In show number 28 of the Content Champion podcast, I'm thrilled to be talking with Steve Sheinkopf, CEO of Yale Appliance in Boston. Over the last four years, Steve has successfully used business blogging and inbound marketing techniques to grow his revenue by 45%.
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I've got so much respect for what Steve has achieved, not least because his results with content marketing prove this can work in any niche. Steve himself points out that he's selling appliances – which may not at first sight seem interesting enough to blog about – but in capturing his customers' excitement preceding and at the point of purchase, he's been able to tap into why people buy from him and build the Yale blog around that.
Central to the resulting content strategy is the creation of buying guides for certain types of products, which are used as calls to action on relevant blog posts. Steve then segments customers into email lists with different interests, and nurtures them based on this to the point of sale (and beyond).
So if you're a small business or SME owner and you're wondering if inbound marketing techniques can really work in your sector – you must listen to this podcast.
Topics covered this time include:
- The backstory of Steve's business, and what sets Yale apart
- Steve's inbound success in terms of visitor numbers and sales
- What helped to turn his stagnant blog into an inbound powerhouse
- The difference between blogging and business blogging
- Understanding your customers and how they buy from you
- SEO and content creation strategies
- How Steve promotes his posts (or doesn't)
- How Steve uses buying guides to attract leads
- Why email nurturing is a key part of Yale's strategy
- Why any business should be able to use content marketing
- The reasons why your business must develop an inbound culture
- Why you're wasting your money on advertising
Plus! The PS Question! Listen right to the end because Steve's answer here is just great!
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Announcer: Welcome to the official podcast at ContentChampion.com. Join our heroic quest to discover truly epic content marketing. Introducing your host, the content champion himself, Loz James.
Loz James: Hi, guys. Welcome to episode 28 of the Content Champion podcast. Thanks as ever for listening. An increasing number of listeners and readers of the blog are asking me if content marketing techniques really work in all industries and would it work in theirs, and the perfect answer to this other than me saying, “Of course this works for everybody,” is to give you a great example, and that's why I've invited Steve Sheinkopf on the show.
Steve is the fantastically successful CEO of Yale Appliance and Lighting in Boston and he's been using blogging and content marketing techniques to build up his business since 2007. Things really took off for the Yale Appliance blog and online brand in 2011 with visitor numbers growing from 38,000 a month three years ago to over 280,000 a month today. In line with this, Yale's increase in revenue has also been meteoric. With such impressive growth figures, it was a delight to chat with Steve about how exactly he achieved this, so let's dive in.
Thanks very much for coming on today, Steve.
Steve Sheinkopf: You've very welcome. Nice to meet you.
Loz James: You're the owner of Yale Appliance and Lighting in Boston and you've got a fascinating story of how you've used blogging and content marketing to grow your business. We love to hear our guest stories on the show, so before we kick off, please tell us a little bit about the history of your business, your ethos, and what solutions you provide.
Steve Sheinkopf: Ethos? Must be an English word.
Loz James: It's a very good word.
Steve Sheinkopf: That's a great word. Basically, Yale was founded in 1923 and somewhere in that time, my grandfather took it over, and then my dad, and somewhere around 1997 or so, I took over for my father. We are a what I would call large independent regional company in Boston. We have a lot of the challenges I'm sure that a lot of small businesses have. We have, I think, six Home Depots around us and Lowe's and Sears and Best Buy, and we compete online against Amazon and everything else, so it's changed quite a bit.
Solutions we provided were different is we're a training company. We want to keep our people one step ahead. We have probably the largest showroom outside of east of the Mississippi in terms of appliances and lighting, and we provide a lot of solutions. We do a lot of custom installation, delivery, and we service what we sell, so that's what makes us different.
Loz James: Let's turn our attention to how blogging changed your business really. Before we delve down into the details, could you give us some stats to illustrate how successful your blog is?
Steve Sheinkopf: In 2011, we started to do business blogging as opposed to regular blogging. We were at 38,000 visitors a month. We top out somewhere around 280,000 now.
Loz James: That's amazing.
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah, it's 280,000. We multiplied by 10 in 3 years, so that's what blogging can do.
Loz James: Let's wind the clock back a few years. I understand you'd been blogging from around 2007, but despite having a great deal of sales experience, it wasn't working for you, so what turned this inbound marketing into the success story that you enjoy today?
Steve Sheinkopf: It's a change in mindset. There's a difference, I think when I started in 2007, I wouldn't say it failed, but I failed to achieve the results that I do now, and that is to say I blog more like a hipster or an artist instead of a business person. If you're going to blog properly, you have to understand where you fit in the business universe, what your people would like to read, what your niche actually is, and then you've got to really title and meta tag properly, and then you've got to have a good call to action afterwards to get them to go to a certain point.
All we did was write about stuff. We didn't title it well, so the search engines couldn't pick it up. There was no call to action, none of that, so really, I think people are blogging. It's very easy to tweak to a business blog, but they just got to understand all that that goes with it, just the tactics, but really, I think probably the hardest thing is the strategy.
If you're selling insurance, you've got to pick a niche because everybody's writing about insurance or everybody's writing about a refrigerator or everybody's writing about a stove, but get into that particular niche and that's where you'll find success. You don't want to make it so small that you're relevant to one person, but you want to make it niched down so you're relevant to say, 1000 or 2000 people, because those will become your customers.
Loz James: That distinction, then, that difference between just blogging and blogging for business or business blogging, this is really why so many people are perhaps failing at their inbound marketing.
Steve Sheinkopf: I think that's part of it. I think that basically, whew, there's a lot of reasons why people are failing: Not understanding what you're writing about. A lot of blogs are just veiled self-promotion where they're just announcing sales and being too salesy. I think there's not enough quantity, not enough quality. There's any number of reasons to fail, but really, the first thing is you got to get somebody who can champion and will see it through, that's the first thing.
The second thing is you got to be committed to it. A third thing is you got to write about your niche and you got to understand the tactics that we just talked about about blogging. You can do all that. I don't think there's any business that won't succeed using a proper inbound strategy.
Loz James: Let's dig down into that proper inbound strategy, then. You've mentioned this. You've touched on it. It all starts with understanding your customers and then getting your keyword research right off the back of that, especially if you want to get great rankings and encourage engagement, so could you go through that process for us as you do it?
Steve Sheinkopf: There's a couple different ways you can do it. To be successful at it, I'll tell you, I stumbled upon it myself. I was writing for four years and I wrote a post. It's my most successful post now. It's garnered about 240,000 views. It's called “Best Counter Depth Refrigerators”, and I didn't understand why it was successful then. I understand it now because I got into the psychology of how people look for stuff, which is when you go to the internet, and this is a really good hack. If you go to the internet, you're always looking for best, reviews, or ratings. You'll see what's the best? For me, it was best counter depth refrigerator, so I took the refrigerator as the base keyword and counter depth made it a long tail.
We like to complicate things by saying keywords research or long tails or anything else. That's what marketing people do more often than not, but really what it is is just a niche. Counter depth refrigerators are just a very expensive refrigerator that we know how to sell, so one of the things you can do if you find out that post became successful is you write things off that. If I know best counter depth refrigerators is moving the needle, what I would do is maybe compare the brands within them, compare the sizes within them, compare the finishes, or you can do any number of things off that one post. That's one way to do it.
The other thing is, once again, doing keyword research comes natural to me because I sold for so many years, I understand the brands, but a lot of it is going to be … It's almost going to be trial and error, and if you write consistently, you'll find it. The other thing is to understand, and I said this before and this is really important, where do you fit in the universe. I mentioned before how many people we compete with and how many brands we compete with. I've got 60 competitors within a three-mile area. You got to find out what makes you different and write about it, really.
If we go back to the insurance thing … I don't sell insurance, but could be talking about insurance for older people, younger people, business insurance. What kind of business? Is it electrical supply? Is it warehouse? Is it appliance stores? Is it blog writers? It can be any number of things. You want to splice that niche off into so many different ways. If what I'm saying is hard, it's a lot easier than that. The first thing is to write. Figure it out, write about it, and analyze the response with simple analytics whether it's Google Analytics … I use Hubspot … and see what gives you traction.
Loz James: From an SEO perspective, to get a little bit technical on that, each of those posts we're putting our keyword in the title tag, naturally written for human beings, but we are mentioning that keyword and synonyms of that within the content itself, and this is why you're getting for those long tail terms such great rankings as the content piles up.
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah, really. If you want to totally circumvent the whole SEO mindset, which I still don't quite understand what makes one page rank better than the other and Google ain't saying, so there's a lot of simple things you can do. I think the versus post is probably one of the most effective things I do. You take two popular products and you compare them, and I never understood why we're so successful at it, and then I figured out that most brands can't do it. General Electric is not going to come out with a post comparing themselves with Frigidaire, typically. Car companies don't do it really well, but that's what we do every day on the sales floor.
I can tell you right now, and I think I've said this before, right now in the store, someone's comparing a Bosch dishwasher to a KitchenAid dishwasher, and I'll write a post about it, and it's funny how so few people do it. If you're a small business and you have more than one product, which I would say would be 90% of any business, whether it's British or American, compare the two because you know your customers are going to do it and that's a direct SEO hit that nobody does.
Loz James: I know you've worked with Marcus Sheridan who we've had on the podcast as well, and what you're talking about there is this sort of they ask, you answer approach really, isn't it? It's knowing your customers, knowing the types of searches, the types of questions that they're going to be asking of you as a company, and you're saying know your place within that universe, and then you can answer those questions, and there are going to be hundreds of them for any business.
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah. A couple things you need to do, and this is another reason why blogs fail is A) You need to know the product, so if you're hiring a consultant that doesn't know the product, you're going to fail, if you're going to outsource it. I think there is a place in outsourcing, but you've got to ride shotgun with that outsourcer. You can't just have somebody write about the appliance business that doesn't know about it. That's a big problem.
The other thing is you got to know what your niche is. For me to write about refrigerators, it's silly because I'm sure that Sears has got, or Home Depot's got 20 people in their office that are writing pages perfectly for SEO. That's not something you can do, but understanding niches of that business, so really if you want to blog well, you can do all the tactics, but you have to know the business and you have to know where your business stands against everybody else's business, and then you got to write about it. If you can do those three things, you're going to be a successful blog, successful in business.
Loz James: You're using the Hubspot system and software and I know you've talked about Hubspot is only a software. It's only as good as the people using it and those systems you put into place. I'm taking it that all the posts you write are promoted on social media and there are other stuff you use as well.
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah, but you know something? If you're writing to a specific niche, you don't really have to worry about that much. Yeah, we promote it on Facebook and we promote it on Twitter, and we have an RSS feed and people get this sent automatically. Then there's all kinds of ways you can do it. If you've got an email list of future prospects, blog posts make the best email fodder there is.
I know that if you are downloading a buying guide, say for … Pick one, we've got 20 of them … Say professional ranges. I know you're downloading a professional range guide. I know two things about you that marketers would kill for. I know that A) you need a professional range or are considering it, and B) I know you need it somewhat soon, so what I do is I set up the blog posts as lead nurturing campaigns. I drive people towards the purchase. That's the other part is you're not blogging for your health. You're blogging because it's good for your business and you're going to make money off it.
I send blog content all the time to people. I have 20 different lead nurturing campaigns going on at all times, and I send these people 4 or 5 different lead nurturing emails to get them to come in the store and buy something.
Loz James: Okay, so conversions. We're talking about making money. That's what everyone listening is interested in. Given that, lead nurturing, you're producing specific types of content for where that customer is in your buying journey, as it were, so they might just be tire kicking, to use the analogy of buying a car. They might be looking at lots of cars in the lot, kicking the tires, having a look at the trim inside. Then they're going to go on perhaps to a specific make and model of car, and then after that, they're going to make a buying decision, so how do you fit your content? What types of content fit those different stages?
Steve Sheinkopf: You know what's funny? We write so much content to people of all different stages. There's no way to know. I don't have a particular stage in mind. I only know that typically I want someone to read what we write and say, “Wow, they know what they're talking about. Let me download a guide,” and then, from my standpoint, they made the first move. Now I'm ready to engage them. That's how the process works is it goes well beyond that, really.
The first thing you do is make sure that you do what you say you're going to do and your social reputation's good because you could be writing the best blog posts in the world, but if you get a two-star rating on Yelp or Google, you're screwed. What we try to do is we try to get people to understand that we know what we're doing so the interaction with us is going to be a positive one, and once you get into that mindset, you can write a bunch of blog posts. Someone's going to go in the funnel in different places. What you have to do is you have to write good content to impress them enough. For me, it's to get them to get into a guide where I can start a conversation with them. Did I answer your question?
Loz James: You totally did. What you're basically saying, this is what people I guess need to hear, is that there are a lot of moving parts to this, but it can be simplified. If the trust and authority's there in you as a brand whether it's online or offline and you are knowledgeable about your subject matter and you produce blog content that fits with that, the next stage, what you're doing is producing buying guides. They might be white papers. They might be other documents for other companies …
Steve Sheinkopf: Same thing…
Loz James: … and that opens up discourse where then off the back of that you get a sales lead.
Steve Sheinkopf: A lot of people, they over think it, and if you're over thinking now and if I've stressed you out, just do one thing. Just write. Make sure your blog title's got a keyword that you're interested in. Don't think about your business. Think about your customer, of who you're trying to talk to, and just write. Start that way. Everybody gets in the conversation of funnels and this and that, and you get so confused you don't know where to start so you don't start, and that's the only problem we have.
Once you start writing, you'll get better at it, and over a period of time, you'll figure it out because you'll have the analytics to back up and support you.
Announcer: You're listening to the Content Champion podcast showcasing the best content marketing strategies across the web.
Loz James: We're back with Steve Sheinkopf. I'm just really fascinated by what you're saying and there's a day in the life question coming up about your content workflow as it were. I know that you're the editor of all the content and you've become, really, a master copywriter at all this because you're editing and producing so much content. You're using Hubspot. That's the system. You can use any one of these tools.
Steve Sheinkopf: You can use any.
Loz James: How does it look then? How does that pan out with people? What is it, different specialisms within your organization writing the specific blog posts? How'd you come up with those editorial calendars, and how does it all fit together?
Steve Sheinkopf: I used to write all the blog posts myself and I still write a fair amount of them, but what I try to do is I try to base it on somewhat of seasonality. First of all, we have a lighting department, we have a service department, and we have a appliance department, and the bulk of what we sell is appliances, so typically what I'll do is we have 30 salespeople and I assign them blog posts, or I send out 30 topics and they pick the topics they want. Our sales force is divided into lighting and appliances, so they can pick the topics or they can pick their own if they want to talk to me about it, and then they write based on that. That's how we do it here.
Loz James: If we're looking at quality consistency, how often are you blogging at, five or six times a week, isn't it?
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah.
Loz James: What's more important, consistency or quality?
Steve Sheinkopf: Both, and again, if you're just starting out and you're saying, “Oh, boy, I can't do that,” you probably can't, especially if you're a small business, and I was there. I think two to three good blog posts a week, minimum of two, I think anybody can do that, really, and if you're a sole proprietor, two. If you've got people working with you, you've got to figure out … I mean, we'll get into the financials of it later because I'm not doing this because I'm a good Samaritan by any means. We'll get into the financials of blogging, but you really need to have at least two good posts a week to get any tread, especially in the beginning.
You need to learn and the only way you're going to learn is to have topics. The only way you get topics is to write about them and that's the only way to figure out from the analytics standpoint of how well you're doing. You may find out that you're going to be successful in areas that you never thought you would be, but you're only going to figure that out if you write.
Loz James: Talking about the financials of blogging then. A lot of clients I work with, they just say, “Look, my niche isn't necessarily interesting enough. There's not enough material for me to blog all the time,” but I guess your attitude is that if you can't get your customers interested in your own products, you're in trouble, aren't you?
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah. I mean, that's really an odd sentiment. I sell appliances for a living. How much more boring can that be, but for customers, it isn't. For someone that's putting, a first-timer who's looking for his first kitchen, his or her, a dream house or something, it's exciting to them. If someone's making a purchase, whether it's exciting or not, and I think Mark Sheridan did the best one. One of his fastest growing clients actually sold fertilizer or mulch or something like that. Everybody's business is exciting to somebody or nobody would be buying anything, so you can make it exciting by … and I've seen a lot of businesses do this … you can do it exciting by putting it on video. Videos make great posts, especially if you video on a blog and you put it on YouTube. Google owns YouTube, so you're doing a double dip there, but there is something exciting about your business or you wouldn't have any customers.
If someone's buying something from us, that's exciting to them obviously, so I don't agree with that. You can find something exciting about something in any business.
Loz James: Okay, and how's writing about appliances in an exciting way, a customer-focused way, without giving me too many specifics, obviously, how much has that grown your company as a percentage doing this for the last four, five, six, seven years?
Steve Sheinkopf: It's hard to know because we're in the midst of the recession. We're coming out of it, but to give you round numbers is our business is up somewhere around 45% since 2010, or 2011. The other thing is if you look at financials, and I'm talking to CMOs or CEOs here, is if you can grow your business and not lose your margin, if you've become a thought leader, people are more inclined to spend more with you. You'll have better margin integrity.
The other part about it is advertising costs money. If you can eliminate that expense and grow the top line, that stuff just goes to your bottom line probably as well as anything. You're eliminating an expense and you're adding a revenue, and you're adding prestige to your business at the same time. It is a total win. If you get really good at it, it's a total win on every level because it all goes to the bottom line. At my level, I should be spending well over a million dollars on advertising. I don't, but what I do is I take that money and invest in touch points that customers like: Better showroom, better salespeople, better training methods, better trucks. We spend that money on things that people actually want, and that's how it all self-perpetuates and grows.
Loz James: Talking about the showroom there and the offline and the online customer experience blended together, your systems and processes, was that a difficult proposition bringing together an on-the-ground real world business with this online brand, or is it just an overarching branding process that brings it all together?
Steve Sheinkopf: You don't control your brand. What your customers say and what they do controls that brand. I think blogging and helping people offline is a great thing to do for your brand, and I think it's been essential and a core value. I really think that in this day and age, seeing that the internet is all controlling and everything else, there's two things that you want to be known for: Better customer service and better knowledge, or you want to have the cheapest price. That's the only two ways to live in this world is to be cheap or be good. I think blogging and customer service goes a long way for your brand and your overall success.
Loz James: On a general note then, following off from that, in your opinion, will businesses that don't develop a coherent inbound marketing culture, will they simply get left behind?
Steve Sheinkopf: It's funny. I used to be on the board of an appliance co-op group, and they put all their money into circulars, which I thought circulars died 15 years ago, but they put all their money there and I said, “We should put in interactive.” One day during the break, I said, “How many people get their information by radio, TV, circular?,” and they didn't know where I was going at this point in time, so maybe one or two, and there were maybe 15 people in the room, one or two people raised their hand for everything. I said, “Okay, how many people go to the internet to find what they're looking for?”, and everybody's hand goes up, so really, in an internet world, everybody's going online to find something and really, all a blog is is a highly optimized SEO web page.
You have two things that you have to do. You either embrace an inbound culture of some sort, and you don't have to do it to the level that we do it, obviously, especially if you're smaller, or you got to spend a ton of money advertising. What I have found is, and I used to spend a lot of money in advertising back in 2007 and 2008, and when the recession hit, I spent more and I got diminishing returns even when the recession was on, so you have to spend a ton of money advertising or you have to develop an inbound culture, but if you're going to spend a lot of money advertising, you better multiply it by 50% because people aren't listening.
They're not listening to what you have to say about yourself. They're listening to what other people say about you, so make sure that your social reputation is good, and they want to listen to what kind of resources you have. If I'm going to build a garage, I'll go online to how to build a garage and I'll look at the people that have done it and say, “This person knows what they're doing,” so I'm more likely to engage with that person because they've done what I'm planning to do, so that's really where you need to be is in the advice, service, and customer service business if you're going to survive in this business or have a ton of money advertising and be the cheapest person out there, and it's not possible doing that. It's suicide.
Those are really your only things, so I guess in a roundabout way, I'm saying develop some kind of inbound culture, absolutely.
Loz James: This has been a fascinating conversation. I'm going to throw a curve ball question at you in a minute, which I call the PS question, but before I do that, could you remind us all where we can find you online, please?
Steve Sheinkopf: It's YaleAppliance.com, one word. My email is my name, Steve.Sheinkopf@YaleAppliance.com. Twitter handle is YaleCEO.
Announcer: Wait for it, listeners. Here comes the PS question.
Loz James: This is what I call the PS question.
Steve Sheinkopf: Oh, boy.
Loz James: I want to know, please, if you could share another advanced content marketing or inbound marketing strategy that my listeners could take away and use right after this call?
Steve Sheinkopf: Don't spend any money on advertising. Just don't because you're not getting a return on investment, but that's an easy one. You probably know that. There's two things I would do. The first thing I mentioned, so pick a niche, write about it. If you've got something that's best of, say it, so if you've got the best insurance, say “best warehouse insurance for you” and make it as specific as you possibly can.
Once you get on the blog thing, the intermediate class begins, and that is I want you to write a buying guide about something specific that you're selling. Once you make the buying guide, if you make it good, and everything that you do should be good, so this should be quality and consistency. Once you do that, now you have someone's email address. Now you can send what specialists call drip campaigns or lead nurturing campaigns. Now you can drive people to a purchase.
If you have a buying guide … Let's take the pro range. I send five or six nurturing emails with an average engagement rate of 35%.
Loz James: Wow, that's good. That's good.
Steve Sheinkopf: Yeah, that's about 15-1/2 times the average because I know what you want to read. Most people are sending sale emails to people. That's why they never get opened because I love email. Email's really what we're good at, but most of my competitors send me sale emails three times a week. How many times can you actually be on sale? Anyway, once you get that specific guide, think about the path to purchase and send them different resources which are just blog posts.
I send people blog posts: comparisons, most reliable, least reliable, and then after a while, you can send … We're going to run a Groupon. We do it once a year. You can always say, “Hey, PS. Just so you know, we're running a Groupon.” You can get them into the purchase process much quicker that way after you send them a couple resources if you want to send them something. I never get salesy, but if there's something going on … We have tax-free weekend here the state puts on so that's a perfect time to put PS on. We have a private sale. That's a perfect time. Cooking seminars. We have cooking emails. You can send something like that. You can really drive the path to purchase with blogging, guides, and then lead nurturing, probably better than anything else you can do.
Loz James: That's fantastic. Great strategy and probably a great title for this podcast as well. Look, Steve, I'd like to thank you very much for your time, fascinating conversation, and I wish you all the best.
Steve Sheinkopf: All right. You, too. It's nice talking to you.
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