Online, every business and brand is competing for the attention of the marketplace. We entrepreneurs often use every type of advertising and promotion available that we believe will help attract customers. But what if the best way to attract the customers you want is to have them think of you first when they have a need?
Being “top of mind” is something that John Hall strongly believes in. John is the co-founder of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency that specializes in creating engaging content that fuels companies’ content marketing efforts and positions their key employees as influencers in their industries.
Influence & Co. was ranked No. 239 on the Inc. 500 and No. 72 on Forbes’ list of the Most Promising Companies in America in 2014. John writes weekly columns for Forbes and Inc. and has contributed to more than 50 online publications, including Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Mashable.
We had the opportunity to interview John and get some insight into how he built his company, unleashing influence, and how entrepreneurs can stay top of mind of their audience.
Q. Welcome to StartUp Mindset, John. We’re excited to have you here. For those readers that are not familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself and your entrepreneurship background? Can you also tell us more about your current company, Influence & Co.?
Sure! When my co-founder, Kelsey Meyer, and I first started Influence & Co., we did so because we saw a pretty substantial need for brands and influencers to share their knowledge and expertise with their audiences in a way that felt more authentic and personal than traditional marketing. At the time, content was pretty new, and no one knew much about it. We saw a tremendous opportunity to expand on a marketing initiative that could help brands and business leaders really grow and create true connection and engagement with their audience.
Cut to today, we’re one of the largest content marketing agencies out there, with over 1,500 online publication relationships. We’re constantly creating engaging content for our clients, getting it placed, and helping them distribute it to meet their needs and goals.
Q. What was one of the most challenging things you faced when you started the company, and how did you overcome that barrier?
One of the biggest challenges was just building our own influence and credibility in the space. Since content was so new, and many people didn’t fully understand what content marketing is, it was really hard work. Plus, we were such a small team at that time — five people just sitting at a table, sending emails and making calls to build our publication relationships and client base.
One way we managed to overcome this was through content! Kelsey and I focused on building up our content, getting published online, and showcasing our expertise so that people could take notice and see what we were doing in the space. Things just sort of progressed from there.
Q. Many entrepreneurs take a passive approach to growing their influence. They do what they can on social media (posting IG pictures, tweeting, etc.) but never go beyond that. How important is it these days to be seen as an influencer and authority?
I’d say it’s crucial. I have come across business leaders who are either confused about how to build thought leadership or don’t want to build their personal brands because they’d rather focus on their company’s brand. What they don’t realize is that your personal brand helps your company’s brand. When you build your personal brand through content marketing, you’re putting a face on your company. People don’t want to engage with brands; they want to engage with people. So, when business leaders actually take a more active approach to growing their influence, they’re immediately breaking through an invisible barrier that stands between their brand and their audience. They’re also showcasing their authority and expertise, which builds trust and gives their audience a reason to use them as a resource. It’s a no-brainer.
Q. With so much competition for attention online, what would you recommend a growing startup do to capture the attention of its target audience?
The best, most scalable and cost-efficient thing you can do is invest in content marketing. This goes beyond just contributing to online publications that your audience reads. I recommend using content not only to do that, but also to focus on inbound marketing by building up your owned media. This is essentially anything on your site — your company’s blog and website content, gated content, and weekly or monthly newsletters. Give site visitors great on-site content that will continue to engage them and give them a reason to see you as a reliable, knowledgeable resource.
On-site content is also a great way to address their pain points and discuss your service offerings, what differentiates your brand from others out there, and why you are a solution for them. If you want to take it a step further, host webinars on topics related to what you do and what you know your audience needs help with. Webinars are a great way to get more leads and introduce more people to your company.
Make sure you attend conferences and events so you can connect with other influencers and potential clients through person-to-person interaction. You can even use the content you create to help put together presentations and apply to be a speaker at these events yourself.
Q. What would you say is the biggest mistake most people make with their content marketing?
The biggest mistake I see is that companies and leaders think content is a shameless way to promote themselves. Yes, you want to promote your company, and you can even do so with your on-site content, but people reading content in online publications don’t want to be sold to. They don’t want to read why you are the greatest brand out there or have your latest product shoved down their throats. They want to read insights and tips and gain knowledge on something so that they can use it in their daily lives. They want to find a trusted, reliable resource that is more interested in helping them than selling to them.
Q. Last year you published a book called Top of Mind: Use Content to Unleash Your Influence and Engage Those Who Matter to You. In the book, you outline various ways the reader can practice a “top-of-mind” mindset. Can you tell us a little more about the book and what a “top-of-mind” mindset is?
When you really connect with someone, you’re able to stick in their memory and move from their short-term to their long-term memory. Suddenly, you’re the person they think of first when they need something pertaining to your area of expertise, and that’s what I mean by truly being “top of mind” with someone. Content, paired with consistency, is a great way to achieve this. If you’re consistently getting published online and consistently sharing valuable content with your audience and network, then you’re going to stay ingrained in their memory and earn a spot at the top of their minds.
Top of Mind is all about why content is a gateway medium toward earned influence and how, when used correctly, it will allow you to engage with your audience in a more substantial way. I also give helpful tips on distribution and discuss how to reach your audience at the right time and where they’re most engaged to see real connection and results from your content.
Q. What is one way a person can use a top-of-mind strategy to grow their business?
I sort of touched on this in the last answer, but it’s really all about growing your network and building yourself up as that trusted resource by adopting a helpful mindset. When you’re being consistent with your content creation, publishing, and distribution, you’re really able to to create various touchpoints that allow you to move from short-term to long-term memory. People will want to work with you more, they’ll rely on you more, and they’ll know you’re really there to help them. That’s the kind of partner more and more people want to work with.
Q. What’s one marketing trend that really excites you the most?
The fact that marketing can change on a dime is in itself extremely exciting. It’s one of the most ever-changing industries out there, and I think that’s mostly because it’s something every company needs to do to ensure success and because people continue to evolve, so the way we reach them will as well. For me, the fact that the most constant thing about marketing is that it will no doubt continue to change gives it a fun and less serious connotation.
Sure, you don’t want to be wasting tons of money on dated strategies, but if your company can be flexible, move with the trends, be open to trying something new, and continue to test your strategies, you should be able to ebb and flow with the industry no problem.
Q. What one trait or mindset do you think every entrepreneur must possess in order to launch a successful venture?
A helpful mindset is so wonderful for every entrepreneur to possess. Business is really all about helping other people. The reason why you’re in business at all is because you saw something people needed and knew it would be beneficial for you to provide it. It’s simple, and it’s something you should never stray from, because its benefits go beyond just helping your business. By having a helpful mindset, you’re able to see opportunity at every corner, and you’re able to show other people that there is something more important than just gaining their business — building a lasting and strong connection.