In this fascinating content marketing case study, I reveal how asset-based loan provider Zillidy increased their online visitors by 1,200% and their sales leads by 1,500% in just two years. If you think content marketing can't work in your business, stop what you're doing and read this.
I still receive a lot of emails from readers who doubt content marketing has a place in their business or organisation, and who are sure it can't work in their sector. Yet I'm always at pains to say this view couldn't be further from the truth.
That's why it was a delight to speak with Steven Uster of short-term collateral loan supplier Zillidy, based in Toronto. Steven has almost exclusivey used content marketing techniques to go from start-up to flourishing business in just 24 months, with inbound blogging based techniques helping him achieve the amazing figures mentioned above.
Steven also points out that marketing with content instead of using other interruption techniques has saved him in the region of $200,000 a year.
With stats like this to draw on, isn't it about time you reinvented your old business blog or started a new one as soon as possible?
Steven was very generous with his time for this interview, so let's dive straight in…
Thanks for the interview Steven. Tell me about your history, I understand you're a former New York investment banker. What exactly were you doing prior to Zillidy?
Yeah, I started as you say with nine years in New York with UBS. Then, my old boss at UBS left and we started up a boutique firm. I focused on large cap, consumer products companies. Pepsi, Kraft, Heinz, Campbell Soup, Gillette, those types of companies.
I moved back to Toronto in 2009 and started an investment company called Eldridge Capital. This was meant to provide short-term financing for small business owners who couldn't get a loan from a bank. They were too new, too fast growing, too small to get a traditional loan.
I did that for several years. Then, several of my clients started asking for smaller loans. Eldridge does loans in the sweet spot of the 250 to 500,000 dollar range. We could do a little bit smaller or a little bit bigger, but I was getting a lot of questions from clients or potential clients saying, “Well, I don't need that amount of money. I only need 50,000 dollars to buy inventory in an off season at a real good discount.” Or “I just need 10,000 dollars really quickly to make payroll,” because all small business owners are always tight on cash.
I thought to myself, “OK. Well, there has to be a way to service these folks.” In the Eldridge model, it didn't work, because of the cost of legals and the cost to do proper due diligence and the time it takes to do it. I said, “Well, how about if I physically hold the asset? Then, I don't have to do that much due diligence on the company, and I can just do due diligence on the value of the asset. As long as I value the asset properly, I'll be OK.”
That was the beginning of Zillidy, and the idea was that if we hold an asset you are able to use that asset as almost a line of credit. You can tap the equity in that asset and get a loan very quickly. Primarily it's for entrepreneurs and self-employed folks, but we found that the market is much broader. As long as you have an asset of value that fits within our box, we can get you a loan pretty quickly.
Folks, entrepreneurs who have a Rolex watch on their wrist know that they can always fund that purchase order that they get from Wal-Mart, and one client actually said to me, “Well, they feel like they have an ATM on their wrist now.” They always know they have access to cash.
Do you have people put up their expensive cars, paintings, wine cellars and houses and things like that? Or is it not quite that big?
It's not that big, no, ultimately perhaps one day we will do that. Right now, we focus on small, high-value assets. It plays well for precious metals, diamonds, luxury watches, jewelry. We have done some art as an exception, not the rule, but wine cellars is something that we're looking at and exotic cars. But right now, we've built a fully secure vault facility room with Lloyd's of London Insurance and 24-hour surveillance. We can only fit small, high-value assets in that type of facility.
How do you value the assets in terms of getting the value to where the client wants to be and where you want to lend?
The important thing is we're providing a line of credit against that asset, but we're not looking to buy that asset from you. The value that we put on it is different than the retail value or different than the value that you can likely get if you went to sell it. It's similar to when you get a mortgage on a house or on a property. That mortgage isn't for the full amount of the value of the property. If you were to sell it, it's for some amount less.
In our case, we look at what would be the liquidation value of the asset. Then, we lend against that. We decide, OK, how long is it going to take us if we had to liquidate the asset? If a loan was not repaid, or a client just wanted to keep the money and not have the asset, how long would it take us to liquidate that asset and what would be the costs associated with liquidating it? We reduce that from the value. Then we lend at that amount.
OK, so that's the background to the company. When did you start using content marketing to sell this service and why?
This is the type of business that a lot of people will search for online. You need a lot of social proof though. You could be across the country and you're sending us your valuable assets by courier to our office in Toronto. You need to know that what you're doing is legitimate.
We started a content marketing campaign shortly after we launched in the fall of 2012. We launched the content marketing campaign in December of that year. We did it to become really the authority or the thought leader on small business financing and asset-based financing for individuals and small business owners, and to sort of provide the social proof, if you will, and the answers to the questions that get asked.
What specific strategies are you using? Are you covering all the bases, answering every single question your clients could possibly ask – and trying to rank for those. Then, do you create some sort of lead magnet or other conversion element to get them onto your email list?
Yeah, so your first part is bang on. We take the philosophy that folks are going to type questions into Google, primarily. Whether or not those are awkward questions or questions that don't paint us in a great light – or questions that do paint us in a great light – those are the questions that are going to get asked. We want them answered on our platform.
We took the philosophy that we will answer every single question, and we will do it honestly and straightforwardly. We do it on our terms so people will actually come and read it, and we can build social proof. The key for us was to create content that is real and not just ‘lists'. We do some lists certainly – ‘the top five ways to blah' etc, but really we strive to become a leader in answering the more in-depth customer questions.
We use that strategy and do keyword research to determine how to phrase those questions as the titles of our blog posts. Then, we drive them to the website, and the website has a form on it to fill in. There is also an email capture facility on the blog itself, which is mildly successful, but it's really just building the awareness to the actual site.
How are you converting the content marketing techniques you're implementing into getting more business? How does that process work?
Well, we figure if we just answer those customer questions, if we provide those answers, then we ultimately provide links back to our website. Then, we make the form as easy as possible to fill out. That's the first stage of the funnel, and the second thing is we follow up, typically by either email or if possible by phone – if you've given us your phone number. We'll do this either the same day or at a very minimum, we guarantee that it'll be within 24 hours.
This process has helped us really prove that we are real, that we take their requests seriously, and that it builds a trust with them because in this business, trust is key.
I guess that trust extends onto social media. You're on social media channels as well, disseminating content in a similar fashion?
Yeah, that's right. We are on social media. There's a great story that I like to tell at conferences when I speak – I'll just share it with you.
When we first launched, we thought that Twitter and LinkedIn, and to a lesser extent Facebook, would be very powerful tools for us, and they were. On LinkedIn, I read an article that a journalist had written and that was posted by a contact of mine. After reading that article, I reached out directly to that journalist because I felt like the article was a very valuable one and I felt like I had something to add to it.
I just said, “Hey, have you thought about this, this, and this?” Within an hour, through LinkedIn, he got right back to me and said, “That sounds great. I'd love to call you and ask you about it.” He then called me an hour later after that, so a couple hours after I had initially reached out and asked about his article, then said, “Wow, your business sounds really interesting. I'd love to interview you about that and write an article about it.”
He did, and it turned out to be one of the best articles about us in CFO Magazine, which is a great target market for us. That was great. I then said, “OK. Well, I'm going to blog. I'm going to write a blog post about the power of LinkedIn for small businesses.” I wrote this blog post and disseminated it through our Facebook account and on Twitter and LinkedIn.
It ended up in the hands of somebody in corporate development at LinkedIn. I get a direct message tweet from this PR person from the corporate development group at LinkedIn saying, “Read your blog post. Really interesting. Happen to have a journalist who is writing an article about how small business owners use LinkedIn. Can I give them your name?” I write back. It's all through Twitter. I say, “Sure, no problem. No issue.”
I'm sitting in a movie theater a couple of days later and this email comes in on my phone from some random person that I had never heard of. The subject line was New York Times. He writes, “I'm a journalist for the New York Times writing about LinkedIn. Got your name from them. I'd love to set up a time to interview you.”
We set up a time. He interviews me about LinkedIn for about half of the time. Then, he says, “Wow, you've got a really interesting business,” and interviews me for that business, for Zillidy. The remainder of the time. I don't think anything of it. I think, “OK. Great.” A month later, he emails me and says, “We'd like to send a photographer up to take a picture of you for our LinkedIn article that's going to be featured in the New York Times.”
They send a photographer up and low and behold, boom, I have a big picture in the New York Times, with my company and my quotes and what I do and how I used LinkedIn. What's the next thing I did? Wrote a blog about how I ended up in the New York Times. That then went viral, and it sort of created this virtuous cycle.
That's a great story because it proves how being proactive with all this can really pay dividends.
You kind of newsjacked at the start, then off the back of that you blogged. Then, you were newsjacked the other way around, they came to you. Then you blogged again and it all just escalated up. That's absolutely brilliant.
That's an archetype for start-ups of how to do all this, isn't it, of how you can get the word out?
Well, that's it. It cost me zero dollars. It cost me some of my time, but it cost zero dollars. As a start-up, zero dollars is the right amount. What I say now is you never know what's around the corner. Read your LinkedIn posts. Reply when people email you or tweet to you, or send you a message on LinkedIn or Facebook. You never know what's around the corner.
It's a great example as well for people that just don't get started or they think, “Oh, content marketing is not for me. It's not right for my industry. I can't do it. I haven't got the resources.” Like you say, you don't know until you try and often you'll be surprised.
That's exactly it. I do have to say, though, it's lonely at the beginning when you start writing articles and you hear crickets. They don't seem to be going anywhere. You don't think that anybody's reading them. It's a little bit lonely until you start seeing it. It takes time, obviously, for you to rank in Google using your articles, but it's more than just the SEO.
I would say after about, I don't know exactly the date, but I would say about six or eight months, I started getting these random LinkedIn messages from people in my network who said, “I've been reading all your articles about credit and small business owners and access to capital. I just want to let you know that you're doing a great job.”
I had no idea these people were reading it. They weren't liking the content or sharing it, but it was getting read by people who were valuable to my business. I thought that was very interesting. You just don't know, and you've got to stick with it on a regular basis – just writing. It will get out there. It will work, as long as you're writing quality content.
How about your keyword research? Obviously, it takes time to rank for these articles as you said, but what are you doing in terms of selecting keywords for certain pieces of content? Are you just picking a main keyword, and then just writing naturally? How are you doing that?
Yeah, I started by doing a little bit of both, which is I would write an article that I thought or knew based on my experience would be a valuable article. Then, just to finish it to make sure that it ranked properly from a keyword perspective in the headline, I would then do the relevant keyword research just to tweak what the headline was. I wasn't writing necessarily based on the keywords.
I was writing based on the intelligent content, but then using the keywords to make sure that it actually got disseminated properly, that people would actually read it. Then, occasionally, I would do the keyword research and find some keywords that naturally related to my business or my competitors that I should be writing about. It made me realize that if people are searching for these specific keywords, that these were important to them.
I had information in my head about these keywords, so I would write relevant articles about them. That's what I would write, appropriate articles. Then, naturally, they would start coming up the rankings.
OK. Some questions coming out of that: How long are your articles on average? How often do you post? Apart from social media, how do you promote them?
My articles are typically between 500 and 750 words. Occasionally, if there is a thought leadership piece, I might be a little bit more verbose. I may crack that 1,000 word threshold. I try not to do that because I'm not writing an essay. Then, I consistently try to write an article and post it at least once a week. Four times a month. Actually, my target is about six times a month. Once a week plus two other times.
You share them on all your social media channels. Do you do any sort of outreach for them or is it a natural process? How does that work?
Yeah, so I share them certainly on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Those are the first things. Through all this content marketing I've become a regular columnist on Huffington Post, so I'll disseminate through there too. Then, there's a Canadian business magazine called Profit Magazine. That led to me being on their radar, and I became a regular columnist for them.
So now I have some more traditional media, online media, that I can use to share content as well.
Really, that's the equivalent of very high quality guest blogging, as well as filling your own site with high quality content. The two work in tandem in your strategy don't they?
That's it exactly – that's a great way of summarizing it.
Just looking at the metrics then. You culturally decided to use content marketing early on, so what metrics did you set out to measure? Was it brand awareness, lead generation, visitor numbers?
From the beginning, I was looking at the impressions that I was getting on the website – the organic search visits and what this meant in terms of more brand awareness. I thought that as long as I could get folks to the site I could close them.
Can you share any stats about the growth of the blog?
Sure. My organic search visits, this is without actually spending any money, have gone up 1,200 percent from the second month, (when we started the content marketing work).
We had a slick website, we had a bunch of other stuff – but we didn't have a content marketing campaign until that second month. Our inbound links have also increased, and our domain authority has increased significantly. Our Twitter followers and total social reach has gone up significantly too.
And this is good statistic – it's crazy actually. Our leads have increased 1,500 percent.
In two years, a 1,500 percent increase in leads from standing?
Yeah, obviously, from a relatively small base to start, but that's pretty good – considering content marketing is the key driver of it.
I did a podcast with Michael Brenner of NewsCred, the content marketing software platform, and he said most people don't measure the metrics of their normal marketing channels. So they find it difficult to see if their content marketing is working because they don't know if anything's working.
If you could put a figure on it, though, if you'd spent advertising dollars in the last two years to get that increase, what sort of figure could you put on that?
It's an interesting way of looking at it, but yeah, absolutely. I do very little traditional marketing or paid PR or anything like that. But if I had done, in this context you could talk about at least 100-200,000 dollars a year or 400,000 dollars over two years – that's what I'd say would be the value of that.
Whereas what content marketing costs me is really just a little bit of time.
It's an amazing advert for content marketing.
In terms of what your content marketing strategy will be going forward, knowing that you got those stats – a 1,500 percent increase in leads and 1,200 percent increase in visitors – there's a ton more you can do isn't there ?
Oh, absolutely. There is absolutely a lot more that I could do. My focus on content marketing to date has been on written stuff, on blogs. I think that video is an area that I haven't actually tackled yet. I'd like to get a little bit more of the visual part down, whether it be infographics or indeed Youtube videos. I'd also like to try podcasts as you mention.
I think there's a lot to do in this particular space. My market would respond well to the visual representation of content, not just the written word. That would be my next goal, but I've nowhere near peaked on the written word just yet. There's so much more to achieve, so much more refining, so much more content to write. I'm only at the beginning and am not near maturation yet.
As I say, it's a great advert for every business to take up content marketing from the start-up stage. Just finally, could you give us an elevator pitch really selling Zillidy please?
Sure. When you're asset rich, but you need cash today, Zillidy will enable you to use your assets as collateral for a flexible loan. That's sort of the quick summary of what we do.
Brilliant. Thank you very much Steven. Good luck with Zillidy in future.
My pleasure. I wish you the best of success.
So there we have it, thanks to Steven Uster for a great case study interview.
What strikes me most about what he had to say is that with hard work, a bit of lateral thinking and a proactive attitude, any business can leverage the power of content marketing to grow their leads and sales – it just requires a cultural shift in terms of strategic thinking, and the commitment to make it work in the long term.
I think Steven's investment of time to produce one article a week for the last two years has paid off remarkably, and in his own admission saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing spend had he used different techniques.
It's surely within the grasp of any business – no matter what size and in whatever niche – to come up with one quality blog post every week, and match it with a top standard guest post or article on another site in their niche.
At the very least, if you answer every single customer question you encounter over the course of a year or two – just as Zillidy have done – you could find yourself becoming THE go to authority in your space.
Now I for one think that's a smart content marketing investment worth making.
Do you have a content marketing success story of your own? Let us know in the comments below…