Copy Weekly

#18. How Benyamin Elias Uses Data to Obtain Buy-In and Scale His Content Team

Brad Smith
February 11, 2020
53 minutes

In this episode, Brad and Ben discuss how Ben’s use of data has helped him obtain buy-in needed to grow his team, important metrics for optimizing content, streamlining communication among a large team, and more.

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With a background in academic psychology and a love for research, Benyamin Elias never pictured himself delving into the world of marketing. Yet he now serves as the Content Marketing Lead at Active Campaign, a customer experience automation platform. Since his start at Active Campaign, Benyamin has scaled the content team, overseeing explosive growth and spearheading data-backed campaign strategies. 

Ben utilizes his data analysis skills and knowledge of psychology as he leads a growing content team.

In this Copy Weekly episode, Brad and Ben discuss how Ben’s use of data has helped him obtain buy-in needed to grow his team, important metrics for optimizing content, streamlining communication among a large team, and more.

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Brad: (00:00)

Benyamin, Thanks for joining us today. Could you give us a quick intro for everyone out there who may not know you by name?

Ben: (00:16)

Absolutely. And it is a kind of funny name, so I’d be surprised. Uh, I’m Benyamin. That’s with a y instead of j and I am the content marketing lead at Active Campaign. So how did I kind of get in here? I actually started my content marketing career in, uh, in academic psychology, which is what I thought I was going to do. I thought I was going to go to grad school and then become a professor and then never leave college. But then it turned out that I don’t incredibly love doing research. I like reading about research and I like reading about psychology and I was looking for fields that use that but were more applied. So without any experience marketing, I hopped in to, you know, it’s the way that people often hop in, internships, uh, all of that stuff. I wound up at an agency and then after a few years in the field, I came here to Active Campaign. Active Campaign is a customer experience automation platform. So we combine things like marketing automation, sales and service support into a single platform where you can use all of that data to personalize, automate, segment and orchestrate customer experiences. And since I came to Active Campaign a little over two years ago, we have really, we have really scaled, we’ve gone from 200 to 600 people. Our content marketing program has gone from more or less just me to a team that now has eight people on it. And we are, we are running.

Brad: (01:37)

Perfect. So let’s, let’s dig in a little bit. I think the marketing space initially is a good starting point because uh, it kind of doesn’t matter like what you do or where you come from or what you specialize in. It kind of matters more of just like, can you get shit done? Especially like starting an agency I think is a good, a good thing for that. Cause I know from experience that the agency world is all about just like can you get things done quickly and is it pretty good? Is it like an eight out of 10 and can you make it better? But, but can you get it done and delivered on time? So, um, what was that like when you first joined the agency before Active Campaign? Were you still doing content? Were you doing like dabbling and a little bit of everything? What did your, what does your role look like?

Ben: (02:16)

Yeah, so it was really fortunate when I first joined because it was an integrated marketing agency. So we did all of the various inquiries of marketing and I got to have my hands just in everything to a degree. I did join more on the content side of things, but at the beginning that was just, you can write and not everyone can write. And we need someone who can write right now. So here you are. I didn’t even necessarily think of writing as one of my core skillsets, right? In the psychology world. It wasn’t the thing that people talked about as much. It was, can you do this data analysis? Can you design this experiment? Can you read all of these papers and format them in style? Uh, you know, that kind of stuff. Uh, but I hopped into the agency and it’s very much what you were talking about, right?

Ben: (03:02)

Like you are trying to do things super quickly and if you can do things super quickly and you free up time to jump in on other projects. And that’s a lot of how I approached that early on. It’s like, okay, you have these, the first major project was like, you have these 2000 product pages to optimize for a large a life sciences company. And I mean not right away like that. Like they were batched out, but like, yeah, you just have to do a lot of this and this is what you’re spending most of your time doing. But if I could hit the number quickly enough, I could go do some PR, I could go get into some print media, which was wild and very interesting. Uh, I can get involved in all of these other areas and really take up a lot of that experience also.

Brad: (03:49)

Yeah, I think, I think it dovetails well with probably life in a startup when you’re on your own initially. Is that like, Uh, to me getting things done quickly, it should be a good thing. It should be a good sign of someone who knows what they’re doing. So not that, not that they’re rushing or like doing low quality or anything like that, but they need to be able to like juggle a certain amount of volume, push the pace a little bit and get things done quickly. If a blog post takes them 12 hours like they’re probably not gonna be a good fit at an agency or a startup.

Ben: (04:21)

Yeah. There was the other side of it also, which was very early and I’ve sort of always had this philosophy even going through school, investing in things that make you faster. So for a 2000 product page, uh, project that would be like, okay, the product pages are not that different. Like you’re going to create some templates that get you into this. And that’s not an incredibly controversial approach, I don’t think. But for a range of other projects really, like the better you get at all of this, the more practice you do and the more deliberate practice you do. The less onerous any given task is. That’s both from a speed perspective and also for like how much it weighs on you mentally perspective. It’s like, no, I’ve done this a thousand times. I know that I can do it again. Uh, and there were a few things I did really early on that I think contributed to that in a big way.

Brad: (05:13)

For sure. I mean content, even though it’s subjective, it’s no different like you still come up with, with templates, you still use hooks, you still use like, you know, like five angles that you stick to every single time you produce something new. Like there are certain types of processes and the way you organize a team, for example, which we’ll get to in a minute, um, that you can still kind of produce stuff like widgets in a factory to a degree. Um, and you should still be able to kind of marry both, like the consistency that these things give you, that this like systematic approach gives you, uh, with, you know, the upper level of quality that you’re trying to hit. That’s actually gonna make a difference.

Ben: (05:48)

Yeah. We’re really getting towards the, the thing that I love talking about, which is how to like practice and improve and get better at this whole industry I think a lot of the time, you know, coming from my psychology background, of course, I had heard of things like deliberate practice, all the work that Erickson has done in that space people will talk about the 10,000 hours thing even though that’s not the most accurate. Uh, but the idea that like you can improve at something in a deliberate way is something they don’t always see applied in marketing and business because my 2 cents is like, okay, if I’m wanting to play the violin, right. That is like a very narrow domain-specific thing and I can say like, here’s the arpeggio, here are the double stops. Here’s those. I’m saying violin things like I play the violin but I don’t.

Brad: (06:32)

You fooled me. I thought you really- I thought this was real.

Ben: (06:33)

Yeah. Well, those are real, but I don’t know any of the other ones because that’s such a specific domain. There’s like clear, like, okay, here are the things I need to get better at. And I think people don’t always approach marketing and business in the same way, but you can. Uh, so like trying to think of the very early examples, like right when I first started, so a few months into starting, I started my own like side project site which we can get to in a little bit. Uh, but right when I started, the first thing I did was like, okay, well I think of this in three ways. One, who is the best at this and who should I learn from? Two, how can I get specific practice on this? And then three, how do we get feedback on that practice?

Ben: (07:28)

Uh, so the first was like, okay, who’s the best at this? Well, uh, I wound up early on, I think this is actually how we met and I think he’s a past guest the podcast also. I ended up early on connecting with Andy Crestodina and he was enormously generous and very helpful and answered a lot of very stupid questions that I had. Uh, and I got to go to his content uh, conference and learned a lot there and just, you know, gradually through exposure there, uh, got to, you know, just put some of his brain into my brain. Um, what was great about that also is like, he knows everyone and as soon as you sort of get that first introduction, he can point you in the direction of the right people to talk to or the right people to follow and listen to.

Ben: (08:11)

That was the first thing. The second one, uh, the, the other bit that I did is like, I’m a huge reader, uh, like if I have not read a book this week, it’s a slow week and it’s usually more than that and there’s so much out there as it relates to copywriting, right? Tons of resources. It’s sort of, ironically, there’s not a single one that I would recommend for someone to get started. You kind of do have to read all of them, but, uh, I just dived into that right away and learn from those best-in-class people. Then you talk about practice. Okay, how do you practice? There were a few ways. The first one was I took on some freelance work, which also has the benefit of getting you feedback and took on freelance work in a way where it was, okay, what do I, what am I trying to specifically improve that I want to specifically improve at onboarding people into an uh, an info course after they sign up, what that copy looks like and how I direct people.

Ben: (09:15)

I want to specifically work on the front half of that maybe and launching the course. I want to work on the landing pages. All of these other types of things and hunting down the project so that you can get the experience you want in that way. Sometimes it was just like, let me go find some stuff and rewrite it. And there were some very bad things that I made slightly less bad in the course of doing that. Um, one of the copywriters I like to follow, Justin Blackman did his, his headline project where he wrote a hundred headlines a day for a hundred days, which is many headlines for such a long time. And he wrote up this story about it for copy hackers and what he learned and the templates and how he deviated from them and all that stuff. I was like, that’s super smart. I should just do that. Uh, I did it for 30 days. Not 100 days, but, but looking again for projects like that, to just dive into a specific thing that you want to improve and really like dig like start from what people recommend and the theory and stuff, but then start playing with it yourself and getting that volume and really quickly, uh, so that you can move faster.

Brad: (10:26)

Yeah, I think that’s great. I think for leaving agencies and going, starting with what your role looked like initially at Active Campaign. I think one of the things that agencies give you is, uh, a lot of experience in a very short amount of time. And the experience is just pattern matching. So, it’s just seeing all the connections happen before they actually happen. And that doesn’t, it’s really difficult to replicate that unless you do agency or freelance work where you’ve had, you know, a hundred clients over the course of a couple of years. Um, if you just work with one role in one company, like I think it seems to be, it’s pretty rare that like a Saas marketer at some company joins an agency, it almost never works like that. Right. Uh, and part of the reason I think anyway is cause like, you know, it’s really easy to do like marketing for HubSpot. Like at this point you’re just, you just jump in and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s going to be successful. Versus if you try doing that at like a hundred different companies of varying budgets, you really have to like dig in and sharpen your saw and get really, really, really good. Otherwise, you really don’t kind of stand a chance. And so going from that environment to a much bigger play, uh, always seems to work pretty well.

Ben: (11:33)

Yeah. I think you also see there are different skillsets of like there’s the skill set of, I have looked at a hundred Google analytics accounts, right? And I’ve seen what people tend to get wrong, how they totally mess up their UTM parameters, which they always do. Uh, and like I, I’ve seen it before across all of these different industries and in the companies and all that stuff versus like I am now managing one Google Analytics account. I don’t need to use most of the stuff that I learned in that environment. And I also have to do a lot more of like internal selling and working on that kind of stuff. Then you have to do in the agency environment. So it’s tough. I think to go from my career capital is my ability and influence internally to get things done to I am now consulting on so much other. And it happens and there’s usefulness there also. But to that point, yeah, I really agree with you there.

Brad: (12:25)

Okay. So jumping into Active Campaign now you start with, I have like 200 people, I think you said. We talked a little bit before recording about how today it’s not good enough to just like do quality or quantity, like if both get to do everything well, but you have to also do it at scale and you have to also produce a lot. Um, you can’t do that by yourself though. So what does it look like when you first joined Active Campaign? Uh, I’m assuming you’re like, I don’t know if your title was the same there, but you’re, you’re at the time, but you’re the still like the lone content person. What does that, what does that look like trying to get buy in to get the resources, the people, the other things kind of around you and you need to like actually grow the stuff.

Ben: (13:02)

Yeah, totally. So the very, my very first day at Active Campaign, the person who was going to be my boss and lead content and marketing submitted his two weeks resignation so uh, it was, it was an interesting beginning to say the least. Uh, yeah. From there, I had the benefit of having a decent amount of freedom in the way that I executed my work. So a lot of the skillset that came from agencies and from all of that other practice was useful because if I could execute what was required of me quickly, I could do more than what was required of me in the way that I knew would really get the results we needed. So early on, we were really looking at just number of pieces, which is not my preferred way of operating but was the way that we operated at the time. And we’ve since shifted away from that.

Ben: (14:00)

In that context, you have to deliver the number of pieces. It’s what had been sort of happening before I arrived. Although the work was spread across a number of people who were not content marketers. I needed to make sure that we could get results. Right. I knew that if I could demonstrate the results of this work, uh, to an agreed-upon metric, we would be able to yeah. More buy-in or I could expand it to other areas, but I needed to have something that I could point to explicitly as like, Hey, that one, I did that one right. Early on, that just meant really fighting for what I would be measured on. And then, uh, making sure that I was setting myself up to succeed towards that measure. So early, early on, again, I really was like, okay, we need more traffic here, right? Like we can measure to trial.

Ben: (14:55)

I don’t think that makes the most sense for where Active Campaign is at as a business. And I still don’t think it makes the most sense for that today. Although we will track it and we’ll understand it and we’ll use it in our, um, in our arguments to hire more people. Uh, but we at the time had 8,000 monthly visitors from search. A little higher than that if you take other channels, but search is the lion’s share always. And that was just not to par with where we were at as a business. And we really needed to scale that up quickly today, last month, it was like 127,000. Right? So we really, we did scale that up successfully. To make that happen.

Ben: (15:36)

It really required a lot of that deliberate practice from earlier. And I, I can harp on this too much, so stop me if I start doing it. But I had to go in and say, okay, here’s where we’re at with our domain. Here’s where we’re at with the type of content we produced previously. Is there stuff we can repurpose? All of the standard stuff that content marketers talk about. Um, but I really benefited from while I was at the agency, I, I would have time after doing my product pages and I would go read Google patents, right? And I’d be like, okay, well here’s how Google approaches their context vectors to understand how words are related. And then when I understand that, I can understand like, here’s how I create an SEO program, a content SEO program, not a technical one, which is not where my expertise is, but a content SEO program that is not going to get dinged every time there is a core algorithm update, which we tend to benefit from them because we speak in the way that Google understands people.

Ben: (16:33)

will talk about ranking factors and it’s like a weird way to think about it. Uh, it’s more like how does, how do machines learn? Like how does a literal machine learning algorithm work? And I feel like that’s a better way to understand SEO. That’s a little bit off-topic. But again, with that knowledge, one, I can then say to someone who has an argument about SEO, it’s like, well, actually here’s a Google views content. Well, actually. Um, no more, more gracefully than that, but, uh, I can say like, okay, here’s where I’m coming from, from what this, I’ve read these Google patents. This is how Google approaches these things. Uh, and the thing that you’re saying is not correct. Uh, but I get to make the argument from this place where it’s very difficult to argue with. And you can argue totally validly that SEO is not the most important channel for this content.

Ben: (17:23)

Or you could argue that we have another goal here or it supports this other team or it’s important to this partnership. And we’ve moved more and more in that direction as the needs of the business change. But a lot of my, like if I were to give advice, I do give this advice to my team, but if I were to give advice to people on how they sell their work, it’s like if you come with this, all of this data, uh, and all of this information, it’s very difficult to argue against. So I would back that out just a moment. We recently published a case study of how we built this it’s from 8,000 monthly visitors to at the time 119,000 monthly visitors. I could campaign.com/blog/how to grow your blog. And, uh, if you look at that, you see a lot of the same research that was in my initial pitch to scale the team.

Ben: (18:12)

So you see things like, I knew I was going to get questions about how long the content was. So there’s a bunch of stuff about rankings and links and engagement and all of the things that length is related to. I knew I was going to get stuff about, uh, search and organic. So there’s a bunch of stuff about, okay, well Google refers, I think it’s 57.89- It depends on the study- percent of all internet traffic is like, it’s just where most of the people are, you know? And if I had never advocated to get into the room with that whole case and lay that whole case out at the same time, I don’t think that we would have been able to scale the team and the way that we did. It was a long answer to your question, but

Brad: (18:55)

No, no, I think it’s, I think it’s, it’s beneficial. You have to understand the context before you can just like uh, jump into tactics if that makes sense. Cause I feel like especially even like where you, when you brought up ranking factors, it’s like any tactic, any factor and you can optimize for any ranking factor, any tactic works. The degree to which they work is very different though. And it all depends on the context of the problem or the situation or the scenario or the organization in this case. So what, what does it look like when you first join and you first try to get some tangible results going and it sounds like you were focused a little more on uh, top of the funnel traffic leading indicator that type of data. What does it look like? Are you, are you looking for low hanging fruit? Are you looking for pages you can redo first before new stuff?

Brad: (19:35)

Is it a combination? Is it, is it more so on the promotion and link side? Like, where, where did you initially focus your efforts to be able to show some momentum to be able to come in now and then argue for a, you know, a bigger budget essentially?

Ben: (19:50)

Yeah. A lot of that is so at a simple level, a lot of this is covered in that post that I referenced earlier at a sort of a simple level we were targeting medium competitive phrases with long-form content, but we really, I would say like what made us successful at that is we just did it better in a lot of ways. And the way that we did it better is related to the understanding of this Google patents. So if we look at how Google understands content, it’s not keywords anymore, right? It’s like this whole topic.

Ben: (20:25)

So Google expects something about, I should have prepared an example, a Google expect something about multitouch attribution. If you’re going to write about that to include things, uh, related to statistics or data or like all these other phrases that don’t have attribution anywhere in them in the way that a keyword tool will give you but still is relevant to that topic appears on other pages on that topic across the internet. And that’s all that Google has is a data set, right? Is the pages on the internet. So the first thing is that we really would go after like double down on this semantic optimization, which I know Andy also is a big fan of if you talked to him. And the other side of that is the searcher intent, which is so underrated and you pick a keyword and you Google the keyword and the key, the stuff that comes up is all like eight email automation ideas.

Ben: (21:27)

It’s never that exactly, but six, four, 12, right? It’s all stuff in that range. You, Google a different phrase like bedroom decorations and it’s like 133 inspiration, right? All that, uh, you Google something like, I mean, how to grow your blog and then you get long-form guides but like step by step guide right. So you look at all this stuff and you see like these are all the 10 links on this page are the same or eight of them are the same. And one of them is like a dentist who somehow this what then we had that on a one-word segmentation was it’s like some dental, medical imaging term. Uh, but for the most part you’ll come across a SERP that has a relatively clear intent and by intent, it’s both. What is the topic that this is about? And then also what’s the format of that content?

Ben: (22:16)

And if your content isn’t in that format, it’s just not going to rank, right? You’ve got 10 things there. Google is literally telling you what it puts on the front page and why would you ignore it. But so often people do ignore that step. In fact, uh, I ignored that step in one post that I wrote about abandoned cart emails where I think the original thing, it was like something that I wrote very quickly and neglected this crucial step. Uh, it was something to the effect of like why do people abandon carts and how to get them back. Like that’s what I was writing from the angle of. And then once we had a full team, like a year later I had one of them rewrite it to like 12 abandoned cart examples that you can use. And then it got the featured snippet for I think both abandoned cart emails and abandoned cart.

Ben: (23:03)

Right. Which is wild. I might’ve lost one of them by now, but like just shifting the intent changed all of that. So when we look at what our approach was, we didn’t look at refreshing old content a lot. Uh, my perspective on that is that it can make a lot of sense if you have a few cornerstone pieces of content that are already bringing that have historically brought in a ton of traffic and then you expect the size of the increase to be pretty big. But for us where we were really building the program more from scratch, we, the size of the opportunity was larger if we created new stuff, then if we optimize old stuff, which is how I would think about that always.

Brad: (23:46)

Yeah, definitely. So I have two quick tactical questions on both of those. One, when you’re focusing primarily on blog content like this, maybe it’s different now than it was two years ago, but, uh, are you, are you doing anything with site architecture and internal linking? That’s my first question. Alluding to like,

Brad: (23:58)

It’s a little more challenging or difficult to do, like the classic kind of pillar cluster subtopics subpages, uh, on a classic blog. Just, it’s not, it’s not impossible. It’s just a little different than organizing it like in a clear hierarchy. Second question is, uh, page intents search intent. Are you using any tools like common ones like Clearscope, surfer, market views?

Ben: (24:21)

I’ll answer the second one first cause it’s super simple. I mean it’s just pretty much no, uh, mostly I just train the team to look at SERPs. Yeah. I don’t think any of the tools are a good substitute for looking at SERPs right now if I am not as up to date on that as I think I am. Uh, I would love to scale that more easily and not have to look at search all the time. But I don’t think there’s a substitute right now. We do use Moz, but you know, in the limited capacity that we think it’s useful to use Moz. Uh, the other question, so we have tended to batch our topics and this ties into some of the evolution of the team also, uh, based on the needs of the organization.

Ben: (25:06)

We have had at times, I mean certainly when I came in, but then for a while after that we were missing a lot of stuff about CRMs and we have CRM, right? Or, uh, we were launching an Unbounce integration and we didn’t have anything about landing pages. It’s like, well that’s a perfectly reasonable topic for us to write about for the blog because their audience cares about that stuff. We can just shift our content publishing calendar to landing pages to coincide with the launch of this integration. So when we’re thinking about internal linking, um, one, all of the stuff that we produce around a topic at a given time will be linked to each other. Uh, and then two, we’ll do a simple site search like site:active campaign.com/blog keyword search and make sure that pages are linked. It’s not been an enormous focus for us.

Ben: (25:59)

We do have an in house SEO manager who will tell us if that ever changes. Um, yeah, he does more of the monitoring there. It’s sort of again is like if we think about opportunity size, if I’m a really small organization and I’m a solo content marketer at one, at an organization like that one, I probably am not internal linking across hundreds of blog posts. So it’s less of a drain and to the performance of individual blog posts is much more important to me. Whereas for us it’s less that the individual blog post performs really well. Although of course we try to give them every to but more than our overall portfolio of blog posts, borrow some investing languages, uh, it is improving over time in the way that we want it to. 

Brad: (26:55)

 Got it. Okay. So now you’ve been able to like make your case, prove your case, you’re going to get a commitment for bigger resources.

Brad: (27:04)

Uh, fast-forwarding more to today, like what does your team look like currently and then what was the evolution? So like who’s kind of brought on first and why, if that makes sense.

Ben: (27:13)

Yeah, totally. So the very first person we brought on was a content specialist to report to me. And the, the reason for that is that oh boy could I not do it all anymore? Uh, she started the month after we redid our website and that whole process was like, okay, well we have scaled super quickly from like, I think it was 27 people in 2016 and this was 2018 at 250. Right. So really fast. We scaled up and the website is still outdated. It’s still built on the old system. The messaging is wrong. Like we really need to change this. Uh, so I just redid it in a month.

Ben: (27:53)

You know, I had a little eye twitch for a little bit, um, which thankfully it’s gone away. Uh, but it really was like, we need someone here to help with this. We execute for a little while. It was, um, that was like September to like January. We were executing and we were seeing improvements right to the traffic at that point in November of 2018 I think we got up to, uh, I think it was 27,000 up from like 8,000 the year before, which is decent. But still, you know, not enormous in the way that 27,000, 219,000 is. That improvement was enough for people here to be like, okay, well we’re seeing improvement. Right? Let’s talk about what we can be doing on the content side of things. And then you run into the thing that happens that I think every organization, which is I really want this piece of content.

Ben: (28:50)

We want this thing. We want that thing. Uh, we just don’t, we weren’t in a position to do that as a content team at that time, but we could have been if we had more resources. Right. So that was my, my way and it’s like, yeah, totally. You want this thing, I would love to give you this thing. Oh, that sounds so much fun to work on. You know how I could do that. Right.

Brad: (29:14)

That sounds like someone with agency experience right there. The client emails you with their latest great idea and you’re like, I would love to get to that. Unfortunately, it’s just not in this month’s budget. So if you would like to increase that budget, then I would be happy to.

Ben: (29:29)

As long as we’re talking about scope, I’d have this whole other department, right? Uh, yeah. That is probably where that comes from. I got to watch some master client relations folks and it was a lot of fun. Right. So people want things, I want to give it to people. Right. I think we all would love to be helpful where we can be helpful.

Ben: (29:52)

That was the point at which I was like, I need to actually get a pitch together, right? I need, I need the time with my boss to lay all of this out and say, okay, here’s what we’re working towards. Here’s what we’ve accomplished, here’s the approach we’re taking and why, and here’s what we really need. And again, I brought up all this practice stuff earlier because it plays in here, right? When I go into that pitch, I’m not saying like, Oh, this is what this person says about it. Or like, I think we should do it this way. I’m saying, no, this research from medium shows that seven-minute posts have the most engagement. But if you look at the chart, it’s heteroscedastic and this is like, this is higher than that. Uh, and longer posts ultimately have the highest potential. Even if there’s more variation in the range. You also get to say words like heteroscedastic, which is the leftover from my academics, my short academic career.

Ben: (30:48)

Um, but you get to go in with that data and you get to go in with the, and here’s what this Google patent says, and you say, and Google refers 57.8% of all web traffic. And here’s how we approach creating a post that gets these kinds of results. And here are some posts that have gotten those results and here’s how long it takes to create those posts. And by the end of it, my boss said to me, I didn’t say it to him. He said it to me. Sounds like we need to hire more people. Right? Uh, and a huge credit to him on that. So we hired three people within the next three months and, and ran with it from there, ran with that approach, until just recently when we have expanded a little bit more into other areas. But, and it works, right? Like I, I, because I could sit down and say, here’s all this information, here’s the exact approach we’re going to take. Here’s the result that’s gotten so far and I am 100% sure that it’s going to work if you let us do it this way. And we did it that way and it worked. So

Brad: (31:41)

yeah, I think, yeah, I think it’s a good point cause it’s, it’s focused on the process, right, not the outcome and that and that if it’s the leading indicators and if the like weekly activities, if you’re doing those correctly, then the end results should take care of itself. Might take, it might take three months, it might take nine months, it might take 15 months. Like you’re not exactly sure. Um, but as long as you’re moving in the right direction, it’s almost like running a marathon or something. You can’t just like run a marathon tomorrow, you have to like build up to that point where if you’re doing and running the long runs and doing, we’re supposed to be doing, you should easily be able to finish a marathon. Like it’s not that it’s not impossible by any stretch.

Ben: (32:23)

I had a coach who didn’t want to keep score in games and not because he didn’t think the score was important. He kept score because he had to keep score cause he’s a coach. Uh, but because it shouldn’t matter to the way we played, right, the way we were executing, the behaviors that we have practiced in the system that we had practiced. And I think there’s actually a book, the score takes care of itself, which I was a big fan of by Bill Walsh, that is this, right? It’s like the score is a lagging indicator of something, uh, both in sports, which is again, like a very narrow domain, which is nice in some ways, but also in business where it’s like, we’ve got this result. It’s like, okay, but what went into getting that result and how can you do it again?

Ben: (33:07)

And just letting out those behaviors is what really helped us get the resources.

Brad: (33:13)

Definitely. So, so now it sounds like you’re almost a team of like four or five mostly producers or creators or at that point. And then what does it look like? Do you have other roles kind of helping assist in either on the front end, like research on the back end, like formatting and optimizing all that fun stuff and outreach?

Ben: (33:31)

yeah, so the whole team, the whole marketing team has gotten much bigger since I started. We used to fit around one table and now it would have to be a pretty big table. We, in the course of that , have brought on a number of roles that will interact with, so we have a CRO that we’ll work with on the website to do conversion rate optimization. We have an SEO manager that didn’t exist when I started.

Ben: (33:54)

Director of acquisition didn’t exist. Like all kinds of things that’s super helpful to have. On my team, we’ve expanded sort of how we think about content and people have talked about this before. I think Animals has put out a pretty good resource on like what is content marketing with like at various levels of scale. To us, blog traffic used to be the way to measure this I think and I don’t think it is anymore right now. It’s okay. We are a marketing team and we are bringing our expertise to all of the message that gets produced anywhere in this company including like the automated email that goes out after you schedule a call with our success rep, right? Uh, including all of these various places that qualify as content. And that’s more of the scope of what the team is working on now. So we are still, we’re getting blog posts, we’re soliciting them from around the organization.

Ben: (34:53)

Uh, we’re still optimizing them and because we have this expertise in this semantic optimization, I think we can still have success with that. And we still, we are having success with that still. Uh, but the team now is three people who were writers previously and now are a mix of writers and project managing a lot of this stuff. We have two video folks, both working on a lot of that video stuff we have, we’re just in the process of hiring a social media manager to, we’ve split out social and community. So there’s now a community team and then social will be on content. And uh, we have someone who manages our automation recipes, which is a unique piece, our platform that is essentially a template that you can share with someone. It’s like, Hey, I made this automation, here’s a link and you can now have this automation.

Ben: (35:46)

But also we’ve created a bunch of them that you can just import right away to really help people get moving faster. And that’s on my team as well. Uh, we brought over someone internally who was a really good project manager and was working on these like free gated tools and resources and we’ve moved them over into the content team as well. And all of this is really content is no longer the blog content is we are going to this huge event and how are we going to support that with the outbound messaging beforehand and the followup afterward and a piece of buzz-worthy content or any event, like all as the team has scaled, we’ve had to play this internal agency slash content marketer role and I think it’s really to the benefit of the company as a whole.

Brad: (36:34)

Yeah definitely. I like that a lot cause you know, it warms my heart because it’s like what marketing used to be good and should be on those companies whereas like well marketing just means like advertising today or it means like PR, right? That’s usually it. It’s like one or the other at most companies. Whereas like you said, you have content team doing social, which I think is smart because the community is more like customer service and support versus content which is like directing a narrative and they’re very different skill sets. And again those companies don’t separate those. They throw them into social and then the social department is like, people would just, no one knows that. But then there’s, uh, I think the part about building out the, and I’ve noticed that using this building out like the recipe library inside the app like it’s not just

Brad: (37:21)

top, middle, bottom of the funnel. Like yeah, that’s, that’s important. That is very important. But it’s also about like actually translating to business results, which I think it gets lost maybe a little more in again maybe looking at the differences between Saas companies, software companies, even more like service ones. And the reason I say that is because, uh, service companies need to generate a customer and then like keep working with them and like keep them happy. And the effect is felt if that person bounces or churns. Whereas in a software company, marketing just kind of like hands off all the topics and then checks out and it’s like, Oh, I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t care what, like that’s the product team’s fault or you know, they should be doing a better job on like sending more automated email followup. So all these, all these stupid tactics that are, they think are just designed to life, not let people leave, but really it’s about actually making it more valuable to the customer and ultimately that’s what makes people stick around. And that’s still a huge content play. Just like a tool is a calculator, a plugin or whatever. It’s all one thing.

Ben: (38:28)

Yeah, totally. You said something about the top, middle bottom and I think that’s a really good thing to dial in on it. I think it depends so much on the type of company that you’re marketing for. Uh, both industry but also like we at Active Campaign have 90,000 customers, right? We are a solution that is designed for any business to be able to use and have this usability and flexibility at the same time. We need to reach the number of people that grows us at the scale of 90,000 customers. Right? We can’t get a thousand trials and call it a day, even though there are some organizations that would be able to like enterprise level that would be able to run with that. We are bringing in tens of thousands of trials and we are converting a comparable number of those. Like when we think about what we need from content, it doesn’t always map super neatly to top, middle bottom of funnel.

Ben: (39:29)

And I think the, the larger the scale of an organization, the less likely it is to map neatly because you see this awareness stage is so much larger and someone can have heard of you because of some interesting marketing that you did or like we brought an ice cream truck to inbound last year, and they’re like, active is pretty cool right? Uh, right over, uh, we like they gave me ice cream and it was personalized with an iPad app. That was cool. Uh, but they’re not thinking they’re not in the market yet for a new tool. At the enterprise level, you see the much higher-touch sales cycles that also go a lot longer. Uh, and you can sort of map it into the top, middle, bottom of funnel. For us, we are doing this marketing and like yeah, there’s stuff where we’re going to directly attribute things back to revenue.

Ben: (40:18)

Our PPC campaigns are directly attributed back to revenue. We are still measuring the conversion rate on our blog posts and we’re using gated content and nurture and all the things that people typically use to make those effective and reporting on it as well. But at the same time we know that 90,000 customers we just need to reach a lot of these people and get them to remember Active Campaign and they’re going to skip right from the top of the funnel to having been aware of us to suddenly they need a thing and thought of us and then they buy from us and that’s, that’s like you were talking about it’s back to the old days of marketing and it’s super is and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s really exciting that we get to work on it.

Brad: (41:03)

Yeah, definitely. I feel like if you want to learn, like people don’t really ask me anything anymore. People used to ask me stuff about digital, even digital marketing. I said, no, like go look at marketing like from 1970s actual marketing where it was like product, price, place placement distribution. Like it was actually all these factors and it wasn’t just like, Oh churn some blog posts out and throw up some social.

Ben: (41:20)

There is a really interesting point in there about data, which I have feelings about. Uh, so you know, coming from a psychology background, but really, uh, some heavy statistics in that background as well. The way that I think that the way that marketers think about data sometimes is a little bit narrow. And as an example of this, we had a post that was optimized, I forget what it was for exactly. Something related to CRM, like our set up CRM, something like that. Right? Pretty

Ben: (41:52)

You would consider bottom of funnel, uh, only like 10 or so searches per month according to Moz. Uh, but brings in like 300 people a month. Right? It’s more than you would expect, which is again, like a decision we made on purpose based on the, uh, stuff we learned from reading Google patents. We knew writing that post that we were going to be able to capture more than 10 people a month because we knew that this is a larger searcher intent ties into a lot of problems. We’ll do this semantic optimization so it shows up in all kinds of different SERPs and we’ll get these 300 people a month, right? I talked to people about it. Someone said, Oh wow, you ignored the data and just kinda went with it. Did I? I don’t know. I ignored what Moz told me the data was

Ben: (42:37)

Uh, but on the other hand, I also read a Google patent, several of them that led me to make this decision. So I think there’s a tendency sometimes to look only at data in a sense of here’s information I have about my customer and that’s one meaning of data. And here is like how someone has paid me or converted on something and that counts as data. But there’s all of this other research that, and maybe research is a better term for it than the data that can direct your decision making in that area. We were talking about old school marketing and they, they knew a lot of this stuff through their own experimentation. But we look at AB tests today and you see a lot of the time someone will be like, well, we have this version and we have this version. Okay. But if they’re both bad, you just wound up with a slightly better one.

Ben: (43:27)

Right? But what if you have this version that testing this hypothesis based on this research and then you have this other version that’s based on this other hypothesis in this research. Building on existing knowledge is I think something that marketers today and a lot of it is not, it’s not like anyone’s fault. It’s like we’re getting measured towards this thing. So we try to optimize towards this thing, but it’s something that I think is missing from a lot of it and we could ultimately get much better results if we were looking at our work in that way.

Brad: (43:59)

Yeah, for sure. I feel like, I feel like it’s, um, a lack of like a clear priority and that stems from like not understanding the context of the situation. So I guess what I’m saying is like you read a blog post that’s like 101 link-building tactics. In reality, you should be doing like maybe two of those, but you should be doing them to death. Like you should be killing them and running them into the ground and then spending a little variation and continuing

Brad: (44:32)

to do it. And what people do is they get distracted and they do things like AB tests that are going to give you like maybe a 1% optimization. Maybe if you’re lucky versus what you’re saying, which is more like an ABM type test. I’m familiar, uh, where you’re testing, you’re, you’re testing like multiple different variations. And ultimately that’s going to give you better results. I had a bigger impact, which is a higher priority then like optimizing for the, you know, the nth degree.

Ben: (44:59)

I think there’s this idea sometimes that we can’t understand anything until we’ve tested it and there’s a degree to which, yes, you should test your things and you should look at what the results are and you should learn from your results. There’s also the degree to which it’s like, no, you know, some things, right. We’re not, we weren’t born yesterday. We understand some things about people and if you are looking at a lot of this research, you can understand more than some things and make pretty reasonable predictions about what’s going to win in a test. Uh, you should still test it. I’m not gonna argue that ever and we do test all the time, but like we can test starting from a much higher baseline because we’re testing based on this prior knowledge, like a Bayesian I guess sense of like I have this existing knowledge versus just here A versus B.

Brad: (45:44)

yeah, for sure. Um, last question. We’re coming in on time here. Uh, super quickly. When it goes from being you internally to a team of like four creators to a much bigger team of like eight to 10 to it sounds like a few dozen people all involved, like on the periphery of all this stuff. Uh, how the hell do you manage that? Like, how do you make sure that, that each department and each person is talking to each other, communicating and working. So you’re all moving in the same direction at the end of the day, especially when you grow that quickly, which is not easy to do.

Ben: (46:16)

Yeah. Ending on the small questions I can see.

Brad: (46:19)

Just in two minutes. That’s all you get.

Ben: (46:23)

All I get. So I think of this in two ways. The first is we need to open the appropriate lines of communication. And what I mean by that is have established settings for people to bring their, whatever it may be, your requests, grievances, threats, uh, hopefully not threats, but have something established here so that if someone is thinking about a thing there, they don’t have to guess what they’re going to do because they didn’t, they’re not going to tell you or they’re not just going to Slack me about it because then I have a million slacks and that’s not good for anyone either. So creating established avenues for communication that can be related to the way you run meetings. So we’ll do stand-ups as a content team, which are very fast.

Ben: (47:09)

Under 10 minutes we’ll have a weekly content team meeting, which is usually a bit longer. We have weekly marketing meetings and really thinking about how we are structuring those meetings to make sure everyone has the key information. The other way I think about it, and I think ultimately this is much more important, is how can we be more deliberate in the way we communicate with each other. Our SVP of sales, Adam Johnson likes to talk about operational excellence and this is a concept that we’re bringing, I mean it exists all over the place, but we’re really bringing it into Active Campaign. How can you create 20 more minutes of efficiency or effectiveness in a day? And it doesn’t mean working 20 more minutes. It means how can you take what you’re already doing and magnify the effects of it. So we put together as a content team, our checklist, we love checklists, templates, all that stuff.

Ben: (47:58)

Uh, really helps me to set a few are alluding to some of them earlier about the five hooks that you use. We have some similar stuff there. Uh, but our checklists, our small moments of excellence checklist, read replies in Slack, if you’re going to talk to someone about a resource in Slack include the link if you’re setting up a meeting and better have an agenda with these details on it, right? Uh, and I said that a little bit directly, but it’s more like creating this cultural expectation of communicate deliberately with all of the information that people need. Uh, if you have a disagreement, you voice it directly instead of saying like, you think this is maybe possibly the best way to go about it, or is there another way possibly. Like, no, I disagree and here’s why. Right? Uh, at the beginning of every single content meeting, every week, each person goes around and says one small moment of excellence that they personally have done that week.

Ben: (48:51)

And the idea with that, and it’s really been paying off, uh, because everyone’s read their Slack replies. And that was a huge step. Uh, but the idea with that is really, I want us thinking about this, right? I want to us like when, when you say, Oh, I need this thing from you, it’s like, well, I don’t even know what this project is. Right. Uh, include the link to the document that you’re referencing and then I’ll be able to help you out. These are little things that no one would bring up in any meeting ever as a blocker, but we can strip them away as a blocker. Getting everyone to think about them all the time. Really just levels up our effectiveness as a team. There’s way more, but I’m over my two minutes.

Brad: (49:31)

Yeah for sure. I’m cutting you off. No, no, that was great. I think those are all really good. I think especially if I don’t, are you guys remote? Is your team all remote or are they all in Chicago? You’re in Chicago, right?

Ben: (49:41)

Uh, we, our headquarters is here in Chicago. We have, a number of people who are remote. No one on the content team.

Brad: (49:47)

Okay. Okay. So I feel like that magnifies this issue, this communication issue or the lack thereof. In that it’s the transitions from like one going from deliverable, going from one person to another to another to another, and not thinking through and not communicating in a way where you’re anticipating the next person’s questions.

Ben: (50:11)

That’s one of our items.

Ben: (50:14)

Yeah. So we, uh, we’re all remotes. Uh, we use very documented processes and checklists and all that kind of stuff. And then, whenever I’m communicating anything longer than like a simple, a very simple task, uh, I always do a video because you’re trying to, I want everyone in the organization to understand what are the next pieces that need to happen so that when you’re done with this, it needs to go to this person or these things need to happen or it’s not done until this happens. And you don’t, until you get to that point like you said earlier, you’re having blockers, things aren’t getting done, things are falling through the cracks, things are taking too long. People are slacking you all day. Like now I log into Slack sometimes and I have zero messages. I’m like, ah, at first you panic cause you’re like, Oh shit. And then you realize, Oh no, actually it’s working. Like it’s all working. That’s why nobody’s bugging me all day. Like that’s why I’m writing. You know, I don’t have to have be on my phone. I have Slack on my phone. Uh, I don’t have Slack up all day and like things still happen and it’s because Oh, you have to learn how to communicate more effectively.

Ben: (51:14)

Yeah, absolutely. I’d say the, especially as you grow, the effectiveness of communication is going to be the number one thing that we are focusing on. Uh, from a management perspective

Brad: (51:24)

for sure. And it’s simple to like use that a thought. It’s not something like mystical bullshit hacker news, like eight hacks to communicating. It’s like, no, just be a real person. And then you have empathy for other people and like credit.

Ben: (51:36)

Right, right. Yeah. We also don’t need like eight Trello boards that are connected by six million apps.

Brad: (51:44)

Yeah. This move creates this move Chris, this move. Uh, for sure. This is my favorite. Benyamin, thank you so much for joining. It was super fun. Um, obviously people should go to Active Campaign to find more information, but we’re also, they learn more about you personally.

Ben: (52:00)

Yeah. You know what, I would just keep driving people back to how to grow your blog. I think that’s going to cover a lot of the tactical, uh, and maybe philosophical, reasons that we approached growth. The way that we have so far. That post is also, maybe this scares people off the posts about 10,000 words. It’s very detailed. It has lots of references. And if you’re a content marketer, it was designed that you could take the resources in that article and then present them up in your own organization if that’s something that you need help with.

Brad: (52:30)

For sure. We will post a link to that, uh, and maybe post like a link to where people can buy coffee so they can actually finish it in one sitting. Benyamin, thanks again.I really appreciate your time today.

Ben: (52:43)

Yeah, my pleasure.

Highlights

Ben’s three step strategy for excelling in any project. (07:14)

 One, who is the best at this and who should I learn from? Two, how can I get specific practice on this? And then three, how do we get feedback on that practice?

With this approach in company meetings, Ben is able to secure needed buy-in and grow his team. (30:48)

But you get to go in with that data and you get to go in with the, and here’s what this Google patent says, and you say, and Google refers 57.8% of all web traffic. And here’s how we approach creating a post that gets these kinds of results. And here’s some posts that have gotten those results and here’s how long it takes to create those posts. And by the end of it, my boss said to me, I didn’t say it to him. He said it to me. Sounds like we need to hire more people. Right?

By shifting metrics and taking a larger view of content, Ben’s team has increased their scope and their success. (34:19)

To us, blog traffic used to be the way to measure this I think and I don’t think it is anymore right now. It’s okay. We are a marketing team and we are bringing our expertise to all of the message that gets produced anywhere in this company including like the automated email that goes out after you schedule a call with our success rep, right? Uh, including all of these various places that qualify as content. And that’s more of the scope of what the team is working on now.

How Active Campaign is cultivating a culture of deliberate communication and removing barriers for more productive inter-team dialogue. (47:32)

Our SVP of sales, Adam Johnson likes to talk about operational excellence and this is a concept that we’re bringing, I mean it exists all over the place, but we’re really bringing it into Active Campaign. How can you create 20 more minutes of efficiency or effectiveness in a day? And it doesn’t mean working 20 more minutes. It means how can you take what you’re already doing and magnify the effects of it. 

So use our small moments of excellence checklist, read replies in Slack, if you’re going to talk to someone about a resource in Slack include the link if you’re setting up a meeting, it better have an agenda with these details on it, right?