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Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the October 2013 issue of InsuranceNewsNet Magazine.

You have something important to say. Don’t you wish everybody knew that?

That’s what content marketing does. It is a strategy to take what you are good at and get it in front of your ideal audience. That is what Joe Pulizzi has been advocating since at least 2001, when he first talked about the concept of content marketing. He has since founded the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and has helped thousands of individuals and companies find their voice – and their audience. He has written definitive guides, including his latest book, Epic Content Marketing. CMI has helped brands such as AT&T, Petco, LinkedIn and SAP develop content marketing.

But you are not a huge corporation, you say? That’s great, because you can find your unique voice and be nimble in delivering your information. Don’t worry about not having enough content to offer. By the time you use the methods Joe offers in this interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, you will be swimming in content – and clients.

FELDMAN: What is content marketing, and why should an insurance agent do this?

PULIZZI: I think the easiest way to explain content marketing is instead of buying advertising and trying to rent attention, you are creating your own interesting content and starting to build your own audience, similar to the way a publisher would. An insurance agent can create valuable and compelling information in a white paper, a blog post, a magazine or a newsletter.

An agent would need to figure out the needs of customers and not just product needs. For example, why do people need estate planning? What are the ins and outs of it? What are the rules and regulations clients need to know about? Those are the subjects and they should be covered on a consistent basis. It’s just like a publisher would do to build an audience. From that audience, you end up growing more customers and keeping the customers you have.

It’s an art form that’s been done for hundreds of years. Companies have been producing their own content for a long, long time. But with social media and search engines, if you want to get found on the web, and you don’t want to pay directly for it, you need to create and tell amazing stories about solving the pain points of your customers.

That’s what content marketing is. The short answer is to think and act like a publisher, and create amazing content to attract an audience.

FELDMAN: Would you say creating content is a good partner with advertising?

PULIZZI: Yes. This is not an either/or situation. If you look at the biggest problem a lot of small businesses have, particularly in insurance, is they will create a blog post or a white paper but then nobody downloads it, reads it, shares it or pays attention to it. This is why this is so hard to do.

People think all they have to do is create good content and people will follow. Well, no.

You have to know where your customers are hanging out on the web. You might actually have to get your content kick-started through paid strategies using some kind of tools, such as Outbrain or nRelate. Or you can use any kind of pay-per-click or banner placement ad to promote your white paper or webinar.

First, you have to figure out who you’re targeting, then why you’re doing it, how it’s going to help your business, and how you are going to attract people to that message.

FELDMAN: How do you come up with content? How does an insurance agent come up with content in the first place?

PULIZZI: Story ideas are important. People think, “Oh, I’m going to talk about my products and services.” That’s a very small part of what we’re talking about, because most of the time, you have a lot of that content. Most insurance agents probably have a ton of content about the products they offer. But they have very little as to what I call top of the funnel, when your customers don’t even know they need insurance.

Or even after somebody becomes a customer, how do you cross-sell, up-sell and get them thinking about new things?

The No.1 way to think about story ideas for any of those objectives would be to talk to your customers. That’s the old-line way, but it’s amazing how many even large businesses don’t do that. Just ask your customers what keeps them up at night, what questions? Or when they come into your office, ask them, “What led you to this decision?”

That will open up all kinds of things. “Oh, I went on the web. I started searching.” Or, “I talked to my friend Sally and we were talking about this issue.”

You can also use things such as Google’s keyword search tool to see what people are looking for locally and what questions they are asking. You should be answering those questions in some way on the web. Because if you don’t answer those questions the way you would in a one-on-one meeting, odds are a competitor is answering those questions on the web.

FELDMAN: Do you need a content marketing mission statement?

PULIZZI: Yes. A content marketing mission statement for your business is similar to an editorial mission of any magazine or publishing outfit out there. For example, what’s the goal of Inc. magazine?

Inc. magazine has one simple goal. They target entrepreneurs and small business owners with very useful information about one thing, and one thing only: how to grow their business. So the outcome for every piece of content they create on Inc. is growing the business. That’s why when you read Inc. it’s so good, because every article, every sidebar in there is meant to help them grow profitability in some way.

Form your mission around where you can really be the expert in your niche, and focus on that. You’re not going to talk about all things financial. There are lots of financial firms that are trying to become the financial services experts in the world. Your goal is to be the expert in your area.

And when people are ready to buy, most likely they’ll buy from you, because you’re their solution provider.

FELDMAN: For beginners, how long should their content be? What do you start with, and how do you grow it from there?

PULIZZI: There’s no silver bullet. I’ve seen it work where the goal or the core platform is a blog, and that blog is 300 to 500 words. I’ve also seen it where it’s an article series, and those articles are 1,000 to 2,000 words. And everybody thinks on the web it has to be short and you always have to use bullet points. Long form content is actually coming back in vogue.

Just to give you an example, Huffington Post has opened up a number of new editorial channels just for long-form content, because it’s being requested so much.

The easiest way to get started is probably some kind of a blog that can feed into an e-newsletter. And if somebody asks how long that content should be, well, long enough to achieve the goal. What’s the goal? Is it to answer a question? To tell your story? Do it and then move onto the next piece of content.

There’s no one right way to do it. It used to be a blog post had to be at least 200 words in order to get picked up by Google, but people wouldn’t read more than 500.

I completely disagree with all that, because some of our most popular posts that we’ve done and our clients have done are well over 1,000 words on the web. Those are sometimes even the best ones.

FELDMAN: If people want to be informed, and it’s hard to really get as much information as possible in a 500-word post. But should the rule be that the content dictates the form?

PULIZZI: Yes. If you can answer the question in 500 words, great – then it should be 500 words. It should always be the least amount possible. But if you have to really explain whatever you’re explaining, and it takes 2,000 words, then it takes 2,000. And if you really feel like you have to split that up into two, that’s fine.

FELDMAN: How do you structure compelling story? How do you avoid being overly sales-y?

PULIZZI: Well, I’ll answer the second question first, because everybody feels like, “If I’m not selling my product or service, then it’s not working.” You can pitch a little bit in your posts but you have to remember the more that you pitch in your post, the less it will be shared.

So you have a trade-off there. You could say, “Oh, we really want to get our new offering into this post.” Great – well, you’re probably not going to get as good a traction on it. If you’re OK with that, that’s fine. If you want more traction, and more sharing, and more people to find it really valuable, leave out the sales pitch.

Really, it’s just like why insurance agents do talks. Let’s say you do a library talk or something, and you’re getting people from the area. You don’t spend an hour talking about your products and services. Maybe you spend two minutes talking about what you do, and spend 58 answering the questions from people there. That’s your expertise. So, showing off your expertise is the sell, and I mean that’s just tough to get around. Having that expertise come from you is really how you’re going to sell your products and services.

Where a lot of people go wrong with their content is they’re sharing it on social, let’s say Facebook and Twitter, and they’re building subscribers on those channels. And, those are fine.

But what I want is subscribers on channels that I can own in some way, which is why my blog and my web site are most critical. If I can sign up my customers to an e-mail or print newsletter and get their opt-in approval for me to communicate with them, that is the most powerful. It’s more powerful than any fan or follower.

At the Content Marketing Institute, 90 percent of our revenue comes from our subscribers. So as a business owner, that’s critical, because that tells me if I get more loyal subscribers, I get more opportunities for revenue. And that’s the power of content. If you don’t have an audience, you have nothing.

For some reason, people get infatuated with tweets and shares and all that kind of stuff. That’s great, but that’s a means to the end. The end is we want to build an audience so that we can monetize that audience in some way.

FELDMAN: How should an agent do with an opt-in list once it has been grown?

PULIZZI: Once they’re in your database, even a small company can use MailChimp or a marketing automation system that’s tied into your CRM system to send and track communication. You don’t have to be a big company to use these things today.

People ask now that I have all this content, how do I measure it? But the thing about measurement is there are only three questions I want to know if I’m running a content program. Is it going to drive revenue for me in some way? Is it going to save costs? Or is it going to make my customers happier? In essence, those are three major things that I’m looking for, and hopefully one of them is our objective.

Well, then when you look back at okay, what kind of metrics am I looking at, whether that’s quality leads, lead generation, market share, time to close, whatever that is, those are all three you can make a case for whether that’s revenue growth, cost savings, or happier customers. So I think those are the three things that keep me up at night with my content, because if my content’s not driving one of those three things, I’m doing something wrong.

FELDMAN: For a solopreneur or a salesperson who might think, “I’m too busy selling to write copy, or content, or create these blog posts,” what would you say to them? Is there a way to get around that, to ask for help or outsource it?

PULIZZI: I’m a salesperson and I blog very often. It’s the best sales that I’ll do, now that I’ve built an audience. I can pick up only so many phones during the day. I’m awake for only so many hours during the day. But my content is awake 24 hours a day, and I can affect and influence people by my sales with my content. So it’s so much more critical.

I can sell so much more with my content than I can just me. So I think if a salesperson realizes that, and the power of that, that’s first and foremost.

So, you figure out how you can get it done. There are a lot of insurance agents out there who aren’t good storytellers. They understand their industry but they just need to figure out how to get it done. That could be done a number of ways.

You could work with a publisher or a freelance agency or writer. I know some companies have a CEO who just will not write, but can talk up a storm. So they transcribe all of his stuff, and then have somebody take that, edit it down, and bam – instant content.

So it just depends on figuring out how you’re going to tell the story. I really believe you need to be great at one thing. So are you great at blogging? Are you great at a podcast? Are you great at a video series? Are you great at webinars? Are you great at white papers? Focus on that and then you can break that apart into other things. For example, let’s say you find out that you’re great at podcasting, so every week you do a podcast. Well, from that podcast, you could probably generate three to 10 blog posts off of that, that somebody can transcribe, and then do guest postings or other things.

I am a big proponent of outsourcing as long as it’s authentic to the content mission. The one thing I don’t like is when people just outsource everything to an agency and say, “just make sure I’m found in search engines,” and somebody else is running their social media. That’s like having a storefront and then just letting somebody else run it. You’d never do that as an insurance agent. You’d never do that as a solopreneur. But we let people do that for online content.

FELDMAN: I would guess people are worried about coming up with content. But a lot of our readers are doing seminars, educational meetings with clients and in-office training. Couldn’t they just record those and get started?

PULIZZI: Such a great point. We would do a content audit and the first thing clients realize is that content is happening right now in the organization.

Where are those stories being told? I see people giving speeches all the time, and hardly ever are they recorded. They’re missing a golden opportunity. They can take that content, repackage and reimagine it in a number of ways.

FELDMAN: It could be just a simple phone call that someone recorded. Do people usually have more content than they think?

PULIZZI: Well, we work with mostly Fortune 1000 companies, and we’ve done 70-plus engagements with them. Almost all of them come in and think that they do not have enough content, and never once has that been the problem. They all probably had too much content, and they’re not focused enough on the strategy. It’s basically a lack of taking that content and using it wisely.

FELDMAN: Your new book is called Epic Content Marketing. What’s the difference between content and epic content?

PULIZZI: About 90 percent of companies out there, no matter what the size, are doing some content marketing. But less than 10 percent of those companies have any kind of strategy. You’ve got millions of companies out there creating content and filling all kinds of buckets: Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, webinars and podcasts, and all that stuff, and they have no documented strategy.

Companies are just saying they have to be on Facebook and Twitter. But, they don’t have to be doing any of that stuff. What they have to be doing is adding value, and be incredibly useful for the content program to work.

I always say the easiest place to get started is figuring out what your content mission statement would be, and narrowing it down to your customer. Who is the person I’m talking to? An insurance agent has a number of people who might buy, but who’s the main person? Is it a man? Is it a woman? What are their pain points? Target those. Where would the go-to resource be for them?

FELDMAN: Are you surprised by how many people create content and then don’t realize or don’t have a strategy about how it applies to their business?

PULIZZI: I just did a keynote for a bunch of content professionals. These are professionals in the industry, and I asked them for themselves, I said, “How many of you, for your own company, have a documented content strategy?” And of more than 100 people there, three people raised their hands. And these are professionals in the industry.

Most organizations that are creating content are not seeing an impact from it because they don’t know why they’re doing it in the first place, and they’re not tying it to marketing objectives or pure business objectives.

FELDMAN: How should a business tie its content to its marketing objectives?

PULIZZI: It all starts with the customer. We have six buyer personas, so there are basically six different customer segments that we can use.

I don’t create a content strategy for every one of those. We have two content strategies. We have one for executives, and one for marketing doers. They’re integrated, but we have very separate content strategies for both of those.

For any company, let’s figure who are we really talking to – who is that audience? Who are the customers and what are their pain points? How am I going to show that this content I’m creating is benefiting the business? And then we look at the channels that are most effective for the different content types for getting that done. It’s actually not a long process to figure out. I think that most solopreneurs could probably spend an hour and say, “to grow our business, we need to be the leading provider of information on life insurance and all those questions related to that in the Des Moines area.”

That’s pretty good. Now, to who? “To mothers between ages 40 and 45.” Be very specific. It’s basically Marketing 101. But most solopreneurs are not trained as marketers.

FELDMAN: Do you think there are cases where people are obsessed with sending out content, but it works against them because it does not match with a strategy?

PULIZZI: Yes, we get infatuated with all these different ways we can publish content because we can. It basically costs nothing to get our content out there. But that’s an easy way to get swallowed up.

Mitch Joel, who’s author of the book Ctrl Alt Delete, says before he publishes any content he always asks the question, “In 10 years would my two sons be proud that I published this piece of content?” So basically, you could put a stamp on it, say, “Would my mom be proud of me?” Is this content making that kind of impact? Because if it’s not, it probably will get lost, because mediocre content isn’t good enough anymore to get noticed.

FELDMAN: How do you implement a strategy?

PULIZZI: I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. I’m not one for saying, “Oh, you do what you can with the resources you have.” Once you understand who you are targeting and what you want them to do, you figure out what kind of stories you’re going to be telling. Then you figure out what channels you’re using. Then you’ve made a decision that you’re going to do, let’s say, a blog two times a week and an e-mail newsletter every Friday.

You’re going to measure this through sign-ups to the e-newsletter. Then every quarter, you look at those subscribers, and see how many of those are customers and what they’re doing in your CRM system. That’s the simplest of content strategies right there and any company can do that. But you need to figure out if you need help, and where you are going to find that help.

There are lots of great sites, whether you’re looking at Skyword, Zerys or Textbroker, that you can get that kind of content. But I’m always partial to having a direct relationship with somebody who knows how to tell stories really well and really understands your industry.

Then you have to do the analysis of how much your time is worth. Hopefully, every solopreneur understands that they’re worth at least $25 an hour. Like, seriously, if you spend an hour on doing a blog post, how much time are you worth? Is it $100 an hour? Is it $150 an hour? Figure that out, because then you can say, “Well, if my time is worth $150 an hour, I can have somebody spend two hours writing amazing content for whatever it’s going to cost and it will be less than my spending time on it, and it would be tougher for me to do it myself.”

Those are just business decisions that you need to make on outsourcing to get it done.

FELDMAN: If you’re a little bit larger of a company, how do you create a content management team?

PULIZZI: Let’s just simplify it. You need one person setting the strategy. That’s probably either the owner of the company or the person leading marketing. Then the most important thing you need after that is a managing editor. This is a half-project manager, half-storyteller in the organization getting stuff done.

This is the person who does the editorial calendar and understands the different channels that they’re using. I believe is the most important person in any marketing organization right now, is the managing editor. If you have the resources, bring on a managing editor, or outsource to somebody that fulfills that role. And then the other role you need is somebody on design, because if it doesn’t look good, people aren’t going to click on it and focus on those items.

And then you need little things, like who’s looking after your search engine strategy? Do you have a hit list of keywords that you’re focusing on? What social media channels are you going to focus on? What’s your distribution strategy? What’s your influencer strategy with that? So, it really does get kind of complicated down the road, but that’s why you have to pick your channels. You have to pick what you’re really good at.

If you were going to say, “Oh, well, I want to be the leading expert in financial services,” that’s going to take about nine content strategies simultaneously to get that. But if you’re going to say, “I want to be the leading whatever in North Dakota,” then that’s a little bit different, and it might only take one and a half or two people to get that done.

FELDMAN: You think this is the kind of thing that can be outsourced?

PULIZZI: I’m a big proponent of the 1099. There are people that love to work on a flexible schedule who would love to help you with your search optimization or with your social and your content.

As long as strategy stays inside the company, you can outsource a lot and get things done. Frankly, Davids can be Goliaths in content marketing. You can move faster than any large company, because most of the large companies that you’re competing with can’t move fast at all, with their eight layers of management and legal to get through before they can do anything today. And you don’t have that.

FELDMAN: In insurance and financial businesses, compliance is often an issue. In a compliance-driven world, how do you have a good, solid content strategy?

PULIZZI: Where I’ve seen it work best is you get legal compliance sign-off up front on the strategy. Have a strategy and say, “Here are the things we’re going to talk about.” You need compliance to sign off on those things and say, “Okay, well, here’s what has to be at the bottom of every post, and here’s the things you can’t talk about, and here’s the things you can talk about.” And you trade back and forth into that conversation – it’s probably not a fair trade, but you figure out the rules of engagement. And once you have your rules, then you go. In order to be responsive and really focus on real-time, you can’t run every Tweet through legal.

FELDMAN: Let’s talk about an engagement cycle. Do you think that leading with signing people up for a newsletter is most effective? Or is signing people up for a report on a similar topic more effective?

PULIZZI: We give people a free report, and we sign them up for a newsletter as part of that, because what’s really critical is to get opt-in approval to communicate with them on a regular basis. A report is fine, and you basically can get that, but if you’re not getting their opt-in approval to communicate with them on a regular basis, then that’s a problem. That’s really what we want. So I don’t care what it is. It could be a video series. It could be a podcast series. It could be anything, as long as you’re getting opt-in.

I think in the financial industry, white papers, reports have been phenomenally successful. There’s no reason why you can’t consistently do that, but you can switch it up where maybe it’s not a report – maybe it’s an e-book type format. Maybe it’s less heavy on the words and heavier on the design – those things, it’s a lot more flexible. Like it could be a book or it could be a chapter of a book. Could be lots of things, but whatever that giveaway is, the core is get opt-in approval for regular communication.

FELDMAN: What’s the biggest reason why a content marketing system fails?

PULIZZI: The No. 1 reason a content marketing system fails is it is not consistent. You should give it to them on the same day, at the same time, consistently, and never stop. That’s why we publish 365 days a year. We do on holidays as well. We really believe that our promise to them is a daily blog post, and we’re not going to break that promise.

FELDMAN: I was watching one of your videos and I thought that was interesting how you have your blog process set up with an editor and an assistant editor. Does each of them give you an article every day, or on some kind of content schedule?

PULIZZI: No. Actually, 95 percent of our content is created by our community. We used to have to go out and approach people to post. Now people come to us and ask to submit an article. The blog editor, the title editor and the proofreader all work on the content that’s submitted. The scheduler is our lead content director or our managing editor.

Maybe once a week, we do our own posts now, but usually that’s a curated post of all our other posts and content that we have. For the most part, they’re not writing, they’re editing, which is critical. A lot of people have good raw content, but very few can edit that and tell a good story.

FELDMAN: Is editing an easy thing for a solopreneur or a small corporation to outsource?

PULIZZI: I would think most solopreneurs are terrible editors, especially at editing your own stuff. That’s why even I always have somebody look over my stuff. I’m a pretty good writer, but I’m not a great editor. So I need somebody to really tighten it up because I tend to get wordy. Even a really good copywriter can help you out. There are a thousand sites online where you can find people.

FELDMAN: You have talked about pillars of content. What does that mean?

PULIZZI: You have that daily or ongoing content that will have readers say, “Wow, that’s great content and it helped me answer that one question.” But every month or every quarter, you will have an amazing content package that will blow the doors off of your customers’ expectations. That usually comes in the form of a white paper, an e-book, a video package or something that is incredibly helpful.

In a lot of cases, that could be a curated piece of all your blog pieces. I’ll give you an example. We did “100 Content Marketing Examples,” which is a pillar piece of content that we do on our site that we give away for people opting into our e-newsletter. Every one of those, all 100 examples, came from the 200 previous days of blogs that we were doing.

We just picked out the best examples, organized them, put them in a great design, and offered them up. Well, that thing’s been downloaded 100,000-plus times.

It’s all curated content that we currently have and made into something unbelievably useful. That’s why I think that the first step in content development should not be doing a white paper on X and figuring out how to resource that.

It’s understanding customers’ pain point and how to solve it. Do we have the content assets already? The answer is probably yes and then you figure out the resources you need to tell that story in the right way to create that pillar piece of content.

FELDMAN: Is one of the keys to create evergreen content so that you can repurpose it later?

PULIZZI: That’s the best kind of content. I’ve got no problem with leveraging real-time content off the news, but that has a short lifespan. For the people reading this, they can be talking about solutions.

We usually don’t blog about news of the day. For example, when Oracle bought Eloqua, we did a post on it because a marketing automation company being bought by Oracle was a big deal in our industry. That post was very hot for three days.

Well, nobody’s ever going to search for that anymore. It’s done. But they’ll always search for a content marketing strategy. That’s going to go on forever. So, find something everyone needs, build it and it will go on forever.


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