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When Mahlab met Jeff Bullas

World-renowned marketing strategist Jeff Bullas discusses what it takes to survive in a digital world.

With a blog following spanning 190 countries and a Twitter fan base nearing a quarter of a million, Jeff Bullas is one of the world’s most prolific social media experts. We sat down with the celebrated blogger, author, speaker, strategist and content marketing consultant to discuss the secret to his success, the power of the social web and what it takes to survive in a digital world.

Mahlab Could you tell us a little about your career history?

Jeff Bullas I started out as a teacher. I did that for about six years, teaching economics, accounting, geography – a range of subjects – and realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I decided to change. I started moving into technology where I became intrigued by the web and its ability to move information and communicate. It was in the mid-90s when I made my move into the social web. It’s a space that intersects social, humanity and technology, so I was immediately interested – and there I’ve stayed.

M What do you credit to your success?

JB To be successful in this game you need great content and great distribution. And I suppose it’s a passion – I’ve created a lot of content. I put it down to two things. One is creating the best content you possibly can that you’re passionate about, and the other is building tribes of passionate followers on social networks. For me, Twitter has been the best platform for doing that because it’s unfiltered. I discovered Twitter fairly early on and began using tools to help automate my activity. Around the same time that I started working with automation tools, I stumbled across the concept of evergreen content, where you create high quality content pieces that can be shared and re-appropriated over the course of many years. So I began creating high-quality, timeless pieces of content that I could get as much out of over the longest possible period of time. So you could say that my success has been the result of a sound content creation and distribution strategy and a strong social media presence and network.

M We’ve noticed that you don’t date your blog content. What’s your take on the evergreen vs time-sensitive content debate?

JB There’s no right or wrong when it comes to dating your content and it’s certainly not a moral issue. I choose to publish dateless posts simply because it allows me to retweet content pieces over a long period of time. Why has this become such a heated topic of discussion? Well, I think it comes down to the fact that marketers, when confronted with ‘old’ posts, will deem the content as not being valuable – an assumption that is, in many cases, incorrect. As an industry, if we are to continue improving, we need to move past this perception. You’ll find with 90 per cent of my blog posts, for example, that you could read them in two years time and they’ll still maintain as much relevance as the day they were published.

M What automation tools do you use?

JB I used a couple early on that were free and didn’t work out well, but I discovered a tool called Social Oomph. I use the professional version which allows me to do recurring tweets, so I can feed it and it’ll keep putting those tweets out on a regular basis. I make a point of not repeating a tweet for six days, to keep my outgoing feed fresh. Having a large pool of content that you can share means you can promote each piece over extended periods of time without bombarding your followers with the same content over and over. So many people simply share a blog post once or twice and it’s left to sit on the blog, unfound. The problem with this approach is the web is a noisy place, so you need to try and break though. People are busy, so the idea of Twitter is it’s not an inbox, it’s a stream – you need to keep feeding the stream.

I like that Twitter is an unfiltered platform, but for avid Tweeters with large followings, the general homepage feed can become a very cluttered space. So for me, with 230,000 followers, it’s about tweeting out content that adds value to people’s lives and do that on a consistent basis.

M For businesses new to content marketing, where do you suggest they start?

JB When I started out, I went looking for the best people in the content space. I became familiar with the work of the top bloggers in blogging, social media, content marketing, SEO and digital marketing – granted, this is a space that exists in a constant state of change so you really have to keep on top of it. I constantly keep an eye on my Twitter feed and use Google Alerts as a daily dose of the best content from across the web. You can search Twitter and Facebook for marketing-related businesses and people and look for visual content on Pinterest and Instagram. Essentially, you just have to get online and start digging for inspiration.

M You’re an avid blogger – what is your writing process?

JB It starts with an idea which is put straight into my phone notes. I will sometimes interrupt someone to jot down my thoughts. Hopefully I do it in a well-mannered, polite way! The trouble with a good idea is it can be fleeting so I grab it while I can – I’ve even stopped the car to write it down. Or I might read an article that’s inspired me to write something, so I’ll grab the link and, if I’m in front of a computer, I’ll put it straight into a blog post with the headline and resource.

Then I might write a little bit of an outline a day or two before, or I might get up early and craft it right from scratch that day, so the process then becomes wangling the article into shape. Sometimes it looks rough and it’s not working, but it’s like polishing a diamond – once you have it in a rough format, you’ve got to keep editing. When I’m happy with the copy, I’ll be sure to structure it for easy skimming and scanning – subheads, bullet points, and a punchy intro.

And, of course, the final stage is all about launching it online and distributing it. But before I do, I optimise it for search engines – I refine the title, URL, meta description, keyword content and the key focus word. Then I distribute the piece across email, Facebook and Linkedin, and tweet out the link several times throughout the first day.

M Do you find yourself going back to posts and reworking them?

JB Sometimes there will be a typo because I try and meet a deadline. That might be pointed out to me in a tweet or comment, so I’ll go back and edit that. I’ve had people say to me, ‘You need to sack your copywriter!’. Well, granted, but I’m creating content almost every day, so I just don’t have the budget for it. I work by the mantra, ‘done is better than perfect’. I’ve found that people will generally tolerate tiny typos in blog posts because it’s online. If it’s print, on the other hand, there’s the potential for a recall, and that’s a costly process. I’m not too precious about it, but I do go through it two, three or four times before hitting publish. But I never rework ideas. I’m very disciplined about solidifying my thoughts before publishing a piece of content. Having said that, I have been known to change headlines but that’s very rare.

M Could you tell us the story behind your blog – when and why did you start it?

JB I started it when I was unemployed and had credit card debt of $50k. I had to close a business and was going through a marriage breakup – let’s just say I had time on my hands.

During that time I was inspired by three pieces of content. One was a book by Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week, the other one was a book by David Meerman-Scott, The New Rules of Marketing and PRI remember reading a blog post by Hubspot that said, if you have an inkling of what you want to write about or create, then start a blog. So I did.

My inkling was social media marketing, predominantly due to that intersection I spoke of earlier – social, humanity and technology. I noticed people’s obsession with it and felt compelled to begin an exploration of its inner workings. Again, that was in the very early days of social media. I realised that something really powerful was happening and six years later, that’s proved to be true.

M What does it take to be a successful blogger?

JB You need to be able to write with purpose and passion. But, more importantly, you need to be creating blogposts that encompass two things. Firstly, your innate ability and, secondly, what you’re passionate about. For me, I discovered that I love writing – something I didn’t know before I started the blog. I knew I had a genuine interest and curiosity in technology. I liked the opportunities it presented and its potential future. And marketing fascinated me, particularly the ways in which people react to its processes. So for me, my blog is not a singular passion, it’s more a convergence of interests and newly discovered innate abilities, as well as ones I was already aware of.

M Do you think social media is a help or hindrance to humanity?

JB I think it’s a powerful enabler and an extension of who we are as humans. I’m an optimist rather than a pessimist and sure, we can get distracted by it and it can sometimes overwhelm our daily lives. But social media enables anyone to become a publisher. It teaches you how to structure your thoughts, develop your research process and refine your curiosity. Social media enables you to indulge in the art of creation, and in doing so, you’re putting a piece of yourself out into the public space – that’s a simultaneously powerful and frightening thing, but with this comes a sense of freedom; of power. And you’re are able to learn more about yourself; to grow and develop through the people who engage with your creations.

It’s an area of intense connection; a synergy between wide-scale global communication and personalised, individual connection with engaged members of an audience. You are offered the opportunity to touch people who are like-minded and curious about the same topics as you and, ultimately, build relationships with those individuals.

I’m not talking about the simple act of tweeting or posting to Facebook and LinkedIn. I’m talking about a considered and persistent effort in the arena of content creation.

M As a consultant, what do you find to be the most common pain point for marketers?

JB Creating content. Many marketers are not confident or experienced writers, and so they are very reluctant to create blog content themselves.

I’ve also noticed that some marketers, although they’re avid bloggers, are creating content that their customers just aren’t interested in. In this second instance, my advice would be to write down all the problems and questions your audience has posed to you in the past. With this, it’s important to keep your mind focused on identifying these challenges and pain points when in meetings and discussions with clients. That way, you’ll be able to maintain a steady and consistent stream of relevant blog topics to help your audience solve their problems. But it’s also important to create fun and inspiring content, too – it’s not all about solving problems, but it’s certainly a great place to start.

M Do you find a lot of marketers struggle to find the time?

JB Absolutely. I’ve found many marketers struggle to find the time to create blog content themselves alongside their various other day-to-day responsibilities. A recent article said 50 to 60 per cent of content is now outsourced. I can understand that, because you either have to get up early or stay up late if you’re going to create quality content. It’s something that takes time.

M What measurement tools are you using to determine the success of your content?

JB I’m using Simply Measured to provide an analysis of my social media channels in comparison with competitors. I use Google Analytics and WordPress stats to monitor website activity and landing page conversion rates, and I also keep a close eye on the open and click through rates of my email marketing campaigns via my campaign service provider.

From an enterprise perspective, you’ve got a plethora of tools at your disposal. There’s Sprinklr, Adobe, and Salesforce recently acquired ExactTarget. Then there’s Marketo and Hubspot’s services – if you have the budget, you have quite a variety to choose from.

But I recommend marketers exercise caution when looking to incorporate marketing technology into their strategy. It’s still very much early days and if you’re delving into this space in the hope that these tools will solve long-standing structural or departmental inefficiencies, you should perhaps take a more inward and reflective approach to fixing those problems.

M For marketers, how can they stay relevant in this ever-shifting industry without getting sidetracked by gimmicks and buzz concepts?

JB I think you’ve got to read a lot. You’ve got to watch a lot and analyse everything that crosses your line of sight. You should be reading blogs specific to your industry as well as those spanning every facet of what you do; across your entire professional ecosystem. Staying up-to-date requires an open mind and a healthy level of curiosity. With this, I think pattern recognition is crucial – something we as humans are quite good at because we can often sense when things are about to happen.

Sometimes it’s a case of unlearning what you know. You cannot teach someone unless they’re willing to be taught. In my experience, a lot of CEOs and executives have been brought up on a diet of traditional media and traditional business processes and from the perspective of the social and digital web, this is an approach that just won’t cut it.

John Maynard Keynes said the biggest challenge isn’t accepting new ideas, it’s letting go of old ones. It’s an important lesson for all business professionals, regardless of their area of expertise – you cannot teach a closed mind.

M How often do you devote daily to reading and research?

JB It varies, but I read avidly – at least an hour of intense content consumption a day. I’ll take small chunks of time out of my day to skim and scan blogs, too, so I’d say at least two to three hours a day.

M One of your areas of expertise is content auditing. What is your process when you work with B2B businesses on their existing content assets?

JB I audit two areas of their offering – firstly, their content and, secondly, their digital assets. When assessing content, I look at their blog from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective – what are their headlines like, are their intros intriguing enough for audiences to continue reading, is each post structured for skimming and scanning, is it easy to read, does it address their audience’s problems, and overall, is it something I’d want to read, or is it something I’d want to jump straight out of? Because on the web, you’re just a single click away from oblivion. Within this aspect of an audit, I would also look at their social platforms in a similar way – are their posts appropriate for that specific platform, is the copy engaging and enticing, do they incorporate images into their posts, and are they engaging the specific audiences they want to be targeting? It’s a process that looks at both owned and social content assets – it’s always very revealing.

Then there’s the digital assets audit, which is assessing how they’re doing on both search and social from a numerical perspective – are they ranking on certain pages, how many leads have they acquired for their email lists, how large are their social networks – to give me an idea of where they sit on the audience spectrum. It’s very much a benchmarking process to give me a clear understanding of where they’re most effective, and where improvement is needed.

M How do you see the changing role of the CMO?

JB They’ve got to be the conductor – they can’t do it all, can they? CMOs must have a firm understanding of and openness to the ever-changing digital landscape. They need to remain nimble and maintain an ability to shift gears or change direction when the business calls for it. Content has to be a focus, as does social media and SEO. As well as this, CMOs are increasingly having to embrace technology – it’s become quite the competitive advantage in today’s marketplace – rather than run from it. Because of this, I think CMOs will start to develop more intimate relationships with CIOs, programmers and technologists.

For many CMOs, they’ve been working in a very traditional and, to a certain extent, analogue frame of mind. As a result, they struggle to wrap their heads around digital. If this is the case, then they need to hire the talent – whether that be in the form of a consultant or in-house strategist – necessary to advise on the strategic direction of the business’ marketing resources. However it’s achieved, that knowledge gap must be bridged if they are to succeed.

M What opportunities do you see for Australia’s content marketers right now?

JB The social web presents Australia with a fantastic opportunity to connect with the rest of the world and content marketers have a large part to play in making that happen. Our biggest challenge as a country is our isolation geographically, so I think through quality content and highly strategic content marketing strategies, Australian businesses will be able to engage global audiences in a really valuable way. To increase Australia’s visibility in the global market through content – that’s an incredible opportunity.

Jeff Bullas is an internationally renowned blogger, author, marketing strategist and speaker. You can get in touch with Jeff on Twitter or through his website.

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