Selling Content Strategy as a Service with Nicole DeLeon

Nicole DeLeon content strategy
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Nicole DeLeon is the founder of North Star Inbound, an award-winning content marketing company that’s served companies such as Rent.com, Home Advisor, Apartment Guide, and Intuit, among many others. They’re all about producing ethical content and using smart content strategy to help their clients meet their goals.

If you’ve ever struggled to sell the strategy side of content as a service, you’ll want to check out this podcast. You’ll get an actionable birds-eye view into the way that North Star does it, one which might just spark some ideas of your own.

The highlights:

  • [1:19] What content strategy clients are looking for.
  • [3:26] The discovery process.
  • [6:47] Setting KPIs.
  • [10:00] Guiding clients to success.
  • [11:50] Roadblocks to risk.
  • [13:07] Campaign success stories.
  • [15:10] Incorporating search intent into content strategy.
  • [21:33] Nicole’s cause. 

The insights: 

What are content strategy clients really looking for?

Nicole says that her clients generally fall into two different buckets.
“Half our prospects have tried to do content marketing themselves, for instance, to grow their organic traffic, and for whatever reason, they’re just not succeeding. So they might be successful with other channels, but there’s this organic piece they just can’t figure out. They’re bringing us in to essentially redo everything from this point forward.”
She says that’s a project her team really enjoys, because they essentially have an open field ahead of them, a chance to take something from zero and then to grow it into something big.
“The other bucket is companies that have just an overwhelming amount of content. They have internal teams they’re engaging. Potentially even multiple other agencies for different niche things. They’re bringing us in to supplement. We’ve got specific KPIs we need to hit, and they think we can do it. Those are typically the bigger brands we wind up working with.”

What's the discovery process like?

Nicole says regardless of the type of client they’re working with, understanding the brand is the essential “step 1.” Yet she’s not only talking about understanding the brand “voice.” 
“Depending on the company their brand might be tightly controlled by different stakeholders, or it might be a little looser. If it’s more loose, and you know we have an opportunity to come in and do some digital PR as part of the content strategy, we might have more freedom in the ideas we generate, and the client might be more receptive to trying different things.”
If the brand is looser, Nicole says they might not even know who they are in the marketplace yet. 
“So they’re a little nervous about pushing the needle.”
She says part of the discovery process is all about asking, “What if?”
“What if we did this? Would you be comfortable with something like this?”
She says some clients have to be nudged away from the basic (and ineffective) what are widget style posts just because they’ve always done that in the past.  Nicole also talks a little bit about working on the discovery process with far more sophisticated clients.
“They’ve seen the examples. They totally get it. They feel like they’re in a place where they’re ready to dictate to you. Look, we saw this campaign you did, we thought it was really effective, and we want you to do the exact same thing for us.”
She speaks of developing a “theory of the case.” Asking questions to get to where the client wants to be.
“We have to figure out if we can get there for this client because that’s what they wanted. After we earn their trust we might be able to do some other things if we think those other things might be better for them and their long-term goals.”

Setting KPIs

Some clients come into Nicole’s projects knowing exactly what KPIs they want to use to measure the success of their campaign. 
“Obviously, we want to be driving business goals. Always. But we are sometimes approached to go build a certain number of links in a given amount of time. We’re increasingly trying to push against that idea. We’re very well-versed in link building, we love links, we think links are very important, we don’t think they’re going away anytime soon, but if that’s the only thing you’re measuring against I think that becomes an issue.”
She says if she can, she prefers to get clients behind the idea that they need to be building content that people are going to want to link to on a regular basis. 
“Then rinse and repeat that strategy. Learn through that strategy.”
She says it’s also important to speak to clients about how it’s important to be willing to let marketing campaigns fail.
“We will take responsibility for a failed campaign of course, but it is part of the learning process. We are a creative agency. So we will make good, but if we’re always just measuring a campaign by the number of links it gets, we’re robbing ourselves of potentially more relevant links. If the goal is number of links the only thing I’m going to create for you is the sauciest stuff that’s going to be covered by radio shows everywhere. We can totally do that. But maybe it’s a better idea for your brand to be noticed by people that talk about your industry as well.”

Guiding clients to success

Here, Nicole revisits the topic of gently guiding clients towards ideas that might help them succeed.
“If I see something that might be good, or if I see somebody doing a strategy that’s pretty interesting, and I’ve got a client in another vertical, I’m like: ooh, can I do something like that with this other client? I just present people with ideas.”
She says they’ll either go for them…or they won’t. When they don’t? She says she’s not shy about gently revisiting the idea two or three months down the line.
“I’ll say, let’s take another look at this. I know we’re all busy, but let’s take another look at these metrics. Let’s pull up Ahrefs, let’s look at what this content looks like. Let’s look at what it might look like for you.”

Roadblocks to risk

Why does it take clients so long to get on board when the data clearly supports the idea that a different direction might create better results?

“Usually our clients answer to somebody else that they can’t always control. There’s an internal bureaucracy they have to deal with, and that in turn, we have to deal with. We also try to help them deal with it. Even if you’re dealing with the VP of Global SEO. If there’s a merger they can’t do stuff, right?”

There are always realities, Nicole says, that constrain people from being able to do whatever they want all the time.

Yet Nicole stresses she’s also had plenty of instances where clients have essentially said, “Knock yourself out,” when she’s presented them with some “crazy idea.” There’s never any harm in giving it a try!

Campaign success stories

Nicole speaks of a survey they did in 2019 where they asked people to react to logos. 

“We used political logos. Because at that time, all the Democrats were coming out onto the field, and they all had logos at the same time. So you had this opportunity to take logos that mostly didn’t have a lot of history attached to them. We showed people the logos and the slogans. We also allowed people to just free comment.”

campaign logo testing Biden
campaign logo testing trump

“They were saying Bernie’s looked like the Aquafresh logo. People were saying really crazy, outlandish things. It wound up being a lot of fun, and it got covered by industry people that cover branding and logos. It was good. It got covered by a lot of the people we were hoping it would get covered by. It was actually the first time we did the open comment thing. We didn’t know we were going to get funny stuff, and we got funny stuff.”

She said one thing they learned from this was that they were capable of writing surveys that people really enjoyed taking, surveys people didn’t just rush through.

“I think if the survey had been really boring, nobody would have left any amusing open comments.”

Incorporating search intent into content strategy

Nicole says she spends a lot of time thinking about how complicated search intent can really be.

“We interact with Google, and then Google interacts with us.”

She gives the example: basketball shoes. Right now, you mostly get eCommerce sites for basketball shoes.

search intent

Yet in the past, you might have gotten anything from how to buy the best basketball shoes to what the best basketball shoes are for women.

“As Google has experimented on searches it’s figured out what we want, but has also changed the way we interact. Fewer of us put just basketball shoes into Google. More of us now ask these long questions. So now it’s kind of a living system, where we train the algorithm and the algorithm trains us.”

Nicole says she’s been thinking about using this understanding to think about planning content for the future of changing search intent.

“If search intent is always changing, or if the way that Google understands search intent is changing, and if the way we understand search is changing as humans, how do I plan for a page that’s going to win today and tomorrow?”

She says one way she addresses this is to plan for more than one page that might win that query.

“What are the best basketball shoes for women? What are the best basketball shoes for people with high arches? What’s missing? Sometimes the contrarian view ends up slicing through the SERP: why basketball shoes are actually no good for basketball!”

What's your right now cause?

Nicole has just one cause.

“If you are in the United States and you have not voted, please go in person to the polls to vote. And if you are outside of the United States, please get involved in your democracies. Democracies around the world need our participation in order to thrive.”

Connect with Nicole DeLeon

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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