Content marketing is all very well for big brands with the budgets to match, but what about start-ups? How on earth do you make a coherent and effective content strategy when it’s just two of you in a makeshift office, with none of the staffing and infrastructure of a large operation?
We spoke to Lisa Sullivan, Director of Marketing at luxury audio brand MQA, Jasper Martens, CMO at PensionBee, and Sara Trechman, the Co-Founder and Director of healthy food brand Well & Truly, about how they used content marketing to help their start-ups go from strength to strength.
Lisa Sullivan - Director of Marketing, MQA
A marketing career that started 20 years ago in the travel industry with Thomas Cook has seen Lisa manage major international campaigns. She has worked on MQA since its launch in 2014.
Jasper Martens - Chief Marketing Officer, PensionBee
With 15 years of experience in financial services, Jasper works with the Acquisition, Brand and Product teams on creating the UK’s most loved pension company – and one of the Financial Times’ fintech innovations of 2016.
Sara Trechman - Co-Founder and Director, Well & Truly
For over 10 years, Sara has headed up marketing departments for across multiple sectors for companies like Apple and BskyB. She has extensive knowledge of launching new products, such as Optimum Nutrition across EMEA.
Let’s get started…
1. When did you decide that content marketing was going to be a key part of your start-up’s strategy?
Lisa Sullivan: Right at the start.
Sara Trechman: Absolutely, right from day one.
Jasper Martens: At PensionBee we’ve built our entire business on content – it’s as simple as that. The only way for a brand like ours to grow as quickly as we have done is by making pensions simple, and the only way to do that is by creating relevant pieces of content that people understand. When I joined PensionBee in 2015, the first thing I did was get a freelance content writer, because our blog actually went up that November – a few months before the product even went live. It was all about educating people.
ST: We launched our social media presence a little bit before we actually launched any products too – it was fundamental to us to try and start communicating with key opinion leaders. We also got a nutritionist on board to help us understand how to formulate our campaigns in terms of our positioning around certain key nutritional issues and phrases, be it sugar, obesity or gluten-free. Based off that we then produced a series of content articles that we pushed out on our blog and through other blogs as well, which really helped people to link back to wellandtruly.co.uk. It allowed us to have a bit more depth and a stance on key nutritional themes, rather than simply being a brand that makes snacks.
LS: As a new audio and music technology we had to build awareness and action across a large audience, in many markets, so our content strategy was very important from the beginning.
JM: When it comes to content for us there’s awareness content and consideration content. The only way to get that right is knowing who you’re targeting inside out and informing them not just about pensions – that’s the awareness piece – but all sorts of other financial content that they care about, like bank accounts and student debt, and how pensions feed into those. With consideration content, it’s about people getting really warmed up and knowing that they have to take control of their pension. If you’re able to explain it in a jargon-free way, then you’re well on the way to winning them over from the start. Many of the other pension providers in our sector really struggle to do that.
2. When did you decide what the main pillars to your content marketing strategy would be?
ST: When we set out with our content marketing strategy we had three key objectives: to always communicate in line with our nutritional philosophy, to keep things simple, and to make sure we educate consumers on our ‘simple swap’ message.
LS: Ours were awareness, education and driving action through to our delivery partners. We developed a mixed media approach around our content strategy.
JM: Our core objective has always been to make pensions simple.
LS: Selecting the right, top-tier industry and PR influencers across our key markets was crucial to our awareness and acceptance. We also had to start at the top of a triangle to message those that knew and cared about studio quality sound before we developed our approach for the mainstream music fan.
3. Social media is a handy tool for new businesses – it’s free and so immediate. Has it helped you?
ST: Oh definitely. We split our social media strategy into three categories: Facebook is really there as an information hub for pushing out lots of content, articles, photos or interesting events; Twitter is for short, snappy lines and instant responses; Instagram, which is the one that’s growing the fastest for us, is all around the beautiful shots, the occasions, recipes and more aspirational content.
JM: At PensionBee 80 per cent of our traffic is mobile-only, and 65 per cent of our customers are found or acquired on Instagram, closely followed by Facebook. We do a lot of video content, and if you look at our YouTube channel you might think that the content looks a little bit amateurish and cheaply produced – but that’s exactly the type of content that works. The more polished the video content we produce, the worse it performs. We did a video showing how easy it is to make a contribution into your pension – no music, no sound, zero production costs. It’s out-performing most of our animated and more polished content. What I’ve learned is that people want to see a real-life video that shows them exactly what the product does.
ST: Social media is vital. Our following is growing but it’s still quite small, and when I’ve spoken to other company founders who have much larger followings they actually get sale buyers contacting them via their social media following. So in the start-up world it’s hugely important – and what other marketing can you do out there than doesn’t cost you anything? That’s crucial and fundamental when you’re starting out, because you have no cash.
LS: Our approach to social media at MQA has been very collaborative with our partners. Our ‘tier one’ brand partners had large established social media channels so by working closely with these partners we were able to grow our social audience both quickly and effectively.
4. When you’re a start-up there’s obviously not very many of you. How difficult is it to come up with a content marketing strategy with so few people?
LS: It’s actually very simple, because as a small team you learn to prioritise and focus efforts in the right way. Our marketing strategy was well defined based on what we had to achieve for the technology launch. Our content strategy was PR and digital driven to reach a relevant, international audience.
ST: There were just two of us when we started, which kind of makes it easier and harder at the same time. It’s easier because it’s just us who come up with the ideas, which can be approved straight away, meaning we can be quite quick to market with all the different bits of our strategy; if we suddenly decide we want to go for a different angle with our content strategy then we can. What make it hard is that when you’re a small team who have to be jacks of all trades and going from manufacturing to logistics to sales to marketing, finding the time to create content is not easy.
JM: When we started we were never just creating content and pushing it out without any thought or structure. It was very methodically planned. Once or twice a week is the minimum we have for a blog piece, and we’ve always measured the engagement of every piece we’ve published. We often promote content on social channels, and through click-throughs and CPA we can understand what types of content do well. That, in turn, fuels the content calendar in terms of what types of awareness and consideration content we need, and how it needs to be tailored according to the platform it’s going on. That said, we are flexible: if something topical comes up, let’s do some content off the back of it.
ST: When we first started out I used to set aside one weekend a month to take photos, spend time in the kitchen, create recipes, and then drip-feed it through our content strategy over the following three-to-four weeks. Now that we’re a little bit bigger and we’ve widened our network, we work with up-and-coming photographers who are trying to build up their portfolio. It means that we’re constantly accumulating a bank of content that we can pull from on a daily basis.
JM: From the start we’ve used content to try and conquer two challenges. The first is nurture. Let’s face it, a pension is not a sexy product like a Ferrari – you know you have to do something about it at some stage, but you’ll always put it off. How do you create content that makes it sound appealing? The second is trust. Do you want to trust all your life savings to a start-up? But you can do a lot to help with that. Our product is managed by some of the world’s biggest money managers, like Black Rock and Legal & General. They don’t grant business overnight. But using customers in your content is another great way to build trust. We’ve had lots of customer testimonials and customers writing content for us, and we use a lot of personal finance bloggers – that’s how you can use content to build trust.
5. What were some of the challenges you faced with content marketing at the start?
JM: Normally you’d expect an answer like ‘getting buy-in from management’ or something like that, but because our mission is to make pensions simple that was never a problem. The biggest challenge was that making content is time-consuming, so it needs to be staffed properly, and you need to find the right writers who buy in to your brand, because turning something about pensions that might be regarded as a bit boring and complex into something really engaging is a skill-and-a-half. One of the first things I did was to hire a freelance copywriter I used to work with, who’s brilliant. Today, we have a content manager, an email CRM and also two other freelancer writers – plus an in-house videographer who works one day a week. It’s quite a big set-up for the size of the marketing team and the company, but it’s been done because we identified content as a key tool.
ST: I think challenges are mainly due to the evolution of the brand. When you start out you don’t have a big structure around you, so you’re learning as you go along because you don’t have lots of research to fall back on. So, trying to make sure our content strategy was up to date as we learnt about the consumers and how they bought our products was quite hard.
LS: It’s mostly practical challenges. As a small team we had to build up the communication frameworks in addition to attending the right events to evangelise our technology, so all challenges were resource and time-based.
JM: The measurement of the content is another thing – you can’t just expect your content to take off organically. You need to make sure that the content is targeted at the right person at the right time. For PensionBee that might be when they change jobs, buy a house or start a family – the times in life when things get a bit serious! You can then use a range of tools to measure the impact that the content is having.
6. What have been your biggest content marketing successes so far?
JM: For our young consolidators, which are people in their 30s and early 40s who are in their careers and maybe had a couple of jobs, there’s one article that is still out-performing most other things we’ve done. It’s called ‘The 6 Biggest Financial Mistakes you Can Make in Your 30s.’ It wasn’t just about pensions, and it’s reached over 1.5 million people now in terms of site visits. We’ve had hundreds of new customers off the back of it, and it’s still performing for us today. Not bad for a piece that went up in November 2015.
ST: I hate to say it, but competitions drive the most engagement. We work with a lot of other start-up brands and create these fun hampers – they create a lot of interest. When we push out articles around recipes, that tends to get high engagement, because everyone seems to want a new recipe of something to cook for dinner, or a new smoothie or dip.
7. What would you do differently with your content marketing strategy up until now, or when there’s not that many of you in a start-up do you have to accept that you’ll be learning as you go?
LS: As a small team I’m very proud of what we achieved. Looking back, it would have helped to have more bodies in the team, but we learned to prioritise and focus our efforts – that start-up mentality really makes you work smarter.
ST: I was very much against out-sourcing it at the beginning, because I strongly believed it should be kept in-house, but I think there are elements of the strategy that are very beneficial to outsource. You can do more articles and enlist the help of more photographers, but you can still control when the content goes out. It’s impossible for you to do all the writing, all the pictures, think about all the different ways you want to communicate and run your entire business as well, because it’s really time-consuming.
8. Was it tough to let that ownership go?
ST: Definitely. I was a complete control freak about it at the beginning but letting go has meant that the business has grown much quicker. The hard thing is that you wonder whether an external content maker is going to do it as well or with as much passion as you, but after a few weeks you realise that they can do it better. Also, if I was to go back again I’d do more user generated content from the start. We’ve done bursts of trying to send out boxes of products, but I’d maybe set aside a day a month to send them out to influential people who could then generate their own content that we could re-use and credit them with.
9. What content marketing advice would you give to someone who was looking to launch a start-up tomorrow?
JM: Firstly, your product might be damn good but don’t necessarily expect that the customer will share that opinion straight away. At the beginning, you need to be showcasing the product and its benefits – and content is an amazing way to do that. People need that ‘aha!’ moment.
LS: Plan and prioritise – you can’t do everything. By working closely with brands who had established channels, it allowed us to hit a relevant and large audience very quickly. We also learned that our content strategy had to work for us and our partners. Our content strategy is very much developed with ‘sharing and amplifying’ by our partners, so we’ve learned to develop content that is both targeted and shareable. We talk about ‘strong social currency’ and that’s our mantra when we develop content.
ST: I’d say do it yourself at the beginning, because you can learn a lot and it can help you on your journey as you tweak your products. But when you feel like you really understand who your consumer is, and your products are meeting those needs, it’s the perfect opportunity to look at yourself and your team and see which bits you can outsource. You need to be able to do that early enough so that you can still keep growing at pace, because speed is really important.
JM: You also need to start layering your messaging and content quite quickly. Your first layer is your product and its key benefits – that’s kind of like the hygiene bit. The other layers are about how that product is going to make the lives of your customers better. You really need to know who you’re doing it for. You can’t just be shooting in the dark with content – it needs to have a proper approach.
10. What’s the next phase for your content strategy?
ST: We’ve been going for well over two years now, and we’re in Tesco and Ocado, so for us it’s about creating more of a lifestyle brand and playing with video and animation, communicating the messages to the consumer in a format that’s more engaging.
JM: We’re actually noticing that a lot of prospective customers are using our content to do some research before they make a decision. We’ve become quite well established – if you Google ‘Pension calculator’ we’re in second position, even above the gov.uk website. That’s great.
LS: For MQA 2018 will see international expansion, so our content strategy will be more targeted for our key markets. We’ve been smart in the early years to develop content that can stretch across a number of markets, but we’re now focussed on segmenting and targeting our content strategy for the UK, US and Japan. The anime music genre is one of the biggest genres in Japan, but it doesn’t necessarily translate in other markets, so we’ll be working very closely with our delivery partners, including record labels, in each market to develop relevant, impactful and highly-targeted content.
ST: Another thing for us is that video content has been prohibitive up until now but given that cashflow and turnover is better it feels like the right time to invest in that media.
JM: We’re really starting to see some really good uptake on our videos now, both on our website and our YouTube channel. You don’t want to download a huge, deep guide about pensions, but you might want to watch a two-minute video explaining them. That’s where it’s going more and more.
If you are just getting started with your content marketing journey, then be sure to check out our Brand as Publisher kit, to get clued up on the best way to establish your brand through content! We wrote all about this on Moz, so download the toolkit now and make your brand it's own content publisher!
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