Wouldn’t you love to turn every blog post into an acquisition machine? In today’s episode, you’ll learn how you can use content to acquire users that will stick around.
Kieran Flanagan joins the podcast to share what it means to win the hearts and minds of your audience, why the cost of content has grown faster than any other medium in the last five years, and what brands must do to compete in content marketing today.
listen to this episode
- The major difference between acquiring users vs. getting users to stick around
- What the hearts and mind strategy means for content marketing
- Why you must invest in every blog post as an acquisition engine
- How great SEO transforms your content (and makes it better)
- The surprising point in time when businesses should invest in branding
- How to identify the #1 topic your content should go after
- Why intent is key when you start to establish your content design
- The simple way to attract an audience who shares your beliefs
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! And welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the no fluff, actionable marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to acquire users that will stick around. My guest today is the VP of marketing and growth at HubSpot. You might have heard of this company before. He has helped to add millions in additional traffic in users, in revenues to their bottom line.
He’s quite impressive. He’s responsible for managing all of HubSpot global demand. Acquiring new users, monetizing the freemium funnels, and leading the global marketing team, so he’s quite a big deal.
He also has a podcast called The Growth Too Long; Didn’t Read — or TL;DR in the Reddit world and all of that with Scott Tousley.
Kieran, I’m super happy to have you on board.
Kieran: Yeah, thanks for having me on the show where we just slag off marketers. It’s going to be fun.
Louis: It’s an interesting purpose, or an interesting kind of thing to say acquiring users that will stick around. I don’t want to influence your answer, but there’s a lot of people out there who tend to focus on getting new users and don’t really give a fuck about getting them to stick around.
What’s your view on that about the difference between actually acquiring users and actually acquiring users that will stick around? What’s the major difference, in your opinion?
Kieran: Yeah, I think that some of that comes from the evolution towards — if you think about what’s happening in tech today and tech companies — a lot of it is evolving towards these product-led companies.
Product-led companies are companies that allow you to use software prior to you ever having to pay them a dime or a euro or a pound, for all those people from different countries.
If you think about that you could just acquire users from Facebook, feel really good about yourself and then realize in a month or two months time all of those people have left. And no one is paying you any money.
Acquiring people that stick around basically means that we kind of call it, it’s pretty well-known within the growth, bullshit buzzwords space, the North Star Metric. Which basically means, what is the metric that tells you about the value your product is delivering to customers?
A good example of that, in HubSpot, when I moved from building out the international business to building out the freemium business, our North Star Metric was weekly active teams.
Because we knew that if you were a team of two or more people using our free software, you would stick around for a lot longer. Because you had seen enough value to invite someone into that product and more than one person was now using that product on an ongoing basis.
When you look at teams who would acquire from all of these different channels, the way we would measure them is, how many weekly active teams are coming from those channels? That actually meant we were acquiring people who actually stuck around and started to use our product.
Louis: I’m baffled by one thing though. I struggle to understand what else a company can be focused on but a good product and acquiring people. What are the type of -led companies, how else can you be led but by the product?
Kieran: How else would you be led into the product, or-
Louis: No, what I mean is, can you be something else but product-led as a company?
Kieran: Well, I think product-led is for companies that acquire through low-touch acquisition models. You could be a very sales-led company if you’re an enterprise company, and your first touch tends to be with that company through outreach, a salesperson.
The first time you interact with that person is through a very high-touch motion. You talk to a sales rep. That sales rep has reached out to you.
Product-led companies are differentiated in that they tend to have very low-touch models in that you can kind of go experience the whole product and learn about the product without ever having to talk to a human.
And only talk to a human when you maybe want to find out, why should I pay the additional money to unlock these features? It really just depends about how you discover the value of that company. That’s how I would differentiate between product-led, sales-led, and some other types of motions.
Louis: Yeah, that makes sense. As soon as you described that I visualized this chart that you’ve probably seen obviously from, I think it’s from Brian Balfour or another guy in the growth and VC industry.
This chart where you have the value of each customer that grows, and then you have the mouse, which is the small-value kind of user, and then you go up and up and up. Who is that from, do you remember?
Kieran: I don’t think that is from Brian, but I know the chart you’re talking about when you have all the way to the elephant, and the elephant is the Salesforce model. It’s actually a pretty great chart, and I’ve gone completely blank which isn’t a good thing to do when you’re trying to be a good guest on a podcast.
Louis: That’s okay. I’m blank all the time, don’t worry.
Kieran: Brian is, I call him the Growth Father. He has one of the best blogs, it’s Reforge, and he definitely has posted something around that chart, and so you could probably find out on his blog.
Louis: Let’s hope you’re not going to blank on this on the next few minutes, because this is actually your own thinking and methodology. You have something that is quite interesting that you call the Hearts and Minds Strategy.
Actually, I don’t know if you know that, but the Vietnamese during the conflicts that happened in the 1940s or ’50s used the same strategy. I don’t know if you knew that or not, but it’s a true fact. They used that against their own people to win their hearts and their minds so that they wouldn’t do a revolution. Just to let you know.
You’ve broken all traffic records over the last few months. You’ve done a lot of great stuff at HubSpot. I think what is interesting here is trying to deconstruct that, so that people listening to this podcast right now can take away and can do it themselves, right? We might not touch on all of the things you’ve done, but we might at least try on this.
Before we touch on how to acquire users that stick around, and how to apply this strategy, can you describe briefly what you mean by hearts and minds? Why is it important to have both?
Kieran: Yeah, I definitely do not mean that we are going to try to stop people in different countries revolting. We named it Hearts and Minds, and this is something that comes from our CMO, Kip. We evangelize this within the company in that if you think about content marketing today, where are we today?
Well, the cost of content marketing has never been higher. If you look at the past five years, actually, the cost to acquire through content marketing has grown faster than any other medium.
Albeit, that it’s still a lot cheaper to acquire through content than it is through something paid. But it’s actually growing faster, the costs to acquire customers has actually grown faster for content marketing.
That’s just because budgets have shifted into people publishing content. There’s a lot more competition, and people are upping their game. This is a really great example. That people have migrated to podcasts, and some people do well, and other people do not do well. That happens across all the kind of content you create.
What you’re going to start to see is a divergence in two buckets of content you can create. You can create content that wins the minds of business leaders. You think about your content strategy, it’s to win the hearts and minds of whatever that audience may be.
For HubSpot, we want to win the hearts and minds of business leaders within small, medium, and enterprise-type companies who need help with software marketing, customer service, or sales.
To do that, when you think about how do you win the minds of those people, it’s generally the content you create is very tactical. It teaches them how to do something. It’s informational. It answers your question, and it’s kind of created with promotion first.
As an example, for most companies, I would only create content if there is available traffic for certain keywords. I would map every single post to a key phrase, and I would only create that content if there was actually traffic available for that question that people are asking.
In that bucket of winning the minds of people, it’s very search-first. You are creating content with a very search-first approach.
Doing that means that you invest a lot more in every single post. You commit a lot more to the content you create. Every single post is its own acquisition engine.
And you create an entire promotion plan for that post to compete in the Google search pages with all of the other content that’s created on that topic. It might not be search. I think typically it is, but it could be other mediums or platforms that you want to acquire traffic from.
In that, an interesting thing, there’s a guy called Jimmy Daly who runs content marketing for an agency called Animalz, and he had a really good post about why your blog should not be a publication. You shouldn’t really care about if your blog stands out. You shouldn’t care if your blog’s memorable. You should just create this thing called silent traffic.
That is very similar to winning the minds in that each post itself is not trying to build your brand. It’s just trying to acquire people, grow an audience, and convert them into something. We parked that, and I can go into what we did in HubSpot, and that’s one of the things that’s helped us to grow traffic even faster than we were growing.
Then within the hearts is like, how do I create editorial content? How do I create content that helps to evangelize my brand to attract people towards me that feel the same way that I do, that share my mission, that are passionate about the problems that I’m solving?
I think what you’re going to start to see is a divergence between those two types of content. Because the people who are good at creating one type of those content are not necessarily the people who are very good at creating the other type of content.
Brands may start to pick and choose where they invest their money to be able to compete in content marketing today.
Louis: That’s a shift you are starting to anticipate. It’s something that you start to see. To summarize what you said, so there’s the minds and the hearts. The minds, we talked about it quite a lot on this podcast.
In the last few episodes, actually. In terms of, how do you pick what people are actually searching for? Therefore, how do you read their minds? So that when they search on Google, they have something, they have a problem, they’re actually searching for it. How do you answer that very quickly?
Kieran: Let’s say, I want to know more about how to create a podcast from scratch? I google that. If you’re the first result to talk exactly on a blog post how to solve this problem, how to do it step-by-step, then you’re winning their minds. Because that’s what they are looking for.
Louis: Winning their heart is where the science turns into an art, in a sense. Because for SEO-driven pieces, as you mentioned, driven by Google. It seems quite — I wouldn’t say easy — but there is a recipe for it.
You search for it. You select the right keywords. You prioritize them based on a few factors. You have a list, roughly. I know I’m oversimplifying, and you’ll be able to contradict me on this.
The heart seems to be more like an art or more journalism-driven, story-based, perhaps. Or things that are based more the emotional connection you can have with your reader. Such as, maybe admitting failure, so being very transparent about certain things, about saying this is how we work, showing the behind the scenes, right? Is that a good summary?
Kieran: Yeah, that’s a good summary. I think on the mind side of things, people have this feeling of complete revulsion for SEO and content.
They’re like, “Ugh, what he means is you have win the minds, you plaster keywords and content, and you do this weird voodoo magic. You get around a fire and start to cast black magic spells, and something happens, and you acquire traffic.”
Actually, good SEO today, the way it’s done today actually makes content better. There’s still creativity in the type of content you create to win minds. But you’re creating it in a very purposeful way, crafted around the thing that someone is actually searching for.
You’ve established what someone is searching for. If you actually think about what you should look at, typically people will look at volume of traffic available for a keyword. We can get into this as well. It’s a slight tangent.
But what you should look at is volume of search clicks available for that keyword. There’s no point looking at volume. Because with featured snippets today, the amount of volume available per keyword has actually gone down. Because most people can retrieve the answer to their query without ever having to click on your website.
Louis: Can you define what a featured snippet is briefly?
Kieran: Yeah, so a featured snippet is basically when you search through Google, and you search for, what is inbound marketing? You will see there’s a box at the top of the page that answers that query for you.
Google, in their hypocritical approach to everything, who would penalize people for scraping content and having it on their website. Because I used to do that and penalized all my sites.
What they do is they scrape other people’s content, put it on their website, and then tell you the answer without you needing to ever go to that website.
For example, if you search for, what is inbound marketing? It may not be like this today, you would see Google has scraped content from our website, and they have answered that question. You don’t need to actually click through to our website to learn more about inbound marketing.
However, I will say that the click-through rate of content that appears in that featured snippet box is way higher than anything else. It still does send you a lot of traffic.
Louis: Right. Let’s do a little exercise together because I think that’s what listeners care about the most. Let’s say, you are hired as a consultant for a company that has a decent product. Their NPS, their Net Promoter Score is quite high. Their product is good. The problem is not there.
They hire you to say, “Okay, we need more users. We need to find ways to acuire more users.” You’ve identified what you described here, the hearts and the minds is probably the right thing to go about for them.
What is the first step? How do you go about setting that up for them starting from step number one?
Kieran: If I’m in a smaller company, I think this is the trade-off you need to make. And it’s the conversation that a lot of people have today is, when do you invest in brand?
Hearts is quite brand-focused, and it’s a very long-term investment. A lot of smaller companies need to live quarter-by-quarter. It’s great to create a brand, but if you don’t see the impact of that until a longer period of time, you may not make your numbers.
You may not be able to actually stay in business. I think a lot of companies skew towards, how do we win the minds of people? How do we create instant traffic and conversions for our company?
I think if you were doing that, you would start to build out like what we have built out, which we call our search editorial calendar. Which is basically every topic that is relevant to our different personas — our buying personas.
And then we break each topic down into every single keyword variation that is related to that topic. Then we will look to see, how competitive are those different topics in aggregate? How much available traffic is available in aggregate? How relevant are they to our audience?
If you do some sort of scorecard from one to five, five being really relevant, one being, mm, kind of relevant but may not convert that high, you can start to prioritize the initial topics that you want to spend your time on.
Again, if you are a smaller company, you probably have less people to create content for you, so you need to invest in a couple of topics and expand from there.
Where most people go wrong is they try to peanut butter everything. They do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of that, and they’re not really successful at any one thing.
They start to get frustrated and switch all their money back from content marketing into paid ads because they get a dopamine hit. It makes them feel really good, because I can put this 10 bucks in here and get a click here and get a conversion, and I’ve done my job.
That’s where I would start. I think you have to start with, how many resources ? Realistically, what can I do because of my available resources? What are the best things I want to invest my time in?
I probably want to invest time in things that I can show that there’s some level of success over a two to three month period. Because my CEO is going to start wondering why I’m tapping away on this keyboard or creating all this content — and he’s not seeing any type of meaningful demand for his product.
Louis: We talked about this exact method with Ryan Bonnici from G2 Crowd. I think, if I’m not mistaken, he worked for HubSpot before.
Kieran: Yeah, Ryan’s a good friend.
Louis: We talked to Nat Eliason, who also talked about this type of principle. Also, with the CMO of Ahrefs. Folks can listen to those episodes to get a lot of details. I’m also super interested in how you do the two, the hearts and the minds, and we’re going to go after that.
But briefly, can you describe when you create this search editor calendar? Beyond, as you said, the volume and difficulty and the relevance. Which are the three things that we also mentioned in the past.
Do you feel there is anything else that is absolutely necessary for people to understand when they do that
I think you started to mention that with the topics. You would look at things in aggregate and not row by row in Excel, right? You would look at the themes. If you get started at a company, you would probably pick one or two themes and just go for them.
Kieran: Exactly. Today, there is no point thinking at a keyword level. It’s too granular. You want to think of a topic, a topic level.
Google, for the most part, wants to surface up companies who have valuable content on a topic. Not just this one post that was about this one thing that’s not related to any of the other things you’ve created content on.
It puts more emphasis on the fact that hey, this website is an authority on all of these different things that are related to this topic.
Actually, one of the best examples of a company who did that that people will know is Pinterest. Pinterest is an interesting company because they’ve gone through many different channels that they’ve managed to grow from.
They used to grow through Facebook, and Facebook shut them down. But they actually pivoted to Google.
One of the things they’ve done, you will see Pinterest used to dominate the search pages, is they aggregated all of the user-generated content into these topics.
They have huge topic pages for different keywords, very, very competitive keywords. That’s because Google wants to understand that you are a site that is an authority on this actual topic, not just one part of it.
You want to aggregate everything into topics and even look at your data on a topic basis. How successful is this topic in helping us to acquire traffic? How successful is this topic in helping us to actually convert people into whatever the thing may be for your company.
Louis: You start with this business, you select two to three core topics. To go back to one example before I drill down a bit more, Pinterest does that. I know that Canva does that as well quite a lot.
Louis: If you search for resume templates, boom, they’ll appear number one. What they do is they, it’s a mix, I believe, of the user-generated content. Content that it was created by the users and content created by the company. They merged them to give you the top 50 resume templates you can use today.
The good thing about this as an acquisition strategy, as a loop is that you go, you search on that, you go on Google. You click on the resume template, and it basically makes you use the product already, and you sign up after. It’s kind of a loop that just keeps on fulfilling itself.
Kieran: Yeah, Canva is a great example. Canva actually is a company that started to grow just through word of mouth. They grew because they had a great product, solved a problem in a way that no one else was solving it.
Then they layered on search. You find that most companies who grow into big companies grow through a couple of channels. It’s another Brian Balfour quote that I’ll throw out here, but it’s called the Growth Power Law.
And that most big companies have to establish growth through one or two channels. Canva is a really good example, because they grew through word of mouth and later on, search.
The tactic you’re talking about is actually a phenomenal tactic that they have a whole team dedicated to building out templates that people search for and those templates then exist within their product. Then you can easily create a poster, whatever the main thing that you’re searching for.
Now the cool thing, it’s a very cool tactic they’ve executed very well. They’re product also fits to Google very well, because it has such a broad set of use cases that they can fulfill those use cases through their product.
Not every company can actually do that. There is this level of your product fits with certain channels, and then it’s just how well you execute within those channels.
Louis: Because Canva is basically a series of tools. Mini tools. You can basically use Canva for so many use cases, resume, posters, certificates. I can think of hundreds of things. As you said, your top of the funnel is easily filled, meaning a lot of people will search for all of those things, and you are the answer to that.
For HubSpot, you had to create free tools to actually do that, because sometimes your tools are so narrow. Obviously, you sell one thing, you do it very well. I don’t know, email signature, that you have to create other stuff around it to bring demand, to bring more people in, right?
Louis: You mentioned those two or three topics. You mentioned the three things to prioritize. Apart from the criteria that you mentioned, the volume or the actual number of clicks you might get, the difficulty, and relevance — is there any other way you would recommend people to pick their topics? How should they look at, “Okay, this is the number one topic we need to go after?”
Kieran: Yeah, I think that a lot of these things you want to, people today want to reduce that into a scientific equation. You can actually go through that process because you can use something like available traffic. You can model out the conversion rate you think you will get from a certain topic.
If you have any type of data on it that exists that you can model out, “Well, if we choose this topic, this is the amount of traffic that we will start to acquire over a 12-month period. This is the amount of conversions we will acquire over a 12-month period.”
You can actually model that out in terms of how that sustains your growth. I think that’s one of the ways you can do it.
But the thing that most people miss is, how competitive is that? You get a company in retail that will go, “Okay, we want to rank for women’s dresses, because that’s got a lot of volume. If I model that out, that’s going to equate to millions of dollars of revenue a year.”
The thing they haven’t done is go, “Well, there’s 60 billion other competing pages for those different keywords.”
The thing that you want to be really good at is understanding how competitive those topics are. Who are the companies that own the search results pages for those topics? Can you realistically create content that is better than them? Or, that’s as good, and that you have a better promotion plan.
That’s the world we live in today. It’s difficult to think that way, because sometimes you look at a lot of things, and you’re like, “Aw, shit, we’re screwed because a lot of the things are owned by Amazon.”
Some of that also is just experience. You understanding that is there’s no one scientific equation, that helps you understand this topic is better than that topic.
Some of it is just experience. I understand that I can actually do these things better than what exists, and I know I can actually acquire traffic on them.
Louis: Can I just ask you to pick a tech product of any kind, just something that comes like this outside of HubSpot, just as an example?
Kieran: Pick a tech product and then talk-
Louis: No, no, just pick a tech product, and then I’ll ask you some questions.
Kieran: Because I spent all of my life on video, let’s talk about video conferencing. Probably going to be a really bad selection, because it’s a boring space.
Louis: It’s okay. The more boring the better actually, because that’s why it becomes challenging. Let’s say, you consult for this video conferencing company. They are competing with Zoom.
They are competing with Skype and all of that. Let’s say you have a topic like remote conferencing or remote work maybe something like that. You identified that this is a topic that you might want to go after.
From your experience, I tell you that what are you picturing right now? What type of things will you do right now in front of your computer to check whether this is competitive, whether you have a feel, “Actually, we can go after that?”
Kieran: Yeah, so you can do it in a couple of ways. Because it sounds like you’ve had this, maybe the CMO of Ahrefs on or someone from Ahrefs-
Louis: Tim Soulo.
Kieran: Yes, Tim, so you can basically get some of this data through tools like Ahrefs that actually give you competitive data and try to tell you how competitive the keyword pages are for different key phrases.
You can trust those things and say that okay, I’m going to just use what they tell me to stack rank. If you search for all of the keywords around a topic, add them into a spreadsheet and then another sheet.
Aggregate them all up and use the average of the competition rating that one of these tools give you, either Moz, Ahrefs, I don’t want to exclude all of the different tools. You can use the average and say, “I’m going to stack rank that.”
However, there is definitely part of — dependent upon how complex your market is –there is part of this that if you just have SEO experience, you’re going to be better at it.
Because what I would tend to do is look at some of the sites that actually perform very well for this topic and start to actually explore their backlinks: How many backlinks have they? What are the quality of their backlinks? What kind of things are they doing to acquire those backlinks that I can either replicate or do better?
You start to build up the parts of: Where are these people strong? Where are they weak? How can you be as good as them in the things that they are strong at that matter? Because some of them may not matter. How can you be better at the places that they’re weak at?
Louis: How do you spot that? How do you check if this is a topic that has been covered in a weak way by a direct competitor, let’s say?
Kieran: You can look at things like the overall competition for that is medium. And the people who are ranking the content is not, like I could just create better content than it. There’s a really, I’ll throw out the examples that everyone uses. But, if you think of someone like Brian Dean — you’ve probably talked to Brian.
Louis: No, actually, I haven’t.
Kieran: Have you not? Okay, so Brian’s really good at this. He would not classify himself, I think he would tell you he’s not a technical SEO, but he manages just to pick a competitive keyword and creates better content than the thing that exists.
Better content could just be, hey, it’s just better content. It just serves the user in a better way. It’s more informational. It teaches that person how to do that thing better than the existing content.
You can look at the results pages and start to see that, actually, Google wants more video images. And you can make your content a more multimedia experience. You can start to do different formats that other people have not done and invest in those things quicker than anyone else is investing in them.
You can look through them, and you can say, “Oh, the people who are linking to these people are just bloggers.” They’re just acquiring links through being cited by other blogs, and they have no real specific strategy on how they can acquire links.
I know that I can acquire links in this partnership model I have, or I know I can acquire links from this affiliate model I have.
There are some variations of acquiring links through affiliates that actually would be frowned upon by Google, so take that with a grain of salt. This is someone who had most of his sites de-indexed back in the day, so I know about these things.
Louis: Laughs. You black hats marketer.
Kieran: Yeah, I’ve been through every sketchy part of marketing you can go through, so I’ve come to the light side.
That’s why I love search, and that’s why I love coming into marketing through SEO. Because you can pull apart someone’s entire strategy and start to isolate the parts that you can beat them on.
It could just be I’m going to create better content, more creative content, a better multimedia experience. It could be hey, they have no real clear path to acquire links at scale. I actually can do that, and so then I’m going to attack them on those fronts.
Louis: I have so many things to say. Let me start with the first one. The first thing you mentioned is about identifying things that you’re better at, or that they are weak at.
From my small experience, other stuff might include all of the articles you see are quite old, outdated, they look like shit, or they are quite short. And you feel like they have been written by definitely a freelancer who didn’t really care about anything, or there is no example.
Sometimes, what I found is this is the one thing that seemed to happen quite a lot is, okay, they are covering the topic quite well, but there is no example or case study.
There’s no tangible, give me an example. All of those things and plus those things you mentioned, seems to be a good indicator of knowing, “Hm, I have a feeling if we write this, we’ll do better.” That’s what you mentioned.
But the second thing is even more interesting because now I think we’re going quite advanced, and I don’t even know the answer to this question, by the way.
I’m really actually very curious. How do you figure out whether someone, another company has a proper outreach or backlinking strategy, or whether they don’t?
Kieran: Yeah, this comes through experience. You will just know. You can see if there is. Let me try to throw out something that’s not going to get you de-indexed. Let’s assume you can see a company that have had some sort of competition, or that they’ve created some sort of tool.
That tool is some sort of, I don’t know, conversational pop-up or some sort of easy way to show a video on your website. They’ve created that tool with some sort of branding in the footer of that tool. Many people are using that tool, and that tool links back to that website.
Today, I think most people know not to link back with a very specific keyword. What you would do is actually create some sort of mechanism that would change the keyword each time it was embedded. So you wouldn’t leave some sort of weird trace of just millions of links with the exact same keyword.
Let’s say, there’s a company that’s done that. You would go, “Ah, shit, that company know what they’re doing.” They have specifically created this thing to not only get their brand on more sites or their tools on more sites, but they’ve created it with the knowledge of how they can acquire links back to their website.
Versus looking at a company, and all of their links are just third-party links where people are referencing their content naturally. There’s no real specific strategy that they’ve put in place to actually get people to link to their content.
There’s no way that I can answer that without saying that there is some level of experience that it takes to be able to pull apart a backlink profile and be able to tell whether that is being manufactured, and it’s beatable or not.
Louis: Could another way be, for example, when you look at their articles, and you really look at the structure and see whether it’s SEO-driven. Or whether it’s been written just almost randomly? Could it be looking at the headlines and see whether it has been optimized clearly for longer-tailed keywords related to the topic?
Kieran: Yeah, I think. So you can look at the content and say, “Hey, they have a very clear, specific keyword focus on the content, but they’ve done it in a way that’s very natural.”
They know what they’re doing because you will see the companies that don’t know what they’re doing. Because their content is garbage and everything is the keyword.
For most people, they understand that Google doesn’t need you to do that today. Google are pretty good at understanding what the content is about, and they don’t need you to plaster the keyword everywhere.
But you can look at the content and go, “Okay, these people have optimized this in a pretty professional way.” They know the content grouping that they’re going for. They’ve also created the content with the user in mind.
It has a mixture of a video and it has imagery. It has all of the things you should have because that’s what the intent is behind this search. Intent is something that’s really important when you start to establish or determine how you design your content. We can talk about that if you want.
You would start with the on-page. For the most part, if you were ranking in the top 10 of Google for an anyway semi-medium, anyway competitive keyword, you would suspect that most of those people have pretty great content.
Or there’s some level of expertise has gone into creating that content. A lot of it still does come back, as much as I think Google probably don’t want it to, I think a lot of it is still dependent upon the links you have. The links you manage to acquire.
We’ve certainly found that as well. Even the amount of traffic we get, we still see a lot of upside by being able to create links towards specific content.
Louis: That’s kind of controversial, or should I say, something that we talked about in the podcast before, and that it seems like people are still surprised by it. Because backlinking is basically probably one of the only ways for Google to know for sure that a piece is valuable.
Because it’s based on relationships. It’s based on people linking to other people. It’s based on the signal that says, “Kieran likes my shit. Therefore, he links to it.”
Kieran: Yep. Google, of all the amazing things Google can do, which they can get up in the morning and track your car without you having to do anything and all this kind of stuff. It’s still impossible for them to go, “Hey, this page is better than this page,” if each of those pages has zero links.
Unless there’s some indication of, that someone found that valuable, they’re still going to be dependent upon links.
There’s other signals that they — and I am definitely not the person who knows every single signal they’re using. But things like are people clicking through on that page and then clicking straight back to the search results page?
I’m sure people on your podcast have gone through the different signals they can use. They are using a lot of different signals. But I still think links is a very strong signal that they actually depend on.
Louis: But let’s go back to the principles. We’re not trying to hack Google here. It’s all about people, and how they react. This is why I mentioned backlinks is just a consequence of relationships and value.
It’s just a transfer of value. You link to something because you like it. Very much like when you stay on a page, Google will know that now via Google Analytics and all of that. They know how long you stay, so, therefore, they can interpret, “Well, they stay a bit more, so they might like it.”
Kieran: Yeah, exactly.
Louis: I wouldn’t be surprised in the future that Google starts to get some proper qualitative signal out there. Such as, feedback directly within the page or directly within the results as a signal, as a way to say whether this is something that people like or not.
Anyway, it all goes back to people. We’re not trying to hack Google here. It’s more about trying to understand what people search for, and how to provide the best experience. Also, to compete because we are in a market. You need to compete against one another.
Okay, we are talking about the minds quite a lot. We talked about how to identify topics based on the basics, should I say, of volume, difficulty, relevance. But, as you mentioned, the flair and the experience. The, almost a French flair, should I say. Towards what topics to pick.
Now, let’s say, we have those topics. We probably won’t have time to talk about how to actually get started and write those articles. This is probably not as interesting as the other topic I wanted to talk about, which is the heart.
You would start with this company that is struggling a bit with their content, struggling with acquiring users that will stick around. You implement this plan for the next two or three months, as you said. It sounds like you’re not touching heart whatsoever yet.
Kieran: We have it separated in HubSpot. We have content that is specifically, there are teams that create content to win the minds of people. And they have a very specific process to do that. Then we have a different content team that are more creating content on editorial.
We think about, what are the themes that we want to create content around? Relate it to the mission of HubSpot. Relate it to how products can help execute on that mission or make that mission part of every other company’s mission that we sell our software to. That team is creating content in a very different way. In HubSpot, they’re separate teams.
Now, I want to make sure in case someone from HubSpot listens to this, and I’m telling this thing correctly. There’s nuances to this.
Our blogging team, for example, are a team that create a lot of content to acquire the minds of business leaders. But, also, have some content on the blogs that are purely heart-focused content.
Louis: Would you actually create this type of content to win the hearts of people with this fictitious company we are working with, and why would you do it?
Kieran: Yeah, I think that you certainly have to invest in your brand. That’s the balance that I think is difficult for people to find. If you put me in a room with three companies who are at different stages within their growth cycle and had very different resources.
And asked me to answer the question of, how do they find the perfect balance to know they should create this much of their time on mind? And this much on heart, it’s a very difficult one to answer.
Because the challenge with heart content and content that generally invests in your brand is the effects of that are very the Law of Serendipity. You understand that there’s going to be good things happening, but it’s very difficult to put your finger on how to measure those things.
We have ways that we try to measure the good things happening from the investments that we make in brand.
Louis: Like what?
Kieran: There’s about 50. But some of the things you can look at are, are people looking for my product more over time? Direct traffic, Google trends. Are people mentioning us? Is the number of people mentioning us increasing over time?
You can have tools that tell you how much you’re getting mentioned or getting cited, getting mentioned by websites or getting mentioned by social tools. You can look at press mentions and placements. Again, none of these are like, “Wow, this is game-changing,” because people have been trying to solve the problem of how to measure brand forever.
But the way I think about trying to measure brand is you can have indicators that this stuff is working. There’s no one metric, but the indicators overall help to tell a story that the investments we’re making are paying off.
Then there’s just the things that when someone reaches — if you have an outbound sales team or you have a sales team that are reaching out to people who are in your database — more and more people have actually heard your name. “Oh, yeah, I read your blog.” “Oh, I listen to your podcast.” “Oh, I’ve seen that video from this person.”
There’s just ad hoc stuff where you can see good things happening over time.
Louis: If you had to pick, with this fictitious company once again. Let’s say, you’ve really nailed the search, the search-based, the mind-based content. You’ve really nailed it the editorial calendar for that. You’re publishing articles. It gets picked up on Google. You start generating it.
Now, you know that the brand is the next thing. If you had to pick the first few things you would do for this company when it comes to the heart, the brand type of content, what would you go after? What type of thing seems to be working, not always, but seems to really be something that you must do?
Kieran: I can give you one of the things that I think matters a lot but is not applicable to every company. It may not be relevant to everyone, so it’s probably not the best answer. But let me just give you that answer, and you can tell me if it sucks.
I think it’s always good to pick a fight or an enemy. I think if I just use HubSpot’s story, we picked outbound marketing as an enemy. We were able to win the hearts of people who were really frustrated about having to pay for billboards and do all of this type of marketing.
No one really talking about it, but then when you start talking about it, like, “Aw, shit. Yeah, I hate having to do that, and I hate the fact that people hate marketers,” just like your podcast says.
“I hate the fact that people see me as a sleazy asshole who is going to just spam you to death. I feel like I want to be a better person. I want to be a better marketer.”
Then you get people passionate about the mission that you have. I think if you look at a lot of companies, they usually have a very clear enemy. Salesforce I worked at as well, they had a very clear enemy. I think that’s a very easy way to draw people towards you. Because you’re not just safe. Some probably think you suck because they actually don’t agree with you.
But to begin with, having certain people who are very passionate — because there are certain people who are very passionate about that — is going to be better than just being not relevant for anything. I do think that that’s definitely one of the first things I would do. If I were starting in a fictitious company that had a product that we wanted to grow.
Louis: I’m curious now. Because if you are listening to this podcast, obviously, it’s audio-only. You didn’t see my reaction to Kieran’s answer. But I’m quite happy to hear that. I’ll tell you why in a few seconds.
But you said that it wouldn’t necessarily apply to every company, why not?
Kieran: Honestly, I can’t think of every single product in the world. But there may be companies that just don’t have a clear enemy. I don’t know.
There are so many industries that someone on this podcast might be saying — I don’t want everyone to go ahead and start dissing everyone else in their industry. I just mean that, in some cases, it’s maybe not as easy to pick that enemy.
In HubSpot’s case, our tools helped you to do marketing in a different way, so it’s easy to pick on traditional marketing. For other companies, it may be as easy as that. For other companies, they may have to be more creative and inventive about how they actually choose their enemy.
Louis: There is enemy and enemy as well. We’re not saying to literally go on war and insult people, because they’re not doing this the right way. But it’s more about picking the audience who believe in what you believe in. And telling the others who don’t believe in the same thing to say, “Hey, maybe it’s not for you.”
Louis: The reason why companies struggle to do that is because it’s risky. Because it takes some guts. Because it’s a risk that could pay off big time or could actually mean that you lose money.
Definitely, from my small experience, anytime we’ve done that for small projects, for podcasts, for anything, it just works. Because it strikes a chord with people. People just either agree or disagree, but they can’t be neutral.
This the enemy, isn’t it? If people are neutral, then their emotions are not super high. You can’t really win their heart. They’re just going to be like, “It’s yet another tool. It’s yet another company.”
Louis: Testament to HubSpot for having done that incredibly well. To have positioned, creating a new category in the market, picking an enemy, also nailing the search, nailing content marketing years before most companies nailed it. HubSpot did a lot of things right, so I’m glad to be speaking to you on this.
But I think this podcast is an example of this strategy. It’s obviously not the same risk whatsoever, just a small podcast. But it’s an example that works. People remember it. People either hate it or love it, but I don’t receive a lot of people who say, “I just like it a little bit.” It’s either or.
Kieran: Extreme reactions, yeah. An easy way for someone to think about that for their own market is, how does your product make someone’s life better? Because, in any way it’s trying to make someone’s life better in some way.
Prior to your product, what was their frustrations that you were solving and then try to pick on the frustrations? I think that’s one of the ways you can probably come up with something that you can get a certain number of people to feel passionately about.
Louis: We don’t have a lot of minutes left. I still want to challenge you on something. Let’s go back to the example of the video conferencing tool, all right? Let’s just create this kind of enemy together, just try to identify one briefly.
In the video conferencing world, I can think of a few things that pisses me off. But I want you to come up with something, an enemy on the fly. What will you do?
Kieran: Top of my head, and maybe I’m not at my most creative. I think an easy one to pick is — and this is too easy — is the office. Because I would probably pick, oh man, going to the office. And my whole creative would be all the things that your dad or your granddad used to do that you think is archaic now.
You just think, “Why the hell did we used to do those things?” I would frame going to the office and the fact that we ever thought going to an office with hundreds of other people, and that we could be productive was a good use of our time. The fact that we think being stuck in traffic for 30, 40 minutes a day is a good use of our time.
I would try to pick on the office. I would categorize myself into making the world a better place by allowing people to work wherever they want to work.
Louis: Thanks for doing this. I know it’s late. We are both in Dublin, and I know it’s a bit late for both of us. I was thinking, when I was thinking of video conferencing, I was thinking of the fact that they’re all slow, clanky, and shit.
I would come up with a product that is light, and that works. I would just take a piece out of all of the others who are just so slow, and I would play on that saying we are the fast one.
Kieran: Yeah, if you’re doing that. Google Hangouts is your enemy.
Kieran: Because Google Hangouts is continually terrible.
Louis: There you go or even Skype. We’re on Skype right now. It actually works for me, but most people hate it. But I don’t know, exactly.
Kieran: Yeah, I hate it, so that would have been a good enemy as well.
Louis: There you go. But you see, straight away there is reaction to it. There is emotion.
This takes some guts to do, but I would. Kieran is an expert. I’m not. But, he said it, I didn’t, which is really picking an enemy you know that wins, to win hearts of the people is definitely a strategy that I would encourage people to take.
Kieran, thanks so much for taking the time to go through the step-by-step with me. I know it’s not easy to be quizzed that much.
But you said something, I have a few questions that I ask at the end of the podcast all the time. But you said something that I’m just curious about. You said that you basically used all the black hats marketing tactics that one could use in your career. Could you just mention a few that you used that used to work?
Kieran: Yeah, let me go through the murky days of Kieran Flanagan when I first got into marketing. My background was a developer, so I always looked for shortcuts because I was a developer. I didn’t really actually know marketing. I thought I was a marketer, but I really knew nothing about marketing.
Things that worked really well that no longer work. Please, never do this, because it doesn’t work. Weirdly, one of the things that worked really well was years ago, you could get tools that would allow you to join thousands of forums and create fake profile pages.
Within the profile, now I had a tool that basically allowed me to only do this for forums that had dofollow links. You could dofollow links in the about section of a profile page.
Then, you would add — people are going to be thinking, “This guy’s the worst human being in the world. What you would do is you would link, so you would have one link that pointed to your site from each about page.
And then you would have a link that pointed to another forum for about page, so imagine a ring of thousands of profile pages on forums that pointed to each other and then pointed to your site. Now, wait, wait, I’m not finished and then step back.
And imagine that I also, and then you could also create automated set up blogs, thousands at a time, and extract content from YouTube. And all these different places and create these automated garbage blog posts. Then, you would link all of those to the forums, so you create another outer circle ring to your forum.
I did that for my own sites, affiliate marketing, and no longer do that. I could rank something in a very short amount of time, months for competitive keywords.
The other thing that worked really was, I think this still probably does work is that you could build your own private-linked network. The way you would build that is it’s interesting in GoDaddy that if you host a site.
Let’s say, this site here. EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, and you haven’t renewed that. Within the last 30 days, before you renew, it goes into an auction model. People are actually bidding on your domain, and if you renew that, then the auction automatically closes.
But if you don’t renew that, I can buy your site. Because you forgot to renew it, or you just don’t want it anymore. Then I can just go into archive.org and recreate your site. Google doesn’t know any difference, “Oh, your site went down. It’s back up again.”
But now I own the site. I can start to link to things, and that worked really well. It used to work really well. I lost a lot of money, because I got the entire thing de-indexed overnight.
That’s what I mean. I didn’t know marketing back in the day. I just knew how to create networks, basically, weird networks of things that linked to each other.
Louis: I love it. I think that’s the best example so far on this show. We’ve waited for the 99th episode to reach this level of hackiness and shadiness, so we’re done. But you see there is a bright future for people doing that. Now, Kieran is in a good place at HubSpot. So you can recover from being shady, right?
Kieran: Yeah, I learned that I should learn about marketing. That’s where I came to the conclusion is like, shit. When Google started to actually make this stuff not work, I realized that I actually had no real value to give to a company, so I should really learn how to do real marketing.
Louis: Let me ask you three last questions that I always ask my guests towards the end of the podcast. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
Kieran: That’s a good question. I think that if you can understand platforms. I don’t think that’s a really good answer, because it’s not like learn search, be good at data analytics. But I think understand how platforms work and how to utilize them for your own company’s growth.
Search is a platform. Facebook is a platform. Generally, if you can dissect a platform and figure out how to grow through that platform better than anyone else, I think that’s a good way to stay relevant, and that means being deeply curious about how things work.
Louis: Makes sense. What are the top three resources, you’d recommend listeners? It could be books, conferences, anything.
Kieran: Maybe you have a good answer to this as well. This just talks to how fragmented content is in that what I would do is I would build a list of smart people on Twitter and see the stuff that they read.
I would try to talk to people, really talk to people. Not do what all of us introverts do and just read their stuff. I would try to have a couple of conversations a month with people who are in your space.
A book I read that I think is relevant for everyone. One of my favorite books I read in the last 12 months is the Platform Revolution, because I’m very interested in networks and marketplaces. Because you’re going to eat the world, so that’s one book I recommend.
Podcasts. Obviously, aside from this podcast-
Louis: You don’t have to say that, man.
Kieran: No, you’ve got stellar guests. Obviously, based in Ireland so have to support the Irish, things that come from Irish. I think the HubSpot Growth Podcast is good. I’m a big fan of Noah Kagan, his podcast is good, a lot of good stuff for people.
Louis: I think you’re forgetting one. What about yours?
Kieran: I’m trying not to be as shameless-
Louis: No, no, no, please do.
Kieran: Yeah, so I run The Growth TL;DR Podcast. We try to talk to people who are in product or growth. CEOs and whoever will come on the podcast and tell us how to grow companies.
Louis: I can’t wait to be invited. I’m only joking, man. Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you outside of the podcast?
Kieran: Yeah, LinkedIn. I also Twitter but generally LinkedIn is a really great place to connect, share ideas. I generally accept everyone, unless you look mental. Twitter as well, searchbrat on Twitter.
I picked my name, searchbrat, before I ever thought about what that name was going to be. It was the name of an old consultancy I had. Never changed it, so it’s a very weird name, I know.
Louis: Well, with the answer you gave about the black hat techniques, I think it fits.
Louis: Kieran, thanks again for your time. I really appreciate it.
Kieran: Thanks for having me on, Louis, I appreciate it.