Several years ago I became frustrated with the label of ‘blogger’.
I was frustrated because I felt the skills a person develops by writing a successful blog are really ‘Content Marketing’ skills. Not only that, you learn ‘Search Engine Optimization’ (SEO) and ‘Copywriting’ skills too.
You learn how tell stories to engage people and build trust, reach people through organic (free) traffic from Google and learn how to write words that sell.
This is an incredibly powerful set of skills, yet many people see ‘blogging’ as old or boring or only for writers.
No Online Business Succeeds Without Content
This may be stating the obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that you can’t build an online business without content.
You need content for your website, your emails, your paid media, your social media, your press coverage – everything is content online.
If you don’t either learn content skills yourself, or hire content specialists to help, you’re never going to reach any people or convince them to buy what you sell.
This is why I am so grateful that back in the mid 2000s I got into blogging. I learned so many amazing skills that today I can apply to any kind of business.
I say this not just hypothetically either. My agency, InboxDone.com, is a 7-figure business. We would have zero customers if we didn’t focus on content.
Using Content To Grow A Business That’s Not About You
As many influencer style content creators eventually find out, it’s tiring building a business based entirely on their own personal brand, trying to survive on ads and brand deals.
It’s also tiring as a solo-freelancer, working for clients, but realizing you can only grow so far before you hit a wall (not enough hours in your day) or burn out.
This is why often the idea of starting a business with a team running it becomes an important next step for both influencer creators and freelancers.
I was lucky in some ways, I got into content marketing first as an agency owner back in the early 2000s. I learned about SEO and copywriting building my agency website, BetterEdit.com, which sold essay editing services (I exited the business in 2007).
Later I started a personal brand business somewhat unintentionally, because I began publishing to a blog, podcast and email newsletter. Clearly since you are here reading this you know I haven’t stopped writing my own content.
That being said, in the mid-2010s I wanted to go back to having a business that was not about me, that didn’t need me to be the face, to teach and always be ‘out there’.
That’s why I started another agency, InboxDone.com.
Agencies are great businesses for content creators to start because you already have an audience to get your first customers from, and even better for freelancers since you already sell services to clients.
The 5 Content Tactics We Used To Grow A 7-Figure Agency
I’m going to break down five content marketing tactics that worked for us to bring in meaningful results. By meaningful I mean they resulted in new customers signing up for our services and this continued over time. However, don’t assume these same techniques will work for you.
Every business is different. Every industry is different. We also experimented with Twitter Ads, LinkedIn Ads, Outbound Email and many other marketing tactics and none of them brought in meaningful results, some zero results. These methods may work for your business, you have to test for yourself.
We have a philosophy of running small experiments and doubling down when things work, stopping quickly when they don’t. We also like compounding, so if one marketing method can positively impact another, that’s worth continuing.
None of these tactics succeed without getting the fundamentals of your business right, and even then they won’t necessarily work.
Knowing what you sell, who you sell it to, decision making factors, customer motivations and the competitive landscape all matter.
I won’t break down how I decided to focus on email management as a service for my agency, but you can learn a lot more in this InboxDone foundation story blog post I wrote.
These foundational elements get further refined as you go, especially as you begin to sell your agency services. Even just to determine if you have a business idea that could work requires you use content marketing. You can’t escape it.
Here’s how we started and grew our agency to 7-figures using content:
1. Email Newsletter
Tapping into my existing newsletter from my blogging business was step one to get our first customers. Without this, we would never have been able to test the idea for my agency.
Growing a newsletter means you have to learn how to write emails that are entertaining (storytelling), educational, conduct research to find relevant data, and use copywriting to sell.
Newsletters are often a next-step channel for a content business. You reach people with YouTube, a podcast, social media, paid ads, blogging, etc and then funnel as much of that traffic as you can on to your newsletter.
Once you have a newsletter, it’s a powerful resource. During the first two years of growing our agency, we continued to go back to my newsletter initially to bring in new customers and later to hire people on to our team.
Although we don’t use my newsletter for the agency anymore, we’ve just started building our own company newsletter (long overdue!). We’re also looking into tapping into other newsletters as a growth channel.
2. Website Content (Sales + Organic Search Traffic)
Typically this is step one for a new agency. With no website you have no place to send potential customers to.
I got away with just using my email newsletter as a starting point on the strength of my existing relationships with my audience to get our first customers. We built the website later. I did this because I wanted to save money and not build something until I knew the agency had a little traction. You may able to do this too if you have an existing audience, or you may need to start with at least some kind of landing page to send people to.
An agency website is a focal point for success. The copy — words you use — and other media including images, video and the overall layout determine how people perceive what you do.
Your main selling points are on your website. Your differentiation, social proof, trust building elements, sales triggers and the basics like service deliverables, pricing and contact methods are all there.
These core elements are critical, yet on their own they don’t bring in customers. They convert visitors into customers, but with no one visiting, you won’t get customers.
Your website becomes a marketing tool when you work on SEO. Publishing articles targeting the right keywords, along with videos ideally, and building incoming links over time, will lead your content to appear in search engines.
Agencies are especially great businesses for SEO because when you sell niche services, you can go after niche keywords that are not as competitive to rank for. A lot depends on what niche you decide to focus on, but as I mentioned before, the competitive landscape matters, especially when it comes to ranking in Google.
My agency focused on SEO from the day we built the website, and still continues today. At first it was just me writing our key pages and generating ‘easy’ backlinks, for example links from my blog to my agency website. I did this more than once, writing articles about my agency and referencing it in blog articles when relevant (just as I am doing now in this article).
This helped us to at least appear in the first few pages of Google for our targeted keywords. From there we had to build up more links to increase authority, and create more niche content to go after more keyword phrases related to the services we offered.
I won’t break down this entire strategy here. What’s important to know is the process of creating content and building links is not quick and takes quite a lot of effort to produce the necessary articles. I like this though, because it means most people won’t bother to do it. Effort is a competitive advantage.
One question you might be wondering is how we continued to build incoming links to help with SEO. One of the main tools we used was Podcasts…
3. Podcast Marketing
As our company grew, we started to have a little bit of cash available for marketing. I was excited because up to this point every marketing process was completed entirely by me. That’s not what I wanted long term, but I knew at the start it had to be that way to keep our costs down (bootstrapping!).
I appeared on a few podcasts during our first year of operations, tapping into relationships I had with existing podcast hosts. Most of these interviews did not lead to customers for our agency, but every now and then I’d get a chance to talk on a show with a larger audience (for example – Entrepreneurs On Fire) which sent a customer or two our way.
Despite most of the podcasts not resulting in new customer signups, I was happy to do them because it created awareness for our business and added additional backlinks to help with SEO (compound marketing!).
Once we had a small marketing budget, my co-founder and I discussed options to spend it. We decided to bring on a podcast guesting agency to approach shows for us so we could do regular appearances, hopefully bringing in clients and increasing our search engine authority with backlinks. It was the two-for-one benefit that made me think it was the best choice, especially as we needed to build our search authority over time.
I did a few calls with different agencies and we eventually settled on Podcast Connections. We signed up for a subscription and I a few weeks later I began confirming appearances on podcasts.
Podcasting is a multi-faceted content marketing tactic. You confirm a booking, you record the interview and then the show is published weeks or months later. Sometimes when a show drops you instantly get interest from potential new clients. On several occasions even the show hosts who interviewed me became our customer.
While it’s impossible to know exact results when it came to SEO from link building, given our search rankings slowly improved over time, I believe the podcast links helped. It wasn’t the only factor, as I also built links using other sources, but podcast appearances really help with consistency, even if they aren’t usually the most authoritative links.
Let’s not forget that appearing on a podcast is creating content. You get to talk about what you do. It’s an opportunity to practice your storytelling about your business, to sell using your words, and to experiment with different ways to explain what your business does.
This regular practice of interviews helped me to refine our messaging, leading to changes to our website copy, and later, helping with the copy for our Google Paid Ads…
4. Google Paid Ads
We didn’t start Google Paid Ads until year three of our business. Our budget was small. We were investing in podcasting and our internal team was growing, thus much of our free cash went to existing operations and marketing.
We’d already done some very small paid ad experiments with Twitter and LinkedIn Ads, both of which returned no significant results, so we stopped.
For the Google Ads experiment I had $500 to play with. I was more confident about Google than Twitter and LinkedIn because I’d already seen results from organic Google traffic, and thus had ideas about what keywords to run ads to.
I should have started paid ads with Google first, but for some reason I felt less intimidated by Twitter and LinkedIn so tested them first (it helped that I had some free LinkedIn Ad credits too).
Google Ads don’t require much content. Small simple ad boxes with a headline and short description area are all that is required.
With not much space, you have to use your copywriting skills and knowledge of your target customer to come up with effective copy. I had three years of actively running marketing for our agency I could draw upon, but of course until you test, you never really know what works.
As it turned out, coming up with copy and keywords was easy. Figuring out which keywords brought in relevant traffic was much harder.
With a small monthly budget, I had to settle in for a slow testing process. Each week I’d check in, see where the clicks were coming from, and then slowly begin what would end up take a year to really figure out — eliminating the wrong keywords.
The problem was that we were paying for clicks to go to keywords that didn’t bring the right visitor. Some of these were easy to spot – for example there is a furniture company called ‘Inbox Zero’, which is clearly not the same as Inbox Zero as it pertains to an empty email inbox. By placing negative keywords for words like ‘desk’ and ‘chair’ I could take care of this problem.
Other misaligned keywords were harder to spot. For example, determining which searches are people looking for an email management tool that is software, which we are not (we’re an agency with human email assistants), versus looking for a virtual assistant to help with email.
There are many more examples like this that I slowly figured out over months. It took a long time because I’d have to make changes, then come back a few weeks later to see the impact once there was more data. We’re still working on improving accuracy today, but at least I can say thanks to a year or so of work, we started to get clicks that led to customers.
5. Compounding (The Marketing Flywheel)
I could review other sources of traffic we used to get customers. From referrals to organic social media like Facebook, to existing clients roping in their co-founders or other teammates into our services — there have been many surprising and not surprising ways we’ve attracted new clients.
However, I think the one best answer I can give that actually led to a 7-figure agency is compounding over time.
As our company grew, we could devote more internal resources to improving our SEO. We hired a writer and a video/slide presentation creator, so we could keep producing new articles and a video version of our best articles, which we publish to our YouTube. Google likes to see videos in content, so this helps with our rankings. YouTube search becomes a traffic source too.
With growth comes more money to spend on ads, so we incrementally increased our ad budget. This not only helps with the obvious – more clicks on our ads – but the learning time shrinks, as we can get much more data in a shorter period of time with more money to spend. We recently hired a consultant who has taken over ad management from me to improve our tracking and conversion.
The more people you reach (general awareness) and the more clients you have, the more referrals you attract. This is why most successful service businesses eventually point to referrals as one of, if not their most reliable source of new clients. It’s still not our largest source of new clients, but it sure is a nice feeling when someone shows up out of the blue ready to buy from you.
Podcasts, which today often include video versions published to YouTube, compound as well, with more episodes out there for people to discover. We’ve had several people sign up as customers after listening to interviews I did on shows that were published many months prior. You never know who is listening to all that audio content you created over the years.
You add all these things up and your marketing flywheel starts to spin faster, and as a flywheel should — carries momentum.
Content Marketing Over Time
It’s easy for me to write an article like this after more than five years growing our agency. The truth is that for many years, especially the early ones, I felt frustrated to the point that I lost motivation many times.
We didn’t have positive signs every week. Some days you lose clients. You spend money on marketing and nothing comes from it. You have growing pains internally as you work to build systems and hire a team. You have to deal with the fact that an agency is a human-being powered business, which means you have a lot of very human problems to deal with. This is not software you are selling!
While I’ve listed content marketing tactics, there are other elements that played a critical part in our growth. Our service got better because our hiring systems and training got better. We implemented some big changes, like assigning two assistants to every client from day one. We changed pricing structure several times. We completely overhauled our website.
I could go on and on. It was not a simple process. Growth was not a straight line.
Making the choice to keep experimenting and keep improving, even in the face of no improvement or even negative events, is the key.
You have to believe you have something of value that people will benefit from. Then you need to figure out how to sell it and make decisions with actual data from testing.
Content has been vital throughout this entire process. It’s how we got our first test clients and how we still get clients today.
I spent many years calling myself a blogger and promoting the lifestyle of earning a living from your content. Today I still blog and use the same content marketing skills (plus some new ones!), yet I am simply one function in a business that does what it does with or without me.
If you don’t have content marketing skills you should start learning them — at least one key discipline like SEO or Podcasting or copywriting. If you already have an audience as an influencer or creator, or you already have services you sell as a freelancer, consider expanding by growing an agency. Ultimately it can be a business that will one day run independently of you.
I teach many of these topics, including how to launch a services agency, inside the Laptop Lifestyle Academy. One lifetime membership fee gets you access to all my training and you can ask me questions directly whenever you want to.
Good luck with your content!