if not more.
I mean, I've thought a lot about this, as you might imagine, over the last several years, and there is an art and science to what we've historically called “curation” that is very, very powerful.
When it comes down to it, what are you doing? If you're doing it correctly, you’re connecting your audience with things that are of value to them, whether they know it's of value to them or not. You have to be pretty rigorous about it. It takes real editorial thought.
I think that's why I like to use the word “connection,” because that's the verb that matters, not the actual selection of stuff. It's the connection with the people that you're serving. Again, your audience, these are the people you're choosing to take responsibility for.
Again, whether it's writing something, or assembling a collection of things, whether it's content, products, services, entertainment, I mean, this is what people are looking for. We've had the word “information overload” for the last 20 years at least. It's ridiculous now. It keeps getting worse.
Why Audience Matters More Than Content
Jerod Morris: Yeah. One of the things that we've often heard and been told, of course, is that content is king. So, are you kind of saying in this that content isn't king, especially creating new content isn't king? But that it's audience instead that is what really matters?
Brian Clark: Well, I've been saying it’s audience for I think at least nine years, maybe eight. That wasn't necessarily a revelation to me. When I said it, it was the fact that people were getting lost and thinking content, content, content. I'm like, “No. Wait. Why? Why do you create the content?” It's to build an audience.
The audience is the asset. The content, if you're giving it away for free, is only an asset to the extent that it builds your audience.
Again, social media has become almost offensively mainstream and ridiculous. You’ve got Instagram audiences, I mean, the content is so thin. Then going back to my old joke about Kim Kardashian has a huge audience — what was her content? It was the sex tape, and she stole that idea from Paris Hilton. What matters to Kim Kardashian though is that audience, not necessarily the quality of the content. We could go round and round about that. But apparently her audience thinks it’s valuable.
Jerod Morris: Probably not going to work for this audience.
Moving Beyond “Communication, Content, Copy” to Product Audience Fit
Brian Clark: No, no.
There's been this focus on communication, content, and copy. I would even say that Copyblogger contributed to this misconception to a certain degree. I mean, really, the site is about how to create compelling content and effective copy. And those things matter, but they don't matter as much as other things. Audience being one of them. The other thing being: what are you selling?
A lot of people, I think, over the years looked at our success at Copyblogger where we just went on this run year after year after year — new product launch, new product launch, new product launch. Not one of them failed. Most of them were doing multiple seven figures.
Again, what worked there was what would be called generally “product market fit.” In my case, I call it “product or offer and audience fit,” because you have a discreet market with an audience. You're serving them specifically, not some demographic anomaly or abstraction. And that's why I think we did so well at Copyblogger.
The content and the copy, sure, that's part of the equation. But it's really about selling the right thing to the right people. And I think that gets lost quite a bit these days, and I'm trying to bring that out more. That's what works.
If you have product audience fit, you could just run Facebook ads and you'll make money. You don't have to build 300,000 people audiences like many of us did back in the day.
Content as a Means to Build Relationship with the Audience
Jerod Morris: But you don't necessarily have to know exactly what your offer is right away. The reason why you create content and put it out there is to develop this ongoing relationship with the audience so that you can learn about them. Is that fair to say? So, it serves a role and then it certainly serves that purpose.
When I think about this, sometimes I can get a little bit intimidated think, “Hey, you've got to have this perfect offer.” But you're not going to have that from day one. You've got to take time to get to know your audience. And the communication part is what helps you get there. Is that an accurate way to view how this roadmap goes?
Brian Clark: Well, the way the audience reacts to content is very telling. But it's really audience observation. You're listening to people. Content is really just a mechanism. What I'm here to say is that it doesn't matter if the content is yours or someone else's. Ultimately, you’re still getting incredible market research.
But you're not wrong. I mean, for 18 months at the beginning of Copyblogger, we didn't sell anything except for one exception, and I'll tell you about that later. I was trying to figure out, “What do they want?” And we figured it out. And then we launched Teaching Sells and that was our first 7-figure product. Then it just kept going.
But it was always just watching, “What's going on with WordPress. Oh wait, they're starting to sell themes. Oh, I bet we could do that.” And then Scribe and then…
So, you're not wrong. The listening process, we talked a lot about that with Nick Usborne. That’s the secret to really understanding your audience, which allows you to determine not only how to communicate with them, which again, people focus on overly. What it really tells you is what do they need and how should that offer be positioned.
The Fundamentals: Audience, Offer, and Messaging
Jerod Morris: Okay. That makes sense.
So, essentially the curation or connection approach, it helps you not just build an audience, but also figure out your business model — what to sell, how to communicate. And then it just builds on itself and really creates like a snowball that kind of helps you then build your business.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it's kind of fascinating. So, let's go back old school again. Let's talk about the fundamentals. Let's talk about what's never changed, whether it was magazine, direct response or direct mail, early email marketing. Again, the period of time when we were building audiences by viral social media and targeted search listings that were a little easier to obtain.
Here's the interesting thing: it wasn't even that easy. We worked our asses off to get those viral articles, to keep the site up when the day traffic came and then to actually get a lot of those people to follow the site permanently. It was the job for a while.
Not only do I think that's ineffective — and this is my own evolution, because the techniques I'm using now accomplish the same things. The big difference is traffic. That's really what it comes down to.
I'm not saying you can't get search listings, you can. We used to rank, actually Copyblogger still does rank number one for Copywriting. But we used to rank top three for Email Marketing, Landing Pages, SEO, Copywriting — I don't even remember. It was ridiculous. Every one of our cornerstone content topics, we just crushed it.
Now, it's become so competitive. We're still in the running, but it's not the same thing. But imagine if you're just starting a new site today compared to the authority sites that have been around for a decade. That's really difficult. So, let's look at the fundamentals.
Fundamentals are audience, offer, and messaging.
I'm talking about going back to the old days of direct marketing. And, again, don't let that term turn you off.
All it means is you're communicating directly with your prospects, whether by putting something in their mailbox or putting something in their email inbox, as opposed to going through an intermediary. The only difference is you have to build that list through some means of getting traffic online. Again, I think for most people that has now become social ads and pay-per-click Google ads. So, you’ve got to build the audience.
But here's the upside of that. We may have been able to make our articles go viral, attract a ton of traffic, convert a decent amount of it to the email list, but it still wasn't very targeted. It was topically targeted, but you couldn't do what you can do these days with Facebook ads, where you're choosing your audience according to variables that are just not possible with organic traffic.
I used to think topic was enough, but I think who you're talking to within a topic, the variety of people within that topical interest point, it's all over the place. This is why selecting your desired audience is crucial. You don't want to just take whoever shows up. Now, we did that and that's why messaging matters. And we'll get to that in a second.
The second component, going back to the days of direct mail is what you sell or the offer that sells that thing.
Those are really two different things, because you can sell the same thing, but construct the offer differently. And that could mean whether you have a money back guarantee, whether adding incentives, the price you choose — all of these things, your actual business model.
Like what's now called a “trip wire,” which is a low cost product that turns a prospect into a buyer. Even if you lose money on it, why would you do that? Because a buyer is more likely to buy again from you. And ironically, they're likely to buy from you very soon after the initial purchase.
These are all things that direct marketers knew before the Internet and what the early Internet marketers were mimicking including the copywriting, which is where that atrocious style of yellow highlighter and red headlines and everything — that's what worked offline with certain type of people, so they figured it worked online.
But it only worked with certain types of people. And that's an important thing that we'll come back to. Again, that goes back to audience.
Then, finally, messaging is how you communicate. That can be the tone, the voice, the positioning, the choice of language. That's all determined by who you're talking to and how to best engage them, so that they're more inclined to purchase your what.
People are completely focused on the messaging. This is a rule of thumb from direct marketing, which is audience is 40%. That's the “who.” Offer is 40%. That's the “what.” Your content and copy (20%) matters and it can change your return on investment immensely.
But here's what I want you to keep in mind. If you have the right audience and the right offer, you can be terrible at copywriting or at least just not put a ton of effort into it, and you'll still sell.
Now, take that “who” and “what” and add great copy, and that's how you take it to the next level.
It's important, it's just not the most important thing. So, that's why content marketing, I think, is misleading to people. Just create content and you'll succeed. Not even close.
The Shift That Makes Curation and Connection Best
Jerod Morris: Okay, so the audience, offer, messaging breakdown, that all makes sense. I want to go back real quick if we can to this idea, again, of curation and connection. Why has that become the best way to do this? Like the best combination of both efficiency and effectiveness for doing this and doing it right?
Brian Clark: So it really comes down to a huge shift in context and what value proposition is going to be more effective now.
Let's say, back in 2008 when Leo Babauta started Zen Habits, talking about personal growth. I remember Leo launched that site and guest posted on Copyblogger. He guest posted almost everywhere and built this amazing audience and started selling them products that were good product audience fit. And he still has a thriving business to this day.
Then you get to 2015, essentially when I started Further basically on the same topic, except that I was doing it mainly for myself. I only allow that indulgence on a project that's not supposed to make money, because I don't care. This is the stuff I'm reading and why not share it with people because that deepens my understanding, especially — I don't know if you've heard about the learning technique of retrieval?
When you explain to other people what you've learned, you really learn it. If you just sit there and read it over and over and try to memorize and retain, highly ineffective. But when you're forced to explain it to someone… This is why I tell everyone, “I don't care if you're ready or not, start trying to build an audience and take them with you on your journey. You're a step ahead of them. And if you can explain to them what you've learned, you're becoming an expert. You're becoming an authority.” Anyway, that's a little off track.
Jerod Morris: That's empowering though. I do think that's an important point though, and it's an empowering one. You don't have to be the fully formed expert to go out the door with this. As long as you're a step ahead, people will go on the journey with you.
Brian Clark: And that's been true since the days of blogging. Darren Rowse basically, that's his About page. “I started blogging. I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't sure I was qualified to start ProBlogger, but I figured I would share.” It's very compelling.
Jerod Morris: Yeah, it's relatable.
Brian Clark: So, I did that with Further at the beginning, because I'm like, “Who the hell am I? Other than my entrepreneurial career, I've had outside success, but I'm kind of a mess right now. My health is bad, my relationships could use some work.” This was the realization I had that prompted me to start that project. I'm like, “I don't feel qualified to write about this stuff. I'm going to do a curated newsletter.”
Then I had consumed so many books and articles and whatnot on the topic, I did start to write about it, mainly again, to make sure I understood it. And it goes back to that retrieval learning process, which is if you can explain it to someone else in writing, you probably understand it. And so that was this slow evolution.
But now, the way we do Further is really based on the fact that no one needs me to write another personal development article. They may want my summary of it, they may want my take on it. And that's really Further’s format now.
It's really coming from content that's already out there as long as it's high-quality. So, most of my job with Further is not the writing and publishing of the newsletter, it's finding high-quality stuff. Some of it's already proven to be popular and other stuff, a lot of it is like hidden gems.
Basically, I have elevated the role of editor above writer, because we have a surplus of good writing. But what we have is a poverty of attention. If I can connect people with this stuff — yes, it is my discretion, so it's what I think is interesting or important. But as long as you have a strategic thematic approach to the audience you're serving…
It was interesting you noticed that while I was gone on sabbatical, I shifted Further from a generic personal development thing to targeted at people who are entering or in midlife, which means my generation (Generation X). I noticed that I was going in that direction, and then just decided to make it explicit. As soon as I did that, defined my “who” tighter, then the organic subscription rate went up. It's kind of amazing.
Jerod Morris: It makes sense.
Brian Clark: If you can get 10% opt-in rate on your homepage, you're a wizard. Further is 20. And it's not because I'm a wizard, it's because I chose who I wanted to talk to and I said, “Guess what Millennial or borderline person like Jerod…?”
Funny thing, people, is Jerod complains all the time. “Thanks for excluding me from Further. I used to enjoy it.”
It's funny that there actually are younger people on Further, and they'll even share it. They're like, “I'm not Gen X, but this is good.” And I'm like, “Damn, that's like the ultimate compliment. When I choose to ignore you…”
Jerod Morris: “…I still want to be a part of it.”
The Mindset of Connection
Jerod Morris: Can I make one point though? Because this is kind of the flip side of what I said before, and it goes back to what you said earlier about curator. You had a really elegant and accurate definition of what a curator is. And you were talking about it within the context of a museum.
But I said before that it is very empowering that, “Hey, with this strategy, you can go out, you don't need to be the expert.” But to do it well, think back to what Brian said about what it takes to be a curator.
You really do have to have not a full knowledge of the space, but you've got to be able to sift the junk from the really valuable stuff, know the audience well enough to know what's important to them. Be able to put the context on it. Even be able to add that aesthetic element whether it's with the design of how you put the email together or the way that you write it. Those things do matter for a strategy like this to work.
So, it's not just that anybody can go do it. I think those pieces of it matter.
And what you said about Further, maybe you started the journey without a ton of knowledge, but you've read and learned and really gained some expertise and really an understanding of the context and the environment and just the lay of the land to know where to look and what pieces are important.
That's important, because, as you said, if you're going to elevate the editor over the writer and really take advantage of the power of the human algorithm, you do have to have some skill or develop some skill in that to do it right.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and a lot of the content that's created now is remixed from someone else's content. I think the authority game with content — some people see through it, some people don't. I mean, how many times have I seen an old Copyblogger article that I forgot I had written basically remixed, no link, no attribution? Okay, whatever. I don't care. You know that's going to happen. It's actually kind of a compliment.
But here's the brass tacks for the shift to curation and connection: we're at this point now where we're talking about AI and algorithms quite a bit. In our experience, right now with algorithms, when it comes to content, it’s negative. Think about Facebook's algorithm, think about Google's algorithm, and these black boxes created by Valley engineers that basically dictate what we see, what we find when we search.
Dave Pell of NextDraft, which is a curated daily, a newsletter. He's the one that first used the term “human algorithm.” I mean, that's what Dave calls himself. An actual good old fashioned human being that finds good stuff for you and shares it. That's what a curator has always done.
But the meaning has changed. That was kind of a nice to have thing 10 years ago. But now, we don't trust algorithms and they're about to control even more and more of our lives.
I think we're in a window of time where you position yourself as a trusted human algorithm and you're weeding out the fake news. You're explaining context for a piece that may be biased or confusing or what have you. That's incredibly more valuable than just writing another new article that you're probably remixing from someone else anyway.
Let's face it, everyone does that. Only difference was when I did it back in the day, I actually attributed. I love to attribute to the people I learn from. I mean, that's why Godin gets free advertising on this podcast all the time. I'm really going to have to hit him up for this at some point.
But yeah, you've got information overload, you've got fake news, you've got algorithms choosing according to criteria that you don't know. And all of a sudden, people are like, “Give me a human being.” Now, that's an opportunity that is larger than writing another article.
Think about, if you're a freelancer: what are you going to do? That's the other thing about content marketing for people like designers or writers. They write about writing or they write about design, but your prospect doesn't care about that. They want to know that you understand their business, their industry, and their pain. What better way than to have your finger on the pulse of a certain industry or niche, or whatever you want to call it, to convince someone that, “This is my person.”
That's why I think this model works for freelancers. It works for just about any other kind of business.
And you may say, “Well, how many curated email newsletters can you actually have?” Okay, that didn't stop everyone in the world from content marketing, did it? The good stuff rises to the top.
But I'm just saying with this value proposition, I think a lot of people can succeed in different ways. It'll come down to how you position yourself as always. We're not forgetting Marketing 101 or anything.
Again, if you choose the right people and you offer them the right kind of content, the “what,” and then eventually the right kind of products and services. Then you learn how they like to be communicated with from just doing the damn thing.
You try different things out. With email, you could track everything (clicks, opens). It’s just fundamentally amazing how much data and analytics that we have access to just by sharing things with people and then seeing what works and what doesn't.
So, really, this curation thing is playing off the continued dominance of email. Instead of email dying, we use it and check it more than we ever have in history. It's not going away. And we're kind of back to the old school newsletter format. What did a newsletter use to be? It wasn't necessarily original content. A lot of the time, it was a summary of some other content that was out there.
What's really fascinating to me is the re-emergence of paper newsletters. People are so sick of digital overload that if you can sell them a newsletter on paper, mail it to their house so that they can sit away from the computer, away from the phone and have something to read.
Jerod Morris: It gives you so many old tactile joys. Like you get something in the mail, you don't have to read on a screen. It's great. I'm all about it.
The Value Proposition of Curation
Brian Clark: But here's the thing, as an editor, you have the capacity and the bandwidth to demonstrate you understand a specific industry or business, whether it be realtors or attorneys or what have you, that you understand what they're dealing with, because you are actually informing them on issues that are relevant to them.
Again, whether you're offering your freelance services of what, you can basically make offers within the context of this audience and basically be trading off authority based on essentially what you're learning as you go along, just like old school blogging. But also the fact that you're connecting these people to what they need.
The curation model within the three elements, the three fundamentals: audience, offer, messaging.
Okay, first of all, we talk about the human algorithm, fake news, information overload. You're able to build an audience quicker with curation, because the value proposition is stronger.
For example, on Further, it's the week's best resources about work, wealth, and wellness for Generation X. That's a very specific value proposition and it's not, “I'll send you one thing that I decided to write about.” I'm saying, “I'm going to send you the best stuff that I find every week.” That's compelling. And that's a value proposition that a lot of people aren't able to match.
Look at some of the biggest emerging audiences in the space such as The Hustle. A million email subscribers, now curation. The Skimm, mainly targeted at women. It’s like NextDraft for women. And NextDraft is NextDraft for Democrats, because Dave is not shy.
Jerod Morris: And people who like puns.
Brian Clark: Exactly. God, he writes the best subheads, don't you think?
Jerod Morris: He really does.
Brian Clark: He makes me jealous, because I try to do that and it's not easy.
Jerod Morris: His mind has to be a very interesting place to just be able to come up with those like he does.
Brian Clark: I think he does admit to heavy marijuana use. That may help, I don't know.
Jerod Morris: There you go.
Curation as Product Creation Strategy
Brian Clark: Okay. So, let's get to offer. How do you figure out what this audience wants to buy? So, returning to the early days of Copyblogger, I always say we didn't sell anything for 18 months. But that's not true. I did experiment with some affiliate offers.
One offer was for a course. I'm not going to say which one, because it's not relevant now. I made $50,000 as an affiliate off of that. And that's when I was like, “Okay, courses are viable, and if other bloggers are going to find something to sell other than advertising, they're going to have to create something. And what can writers create? They can create a course.” All I had to do was convince them that online education was going to be a huge industry, which to me, was a no brainer. But there was more skepticism than you think.
So, that was a very limited form of testing out whether people would buy a certain type of product. And that combined with everything else I learned through observation and my own personal path determined the first thing that we sold, which was the course. But from there, then it shifted dramatically into WordPress software and then SaaS and on and on and on. So, it was a period of observation, listening, but also trying things out.
Now, what better than a curation model foreseeing what people will actually buy? I think, geez, it's been 12 years, maybe 11, where we wrote about affiliate marketing as market research. And I think we actually did a conversation with Darren Rowse, I think it was on Unemployable but may have been one of our previous podcasts about that very technique that Darren uses as well, like he has Digital Photography School.
So, he would make affiliate offers of other people's photography products. Some sold, some didn't. The ones that sold informed his product creation strategy.
With curation, look at Wirecutter.
I mean, affiliate marketing has really grown up to where a lot of major publishers do it now, because advertising sucks. I guess they should have read Godin back in ‘99, but that's water under the bridge.
But yeah, The Wirecutter is basically just a review site. A very good one, I don't want to say “just.” They review products that other people sell, whether it's Amazon or directly from the merchant, and they make 30 million bucks a year. No, wait, it's more than that now. The New York Times bought The Wirecutter for 30 million. But if you look at the balance sheet that The New York Times discloses, there's another category, and the only thing that could be is The Wirecutter and it's like $45 million a year.
Jerod Morris: Wow.
Brian Clark: I know. Because they're a trusted source of connection. What they're really doing is curating and evaluating.
So, within a curation model, figuring out what you're going to sell, the “what,” once you have your “who” is very low risk. You don't have to create anything. You do have to take the same editorial sensibility and not sell out your audience for a buck.
Yes, you could create one of these 7-Figure Small businesses based solely on curated affiliate marketing. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But it's also market research.
Eventually, I think everyone who makes… well, not everyone. There are a lot of people who just stick with affiliate and make a lot of money. And usually, they are very low profile about it.
Pat Flynn's a good example. He was making a hundred grand a month or more just from affiliate offers. He's got a 7-Figure Small right there. But then, of course, he moved into original product creation. And I think some of that had to be informed by the collection of things that he found people, his audience specifically, were willing to buy.
Brian Clark: Then also, then you get to messaging, which is how you communicate. Again, a curated newsletter is a very low risk way to figure out what your audience responds to. We talked about, a couple of episodes ago, the PodNews which is very dry and very useful. I'm still subscribed to it. In the last two days, I've found things that are of high interest to me. For that guy, because he's basically selling sponsorships, which again are not out of bounds, I'm not saying, “Don't take sponsors.”
But eventually, almost everyone is going to move into affiliate. And then a select group will take what they learned from that and move into products. And that's where it becomes important to understand how to communicate with your audience, because then you're writing copy.
Even with affiliate offers, if you're doing it well, you're not just sticking a link in your newsletter. You're going to create a funnel or you're going to create a piece of content that persuasively, but also ethically and in a trustworthy manner, recommends that product.
So, communication is important, but you can see why it's only 20% and the other two are the big dogs.
Charting a Path of Incremental Progress
Jerod Morris: It's interesting, as you were explaining some of that, you were kind of charting a path for how people go from a newsletter, kind of start out small, and eventually turn into a business. I find it interesting that what people consider to be a fairly new thing, this lean startup movement, is really not all that new at all.
Brian Clark: That's another interesting thing. You'll never hear Eric Reese use the words “direct marketing.” But that's where all of that lean methodology came from. It also came from the world of manufacturing, which is what “lean” originally referred to — Toyota and their manufacturing processes, agile software development. All of this stuff was basically a process that was perfected starting with the book Scientific Advertising in the 1920s by Claude Hopkins. Where you tested with small tests, you saw what worked, you did more of that. You saw what didn't work, you stopped doing that.
Now, does that sound like what lean is all about? I mean, you start off with an idea, a hypothesis, you do something to test it. For example, Tim Ferris (well-schooled in all this stuff) used Google pay-per-click ads to test different headlines for his first book. The audience chose The 4-Hour Workweek. Guess what it turned out to be? A huge smash bestseller with a highly compelling, if somewhat misleading, title.
Jerod Morris: Somewhat.
Brian Clark: Yeah, but it was compelling, that's for sure.
The lean startup thing was basically taking this data-driven small test, incremental improvement philosophies that spanned everything from direct marketing to manufacturing to software development and said, “Okay, you're not going to sit there and build something for two years. You're going to test your hypothesis. Then you're going to build a minimum viable product. And then you're going to sell it. If people buy, then you're going to ask for their feedback on what needs improving.”
It's just a very informed data-driven, but also audience-driven, approach. It's what these specific people think. Not a market, not a demographic — these people bought this product because it solved a problem or fulfilled a desire, and they sort of like it. But these are the things real people think we should do next.
There you have it. It's the same exact process whether you want to call it “curation” or “lean” or what I've come to call “Next Level Seven.” When we talk about this 7-Figure Small thing, I think maybe some people think, “Well, you just start off with this certain approach and then it grows to seven figures in revenue.”
No, it's really an incremental process, and you just keyed in on this like a minute ago when you said it's really, “You see how things start, but that's not how they end up.” And that's really the power behind this methodology.
What is the Role of Original Content Creation in 2019?
Jerod Morris: So, to close here, kind of a lingering question from this discussion, what is the role of original content creation in 2019 and beyond? We've talked a lot about curating, but what about original content creation?
Brian Clark: Yeah, obviously, I still create original content. I still identify as a writer. Actually, I would say I enjoy it, but that's not true. I enjoy having written more than I enjoy writing.
Jerod Morris: Sounds about right.
Brian Clark: We do the podcast, which some would call original content.
But I would argue that the interview format of podcasting is curation. You're asking questions from someone else on a certain topic and the only work you did was selecting who to interview and what to ask them, which is a form of curation in itself. And you're using their expertise to create content for your audience. It's not that different.
An episode like this, of course, is more original content, which is odd, because I'm explaining my anti-original content position with original content. I understand the irony.
Jerod Morris: That's been your career for like the last 12 years.
Brian Clark: I know. It drives me crazy. I think that's why I love Further so much. It's not meta, although it is. I'm a midlife person that's trying to figure things out and sharing it with other midlife people, so maybe it is.
Anyway, there's always a function for original content, but it should be content that is designed to make you money.
So, let's make a distinction here. In the early days of Copyblogger, I created 18 months’ worth of content. Then we introduced guest writers, which was a whole new concept at that time. So, we're giving away all this content for free.
Then I wrote this 21-page report called The Teaching Sells Report to make the case for online course creation for bloggers and content creators. That report has made me millions of dollars. That one piece of writing, we used it for years.
People wonder why I haven't written a book. Well, I could write 200 pages that may someday make me some royalties or I could write 21 pages of persuasive content mixed with copy and make millions. That's kind of ruined me on the whole book idea. But that's money content, because it was the beginning of a launch sequence.
Another form of money content would be, let's say you're a freelancer or a consultant, and you're curating content for a specific type of person within a specific industry (these are the people you want to serve). And then you create a funnel for them or a free white paper or whatever it is, the first step in your buying process. You've got them in your audience. Now you're trying to move them more towards hiring you.
That's money content. Creating that type of content is going to lead to a sale for a certain percentage of people. It’s not blogging to get another post out. It's not creating an article, so it'll go viral on social or rank well in search.
Another problem with the way content marketing is still talked about is people always lose sight of the ultimate objective here. What are you trying to do? You're trying to make money.
I don't think we ever lost sight of that, but as we got larger, we could afford to just create all the free content in the world and it served that model. But I would never do that today.
I'm only focused on audience, offer, and then figuring out the best way to communicate with them. So, if I get the first two right, I'm selling. If I get the third part right, I'm selling a lot more.
What's another thing? Affiliate reviews. Kat has been writing these great home office articles about stuff that you can do to make your office more sustainable, productive, stress-free, all these kinds of things.
That's money content, because it's a great article. It's amazing to me how much people like those articles as a sidebar, because we've never done really that kind of affiliate stuff before. So, I'm like, “I wonder if anyone's even going to click on this.” People click more on those articles than they do on some of our original stuff, which I hate to say.
Jerod Morris: I mean, it's an article that promises an answer to a question immediately, right now, that people might be able to fix by buying something.
Brian Clark: And that's what I mean. It's technically a curated article with product recommendations, but really, it's connecting with our audience on a relevant topic. I mean, we all have home offices generally if we're doing this unemployable thing. Anyway, that's just an example.
From that standpoint, everything on The Wirecutter is money content. So, that's money well-invested in getting that type of content created.
Now, the only thing I would say as a final caveat here, especially for people looking at The Wirecutter as an example, Google is about to introduce or go wide with their Google Shopping Platform. The idea and the fear here is that you're going to see posts that feature Amazon affiliate links take a dive in search, and The Wirecutter is almost all Amazon and they're all search. I hope they switch to a newsletter model or something.
They're fortunate to have a very loyal audience. It would be interesting to me to see how much of their traffic comes from search, how much of their revenue comes from conversion from search. What would happen if Google decided, “We don't really like The Wirecutter anymore, because they're promoting our nemesis Amazon”?
Jerod Morris: Wait, Google does that?
Brian Clark: Ah, it's impending. Oh, you're being sarcastic. Jerod’s so earnest. Sometimes he'll catch me off guard when he makes that sarcastic remark and then I look like an idiot.
There’s so much more to this, Jerod. You know that, I know that. But I mean, I wanted to answer the question and when I started to sit down and go, “Okay, how do I answer this?” I'm like, “Oh, this is going to be an entire episode on it.”
Jerod Morris: This could have been two episodes. There's a lot in this.
We'll be back next week. We don't know exactly what we're going to have next week, but we'll be back next week with a new episode. I really like these kind of “Take a step to the side and talk big picture” episodes. These are always fun and always really informative, and I learn a lot from them.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Of course, I'm working on finding a way to elaborate on this stuff, some sort of coaching program or community or course, what have you.
See, you're also seeing us in the process of figuring this out with respect to the audience, you guys. What can we do to get you in the position that you really want to be if this 7-Figure Small thing is of interest to you?
As always, use the Unemployable hashtag on Twitter if you'd like to give us some feedback, thoughts, requests. The question that prompted this episode showed up on Twitter with that hashtag. So, we do look at it. And obviously, we take it seriously if we just spoke an hour about it.
Also, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you want to shoot me an email with a question, comment, feedback, whatever.
Jerod, should we give them your email address or are you trying to protect that inbox?
Jerod Morris: No, heck no. I love connecting with people on email — email@example.com.
Brian Clark: It's not hard to figure out, that’s the problem.
Jerod Morris: It’s not, and I'll just remind folks. Unemployable.com, really the best way is get on the email newsletter and you can always reply to any of those emails that come in with a question. That'll come to us and that'll help inform our future episodes and certainly our next mailbag episode.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we don't have comments on the site, just it doesn't really work out with the design.
But, Jerod, we have a new channel out there that was really all your doing. So, why don't you talk about YouTube?
Jerod Morris: We do. We just started a YouTube channel. Right now, we're putting up all of the podcast episodes, the entire podcast archive will be up there. We don't have the vanity URL, so I can't tell you just to go to youtube.com/unemployable, although we eventually want to have that.
Brian Clark: Wait, why don’t we have that? Is it taken?
Jerod Morris: No, you can't get it yet. You have to get a certain number of subscribers before you can get that. We have to do a few things, but I will tweet out the link to it from my Twitter account @JerodMorris and we'll put it in the newsletter, so that people can get there as well.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I know what the lead sentence in the newsletter will be this week.
Jerod Morris: By the way, right now, we're just going to have the podcast episodes up there, just the audio. It's not going to be the video of us talking. But we are planning for additional content to go up there.
It won't just be podcast episodes, but for those of you who use YouTube to listen to podcasts. I know that there are a lot of people out there who do that, because on some other projects, we actually have more people who listen on YouTube than they do to the actual podcast. We wanted to have that channel up there for you.
So, it is there. New episodes will go there as soon as they're published everywhere else. It's a good place to subscribe to the show.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we will do some video stuff. We're just kind of getting baby-steps started with YouTube.
Basically, Jerod, I have got to get back in my house and my specifically designed home office that was for audio and video recording and all that good stuff, so ‘m not speaking into this phone box in the living room of a rental up the road.
Yeah, there will be some additional value in subscribing. If you subscribe just to help us out, so we can get our preferred domain, we would greatly appreciate that as well. And obviously, there'll be some value there, going back to the archive in episodes you might have missed.
Jerod Morris: Yep, all right. I think that is it. Thank you, Brian. Thank you for listening and we will talk to you guys next week.
Brian Clark: Take care, Everyone.
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