Cut spend, produce content: an interview with Dan Norris

There can be few people who have built a business worth millions and spent less than $200 on marketing. Then again, we can’t all be Dan Norris, the Australian founder of 24-hour WordPress support company WPCurve and author of content marketing guide Content Machine.

Norris’s business is built on the back of a prolific 600,000 words output spanning blog posts to books. Although his business specialises in technical support, Norris’s blogs often go beyond this and examine start-up culture. In Norris view, you should focus on what your customers need to know, even if it is not specifically about your service or product.

His books include 7-Day Start-up and Content Machine: Use Content Marketing to Build a 7-Figure Business with Zero Advertising, in which he describes how to go about creating content, both in terms of individual posts but also defining a voice and market.

Published last year, it is still in the Amazon Kindle store’s top five for web marketing and e-commerce.

Content Machine is principally about best practice and targeted at start-ups similar to the one Norris launched in 2012. Bigger companies have of course been heavily engaged in content marketing, too and today the sheer welter of content being produced has led some to question whether it is possible to achieve cut-through with content marketing in the same way as you could in the prehistoric days of 2012.

While speaking to FirstWord, Norris said the approach to content marketing should stay the same: the ultimate aim remains unchanged.

In my experience, people who are obsessed with tracking ROI, on what is effectively a brand-building exercise, are thinking about it the wrong way — Dan Norris

“I think there are a lot of variables,” he said. “The type of business would impact it, the type of talent you have available and your brand all play a part. There is no catch-all approach other than creating content that people care about using the platforms that people are active on. And that you can execute well.”

Keep it simple

Sometimes it is a straightforward case of doing the simple things well. One of the main steers in Content Machine concerns the need to establish an endpoint. For Norris, that has been to bring in customers. To achieve this he has sacrificed value. One example was to give away the first 13,000 copies of his previous book 7-Day-Startup as a means of building subscribers. It only takes a fraction of these people to turn into paying customers for the 26,000-word book to pay for itself.

This brings up the question of how to define ROI in content marketing. In Content Machine, Norris broadly defines it as shares, comments and hits. Yet he accepts there is more to it than that.

Dan Norris

WPCurve founder and Content Machine author Dan Norris

He said: “Shares are a good way to track the quality of content but there’s no good way I am aware of to track ROI. In my experience, people who are obsessed with tracking the ROI on what is effectively a brand-building exercise are thinking about it the wrong way.”

Many marketers have a problem with content strategy, he added. “I think it’s misunderstood and people don’t really have a plan for (a) creating content that people care about and (b) somehow using it to build an audience of people to sell to. For the most part, people just create a lot of stuff and hope it works out.”

This leads to distribution, when everyone is shouting trying to be heard. Is it possible to get cut-through if you are a start-up blogging on your own today? Do you need money to bring in a professional team?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, Norris seems to say. Some markets, such as IT and tech, are more advanced. In other sectors, companies are just starting to get used to the idea of content marketing.

Norris says: “I think it depends a lot on the industry you are in. In Black Hops Brewing [an Australian brewery], we have had a lot of success from a small amount of content. The industry isn’t super-competitive yet, so it’s much easier than in the online marketing world. In online business, it’s much more competitive and far harder to stand out. You need to differentiate more, embrace new platforms and probably get good at video to do it well.”

B2B or B2C

How you use platforms as a B2B or B2C marketer is changing. B2B efforts seem as unlikely to use Instagram as a cosmetics brand might turn to LinkedIn. There’s an obvious difference in the requirements of a B2B buyer who is acquiring something for their company compared with a consumer buying something for themselves.

But, asked if there was a big difference between business and consumer, Norris said it was probably less than one might think. “In the end, content marketing is about connecting with individuals through content. You hear a lot of people say ‘For B2B you need to be on LinkedIn’ or ‘My audience isn’t on Facebook or Snapchat’. But you look at the numbers and they’re wrong.

“Everyone is on Facebook and most people are now on Snapchat. These ideas get in people’s heads and stop them from creating content on the platforms that everyone is using.”

The future?

Can anyone create a content marketing campaign? At FirstWord, our unashamed mantra is that the work has to be as good as that produced in top news and magazine titles. If you’re writing about finance, it should be of sufficient quality to appear in the Financial Times.

“I don’t agree that it has to be better [than the New York Times or Financial Times], it only has to be different. It’s an attention game. One way to get someone’s attention is through quality journalism, but it’s not the only way. There are an unlimited number of avenues for creating interesting content that don’t involve writing NYT-style articles.”

As someone who has only ever spent $181.23 on marketing, it is tempting to ask whether Norris’s success represents the end of display advertising. Online display especially is taking a hammering from everything from adblockers to changes in display technology (translated as: the trashing of flash).

Content marketing seems to point to the future, but as one option of many. Yet one bugbear still needs to be eliminated. Norris says: “I think the trend is towards content marketing for sure. The challenge is it’s very hard for big companies to understand the ROI and direct correlation between spending on content and earning customers. Until content can provide them with that, there will still be a huge place for paid marketing.