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March 16, 2017
Content Marketing  |  9 min read

Building a Small Business Content Marketing Machine through User-generated Content

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Cali Pitchel

I probably don’t need to enumerate the values of content marketing to small business owners, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Content marketing, especially in the age of ad blocking, sponsored content, and native advertising, is more important than ever. Not too long ago Seth Godin prophetically said, “Content marketing is the only marketing we have left.” He was right—he is right.

Defining content marketing

In its simplest definition, content marketing is having a conversation with your customers, one that centers around them and their concerns. More specifically, it’s delivering high-quality, relevant information to a specific audience, in a specific place, at a specific time. It’s not about pestering consumers with pop-ups, pop-overs, or banner ads that play video and dramatically interfere with how a company’s most valuable asset—the consumer—experiences your content.

[tweet] TL;DR Content marketing is talking with your customers—not about your product, but about what’s important to them. [/tweet]

Content marketing, who’s got the time...and money...and talent?

I probably don’t need to cover the pain points, either, that small business owners feel when tasked with not only thinking through a content marketing strategy but also executing on that strategy, i.e., creating and distributing content.

There are lots of things to consider, but in my time working on the agency and brand side, I’ve seen three barriers in particular:

  • Budget (I don’t have the money)
  • Staffing (I don’t have the talent)
  • Time (I don’t have the time)

I currently lead growth and customer success at Joy, a free wedding planning app and website. Our goal is to bring a highly fragmented industry—wedding technology—together into one place. With Joy, you can manage your RSVPs, share important wedding-day details, and collect photos from your guests before, during, and after your special day. We’re a small team, and I’m the only non-engineer. That means I am a marketing team of one who also leads customer success—which entails managing a team of customer success associates.

The need to be resourceful—with my budget, my staff, and my time—is an understatement.

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Levering our customers for creation

When I joined Joy, I knew that content marketing would be a cornerstone of our acquisition strategy. One, because it’s what I do. I am a content marketer by training. Two, because I have seen first-hand the value of content marketing, especially content marketing that is underpinned by clear brand values.

Having also assumed responsibility for customer success, I had to think about how I could leverage my time with customer success to inform my content marketing strategy.

An industry friend who works for Floravere said, “Beautiful images are the currency of our brand.” For Joy, we’ve found that love stories—user-generated content—are the currency of our brand. You might ask yourself, what’s the currency of your brand?

Our couples are at the center of what we do—their complaints, frustrations, praise, and happiness inform our product development at every turn. So what better way to market our product than through them? 

We use a third-party customer support software for real time communication with our users. This proximity not only gives us a daily health check for our product, it creates a certain sense of openness and intimacy with our users. The constant dialogue can be exhausting, but the opportunity to leverage our happy users to create content is endless. In fact, our users have become the basis for our content marketing.

Our third-party customer support software allows us to create auto responses that send to users after they complete certain actions inside Joy. When a couple works on their Love Story, an Auto Response gets triggered soliciting proposal stories.


The results

In the four months since we started the campaign, over 9,000 couples have received the message, and 30 percent have responded. Even if only 25 percent of those couples who respond complete the interview, that’s 675 proposal stories in four months. If we post one proposal story a day, that is over two years of content...generated in less than four months.

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Once a post is published to the blog, we share the blog post and social links with the couple and make a simple, honest ask: “We don’t do any paid marketing. If you feel inclined, we would love if you shared this with friends and family!”

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What we’ve seen is an over 200 percent increase in the traffic to our blog. I’m still working to tie that increased brand awareness and blog traffic to weddings created, because that is my primary acquisition metric, but it’s hard to doubt the impact, even if it’s anecdotal.

Our couples truly enjoy the posts, and they do share them with friends and family as evidenced by our new blog traffic. Word-of-mouth is undoubtedly (ask McKinsey, et. al.—year over year, upwards of 80 percent of respondents trust their family and friends’ recommendations above all else) one of the strongest influences affecting purchasing behavior. These proposal stories, when shared socially by our couples, are an endorsement of our product and their level of happiness using Joy to plan their weddings.

There is still a lot of friction in our process. (I won’t get into the details on how much time it takes to send emails, edit and queue responses, follow up with each couple, and post to social.) But we’ve successfully managed to leverage our users to create a sound, consistent, and compelling content strategy that moves our brand forward—effectively solving for budget and staff by leaning on our greatest asset, our couples.

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We operate by the 10:1-ish content principle. Every proposal story can be repurposed or rearticulated for a varial of channels, i.e., one proposal story can (conceivably) be chopped up into 10 more pieces of content. Here’s an example of a Pinterest pin. We used a quote and an image from a proposal story.

Just ask

The biggest takeaway here is to just ask. Just like no one gets married without proposing, you won’t get user generated content without asking. I had no idea going into this exercise that I’d receive such an overwhelmingly positive response. I can surmise that there is a reason for this: we are committed to our couples—they are at the center of our business—and they’re truly getting value out of our product and service.

There’s so much chatter online about how to create brand loyalty. I would say that starts with a great product or service and gets rounded out with exceptional customer support—whatever that looks like for your business. One manifestation of brand loyalty is a deepening relationship with your customers. And like any good relationship, there is a give and a take. We offer a great product for free, we’re available and responsive for our users, and a small ask in return is for their participation. We’re cashing in on their loyalty, and it’s paying great dividends.

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Cali Pitchel is the Director of Growth and Customer Success at Joy, a free wedding planning website and app. She studied history as an undergrad, wrote a Master’s thesis on Rachael Ray and the sociology of nostalgia, and dropped out of a Ph.D. program to channel her inner Peggy Olsen. You can find her most uncensored self on Twitter and read some of her musings about life and marketing on Medium. She lives in San Francisco, California with her fiancé, Chris, and their three houseplants.  

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