James Mulvey on startup growth channels, building a B2B Content team, and collaborating with Product Marketing
Product State Q&A
James Mulvey was recently Director of Marketing at Mighty Networks. He was formerly the Head of Content at Hootsuite, and has done client work for Google, Intuit, Thomson Reuters, AppLovin, and Wealthfront.
Heads of Content / LinkedIn
EC: How can you find your first big growth channel as a start-up?
JM: To begin, we need to do a gut check around the context of the product.
Will people buy something like this with ads? Will a podcast or organic social strategy give us the scale we need? Have people bought other products in this category?
I loved this simple framework from Andrea Bosoni, founder of Zero to Marketing.
Once you’ve established what context you’re operating in (such as, this is a new product category with little pre-existing demand, so search wouldn’t work), I like to work through three big questions.
How much traffic does the business model need?
Some channels, even if you have wild success, won’t give you the volume you might need to feed the business.
If you have a freemium model, you need lots of scale. YouTube and TikTok are likely your best choices as they have the discovery machine you need to reach millions of people.
For example, I’m working on a TikTok ad campaign right now for a popular mobile game with 56 million users. They monetize with in-app purchases, so we need to bring in millions of people every month. As a result, the creative needs to be dead simple. It’s broad targeting, an instant decision to download the game, and creative that needs to grab people within the first half second of the ad. There are only a few channels that can deliver this scale.
If you have a high average contract value and a sales team, you need a smaller number of high-intent prospects. So Google Search is an obvious choice. You can target long-tail, high-intent commercial keywords. And you can run very tightly focused Google Ads campaigns while you build up your organic content.
If you have a niche B2B product and only need a small number of deals every month, LinkedIn, Twitter, or a partnership channel could work as a first channel.
For low-consideration products (aka products you buy without much research), advertising is the fastest path while you build your organic engine. For high-consideration products, organic content generally works and has less risk than dumping money into ads.
I believe in choosing one channel and mastering it. Don’t try to juggle multiple channels in the early days. Get one channel working and then add another down the road.
What is the team already good at?
Next, consider the existing strengths of the team. This de-risks your strategy and lets you lean into your unique advantages.
If you have strong writers on your team, you’ll have an easier time in text-based channels such as Google Search. If you are an ad genius, you could likely scale TikTok ads long before you attract millions of organic followers.
Consider Basecamp. Their founders are exceptionally talented writers. They built a famous brand with mostly text-based marketing including books, articles, and long-form writing like their Shape Up resource.
In contrast, Rand Fishkin has always been a talented on-camera presenter. He built Moz’s brand with his Whiteboard Friday video series, where he sketched out SEO problems on a whiteboard. Today, he’s often teaching how to use SparkToro with native videos on LinkedIn.
Don’t feel pressured into doing something like trying to act out cringy skits on Instagram Reels just because other brands are doing it. Follow what you’re good at. It will give you an advantage and you’re more likely to stick with the channel.
How do your customers discover and research products like yours?
Before you commit to a channel, do 5-10 qualitative customer interviews. Ask them how they learn about their industry and how they researched your product. This will quickly help you rule out any channels that they don’t use regularly.
For example, at Hootsuite, we did a good job of reaching social media managers and directors with our SEO content, webinars, and virtual events.
But we wanted to educate more CMOs about the value of social for enterprise organizations. What channels would work for taking them deeper into Hootsuite’s value and use cases?
Qualitative interviews revealed what you’d expect: Someone managing a $70M yearly marketing budget is very, very busy and very hard to reach with online content. So the best digital channel, in this case, was no digital channel.
For Fortune 100 executives, our best formats were in-person executive dinners and direct mail.
Peer-to-peer insights are the most valuable for executive audiences, so they will spend time learning from other CMOs in similar roles. At those events, we’d take the content that worked well in virtual events and adapt it for executive discussions.
We also found success by sending them short, physical books that they could read on planes as they told us in interviews that if they did consume content, it was often printing out industry reports to read during travel. We’d send direct mail with the books and explicitly say on the card— ‘Here’s a short book for your next long trip.’
Below is an example of a short book I wrote for CMOs that we used in ABM campaigns. It was designed to be a short read with lots of visuals and concise case studies from similar companies.
EC: How to build a B2B content team — and the priority of your first 5 hires?
JM: You need three things to create exceptional B2B content: New, unique insights to bring to people; creative expression; and systems for replicating the things that work.
Here’s the order I’d hire in. This team is built for a B2B SaaS company with an SMB or mid-market customer base. It’s assumed there is a sales team and this is a high-consideration product.
If you have a limited budget, I find the best way to start is with a content manager with them juggling the multiple roles listed below. Once you grow, you can begin specialization and increase the quality of your output.
[First hire] In-house video producer
In the early days, you’ll have more than enough strategy to execute. If you have a Head of Marketing or Director of Content, they can often pitch in for copywriting and content creation. But you will immediately need video content to get those ideas out in front of your prospects.
Rather than outsource to an agency, I prefer someone in-house. I don’t want a behind-the-scenes video producer. I want someone comfortable on camera and being the face of the brand. They’ll produce educational videos and product-related videos for big launches. If we are betting on YouTube or TikTok, they’ll own that as well.
They will also become a subject matter expert over time which is the main benefit of having them in-house.
[Second hire] Copywriter / Content Producer
The video producer has kick-started our content engine. Now, we need another writer to increase our output.
The copywriter is the brain of the brand. So when you combine that brain with the creative abilities of the in-house video producer, you get magic. Together, we should now see content that is both educational and delivered in original, creative formats.
When hiring, I look for copywriters with broad skill sets. The hardest skill to train for is creative concepting — so this is a differentiator. They also need to be able to research complex topics and create long-form content. And they need to know how to translate big ideas into short-form executions with experience in video scripting, landing pages, and ad campaigns.
[Third Hire] SME in Residence
To achieve the next level of content excellence, we’re going to need more differentiated insights. I’d look to hire a subject matter expert with years of direct experience in the industry. This is often a freelance or contract role as I’d want a player-coach, someone who is still working in the industry.
This person’s job is to help the team understand the Ideal Customer Profile in new nuanced detail, speak at virtual events, be featured in videos and podcast episodes, and distribute content on their personal LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube channels.
This person will give the team raw insights that the copywriter and in-house video producer can execute, refine, and distribute.
[Fourth Hire] Events & Community Manager
By now, we’ve got an abundance of creativity on the team. So now, we need more operational skills on the team.
This role is about leading virtual events, running the podcast if we have one, managing our customer community, and building an influencer relations strategy.
In other words, they are an orchestrator. They don’t need to be a subject matter expert. But they need to help us operationalize our content output.
They’ll arrange guests for events, build a playbook for promoting and distributing content, and look for opportunities to work with high-profile experts and influencers.
The thing I look for most here is being a proactive person. I want them banging the table when we miss a weekly podcast episode, bugging the CEO about the event keynote they need to deliver in a few weeks, or coming back with a new partnership opportunity with an influencer.
[Fifth Hire ] Manager, Customer & Industry Insights
For B2B content, the biggest challenge is always finding original, differentiated insights. This role is all about building an insight engine that smaller competitors can’t easily copy.
Adding someone with quantitative skills will dramatically strengthen the creative side of the content team. If you have an enterprise sales motion, this role will produce mind-bending insights for sales teams to use.
At Hootsuite, some of our best content was made possible by teaming up with an analyst to conduct complex analyses and run 10,000+ respondent surveys.
We also used data from Brandwatch to comment on viral events like the Superbowl and pulled custom data from GlobalWebIndex to uncover emerging digital behaviors in industries like financial services.
In a dream team, you operationalize this data gathering into your content programs. You create a quarterly and yearly cadence for new insights, helping your content understand customers and industry changes with unmatched depth and nuance.
These insights go beyond content as well. You can feed timely industry insights back to your product team, educate sales on new trends, and work with PR agencies to find interesting hooks in the data that will earn you tier-one media coverage.
EC: How can content teams and product marketing teams work better together?
JM: In larger organizations, creative teams are removed from direct contact with customers.
Good content people will find a way around this, getting approval to speak to a big account, listening to Gong calls, and running qualitative interviews. But these things take time and talking to a customer requires approval from CSMs to make sure they don’t talk to at-risk accounts and so on.
Product marketing teams can help content teams get closer to the customer and product by curating more raw information for them.
A good B2B Creative finds their big ideas by absorbing raw information. We need facts, specifics, customer transcripts, and phrases the customer uses.
When briefing creative teams, product marketing often has distilled complex market and product research into simple messages. This is important. But I personally always want more of the messy details.
For any creative briefings, I’d recommend including an appendix with lots of raw material. I’d also curate a few interviews with customers for copywriters and creatives to watch.
On the opposite side, content teams can help product marketing teams by making sure the organization is always expressing the product value propositions with high-concept ideas. These are the big ideas that distill complex value propositions into simple, memorable expressions.
We all know that B2B messaging is often too rational. It’s a ‘message received, message is forgotten’ situation. To avoid dull messaging, bring a few content people early into positioning exercises. Lean on them for expression. Challenge them to deliver more creative ideas, and give the team permission to go beyond the basics of the brief.
These early sessions will also produce higher-quality work later.
Creatives hate being seen as just executors of ideas.
The more you can involve them and make them feel like partners, the more likely they’ll get passionate about finding the best, most original expression for a new product launch or integrated campaign.
“Creatives hate being seen as just executors of ideas. The more you can involve them and make them feel like partners, the more likely they’ll get passionate about finding the best, most original expression for a new product launch or integrated campaign.”
- James Mulvey
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So good, James!
Enlightening, thanks for this.