John Espirian built a large community around his personal brand on LinkedIn in recent years. Being the “relentlessly helpful copywriter”, he offers knowledge and practical advice for B2B writers & marketers all over the world. And this interview is no exception. Read, learn & enjoy!
You offer your services as an independent contractor. What are the benefits and the downsides of not working in the “in house” team of the client?
It’s mostly benefits for me. I get to choose my hours, work in peace and use my own equipment. I can use social media at times that suit me and I don’t have to worry about office politics or low-level chit-chat. The downsides: well, missing a routine and human contact, and knowing that you don’t have to think about work all the time (you can leave your desk and forget about it).
When working as a freelancer, you must build on credibility and visibility to make a name for yourself. What was your approach, and how long it took you to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field?
I only started making a real impact when I went all-in on LinkedIn at the start of 2017. I’d had social media accounts since 2014 but wasn’t using them in a focused way, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t generate results for me.
My results now come from being helpful on LinkedIn, creating a few videos and writing content for my blog. Consistency matters here: it took me about 2 years to start becoming known in my field. I find that a lot of people give up way too early.
Content nowadays must deliver measurable results. What KPI’s should a content writer achieve for his work to generate business impact/results?
It’s difficult for me to comment on this one because clients almost never share the measurable results of writing projects. I guess this is easier when the writing is used in transactional processes (e-commerce and direct-response are the obvious examples), but it’s much more challenging to understand effectiveness when the content is informational, as mine invariably is. For example, if I write an internal guide for HR staff at an organization, it’s tough to measure how useful it’s been. All we can do as content writers, in this case, is to ensure that we meet the exact brief provided by the client.
You often advise content writers to “focus on providing great answers not selling” – it’s a thin line there, how can we avoid crossing it?
It’s worth plainly stating what you do every now and then so that you remind people that you really do run a business and can help people professionally. But I suggest doing that in no more than 10% of your content, and making the rest of it an exercise in utility. Think about the questions and problems people have and give them good solutions. This should mostly happen in public, but you can also do this privately, via 1-to-1 DMs. It’s a lot of effort but the impact of giving people those peak moments of positive experience means you can develop a network who are all too happy to recommend you to the people who desperately need what you offer.
Should one be a techie to write technical content? How can content generalists transition to this area?
The key skill is being able to consume difficult source material and then turn it into something that would make sense if you were explaining it in person. If you can spot what’s important and tease out those threads to create a simple explanation, you can work on technical content.
There are obvious plus points to being a subject matter expert, but there’s also value in being an intelligent but ignorant observer. It helps you avoid the “curse of knowledge” and ensures that you explain things without taking too much for granted. Some people will see this as dumbing down.
I would remind them that no one ever complained that some piece of text was too easy to read. Simple messages lead to good recall and action – and that’s a great aim for all content writing.
Video is big these days. What is the best use of video content in B2B and what type of outcomes should we expect from it?
Video is the quickest way to bridge the gap between you and your audience. I encourage everyone to think seriously about using it in their content. Short animated videos are a great way to deliver metaphors that might be difficult or long-winded to explain in text.
Also, B2B shouldn’t be a dry and stuffy arena. Putting a face on your content can humanize it. We might be dealing with expensive and non-sexy subject matter, but decision makers are still human beings.
If you can get across the right tone in your videos, you might reach those people more effectively than you would if you were relying solely on walls of text.
You pointed out that “content marketing is a long game – it can take months/years to build your presence.” Are businesses on board with this approach? Do you need to work on convincing them?
I wish! A lot of people expect that 3 blog posts will rocket them to the top of Google. The internet doesn’t work like that. The best you could hope for would be a flash in the pan success, but there’d be no longevity behind it. You have to stick at it for a while if you want to build a recognizable and useful content footprint. In Mark Schaefer’s 2017 book KNOWN, he interviewed almost a hundred people and found it took them 30 months to become known in their space. That’s more than a few blog posts – a lot more.
Your personal brand is highly distinctive. You are taking a practical and relaxed (funny at times) approach to your communications. Is this helpful when connecting with subscribers and potential clients?
Yes, it’s my natural voice coming out. One of my brand values is “cheeky geek” and that’s truly who I am. It took a while to develop the confidence to show that side of my personality in my content, but with practice comes the relaxation necessary to just be yourself. This means that it’s easier for me to create content (I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not), and it’s a good way of signaling who I’m for and who I’m not for. If you want a relaxed, human approach to writing content for your business, I’m your guy. If you want someone who is serious, dry and who plays everything with a straight bat, you might not want to work with me. I’m fine with that: we can’t be the right fit for everyone.
You are writing a book about content (“Content DNA”) – can you tell us a bit about the contents, the audience you target and launch date.
The book is about the power of consistency and congruence in helping you create a recognizable and memorable “shape” to all of your content. If you can be the person that people remember in your space, you’re much better placed to be hired or referred for work. The book will start with that theory, including insights from several interviews I’ve conducted in the last couple of months, and move on to cover practical steps for creating good content. I’m aiming at small business owners and will be releasing the book in spring 2020.