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Dr. Dave Chaffey is the co-founder and content director of online marketing advice publisher “Smart Insights”. In this episode, we speak with Dave about how they grew a successful media and training subscription business.

Podcast Transcription

State of Digital Publishing is creating a new publication and community for digital publishing and media professionals in new media and technology. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Dave Chaffey, co-founder and content director of Smart Insights, on how they grew a successful media and training subscription business. Let’s begin.

Vahe Arabian: Hi Dave, how are you?
Dave Chaffey: Hi Vahe, I’m very good thanks. You?
Vahe Arabian: I’m good thanks. How’re things in Smart Insights recently?
Dave Chaffey: Yes, good with us. We’ve got around 25 people on the team now focusing on our different areas of memberships and selling them. Because we offer some individual memberships to help people with digital marketing planning, and also we have team memberships for businesses where we cover the whole of digital marketing in our guides and templates.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense, I was a customer for a while and you were one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the subscription parts, so it’s an honor to sit with you, Dave. So thank you for your time.
Dave Chaffey: Oh, that’s cool. I’m glad we’ve helped you on your journey. Yes, we are … Our individual memberships are on a monthly basis so often one of the pain points or challenges that our audience have is they need to create a digital marketing plan because they know they should have one but they don’t. So we provide them with the structure, they can quickly create that. So yeah, it’s quite common for people to just be with us for a few months while they’re sorting out their plans.
Vahe Arabian: It makes sense, and it’s best not to reinvent the wheel anyway. So you’ve got that all locked up.
Dave Chaffey: That’s right.
Vahe Arabian: So Dave, just for people who don’t know much about Smart Insights, and just to take a step back. If you could provide a background about yourself and how you got started with Smart Insights.
Dave Chaffey: For sure, yeah. So I’ve been personally involved in digital marketing for a long time. Since it was called, some of the guys listening might remember, it used to be called “Internet marketing”, and it was a bit snake oily, really. I think now it’s a much more professional industry and activity. Because I started in the mid-1990s, as a consultant and a trainer in internet marketing. And in fact, wrote a book … When was it? 2001. Called, “Internet Marketing: Strategy, Development, and Planning”. And since then I’ve been updating books, books on e-commerce, email marketing as well because I love explaining how to get the most from the digital marketing tools.
Dave Chaffey: So I did that, worked as a consultant and a trainer for many years. And then I met up with some other the guys who became the co-founders of Smart Insights and we said, “Well, there must be a way of applying all the consulting knowledge that we’ve built upon consulting projects”, because really if you look at the structure of a digital marketing plan, or whether it’s tactics for content marketing, SEO, social media, email marketing. All these areas we cover, there are very common structures and common best practices that can be applied. So we thought rather than publishing those in my books, once every three years they’re updated. Why not have a much more live, up to date and more detailed library of resources that people around the world could tap into.
Dave Chaffey: So that’s what really inspired us. And it’s been nice to see the number of members growing into their thousands and we now have paying customers in more than 100 countries worldwide. So it’s been really nice to scale the knowledge sharing and to build a community as well, where our members can talk to each other through our Facebook group, for instance.
Vahe Arabian: I know you recognize that you wanted to more regularly update your book. At that time I guess, around 2010, when you thought about membership products, it was mostly affiliate sites or specific sites that offered a course or something. Where more now, we’re in a publishing area media space, it is now becoming more of a news product. How did you realize back then that there was that need? That this can be something that you can grow and make it a sustainable business?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, so I think, the thinking of the audience and what they were looking for. I think there has always been a lot of publishers around the tactics in digital marketing. So back then, there was, and there still is a lot of activity around search, social media, email marketing. And they’re all great, they’re really important areas. If you look at most websites they’re the main source of sales and we do cover best practices for those. But what we’ve found, is there didn’t seem to be so many sites or so much guidance, and this is true in books as well, about how to create a strategy and a plan. So where do you start? How do you structure your plan for growth?
Dave Chaffey: So that’s where we felt there was an opportunity, and it was a good opportunity in that it wasn’t really sector specific. So no matter which industry you work on, or the size of business, if you’re looking at a plan, you are going to need a good solid structure that you can explain to colleagues or investors.
Dave Chaffey: So for example, we used the soft stack and race planning frameworks, because they provide a nice clear structure. So that’s I think why many members join us in the first place is because they need these plans and structures. Although, they may go on to look at our advice on the tactics, like search, email, marketing automation, landing pages and so on.
Dave Chaffey: So I think it’s that gap in the market on digital marketing strategy and marketing strategy, that’s what enabled us to grow really.
Vahe Arabian: How much of the landscape do you think has become more towards paid memberships in your opinion? And where do you see the value of free content versus paid membership content sit?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, there are more competitors now I think in terms of paid membership. Although, I think it’s quite a commitment. I wouldn’t say there are actually that many more competitors than there were originally. There’s a lot of people providing online courses, and they’ll often do this through the platforms like Udemy, some of the LinkedIn, the Linda platform. But actually its a commitment because you’ve got to keep the content up to date if you’ve got a long-term business. So for example, we have around 200 resources so those would be guides, templates, some online courses and we commit to updating them at least once a year. So that means that we have a new or updated content, or two pieces of content every week. So that’s quite a commitment I think.
Dave Chaffey: So because of that, I haven’t seen that many publishers evolve in this space. When we started off there was Marketing Profs which was very much targeting individual marketers. There was e-consultancy which is more for the corporate digital marketing audience and I worked for them originally, which gave me some background in the membership model. And then there is digitalmarketer.com, they’ve been growing more recently. But really over the last five years, I can’t say, apart from those and the large companies, I can’t say we’ve had a lot of new entrants. It’s mostly people writing their own courses I think that would be where people go into publishing because maybe it’s easier to do that online learning development.
Vahe Arabian: Is that a limitation? Just focusing on courses itself? Trying to deliver the same thing that you are trying to deliver. Do you think that’s a limitation?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, I do really. It’s one of the things that’s been surprising in one sense. There’s all this hype about e-learning and online learning. And we know that it’s popular, but it’s not the only to learn and get advice. And what we find is we offer online courses, but we also offer downloadable PDFs which step you through, say the best practices on search engine optimization. And we also provide templates in word, excel and PowerPoint so you can create your plans so you’ve got some quantitative models. You can be sure of your targets for growth. And what we find is, the courses, of those different types, those different formats of content, the courses are actually the least popular for us. And I think if you’re a busy person, in particularly a large agency or a corporate company, you don’t … And I feel like this myself. You don’t have time to watch a lot of courses.
Dave Chaffey: If you go to Udemy, it’s great value, but you could spend quite a lot of time watching a course before you know whether it’s useful and to really get the value from it, you might have to spend hours listening. And of that, those hours you listen. Maybe there’s only some snippets that are new. Whereas, if you’ve got tech space content, or templates, you can apply that straight away. I think it’s really why blogs are so popular that people can get the advice from reading blogs on digital marketing. And what we really do, is we provide everything in one place. So rather than having to know a value proposition is rather than having to search across many, many blogs to find the best advice, we keep it in one place and we keep it up to date as well. Because of course, much of when you’re Googling, much of the blog content might be out of date.
Dave Chaffey: So yeah, a bit of a surprise on the content formats. Certainly, some people love to learn through video, but in terms of improving business results, maybe video isn’t the best way.
Vahe Arabian: That’s interesting to hear. I think it comes down to not being rigid and everyone has their own method and you’ve got to …
Dave Chaffey: Yes, provide a choice. And yeah. It’s a big effort to create the written content as well because in the early days when we were bootstrapping, I created a lot of the written content. But these days, now we’ve got a couple of hundred of resources, we’ve got specialist experts in each area who will share their knowledge. So for example, we’ve got what we call a quick way in on e-commerce merchandise and going live soon. So I know a lot about most areas of digital marketing but I wouldn’t know the real details of e-com merchandising.
Dave Chaffey: So it’s important for a publisher, to have those to recruit those experts who can add value to your product and of course, they will be influencers in their own right. So they can help promote your membership as well.
Vahe Arabian: So I just want to touch on that point. You said that you 20 internal staff. So are they divided into a specialty, is that how you set up the business at the moment?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, that’s right. Its pretty classic structure really for a publisher and a publisher offering membership, that we’ve got a marketing team. We’re active in terms of content marketing. So our site gets around half a million uniques a month, and that’s down to quality regular blogging. So we’ll publish three to four blog posts every day of the week. So we need the team to do that.
Dave Chaffey: And then we’ve got a newsletter for members. Again, important for conversion. So we’ve got guys who work with the email marketing. And then there’s actually managing all the content, and we also do research as well. So we’ve got four or five people in the marketing team and we’ve done a bit of a switch where we’re now focusing more on the member levels because we have corporate members who we will sell to direct by the phone, and then we have the individual members who will subscribe for it on the site. So maybe smaller businesses, or people who are looking to learn, develop their own knowledge of digital marketing. So when you make that move as a publisher from self service, which we were initially, to offering the business membership. You’ve then got to go through the process of explaining the value and selling the product because people are then paying thousands of pounds for the membership rather than 60 dollars for the monthly, or 600 dollars for the annual.
Dave Chaffey: So we’ve got around five or six people in sales now. And we’ve also got … They also support a sort of advertising component of our platform as well. So we offer what we call a content marketing partnership, where we will work with martech vendors. So quite often email marketing, or marketing automation platforms. We would work with, so for example, we’ve worked with Marketo and Sales Force. And just at the moment, we’ve written a report, we get response around email marketing and we will effectively we will promote their white papers that they produced through our site, social and email and we’ll help them create reports as well.
Dave Chaffey: So we’ve got that other side of our revenue model, apart from our subscription service. Which is the advertising or content marketing partnership as we call it.
Vahe Arabian: So two parts of this question. How has your transition from being self serve to the current model been? And, for you to be able to do more of the research and to be able to collaborate more with martech vendors, was that the case of having that traffic there so that you do have the weighting and authority to say, “Look we can help you with getting more exposure to your audience”?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, I’ll take the second part first, if I may as they say. So yeah, with the martech vendors and promoting their services, that was really a natural part of … We’ve actually done that from quite early on in our evolution, maybe 2012, 2013, because its a very common publishing model amongst particularly for marketing publishers, that there is this need for the martech vendors to get awareness and leads. And they’ve found the inbound marketing model works very well, where they publish white papers on their own site, and then generate leads from them. But they don’t necessarily have the inbound traffic. So those martech vendors will need to work with publishers like us.
Dave Chaffey: Another example might be, digital marketing depo, which is related to marketing land. So they don’t actually have a business … They don’t have a membership model, they focus just on this revenue model from lead generation. So that was really natural, from the start. But initially, when we were bootstrapping, I would sell that myself to marketing vendors who were interested. And they would actually come to us because as a brand that was commentating in this space. But we’ve scaled that up now and we’ve got a couple of people working with those content partners.
Dave Chaffey: So you also asked about how we did that transition from self-serve into enterprise or more corporate membership. And that was … Yeah, that was just a natural evolution, I think. I think we could have continued with the one size fits all. So I think when we launched, it was around 300 dollars per year for membership. So whether you were, like one person who wanted to use Smart Insights to improve your career, or whether you were a massive international business, you’d still pay 300 pounds. So I think we felt we were …
Dave Chaffey: £300, so I think we felt we were leaving money on the table as they say. Because we’ve got clients, for example, GlaxoSmithKline, the big Pharma company, and they wanted to give access to members in different countries and in different teams. So, it was really a sort of a very natural way to go, to offer content to those teams. And when you get into that team area, you then need to offer different tools as well.
Dave Chaffey: So, you need, for the person who runs the marketing team in those larger businesses, you have to provide them tools so they can check that their staff is engaging with the tools, and accessing the content. And maybe… We built some interactive tools as well, so people can review their digital marketing skills. Particularly useful in larger businesses, so you can do that skills gap analysis, or review your capability compared to competitors.
Dave Chaffey: So, that’s another aspect of what we’ve done, which I think is quite cool and the way the content marketing is going. The way publishing is going, is rather than publishing static content that you might download or view, you can create interactive content in a tool which will help a business score itself, help an individual review their training needs. And then you can make recommendations, which are more focused on them personally.
Dave Chaffey: So, yeah, that’s really where we’ve taken that enterprise product if you like.
Vahe Arabian: And if you like to explore more the technical side after we’ve got our bit laid up. But just in terms of, I heard a few times you saying that it’s been a natural progression. So, in order for you to build up the site to where it is today, and to identify your audience needs. Has it been a case of trying to build up a traffic around topics and then saying, oh. Then from that you’ve gone and said, listen we’ve found more needs and that’s how we’ve added the value? Or how have you been able to continually identify audience needs and provide them value?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, interesting question. I think as a start-up, you often do… Yeah, everything becomes natural, because if you’re boot-strapping initially and it was just myself and three co-founders, initially with limited budget, you just do what’s available in the time. So, back in those early days in 2010, 2012, I would still have been working on consulting and training. So, the main traffic driver was to use the blog to write about the pain points of the audience. So, one example would be digital transformation, people needed strategy for that.
Dave Chaffey: So, we would do a series of articles around that. Or we would do articles around measurements and planning, because those are very closely allied with what we try to offer as a brand. Our strap line is plan, manage, optimize, to help businesses at different stages of maturity. So, what we try to do is to look at the search behavior of the audiences in a lot of detail, and probably more detail than most businesses do. So, we’ve got around ten different areas of toolkits, we call them, which are useful for the audience, so they might be say, marketing strategy, email marketing. All of the digital marketing channels, landing pages, and then we would really look at the search behavior in detail, and do a gap-analysis to see how many people we were pulling in through our organic search compared to competitors. Looking at what some of the good content marketing companies in our space were doing.
Dave Chaffey: Like, HubSpotter ?, very active, Marketo as well. So, when I was saying we reach around 500 000 uniques a month, actually around 80% of those are through organic search. So, it’s really through very targeted article writing on our blog, that we’ve been able to build that. And also having content that naturally attracts links, I think. So, we publish a lot of research, for example, on social media statistics, mobile marketing.And when other people are writing about those topics, they’ll naturally link back to us as a credible source and a reference.
Dave Chaffey: So, that’s been really neat to not only have content that’s useful for readers to, when they’re searching, but other people will also reference it as well. So, although we didn’t have perhaps, a detailed, long term strategy, we did have a content strategy, an SEO strategy, which has really helped drive the growth and to bring in the different audiences.
Vahe Arabian: And when was it when we said, okay, I can leave my consulting job and everything else, and focus on this full-time?
Dave Chaffey: Oh yeah, that’s the exciting point, isn’t it? Yeah, I think we probably got to around half a million Pound turnover, and we were doing well just with two of us. And we had a bit of an outsource team, we had a blog editor who we would pay, we had writers we would pay for their contribution. But we didn’t have a marketing team, it was just myself doing that and doing all the PR. So, really I just became too busy I would say. I think we should and probably could have done it earlier, but one of our… There were three co-founders initially, and one of them was working in an agency, and that meant they were busy on growing the agency. And that kind of held us back for a bit, because they were perhaps more focused on that than on Smart Insights.
Dave Chaffey: So, they actually left us at around that point, so they could focus on the agency and we decided to start recruiting. I think it was only 2015 that we employed our first… We had our own blog editor, then we brought in our own developer, the first sales person in 2015. So, it’s really quite recently that we’ve moved from the boot-strapping, to having a staffed business with a team.
Vahe Arabian: That’s a pretty big round up, so the past three years you’ve been quite on a hiring frenzy I guess.
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, that’s right, it’s been interesting. Particularly for Stu Miller my colleague, and [inaudible 00:23:58] who managed the staff and the team. So, these days I actually stepped back as CEO, and Stu Miller who was originally the office manager, and the dev person. He’s sort of grown that part of the business, because he’s probably better at it than me. And I can concentrate on the content and the marketing. We’ve actually got a head of marketing now for the team as well. It’s partly because I’m physically not near the team, I’m around two or three hours in the UK from our offices in Leads. So, yeah, we could do things remotely to start with, but now that’s more difficult as we’ve got a larger business.
Vahe Arabian: I’ve seen a lot of cases, and I’ve worked in an agency where the CEO has backed down after a certain phase of the growth. Do you think that that was something… Is it because you were more passionate about focusing on the content, that was why you wanted be in the content directorial now, that you are in? Or is it purely…?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, certainly I think I’m really interested in understanding what works in digital marketing, and explaining it to people in different types of business, and I still enjoy writing. Whereas, yeah, I guess I’m not so interested in managing and growing the team. But as I said, it wasn’t really an option for me to do that anyway, because I’m two or three hours away on a train from our offices. So, I feel fortunate that we had Stu Miller who could step in as the CEO, and manage all the operations, finances and staff. And I think he’s done a great job to set up the team.
Vahe Arabian: How did you meet your co-founders by the way?
Dave Chaffey: Just accidental really I think, I worked with one of them down in the agency, I did some consulting work for him. And Stu was working in the agency as a developer as well, so I’ve always found that life is, if you’re lucky it’s a series of lucky coincidences. So, the reason I got into digital marketing originally, was back in the mid 90s, I used to work in IT. There weren’t any internet marketers there, and a guy who did training for the Chartered Institute of Marketing we have over here in the UK. He said well, we need some people to train on internet marketing. But of course, marketers didn’t know anything about it.
Dave Chaffey: So, I said, well I’ve worked on marketing projects, so I think I can explain how to get more from internet marketing. So, I actually started doing a course in the UK on internet marketing strategy in 1997, so 21 years ago, that’s quite a while isn’t it?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, that’s cool. And sorry, how many books did you say you have published now? I think it was a few, right?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, that’s right it is. I’m not that prolific in the sense of doing lots and lots of new books and doing lecture tours like some of the guys in the States do. I’ve actually got three main books around digital marketing, and I’ll just update them every three years. Because mine are often used by professionals and in universities. So, I’ve just updated with Fiona Ellis-Chadwick, the seventh edition believe it or not, of this book we call Digital Marketing – Strategy, Implementation and Practice.
Vahe Arabian: That’s awesome. So, how have you seen digital marketing and strategy evolve in the past seven years? I know that’s a very broad question, and some of us are going to probably say there’s more data driven in the past twenty. But to start, looking at it from your point of view, how have you seen it change?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, it’s interesting I think, because in the early days there was very much a focus on the tactics, like search engine marketing in particular. I mean social media didn’t really exist in the early days, there was a lot of focus on the web. I think the way it’s evolved as you say it’s become more data driven, so I’ve been interested, as we’ve got these techniques like big data, and conversion rate optimization, and A/B testing. As those have come in, I think that’s made it a lot more data driven. And it’s a lot less about guess work than it used to be, we’ve now got the fantastic marketing automation tools. Where whether we’re a publisher or another sort of business, we can set up sequences to welcome and then nurture our prospects. That’s now available to anyone really, because we’ve got tools like MailChimp and HubSpot, which when you’re starting out provide a very low cost.
Dave Chaffey: I think the thing that hasn’t changed, and I don’t, in one sense I don’t get this, but in another sense I do, and that’s this focus on having a strategy and an integrated plan for using all of these tactics together. Because we often ask a question when we’re researching, we say to businesses, do you have a digital marketing strategy, yes or no? When we ask that question, we’ve asked over the last few years, there’s always half of businesses do not have a digital marketing strategy. Now, clearly these days everyone is doing… They’re running digital marketing activities, but they don’t really have an overall plan, they’re just working with what fits. So, that’s something that hasn’t really changed that much over the years.
Dave Chaffey: What’s happened instead is that people in larger businesses I think, have seen they need an over-arching integrated strategy. So, we’ve got these digital transformation projects that when we do research on those, we find a lot of businesses are saying, okay we’ve been doing digital marketing, but we haven’t been doing it in a proper integrated way. So, the big trend over the last three, four years has been having those transformation projects, so that people have the right structure, the right tools, the right people, the right skills, to do digital marketing properly. So, that’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen recently. Of course, looking to the future, we’ve got artificial intelligence which is super exciting. But, I think any businesses aren’t getting the basics right in digital marketing just yet.
Vahe Arabian: Do you think reframing it as digital transformation as opposed to integrated marketing strategy has helped with getting more people on board?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, I think it’s helped us and it’s helped… I mean that term is really developed by the consultants like Accenture, Ernst & Young, PWC. Because they’re selling digital transformation services, and it’s helped us because we’ve got guidance on how to run digital transformation projects. But I think the destination point is to have an integrated… It will become multi-channel marketing in future, and we’ve always been careful not to position ourselves just as digital marketing. Because the time will come, and people have been talking about for some time, a post-digital world. So, yes it is just marketing, and digital marketing is part of that, but I think we’re some way off stopping talking about digital marketing, because there’s so many jobs and specialist roles in digital marketing. There’s so many businesses now with digital marketing managers, and probably more than half the people in the team are specializing in digital activities.
Dave Chaffey: But, I don’t know, maybe when I’m retired in ten years time, we won’t talk about digital marketing. But there’s certainly a lot of people searching for advice on it at the moment.
Vahe Arabian: Makes sense, the other thing that I was interested in speaking with you is about as well is, because of the integrated marketing component, whether or not attribution modeling or attribution tracking is one of the reasons why integrating marketing hasn’t taken off. What are your thoughts around that?
Dave Chaffey: I think attribution is… I don’t think it’s a technique that is sort of world changing for most companies. I think many small or medium businesses won’t use attribution, they’ll use the standard last click reporting of which channels influence sales within Google Analytics, or influence leads. And I’d say for most businesses that’s actually sufficient. My view is that attribution only becomes important when you’re a large business that’s probably spending millions in paid media, and you need to justify the investment and make sure you’ve got the balance of your investment in different media channels right. So, you don’t… Getting a mix between for example, Programmatic to reach different audiences against using Google AdWords, against using Paid Social, or YouTube. Then Programmatic becomes important to make sure you’ve got the investment balance right, but I think for most businesses, they don’t need to go there because they’re focusing more on organic activity through SEO and content marketing and social media anyway. So, they just need to be…
Dave Chaffey: Social media anyway, so they just need to be yeah, really good at those and have a good strategy for those.
Vahe Arabian: And in terms of setting up a funnel I guess if you’re not focusing attribution modeling or tracking, would you say using HubSpot and those other tools help in terms of setting up a funnel, if you’re going to be running SEO or content marketing campaigns?
Dave Chaffey: Oh yeah, absolutely. Just because I’m saying attribution isn’t gonna be a world changer for businesses, doesn’t mean I don’t think analytics is important. And it’s really why we’re called Smart Insights because we’re all about using a data driven approach to marketing. And yeah, absolutely I would urge businesses to set up a funnel model and to go beyond what’s available in Google Analytics, so that you can really drive your growth.
Dave Chaffey: So one of the things, one of the resources we offer for members is we called it our RACE Planning Dashboard. So we’ve got a funnel which is a four way funnel reach, act, convert, engage. And then what we will do is we show members how they can use the Google Analytics API to pull data through. So that rather than the simplistic reports you might get in Google Analytics, where you can’t really see how you’re doing month on month, year on year, by channel you get a much clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not working.
Dave Chaffey: And I think that’s similar, you mentioned HubSpot there, I think the specialist CRM and marketing cloud platforms they provide other ways of getting that visibility of your funnel as well, and what’s driving people through the funnel. So I think that’s yeah, that’s really important, to have some way of doing that.
Vahe Arabian: Makes sense. David so if someone’s listening to this right now and they want to build their own membership product for their own business, or even for a digital publisher, what would be the steps that you’d advise them to go about doing that?
Dave Chaffey: Well it’s clearly all around the … it’s all around the content and whether you can get cut through against competitors. So if you don’t have personal knowledge of SEO and content marketing, I think it’s always going to be quite difficult to compete. So if you don’t have that personal knowledge you need to get expertise on board around SEO and content marketing.
Dave Chaffey: You can get so far through social media, but I don’t think you can scale. Certainly a B2B publishing, maybe with B2C it’s a little different because B2C publishers tend to have a lot more of their visits through social. So yeah, first get that content strategy right and have the content skills in place.
Dave Chaffey: And then really it’s all about the positioning against the competitors in the market. So you, rather than going head-to-head against existing competitors, I think you’ve got to find your own niche. Whether that’s … I don’t necessarily mean a nice audience, but I mean your own take on the particular topics you’re covering.
Dave Chaffey: So it’s having that brand proposition that will resonate with an audience who will then share your content. I think we’ve been quite successful in that because people are passionate about data driven marketing, so that’s made them more likely to share our content.
Dave Chaffey: I think on the platform side, it’s quite straightforward now, in terms of WordPress I think would be the go to platform for publishers starting out. So in terms of the user experience, it’s really a case I think of investing in the designers who are gonna make you look bigger than you are if you like.
Dave Chaffey: We were always keen, even when we were starting out, to invest in good quality design, which mean people would take us seriously. I’ve seen quite a few people starting out in online publishing where they’ll just use some templates, some basic themes, and it doesn’t really do the content that they have justice.
Dave Chaffey: So I think that’s the other area to invest in for me, is in the design, so you can create a really compelling brand.
Vahe Arabian: And how do you justify like because designing and … design and development aspect is quite a bit of an investment. Personal. So you have to put a lot of skin in the game for that. So how do you justify the return for that? Or are you just going all-in and just really focusing on trying to provide as much value as you can for you … for the audience in the initial stage? Even though you don’t know what the result might be.
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, I guess at the very early stage you could, and looking back to when we started we had quite basic themes, and there are great value themes available now. And you know, they’re responsive they use Twitter Bootstrap like we do. So maybe not from Day Zero investing in design, but I think once you’ve established your … the viability of the content quality, that’s when to scale up to the next level. That’s when you need to invest in the design.
Vahe Arabian: Makes sense. And in terms of … so you spoke about finding your niche and everything else, in terms of growth and find that audience you suggest mostly through SEO content marketing to get that initial audience and connections? Or is there any other tactics that … I know it might be a bit different from how you started now, but … from how you started, but would you suggest anything else to get the growth and viability?
Dave Chaffey: Sure. Yeah, we were quite fortunate because I had my personal brand and I had a site davechaffey.com which had good authority in Google’s eyes. So that meant that we could redirect that traffic across, and anything we publish would rank reasonably well in Google. But if you’re starting out of the gate, your site won’t have any authority, as indicated by the links from other sites to your site. So I think what’s gonna be really important with starting up, is forming partnerships and working on influencer outreach. And we did a lot of that as well when we were starting.
Dave Chaffey: So anyone who’s serious about publishing will have a good network of contacts already. So it’s putting in time to working with those networker contacts to collaborate. So for example, I would do a lot of guest writing on other third party sites. Or I might get my contacts to write on our site. So then you’re getting those mentions, and you’re getting the links through from other sites. Or you’re out speaking at events. Just when you’re doing events, and podcasts like today, those are a great way of gaining links when you’re starting out, which is so important.
Vahe Arabian: Absolutely. So, David, we spoke about … you spoke about the platform side before; technology aspect and trying to personalize content. So what are some of the areas you’re focusing on now? And what are some of the broader industry applications that other … the landscape is experimenting with at the moment?
Dave Chaffey: Okay sure. Well yeah, I mentioned before with content marketing, how it’s becoming more interactive. And if anyone listening in is interested to check it out, if you go to our free members areas, you’ll see a couple of tools we’ve built with interactive facilities. That’s definitely the way it’s going in future.
Dave Chaffey: I would say the tools aren’t really out there yet to create those interactive features. Probably the best example is where there’s quiz applications. So we’ve actually built those tools ourselves by having an in-house developer. But I think yeah, looking at techniques into the future and personalization I think that’s a smart investment. As is marketing automation when you were looking at your martech stack of the platforms that you use initially.
Dave Chaffey: I think having content recommendations on a site through using services like Evergage or BrightInfo which will recommend related content are a way to go. And of course, people are still using tools like Outbrain and Taboola. A lot of publishers are still using those to generate revenue and to highlight their own internal content as well. Although we don’t tend to use those because we think they can sort of cheapen the site by the sort of content they have on them. They’re not really right for a professional audience.
Vahe Arabian: What about LMS, so Learning Management Systems? Is that something that you haven’t explored in delivering the content? Because I think that can also provide interactive content in some aspect.
Dave Chaffey: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah certainly for structured courses and for putting videos within those courses LMS is … there are some good LMS available within WordPress as well. So yeah we use oh, what’s the name of the tool we use? Can’t remember that right now. But yeah, we use a WordPress plugin as our LMS. And that’s … you know, that’s been great value for us.
Dave Chaffey: Oh, the name’s come back to me. It’s LearnDash. I’d really recommend that tool for anyone who’s on the WordPress platform.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome. David, so you said that new media and digital technology at the moment isn’t there yet. So in saying that, what other initiatives are you looking towards this year to be able … What’s your general initiatives this year for SI and to build that experience for your product, membership product?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah it’s … I’m not so close to this these days, as I’m focusing more on the content. But I think we’re using the classic as we scale up we’re using this classic approach of developing personas for our audiences, so we can understand their needs better. We’ve got a number of persona toolkits, templates on our site ourselves. So we’re … for our members, so we’re really applying that. So we’ve now got, our structure’s changed a bit from having an email marketer, blog editor, and someone looking after the content, that we now have marketing execs who look after different types of audience.
Dave Chaffey: So we have a marketing exec that is looking at our free member audience, how we can recruit more of them, meet their needs. Then we’ve got individual business audience marketers as well. Where they’re looking after those individual audiences.
Dave Chaffey: And I think we’ve always been quite strong on doing the research, so we make sure the customer experience in terms of quality and content design is important. But now we’ve got individuals they can ask more questions, do more … So we’ve done a series of research interviews recently with our members to see what the gaps in our service are. So that’s what we’re looking at at the moment.
Dave Chaffey: We are looking at personalization as well. We will yeah, we’ll probably hand code that because we think that will work better for us and we’ve got the skills to do it. As I said, there are many good publishing tools out there.
Dave Chaffey: And then we’re quite strong in marketing automation already, with sending out messaging at the right points in the member journey. So we’re really just refining that. But we’re not looking at artificial intelligence just yet because we think there’s lots of other lower hanging fruit first.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. And finally David, what’s your final advice on developing a membership product and just general career advice, to get to where you are today?
Dave Chaffey: Yeah well I’ve certainly found it a lot of fun. If … you’ve got to have that real passion in whatever area you’re publishing about, I think. But the main advice I think I would say is to get close to your audience, but also make these … do the networking. So that it’s not just you when you start out. So attend conferences, find people in your industry, or influencers in the industry, and work with them.
Dave Chaffey: I think those are so important, particularly when you’re starting out so that you can work with them so that your brand becomes better known. And then, once you’ve done that, as long as you’ve got quality content, which is a big “if” you know, everything else should take care of itself. And you could gradually evolve, as we’ve done at Smart Insights.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome. Thank you for your time, Dave, I really appreciate it.
Dave Chaffey: You’re welcome, Vahe thanks.

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