Host, Jennifer Tribe: Joe Pulizzi is the author of a bestselling book called Content Inc.. As you can imagine from the title, it’s all about building a successful content business. Joe also hosts a podcast called Content Inc, publishes a newsletter called The Tilt — which I highly recommend BTW — it’s a staple in my newsletter library. And Joe and company recently published a research report on content businesses, and we’re going to dig into some of those findings as well.
He also hosts a long-running podcast called This Old Marketing and we’ll hear more about Joe’s experiences and learnings from that show in our extended interview for Premium subscribers -- again, more on how to access that later in the episode.
Jennifer: Hi, Joe, welcome to Supercasters.
Guest, Joe Pulizzi : Jennifer, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Jennifer: I am a big fan, have been for many years. And you started out as the content marketing guy, you're known as the godfather of content marketing, which is teaching people how to use content to market a product or service. But now you've taken a slight shift sideways to where the content is the business itself. So talk to us about what was behind that shift for you.
Joe: My wife and I launched Content Marketing Institute. We always planned to sell that organization, had a successful exit in 2016. I stayed on until the end of 2017, took off a sabbatical year in 2018, one of the greatest years of my life. Spent a lot of time with my kids and then 2019 I was all in on becoming a novelist. That was kind of the next chapter. I wanted to write a novel. I did it. It did fairly well and we did the kick off in March of 2020. That was my last in-person event I think for 16 or 17 months or something like this. Crazy. And so it's fine, writing novels is all working out and then the pandemic happens as I'm working on the second edition of The Will to Die—that's the name of the novel— I start getting pings from friends who got let go from work and colleagues who are struggling on the marketing side and people that wanted to start their own content-first business, which we can talk a lot about that model in a second, but I'm like, oh, this is weird.
Joe: And then I'm going and I'm looking at data from my podcast Content Inc, which I stopped in 2017 when I took that sabbatical year and the downloads were up and I'm like, that's really weird. As you know, it's like no way that that should be happening. And then I started to look at book sales of Content Inc. that was written in 2015. Book sales are up. I'm like, OK, this is strange, something's happening. And I talked to McGraw-Hill Education and I said, are you seeing what I'm seeing? Is there some attention going on in this area? They said absolutely, that we're seeing a boom in entrepreneurship. We're seeing an incredible movement about people, building a following, building an audience first and then monetizing that audience.
Joe: Kind of what you're saying, getting into the content business, becoming their own little media company. And I said, you know, I can probably be more helpful to the world by going into that area and basically talking to my people. I mean, this is what I did as you know. We started our own content-first business in 2007 and kind of went all in. In 2018 to 2020, got into creator coins, launched the Tilt in April of this year. And our focus is on helping content creators become content entrepreneurs, because I think that most content creators don't really understand the business side and the business model of how to basically build a successful media company, a media enterprise. That's what I've been doing, talking about for twenty years. So that's how I got back in. And it's been very exciting working with people from all over the world that are seeing this new opportunity happen where you can reach an audience online and you can figure out what your differentiation is and you can really make a difference.
What is a content entrepreneur?
Jennifer: You mentioned content creators and content entrepreneurs as sort of two distinct groups, the content creator doesn't quite know how to be the content entrepreneur. What is the difference? How do you define someone who has reached a status of content entrepreneur?
Joe: First of all, I don't dislike the term content creator because it's used so much. But we're all, every person on the face of the earth, is a content creator. My mom, who's on Facebook, is a content creator. Technically, we're creating content. We're distributing it in some fashion. So I tried to come up with something, a differentiation for those people that are taking it seriously as building a business through distributing valuable, relevant, compelling content, building an audience and then monetizing that audience. And that's how I look at being a content entrepreneur. ASort of like content marketing wasn't really a term when we started using it in 2001, 2002 and then became popular in, let's say, 08, 09.
Joe: I feel the same about content entrepreneurship. When I talk to a lot of people that are going this direction, they're like, oh, that's that's who I am. I didn't know there was a name for it. I was trying to tell people what I'm doing. I'm a content entrepreneur, so I like that. I don't know if it's going to work or not, Jennifer, maybe it will. I just feel that when I'm writing or when I'm communicating, when I'm doing my podcast, I have to have a term for a group of people that are seriously trying to become financially free by building an audience online through the generation of content. And creator economy didn't do that. Content creator doesn't. I don't know what the term is. So for me, it's content entrepreneur.
Jennifer: Content entrepreneurs, I think would be part of the creator economy, but who in the creator economy is not a content entrepreneur? Is it the content creators who aren't thinking about things as a business?
Joe: Well, you have a lot of hobbyists, you have a lot of part timers, even in the content marketing space, you have a lot of people that are doing content marketing for their enterprise. But they got a side gig. Everybody's got a side hustle.They’ve got their photography blog or their butterfly podcast or whatever it is. But the bigger issue with the term creator economy in and of itself is the fact that there's such a focus on the platforms. When you see anything about, oh, so-and-so is doing this in the creator economy or creator economy grows X Y Z, they're talking about Facebook, they're talking about YouTube and Twitch and places, the platforms themselves and not the creator.
Joe: And I think that's doing a disservice to the people that are actually running the entire creator economy. And it is the creators. So I'm trying to take the attention off the platforms because I think it needs to be on the individuals that are doing all the work. And the same thing with passion economy. I mean, I'm not a hater of those terms. If they get somebody going the right direction and building a business, that's fine. But I think the thing that we've got to remember is this, is just because you create content doesn't mean you're necessarily building a business and become financially free or whatever successful exit you have. That's the entrepreneur part.
Joe: The most important thing is you are starting a business. How are you starting that business? Through the generation of valuable content to build that audience, those types of things. But the first and foremost thing is entrepreneurship. And that's what I found in talking to our audience at the Tilt is everyone, the first thing they do is they just get getting in there, creating all kinds of content. They just start a podcast. Hey, we're starting a podcast. Well, who are you targeting? Well, we're targeting plant managers. OK well, what kind of plant managers? If you created this podcast, can you become the leading informational expert in the world at that particular thing? Once you create that audience, how are you going to monetize that audience? Once you monetize that audience and create a minimum viable audience, then those types of questions and on and on and on. And it's that building a business part that's crucial.
The elements of a successful content business model
Jennifer: So we're touching here on some of the elements, I think, of your seven step content business model. So in your book Content Inc, you have this seven step model. And for our listeners, kind of imagine like a U that goes around not quite a full circle, but a U. And you've got seven segments in there. You've got number one, the sweet spot. Number two, the content tilt. Number three, the base. Number four, audience building. So we're halfway through and we're only just getting to audience building. Number five, revenue. Number six, diversify. And the last one, number seven, sell or go big. What I found really interesting is in the illustration of this model, all seven stages are the same size except stage three, the base, which is twice as big. So what is that stage all about and why is it bigger than the others?
Joe: People don't understand—well, probably your audience does because they've been creating content for a long time, but usually you have an idea. So you took that content tilt area, that's a differentiational area where you can break through all the clutter and competition out there. You have to have a point of view. You have to have some kind of a hook and then you pick your platform. First of all, it should be one. It shouldn't be multiple ones. It doesn't mean that you can't be… let's say you have a podcast and you want to be also on YouTube or Twitch. You can absolutely do that. You can use those as magnets to generate back to your podcasts. But what we found in all the research that we did this year and all the case studies in the Content Inc book is the ones that make it focus on one thing. They are a podcaster, they are a YouTuber, they are a writer. Those things are first and foremost.
Joe: And what we see a lot of content entrepreneurs doing that are failing is they get into everything at one time. It's like, oh, I have to be everywhere my audience is at online. I'm like, no, you don't. You actually shouldn't. You have to make good tradeoffs. My friend Wally Kovel created a site, Accidentally Wes Anderson. It's an Instagram site. He's got 1.5 million followers. He made the decision that he was not going to be on Twitter and focus all of his attention on Instagram because he felt if he split his attention between Twitter and Instagram, he couldn't build an audience. And he’s probably right. So you go to his Twitter page, it's nothing. But you go to Instagram, Accidentally Wes Anderson has 1.5 million followers and they're successful. He's going to be a multimillionaire pretty soon. Those things are working.
Jo: So the base, generally you're looking at between nine and 15 months of work that it takes to find your voice, to find your audience, to figure out where you are the leading informational expert in the world, to deliver consistently over a long period of time. With us at Content Marketing Institute, generally 2008 was when we started. Twenty two months of blogging. And we had a blog and an enewsletter, and that's basically all we did until we built our minimum viable audience, which was 10,000 email subscribers. That was the goal to hit before we really got to serious monetization. But it takes so long and this is where all the people are cleared out that don't make it. These are all the hobbyists. These are all the ones that don't have the patience, that don't have the grit, that don't put away enough money so that they can make it in the mean time because it takes so long to build this business.
Joe: So I always say, if you're only planning on seeing if this is going to work after three or six months, don't even do it because it's probably not going to work. You might get some real qualitative information about how your audience likes this in the three to six to nine-month mark. But you're probably not going to create a loyal and trusting audience in enough time to actually build a long term business up to that nine to 12 month to 16-month mark. John Lee Dumas from Entrepreneurs on Fire, his podcast, he went from zero months to nine months and then he started generating revenue at the nine-month mark. Probably one of the quickest examples we could find in all the case studies, it actually hitting revenue. So I use that as the minimum time because of all the other case studies in the Content Inc book, they're all longer than nine months. So this is where you find out who you are. You build your audience and then you can't do anything until you build your audience. So that's what takes the most time.
Your monetization hypotheses
Jennifer: And how do you know, you mentioned that for you it was 10,000 email subscribers, that was your goal and how you would know that you had hit that level, that you were ready to go on to the next phase. How do people set those goals? How do they know what's realistic?
Joe: Sometimes it's just a goal because you feel you have to set some goal to get there. I talked to Matthew Patrick, who runs the Game Theory YouTube channel, and he felt that he needed to get to 500,000 subs, which seems like a lot. Right. It's amazing. But he felt in order to build the business he wanted to, he had to get to 500,000 subs. Told the team that and basically heads down so they could focus on being great and amazing up to that point. So sometimes it's just a number you set with your team so you know. With us, with the 10,000, I knew that 10,000 is the number that I could sell a sponsorship for. If I had 10,000 email subscribers in the business to business marketing market—I already knew, I did the research—that 10,000 is a pretty core number, that if you want to sell sponsorship, that's a good acceptable number and then figure out your options and click throughs and all that kind of stuff.
Joe: So for anybody listening to this in your whatever industry you should figure out, what are you thinking from a monetization standpoint. Oh is it advertising and sponsorship? Are you going to do training or whatever the case is and what's the number? And then you figure out and say, OK, well, if I get two percent of people to sign up, what is that? How much am I going to charge? These are hypotheses that you want to make early in the process before you even launch to figure out what do I need to get my audience to to really make a difference. So it's different for every industry, but for email on the B2B side, that's easy. That's 10,000. Michael Stelzner, who runs Social Media Examiner, his number is the same, 10,000, for the same reason—he's in the marketing market. We both know that that's a really good place to start for monetization, and we both started at that same point.
Focus to find success
Jennifer: Now in terms of choosing one platform. So I understand that, like, I'm going to start with a podcast and I'm going to focus on that and I'm going to build my audience there. But there are ways to market your podcast that would get you on other channels. So I could try and attract people to my podcast through Twitter. I could try and attract people to my podcast through a newsletter. So how do you know what is OK to dabble in as a marketing tactic versus spreading yourself too thin on channels.
Joe: No, you're right. So basically you have that core channel. So let's say that that core way that you're going to communicate to build your audience is the podcast. What we generally see are content entrepreneurs pick two social platforms to sort of create an external audience. Basically, they're building a house on rented land, if you will, to generate interest back to the core platform. So, as you know, a lot of podcasters use YouTube. The number of podcasts listened to on YouTube, it's huge. It might be larger than almost anything else out there. So you're like, OK, good, we're going to maybe do a little teaser video or we're going to distribute on YouTube. That's fine.
Joe: And then we're going to say, I can commit the amount of resources to be amazing on Twitter, which means if you're going to do that, that's a whole different thing. That might be 10, 12 tweets a day. You probably have to schedule a lot. You have to have a lot of feedback or talk to the people that respond to you. So there is a time commitment there. So can you do that and can you also be great on LinkedIn and Instagram and Twitch? Probably not. So I like that 1-2 option. So you have the core platform and then you've really figure out, let's say, the two places that you want to spend your time on these rented social platforms and then ultimately by building an audience there, you can drive back to the core platform. That seems to work really well. Joe Rogan famously did that very well, where he just focused on the podcast. He ended up going to YouTube. And then I think, what is it? I think he's just on Twitter. And he said, I'm not really on Instagram. I don't know which one it is, but he only focuses on one of those channels. And it works really well.
Joe: I mean, you look at content entrepreneur case study after case study, that's kind of the way to go. So I'm not saying don't go on social media platforms. I'm saying just tread lightly and focus on what you can be great at. And if you can't spend the amount of resources on a platform and be great, take whatever you have and make sure that, oh, I can be great on Twitter or not on Instagram. OK, just forget Instagram or just have the... Reserve your site there, put a couple of pictures there and say, good, if somebody wants to connect with me there. But my main... tell them my main area is Twitter or my main area is here on YouTube.
The number one channel for successful content entrepreneurs
Jennifer: In the content model, audience building is fourth. So we're going to assume we've got a nice, healthy base, we've hit whatever establishment goal that we've set. As a podcaster the number one challenge always seems to be how to grow your audience. And it doesn't matter how big your current audience is, going to the next level is always a challenge. So what are some of the top ways‚—and I think you dived into this in the research report that you issued recently—what are some of the top ways that successful creators are doing to grow their audience?
Joe: Well, it's interesting, and you brought it up before about the power of email. What we see in the audience building phase is no matter what channel that you start out, whether it's a podcast or whether you're YouTube or Instagram, whatever, you get to the point of audience building, you get to that moment of angst when you're like, how much control do I have over this channel? And do I have the data of my audience? And do I know who my audience is? And how do I make sure that this doesn't go away tomorrow if somebody changes the rules on me, ala Apple or whatever the case is. So if you look at what's the most important channel for successful, basically long term content entrepreneurs, number one is email. Absolutely email.
Joe: It's not totally perfect, but it is the most controlled way that you have the audience data. So what you see is a lot of podcasters — I brought up John Lee Dumas before, great, he's got millions of listeners on his podcast. But if you go to his website and you listen to his podcast episodes, his calls to action go to his website and like from the podcast goes to the website and the website, there's always an email offer. He wants to get all those listeners signed up to his email so he knows who those people are and then he can monetize that. So in the audience building phase, what generally happens is you're moving up the subscriber hierarchy. So let's say that you started a Facebook group. Your goal is to ultimately that Facebook group is going to be just one small part long term. If you started there because you want to move up the chain and get into something that you can more control, like email.
Joe: So podcasting is right in the middle a little bit. You have a little bit more insight than you would, a little bit more control than you would with a Facebook or a Twitter that can ban you from the platform in two seconds. But you still want to set up the process that— just like any major media company does—where they have more control and they don't leave all that control to the platforms. Look at New York Times, look at Morning Brew, look at The Hustle, look at Huffington Post. What drives every part of those business models— it’s email. Do they have podcasts? Absolutely they do. They all have podcasts. But where are they telling them to go? At the end of the day, go to the website, sign up to the email. Why are they doing that? Because they're protecting their business model.
Joe: So I think any podcaster listening to this, and I'm sure most of your listeners already do, maybe dabble a little bit in, either have an email newsletter or they're dabbling. Once you get those core fans subscribed to your email newsletter, that will make them stronger listeners, believe it or not, and they will become more open to buying things from you and supporting your sponsors. Because what we found in a lot of the research we've done is you get them signed up for three things that you do. You have an email newsletter, you have a podcast, you have a research report, you have a webinar program, any three of those things they're more apt to buy from you, stay with you longer as a customer, as an audience member. Basically I talk about being the octopus. You want to sort of wrap them with your eight arms of content love, if you will. And that's really a thing. It really works that way. And that's why you see all of these major media companies have so many different things that they offer because that's what the data tells them.
The profile of a sticky fan
Jennifer: So three is the magic number that you found? If people opt in to at least three pieces of your content, then they're a good sticky fan?
Joe: In the case studies that we talked about in the book and then also directly from our experience at Content Marketing Institute, took us two years to go through the data… so we offered 13 different things. We had multiple podcasts, we had research reports, webinar programs, we did events all over the world. I went to the team and I said, I want to know who our most valuable customer is. Like, what do they look like? Well, they generally were signed up for at least three things. Did it matter which three things it was? No, it didn't. It just was three things. How did they come? In all different ways. Some people came into the podcast. Some people came in through the email newsletter. This is why diversification is critical once you build that base, because then you're just creating super valuable long term relationships with these people.
Jennifer: So would something like a Twitter follower or an Instagram follower, would those count as an opt in or are you really looking for things where they have to give you an email address?
Joe: They could count depending on how you look at the data. We didn't look at it like that. We looked at real publishing things that we did in the organization. So we had a quarterly magazine. So were they subscribed to the quarterly magazine. We had monthly webinars, did they go to each of the monthly webinars? Did they listen to the podcast? We did not at that time use social. I think that there's no problem with that, because especially today, if you look at a TikTok or an Instagram especially, and more like an Instagram, it is a publishing opportunity. So is Pinterest. That could be a shareability platform, like Twitter could be a sharing platform where you’re just sort of along for the ride and you're communicating with other people or you could really be publishing on an ongoing basis. Jack Butcher from Visualize Value is a really good example of this. You go to his Twitter, I think every 10 minutes he's got a tweet out there. I don't know when he does it, but he does program every day because he's sending out 50 tweets and he's built a following from zero to 100,000 people in a very short period of time. He is publishing. He has a content tilt. He has a differentiation area. So you are publishing on Twitter. But then at the end of the day, he's just renting that audience. Twitter could kick them off. So he's got to make sure he diversifies into other areas.
Managing your fear of missing out
Jennifer: This conversation is helping me really feel better about managing my FOMO. Right, which is I see competitors or I see other people and they're all over the place. And so I'm like, but if I don't go on Twitter, then I'll miss out on .... So but what you're telling me is get really good at one or two things and that is enough. And in fact, that is better than doing 10 things halfway.
Joe: What's helped me is I've grown up with some of these case studies. I've grown up seeing Red Bull Media House be just a mini magazine. So Red Bull was just Red Bulletin for the longest time. They grew an amazing magazine. They didn't do all the other things. Then they started the video thing, a lot of people know them for all the video stuff and the YouTube stuff that they do. But that was secondary. They just built the audience of the magazine first. Did they miss out on some opportunities on YouTube at the time or launching a podcast or whatever? Maybe they did, but would they have been able to build an amazing audience if they didn't have the focus? Probably not.
Joe: So that's the thing that we forget. We're like, oh, yeah, there's all these opportunities out there. Well, yes, there are. But, content marketers, they're doing content marketing at a large enterprise, let's say. So they've got all kinds of things going on. They've got a podcast that they're doing and a research program. They're doing Facebook and they're trying TikTok and Instagram and they do all of them. What happens is they spread those resources so thin and we all have only a limited amount of what I call content energy. And then you just take all that content energy and you flatten it out and you become mediocre at every channel. And what does that do for you? Nothing. You're not remarkable in any of those channels. And we can't afford not to be remarkable.
Joe: So what do we do? We have to say, OK, you know what? I can't do the TikTok thing right now or I can't do... I love Twitch. I mean, I personally would love to try doing a Twitch stream and figure something out. I could do something in marketing. We've got an audience that we could try to see if we could build something, but I can't be good right now. Right now we have to focus on our email newsletters and our podcasts. That's where we have to expend all our energy. Well, when we start really moving and grooving and we're creating the amount of revenue opportunities and we're selling all the things we are on those channels, then I can say, great, now we can add another one and spend six to nine months on that one and then add another one. So, I mean, we're very comfortable.. like we launched the Tilt in April. I'm very comfortable saying we are not on Facebook. We have a profile so people want to find us, they know where to go. Do we actively publish on it? Nope. Do we plan on doing it? Nope. No. How about Instagram? We have a profile. Are we actively publishing on it? No. We're testing out some things, but we're not spending any amount of energy that's going to take away from us being remarkable with these two things. And until I can be remarkable at a third and a fourth and fifth, I'm not going to expend the energy.
From survival revenue to really making it
Jennifer: That's awesome. Very great advice. Going back to the content model, so revenue comes fifth. In your report, again, you looked at successful monetization channels for content entrepreneurs and it was interesting, there was no clear winner, there was no hands down like this is the one that most people use. So what were some of the findings and what do they say to you about the creator economy?
Joe: Well, first of all, we talk about this in the book as survival revenue. We have it as the fifth step here. But don't get me wrong, we want to generate revenue as quickly as possible because we like to eat and pay the bills. What we found is the most important in the success of content entrepreneurs is multiple revenue offerings. And the number seems to be four. So we looked at what separates the immature, let's say, content entrepreneurs from those that are really making it. And when I say really making it, they're making a good living for themselves and they're supporting more than one person. So they're actually building a real business and they generally have at least four different revenue options. So they could be an affiliate program. It could be a subscription program, could be paid training. It could be multiple, you know, content audio book offerings or print book offerings. They could do their own conference and event. That's what we did at Content Marketing Institute. We had, I don't know, eight, nine, ten different ways that we made revenue at Content Marketing Institute. But our big revenue driver was our event Content Marketing World.
Joe: That was a six million dollar event. Very, very profitable. Maybe you have a consulting service and that's part of the whole thing, or a coaching service. A lot of podcasters do that as well. You have many, many options. You choose what makes the most sense for you. So you start with one, generally that lowest hanging fruit, which tends to be sponsorship. And then once you get to that level, you want to actually add as many different revenue opportunities as you can. It's almost a different way to look at it from I'm focusing on one platform, but then when I get to revenue, it's the wild, wild west, whatever we could do.
Jennifer: Diversify, yeah.
Joe: Yeah, exactly.
Jennifer: But would you recommend diversifying all at once or or is it more like the publishing where you're going to get good at one thing and then you're going to move on to the second thing and the third.
Joe: Generally nine to 12 months is what I would recommend. Our first thing was a benefactor program. We gave a fancy term to a sponsorship program. They got a little mention in the email newsletter. They got their logo at the bottom of a page. They got 10 percent of our digital inventory and I made it limited and people loved it. And they spent a good chunk of money. And that got us to the next step. And I'm like, good, I can pay the bills now and then what are we going to launch next?
Joe: And then the next thing we said, oh, and now we're going to do the magazine. And that was print advertising in the magazine as well as subscription to the magazine. I'm like, great, we're going to do that. That was in January of 2011. And then we're like, OK, well, what's next? Well, it's September 2011 was the event. So you could see it seemed to be every nine to 12 months we'd have a new revenue driver. That never stops. Like literally, if you are in this business, you don't just sit back and say, oh, yeah, this is the business and these are the two revenue ways that we make money. You have to think like you're 3M and 3M every three years, they switch over 50% of their revenue every year. And so it's all new revenue every three years. You’re like really? A big company, like with Scotch tape and everything. Like, yes, absolutely. It's new products and new revenue. And so that's how we have to think as a content entrepreneur as well.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for joining us today, Joe.
Joe: I'm happy to talk about this any time, Jennifer. I just think, oh, there's so much opportunity right now for content entrepreneurs especially with podcasters. And any time I can share it, I'm happy to do so.
Want to hear more from Joe? All you need to do is become a premium subscriber to this podcast. It's free. Click the free sign up button here, and in just a couple of taps, you'll have the extended episode in your favorite podcast player.
In the extended interview, I talk to Joe about his This Old Marketing podcast: how it started, how it grew, and the smartest ways to split your time in a content business.
- Content Inc. (podcast)
- Content Inc. (book)
- The Tilt
- The Unconventionals: 2021 Content Entrepreneur Benchmark Research
- Content Marketing Institute
- Entrepreneurs on Fire (podcast)
- Accidentally Wes Anderson (Instagram)
- Game Theory (YouTube)
- Social Media Examiner
- Visualize Value (Twitter)
- Red Bull Media House
- This Old Marketing (podcast)