EP 82: Strategies for Curated Content + Resourcing, with Steve Pockross
On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Steve Pockross discuss Verblio’s approach to curating a thousand copywriters for content marketing across nearly all verticals, as well as the value to writers and agencies alike.
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EP 82: Strategies for Curated Content + Resourcing
Kelly: So welcome to this week’s episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I am super excited to be joined by Steve Pockross, CEO of Verblio, a curated two-sided marketplace for writers and agencies, and other digital marketers in SMBs, other types of organizations. I have been super fortunate to be a partner of Verblio for a long time. And actually some of the writers on their platform write my own blog posts, which some people may not have known. So Steve, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Steve: It’s great to be talking to you again.
Kelly: So you took this marketplace over at some point over the last decade, and it eventually became branded as Verblio. I think it was BlogMutt or something like that before, right? If I remember correctly.
Steve: That is correct.
Kelly: Let’s talk about it from the standpoint of how is the entire value proposition of Verblio changed in the context of COVID. Because you’re seeing a lot of this from the back end. And I’m wondering if that data is telling you an interesting story.
Steve: It is definitely telling us an interesting story. We have a super unique courtside view of what great digital marketers are doing. So we have over a thousand digital marketers and 400 plus agencies that we watch every month. And so our expertise is less in what you should do in content marketing and more in reporting back what great content marketers are doing. And so, what we’re seeing is some big trends and kind of a really dramatic shift in the marketplace. I’m sure, doesn’t surprise people. First on the portfolio side, which is of course, that SMBs got hit the hardest. And so, we saw a big drop off. And I’ve been saying that this is kind of like watching a drone strike on TV. You just watch the numbers go down as a couple SMBs are leaving every day and you can just kind of feel the pain of the economy and what’s out there. They were rapidly replaced by bigger players that were going much bigger into content, as content was always an amazing channel for marketing, but there was just a few others left, and it became even more effective with more eyeballs at the same time. So that’s one of the biggest trends. Those who believe that they’re in it for the long run, they’re investing in marketing went a lot bigger in marketing. There’s two other trends. And one is I think really related to what agencies are probably hearing conversations of every day is the wait for your SEO to kick in and actually start driving those organic results. As we promised, within six to nine months, you’re going to have an amazing channel that turns out customers forever as opposed to your paid advertising. The patience for those type of long term programs is really going down. I’m sure you’re hearing that from all of your agencies. And so we’re doing a lot more kind of content that has more immediate impact, not just SEO, although much of it is an SEO but also all the other benefits of content, like moving customers through your funnel, creating sales, collateral things of that nature. And so there’s been a big focus on, we’re getting more and more requests for content refresh projects. You’ve already created great content. How do you get your best performing content to perform better? We’ve gotten a ton of repurposed content requests. So podcasts that we’re turning into blog posts or into white paper, or multiple podcasts that are now becoming eBooks, and really kind of either going from micro to macro content or back or forth, and moving much more across channels than it ever did before. We’re getting a lot of video conferences that they want to have a written piece on each one of them and add video to it as well. Yeah. Those are the big trends.
Kelly: Yeah, it’s so interesting. So that brings up three different questions like right off the bat for me. It almost seems like people are focusing more on strategy more than ever, and then compounded with that, it’s like what is the low hanging fruit? You talked about refresh projects and kind of overhauling some of the existing content. How does that perform better? And Verblio essentially had this marketplace, this platform that was there when the need arose, when people started turning that eye inward to say, okay, well, we know we have to do content marketing even if we’ve historically pushed back or resisted. Now, there are so many eyeballs, especially during COVID. And for the foreseeable future, so many eyeballs online, how do we do this? And how do we not necessarily break the bank? So talk a little bit about how the platform has evolved over the last 10 years. And then specifically in the last six months as well.
Steve: It is super fun. There’s nothing better in business than when you create something and you pour a lot into it and all the sudden, your clients figure out better ways to use you than you’d even thought of before. It’s just like, there’s just no better feeling. So I took over this company four years ago. The founders were a journalist and a developer, 10 years ago what they were trying to jump on is the big trends in SEO, which is if you write words on a page, and you write more and more then Google appreciates that. You get free traffic.
Kelly: That sounds like SEO 10 years ago.
Steve: Yes. And so there it was. I came over four years ago. As everything had evolved, everything was moving more long form, the algorithm was catching up with humanity, we were reading for people as opposed to the machine. And we had to really dramatically change the system. And so I think we were part of a movement that was called crowdsourcing, and we’re trying to replace that with marketplace services 2.0, or something of that nature. The idea being that, when people think of the gig economy and freelancer economies, they really think of the two models. So they think of either the Upwork model where you go out, and you have to go through all of the work of finding your contractor, you vet them themselves, you set up an individual relationship, you give them part-time work, which gives you the flexibility and the lower price. But it also means that they might be less reliable, and you had so much more effort to go into it. So you have that model. And then you have like the Uber model, which is humanity gets basically turned into widgets, and the platform delivers everything, but the people are not there for skilled labor. So I think those are the two models that were out there. This movement was really started in the early 2000s. It was originally called crowdsourcing and the idea was how do you bring in the concepts of SAS, which is you understand a deeper way one specific work type. Salesforce starts this with sales, then it goes into HR, and every single work type has now been developed. You understand it better, you deliver it better, you make it flexible and on demand. But there is very little people involved. So at some point, you need to bring skilled labor and skilled freelancers into this process and marry them together to produce something more valuable. So if you’re doing this, you’re producing higher quality content at scale with deeper subject matter expertise for any niche. And that’s what we aspire to do. And so basically, when I took over, I was trying to revamp a broken marketplace. So the marketplace has gotten to a place where more generic content wasn’t helping our clients. It wasn’t helping our agencies or our businesses do the SEO impact they wanted to. But it also wasn’t working for the writers. And I think this is a key part of the story, which is everybody understands the concept of financial incentives, which I think is deeply important. And we try to pay more than anybody else in our industry. We actually raised our writer pay on April 1 right after this began when we had a choice of lowering writer pay. Because we have a commitment to raise writer pay consistently to be the best in the market. I think the more interesting one is the passionate economy that these writers are looking for more than just pay. They’re looking for a career development. They’re looking for a sense of community, and they’re looking to stay interested, that you don’t write because you want to write about a financial service product again, and again, 50 times a month. And so part of our model is that we give writers the choice of what they want to write about. They select our clients. They select the project, and they get to learn more as they’re going. And they have to prove themselves to the client to make that higher level quality. But we think that creates a more motivated writer, which creates a better product for our client.
Kelly: Yeah, and I can speak to that just like on the customer side. There are two particular writers and I’ve been using Verblio for many years now. There are two particular writers that every single time I put a request in for my own marketing. I know that one of those two will probably pick it up. Because either with those particular writers, I have never needed to request any edits from them. They just nail it. And I always give them like a glowing review or write them a little note to say like amazing job. And I think that that’s also part of the value of the platform. It’s not just you put the requests out there. And any one of these four or 5000 writers in the network will select it. It’s the fact that you can actually say I prefer to work with this writer or these 10 writers or what have you. And from the way that I understand it works is that my request will then go to them first. Is that true?
Steve: It is this true. Well, first of all, thank you for the endorsement. We greatly appreciate it. And I’m glad that it’s working out for you. And you’re gonna find out kind of another major kind of evolution of model. So crowdsourcing really stalled at the point of how do you deliver this better for skilled labor. And so one of the first things that I did is we used to have 10,000 writers and now we have about 1000. And so to me, it’s about right sizing the pool. You want to be able to curate upfront. We only accept only 4.5% of the writers who take our writing test, pass the test, to go in. So that upfront curation is deeply important. You want to have that perfect balance of the smallest pool that you can with the most diversity and the most confidence in the skill they’ll deliver. And so, that pool has gotten smaller. And the idea that we’re trying to put forward is exactly how we’re using it, which is we want you to choose. You have your own team of writers that understands your preferences so they have the reliability. So if one of your writers went on vacation, you wouldn’t be stuck in the exact same way. So the request goes out. The preferred writers know that you’re going to choose them first. They write for you more often. And then it goes to another pool of qualified writers that gets to see if they can compete for your business.
Kelly: Yeah. And one other thing that I’ll kind of add in there. I have been really, really impressed with the turnaround time. So that’s probably another question on the minds of some of the listeners. How long does it take? After I’ve put forth my submission, whether it’s for a blog post or a white paper. Obviously, the type of content that I’m requesting is going to dictate how long it’s going to take to get that back. But for me, utilizing it mostly, I would say, 95% of the time for blog posts, sometimes for case studies, but mostly blog posts, and I have gotten those back within 6 to 12 hours. I mean, to me, that is like unbelievable. It is absolutely unbelievable.
Steve: I’m glad to hear that. It is kind of one of the hidden benefits of the system, is that we basically inverted the laws of kind of like the incentive structure of supply and demand where the writers are kind of competing for your business. But they know once they have it that you’re their person, and they’re looking for you to come up.
Steve: We do think we have the fastest turnaround times. Our average I think for a thousand word blog post is 48 hours. Our SLAs are much longer than that. But that’s our average turnaround time. For edits, it’s less than a day.
Kelly: Metrics that you can be super proud of, though.
Steve: Thank you.
Kelly: Yeah. So we’ve sort of been throughout this conversation, sort of touching upon little features, little functions, little this, and that, and giving people a little bit of a flavor. But can you give us sort of an overall download of the platform itself? How does it work from the macro or micro level? However you want to answer that. And then how do you talk about the value for both sides? For the agencies and then also for the writers because I would imagine that both might be listening.
Steve: For sure. Yeah, I think we touched on pieces and parts here. So I’ll try not to talk too much of it. But from a high level, we’re trying to rethink this model. I think there is value in rethinking how does a marketplace of skilled labor work with a SaaS model to deeply understand a vertical like content creation. And so we are reinventing us all the time. I think we have the largest investment in our technology team in the business. And so a lot of what I’m saying I hope sounds different to you, is we’re trying to evolve the space. I know many of your agencies and many of your listeners have used services that pretend to do similar type of services before and have had not great experiences. And so I would like to say we’re rethinking this and we think we have a better mousetrap now. And so that mousetrap is thinking about our marketplace on both sides. For the writers, we talked about better financial incentives, more secure work, and larger amount of work. So for them, writers didn’t get into the business to do business development and account management. They did get in to do great writing about things that they find interesting and use a skill set that I marvel at every day, because I’m not a professional writer. I was a journalist for six months in Chile once but that’s a side story. So I think the financial piece, taking the headache of the business development that all services people who start off your business because you’re an expert, and then find out you have to run a business is just painful.
Kelly: Nothing that you’ve said will resonate more than that statement.
Steve: It’s amazing. I even got an MBA. I’ll get back to the point. But I got an MBA, which should be about like how do I run my own career and my own business and all they taught me was how to help other companies make more money and nothing about my own career either.
Kelly: You got it.
Steve: What do you learn? So first is financial incentives. Second is like just make an easier life, that’s predictable. And like, how do you turn this into a career? I think the third is that motivation of staying interested and engaged, learning new topics. Yes, you’re my legal and financial go-to writer and you’ve proven yourself in those spaces, but 52% of my clients indicate their vertical as other which means that you can still focus on those verticals and also write for the long tail of diesel tractor engines, or I think we write more about Kim Kardashian than any other company that I know of right now. I think that’s important. And then I think community is so important. We have a really active forum where our writers are writing back and forth. They’re in their own worlds. They’re basically very isolated, and the smaller we can make that group, tight-knit, the more they can talk to each other online and try to create that space. And we’re trying to think more actively about how to create a better overall experience. So the way that we live up to that model is we put our money where our mouth is, that we pay more, but we also put more into our product as far as writer development than we think anybody else, which is, I’ve worked with enough crowdsourcing companies now. I think there’s like five that I’ve done this. And the people that always get screwed are the community and the workers because all of the product fixes go towards the clients who are screaming a lot larger and pay the checks. That’s for the writer side. For the client side, you get the ability to, I think some of the natural value propositions for working with freelance platforms are obvious, you get flexibility, scalability. You don’t have to have full time labor on your staff, and you get more affordability is in general than bringing on full time people. I think the more interesting things are that when you think about content creation, most companies that have internal hires are thinking about content creation of how much can I create, as opposed to how much should I create. And so if you’re seeing a great impact with your content or new directions, or a new type of topics, and tones, you should follow that. You can do that with a freelancer platform like ours. If you have an internal hire, you’re really restricted to basically doing that much content. And if you don’t do enough content, then you’re not utilizing that asset as fully as possible. I think that’s really interesting. And the last is the subject matter expertise. When you have a pool of 1000 plus writers, you have people who have written on everything. When we had a legal client come to us and say that they needed a lawyer to edit every piece of content, we had 10 lawyers in our pool to edit all that content. We have the same for architects. I think one of the most interesting trends is thinking of content less as this is something that I need to do and something that content is a competitive advantage. What could I do? What if I had an architect review every piece of my home services content? What if I created 100 pieces a month because I could affordably give myself a month around every other client that nobody else can do? We’re doing a lot more of those, just insanely large clients right now that I think is pretty cool.
Kelly: Yeah, amazing. As we start to wrap up here, how would you guide agency leaders as they’re really starting to consider at this point where to invest in 2021? Because, I think it seems like we’re kind of in this new world, this new now, for the foreseeable future. I don’t think things are going to change too much. People are still going to be mostly working from home or hybrid models and things like that. So there still are going to be an influx of eyes, right? Consumers are spending more time online. Content marketing is only going to go up. You see the trend happening. I don’t think that that’s going to change. So if that’s the case, the agency leaders that are listening and sort of wondering, how do I budget for this, like where do I invest for next year and even potentially beyond that? How would you answer that? How would you guide them?
Steve: Well, just a point of clarification. Invest for their own marketing or invest for their clients marketing?
Kelly: You could answer it either way, or both? Because I think that they probably have the same question for themselves and for their clients.
Steve: Indeed, I think you’re right. So my point of view is based on observing marketers, but also what we’re doing with our own content. So we produced about four times as much content in the last five months, the last two years combined. So we are going harder on content and trying to live up to that expectation. Because we believe that that’s where everything is going. I just wrote a blog post that I like the title called Content Was King – But It Got Promoted. And I totally think that’s true. There are other quotes out there about it’s amazing how much you can believe in something if your paycheck depends on it. So that for a grain of salt, but I really do believe that content is only going to increase in value. We are putting most of our efforts there. We are starting to do actual outbound sales and paid marketing more and more as well using that content in a more effective way. Because we think that’s kind of arms, those opportunities. So I will say that there’s probably about a third of our strategy right now. The digital marketers that we’re seeing are basically seeing about a 50% increase in the amount of content that we’re producing. So I would say, think strategically about how to, if you want to go into your clients and talk about a higher retainer for content upfront, if you want to invest more of an upfront kind of content package, this is what you’re going to get so it goes quicker. I highly recommend that. Thinking about customizing programs per client. We’re broken down into verticals. So it’s really easy to just start off clients that way as well. I think it’s going to become more important. And then going back to the trends I was talking about which were content refreshes and repurposing content. Other channels are becoming more important too. So you’re going in, you’re analyzing your clients’ assets. Do they have podcasts? Do they have videos? What else could I use to just amplify the amount of existing content through a partner? Could I take every one of their pillar pieces and turn it into 100 blogs and use our partner to do something of that nature?
Kelly: Yeah. This is great Steve. This is really great, good stuff. And I think it’s going to help a lot of the agency leaders and, the captains of their teams to go back to their clients and say, hey, we could put together the strategy. This is kind of what we would advise. These are absolutely great takeaways, and I just want to thank you so much for sharing and thanks for joining me today.
Steve: Well, thanks so much for having me. I hope that was helpful.