Welcome to our interview series, Creativity Drives Business, where successful marketing and creative leaders share industry insights, how they got to where they are today, and explore the future role of creativity in business.
Leslie Ye, Senior Content Strategist at Hubspot, discusses how the role of content marketing is changing within organizations.
Q: How did you get into content marketing?
I fell into it by accident.
I've written my whole life and co-managed a news desk in college, but I didn't know if I wanted to do journalism professionally and wanted to try some non-writing jobs. I got a job as a producer at an agency in New York, where my day was 80% project management and 20% creative. I realized I needed to flip that ratio to be happy at work. I was actually looking at a lot of researcher jobs at PACs in Washington, D.C., but I saw the staff writer listing at HubSpot and applied because it was familiar territory. I ended up interviewing with some smart people I really wanted to work with, liked the culture, and decided to join HubSpot as a writer for our sales blog.
It turned out that not only did I enjoy writing for a living, I really loved the underlying strategy behind how you get good writing in front of people's eyeballs ... so here we are.
Q: How do you think content marketing roles in business are changing?
I actually don't think content marketing has inherently changed. At the end of the day, it's identifying strong ideas, writing about them well, and getting that writing in front of an audience you can sell something to.
The internet IS changing, though. Once upon a time, social media sites and Google were "passthrough" channels. That means people from Company A would come to those channels looking for information, they'd be shown a bunch of links posted by people at Company B, C, D, E, etc. People were using social media and Google to "pass through" to Company B, C, D, E's websites.
Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. have now gotten so big that they've been able to change their algorithms and introduce new features designed to keep people on their sites. You enter the site, browse your feed, and the algorithm will prefer showing you posts that keep you on their site. This keeps weekly active user numbers up, keeps engagement up, and makes people more loyal to a specific channel. On Google, you can see this through featured snippets, answer boxes, and people also ask boxes. On Facebook, you can see this in the way Facebook recently killed most posts by brands in the news feed. On LinkedIn, you can see this through the rise of statuses and LinkedIn videos.
You can't really get around this. What you have to do is figure out how to play on each channel, and create a separate promotion strategy for each channel.
"What you have to do is figure out how to play on each channel, and create a separate promotion strategy for each channel."
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
I run HubSpot's executive content program, which means I identify the internal employees who are most qualified to speak on topics aligned with HubSpot's positioning, co-create content with them, and place it on onsite and offsite channels. I'm basically building up HubSpot's brand awareness through content from actual practitioners that's genuinely valuable.
The role comes with two primary challenges:
1. Identifying the best ideas. Your first idea is rarely the best one, so I spend a lot of time in face-to-face meetings talking those ideas out.
2. Project management. I'm working with something like 15 people right now, who all have different communication styles, schedules, personalities, and projects. It's a lot to keep a handle on, so I live and die by HubSpot CRM, which is how I track all my projects.
Q: What are you looking ahead to in 2018?
Putting out genuinely good work. My standard for good content is to ask myself whether someone who didn't work here would care what the piece was about -- if it doesn't pass that test, I don't put it out.
Q: What was your favorite campaign or project you worked on?
Last year, my manager asked me to figure out the HubSpot blogs' organic strategy for 2017. We ended up deciding on running the topic cluster model on the blog. This meant we had to do an entire site architecture redesign...of 22,000 legacy URLs. We had to do everything manually because the tool in our software that does this automatically hadn't been built yet, and it required a ton of project management and managing between teams. But it was incredibly rewarding to know we were taking our blog to the next level and we have a really well-defined internal linking strategy now. You can hear more about this project here.
"My standard for good content is to ask myself whether someone who didn't work here would care what the piece was about -- if it doesn't pass that test, I don't put it out."
Q: How do you handle content feedback and reviews for the work your team produces?
We have a Slack channel where we drop anything interesting we're working on, great content we've read, team updates, etc. I lean a lot on my team in the brainstorming part of the content creation process, because if we don't have a good idea there's no way we'll be able to score placements or generate any real buzz. I bounce ideas off them all the time to see whether topics spark people's interests and what other content is out there that could help inform our thinking.
Q: What tools, books, or industry resources help you in your day-to-day work?
I use HubSpot CRM for long-term project management, Todoist for daily task management, and I couldn't live without Spotify.
I subscribe to these newsletters for work: Fortune raceAhead (Ellen McGirt is a genius) + Term Sheet + Data Sheet, The Hustle, TOPBOTS, Axios Login + Future of Work, A VC, Backchannel, CB Insights, Stratechery, Tom Tunguz, Wired Backchannel, OpenView Ventures, First Round Review. And I have an HBR subscription.
Aside from that, just read. Read a lot of different writing on different outlets. Follow a lot of smart people on Twitter. The more you read, the better you'll write, the better your ideas will be, and the better your thinking will get.
Q: How does content drive business results for your organization?
HubSpot's content is the reason people trust us. We've always built connections with our audience by teaching them and making them better at their jobs. 99% of our content doesn't try to sell you something, it tries to teach you something. So there's a lot of brand equity that our content contributes to, which isn't easily measurable, but we know it's working -- I can't count the number of times salespeople have reached out to us and told us their prospects first found HubSpot through our blog and offers. Our content team includes a video team, a blog team, a podcast team, an offsite content team (that's where I sit), and the HubSpot Academy team, which produces our certifications and more tactical courses. We also have a big social media team, and folks at every step of the funnel producing gated offers and lead generation campaigns, event marketing, free tools, etc. ... we consider all of that work to be "content."
In addition to that, our amazing sales enablement and product marketing teams produce more of the content you'd typically associate with revenue generation -- battle cards to be used in sales calls, positioning collateral, etc.
"Make sure you believe in what you're selling. It's really hard to create authentic, valuable content if you don't believe in it"
Q: Tell us about some brands you admire. What makes them stand out?
-Vox: I love basically everything Vox does, but their explainer videos prove that you can create buzzy content that's also educational.
-Crooked Media: Every brand could learn a lesson from Crooked's podcast strategy. They don't try to be everything to everyone -- they know their audience really well, and they create really specific experiences for each segment.
-The Hustle: They're just honest. They tell it like it is, they tell you when they're trying to sell you something, and I really trust their brand.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you want to give to other creatives?
Make sure you believe in what you're selling. It's really hard to create authentic, valuable content if you don't believe in it -- people are super savvy and can see right through marketing that has no soul behind it. Content marketing is a long game, and it doesn't pay off right away. You're always going to have goals to hit, and it will be tempting to score quick wins at the expense of quality work. At the end of the day you have to hit your goals, but make sure you're doing it the right way.
A huge thank you to Leslie for taking the time to share her thoughts. Stay tuned for the next interview soon.