Perfectly Content — Episode 3
Adrie: Welcome to another episode. Today, I'm joined by Erin Balsa. She's the Marketing Director at The Predictive Index at the moment. But more importantly, she's a really active member of the content marketing community. I see her pop up all the time on LinkedIn, but she actually recently released a really interesting course, which is.
Adrie: about writing a research report and one that actually makes an impact and where the data actually tells a good story. Um, so it's a really exciting one, and definitely check it out on her website, but she is somebody who also really just brings edgy content to the forefront of things. So really excited to have you on the podcast today. So welcome, Erin!
Erin: Thanks so much for having me. And that was such a great introduction because it really sums up two things that are really important to me. Number one storytelling and number two that B2B doesn't have to be boring. You can be edgy and bold and interesting. And so I love that you just kind of encapsulated that right in the intro.
Adrie: I also think that B2B can be a lot more exciting than it is at the moment. And content is the key to that. So really happy to explore parts of that in our conversation today. So we've, of course, met but if you could give our audience a brief introduction to yourself, Erin.
Erin: Yeah. So I've been leading content teams for about seven years, first at a data agency in Boston and then at a B2B SaaS company called The Predictive Index.
Erin: And we are a talent optimization platform. We have behavioral people data that leaders can use for hiring better, managing, and building dream teams. It's a really cool and powerful platform. So it's been a lot of fun to be there for the last three-plus years, creating content about, you know, behavioral styles and leadership and all the stuff that people just love to read, especially people that are managing teams.
Adrie: I guess, in the content marketing space, like seven years is quite a lot of experience. I'm curious, how did you initially get into it?
Erin: I'm a little bit older lady never reveals her age, but I'm not a lady. So I’m 40. When I turned 30, I decided to start a blog. I had worked in education primarily for about a decade. I was a licensed teacher working with kids in detention centers and incarcerated teenagers.
Erin: And I decided to start a blog and, lo and behold, a few months later, I was at the local hair salon reading my favorite city magazine. You know, the cool one that tells you where to shop, where to drink, where to eat. And they were hiring an assistant editor. So I bypassed the normal application instructions, and I just emailed a link to my blog to the executive editor.
Erin: That's how I got my foot in the door. I was in editorial primarily for about three years. And then, I randomly stumbled upon this job to be a manager, leading a team of content writers at a content marketing agency. And to be completely honest, I didn't quite know what content marketing was, but I applied anyway, and they gave me a chance, and they said:
Erin: “Hey, you know, we had been primarily promoting writers into management roles and it's not always the best because it can be hard to go from a peer to a manager.” Right. So they decided to bring in an outside hire who had experience with managing staff and experience with writing and editing. So that's how I got my foot in the door.
Erin: I really just got lucky that someone gave me a chance.
Adrie: The more I speak to people in the industry. I do see that actually editorial is a pretty solid way into content marketing. Why do you think that is?
Erin: Because a lot of people who call themselves writers can't actually write very well. And that sounds mean, and I do always believe that anyone can improve, but I've been hiring writers now for ten years.
Erin: And if I just put a call out and I just look at all the applications. At the level that I could very easily work with you. Um, I wouldn't have to do a lot of editing. I'd say about 10% are good.
Adrie: Wow. Then I guess editorial is very necessary. I’ve also experienced it in content marketing as well. I see it more and more that you do also have to make sure that it's not just about the writing but also curating the actual story, the messaging, and everything that goes out.
Adrie: So it’s really interesting that you have that background.
Erin: I was talking to someone the other day, and I'm forgetting who I was talking about journalism, and I never went to J-school, that’s journalism school for anyone who doesn't know, but, oh, I remember it was Ashley Sava. So I was talking to her the other day, and she was saying how fortunate she was to go to J-school because they really kick your butt.
Erin: And if you're not good, they make you feel like you're not going to make it. So typically, the people who do end up making it through, they're good. They've been pushed to be the best. And they've been told you can't get away with this. This is lazy reporting. And so typically, those people have that training, that really hard training that they have to do, and they do eventually go into content marketing.
Erin: They know that they can't, you know, find sources that are not original sources. They know that they can't bury the lead. They have all these great fundamentals that translate really well into content marketing. Whereas some of the people just write what they think sounds good, and they kind of lack some of those fundamentals, and that can be problematic.
Adrie: Oh, that's when you get all these links, going back to a report that's from 2016 because that's the only report that has that one piece of information that's quotable. I think we've all experienced that.
Erin: We have all experienced that or where you’re going back to a blog, which links to another blog, which links to another blog, which references some study from 2016.
Erin: You can't do that.
Adrie: Yeah. Well, I think we're both agreed that we can have a bit more quality in content marketing. So that's only a good thing. Understanding your background, you have quite a lot of experience managing teams. And I think that's kind of the big challenge that we're going to talk about a little bit about today.
Adrie: I know at The Predictive Index you've created what you call an internal agency. And I think for a lot of people working in content, that is, um, something that is thrown around quite a lot. I've heard it said before, I've even tried a limited version of it, but I'd love to hear what kind of prompted you to set this up and the scenario around how you started to create this internal agency at The Predictive Index.
Erin: So I actually did work at an agency. So I just want to, on the one hand, talk about the difference between an actual agency and an internal agency at a company. So at an actual agency, the way that you bill clients, your billing, usually by the work that's produced. So the client is paying A, and they expect to get this amount of work, and this is a very thin margin.
Erin: So you really have to be demanding that your staff complete a certain volume of work, no matter what, because if they don't, you're going to lose money, and you won't be a profitable business. So there's really that element of you have to be fast. You have to hit these volumes, and there's very little wiggle room at an internal agency.
Erin: In an internal agency, you definitely want to prioritize quality and efficiency, which means you want people to be getting more efficient over time. However, you don't need to put in that same really demanding volume. You don't have to say, you must write, you know, twenty-five hundred words per day, or we're going to go out of business.
Erin: There's much more flexibility, which is great. It means that you can spend a little more time on the content. The content can be more high quality. You can spend more time investing in the development of the people on your team. So I just want to say that. So if you're thinking about starting an internal agency, it's not all about, you know, setting limits and pushing people to go as fast as possible.
Erin: Volume is not the goal. The goal is always quality efficiency and happiness. You always want to make sure your staff are engaged. They're feeling fulfilled, and they’re growing in their role. And sometimes, when you're, you know, a volume organization, that doesn't always happen. So the reason that we started this agency model.
Erin: It's because we moved from a model where we used to gate content on the website to collect leads. So we used to have different eBooks, and all of them were behind a landing page where you'd have to fill out your form again and again and again; we all know that it's not best practice and we were actively doing something to gate more strategically.
Erin: And for us, that meant building a learning center that housed not only our eBooks and our assets but also courses and interactives and certifications. So people could learn about talent optimization because we're a talent optimization platform. We want you to learn about it so that you can actively do it and make your workplace better.
Erin: So with that building an internal learning center, people can sign up once, give their information once and unlock all of the content forever, which is pretty awesome. That's a much better user experience. And so we ended up taking some of the people that were on the digital learning team, helping the product and helping our customers and our partners learn,
Erin: and brought them into the marketing team so that we were creating content, not only digital learning and courses for our partners and customers, but also our prospects and anyone who really wants to learn how to manage, hire, or lead better. So that was really the impetus for doing this.
Adrie: So it was more about trying to pull other parts of different teams into your own team in order to get a final product done.
Erin: Yep. Number one, because we wanted to have a better experience. We wanted to build this learning center. So. Learn better. They were just kind of on their own reading eBooks or watching videos.
Erin: If that wasn't the best way for them to retain information, we wanted to give them a wider variety of ways to learn so that they could learn in the best way possible for them. And then in terms of the business, it's always good to be pushing people down this path so that eventually they might get certified because if you're certified, you're going to put that badge on your LinkedIn and you're going to share it with your friends, and you're going to be more apt to become an evangelist.
Erin: And of course, hopefully, use our software.
Adrie: In terms of actually setting up this internal agency. Was it just limited to that specific project or has it kind of continued on throughout the way that you're working on creating content?
Erin: It continued on. And I would say that even before we started building the learning center, we were already a team that serviced the entire business.
Erin: So some content teams they're really highly focused on editorial, maybe video, and their main goal is to get attention, get people onto the website. Capture email addresses, and that's kind of their focus. Their focus is the blog. You know, a lot of companies use like, what are you doing for marketing? Oh, we have a blog.
Erin: Like, okay, that's cool. What else are you doing? So we were always, you know, creating content that would be given to our partners, creating content to help onboard new employees, creating, of course, blog content, you know, blogs are integral, but we were always helping and serving and creating content for whoever needed it.
Erin: Across the business. And if you're already doing that, you're in a good place to become an internal agency. And what that really means is putting systems and processes in place to make it really easy. For you to serve the entire business. People need to know how they can request content, how they can share ideas with you.
Erin: People know what your roadmap is, what you're working on. People know how you prioritize requests. So it's not that you're just saying no because you're a jerk; you’re saying no because we have a roadmap and we have priorities. And here's what that looks like.
Adrie: Right? No, that's really interesting. And I think it also ties into a lot of bottlenecks that content teams experience when they don't set this up, or at least they're in danger of experiencing it. If they don't really go the internal agency route and they don't develop all of these processes and systems and prioritization, I guess matrixes aren’t clear to the rest of the business.
Adrie: So for you guys, were you already experiencing some of these bottlenecks before setting it up, or was it mostly just kind of, uh, an initiative from within?
Erin: For sure, if we were, I think, any new content team experiences growing pains. And when I came on, I was the one and only person on the content team. I was hired to grow out the content team.
Erin: Um, so within the first year, I had hired one writer and videographer, and the second year I had another writer, and now we're at eight people on the content team, and that's a combination of hiring and bringing people from other departments onto our teams that we can accomplish more together.
Adrie: So let's talk a little bit about some of those processes and structures that kind of all come together to make this internal agency possible with the team that you have because I think those are really important.
Adrie: I'm always talking about processes.I think it's really, really important to have those documented and shared with everyone. But for you, what are the core pieces of this internal agency that make it successful?
Erin: Yeah, so it all starts with a roadmap. So we want to know what the product roadmap is. And we want to always be aligning our campaigns with our product roadmap, which also aligns with our event roadmap.
Erin: So we typically time things together. So for example, last January, We released a new software feature and we did a big campaign. We did a report; we had a big virtual event. So it was a really big launch of this new feature so that it became really exciting. And we had a lot of fun. We had this virtual event, we had a really cool DJ playing music, and we had this really funny commercial because, again, B2B doesn't have to be boring.
Erin: You can have fun; even if you're talking to CEOs, CEOs still like to laugh. Right. So I would say that. Primary is having that roadmap. And then from there documenting a content strategy, and I didn't have that right away because when you're just getting thrown in, you're trying to figure out what's working, what's not working.
Erin: It doesn't make sense to have a content strategy on day one. It makes sense to try things. And then once, you know, what's doing well for you and you have more data and more knowledge than you can come and document a strategy, which is something that came next and the content strategy for me. Links out to all the different forums and all the different reasons why we do things and the request forms and sets part three visibility.
Erin: It's really important. Um, so we all use Asana company-wide, and I think it is super important because you always want to know what your team is doing. And when you really have an agency model, you're not just working in the content calendar; you’re on all these different projects. You're working on these different key initiatives.
Erin: You’re serving all these different teams and it doesn't always make sense to have that right in the content calendar because that's not content for your marketing team. So you need some sort of way that you have visibility into all these different things that your team is doing. So what we do is we have a portfolio, and I can track workload there.
Erin: So I can always know if my team has the right amount of work. I don't want them overloaded. I don't want them bored. And I can always know at a glance exactly what everybody's working on. We can communicate right within the task as I ask these other questions; that way, I'm not having to dig through email or dig through slack.
Erin: And I can't find the answer to what I need. We make sure that we always communicate right within the task. And it's also a great way. You know, communicate up and out what you're doing. So you can't expect someone on the executive team to be looking in Asana into your project board to know what's going on, but that also makes it really easy for you to share updates and notify.
Erin: Notify whoever wants to be notified about any project. So that's a great way as well. If you're working on something important, you can couple it with a little soapbox video, send it out. Here's our update. Here's the progress. If you'd like to learn more details. So I think communication is really key. And then finally having a process for people to request ideas like, “Hey, I will request content and share ideas.”
Erin: Those are two completely different things. Request content. We have a form. And we kind of, I mean, we don't make people jump through hoops, but we make them think about their requests. Like, why do you want this? Which, you know, annual company goal does this map to, you know, which part of the content strategy it belongs to?
Erin: We have this strategy and the whole company understands what it is. Does it map to this side or this side? We have these goals, and they all line up with our marketing goals and our company goals. And then when people request that, it goes directly into my triage section, where I look to see who needs this.
Erin: Okay. And then, I can prioritize based on the roadmap and based on how much room that creative has. So we have editorial on my team, graphic design video, and then digital learning and media. So everything from podcasts and YouTube videos and annual reports, we all, we do it all. So I want to make sure that whoever has to be involved is involved.
Erin: Sometimes, it might be five different people that are working on a request. So I need to make sure that we have the collective time, not just the time of one person. And then there are ideas. Remember back in the day, especially when we're all in person before COVID. Walk in and go to go to get a coffee. And someone's like, “Hey, I got this great idea for content.”
Erin: And you're like, cool. Let me try to remember that after I like, get my coffee and pee and get back to my desk, and it can be overwhelming; it can be hard. And then it's the burden's on you to remember that. And then to go type that, and you might have misrepresented the person's ideas and you have to reach out by slack and you have to have a meeting.
Erin: And it's like this whole big thing. What I started doing was having a slack channel originally because I want it to be super easy for people. If you have this idea, even if you don't know if it's a good idea, just throw it in the slack channel. And that worked like a stopgap. And that was okay. But the burden was still on me to take the ideas from slack and put them into Asana.
Erin: So over time I decided that a better way would be to have another form, but I didn't want it to be a burden. It's not the same as the content request. I just want something easy that anyone can drop an idea on. So it’s one box, and it's like, what's your idea? So they don't have to say if it maps to a goal; none of that matters.
Erin: I just want you to have an easy way. And it populates, writes Asana, not to my content calendar, not to my triage section, but to my ideas board. And whenever I am brainstorming around a campaign or a topic, I can just go there and see if anything fits.
Adrie: That's a nice way of sourcing, an easy way of sourcing ideas because I definitely have been there, standing by the coffee machine, I guess, and it’s like an ambush.
Adrie: I know that can be overwhelming, and it's, you're not the first or the last to experience that. I love the amount of detail that goes into everything. Also kind of the compartmentalization of it, because I think that is so helpful in content. Has it also been helpful in evangelizing content to the rest of your organization as well?
Erin: Yes, I think so. I think that you can't just do things. That’s a big mistake that I made. As an individual contributor, but more so as an early leader is assuming that because we were all heads down and working and busy, people knew what we were doing and knew that we were doing the right thing. You know, just because yeah, the marketing team and the content team, we're meeting our lead gen goals, where, you know, together with the sales team, meeting our revenue goals, it doesn't necessarily mean that they understand what we're doing, why we're doing it, or that they are buying into what we're doing.
Erin: So something that I had to get comfortable with was kind of tooting my own horn. I was. More comfortable with tooting my employees’ horns, and that's easy for me. Like, “Hey, look at this great setting that, you know, David did, or Josh or Andy or whoever”. But for myself, I was always really nervous about sharing my work or talking about what I was doing.
Erin: And I had a great manager who really gently encouraged me and said, you really got to do this. You really have to get comfortable with talking about what you've been doing. I started volunteering to get up, you know, at all company meetings or in front of the learning center and all 200 employees and talk about what I was doing and also to teach people so voluntary options for you to learn how to do this thing that we do on the marketing team.
Erin: So people that were interested in what they could learn and what we were doing and why it was working. And that was another easy way to kind of explain what we're doing and why. And here's what that looks like. So that's another way for people that aren't quite comfortable tooting their own horn, teach, you know, instruction and mentorship are such important values for leaders.
Erin: So I think you should always be offering to teach others what you know, and sharing knowledge. And that's an easy way to kind of toot your own horn without talking about your work. You're actually tooting your own horn by showing that you're competent and that you actually know what you're doing.
Adrie: Yeah. And I think that's also the purpose of this particular podcast, right? Because this was a real challenge that you overcame. And I think there's a lot to learn here. So even doing it, I think within the larger content marketing community, I think is also super valuable. So also again, really happy to have you here.
Adrie: Just want to go back to the internal agency that you've set up. What was the end result? So how does it work when, let's just say, when you have a request that is positive, that you say, okay, this is a priority from another part of the business. How does that work now?
Erin: So we have moved more recently within the last year to, within the agency we have to scrum teams.
Erin: So like I said, we have this content strategy where we have one half focused on one thing, one half focused on this other thing. And we have a scrum team dedicated to this one half from the scrum team dedicated to this half. And that would be a writer, you know, a videographer, a graphic designer.
Erin: And then we also have, not on my team, I don't manage these people, but learning strategy specialists. So they're really trained instructional designers. Who's making sure that we're really thinking through these courses that we're building within learning or that we're really setting the learner up for success.
Erin: So it's always coming from a place where we're not just trying to get leads. We're not just trying to get you into our, you know, database so we can call you and bother you. We actually want you to be successful. We want you to learn this amazing discipline of talent optimization so that you can actually do it at work and be successful.
Erin: Like that's the ultimate goal for our marketing. And I think that that matters. I think that when people approach marketing from, the “I need to shove these keywords into this blog so that I can, you know, rank so that people can buy my stuff” angle. That's not the right approach. I think that you need to approach things from a place where you really truly want to help and educate.
Erin: And that's what we do.
Adrie: That makes sense. Makes sense. And for you, just like looking back on this whole experience, I know you already said at least one thing that you would kind of change about how you set it up. Is there something else that you would have done differently?
Erin: Yeah. I'm not naturally someone who is great at managing up and pushing back, especially if I didn't feel 110% confident that I could explain my “why”. So I've developed that muscle as I have grown in my career where I can manage up, I can push back. I can explain my “why”, and I can point to data to back that up.
Erin: So I always knew that you know, putting a form in front of every single eBook was just inherently wrong. Cause it's a bad experience, but it took me a while to understand. Where to look to get the data, to prove that. So, for example, Well, looking back a couple of years back. Great. So content is our number one lead type.
Erin: We're generating the most leads for the business because people love our content. That's great. However, we're calling them after they download an eBook, and they're not converting. So our sales team now feels like crap, and they're having to call people who don't want to be called. Like, so how can we fix this mess?
Erin: And I inherently could explain, but I couldn't quite point to the data, and I couldn't quit. I needed to get the data I needed to explain what would be a better way. So, I mean, if I'm thinking of people who might be earlier in their career and you would like to be able to. Be more impactful and have a stronger seat at the table.
Erin: Understand the data, understand what your conversion rate is. If you're a sales lead org, understand what your conversion rate is from marketing lead to opportunity for your high intent leads, and your low intent leads. Understand that content. If you're going to throw a form in front of it, it's going to be a low intent lead.
Erin: Understand that you want to be generating mostly. High intent leads, but that's going to be hard. So you need to have a lead split, and you need to be able to understand people that are required. That requesting a demo, they're raising their hand; they’re coming inbound, organic. That's awesome. And then look at those converting at like 35% from lead to op, and then you have your low intent leads, and those aren't inherently bad, but those shouldn't be your first go-to.
Erin: That should be what you're doing so that you make sure you have enough leads that you can hit your monthly opp goal. Because if you can hit your monthly opp goal, then you can hit your monthly revenue goal. Because the sales team knows if they have X amount of ops, they're going to close X amount of business.
Erin: And this is our average deal size, and this is our cycle length. So it's really data, and it's really not being afraid of data. And for me as a writer, I was always like, I hate numbers. I hate math. I don't get it. It's so hard. And the thing is, you don't need to get it at the level that you need to be able to build these formulas yourself and build these spreadsheets.
Erin: You have to get it at the level that you need to ask for what you need. You need to know who to go to that can get you those data insights. You need to be comfortable asking questions. And then, once you have what you need, you can make better decisions. And that is a muscle that I think most content people do need to be.
Adrie: Yeah, for sure. It's also one that I definitely built up over time, and it took me a lot of bad spreadsheets to get there. But I mean, I think experimentation is the only way that you're going to get a final product. So I definitely agree with trying to develop that muscle. And I think I totally agree. I think content marketers do need to become more comfortable with data.
Adrie: It does really benefit you in the long run. It's just a tough one. I think if you come from the, I love writing, the creative side of content marketing; there’s definitely that side they have to go hand in hand is what I'm saying.
Erin: And a lot of it is vulnerability. It’s having the courage to sit in a meeting. If you're in person at a conference table of 20 people, and to raise your hand and just say, “Hey, what does that mean?”
Erin: Or “what's that metric?” Or “what are we trying to accomplish?” That doesn't make you look dumb. It makes you look freaking awesome because it shows that you're curious and you care and that you have the courage to ask questions when you need clarification. And I think that's something that a lot of people need to get over too.
Erin: I know I did. I was. You know, oh, I can't ask a question because I'm going to look dumb that I don't know that. Just ask. Cause you know what, if you have a question, there's someone else at that table that has a question too. So don't be afraid to ask.
Adrie: And I think the silent room is really the idea-killer, to be honest, I think that's something that is quite difficult if you're all remote. Because to some extent, it does kind of shut down those possibilities to ask questions or not the possibility, but the encouragement to ask questions. So definitely. A lesson for everyone to take home.
Erin: Are you, are you fully remote?
Adrie: We're fully remote up until a week ago. And now we're, um, hybrid now. So two days in the office, three days at home. So I'm curious to see how the mix goes.
Erin: Yeah, we put this report out last summer. It's called, I call it the remote work report, but it's behavioral drives in a remote workplace, and it just talks about how different people are wired differently. So folks that used to really love being in person because they could, you know, use their body language to influence conversations.
Erin: They could easily have their voice heard. And a remote setting, they're actually feeling less heard and less confident. So it just gives insight into these different personality types, um, and what you could do as a leader to actually change your approach in this remote and hybrid world so that people don't disengage so that they don't feel like their voice isn't being heard.
Erin: So if you ever, you know, you or anyone listening wants that, I can reach out to me. I'll email it over to you, and hopefully, it'll be held.
Adrie: I'd love to read that because I do think it is, it is interesting because I think our company also has such a mix of introverts and extroverts and people with completely different preferences. Some people have really flourished at home, and some people are really just craving the, not just the social interaction at the office, but the actual in-person meetings personally, I would love to read that.
So my last question for this episode is, um, yeah, if you could share with us one. Idea concept person book course that's really influenced the way that you view content marketing today?
Erin: There are so many influential people. One I will name just because this person is one of the first people that I discovered when I was first at the agency, and I still open every single newsletter this person sends me. He's made a big impact, Peep Laja. So he, for those who don't know, owns and runs CXL and also Winter, which is a really cool copy testing tool that I have used.
Erin: And it's really cool. I am not an affiliate. I'm not getting any money I could go, but I just really love how he challenges people to be different. You know, there's a lot of people that talk about radical differentiation, but for me, he's been really impactful. Showing examples, you know, examples are everything like marketing examples, such a great site.
Erin: Just being able to visualize what the heck people are talking about. And one really sticks out in my mind that they shared a while back. It's an advertisement, a print ad from a ski resort and it shows a one-star rating. And it said, “oh, this mountain was way too hard for me.” Like, that's so smart because you're not trying to get everybody to come to your mountain.
Erin: You're trying to get the right people that want to ski a really hard mountain. You don't want the families that want the bunny slope. This isn't the mountain for you. So just really leaning into that, having some fun with your marketing, not being afraid to post that one-star review. That's really impactful to really own that.
Erin: And to understand that when you're speaking to the market and you're putting your POV out there, it's okay. If some of the people think that you're dumb or they can't stand you, you know, POV, that's okay. Because when that happens, you have the other side of the coin who are drawn to you, like moths to a candle.
Erin: And that is really something that marketers need to understand. I think a lot of marketers are too scared to piss people off. And they play it safe and then they don't get any attention. So you always have to be open to knowing that some people won't like you, and this is also good advice for any content creator who wants to join the creator economy and start sharing their opinions online.
Erin: Don't play it safe if you play it safe. I think it's going to be harder for you to get noticed.
Adrie: Yeah, then you're really just throwing your content into, as we know, the content abyss, which is very noisy and very boring, to be honest. And nobody, very few people go to sift through the content there.
Adrie: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Erin. It was a pleasure and. Yeah, I'm looking forward to reading that eBook that you're gonna send me.
Erin: Thanks for having me. This has been fun.