Digital marketing strategist and entrepreneur Ross Simmonds explains how to use content to rise above the competition, deliver tangible results, go viral (even if your industry is boring), and impact the world in a larger, positive way.
It’s safe to say Ross Simmonds does not sleep.
Ross runs three businesses, all of which are related to content. There’s Foundation Marketing, a consulting business for B2B brands that creates and implements content strategies. Then there’s Hustle & Grind, an e-commerce business selling T-shirts, art, coffee mugs and even coffee grinds, all targeted at a thriving community of more than 100,000 entrepreneurial followers on Instagram. And then there’s GetCrate.co, a content curation and social media management service Ross co-founded that delivers relevant articles primed and ready for social sharing.
And we’re not even counting RossSimmonds.com - Ross’s personal website and blog where he shares insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, and cold, hard hustling. He’s like a machine that turns caffeine into content, and content into profit.
He’s come a long way from a self professed “geek playing video games,” who went to university and paid more attention to his fantasy football blog than Shakespeare.
“In my English classes, I’d write about what was happening in sports—on my fantasy football blog. That got on the radar of some significant media outlets. All of a sudden, I was reaching thousands of people all over the world, giving advice on fantasy football when I was 19 and 20. I was writing content every day, paying for a chunk of my tuition that way, and it taught me how to sell products and ad space.”
But then his grades dropped, and Ross’s mom was having none of it.
“My mom made me shut down my blog.”
This turned into a silver lining, inspiring Ross to shift his focus to “marketing and blogging about marketing. And that took off and became my career.”
In this interview, Ross talks about the business side of content, how to use it to rise above the competition, deliver tangible results, go viral (even if your industry is boring), and impact the world in a larger, positive way.
You might need to refill your coffee mug before reading on…
Businesses know they need content, but it’s not easy —sometimes not even possible —to follow the tenuous line between a consumer reading a blog post and making a purchase later. Tying content to ROI is a problem common to all marketers. When working with clients, Ross Simmonds starts the conversation by deciding on the most important key performance indicators (KPIs).
“I think it’s important early on when you’re working with the client to decide on your most important KPIs. In many ways marketers have run away from the idea of playing a role in the sales process. I think we need to grab onto the sales process and be a key piece in generating leads for sales and the eventual close.
"I talk to clients about the role that content plays in nurturing relationships with leads, and bringing those leads in at the beginning. Content that I can arm the sales team with to nurture relationships, and content that brings leads down the sales funnel to purchase.
"At the top of the funnel, we create content that’s intriguing to bring them in. Then we re-market with ads to drive a conversion. You can also think about content from a brand development process.
"If you want to generate links from a third party or get an influencer to share your content, you can do a lot there that isn’t directly related to sales but still has a lot of value for the brand. It always depends on what type of business it is. Ecommerce websites have different goals than B2B. Completely different ballgames, and the content has to be different based off of that.”
B2B—or business-to-business—content is another struggle for content marketers, because businesses that sell to other businesses don’t tend to be flashy. Think Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company.
Coming up with compelling blog posts for a company like that can be a real challenge. Unless you’re Ross Simmonds.
“A lot of us writers get caught up with the end result the client’s product delivers rather than the worldview and culture around the specific industry. If they sell a nut or bolt or oil rig, they’re in the manufacturing space, so what might people in the manufacturing space be interested in? Maybe being more productive managing a team, with a guy with a hard hat on rather than c-suite target.
I like to get in the head of the person I’m targeting, and also not being afraid to inject pop culture references as well. Maybe I’ll reference the new Batman movie. What Batman can teach every manufacturer about growth. You find a unique spin that’s a little more funny and engaging. You get to watch some Batman gifs and have fun creating the content as well."
I like to take a step back and not provide the easy, boring content, but more creative. I’d have fun with it. That’s the key. Have fun with the content. Don’t solely focus on the product or end result. Be okay with thinking outside the widget box.
“For the oil example, how much oil would it take to fuel the death star? Then engage an engineer to estimate how much oil that would actually take. The challenge is to create interesting unique stories to generate buzz."
Creative approaches to content like this get results - they increase page views, shares, and higher SERP rankings. But getting CEOs to approve outside-the-box content can be a bit tricky.
“It’s a challenge to get clients to buy into this sometimes. An ongoing one, even for me. A constant battle to get past ‘just write something SEO friendly.’
"I start by trying to show them - history is great to leverage when predicting the future. I dive into their analytics and look at their approach of writing for a keyword. If they don’t have that history yet, I’ll go into Moz and pull data on their competitors.
"If I can show them that a standard, easy, simple, text-only blog post isn’t ranking well for a keyword, and then show them a post that’s exciting and funny and gets links and thousands of visits a month with 25% of people highly engaged, that’s compelling.
"Show examples of people who’ve done it and succeeded. Showing your own case studies also can be helpful in convincing people.
"You can also reverse engineer some of their best wins, or their competitors best wins. You can find some amazing insights there.”
And then there’s the social media hack...
“You can do this on Pinterest or Reddit or Twitter: Take the url of an article, put it in the search bar, and you’ll see the most pinned post that included that url, or the top post for that url. Then you can start to see trends of what type of content does well with each social community. Then you double down on the content that does best. See which boards they’re getting pinned to, ask for permission to post your new amazing content to that board. You can find communities interested in specific subjects and find out what niche or key element of the article was most interesting by reading the comments, and seeing which influencer it was who really made it take off.”
But the real key to developing eye-catching, customer-attracting, share-worthy content? It’s trying out something new.
“You should experiment in your content, and go out of your comfort zone to try different channels. I experiment with content on Reddit, Slideshare, Quora, and share my experiments on my blog all the time.”
Some businesses—too many—try to copy competitors. They build similar websites, provide similar content, include similar products and services. But part of what makes Ross such an effective business builder, as well as a marketer, is his ability to see what isn’t there.
Ross Simmonds Slideshare graphic: '8 distribution tips that will help your content soar after pressing publish'
“When you think about less traditionally exciting industries, like B2B marketing, those are spaces where not a lot of people invest in design. That’s an opportunity to get the competitive advantage. That’s really been a key insight from a strategic perspective. Investing in design gives you the edge over those that don’t.
"If you’re going into a market where people are mediocre in look and feel, you have the advantage by simply making it more enjoyable to consume your content. Tons of people have written about content marketing, but one of the easiest ways we found to differentiate ourselves was to give people a more enjoyable, pleasant experience consuming our content through design.”
Two years ago, Simmonds invested $20K in improving the design of his slideshare presentations.
“I always get compliments on my slideshare decks when I give talks. For years I was doing it myself and threw something together with photoshop, zero experience with design, but I’d hack away trying to make it pretty. But when I invested in design, it took my speaking career to the next level. I can’t speak enough about the value of design as a differentiator.”
Ross is being modest - he’s generated millions of views on Slideshare alone.
How does he construct his viral presentations? Methodically.
“The way we approach building a slideshare, it’s like starting with a blank canvas, writing a story, drawing out some character (there are a lot of decks with me in suspenders) and building momentum. You have to hook someone immediately at the beginning, both visually with a captivating image that people have to see, and with words that get people to click that next button. And we end every slideshare by inspiring the viewer to take action, either by sharing the content or doing something in their businesses that drives value.”
You won’t find much stock photography anywhere on RossSimmonds.com - even his blog post images are usually photos of him either speaking on stage or mugging for the camera next to a conveniently placed subtitle. It’s your first clue that you’re dealing with someone who understands the real value of original content.
“At the core of each business is really content. With Hustle & Grind, the entire brand was built not on coffee or coffee mugs or t-shirts, but just an Instagram account we wanted to inspire people with. We invested heavily in original content that would inspire people. We invested in custom illustrations and infographics for all our content on Instagram.”
Crate, a very different kind of company, also functions as a direct result of high quality content, but instead of creating it, Crate curates it: “If you look at Crate, we’re constantly helping people find the best content online.”
And when Ross Simmonds is creating content and content marketing strategies, you realize that this isn’t just about making images and words that effectively grab attention and make the sale. The goal is bigger than that.
We want to create content that shapes culture and influences the way different communities view their industries, operate and inspire people to take action in a positive way.
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Content that shapes culture. This vision is what drives the commitment to original, thought-and-action-provoking content. Ross has given this idea a lot of thought.
"I’ve always believed the media is one of the most powerful influences in the world. Media shapes narrative; the narrative shapes our mindsets. When you’re a content creator, you have a lot of power to shape people's mindsets, the way they see the world and how they operate in the world.
"We're not only creating content that drives results for businesses, but that positively impacts people's lives. We have a customer in the plant-based movement and they want to influence the culture around eating vegetables for protein instead of meat. Through content that shapes culture, we can influence people to try Meatless Mondays, to shape culture in that sense.
"On the business side, there’s shaping culture internally, helping clients to collaborate inside the office, and creating content campaigns outside of the office that get segments of the population talking about their passions and interests and driving things forward.”
Content that alters perspectives, generates action and changes lives isn’t wishful thinking - Ross sees the real-world impact of his content every day.
“With Hustle & Grind, I get emails every day from people saying they’re quitting their jobs because they saw something that influenced them to start up their own Etsy shops. It makes my day. And it makes my day even more when they get back to me 60 days later and say ‘I just made 5k in a month.’ That’s what really excites me, when people are doing what they’ve always wanted to do.”
Ross spends a lot of time helping other people make their content better. It’s what he writes about on his website, what he speaks about on stage at MozCon, and why companies pay him to be their consultant. And sure, he wants to use content to change culture for the better, but according to him, all of this comes from a purely self-serving place.
“I love content. The last thing I want is for marketers to ruin it by spreading content that isn’t actually good. So I train people how to create good content so I don’t have to see bad content when I’m browsing through the web.”
Enlightened self-interest? Maybe. But we have Ross Simmonds to thank for much of the good content we enjoy.
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré