From traditional B2B content to brand publishing with Kathleen Booth, CMO at clean.io
Content marketing is table stakes and has become widely adopted in the B2B marketing world. How can B2B marketers differentiate from others and create deeper conversations with their audience?
This episode covers:
- About Kathleen and her role at clean.io
- What stage is clean.io at the moment?
- What is the difference between content marketing and brand publishing?
- Should we always tie back the content to our products or services?
- Does content come in different formats?
- Why do more companies not invest in additional content?
- What are the upcoming challenges to target content to the right audience?
- Do we still have to measure the results of brand publishing?
- Is it necessary to have sponsored content on our media platform?
- Advice for B2B tech and SaaS companies
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hello everybody, and welcome back to the FINITE podcast. Today I'm talking with Kathleen Booth. Kathleen is the CMO of clean.io, and we're talking all things brand publishing.
We're going to be diving into content marketing versus brand publishing. Talking about how lots of B2B tech companies are building out media companies, starting to own their audiences, investing in communities to some extent and thinking about how B2B tech companies can embrace a more holistic brand building audience building approach to content. Not just shortsighted demand, generation lead generation SEO, focused content marketing. So it can be an interesting one and I hope you enjoy.
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Hello, Kathleen, and welcome to the FINITE podcast.
Thanks for having me Alex. I'm happy to be here.
Thanks for joining. And we're looking forward to talking as is always the case. I will let you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background and start where you wish maybe throw it all the way back to how you got into marketing to begin with, or some of your most recent experience. And yeah, it would be great to hear about everything you're up to at the moment.
About Kathleen and her role at clean.io
Well, it could be a long story, but I'll try to keep it really short. I'm Kathleen Booth. I'm CEO of a company called clean.io. And I really started in marketing funny enough as the owner of an agency. There's a long story behind that. That's probably not worth going into, but, my husband and I started an agency in 2006. And on that for 11 years, we were one of the earliest HubSpot partners. It really kind of catapulted us to then to become a national level agency from what started as a very local thing and really focused my early career on demand generation. I sold the agency in 2017.
I joined a company called impact, which acquired the agency. And I stayed there for two years as their first head of marketing and germane to what we're going to talk about today. The big focus I had there was actually building a media company around the agency, which I can get a little bit more into when we dig into our topic. But, um, I stayed there for two years.
And after that, I left to go, in-house at a series of venture capital backed B2B technology companies as head of marketing. I generally come in around the series a stage. I like early stage, I think because I have this background as an entrepreneur and a founder, and so it allows me to kind of exercise those muscles while not necessarily being the founder myself.
Cool. It makes sense. And it's an exciting journey. Tell us what about clean.io in the current role in team and that kind of stuff.
Absolutely. So it is another series a startup, although think we're rapidly on our way to series B. Clean.io is a digital engagement security platform. And basically what that means is that now that the way we interact with our buyers and our customers has really moved to online.
We give brands the control and the power to shape the experience that their buyers and customers have in their website. And in doing so to protect their brands, their user experience and their revenue. And it all has to do with controlling the third-party code that executes on your site. So we believe if you on your site, you should be able to control what happens on it.
What stage is clean.io at the moment?
Awesome. Cool. And so you're leading the marketing there. Have you got a team and it sounds like you're kind of at that series a stage. And so it was an interesting point at which marketing functions start to be built out in different directions. How big is the team now? And are there any roles that you're thinking about hiring for as you go into that kind of series B stage potentially?
Yeah, so I that's, one of the things with startup marketing is sometimes you have teams. Sometimes you don't. Hopefully your team is growing as you job. So I went from at my agency and then in Impact having teams of anywhere from nine to 15 people to now I'm much leaner because I came in at a very early stage. And so it's myself. I have a full-time content manager and then I have outsourced help in the form of an agency. And so hopefully we'll be hiring some more folks soon.
What is the difference between content marketing and brand publishing?
Cool. Sounds good. So we're going to be talking all about brand publishing strategy. Obviously, the content marketing discussion is one that's been going on for a very long time. I guess, brand publishing is a thing. Maybe it's good to start with.
I always like to start with some, almost some definitions when we talk about topics like this, and maybe you can kind of set the scene and before we dive into the actual questions, but just almost, maybe at a top level define content marketing and how the kind of brand publishing side of things might differ from that.
Yeah. So I think, you know, content marketing has become extremely widely adopted. And when I first got into the marketing agency business, it was still kind of new and a differentiator. And now it's, I would call it table stakes. You know, you need to be creating content to attract the right audience, to facilitate your sales funnel, et cetera.
And content marketing really is designed as a strategy to altar with the goal of ultimately selling more product or services. You can substitute that word in, but it's you develop a product, and then you develop a content marketing strategy in order to sell that product.
Brand publishing is almost the reverse. It's about changing your mindset and thinking like a media company. And instead of starting with a product, you start by building an audience and then you introduce the product to the audience you already have.
And it's an important shift because it has major implications for, you know, time to revenue for the length of the sales cycle, for the velocity, with which you can introduce new products and grow. And we can talk a lot more about that, but at its very essence, it has to do with that exact switch from product first, then marketing to marketing first, then product.
Should we always tie back the content to our products or services?
Interesting. And I think we're seeing a lot of this at the moment, particularly with some recent acquisitions and HubSpot buying media companies. And I had someone from Salesforce on recently talking about Salesforce plus, and that investment in content, but it's an important differentiation, I guess that almost which one comes fast.
And I guess for an established company, they have the product already exists. So naturally the product has come first, but I guess you're kind of suggesting that split and a separation between you're not always producing content that has to tie back to your products or services. You can produce content just for the purpose of building an engaged audience, then almost figure out the rest later.
Yeah. And, I should clarify, cause you raised a really good point. It doesn't always have to unfold chronologically the way I described. I mean there are definitely companies that have done that, and some are B2B and some are not, you know, I love using the example of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, which a lot of people know it started as a blog. And she just started building this massive audience. And then it became this incredibly successful e-commerce site because she had this audience just waiting to buy everything that she put in front of them.
On the B2B side, somebody who I think has done a really good job of this in recent years is Rand Fishkin, who formerly was the founder of Moz. And he left to create a company called SparkToro. And before he had the product, he started blogging and building his audience so that by the time he launched the product, everybody was ready and waiting and he was able to get some really strong early traction.
And the whole idea there is really that it's about owning your audience and having a very large and loyal audience instead of renting it. You know a lot of content marketing relies on different channels to promote content.
You create the content and then you might promote it through a Facebook ad or a LinkedIn ad or a Google ad, or you might push it out through email marketing. And many of those channels are not entirely within our control, which we've seen in the last year or two with changes in all the iOS updates and what that's done to people's ad funnels and all the Google algorithm changes that are constantly happening.
So, it's really that it's about building an audience that you own and having that direct relationship with them so that they're willing to follow you no matter where you are or what channel you're on and you don't have to consistently pay to acquire eyeballs.
This make me think about, I was reading something last night and I'm trying to find that frantically, but it's always away when I'm in the middle of a podcast episode, I can never find that, but that was a piece of research talking a kind of almost tying what you've just described back to the whole first party data cookies changes and how owning an audience in terms of cost of acquisition and all these other things in the future may be a big advantage. Particularly with this shift in day.
And I'd never actually really thought about it from the perspective of the changes in data and cookies and all of these challenges that are coming to marketers. But yeah, that was I guess another angle of looking at this as that owning your audience has some significant benefits, not just from a brand perspective, but you need the challenges around cookies and data and who you can work with, maybe a solved potentially by having an audience that you own almost. Almost building out your own kind of media company first.
Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, it's interesting because, you know, I was describing what we are here, what we do here at clean.io. And one of our two products is an advertising technology product. And so our customers are many of the world's largest online publishers from CBS interactive to Barstool Sports, to Hearst Meredith, et cetera.
And I think a lot of us can easily fall into the trap of thinking of media companies as almost dinosaurs because the traditional like newspaper model, right, it's under attack, but media companies are and hold a lot of really great lessons for us as marketers because their business model is under attack because they've had to really get creative with how they innovate and keep their revenue streams going.
And because they're probably doing some of the most progressive work in terms of responding to new privacy regulations. And so I've had an interesting insight into that, through what we're doing here.
You may notice this as a consumer, right? What media companies are doing is exactly what we described. They're building out first party data and they're doing it. You know, they're trying to own their audiences even more than they already did because let's face it. Many media companies have done this pretty well for a long time, but they realise they need to own the data.
And so you'll see media properties like the New York Times really aggressively building out new paid newsletters where people are not just opting in, in many cases they're paying to subscribe and they're delivering value through their content. And that's another aspect of brand publishing where you can start to actually monetize your marketing, which to me is like completely mind blowing because as marketers, our budgets are always under attack.
We're always having to prove the ROI of what we're doing, which with certain channels is easier than others.
But imagine if marketing was a profit center and there are some really interesting companies out there, one in particular, if you want to see an example of this freight waves, they're in the, in the freight space, which again seems like a really traditional space. And they went all in on building like a media brand in addition to their core business. And they just got a huge valuation. They got a new round of venture capital and their valuation was enormous. And a lot of it was because their marketing is a center. They have a very profitable event and subscription content and things like that.
And so it's, you know, you can do this in any industry. You can do it. And B2B software with, you know, think about HubSpot acquiring the hustle and having big events like inbound, or you can do it in something like freight, which seems really, really traditional. You know, there are no limitations there.
Does content come in different formats?
Right. And I think actually the more niche the better often and the more value I think it's easy to fall into the trap of like media company has to be big and covering everything, but actually it's those niches, particularly those that are booming, that there's the most value to be unlocked when you dive into kind of really deep, focused, focused content.
I'm interested in your view on that content. So when we talk about the difference between brand publishing and traditional content marketing, when it comes to the content itself, how does that format or type of content really differ between the two?
So again, if you're thinking like a media company, you know, traditional content marketers, so we think about what is our high intent prospects searching for, you know, and we obviously have different funnel stages. And so there's the awareness consideration decision, but it's all about getting that person who has a need to find us in their moment of need. Right? And so that is a very transactional approach to content creation. Because if you think about it, it means I have a need, I'm going to make a purchase. I need to find you. And then when I no longer have the need, I can go away and I won't be consuming your content.
Media company is by contrast, their goal is to build a habit amongst their audience. They want to be a part of your daily or weekly life. And they want to be in front of you, whether you have a need or not.
And so when you think about making this shift to brand publishing, it's about thinking what would keep me in front of my audience all the time, whether they're currently looking to purchase or not. And so that can manifest in different ways. Yes, it does mean creating that traditional type of content marketing content, where you're looking at the funnel and thinking about, you know, how do I solve my prospects problems and creating content around that.
But you have to go beyond that and think about once I've solved their problem, or before they even have the problem, what are other challenges they're facing in their day to day life that would make them want to continue to come back to my website and to make it a part of their routine. And so when I was at Impact, I talked a little bit about how we were building a media brand around the agency there and our audience was marketers.
And so we couldn't just create content around marketing agency services and marketing challenges. We had to create many more kinds of evergreen content, as well as one of the things we did, a category of content called news reactions, where we would cover news happening in the marketing industry, but distill it into kind of a more actionable format. So not just here's what happened and here's what you should know about it, but also here's what you need to do about it.
And the whole idea was marketers are busy. They're constantly faced with new information and channels. And we wanted to reduce the amount of time they had to spend figuring that out. And our goal was to publish three of those articles a week and we would recap it in our newsletter. And so that was one way to build a habit. And the other way was we had a pretty robust podcast program.
Well, I think at one point we might've had five podcasts and podcasts do keep people coming back regularly. So there's a lot of different ways. Those are just two examples of how we did it at Impact, but that's what you need to think about is how do we build a habit? And that often means not just creating that habitual content like I described, but it means having a vehicle such as a newsletter through which to deliver it.
And so I talked earlier about New York Times, they have things like their cooking subscription, where you get recipes all the time. You see CNN has five things where they send out a newsletter and it's like, here's the five things you need to know today, whatever your format is.
I would suggest that if you're thinking about brand publishing, a newsletter does need to be an important part of that strategy because you need to meet your audience where they spend their time. Certainly they can come to your website, but they're spending a lot of time in their inbox. And so you should be there.
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Why do more companies not invest in additional content?
The one that always jumps out of me when we talk about these things is HubSpot, in terms of them just being everywhere for, if you can't do it, Google anything to do with marketing and you'll find a piece of content from HubSpot.
Not only have they gone beyond marketing automation, CRM, they have taken the whole marketing category and then all kinds. I mean, there's topics on stuff that isn't even remotely close to their service offering or what they do, or that doesn't fall under the upsell. Why do you think HubSpot has become famous for this?
And I think they were always tapped as an example. Why do you think more companies don't do this? Is it just a case of you've got to focus on, you know, resources, finite limited budgets. We've got to focus on the stuff that is going to deliver the best ROI, or is it an education thing that people just aren't people need to think a bit outside the box? Is it, is it both of those things and maybe others?
I think there's a couple of reasons. Number one, I think content can have a longer payback period. And there's a lot of companies out there that are really impatient and they allow themselves to be driven by really short-term goals around lead generation. And some of that has to do with just how they're measuring success. Some of it has to do with the relationship between marketing and sales and, you know, the buy-in that marketing's able to develop amongst the rest of the leadership team for approaches like this. I mean, you really need to have an executive team that is very bought in and believes in this.
That is one thing. Two, I think it's honestly just attention span. You know, I always compare content marketing and brand publishing all of these approaches. You compare them to exercise. It's really very similar in the sense that like, we know what works, we just have to stick with it and do it regularly, but it's amazing how few of us do stick with it.
And so there's this fatigue element. And I just think, I think it's very true in the marketing world. So, you know, a combination of short-term goals, fatigue, you know. I think number three would be really not understanding how to do this in a way that is affordable and scalable. I mean, there are lots of little tips and tricks and hacks to making this accessible to smaller companies.
You know, everything from just having the founders and the subject matter experts commit to producing content regularly. I mean, you look at Rand Fishkin and he is the founder of SparkToro. He's somebody who's very successful. He writes the blogs. Now I'm not saying everybody needs to do that, but that's something that you can consider if you have, you know, somebody in your team, who's a subject matter expert who is a good writer. And if not, maybe they're good talker or and have them do a podcast. You know, but getting your people involved.
When I was at Impact, we had a requirement that everyone in the company needed to create a piece of content once a month, and we had 70 employees. So there are 70 pieces of content that we could leverage, and that's not a heavy lift for the individual, but it has a major impact on the overall company's ability to accelerate the volume of publishing.
Of course, you can supplement that with either hiring somebody, to create content. I love hiring journalism, graduates or using, you know, selectively using freelancers. We did that for our news reaction articles because that was an easier thing to outsource.
So there are a lot of different options, but it's about two things. It's a combination of very high quality content and volume. And when you have those. Well, three things and consistency, when you nail those three things, that's the magic.
What are the upcoming challenges to target content to the right audience?
I was thinking about that you were talking about as you build the business case for this type of content, the kind of, is it almost an attribution challenge as well? Because I guess like we recognize the high intent, such terms, keywords, SEO kind of focused content that brings in the right traffic that might convert straight away.
We're talking about producing content in areas that might be a little bit outside of what you do primarily, but actually these days there's so much technology out there in terms of, you know, intent data and platforms like 6sense.
And it's kind of figuring out who's might be in market or researching something before they're even ready thinking about retargeting, using display ads and other things. So I guess I'm kind of maybe arguing that even if you bring someone to the website to read a piece of content that might be far outside of what you do, you're starting to learn about them. You're starting to capture some information. You might be able to retarget them, even if you say, even if you wanted to make it a little bit more commercially focused, that type of content, they still haven't used that. You could do that.
I mean, I'll be honest. I think the next two years are going to be really interesting for marketers because already anybody who's working hard to be GDPR compliant probably has the same challenge I do, which is a large and growing portion of their website.
Traffic is coming in and being classified as direct because people aren't accepting cookies. And so we don't have visibility into where they're coming from now. I mean, in many of my forms, I ask, how did you hear about us? And, I've been doing a lot of analysis on that.
So I'm able to understand that the vast majority of those people are coming in organically, but that's not an, a simple press of button and do attribution thing. This is a qualitative analysis. So that's going to continue to be an issue. And then with iOS 15, now you really don't know who opened your emails because they're sandboxing all the emails and opening them for you.
And so your open rates are going to go way up, but that's a fallacy. You know, it's not an accurate reflection of what's actually happening. And then there's all kinds of retargeting issues with the iOS 14.5 and in 2022, Google is scheduled to deprecate third party cookies.
It's only going to get worse. And so I do love data. I do love trying to do attribution where it's possible, but, but I'd almost like to play devil's advocate and say that if that's what you're resting your laurels on. You're going to fail as a marketer because you are hitching your horse to a wagon that is falling apart. And unless new tools crop up that address that, which I don't think is going to happen because of privacy regulations, that's the direction things are going.
And so what you have to ask yourself is in the absence of really good, reliable data, what is another way that I can build a sustainable audience and pipeline for my business.
And to me, this is all pointing in the direction of the need to really build a strong brand, to really build strong relationships in your industry and with your audience so that, you know, you can leverage word of mouth. And it's all about the very old concept that marketing is about getting people to know like, and trust you. And so is sales.
And if your content is successful, like getting people to know, like, and trust you, then you will get leads and you will get business and you will have a robust pipeline. You just might not be able to measure where it came from as easily.
Do we still have to measure the results of brand publishing?
What about that measurement piece then? Because I guess, I mean, I guess you're kind of arguing, well, actually you have to accept that a certain proportion of this maybe you don't measure or you, but know there are ways of measuring brand too, right? In terms of, I guess, for bigger companies, it's typically easier in terms of share of voice, you know, social sentiment, all of these different tools.
But I think you have to be a company of above a certain size to really get the benefits from, but I guess, are you suggesting that this type of brand publishing isn't really measured at all? Or are you still looking at engagement metrics and website visits and you know, all the usual staff newsletter sign ups and, you know, there are things that can be measured, right?
And I don't want to give you the impression that I'm anti attribution or measurement. That's not the case. I do think that we need to kind of like wake up and recognize what's happening. But at the same time, there are a lot of really good tools out there that can tell you how your content is contributing to your pipeline.
And that, and you should be measuring that to the extent that you can, and you should be looking at how it contributes to marketing sourced pipeline. So somebody whose first touch is, you know, came via a piece of your content and looking at which pieces of content are really successful at driving, that.
You should also be looking at marketing influence pipeline, but then, you know, there's the intangible, and this is the one where it gets tough of, you know, when you get referrals or word of mouth, how much of that is really due to the content you're creating and the loyalty that that's driving. That's the gray area that I think is harder to measure, but is incredibly valuable. And if you're doing it right, you should see an increasing percentage of your pipeline coming from that category.
Is it necessary to have sponsored content on our media platform?
You mentioned earlier, you're viewing content as a profit center rather than a cost center. And I guess traditional content marketing goes into the P and L as an expense. You know, an operating expense comes out of a budget, I guess, hopefully you're trying to do some ROI you know, building the case and typical marketing reporting, but you're actually talking about one step further, which is, you know, having sponsors or people even paying to feature on your media platform that you've built.
So not only are you feeding your own pipeline and contributing to your own marketing and growth of your own business. There might be partners that want to sponsor pay to be involved, or those, the kinds of things you're, you're alluding to.
Yeah. So I'll use again, I'll use Impact as an example because that's where I think I had the most complete experience with this. You know, we were able to successfully grow our traffic. I think when I left, we were getting three quarters of a million visits to the website a month. We had a newsletter subscriber list that was around 35,000 people. I think today it's 50,000. We had a community of 5,000 people. We had an event that attracted just shy of a thousand people to it.
You know, so there were all these components, but it started with a blog that became very successful in driving attention. And we were aggressive in our publishing schedule. We were able to build that audience. And then we started to monetize that audience. So we did accept sponsored content onto the site. We did accept sponsorships, kind of like native content sponsorships for our newsletter.
We did sponsored webinars. And once we built our community again, we had 5,000 plus. I'm sure it's probably like 7,500 now marketers and the community. And so we would have sponsors doing AMA and different kinds of events with the community.
And of course the conference, I mean, people paid to come to the conference. We had big sponsors for the conference since then. Since I've left, they've also built a thriving online learning community and that people subscribe to be members in. And there are a ton of video based courses in there. So there are all kinds of different ways. You can start to monetize what you're doing, but it all starts with the audience.
And that goes back to my very first point that I made it's about thinking audience first, how do we build an audience that is extremely loyal, that will stick with us. That will continue to come back. If you can do that, then you have something you can monetize.
Advice for B2B tech and SaaS companies
I guess, to wrap up. Do you think there's any companies that this isn't the right route for? Do you think there's an opportunity for any and all B2B tech SaaS companies to kind of think in this way, or is there certain cases where actually this just isn't appropriate relevant or the right route to explore?
I mean, I think, I think anybody could do it. It's about figuring out a need that isn't already being met or figuring out a way to meet that need better than somebody else, you know, and depending upon the space that you're in, some industries are more cluttered than others. And so impact was a great example.
You know, we were marketing to marketers, no spaces, more cluttered with this kind of an approach than marketing, but we had a very particular point of view around how we did content. And that was the unifying factor under everything under our courses behind our event, behind all the content we published. And so having that specific point of view enabled us to stand out and to build a following that was very different than one that others might have.
So I think it's definitely available as a strategy for anyone to use, but you do need to think about how you're going to make what you're creating unique and really add value and not just add more noise.
I think that's good advice on which to end. I mean, it's got me thinking a lot. I've always had for a long time now that if I ever started a B2B tech company, the first thing I would do is just like register the domain name, put a WordPress install in for slash blog and just start producing content. I think it's amazing how many companies could in the first year of their existence when that all focused on product and engineering and rightfully.
So, right startups are limited and resource. You've got to do what you've got to do, but imagine how much value they could add when they're ready to launch. If they've been working on their one blog posts a week, even a month for a year to have some of that early stage kind of audience and traction building in the background. So yeah, you've definitely reaffirmed that belief for me. So thank you.
Well, you're very welcome. I totally agree with you. I think there's a major missed opportunity for those who are willing to take advantage of it.
Absolutely. Well, thanks again, Kathleen. It's been a pleasure having you on and hopefully speak again soon.
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