There are marketing philosophies that I like.
And there are marketing philosophies that I’m willing to bet my career on.
I’m betting my career on Content Brands.
Forget “be a media company.”
Become a content brand.
Make your content so good, people would pay for it.
If you’re exhausted by corporate/commodity/copycat content, or a CMO wanting to produce the best content your industry has ever seen, you’ll want to read this.
I sat down with John Bonini (former Head of Marketing at Databox – now consulting and running Some Good Content) to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Databox gets customers, plus how they grew to $7.6M ARR sustainably and predictably by building a content brand.
I can’t wait for you to apply these insights to your own company.
What you’ll read here are words. Some John’s. Some mine.
Below, we’ll explore:
- The exact 5 steps you need to build a Content Brand
- The biggest roadblocks to building one (+ how to avoid each)
- How to *last* at a company (when most marketing leaders last less than 2 years)
1. How far out do you plan your marketing in detail, and how has that evolved over the years?
Databox ran on quarterly planning.
Every quarter each team would put out a plan of 4-6 bets for the quarter that furthered the organizational goal (signups, etc.) that mapped to the annual forecast created by their CEO.
From a content production standpoint, Databox almost always operated 2-4 weeks ahead.
2. Do you use OKRs (e.g. objectives, key results, 70% goals, etc.) in some form?
They did… eventually.
But before that, the org set goals for revenue forecasts and each team could back into the goals.
Each team would place their 4-6 bets and go bottoms up.
The conversation on the marketing team might sound like:
“To hit our pace, we have to increase signups 25% this quarter. What are you seeing? Think we can do that? Anything we need to supplement or change?”
Then document all those bets and what they thought they’d achieve.
The Databox culture was: once we have a plan, we stick to it.
One thing they didn’t stick to (because it wasn’t working): Databox tried going to KW volume/difficulty focused and the SEO tool estimates were way off.
Turns out, taking the time to understand and know the needs of their customers drove way better SEO outcomes than starting with keyword research.
3. Who does marketing ultimately report to, and has this changed over the years?
Reported to CEO, but collaborated with product team, product leadership and sales leadership
Example: If we’re rolling out a G sheets integration, we should plan ahead on content around that. So Databox created content around it that would help their ICP, such as how to create a bar graph in Google sheets.
This is the type of content that most of the “B2B is boring” bros would laugh at, but John revealed that we wouldn’t believe how many signups that drove.
The same marketer struggling to create bar graphs in G sheets is the exact same one that would love to let Databox do it for them.
4. For marketing strategy, who comes to these meetings, who runs the meeting, and how often do you meet?
Overall, marketing team meetings are less strategic and more looking at how things are trending and changes they need to make.
Strategic meetings with 10 people in them are pointless.
1:1s were more strategic.
1:1s with John’s managers about their projects and then he’d distill that down to the group.
Overall marketing strategy was more John (Head of Marketing) + Pete (CEO).
Insight: In most companies, the CEO is still the true CMO. Misunderstanding that dynamic (and the degree to which it is true) is a huge land mine for so many marketers.
John was at Databox for SIX years.
Previously, he was at Litmus for 2 and Impact for 3 years.
Being able to navigate the ‘CEO as CMO’ dynamic well is a piece of the secret sauce that’s given John longevity in his roles.
5. How many marketers do you have? How has that team changed over time?
The Databox marketing team started with John + 1-2 others
Databox split teams and marketing management into:
- Product marketing
Later, they added roles unique to their GTM, such as research specialists, editorial directors, contributor comms and social promos.
Then, prospecting to scale contributors.
When your content *IS* research, editorial and outreach, it makes sense to invest there.
Growth/ops was 1 person working on a website (and eventually designer/developer and SEO specialist).
At its peak, the marketing team was 12 people.
6. What’s your primary tool for tracking tasks and campaigns? And for production?
Before tracking output, Databox focused on exhaustive documentation.
They documented the process and obsessed about it.
Using SOPs + Asana, Databox created a process that includes:
- Coming up with topics
- Approving topics
- Spin up a new task in Asana w/ topic
- Asana adds dependencies including survey questions, emails, social posts and another 12+ dependencies to take it live
At its peak, Databox was also managing 10k+ contributors, so the process was crucial to succeeding.
Databox built a great process for martech, but I was curious: can this work outside of martech?
John mentioned this entire process works best if your audience is active on social (or at least, online)
Basically, if they’re on LinkedIn and posting/commenting, you can do it.
Databox’s first group of contributors was customers.
Then, it turned into a demand-gen and lead gen tool.
Cold DMs on LinkedIn to invite your ICP to contribute, then warm outreach asking to feature them.
7. Is there something unique or philosophically core to how the marketing team and leaders think about acquiring customers?
Absolutely 100% this is building a Content Brand.
5 steps companies use to build a Content Brand:
- Start with deep research → on both product and audience
- Build buzz & anticipation
- Carve out a niche/positioning w/ POV
- Topic/angle development
- Resource the right skills & talent
Databox didn’t do events.
They didn’t do affiliates.
Alternative: This isn’t a knock on affiliates. They can work, too! Podia uses them really effectively to acquire customers.
There’s an essential question John surfaced that matters more than publishing content.
What’s your editorial narrative? What is your reason for publishing content the way you publish it?
The why and how behind Databox was more impactful and important than the stuff behind it.
It wasn’t just that they published content, but why they were doing it that way.
If I asked most companies why they were publishing content it would be: to get leads.
Is that really going to inspire your audience?
“Hey, wanna become an MQL for us?” isn’t an inspiring premise to get people to opt in.
Not only that… your 5 other competitors are doing that playbook already!
Why would your audience read your blog, or listen to your podcast?
9 roadblocks you’ll run into building a Content Brand:
So you, John and I are all really bought in on this whole thing, but how do we actually get it done?
- Investing in the quality of the content → This isn’t super expensive, but we aren’t writing corporate commodity ChatGPT blogs either.
- Getting buy-in around the premise and POV
- Starting SEO-first may be a huge mistake → Databox competes with Hubspot for content so they can’t go head-to-head in SEO
- Does your CEO agree we should be doing content and GTM differently?
- Attribution / ROI heavy culture is going to have a hard time
- Self-reported is so messy, especially with blog, podcast and newsletter and there’s almost zero direct correlation
- We want positive “signals” of what may have impact
- Pete (Databox’s CEO) was at Hubspot for 9 years from 2004-2013 so he was already bought in
- You’re doing marketing WITH your customers (not AT them)
- Original research
- Likely will also require another medium: video or audio (podcast) another medium: video or audio (podcast)
- This was easy at Databox because their CEO already “got” partnerships → If your CEO gets partnerships, that’s an in for buy-in
- Nobody should read your content and think “wow, they’ve clearly never sat in my seat before” → This means finding SMEs if you are not already one
- No gated content. No ebooks. Only thing Databox gated was the product (dashboard templates).
8. What were the best performing channels for you? Did that change over time?
Yes, Databox tracked traffic and channels to see positive signals.
Organic traffic was 70% of their overall traffic
They invested in LinkedIn.
Really, they were looking to gut check their bets w/ groupings of pages
Then, they had a rigorous reporting practice based on bets they made that quarter.
Do things for a quarter (at least) and THEN check.
Making a gut check too soon is what starts the death spiral for most marketing campaigns.
Databox’s CEO created a culture where they would do things 10 times manually before optimizing, adding tooling or adding resources.
Working with a CEO that gets marketing is a more straightforward path to success.
How to use this info:
1. Send a DM to your teammate: “Michelle — I read about how John from Databox drove 1.5M+ site visitors per year from SEO (without ever focusing on it). I thought there’s X things in there that might really help our team. Mind if I send them over?” Then send her this link.
2. Meeting with your boss: “We’ve toyed around with the idea of becoming a media company for a while now, but I think I have something even better. I just got a behind-the-scenes look at Databox’s small team scaled content that had a big revenue impact. Think we can do the same? If so, this might be worth bookmarking.
3. Linkedin Post: Why every B2B company should become a Content Brand (make sure you connect with & tag John!)
Thanks for reading!
This is the fifth of a long series.
If you have a tip or feedback, I’d love to hear it.