winter / 2017

The magazine of branded content
They Ask,
You Answer
Juliet Stott
Marcus Sheridan on adopting an audience-first strategy
Juliet Stott
Nov 15, 2017

The Sales Lion, and the former CEO of River Pools & Spas, Marcus Sheridan shot to fame by turning his almost-bankrupt swimming pool company around by using content marketing. He pivoted his communication strategy and focused on putting his audience first. Instead of going out and communicating to all the people he wanted to target, he focused on becoming the leading teacher around fiberglass pools. What he did was help his audience first, sell to them second. He has shared his wisdom in a brand-new book, They Ask, You Answer. Here he talked to Content Magazine about how brands should become the best teachers in their industry, the merits of being brutally honest in your content and utilizing data effectively.

Content: In your latest book They Ask, You Answer you advocate that brands should become the best teachers in their field/space. How can they go about doing that and why should they?
Marcus Sheridan: We buy from those we know, like and trust, and when it comes to someone who has taught us something we didn’t otherwise know, they tend to be the ones we respect the most and trust the most. It’s very hard for organizations, especially leadership teams, to get excited about ‘marketing campaigns’. In other words no CEO is ever going to wake up and say ‘I want to be the best content marketer in the world’. Yet, a CEO could wake up and say ‘I want to be the best teacher in our space. If our customers have a question, worry or issue, I want them to think of us. I want them to know if they come to us, we’re going to have the answers for them, and by so doing, will become the voice of trust’.

How do marketers become obsessed with the questions their students, customers and potential customers are asking?
It’s about having a willingness to address the questions that are hard. The thing about a good teacher is answering the tough questions in a way that people can understand. A lot of businesses ignore the core questions their audience really wants to know—they make it all about them, and not about the customer. The goal is not to sound smart as a business; the goal is to understand the customer, and that’s the essence of my They Ask, You Answer philosophy.

How do you think this moves away from other forms of marketing?
Most marketing is traditional, and even today, is company and product centric. It says ‘this is what we do’, ‘these are the solutions that we have’, ‘this is what we sell’. In They Ask, You Answer the content really shifts to focusing on the customer—how do they want to buy, how do they research, what do they want to know? In traditional marketing we don’t address things like price; we don’t address who our product is and is not for; we don’t like to compare our products with other products in the market. Yet, that’s what consumers are doing today, and that’s what we need to be willing to do. It’s hard for some companies, they can’t seem to empathize with their customers, because they’ve been selling that thing they’ve been selling for so long, they’re out of touch with the marketplace.

You talk about brands having brutal honesty in their approach to content - why do you think it's important for them to highlight the pros and cons of their products/say who their product or service is not right for?
It’s really simple psychology. Whenever you’re researching a company or product, everybody is essentially saying the same thing, and it just becomes noise. One of the questions I used to get asked when I was a pool guy (we sold fiberglass pools) was ‘what’s the difference between fiberglass pools and concrete pools, why should I choose fiberglass?’. Now the traditional answer, and the old school method, would be to give a bunch of reason why fiberglass pools are best for them. But the problem is that answer is immediately biased. The reader, or the viewer or listener, recognizes that. So, instead of doing that, the smarter approach is to come right out and say ‘you know what, even though fiberglass pools are the only things we sell, we recognize they are not necessarily the best solution for everyone looking for a swimming pool, there are times where concrete pools might be the better option’. What this article or video is going to do is thoroughly explain the pros and cons of both types of pools. By the end the prospect will be able to decide which is the best choice for them. Ultimately, all buyers want to feel like they are in charge of the buying process; they don’t like being forced into anything. If sales professionals can learn to back off and say ‘here’s who we’re not a good fit for’, all of a sudden the buyer says ‘my goodness this company is shooting straight with me, they’re different from everyone else’. They tend to believe you much faster and want to be a part of that thing you’re offering; that’s the beauty behind it.

You've said that good content should reflect the way people think, search, act, feel. Why? And can you give an example of how?
Take me as a pool guy, if I am obsessed with the way a customer is researching or buying, I would ask myself, ‘what are the questions my customers are asking? When they do their first Google search, what are they saying?’ I know they wouldn’t be searching for ‘all the fun games they can play in a swimming pool’. That’s not the way people search. Yet that’s the type of article I see a lot of on pool companies’ websites. That kind of content doesn’t ever produce any fruit. You’d be much better off talking about how much a fiberglass pool costs, because that’s a real question that people want to know, and are asking, or the difference between a concrete and fibre glass pool, or the best shape fiberglass swimming pool for a small back yard. These are the things that people type into Google.

What role should data/analytics play in underpinning a content strategy?
The fact is, if you’re not measuring content, the day the CFO asks you if it is making any money, you can’t say it is. Then they will cut your funds. You’ve got to prove that you’re generating revenue with content. One subject matter that will generate leads is about cost. People want to know how much stuff is. They also have questions around positives, negatives and issues. They want to know how that product and service compares to others. They want to know what everyone is saying about that product or service; and they want to know the ‘best’ product and service for their particular need. That’s how it works—I call it the big five—cost, problems, versus, reviews and best. If you’re tracking your content, you’ll be able to quickly see the stuff that’s generating the leads and that fluffy stuff, that may get shared on Facebook but it doesn’t actually generate revenue for the company. You can’t cash in ‘Likes’ or social media shares for revenue, it doesn’t work like that. Savvy, smart content marketers focus on the metrics that matter, and not vanity metrics.