How a Business Blog REALLY Generates Leads – Marcus Sheridan

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Marcus-Sheridan-PinterestDo you have meaningful conversations with your clients or prospects? Do you answer the questions you get from them? Do you know how to incorporate teaching and communication into your sales process to build trust?

If not, then you’re not alone. A lot of small businesses don’t realize that by answering the questions most important to their customer they are augmenting their content marketing. By being open and honest with your audience, you invite them to trust your judgement and ultimately choose your business over your competitors.

This week, we chat it up with web marketing guru Marcus Sheridan, to chat about making your prospects stay on your website to learn and engage for longer than you’d ever think possible.

Big Ideas:

How did blogging and content marketing save your business?

  • Not that you asked the wrong question, but I want to change to “how did incredible teaching and communication change your business,” because that’s the way I want the listeners to think about this.
  • We started our company in 2001. It was super small and we just kind of grew as companies do.
  • We were installing in-ground pools throughout Virginia and Maryland, but when the market collapsed in 2008, it was an epic disaster for us.
  • We lost a quarter of a million dollars of business immediately after the stock market crashed and by January 2009 we went through three straight weeks where we were overdrawn in our bank account.
  • I talked to lots of consultants at the time and everybody said essentially the same thing which was, “you need to go ahead and file bankruptcy.”
  • But, if I did that, I was going to lose my home, and my partners were gonna lose their homes, and it just wasn’t a good situation – a very stressful time
  • It was during this time that I realized, “hey, we gotta generate more leads than we ever have, and we don’t have any money to do it. So, what do we do?”
  • I was also looking at the trend that was the internet and how consumers were clearly changing. It was obvious to me, the way I used it – to research and to learn. I knew our customers and prospects were doing the same thing.
  • So, the more I read about inbound marketing and content marketing, and all this stuff, what resonated in my mind was that, “if I teach better than anybody else and I’m really not afraid to address all these questions people have – and I put it on my website and I take the time to be thoughtful – that I’m going to get the reward.”
  • That’s exactly what I did. Our philosophy became four simple words that have changed my life and since then has been the same philosophy we use with every single client which is – THEY ASK, YOU ANSWER.
  • That is, any question we’d ever been asked we were willing to address it on our website. I firmly believe that if a business is not willing to do that, that it’s almost like somebody walking into your store or your office and they ask you a question and you tell them, “yeah, I appreciate that, but I can’t give you the answer. Go ahead and go down the street. They’ll give you the answer and once they’ve given your the answer, go ahead and come on back and we’ll work you up a deal.”
  • It doesn’t quite work like that any more. We did that, and to make a long story really short, like you said, it saved the business. It’s the most trafficked swimming pool website in the world.
  • It’s amazing what’s happened and now we’re moving into the manufacturing space as well. That’s been a great ride and I’m very grateful to be a part of it and I’m grateful that I can now apply those same principles to other companies.
  • It doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling pools or water for pools. Essentially we’re dealing with people and communication and great teaching.

How did answering these questions change the sales process for you? How did you all of a sudden rescue your business by answering people’s questions?

  • There were a few things. It’s a very important question. Let me describe the scene.
  • I was working, at the time, 65-70 hours a week. I would go on a sales appointments during the day and most of them were a couple hours away. Most of those sales appointments themselves would last a couple hours, so I would get home at 11pm-12am at night .
  • I would have heard a question during the sales appointment and it got to the point where I would literally say to myself, “how do I address that on my website?”
  • As I did that, from an SEO perspective, it did very well.
  • To give you an example of what I’m talking about, 5 years ago no swimming pool company had addressed how much a fiberglass pool costs on their website – which is quite stupid if you think about it because this is the first question that everyone wants to know.
  • If they call the company, and this applies to any industry regardless of what you sell, people want to know how much your stuff costs.
  • Nobody’s ever bought anything without looking at the bottom line number. It just doesn’t happen.
  • We answered questions like that. We answered questions like: What are the biggest problems with fiberglass pools?” Are fiberglass pools cheap? Are fiberglass pools ugly? Are fiberglass pools too skinny?  We compared different manufacturers.
  • We just did things that nobody ever did because ultimately when you address the stuff that consumers really care about they force you to have an opinion on things. It forces you to sit there and say to yourself, “I’ve gotta let go of all these traditions that we’ve always had in business and solely focus on what the consumer wants from me right now.”
  • Because we did that, the visitors we got in search was tremendous. Just to give you a feel for this, when we started this our site was about 20 pages. Today the site has about 800 pages and most of those are just answers to questions in a blog format – we’d answer them one at a time
  • Last year we sold about 90 fiberglass pools and we know the average number of pages that these 90 people viewed on our website simply because of the advanced analytics. In this case we used HubSpot, but there are a lot of tools that allow you to know these things.
  • The average customer last year read about 105 pages of the website. That’s insane. It’s stupid! That’s like, impossible. If you had come and told me 5 years ago, “hey, Marcus, check this out. I’m telling you. People that are willing to buy a pool. They’re willing to read 105 pages of your website before they buy.”
  • I would’ve looked at you and called you bad names and I would’ve told you to leave because you don’t understand my industry or my business.
  • That’s the way most businesses feel until they realize that most of us grossly underestimate people’s willingness to become comfortable with a buying decision. The only thing that gets us comfortable with a buying decision is learning more about it.
  • That’s why some people just bought the $250 cell phone but they spent 4 days learning about it – 6 hours a day. That’s just what they’ll do.
  • So 105 pages sounds crazy, but it’s real.

What would you say to someone with concerns like, “I don’t want to discuss prices right away, so I don’t want to put it up on my website?”

  • Let me put it like this that that’s a very nearsighted way of seeing it.
  • Number one, there’s this great traditional belief that’s been around for a few thousand years that says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  • When we go online and we can’t find what we’re looking for we get pissed and then we leave. That’s just how it works, right? If I ask a room of 1,000 people, “have you ever researched the cost of something online?” then 1,000 people raise their hands. If I say, “how do you feel when you own a website and they talk nothing about costs and price?” 100% of the room says, “frustrated.”
  • It’s the first word I’ve called “the F-word of the internet.”
  • Frustration leads to a loss of trust. When I say, “frustrated,” you don’t look, you don’t say, “maybe it’s in here somewhere.” You don’t do that because you’ve been taught that if you’ll keep looking you’ll find the reward, you’ll find the answer.
  • You also don’t pick up the phone to call anymore. You used to say, “well, they don’t have it here.” You also don’t say stupid things like, “oh, it’s okay that they’re not talking about this because they’re just basing their pricing on value and because they care so much about value they just need to talk to me first. That’s okay. That’s alright.”
  • They don’t have those conversations with themselves. So, we all want it one way when we’re on one end and then when we get on the other end we say, “well, we’re different.” The reality is we are NOT different. That’s the first answer.
  • The second answer to your question is, when people only see this as “I’ve got to give an exact number,” they’re completely missing the mark.
  • The answer for “how much does your stuff, your service cost? – b2b b2c, it doesn’t matter – The answer is that it depends. Unless you’re selling 25 cent gum balls, right – it depends.
  • The key isn’t that you necessarily give me a number the key is that you’re willing to address the subject on your website and give as much detail as to what would drive the cost up and down as possible.
  • I want to feel like, as the consumer, I’ve been fed. The number one reason – and I love asking this question – “what defines the phrase ‘great website’?” It’s a powerful question.
  • Essentially everybody says the same thing (and it’s a two part answer) – “I want to find what I’m looking for and I want to find it quickly.” That is what defines a great website in 2014 and beyond.
  • If you hold on to that philosophy then it’s going to guide you and you’re not going to have stupid debates like – should we hide our secret sauce when in reality it’s not a secret whatsoever. It’s just thousand island dressing.
  • The moment any company really embraces that they’re so much better off at actually inducing trust versus trying to control the conversation.
  • Let me add one thing to this. The number one complain I hear from marketers and marketing departments is, “we can’t get enough content from the staff.” Most companies, the ratio of sales to marketing is like 10 to 1.
  • I love asking companies how many sales people they have. Ten people will raise their hands. Then I’ll ask, “how many emails do you send out a day that answer questions that prospects or customers are asking you?” The answer is always the same – “dozens, hundreds, or thousands.”
  • What would happen if all those sales people in your organization answered a question with any meat, to a prospect or customer, if they bcc’ed somebody in marketing? What would happen? I don’t think anyone in marketing would ever say, “ I don’t know what to write about. I’m not in touch with my customer anymore. I don’t have enough content.”
  • All that would be eliminated by one simple click of the mouse. Nobody’s doing it. It’s unfortunate.

How much does SEO play in the creation of your posts for Sales Lion?

  • It’s huge. Let me tell you how extensive it is.
  • I’ve got a company called Health Catalyst (healthcatalyst.com) and if you want to watch somebody that is crushing it with content marketing just go to their learning center and you’re going to be blow-freaking-away with all the videos, the webinars, the e-books, the white papers.
  • We have done so much incredible stuff. When we write an article with that company, and we’ve got four people that do this together, four of us look at the article – and it’s not a slow process. We still make it fast – we will spend literally as much time talking about the title of the post and what keyword phrase or set we’re targeting as we did about the post itself.
  • That’s how important it is to us.
  • We analyze every single page title. We analyze the URL every time and we analyze the meta description every single time. We take all three of those things very seriously.
  • Then whenever we produce the post we focus very much on where the subheader (h2, h3 tags) opportunities are and what are some secondary keyword goals we can manage from this. By the way, I say to go look at the articles. You’re never gonna think for one second, “wow, they’re writing for search engine.”
  • It shouldn’t feel like, to the reader, that you’re writing for search engines, but it should feel like “someone is talking to me.”

Are there SEO plugins you’re using with HubSpot?

  • First of all, the Sales Lion IS built on WordPress but it uses HubSpot on the back end so that allows me to have all those advanced analytics.
  • The problem with just Google Analytics, as you well know, is that you can’t analyze names of people. You can analyze patterns and you can analyze traffic, but not names.
  • You can’t say “Rich Brooks came to my site today. He read 35 pages. These are the 35 pages he read and this was how much time he was on the site.” I don’t know Rich Brooks came, but somebody came. Right?
  • People need advanced analytics. I do find though that a lot of our clients that don’t use HubSpot they are using something like SEO Moz, or anything that allows them to track keywords.
  • Every time you write an article it should be very clear, for most businesses that are average and don’t have this monster following online, if you are not paying attention to SEO you are going to have a difficult time, in most cases, gaining the traction you could have gotten.
  • Whenever you produce an article it should be very clear that these are the keyword sets or phrases you’re targeting with this post. Everybody that is in marketing should know it. Then, you should have a tool that’s tracking those sets. That way, after a week or a month you can look back and say, “okay, here were our hits, here were our misses from a search perspective and now that we see that this article isn’t going to fly, do we need to redo the article? Do we need to go after a different light? Do we need to edit it?”
  • This is the type of stuff that we do and we do it all the time. It’s worth it. I’m so glad you’re bringing it up because I swear nobody brings SEO to me anymore. Thank goodness for Rich Brooks.
  • Just because something has a low number of searches per month doesn’t mean we don’t go after it.
  • Something might be searched only 15 times a month all over the world, but the 15 people that searched that  – they were freaking ready to buy that thing right now.
  • If your product or service is a $100,000 account or sale, don’t ever allow the fact that something is a low monthly search number, to skew you from targeting what you know to be a very important and relevant prospect or customer question.

So now we’ve got our post. You hit publish. What do you do next to make sure it reaches the widest variety of people?

  • This is one of the areas I would say that once again, it does depend on the business.
  • I find that for the majority of our customers, especially in the b2b space, LinkedIn does very well for sharing things either to groups or to just on your own individual LinkedIn pages or your employees’ LinkedIn pages.
  • Twitter, Facebook are fine, but to me that’s literally what they are. I find for that most businesses Twitter and Facebook are much better as retention tools than they are for “find” tools unless you’re doing targeted ads or things like that. Which to me is a completely different conversation.
  • Most of our clients will share on those platforms and we’re doing a little bit more with Google+. I don’t know if it’s going to be here tomorrow or not, I have no idea.
  • Here’s the one thing about Google+ is other than us kind of like, fringe people, the majority of the world – especially teenagers – they just don’t think it’s cool.
  • When it comes to River Pools, we don’t play with social media. We have a Facebook page but it’s just there. If spent much time at all with Facebook and Twitter it wouldn’t be as nearly as beneficial as producing straight content through text or video.
  • YouTube and the blog is where we put 90% marketing attention and dollars with River Pools. If you shift gears and you go to The Sales Lion, which is my marketing site, it’s very different because I guess probably 25-30% of the traffic is socially driven. It’s just a different place whereas with River Pools it’s 80% organic and 15% is direct search and then 5% is social.
  • I think a lot of people try to be a jack-of-all-social-media-trades and they end up being a master of none.
  • You can’t just come out of the gate and say, “we’re gonna be great in all these areas.” It’s just not realistic. Beside that, the majority of your customers aren’t on 6 different platforms. It’s just not how it works. You don’t find people going to Twitter and saying, “hey all, I just bought a $50,000 pool.” You just don’t see that.
  • You don’t see a lot of people on Twitter saying, “where should I get a fiberglass pool?” You don’t see that either. It’s just the way that it is. It’s the way that the platform is right now. You gotta say, “where are the people at?”
  • LinkedIn is the same way. LinkedIn doesn’t work for swimming pools. I’ve tried. Because, I was just trying to figure these things out. I was experimenting. It doesn’t work. That’s why we put all of our attention towards video and text.
  • One thing doesn’t change though, whatever platform you’re on you’d better understand the problems that your prospects have. You’d better be willing to address those problems and you’d better do it in a way in that they understand what you’re saying.

Are you using either blog to build up an email list?

  • Both of them.
  • How do I do this? Well, with pools I use my list twice a year and I’m going to use it a lot more now that we’re going to be in the manufacturing space as well.
  • What we do at the beginning of each season, like around February when things are slow and people aren’t quite thinking about it, anyone that has filled out a form on our site that’s a legit lead, they are going to get some type of notification of spring specials “get on the calendar now.”
  • From that it’s nothing to generate a few thousand dollars of business from those emails. It’s pretty important. We do that twice a year during slow times.
  • With the Sales Lion I have a list derived from the people that have downloaded the ebook. The ebook has been downloaded about 20,000 times now.
  • I have one conference that I put on a year which is very important, called “The Remarkable Growth Experience.” I also have digital marketing services for businesses that are $5,000,000 and above. So those are the two target markets that I’m going after with my list.
  • For the pools you don’t have many people, but you might have them right when there in the process of shopping. You do see that. You do have some outliers that are weird mavens and are totally into like vendors.
  • No matter what, it ain’t a long term relationship. Maybe 1% is going to continue to come back for whatever reason, but 99% it’s going to be a relationship that’s 6 weeks, maybe 6 months, whatever it takes them to make the decision (once they’ve learned about pools).
  • One thing that we do better than anybody in the world – ha, that sounded really arrogant when I said it, but it’s true – in the swimming pool industry we used to get calls that went like, “hey, I’ve been looking at your site. Could you come out to my house and give me a quote for a pool,” and I used to say, “yeah, sure Rich, I’d love to.” Basically, I didn’t know how informed you were. I didn’t know how educated you were.
  • I found out I kept going out on sales appointments and answering the same questions and I was wasting a lot of time and it was really dumb.
  • So we implemented this thing that I have named “assignment selling.” Assignment selling changed our lives and changed our business and it’s changed a lot of other businesses that have used it in their own way.
  • We found in 2012, when I was comparing two different stats for groups of people on our website, the first group of people on the River Pools site had filled out a form and was interested in a quote but they did not buy. The second group of people filled out a form, asked for a quote, and did buy. So, both filled out forms one didn’t buy and one bought.
  • As I was looking at these two groups one number just jumped out at me and that was the number 30. That number 30 fell under the group that had bought and that number represented the total number of pages that they had viewed.
  • What we found was that if somebody had read 30 or more pages of our website before we went on the initial sales appointment they would buy 80% of the time. The average in the industry is about a 15% closing ratio per appointment. So, if we got them to 30 pages or more, we were golden.
  • This is when we changed the entire way that we sold and we called it assignment selling.
  • So, you’d call me and say, “hey, Marcus could you come out to my house Friday?” and I would say,”Rich, I’d love to come out to your house, but here’s the thing. You’re getting ready to spend a lot of money and because you are you don’t want to make any mistakes – this is a one shot deal – and I don’t want you to make any mistakes. So to make sure you don’t make mistakes, I’m going to make sure you’re educated. To educate you, this is what I’m going to do. As we’re talking on the phone I’m going to send you an email that includes two main things – it’s going to have a link to a video that shows you the whole process of how a pool is installed in your backyard. You’re not going to have to ask me about it because you’re going to see the whole process for yourself. The second thing I’m going to include here is an ebook guide that will answer all your questions like, ‘should I get a cover for my pool? What type of cover is the best? Should I get a heater? Should I get a gas or electric heater?’ It’s going to answer all those types of questions. It’s about 30 pages long, but I promise it’ll be worth your time. Would you do those things before I come out to your house?”
  • 90% of the time the person on the other end says, “yes, I’d love to,” and at which point you say, “great, now Friday morning before I come out I’ll call and confirm that you took the time to do those things.” That is assignment selling and that changed our entire business.
  • Today we have a closing ratio of about 85% which is mind boggling for anyone in the swimming pool industry. We now only have to go on 120 appointments a year to sell about 90 pools whereas before we used to have to go on about 250 appointments a year to sell about 75. Do the math on that!

So these blog posts have really paid for themselves a million times over.

  • Yeah, and people say all the time, “well, if you’re industry is so competitive and SEO is really hard then all this ‘they ask you answer’ is not really gonna work, you know, Marcus?” I’m like, “that is the dumbest statement I’ve ever heard,” because until the end of the internet, people are gonna come to your website and they’re gonna expected to be fed. They’re going to have high expectations.
  • Those ones that communicate and teach the best are gonna earn the most trust. You’re still gonna have people come to your website to vet you. So, once they’re there, what is that experience like?
  • This is such a big deal in terms of insuring if they actually do take a moment – like if they’re a referral – and they come to you or they look in the phonebook and find your URL and come to you or however they come to you that’s non-SEO, social, they come to you.
  • Are they gonna fall in love you when they’re at your site? Or are they going to say, “this person is just like everyone else. They’re just schlepping their stuff. They don’t care about my problems and solving them.”
  • That’s why this content is so very very important. I’m glad you point that out because I just can’t stand it when people say, “this strategy doesn’t work long term.” Really?
  • If someone says, “do you think blogging will work in 10 years?” What I want them to say is, “do you think communication and great teaching will be important for businesses in 10 years?”

Juicy Links:

Rich Brooks
Swimming in Pools of Leads

  • This was amazing. I’ve actually heard Marcus Speak a couple of times at our INBOUND conference, and have known him for years and I *still* learned a bunch.

    Thanks!

    • Dharmesh,

      He’s a pretty dynamic guy who speaks from experience, which makes what he says all the more impactful.

      Of course, I’ve seen you present, too, and you deliver some great, thought-provoking ideas, too!

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment. 🙂

  • Two things I’m going to have my organization do immediately is: build out a learning center with text posts and videos; and implement an assignment learning plan before we go out on appointments. Great information… see you at your conference.

    • Brandon,

      You’re already doing such a kick-ass job. And yes…looking forward to seeing you in Portland for The Agents of Change!