John Espirian: Using content marketing to become known for one thing

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Notes

In this episode, John shares how content marketing has grown his business through a very specific strategy inspired by Mark Schaefer.

John is a B2B technical copywriter and offers LinkedIn consultancy. John dominates LinkedIn with his relentlessly helpful content.

He shares how he integrates his brand and personality throughout all his content; how he empowers his audience by making complex topics simple, committing to the one thing, his upcoming book Content DNA and the results he has achieved over the last few years.

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Transcription

Chris:
Well, good morning, John. Thanks very much for joining me on the podcast. How are you?

John:
Nice one, Chris. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, all good in South Wales this morning.

Chris:
South Wales, wow. All right. Good stuff, yeah. So, John, tell us a little bit about what kind of business you run. Tell us about the work that you do.

John:
Well, I’m a business-to-business technical copywriter, so I write the content that goes on websites, and blogs, and case studies, and I also do a little bit of LinkedIn consultancy.

Chris:
Just a little bit, right.

John:
Just a bit.

Chris:
So, we’ll talk about that. I’m sure of it. The content marketing journey, right? That’s what we want to get a sense of. We’ve got a bit of a content marketing inception happening here, I suppose, because we’ve got a content marketer talking to … potentially a content marketer about content marketing. So, tell us a little bit about … you’ve got an amazing journey, John. We’ve used your story at almost every opportunity we can to showcase the impact that a focus on content can have for your business, for your personal career and journey as well. So, tell us a little bit about where that content marketing journey began for you and maybe let’s look at that time period where there was a triggering event. I’d love for people to understand what this journey looks like for you.

John:
Yeah, so, in brief, my business has been going 10 years but I only wrote my first blog post at the end of 2014 and at that point, I didn’t have the faintest idea what content marketing was. I didn’t really have any kind of direction, didn’t have any consistency. But I started writing more content at the end of 2015, and that was just before I discovered the Content Marketing Academy. I think my breakthrough moment probably was being at content … being at CMA Live when I had a chance to meet the great and the good and speaking with Mark Schaefer, and that’s where I discovered, really, my brand identity and started having enough confidence to put the real me out there.

And then once I did that, once I got this relentlessly helpful brand identity and started putting consistent content out there, that’s when my results went through the roof and I started to see a doubling of my website traffic year on year, people repeating my brand identity back to me. And just generally being more known in my space. So, none of that, just none of that, would have been possible without content.

Chris:
Yeah, it’s really shaped your business over the last three or four years. I think that defining moment with Mark Schaefer on the stage … 2017, am I right?

John:
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, June 2017 and it was a serendipitous moment, really. I wasn’t expecting that to happen, but that’s the power of going to these events sometimes. And it’s just helped me realize and it’s … In fact, it’s inspired me to write a book, which I’m writing at the moment that your … what you stand for, your brand identity, it’s something that has to resonate with your ideal audience. Has to be something that they can echo back to you, and just that moment was really pivotal in pushing things forward for me.

Chris:
So, what does that look like? Let’s look at your brand then in that case. Just to make this really clear, how does that work in your company, then? How does your content echo back to your customers? How do your customers engage with it? In other words, what I’m asking is what kind of content have you been creating? How is that helping you to build up and engage with your audience at a deeper level?

John:
Yeah, well, I mean, what I’ve tried to do is think about what the four or five core elements of my personal brand are and just make sure that they come out in every bit of content that I create so that I have this same shape everywhere that I am. Because I think that makes you more memorable. And my focus is on trying to … Because I’m a natural explainer my focus is on creating content that has a high level of utility, so I’m always going to educate you and show you how to do something, how to get a task accomplished.

And through the consistency and confidence that comes from creating a lot of content, you let your personality show as well. And what that means for my business is that instead of just sounding like everyone else, who in my field tends to be a bit more boring, a bit drier, I can have some fun. Put some personality in there but always show off my skills for explaining how stuff works because that’s what I do in business. I explain how complicated things work.

And so that naturally attracts clients to me and it means that the content that I create draws people in through my website and through my LinkedIn presence. And so it means that I don’t really have to go knocking on doors and chasing people. People come to me and increasingly now I can pick and choose who I work with, which means I can charge more money or I can do work that’s more satisfying. So, it’s kind of win-win, really.

Chris:
Yeah. There’s only upside on this, right? It’s all good. I love the idea … This is a common thread is this whole idea as content marketers, if that’s what we can call ourselves just now, is this idea of it’s our job, almost, to … or our responsibility to make the complex simple. I’ve literally just talked about this on other interviews as well because that’s … I mean, when we’re trying to explain something or, in other words, help people understand something, we have to be able to make the complex simple.

Prospective customers or people that want to engage with you in some way, if it’s all too complicated, and all too jargon, and all too industry based stuff, then they’re not really going to engage with that. Are they?

John:
Yeah, well, that’s right. I mean, I think all the best content marketers have got that kind of … that teacher element at their heart where you give people that moment where they go, “Oh, I get now.” So, that’s what I do in my business but that is really, for me, the heart of content marketing. If you can establish that connection with your ideal reader and get them to understand … answer their questions but do it in a way that they can understand, not feel stupid, feel empowered so that they can make better buying decisions. That will build trust.

And you can do all of that without being sales-y. I mean, sales will come from it but if you give … I mean, you’ve talked about this before. If you can give people the best answer, meaning the answer that is most relevant to the ideal audience, those people are naturally going to trust you and somewhere down the line they’re going to remember and want to do business with you.

Chris:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s a great … even in itself a great definition of what content marketing is so it kind of answers another question. So, thinking about your journey then, that triggering of … on the stage, Mark Schaefer, and getting clarity on this defining branding moment for you has essentially liberated you from a host of challenges that you were maybe having about putting yourself out there and really leaning into content marketing as the number one way that you go to market.

And you know this as well as I do, there’s a whole host of other challenges that people have along the way. Is there any other challenges that you’ve had to overcome, John, in the process over the last couple years to … I don’t know, to just build your brand and to get content out there? I mean, you mentioned consistency. Obviously, that is an absolutely key one. How have you managed to stay so consistent?

John:
Well, I mean, Mark has actually helped me with that because there have been times where it’s easy to be distracted by the other things that are going on. Some new platform comes out, should you go and check it out? Some new way of communicating comes out, should you go and do that? So, I had the opportunity to take over someone’s podcast and I thought, “Well, should I be podcasting?” And the reality is you’re much better off if you can focus on one thing.

So, if you can be known for one thing in one place, that’ll be far better than trying to use all your energy to be everywhere. So, because of that, I’m not active on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or Pinterest. I don’t have any interest in those things because most of my clients aren’t there and there are only so many hours in the day. So, I’ve decided to double down on my writing, which is what I’m good at, and double down on the platform of choice.

And since I work in business-to-business, LinkedIn makes sense for me. So now I’m becoming known as that writing guy who’s on LinkedIn. That’s fine because if you can remember me in just a few words, that makes me infinitely more referable than … and talk-worthy than if I tried to do a million things and you didn’t have a succinct way of describing who I was or what I did.

Chris:
Yeah. I think this is such an incredibly powerful lesson for people to learn because … And I remember Mark Schaefer talking about this, the Shiny Red Ball Syndrome, right?

John:
Yeah.

Chris:
But people struggle with this, John. They really, really, really struggle with this. What do you think is holding people back from just saying, “This is where I’m best. This is where I’m going to turn up.” I mean, you’ve just basically outlined a one-page strategy there in terms of how you’re going to market.

John:
Yeah, I think people want results yesterday and they want the easy button. And maybe they think that “If I just try this, maybe that’ll work.” So they don’t, I guess, invest enough belief in the fact that if they’re saying something of value, of utility, to their ideal audience … So, that comes from understanding who your audience is. And, sticking at it long enough, that’s the way to succeed. And I’ve found that a lot of the clients I’ve spoken to just assume that you can put out three blog posts and all of a sudden you’re going to be at the top of Google.

And the internet doesn’t work like that. It’s a crowded place. So, it’s a drip, drip effect. If I talk about LinkedIn, for example, I really threw myself in at the start of 2017. I thought, “It’s a business-to-business platform. Let’s go all in on this. This is where my customers are likely to be.” And for most of that first year not much happened.

I was sharing valuable content, I was trying to build connections, I was trying to talk to people, but I still wasn’t really known at that point. But fast forward to 2019 where I’m doing the same things but I’m really quite well known there now. So, my tactic hasn’t changed but I’ve just been around. I’ve been in the conversation for longer and so I’m giving myself more … There are more tickets in the lottery.

I’m giving myself a bigger chance to be remembered and known, and I think that’s the biggest issue for a lot of people is they just don’t commit to it for long enough to see results. So, in Known, Mark Schaefer talks about this 30-month mindset. Well, if you’ve got a three-month mindset then it’s going to take something incredible for you to have breakthrough results. There are no true overnight stars, or very, very few of them. So, you’ve just gotta stick at it long enough for it to show results.

Chris:
Yeah. So, suddenly we’ve switched from consistency being a major factor to commitment being a major factor, right?

John:
Well, yeah, exactly. No one’s going to get a great body by going to the gym for one or two days. And you don’t notice the change over time, but eventually, you would notice the difference. So, it’s the same kind of idea. Get your plan in place and have enough commitment to stick at it for the long term. Because once you start seeing results it’s easy then. I mean, I’m not going to give up on content now because it’s working. I’d be a mad man if I did.

The unsure period, or the period of doubt, is right at the beginning. So if you can get through that and look at the case studies of the people who have made it work, you can see that it can work and you don’t need to be a massive influencer with millions of fans to make it work. Everyday people with everyday businesses can make this work, it just takes that commitment to longevity.

Chris:
Yeah. I think this is such a great conversation because we’ve talked about … and I know we’ve only got a brief amount of time, but you’ve really outlined a bullet point strategy, right? This is where my audience are, this is the type of business I have, so it makes sense for me to be in place. It makes sense not for me just to be there, but to commit to just being there frequently over a long period of time understanding how success works, which is … Success is a habit. In other words, we turn up there frequently doing the thing.

Like you said, the gym analogy is the best one, right? You don’t go to the gym once a week and then look in the mirror and wonder why it’s not working, right? You’ve got to work at it as well. And I think in some ways, John, people can’t ignore you forever, right? If you keep turning up in the same place they’re going to start to see you and trust you and want to be friends with you or want to do business with you. They trust you enough they want to actually engage with your content, which is awesome, and the work that you’re doing on LinkedIn is really showcasing those principles.

In other words, you’re really practicing what you’re talking about. Walking the walk. Or, walking the talk, I should say. Which is really cool. So, I think the results speak for themselves as well in terms of … Can you give us some numbers on traffic, page views, that sort of thing just so people have got … Because I know and I can see the chart in my head, but for people listening to the podcast to get a good indication of what happened in 2014…

John:
Yeah, so … I mean, in the first couple of years I’d be lucky to be getting a couple of thousand page views in a year, which is really pretty terrible. But if we look over the last few years then we’ve gone to 25,000 and then the next year 50,000, and then the next year more than 100,000. So, there has been a year on year doubling. I’m not sure what I’m going to be hitting at the end of this year, but clearly, it’s working because I’m still producing roughly at the same rate as I was.

And yet there’s this compounding effect where your content footprint or your content state, whatever you want to call it … Relatively small growth in that can still lead to a much higher rate of traffic. And that means, naturally, that there’s going to be a percentage of people who are interested enough in becoming customers and therefore we get more choice.

So, that’s come kind of late on. The last couple of years it’s really been escalating, but it’s the result of all of that cumulative effort. And of course, now that I’m seeing the results it’s just important to keep carrying on. You mentioned one thing about living up to your brand and showing evidence, and I think that’s a really, really important thing.

I think you need … it sounds a bit high faluting, but I think you need some kind of manifesto or some kind of document that says, “This is what we,” – or I if you’re doing a personal brand – “This is what we stand for.” And then that needs to infiltrate everything you do. Personal conversations, email, telephone, blogs, videos. Whatever it is, it needs to show evidence of that DNA so that if I say I’m relentlessly helpful I’ve really gotta live that, otherwise someone’s going to call me out as being a fraud and reputations can be destroyed pretty quickly. So, think carefully about what it is that you want to put out into the world and then just make sure that everything that you do stays true to that commitment.

Chris:
Absolutely. It’s an amazing lesson. I think truly I believe that as well. I think it’s good to have a good sense of your own personal values or company values, which are usually just an extension of personal values anyway, and be able to then just turn up in that way wherever you are. Brilliant, John. I love that. I mean, you mentioned … we can have this conversation… You’ve already dropped in a couple of times about your book and you’re writing a book, so do you want to tell us a little bit about what … how that journey is going? I mean, where does this book come from and what kind of stage of the journey are you at at the moment?

John:
Well, it’s come from the inspiration I’ve had from meeting Mark and the conversations I’ve had with Mark Schaefer. And it’s all around the idea that consistency and congruence are the important elements in being memorable. And being memorable is probably the most important thing in this busy marketplace that we’ve got, where there are a million copywriters, and a million content marketers, and a million graphic designers, and so on.

So, you need to do something that will help people remember you. So, I’m writing about that and talking about discovering the elements of your own personal brand DNA so that you can be consistent and congruent in everything that you do. I’m at the drafting stage still and hopeful that in less than a year I’ll be ready to publish. So, the book starts with the theory about why this is important and then will move onto practical guidance on what I believe makes for good content so that people can be inspired to give it a go themselves.

Chris:
Brilliant. You’ve really shared a lot of amazing lessons with us today just in a very short space. It’s amazing what you can achieve in a very short space of time. And let’s get a practical, then, in that case. You want to pull some ideas that you’ve got for your book, or if you want to pull some ideas from wherever, your journey. And I’m sure you have these conversations a lot of the times, just as much as I do, John, as well, but how would you recommend that people get started on this journey? I mean, I know from teaching hundreds of people is that there are so many barriers, so many things that are going to get in the way. You’ve mentioned a few of them already. What would you recommend that they do in order to start successfully with content marketing and perhaps embrace some of the things that you’ve talked about?

John:
Yeah. Well, I think the most important thing to do is to understand where your customers are first of all. So, where do they hang out? Because there’s no point talking to an empty room. You might have the best content in the world, but if no one sees it and passes it around their office and so forth it won’t actually get anywhere. So, you need to know where your customers are. If you’ve got a very visual business, then maybe you need to be on Instagram. If you’ve got B2B, maybe it’s LinkedIn.

So, think along those terms. But then after that, the biggest question that I get is, “I don’t know what to write about,” or to blog about or to podcast about, whatever. And I always find that it’s really easy to come up with ideas for what to write about because you can just inspect your inbox very often. You see what questions people are actually asking, what’s in your sent items, what are you actually answering, and then instead of having those one-to-one conversations you can have those conversations at scale through a public medium such as a blog, or YouTube channel, or a podcast.

And there are loads of questions that people are asking every day that you can answer. You can look at what is already being answered in your industry and finding your own spin on that. So, another objection I see is that people say, “Well, what’s the point in creating this content? Because there are already a million articles about that.” But you’ve never made that article. You’ve never put your own personality into that thing and there are people who like and trust your way of saying things, your way of being, who wouldn’t resonate with almost exactly the same message coming from someone else.

So, there is still space for you to create that content. It just comes from understanding your audience better. Where they hang out, what they care about, what their real problems are, and having enough courage to write honestly, the way you would speak if you were face-to-face with them, and putting that on paper.

Chris:
Amazing. I’ve absolutely loved this conversation, John. So many valid points, so many inspirational points as well to help people think about the bigger picture here and that journey that we’re all going through. And there is space for every single person listening to this today. There’s space for you out there, right? You just got to find … like John says, you find your people, find your niche, find your audience, find your platform, and then start creating that content from your perspective.

Amazing stuff, John. People are going to want to connect with you, I’m sure of it. They’re going to want to ask you questions, they’re going to want to know how they can find out more about your book when you publish that in a year. Where is the best place for them to find you? I’m going to guess LinkedIn. Could be wrong.

John:
Yes. Well, I’m lucky enough to have a very unusual surname, so if you search just for my surname, Espirian, then you will find me wherever I am. But my website and my LinkedIn profile are the best places to get in touch. And if you’ve got any questions I will always answer.

Chris:
Awesome stuff, John. Yeah, we’ll put links into the show notes for John’s social and you can go connect with him and ask him any questions, share some ideas with him. And like you said, he’s relentlessly helpful. So he’s going to be, if anything, one of the people in the world that’s going to reply to your messages. So, go ahead and get in touch with him. Thanks so much, John. It’s been amazing. Thanks so much. It’s been great, you’ve shared so many … so much value here today, so thanks very much for your time and have an amazing day.

John:
No worries, Chris. Thanks for having me.

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