When it comes to the content marketing industry, CoSchedule and Ben Sailer hardly need an introduction.
When Ben Sailer joined CoSchedule as a content writer about 5 years ago, it was a promising startup in its early stages.
Since then, CoSchedule has turned itself into an inbound marketing leader to be reckoned with, ranking on the first page of Google for almost every keyword in their niche, while Ben has risen to the position of Inbound Marketing director.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his journey, work and culture at CoSchedule and the trends that will shape the future of content marketing.
And as expected, he had a ton of insights which can supercharge your business growth going forward. So if you don’t want to miss out on the golden nuggets from his infinite wisdom, read the full interview below.
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Where are you based and how did you first get involved in content marketing?
I currently live in Fargo, North Dakota, same as where CoSchedule is based. We also have an office in Bismarck, North Dakota.
I was born in the UK and grew up in a military family, which is why we moved a lot initially. My father is from the US and my mother is from the UK.
For the last 15-16 years, I have been in North Dakota, which is the majority of my college and work. So I would say this is where I am from.
My inbound marketing journey started in high school with just discovering a love of writing. I identified pretty early on that writing was the one thing I do really well. It was something I really excelled at. I had teachers that were pretty good too and could recognize that.
I decided to learn journalism, and got a degree in journalism and PR. However, when it came time to apply for jobs, the journalism job market really collapsed. So I started to think maybe I could go into PR, which was a natural transition from journalism.
At that time, I didn’t really know what content marketing was, but I managed to get a few internships in marketing, communications and PR.
It was a difficult phase and I was struggling to find a job. Sometimes, I wished I had gone to school for things like web design or development, something that could bridge the things I was good at (writing / editing) with good career prospects.
Then I found a job opening for a web content writer at an ecommerce company. I thought it was not quite PR but it used a lot of skill I have.
Fortunately, it turned out that content marketing and SEO was the kind of thing I was searching for. I ended up getting a job and it has been my path ever since.
I did two years in developing content for ecommerce and learned a lot. Then I spent a year and half as a writer in a marketing agency, working with a pretty diverse range of clients.
The biggest client we had was Bobcat, the construction equipment company. We also worked in financial services.
Later I joined coschedule as a content writer. I have been here for nearly 5 years, working my way up from being a writer to inbound marketing director.
What has been the key to your success as an inbound marketer at CoSchedule?
A lot of it has been about being at the right place at the right time. The agency I was working at was heading a rough patch. People were either leaving or getting laid off.
It was going through a transitional phase and figuring out what they want to do and be going forward. My department was going through a lot of changes as they were refocusing their business.
As a result, certain roles became less valuable, and there were people leaving, including my superiors. Right around that time, I got a linked message from Garrett Moon, our CEO and CoFounder.
He mentioned they are looking to do some hiring here in North Dakota. We hopped in on a call and I was pretty impressed, pretty quickly with what he had to say.
So I applied and got the job a few months later. Once I started, what really led to fast growth is the way this company operates.
Obviously, I have worked hard but at the same time, this company has the right philosophy and approach to content. The intense focus and lack of “busywork” really helped.
CoSchedule’s values and the opportunities that it has provided gave me a clear path for progression as long as I was willing to put in the work.
And so I really committed myself to just continue to learn as much as I can and as fast I can. I kept doing the best work that I am capable of. That’s really all I contributed. So I have to give CoSchedule a lot of credit for my progression.
What is it like working at CoSchedule and how has the overall experience been so far?
It’s been a thrilling and satisfying journey. I feel like here at CoSchedule, we do in one year what a lot of companies do in 4 years. A quarter here feels like 12 months.
It’s a company that has really been aggressively focused on the right things, and has been smart about ignoring the wrong things.
There’s generally intense focus on doing the work that really moves the needle. We don’t get bogged down by the unnecessary “busywork” that weighs marketers down.
From the perspective of product-market fit, CoSchedule is in a really unique position. The business is growing.
It’s rare to find in the startup world, where most don’t make it. So to be at a place that has been growing, even through the pandemic, is incredible.
I have really learned an incredible amount very quickly that I have been here. I feel very fortunate to have found this content marketing path and to be in this position. It’s been a very rewarding experience which I am thankful for.
You mentioned that you wrote content for many different verticals. How were you able to do that so well?
Sure, I understand that you can’t have equal depth of expertise in too many areas. But for any copywriter or content marketer, there are a few core skills that you can develop:
- Knowing how to write well
- How to conduct thorough research
- Interviewing subject matter experts
If you are skilled at obtaining and translating information in a way an ordinary person can read and understand, you can apply that to a lot of niches.
You don’t need to rely only on your expertise as long as you know how to talk to experts and extract what’s important and help those people tell their story.
For instance, here’s something I ran into immediately at my first full time job. The ecommerce company I worked at was into selling accessories for pickup trucks.
But I am not a pickup truck guy. I couldn’t tell one truck from another. They were just all the same to me. But the company was really good at supporting us with proper training.
It was interesting to learn more about the industry and intricacies of what people who are really passionate about their trucks care about, like what are the things that distinguish all the different product lines.
They had literally over half a million SKUs or individual products they carried. So there was never a shortage of stuff to learn about.
The point is, if you approach it with the right attitude, any project you take is an opportunity to learn. You need to have a natural curiosity and throw yourself into learning as much as you can.
You might be surprised by how satisfying that can be. Even if the industry is that you have no meaningful connection with.
Especially in B2B, you can find yourself gaining more expertise you ever thought on industries and projects you never knew existed.
That being said, most agencies will typically pick 2 or 3 verticals they specialize in. For example, the agency I was at was focused on manufacturing, health care and financial services.
If you can start your career with an agency specializing in a few verticals, it helps you. Then you won’t feel you’re spreading yourself thin in too many areas.
They’ll have their focus. They’ll know the markets they can compete in. They won’t try to get too fat outside of that if they don’t know they can do it successfully.
What is the #1 key to success when it comes to copywriting or content marketing?
You have to really fall in love with the craft. If you want to succeed, you have to throw yourself into it and put in the work.
You don’t necessarily have to be a passionate writer, or write fancy as long as you have something valuable to say, and you can create something worthy of your and other peoples’ time.
Very few writers excel because people underestimate how difficult it is. But the flip side of that is if you identify that writing is your thing and if you’re really invested, that will best enable you to provide value to others.
If you really work at it and push yourself, you can distinguish yourself easily and you won’t have much competition. You think there is a lot of competition because it seems that way.
For example in marketing SaaS, people look up to Hubspot, CoSchedule, Buffer, SproutSocial, CMI, Convince and Convert etc. People look at big names and think there’s no way they can compete.
What they don’t realize is that it wasn’t overnight success. CoSchedule has been doing it for 7 years, Hubspot for 10 years or longer. So you’ll have to be patient.
In addition, the more content marketing has really grown over the decade, the more companies have really become entrenched in it.
It’s harder for new companies to enter and knock them off the throne so to speak. So you can’t get ahead doing things the way other companies or writers have done it. You’ll have to find a way to do things differently.
There are a lot of things we or other market leaders are not doing right now. So I would really challenge people to think what you can offer that hasn’t been done yet.
Going forward, that’s something we all have to figure out. Content saturation is going to weigh down the industry.
At the same time though, if you really are a skilled content writer or inbound marketer, the more difficult it gets, the more in demand you are going to be.
What are the most vital steps someone should take to begin with content marketing?
The first thing I would recommend is to really know your company and target audience.
- Understand the product-market fit.
- Really know why your customers choose you over competition.
- How people describe the products/services you offer
2nd, start laying ground for a solid SEO strategy. I’ll start with the mindset that it’s going to take a while - at least 6 months - to produce results or get traction.
Identify the terms people are using to find businesses like yours. Focus on what are the absolute most important keywords you want to show up for. The more competition, the more specific you need to be with the keywords.
If there’s a really strong fit between your business and a topic, you should be able to show up because of natural relevancy that exists between your business and those keywords.
Once you have good content pieces on your most important keywords, you can start thinking what other topics you can write about.
These may not be directly related to your product but related to things like someone would do with your product.
For instance, we sell marketing calendar software so our primary keywords are going to be content calendar, editorial calendar etc. Those are the product related keywords.
But then we think about what people can do with the product - content planning, editorial planning, developing a content strategy etc. So those would be the next things to focus on.
You got to be invested for a long haul. You cannot think of it as a get-rich-quick scheme. It has to be a long term commitment to provide value.
However, in the beginning, you’re also going to have some pressure to generate leads and build business right now. You don’t have 6-12 months to just generate no business.
So 3rd, focus on doing whatever you can to build an email list and generate leads via search or social media advertising. Because over time, advertising will get quicker returns that SEO.
Later when you start to see your SEO strategy take off and working, you won’t need to spend as much on ads.
4th, see what has worked for your competition in the past. Google search for anything in your industry, and you’re going to see the established players.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to make it overcomplicated. Don’t be hard on yourself.
The strategies, concepts and principles you need to succeed are all out there in the form of books, blogs and courses. Really all you need to do is focus on the fundamentals, be consistent and work hard.
Can you tell me about what a typical day in your job entails? What kind of decisions do you make?
A typical week for me involves a balance of editorial planning and content strategy. It’s figuring out what content we are going to create, what does that content need to succeed and assigning it out to our team of freelance writers.
With some pieces, we assign out updates to interns or people internally. Content strategy, planning and SEO is a big part of it. And something I have been getting into recently is greater focus on Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO).
We’re figuring out how we can increase conversion rates in different areas. This is something we haven’t proactively invested a lot in the past. We were focused more on traffic and content.
But as our startup matures, we’re paying more attention to getting better results from content/assets we already have.
The 3rd component of my job is to think of the big picture. Planning what the future of our marketing and overall business looks like and contributing in those areas.
Lot of it boils down to whether we are doing a good job at executing our current strategy and identifying opportunities for things we are not doing but should be doing, and then figuring out what we need to do to get those things done.
What is the biggest assumption or mistake people make when it comes to content marketing?
Well, firstly, content marketing takes time to work, but people don’t have time to make it work. It may sound harsh but a lot of people are lazy.
We kind of live in instant gratification culture so people want results right now. So they are constantly scouting for new hacks, shortcuts or some other magic bullet.
But I would caution that anything looks or feels like a hack, is not going to work long term.
If there’s something that actually can help, go for it but it’s not going to be a long term strategy. Understand and prepare yourself for the inevitability that it’s going to stop working.
If you want to build a healthy, long term business, you need a strategy built with this mindset.
2ndly, companies feel like they don’t have enough traffic. They need more traffic to build their business.
In some cases, that’s probably true. Especially when you’re starting out. Maybe you’re getting a small amount of traffic.
But mostly it is because you look at a Hubspot or Buffer or these blogs getting a millions hits a month. And you think it’s impossible.
You probably don’t need as much traffic as you think. If you know realistically that there is a set amount of traffic you need, of course you should be doing what you can to get more, but I wouldn't pursue traffic for its own sake.
Many people have this mental block that they don’t have enough traffic, and having more will solve their problems. But what I would focus on is how you can convert more of the traffic that you are getting.
For instance, make sure that you’re using your limited time, resources and energy to write only that content that’s going to drive the most conversions for you. You have to be laser focused.
We have published so much content over the years, that we have a pretty good idea of what drives traffic, what converts and what does both.
In fact, there’s a good chunk of content on our blog that even if we just delete, it won’t impact our business.
Obviously we would keep it up, because the traffic is great and it helps our audience. But we know what content helps business directly and what doesn't.
That’s a great point. What common patterns have you observed in content that does or doesn’t drive sales?
This is probably no surprise, but the content that contributes to the business the most is the content that is closely related to our product. It has the clearest connection to our product.
What follows are the topics that are not directly related to the product, but they are things that you would use the product to do, such as marketing, blogging, project management etc.
The content that doesn’t contribute a lot to conversions, is content that's on a topic that’s of interest to our target audience but not directly related to the product, like email automation.
Our product integrates with some popular email service providers, so we have content on email automation. It’s great content and very informative. But it’s not something that someone can directly do with CoSchedule.
We might still benefit from people linking, sharing or joining our email list from that content, but the distance between someone reading the content and deciding that coschedule os the product they need is vast. So we can’t meaningfully attribute a sale.
Do you work with freelance content writers or content marketing agencies? What do you look for in them?
CoSchedule worked with freelancers some years ago and then didn’t work with freelancers for a long time. Then about a year ago, I was tasked with putting together a small team of freelancers to work with.
It was actually simple. We have so many writers pitching ideas all the time - consultants and freelance writers who want to write guest posts, help get their name out and build a reputation
When it came time to actually evaluate writers and reach out to people to hire, we already had one on one connections with people. They had written or pitched guest posts for us before.
So I kind of thought about who’s written for us before, who’s done a good job, who’s shown an interest that I haven’t been able to accept a post from but I know they are good at what they do. I made a short list of those individuals.
In addition, I also looked at my twitter feed for people who are writers, who seem sharp and impressive, along with Googling terms like “B2B SaaS content writer”.
One thing that surprised me was a good amount of overlap between people we already knew and who were showing up on the first page of Google search results.
Then came the deeper due diligence. I looked at their portfolio and brands they have worked with. If they have written for us before, and they write for other blogs which I also respected, I was pretty sure I can just hire these people and they would do great work.
So far that’s been proven right. So the hiring process was actually extremely easy. I know it would sound crazy to some people, but I actually didn’t spend that much time on it.
In addition, CoSchedule has such brand recognition that people don’t tell us no very often, which makes it very easy.
For a lot of folks, if they have opportunities to write for us, it’s huge. So we don’t have to spend a whole lot of work convincing people.
But if you’re a company that doesn’t have that luxury, I’d recommend to look for people who have written for companies like you, and make sure to make a good pitch for yourself. Give them a compelling reason to want to work with you.
Pay a good rate, be easy to work with, share your aspirations and frame it as an opportunity to help be part of and achieve your mission. Offer something they can buy into and have ownership stake it.
Instead of treating people like they are hired gun, and saying “here’s a creative brief”, “do the work and I am done” etc. is not going to work. If it’s treated like a cold, purely transactional thing, you’ll have a harder time getting people to produce great work.
What is the typical budget-range at which you work with freelance writers, and how can an aspiring writer get on your radar?
A lot of times we pay the rate which the writer expects. We respect what their expectation is.
We’ve paid anywhere from $250 to $1300 per piece. Those rates are based on what writers set and what’s a fair market rate for them. Typically when people are starting out, they start low. When you’re not well established, you won’t be able to justify a high price.
We make sure that we are compensating people as fairly as we can and offering the best rate we can reasonably provide.
We get pitches for guest posts and freelance opportunities all the time. It has increased as the pandemic is going on. A lot of people are in a tough situation financially and understandably getting more aggressive in prospecting.
For us, it’s going to be really difficult to get on our radar. We prefer to have a good working relationship with a few people instead of constantly scouting new people.
But you never know if things change. I like to keep track of people who are really sharp in the writing space.
If you want to catch our attention, there’s no hack or special email template to do it for you.The best thing you can do is to stand out and be active on social media.
Know the places where people hang out who you want to work with and provide value in those places. Share what you think. Share what you’re working on.
Don’t try to do it in a hacky, manipulative way. Authentically be a participant in the conversation.
I have also seen a lot of people pitching free guest posts for exposure. The reality in content marketing, that can be huge, to get somebody’s logo on your portfolio. That can help you make a lot of money later.
I don’t feel too uncomfortable accepting free content, but I would never ask someone to write for us for free.
If they pitch us, I’ll gladly take it. If they make the determination if it’s a smart business move for them, then it’s okay with me too. I understand you might have to do that to build a reputation. But I would never ask a freelancer to work unpaid.
Also, when you actually pitch anybody, ditch your automation and ditch whatever template you’re using.
I see the same templates over and over. It comes off as extremely thoughtless. It seems like these people are just looking to make a buck. They don’t really care about what they’re doing.
I get emails which say, dear CoSchedule, or it would be a colleagues name. My name is not CoSchedule. And my coworkers are great guys but I am not them.
It’s super easy to find anybody’s name and email address, But people just want to automate it. They want to figure out how to scale quickly as they can, but at the expense of quality and humanity even. That doesn’t work.
That’s going to work only with people who do the same and trap you into a community of low value that you won’t want to be a part of.
I can tell if I were to hire those people, the content is not going to be good and as per our standards. It’s not worth my time.
But if you reach out authentically and tell me that you’d love to have an opportunity to work with us someday, that’s the right way to go.
You can tell when people are being real with you. It’s refreshing to see because I don’t see it very often. Authenticity is an idea that marketers talk about a lot, but they don’t often live up to it. You just have to be a real person and do good work.
In your opinion, how has inbound marketing changed over the years?
For a long time, there was this push towards common concepts like SkyScraper technique, 10X content, and to cover topics as thoroughly as possible.
Now, those things still work, but that kind of content has been so done. Now there is so much of that type of content in many industries, that it's easy for a company to hire an entry level writer and just have them rewrite other peoples stuff.
That type of content doesn’t have the value that it used to. It’s too easy for people to leech off others’ work and create a rehash of the same content.
The trend I see is to find a way to be original. Do something that hasn't been done before and that people can’t copy. For instance, people can’t copy your philosophy, values, and original thinking. At least not in a way that’s convincing.
There’s always going to be a place for really, helpful, constructive how to content. But it has to actually show people how to do stuff.
So much of the how to content doesn’t do that. It misses the only reason it exists. It’ll tell you what to do, but now how to do it.
People already know what they need to do. That’s why they searched for that topic. You have to show how to do something with exact steps.
Another thing that’s really going to become important to companies is to communicate what they stand for. It’s an increased need to differentiate yourself with a different philosophy, approach or thinking.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time when away from work?
Along with an aptitude for writing, I also happen to love music. I read a lot of music magazines and websites when I was younger.
They were also part of the reason I thought maybe I could learn journalism and try my hand at being a music journalist.
I also wrote for music papers and blogs to gain some good experience and start building a resume. But then I thought writing about Punk-Rock bands isn’t a long term career strategy. It’s still something I do in my spare time.
Who would you recommend with intimate knowledge or experience in content marketing for me to interview next?
Here are some people I'd recommend reaching out to as well:
Jay Acunzo (Marketing Showrunners)
Andy Crestodina (Orbit Media Studios)
Mark Quadros (Freelancer)
Marijana Kay (Freelancer)
Elise Dopson (Freelancer
Brittany Berger (Freelancer)
John Bonini (Databox)
Overall, I learned a great deal and found so much in common with Ben during the interview. A lot of Ben's experiences and thoughts have been similar to mine.
By getting the opportunity to know him better, I saw that he wasn't just a brilliant inbound marketer, but also a great human being.
Did you see how he gave most of the credit of his success to his employer and talked about his contribution as if it was not a big deal?
Another thing I would like to highlight is his emphasis on putting in the work and not getting sidetracked by things that don't matter.
Creating great content and investing in differentiating yourself takes a lot of time and energy, but if you can do that, there's nothing stopping your progress.
I am sure you enjoyed learning from this interview as much as I did. And hopefully realized something in a way you didn’t before. Do you have any questions or comments? I’d love to hear them below in the comments section.