Episode Overview: Marketing agencies specialize in the content production process, creating processes that best work for them and their clients. In order to maintain long-term success, content production processes need to evolve with the needs of the company and its clients. Join host Ben as he speaks with Founder and CEO of Codeless Brad Smith about his expertise in producing hundreds of high quality technical articles and the best practices to follow when creating content at scale.
- To scale content at large you first need to have processes and operations in place, like style guides and content templates.
- Hire subcontractors to write and test the outlines and start assembling a content team. This includes writers, subject matter experts, editors and designers.
- Once you have writers it’s crucial to work with them to see if they’re capable of understanding a client’s business and identifying the type of audience they want to reach.
GUESTS & RESOURCES
- Brad Smith: Website // LinkedIn
- The Voices of Search Podcast: Email // LinkedIn // Twitter
- Benjamin Shapiro: Website // LinkedIn // Twitter
Ben: Welcome to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro. Today we’re going to talk about creating content at scale. Joining us is Brad Smith, who is the Founder and CEO of Codeless, a content production company whose content has been highlighted by the New York Times, Business Insider, and The Next Web. Brad is also the Co-Founder of uSERP, a digital PR company that helps connect its clients with leading SaaS, ecommerce, SEO, technology, business, and marketing sites to boost their brand authority.
Ben: Today Brad and I are going to talk about his guide to producing hundreds of quality technical articles. Okay. On with the show. Here’s my conversation with Brad Smith, CEO of Codeless. Brad, welcome to the Voices of Search Podcast.
Brad: Thanks Benjamin. I’m looking forward to it.
Ben: Excited to have you as a guest on our show. I appreciate you making the time. You’re actually joining us on vacation. Tell everybody where you are right now.
Brad: I’m currently in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which is an amazing place that’s not quite as busy or crazy as like Aspen, and Vail, and all the other places people know. But yeah, I’m kind of on a year-long working vacation, we’ll call it, just traveling around. Unfortunately, still checking in and doing phone calls.
Ben: Now you must be a man of many talents if you’re the co-founder of a digital PR company, and you’re also running Codeless, your content production service. How does the founder of multiple businesses travel for a year? And what’s your secret here?
Brad: My secret is I spent 10 years doing it the wrong way, and then I had to learn how to rip it all up and start over again. Then I kind of figured it out. So like most creative people, like most marketing people, like most agencies, I liked doing different types of projects for different types of clients and kind of flying by the seat of my pants. What you learn very quickly is if you’re ever going to scale, and if you’re ever going to pull yourself out of the business, you need systems and processes and specializations and all that kind of fun stuff. So yeah, it’s about 10 years of doing it wrong, and then in the last three years of doing it right. So now I’m in a position where everything’s not relying on me and everyone’s not waiting for me to answer everything.
Ben: You know, and it’s the perfect lead in to talking about producing quality content that you’re not sitting around writing every blog post for every one of your clients. So you must have some processes in place to actually do content production. Talk to me a little bit about the content production process. What are most people doing? What are they getting wrong?
Brad: Definitely. There’s probably a lot in there. But essentially it kind of started with me writing and doing all that kind of the labor and then very slowly figuring out ways to like pull myself out of every single aspect of it. So it starts with subcontractors where you’re testing, can they do the outline, and then I do the draft? Then if they can do the draft now, can I just do the editing at the very end? So you start to pull yourself out.
Brad: But what it amounts to is a lot of like operations. A lot of systems and processes for, “Here’s how we research stuff. Here’s how we outline stuff. Here are the resources that are vetted that you can use. Here’s the stuff we don’t want to see.” Then obviously bringing in good people and making sure you have checks and balances in place. So we don’t just have a writer churning out random content. We have a writer, with a subject matter expert, with an editor, with a designer kind of like a team that’s all working together.
Ben: So what I’m hearing you say is first off, you’re developing a process yourself, you’re actually the first content creator. You’re building out processes, and then the relationships really matter, where you’re hiring some talented people to produce content for you. Let’s walk through those three steps, one at a time. First off when you’re creating the original template, you’re doing the creative work. What’s your process to attack a project and figure out what the right thing to write for the right brand?
Brad: That’s a really good question. It’s a little different now, in that, we take a more structured approach than what I did back in the day. You know, when I’m just figuring out what might sound interesting for an article. I think that’s how most, actually, companies approach it, is like, what sounds interesting? Or like what in this area could we potentially do something on? It’s a little more strategic now where it’s looking at, “Okay, what are the key opportunities? Where do we think we can rank faster? Where can we get results faster for a client? What are the bigger things at play?”
Brad: So it’s a little different today, but it is like a combination of looking at everything from relevancy to the client’s business and services and products, to the volume, like the potential big opportunity to the competitiveness. Both using classic SEO tools, like Atrust, but also stuff like MarketMuse, where you’re looking at, “Okay, actually the content quality of stuff that we’re trying to compete with. Can we get in the same ballpark? Yes or no? And if not, we should be looking at another area.”
Brad: So it’s a little more structured today and is a little more rigorous, and again, we usually have like an editorial person looking in on this. We usually have a strategy person kind of looking in on this. That way, you’re able to bring all the pieces together and then make a sound recommendation.
Ben: This is where the SEO portion of content creation comes in. You’re doing your homework, you’re figuring out where there’s opportunities, and you’re looking at the content creation process from a business and a ranking perspective. You’re considering how Google’s going to consume the content upfront. Once you get past that stage where you sort of understand the type of content you’re going to be writing, you figure out what your topics are. You’re starting to build processes in place for the actual content production. Walk me through what those processes look like.
Brad: Yeah, definitely. So I think at the very beginning, one thing that’s super helpful is actually defining what content types we’re going to work on. So for example, is this going to be a how-to article? Is it going to be a list post? Is it going to be a case study? Is it going to be a definition page? An alternatives page? So brand XYZ alternatives, this brand versus this brand. So there’s different types of content, and based on those types of content should look different. So the structure should be different the way you go about researching them and pulling information should be different.
Brad: I think one of the best places to always go look is just go into like an incognito browser, go into a private browser and actually start looking up some of these keywords, and looking at the content currently ranking for that because that’s going to tell you more or less exactly what is already performing. So that’ll tell you, if you think you’re going to write a how-to post on one keyword and you look at everything ranking for it, and it’s a bunch of like webpages on a specific website and there’s no how-to article to be seen, then obviously that changes your approach.
Ben: Okay. So you’re taking the different articles structures and you’re building out some sort of templates for what you want each article or classification of article to look like. Then eventually you’re handing those templates off to writers. Once you’ve found the right writer, talk to me about how you get them to understand how to write for a specific brand? What’s the right tone? How to actually write something that feels like it’s in the right voice?
Brad: Yeah, definitely. So there’s usually two key components. Once we vet writers and we know they’re good, and once we have them go through our default training process, we already know they’re good writers. So usually it’s two problems. It’s understanding the company’s business, and what they do at a more nuanced level and how they help people. Then number two, it’s like what you’re saying. It’s like, how did they want it to be almost perceived by their customer, their audience?
Brad: So number one’s easy to fix because it’s like, you go through demos, you actually start using the tool as a customer would to gain that insight. Number two is a little more challenging because for the vast majority, most, even large, companies don’t have very good formal style guidelines. If you talk about like design, for instance, they’ll have brand guidelines where it says, “Here’s our logo, here’s our colors. Here’s our fonts. Here’s how to use our logo, like on these different types of backgrounds, and with this type of white spacing involved.” None of that usually exists for like the actual written text portion for most clients.
Brad: So it’s kind of a combination of getting their feedback on what they think their preference is. So in other words, do you want it to come across more formal or informal? Do you want it to come across more like snarky, interesting or do you want it to come across as more like a trusted advisor?
Ben: Does anybody ever say they actually want to be snarky?
Brad: Some do actually, some do. One of our longest clients, AdEspresso, I don’t know if they said they want it to be snarky, but they enjoy things that are opinionated and they want their marketing content to be recognizable and to be different and kind of stand apart from like all the other marketing junk out there.
Ben: I understand that, and I’m not saying that this is what your client is suggesting, but I could also say, “I want the tone of being an asshole because it’s unique,” but nobody wants to hear from an asshole.
Brad: No, no, no, no. That’s a good point. But I mean, I think, like you’re saying, sometimes when people are presented with what they don’t want, it’s almost easier to figure out what they do want, in a way. So it’s like, do you like these attributes? Yes or no. If not, then it kind of helps point us in the right direction.
Ben: I like the term you used, saying opinionated, that seems like a nice way to put it.
Brad: I was trying, I was trying to come up with a nicer way to put it. So yeah, the other way to do it too, it’s like, you just have to get feedback. In most cases, you just have to go through the pain of, “Here’s a few different drafts. Please help us understand why you don’t like something. So don’t just rewrite something, but tell us why you don’t like it.” Then you start to document those preferences over time, and then that’s how you close the gap, usually.
Ben: No, I understand sort of building an understanding of tone with the right writer over time. Where it seems to be difficult is actually creating technical content. I’ll give you an example. I run the MarTech Podcast outside of the Voices of Search podcast, and a lot of it is advanced digital marketing strategies. How do you use technology to market? And the content is complex and very nuanced, and it’s hard to find somebody who truly understands MarTech to produce written content, which is why I ended up producing all of the podcast content myself. If I’m looking for writers that are nuanced, how do I find somebody that is a MarTech expert? Or is that something that can be taught and trained? How do you actually have people write technical content at scale?
Brad: We like to look for subject matter experts. So most of the content we produce, people don’t need to be breathtaking writers. The prose doesn’t have to be amazing. So what we’re looking for is can we find subject matter experts who also can write? And then we can also help them either clean up the writing or improve writing style. Like we sourced the team of writers and finance for a big finance client. So if we need to have a writer who knows what a REIT is, other commercial real estate stuff, we’re going to find someone who actually works at a commercial real estate brokerage, who actually understands all these terminology and all this jargon and all this stuff and added more nuance level.
Brad: On the marketing side, on the MarTech side, one of our writers, actually ran paid ad campaigns for people. Then we eventually convinced him to just write for us full time and try and drop all of his clients that he was running paid ad for. So it’s not the easiest way to do it, but it’s usually the most effective, and that’s how you get people who already know the lay of the land.
Ben: It begs the question of, how do you do it at scale, right? If I want to write my daily blog posts related to MarTech, it’s going to be a lot of work for one person to produce 365 blog posts a year. That’s a lot of writing and a lot of effort. How do you find enough people that are subject matter experts to be able to write great technical content, but also be able to scale it?
Brad: Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of like a lead gen funnel, but just for hiring. So you need a lot more writers, is usually the first problem, like you’re mentioning, and then you also need a lot more support around them. So when we worked with this finance client, and we were doing a hundred articles a month. We produced something like over 250 long form articles every month. We also have like two dozen writers doing that. So the initial team, it’s about how can we drive, not just like 10 writer applications and look at 10 different writers, it’s, how can we look at like a thousand writers and then whittle that down to testing the best 50? Then we actually will do paid tests with them and everything else. Then from there, we try to get those down into five or 10.
Ben: So there has to be some sort of an editorial process here too, where you’re not just hiring a high volume of writers, you’re not hiring people that are always subject matter experts, but you’re also having to filter some of the content. Is there a model where you can go find someone who’s a good writer so you get great prose who’s not necessarily an expert, but aware of the subject matter and then have somebody who’s truly an expert edit their content?
Brad: There is. It depends on, I would say time, like speed, and while you’re trying to do, I guess. So for instance, if you’re hiring someone full time in-house, and you’re going to ramp them up over time and they’re going to become an expert in three months and you’re okay with that type of ramp up, that’s usually fine. We’re an agency, and in an agency environment you don’t have any time ever. We need to hit the ground running and produce content a week from now. So in that case, we usually aren’t afforded that luxury of being able to bed someone in slowly and get them up to speed. So it is a little tricky and it might depend a little on the circumstance. It’s possible though, for sure.
Ben: Yeah. So it seems like the secret sauce is really finding the right people who are your subject matter experts, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that in tomorrow’s episode. So that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Brad Smith, the CEO of Codeless. We’d love to continue the conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Brad, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes, you can contact him on Twitter. His handle is bsmarketer, great handle, B-S-M-A-R-K-E-T-E-R. Or you can visit Brad’s company’s website, which is getcodeless.com, G-E-T-C-O-D-E-L-E-S-S.com.
Ben: Just one more link in our show notes I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, just head over to voicesofsearch.com, where we have summaries of all of our episodes and contact information for our guests. You can also send us your topics suggestions, or your SEO questions. You can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast. Of course, you could always reach out on social media, our handle is voicesofsearch on Twitter. My personal handle is Benjshap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.
Ben: If you haven’t subscribed yet, and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish an episode every day during the workweek. So hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning. All right. That’s it for today. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.