Tommy Walker is a veteran content marketer who ran content at ConversionXL, Shopify Plus and QuickBooks. He's currently in the process of launching his own consultancy. He was kind enough to spend an hour answering questions in our Slack group.
Any tips for navigating the content strategy process at large companies like Shopify and QuickBooks? In my experience, this is really hard because there are so many stakeholders. Getting a strategy developed and approved sort of felt like trying to pass a bill in Congress.
Tommy: I love this question because there are very different answers with a lot of similarities. At Shopify Plus, it was a wide open space and I had so much freedom. There was no blog, the product was barely existent, and I essentially started everything from scratch.
Since I was the first marketing hire, I knew the blog was going to be the most consistent voice. The research started with the customer (like it always should) and I interviewed customers and researched the landscape for about three months before we ever published a piece. This, I believe, was foundational to the success as I helped see them through to their first 2,000 customers before we brought on our head of marketing. As time went on, I kept a pulse on the growing customer base by working with our success managers and releasing a case study every week, and those case study interviews constantly fed back into the rest of the content strategy.
At QuickBooks, I had a very different challenge. I had a very tough act to follow. 😉 But I made it clear from the outset, even though I was a part of the process beforehand, it was going to take me 3 months so I could do the appropriate research to where I would be comfortable publishing.
That took a lot of trust, so I was sharing what I learned as I went along, and eventually, I put together a deck that laid out where we were going. I also made it very clear from the outset that I am a chef, not a short order cook, and I needed time to gather my ingredients and put the recipes together. Part of that recipe was what I called "mapping the internal networks" so I could get an understanding of all of the players involved and what their expectations were. I wanted to let people know this was a collaborative effort, but also to let me do what I'm best at.
Fortunately, doing that up front set really solid expectations, and I ended up having more authority to do what I deemed necessary and didn't have to ask for a lot of permission after that.
At Shopify Plus, what was your approach to customer research at a company starting from scratch?
Tommy: It's all account-based marketing. Which verticals are you going after? Who's currently serving that space? What are the pros and cons of that product? You have to bob and weave. If you can't compete on features, you can compete on knowledge.
That's what we did at Plus. We didn't have the same features or customers as Magento, but we turned it into a selling point, and with our industry reports, we put 1,000,000,000x more effort into demonstrating our knowledge and care for the vertical (this was the first we released) They still use the strategy today, and it's lead to 9-figure sales.
You’ve been the EIC (editor in chief) at several awesome companies. Question: how do you define the EIC role, how have you seen it differ from company to company, and what’s the ‘right’ way to think about it?
Tommy: I LOVE this one. It's changed from position to position for sure.
Something I've realized now that I'm back on the market is that "Editor in Chief" is actually pretty limiting. ConversionXL wasn't nearly the brand name it is today when I started, so we were experimenting with formats and trying new things all the time. It was actually content development. Same deal at Shopify Plus, and then at QuickBooks.
The major thing I've noticed, honestly, is that the bigger the company gets, the more specialized they want you to become.
To me, EIC has always meant putting out good content regardless of format on the primary publishing hub. The larger the organization gets though, the more of a lane people want you to be in because they have someone else who does that other thing. This is a double edged sword.
At QuickBooks, when I became Global Editor-in-Chief, what that became wasn't about experimenting with multiple formats, or even getting too close to the content itself, but rather setting the tone and scaling the operation to a global scale.
By the time I was done there, I had learned how to scale the operation from one market to 16, and break down the organizational barriers that existed between SEO, Blog, Design, Social and Email, to make sure we had a consistent voice across all channels and having maximum distribution opportunities.
That was WAY more behind the scenes work, but it had a MASSIVE impact overall org.
In my mind, EIC encompasses all of these things.
What is the balance with applying SEO best practices to a long form piece of content and being ambitious and creative?
Tommy: I've always approached this from a calendar approach.
Every week, we'll publish two SEO driven pieces, the other days of the week, we'll publish something more focused on social, or product, or some experimental format.
As far as on a piece by piece basis, as a writer I've never been great with working with SEO guidelines, but rather letting the research guide the work and tell the story. I've always focused on hiring people who are much better at that than me at the SEO side, then coached on the storytelling structure and making it sound not so stilted and like we're keyword stuffing.
Any advice on developing content for different reader personas/audiences while maintaining a consistent brand voice? And in a similar vein: how have you determined the mix of top/middle/bottom-of-funnel content to generate at different companies?
Tommy: I'll work backwards on this one.
Optimize closest to the money. What products are you trying to sell and how can we bridge the gap from where people are to where they want to go? If I start with the product page (or more accurately, work with the copywriter who does) what's the story that drives people to that page?
As a tangent, I started as a career actor, and one of the things we focused on was narrative structure of serialized TV dramas. If I treat email sequences with that same "programming" in mind, I know where the story is going to end up, so how can I work backwards from that?
The question then becomes, who is going to buy into this story and who needs it? From a B2B perspective, is it the senior marketer who's making the case to their group marketing manager? Is it the CEO? How tech-forward are they? You could ask a million different questions from there.
I've done this with an existing customer base and without.
With the customer base, it simply starts with the customer and interviewing (which, I also turned into case studies later on) and finding patterns.
Without the customer base, it's a lot of audience development and account-based marketing tactics (I'm in this place now with my own business.) When you're in this position, you're in a place where you can start to develop your personas on your own (research-backed of course) and update your assumptions as you go along and get real people. Sometimes you're spot on, sometimes you're way off base, but ultimately, it's a continual refinement and something that should be revisited as the customer base expands anyhow.
Two questions for you. 1/ Where would you focus for building a content team from scratch in a startup? 2/ I’ve seen the emergence of Content Ops as a branch of the content function to handle content for specialized uses like website copy, emails, etc. Do you see this as a fad or as something here to stay?
Tommy: Whoooooo, that's a loaded one!
1/ I did this at Shopify Plus so fortunately, there's some grounding. There, after I did my initial market research and got clear on the goals of the company and ALL of the players involved (you're the most frequent voice of the company, so you represent everyone including customer service people) I wrote something called The Code.
I used this document to influence my job ads, and was able to attract a level of talent that was insane (like, Emmy-Award winning journalist insane)
This got people feeling like they were a part of something and like there was an actual vision (not just, "hey write blog posts for me") It set the tone for everything we did, and it got people on board who were truly passionate about what they were a part of.
2/ Content Ops is where I've focused heavily for the last 18 months and is something I will always invest in. I've built operations that scaled 16 global markets and involved 40+ different people from various parts of the company including SEO, Social, Email, Blog, Legal and more and have built automations that save roughly 80 hours a week in repetitive tasks. Without a proper operational structure in place, there is no content at scale. I am bullish on operations and long term, is probably one of the most important functions of any content program.
Any thoughts/approaches on effectively mixing pre-planned content (defined by a content strategy) and having room to integrate “trending” topics into the schedule - particularly interested in your Shopify experience here.
We’re an e-commerce platform too and there are always spur-of-the-moment topics we need to comment on but not always the time to do it. Also, any step-by-step guidance on blog topic research before you dive into creating them around a theme. I tend to do some Googling and look at answer the public then just dive in and hope for the best.”
Tommy: So if I'm being honest, I was never great at this, but here's what I would do now if I could do it all over again.
Hire a "fast" writer. A trend hunter. Someone who is happy to keep on top of this.
I personally have always focused on long-form and evergreen, so I've tried to hire people who are able to keep me in the loop on what's happening. Ultimately, this comes down to how you plan your budget and where you allocate your resources.
As for the second question, I've always planned my themes in a four act structure based on the quarters in the year, then three act structures based on the months in that quarter. The content always needs to be leading to something; a webinar, an ebook, a tool, etc. If you know where people are supposed to go, you build your story backwards from there and plan your calendar more like a serialized drama with an ongoing narrative than a series of one-off shorts.
This is why I've told the companies I've worked with at the beginning of our engagement that I need the first three months to research our customers. I need to know what story I'm trying to tell throughout the year, then I can build out my "big ole' keyword list" and then structure that into an ongoing narrative.
This narrative, I believe, is the biggest reason my publications have been successful. I was able to generate 60% return rates, which is 🔑 in getting people to buy a high-ticket item.
I've been super impressed with you documenting your shift to consulting on Linkedin. Anything surprise you about organic Linkedin engagement or the response you've gotten from the community?
Tommy: Wow, I don't even know what to say about LinkedIn yet, but it's been wild. The way they're approaching organic reach is amazing, especially when one of your comments exposes me to all of your contacts.
I haven't done this yet but I'm planning on doing more account based stuff on LinkedIn and curating my contacts list, and see what that does. I imagine if I'm getting into those circles it's going to be a boon for the consulting business.
Thanks for watching the videos too, it's been an interesting journey so far.
See an example here and below:
Have you worked for a mid-large size company & on-boarded a large bench of freelance writers? Running into roadblocks at my current company and wondering what process worked for you.
I would love to know more details about the challenges, but my approach as always been to write The Code (this is the one I wrote for Shopify Plus) then use that to inform my job postings.
Doing this has allowed me to build a bunch of New York Times published authors, the writer of several "For Dummies" books, an Emmy Award winning journalist, and plenty more.
If you're going to have a large bench, make sure your content ops are in order, or it's going to be a nightmare to manage.
Part 1: What do you think is the best way to scale a content program/team?
Part 2: I second this ! regarding scaling with a twist — How do you scale a content program with a team of one? Any tips on approaching content strategy, with this in mind? Thanks!”
Tommy: OPERATIONS, OPERATIONS, OPERATIONS.
You need to have your operations in place, then from there, build out a publishing code to cut the amount of onboarding time for authors in half, and train them on how to use your operation. (Jimmy can speak first hand to how I'm bullish on this)
Then set benchmarks for whatever new thing you're going to come out with. (when we have 10,000 readers, we do X, when we have 5,000 emails we do Y.) It's SUPER easy to get lost doing all of it.
For a team of one (I feel you, I there myself right now) same thing as above, but work backwards from your money. Get super clear on what you offer, then create content that supports that and only that. Then, like I said earlier, release things only once you've reached certain benchmarks. If inspiration hits you, create it, but revisit and launch it later once you've hit your benchmarks.
Any closing words?
Tommy: I wanted to add something because there were a lot of questions around how to stand out.
It's important to know from the outset what your mission as a publication is going to be, and to know where your competitors are weak.
So many companies view content marketing as a checklist item, and if that's your competitors, you've already got a strong advantage.
I've mentioned this in a few of the comments already, but my best example of this was Shopify Plus taking on Magento when they wanted to go upmarket.
We didn't have the features or the big-name customers, so I wanted to show we had more industry knowledge at a vertical level, because that was a massive gap in Magento's strategy, and the assumption by proxy was that we cared more about who worked with.
This was our first industry report - completely bespoke, not templated, and highly editorialized.
Nobody was going to put that level of care into demonstrating knowledge of those verticals, so I wanted to do the "not scalable" work to show that we were. The industry report strategy is still being used today, and has generated 9 figures in sales.
Put care into your work, focus on the craft, and always exploit your competitor's weaknesses.
I appreciate the opportunity and thank you everyone for your time. Feel free to DM me if you'd like to follow up 😁.