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Single Grain’s Eric Siu on using content to grow your business

Editor, Intercom

Adam Risman

@adamrisman

Eric Siu has helped some of the biggest brands in tech accomplish one all-important task: grow their revenue.

Eric is the CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain. His team works with companies ranging from tech giants like Amazon, Uber and Salesforce to Series A stage up-and-comers as they try to acquire more customers. He also hosts two podcasts: Marketing School with Neil Patel and Growth Everywhere, an entrepreneurial podcast where he dissects growth levers that help businesses scale.

Between those two shows, the instructional videos he produces and his agency, it’s evident Eric’s sweet spot is using content to nurture and ultimately convert leads. I hosted him on our podcast to dive into his best practices. Our chat covers why content is a channel worthy of early investment, the tactics he sees as underutilized, when to ask your audience for something in return, and more. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews about unlocking the potential of growth. If you enjoy the conversation and don’t want to miss the rest of the series, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.


Adam: Eric, welcome to Inside Intercom. Can you give us a quick feel for what you’re doing through your agency, Single Grain?

Eric: I was leading growth at an online education startup called Treehouse, a company I still love, and that led to the opportunity to come to Single Grain. This was in 2013, and my job was to figure out how to redirect or pivot the company, because it was going through some tough times.

Nowadays Single Grain is mainly focused on using paid advertising and SEO to help clients like Uber, Amazon and Lyft grow their revenues online. The interesting thing is that the way we get our clients right now is strictly around content marketing, inbound and SEO.

Adam: All your clients today are inbound. Was that your strategy from the get go or was there a little bit of happenstance?

Eric: I still talk to all the original people that were involved with the company. Sujan Patel founded the company and all the original leads came from Neil Patel, who I do the podcast with and who is Sujan’s cousin.

When I took the company over, I decided to shut down the leads because I didn’t want to rely on Neil so much, which was bad in hindsight. But it ended up working out, because we built our own inbound machine just in the nick of time.

Adam: You mentioned some of the bigger companies that you’re working with, but you’re working with smaller startups too. How do you qualify the companies that are coming to you? Do you find yourself having to turn away people that don’t have product/market fit yet?

Eric: We’re working with Series A companies and beyond, so a lot of SaaS companies like Recurly, Lever and 15five. The short answer to your question is yes. You should have a working sales funnel, your website can’t look like it’s from the ’90s, and you should either have your Series A or be doing more than $5 million a year in revenue. That’s kind of the bare minimum.

Content as an early growth channel

Adam: A lot of our listeners are at a stage similar to what you’re describing. They’re finally ready to invest meaningfully in growth. There are so many channels they can focus on: content, SEO, direct marketing, etc. But at the start you have to select one or maybe two max to get humming before moving to the next one. Is there a framework you use for selecting the best place to start?

Eric: I did a marketing school podcast with Neil Patel recently where we talked about the channels that we would both invest in long term. If we were to start all over again, what would we do? It’s an answer you’d expect us to give – content marketing.

If we were to start all over again, what would we do? Content marketing.

The way I see it, and the way Neil sees it as well, content is the foundation. If you get content marketing working then you are able to retarget people. You are able to build lookalike audiences on different channels. If you’re creating great content like what you guys are doing, it builds links, which brings your domain authority up.

You can write more content and then you can collect more emails and optimize your conversion rate from there, but everything starts with content first. Look at a lot of media companies, they’re building agency services divisions now. It’s easier to build an audience first and then from there you can start to branch out into other areas.

I’ll share a story. With “Growth Everywhere”, the first podcast I started four years ago, I spent six hours a week on it. Editing, recording, I did everything by hand the first year. And after the first year I was only getting 9 downloads a day. Those numbers are terrible. I should probably have given up, but I kept going because people kept emailing me saying, “Hey, I don’t know why you’re not getting more downloads but this has been really helpful. It’s made a difference in my life.” I worked for another year, again six hours a week, and I was only getting 30 downloads a day.

My point is nowadays Growth Everywhere has about 80,000 downloads a month. Not bad, but the Marketing School podcast gets about 640,000 downloads a month. The reason those succeeded was because I was relentless with it.

The framework that I’ll give is really easy for everyone to follow. It’s the Content Reusage Framework from Aleyda Solis. She has this flow chart you can follow when you’re creating content, and it doesn’t mean you always have to be writing new stuff all the time. If you use that framework, it’s going to work out really well for you.

Content reusage framework

Image credit: Aleyda Solis, Backlinko. Read more about applying her framework here.

My point is just be relentless. Content marketing works. Content marketing is the foundation for building whatever you’re trying to do in the long term. Yes, it takes time, but anything good takes time. Just be patient.

What makes content stand out to leads and search engines alike?

Adam: You highlighted two important things there. One is patience. You need at least six months to see any results from this. The other is that when it comes to the subject matter of your content, it needs to be evergreen so that it’s still relevant as you build your audience.

Eric: Yeah, totally. If you look up Brian Dean, who is a very popular guy in the SEO space, you find a case study where he talks about the typical length for the top three results in Google. It’s about 2,000 words. There’s another case study done four or five years ago that was saying the top three results are about 2,500 words on average. And if you look at Wikipedia, like the Abraham Lincoln post for example, that one has about 24,000 words on that page.

Average word count for Google search results

Image credit: Brian Dean, Backlinko. Read his full case study here.

So longer form means search engines are going to crawl it, they’re going to see the long tail content, and people like to link to longer form stuff anyway because it seems like that’s the canonical piece. And people like to look smart when they’re linking to long form stuff as well.

Look at Sujan Patel, the founder of Single Grain. A lot of stuff that he writes on his blog is longer form. Same thing with Neil Patel, and same thing with our own stuff too. The skyscraper technique by Backlinko is basically the whole impetus behind it. You’re trying to beat out the other content there, and assuming you’re not just trying to be wordy, long-form content is going to attract more links, which just means more traffic for you at the end of the day.

Adam: With consumers being so inundated by content and everyone trying to leapfrog each other on search engines, what qualities separate really great content from the rest of the pack? The bar is a lot higher today than it was a few years ago.

Eric: Let’s look at literally “out of this world” content. Red Bull comes to everyone’s mind, where the guy jumped from out of this world back to Earth. That’s one example.

I think good content is remarkable. Seth Godin likes to use the word remarkable with his book “Purple Cow”. It’s something that you would talk about, like, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before. Did you see that Red Bull thing? Did you see the newspapers that Intercom had at SaaStr?” That stuff really stands out.

SaaStr Intercom newspapers

At right: daily newspapers our team produced for SaaStr 2018, as mentioned by Eric.

Even if you don’t have the resources to pour into that, there are things you can do. One example of something we did on the Single Grain blog recently was add Amazon Polly to all of our articles. Amazon Polly is this little speech recognition tool that will read the entire article out loud for you. You just hit play and that increased dwell time on our site.

Stuff like that is remarkable, and it also helps with SEO. Even layering on videos to upgrade your content, that’s the kind of stuff that stands out from other people. It’s just going a little further than what other people are doing.

The hub and spoke model for content strategy

Adam: Getting a little more tactical here, there’s a model for content creation that you advocate for called “the hub and spoke”. Can you just paint a picture of what that looks like?

Eric: Yeah, totally. Here’s a life real example. If you Google “online marketing” you can see there’s a post from Neil Patel on Quick Sprout. He actually ranks number one and number two for online marketing. It’s a really well done infographic, and he paid $30,000 for his guide. It’s 14 chapters. He paid a writer and had it really well designed, and he gave the guide away.

I interviewed him a couple years ago on Growth Everywhere and asked, “Why did you pay $30,000 for a guide?” His response was, “For that ranking. Just so I can own that. Own the links. Own that keyword. And win the day.” When you have something like that, it’s your one hub page.

People just are too busy on the content hamster wheel to take a step back and think strategically.

The hub page is the overview. It explains what online marketing is. And then below the overview he has 14 different chapters talking about the advanced guide to online marketing and the different online marketing tools you should be using. And when you click into those guides they actually interlink to other chapters too.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because there’s one main hub page, the spokes are the different chapters, and when they all interlink to each other Google search engines like that. They see it as not only one really good piece, it’s multiple good pieces and it’s a resource. Some people like to call it the hub and spoke model, you can call this the Megazord example or the Voltron example too, when you combine things together like that.

Google “conversion rate optimization” and look at Qualaroo, they’re rated at number one or number two. It’s the same idea there. People just are too busy on the content hamster wheel to take a step back and think strategically about what they can do with things like the hub and spoke model or even just upgrading or even deleting content.

Gating content and nurturing leads

Adam: You can constantly iterate and optimize on those individual spokes too. It’s almost like a living entity. Eventually we need to use content to get leads, drive people down the funnel and extract value from our readers or consumers. When your clients ask whether or not they should gate content, what does that decision tree look like? When do you gate content?

Eric: If you Google “Digital Marketer traffic temperatures”, there’s this whole concept about how you have cold traffic, warm traffic and then hot traffic. Hot traffic is basically spending at least $1 for you. They’ve raised their hand and taken out their credit card. Warm is when they’re on your email list and you’re able to re-target them. Cold is when they don’t care about you, they have never engaged with you before. It depends on who we’re targeting first.

Let’s say we’re targeting cold traffic. We would ideally want to first bring them to the Inside Intercom podcast or maybe a blog post. After one touch point, you’re able to re-target them. Perhaps you can take them to a webinar, perhaps you can take them to some kind offer that you have, but then you can make the ask. Our theory is that there should be at least one touchpoint before you start trying to bring people to a gated piece of content.

Adam: Speaking directly to those people who are on the colder side, using Growth Everywhere maybe as an example, how do you nurture those leads over time to get them to the point where they’re warming up? What lessons have you learned there?

Eric: For our software it’s a lot faster but looking at the agency side of things our sales cycle could be anywhere from three months to two years. And we have so much content. I’ve done more than 300 interviews, and the stories never change.

So I pick the best headlines out there, the best interviews I’ve done, and I put together this 52 email sequence, which is dripped out once per week. Then for every four emails that come out, there might be something light like, “Hey, here’s an offer.” That’s the general nurture sequence.

Then we also have a blog to RSS sequence where every single week when there’s new content published we’ll push that out and then we’ll have a little link with a call to action at the bottom. So we’re constantly pushing the content out to them and we’re just keeping that flywheel going, because the main thing whether you’re doing a blog post or any other type of content is staying top of mind. That’s what you’re trying to do with content, ultimately, because a lot of people just aren’t ready to buy especially when it’s a high dollar kind of service or product.

Adam: A common critique we hear of content marketing is it doesn’t scale well without sacrificing quality. What’s your take on this?

Eric: I like to think of business and marketing ultimately, systems and processes ultimately, and content marketing is the same thing. It’s important to have guardrails in place. We have very specific criteria to follow and we audit it about every quarter or so. It includes things like:

  • A post should be at least 1,500 to 2,000 words
  • Every claim should be backed up by a link or a case study
  • You must have subheaders or bullet points
  • Each post needs a very good headline

So it’s all in there. Even people that are guest writing on our blog are following that process, and we have our editors following the process too. It’s like everything else in business.

To expand on this a little more, if we write something and it’s maybe surface level, maybe we’ll come back around to it really quick. We’ll audit it and ask, “Okay do we need to expand this? Do we need to update this?” That helps a lot in terms of not just SEO but also making sure that we’re not sacrificing quality long term.

Getting started with content promotion

Adam: There are likely a lot of people who feel pretty good about their content but are struggling with which promotional levers to pull. How do you advise them when it comes to getting started with promotion?

Eric: Let’s assume this company just started a blog post, and maybe they don’t have a lot of time for it. They’re not sure what content marketing looks like. Maybe they’re publishing once per week, and they started working with an agency. That’s how it typically works. They start publishing once a week, and ideally you are mapping out your ideal client profile, your customer journey first.

From there once you write something, if you want to go the easy way, you can simply just press the Boost Post button. A lot of people think it’s lazy, but it actually works. You can boost posts spending just $5 a day promoting your content just to get it going and see if the stuff works.

On the other side of things, a lot of direct response marketers that are doing good content marketing will drive maybe 80% of their paid advertising budget initially towards promoting something and then the 20% will be driving them towards an offer, because in the opening days you don’t have an audience.

The audience is hanging out on Facebook and the attention is on Google or YouTube, you pay for that first. You build that audience. You want to drive them to blog posts? Sure, do that. Then spend 20-30% of your budget retargeting them, take them to a webinar, take them to an ebook, and then try to drive them further down the funnel. That’s when you can prove the ROI of content marketing to stakeholders’ in a very quick fashion without having to wait six to 12 months.

Adam: You’re publishing content daily, you have two podcasts and you’ve got your agency. On a personal level, what advice do you have or frameworks do you use when it comes to prioritization. How do you get everything done?

Eric: It’s funny how I remember all of these queries that I put in search, but Google “Michael Hyatt time blocks”. He has this calendar and it’s all laid out intro very specific time blocks. I live and die by the time blocks. For instance, on Thursdays I’m recording the “Growth Everywhere” podcasts, and then Fridays I work on the SaaS product we have. Mondays I focus on 1:1s and these management meetings we’ve called traction meetings. It’s all laid out there, and I’m being very intentional about my time.

At the same time the phone calls I do typically with the Schedule Once link I have, they’re 15 minutes max. Why do we always need to do 30 minutes? I’m just constantly auditing my time every quarter, because time is something we never get back. Money is something we can always replenish later, but being intentional with time, ultimately if you do that you can be way ahead of most people.

Eric’s growth quick tips

Adam: To close out, I’ve got a few rapid-fire questions for you that we’re asking all the growth guests in this latest conversation series. First up, favorite growth tactic that you think is underused?

Eric: Webinars. When I ask SaaS companies, “Hey, what’s your webinar strategy?” And they’ll say, “We’ve tried webinars in the past, but…” When I actually look a little deeper into it they drive paid traffic to literally just a page where you can press the play button to watch the video and that’s it.

If you drive paid traffic to webinars you can really scale your business.

The thing with webinars, if you look at the way the direct response marketers are doing it, you drive to a page where it seems like you’re registering for a live webinar. Yeah, it’s on demand, but it does have that sense of urgency. Saying, “You’re going to watch a webinar in 15 minutes or else you can watch the replay some other time” drives more urgency, and your conversion rates are better, instead of driving them to a page where they feel like they can watch it whenever. Use that kind of psychology, and at the end of the day urgency always works.

Taking those into play, using tools like EverWebinar, that’s going to help your conversion rates, especially if you’re selling a high dollar offer that’s five, six, or seven figures. Webinars are great, and if you drive paid traffic there you can really scale your business doing that. If any of you try that, stick with it, it’s going to work for you.

Look at ClickFunnels. This is a SaaS company that raised zero venture capital. They’re completely bootstraped, and they’re on $100 million run rate. It’s because they have really good marketing and they do a ton of webinars.

Adam: One book that’s most influence your thinking and why?

Eric: “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t”. It’s about Chuck Feeney, who founded the duty free stores in the airports. The book is very entrepreneurial, but it’s about what you do with the money afterwards. He ended up starting these philanthropic organizations and he kept them anonymous.

The guy ended up giving away about $7.5 billion. It was really impactful to me because it told me that, “Hey it’s not about you at the end of the day, it’s about what you can do to impact the world with all the success that you’ve had.”

Adam: Speaking of recommendations, who in the growth community do you look up to or think we have the most to learn from?

Eric: Someone was one of the main investors in Tree House, Chamath Palihapitiya at Social Capital. He helped Facebook get to over a billion users, so there’s just so much to learn from him. Just the way he looks at the world and how he’s trying to level up, how he’s trying to build relationships. I think the way he looks at things is very methodical, and I like his mindset.

Adam: On a recent episode of Marketing School, you and Neil Patel talked about creating repeat visitors and mentioned messengers as a new channel. Are messengers a game changer? Is it too early to say?

Eric: I think it’s a game changer until marketers start to abuse it. And marketers are trying to abuse it now, so the engagement rates are really high. It’s just like email in the early days. I think now is the time to get into it and really start to understand it more. It’s not going away anytime soon.

Adam: With the companies you’re working with or just observations you’ve made throughout your career, what’s a common mistake you see growth marketers making with experiments?

Eric: It’s just not giving things enough time. It’s being impatient.

I get there are other stakeholders. I remember when I was at Tree House, in my first month, the CEO pulls me aside and says, “I have to let you go if you don’t hit numbers this month.” It was because of the last guy before me that things were stagnant.

If people can just wait things out more, and then be patient for the long term but have a really big sense of urgency in the short term, most people are going to win out.

Adam: Eric, this has been really great. Where can our listeners go to follow your insights? Do you have any speaking engagements coming up?

Eric: If you go to singlegrain.com you can find all our content. We have two podcasts there. You’ll find more information on our SaaS SEO product too. I will be speaking at the Growth Marketing Conference in San Francisco in December, so feel free to come say hi. We will have a booth there for the first time. You can also email me directly at eric@singlegrain.com.