John Hall practically invented content marketing. As CEO of Influence & Co he has helped companies of all sizes, from startup to Fortune 50, become ‘top of mind’ with their customers by establishing trust through useful, engaging content.
In this episode we discuss what it means to have a content strategy, and how a book fits with that. He also explains why appendices matter, and talks about his offer to connect directly with readers, plus of course he gives his tips on writing a book for anyone still struggling to make it happen.
Influence & Co: https://www.influenceandco.com/
John on Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnhall
John on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnhall4
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today, I’m here with John Hall, who is the co-founder and the CEO of Influence & Co, which is one of the world’s leading content marketing agencies. He’s also a writer. He writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and others. Has written books as well, and speaks internationally on influence, credibility, and engagement. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show today, John.
John Hall: Thanks for having me.
Alison Jones: We love the whole content marketing thing. I’m very big on books as content marketing. Just tell us a little bit about your background. Why did you start Influence & Co, and how has it developed?
John Hall: Well, we started it just out of need for the service for ourselves. The three co-founders, Brent, Kelsey, and myself were all young business leaders that … Well, say “business leaders,” that’s, I guess, a loose term there. We were young entrepreneurs trying to figure out what we were doing, and what we wanted to lead. A part of the realisation of opportunity, for us, was like, “Wow, well, there’s this opportunity. However, one of the barriers that we have is a trust barrier.” Kelsey’s was because of her age, mine was because of age and experience. I was in real estate tax credit syndication, and the average age was probably 40 or 50, of people I was dealing with. When you walk into a room, there’s just a lack of trust there.
When you look at those situations, those are very similar, just because we were all young entrepreneurs, but when you look at it, it’s not just an entrepreneur challenge. Trust is an issue in virtually every business. What we wanted to do is we wanted to build a company that truly helped companies and individuals build trust with the audiences they want, that’s very important to us, but what we saw is that it was applicable to so many different aspects of business. And so what we did was we said, “Okay, well, let’s create a service and a technology that helps every part of this process, from strategy, to knowledge extraction, to developing the content, to distributing that content.”
There wasn’t really anybody out there that was specialising in this niche. It was kind of this niche of thought leadership, but specifically working with the key employees and working with the company to extract and harness that knowledge, and have a technology that had a central place to put all of that knowledge. Then, we had a staff that could actually write, develop it, and place it in the places where there are audiences consuming content. I started off that idea, and we’ve been fortunate to expand, not just with entrepreneurs and smaller companies, but also larger companies now, as well. We work with everywhere from a startup on Shark Tank all the way to a Fortune 50 brand.
For us, our vision is to be the leader at using content to influence people in a more educational way. Not always promoting to them, but getting your brand, and your insight, and your expertise in front of the people so that they trust you more.
Alison Jones: Yeah, being useful.
John Hall: Yeah. Adding value, as in industry, or as just in general with people. We used to always be about me. How can I sell you? How can I benefit from a relationship with you? We’ve shifted. This last probably five years, we’ve shifted from, “What can I do to offer true value, to you? What information can I get you?” Ultimately, people know there’s information out there, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’re going to go find it elsewhere. That creates an opportunity where you’re not going to be that trusted resource for them, so it’s vital to think about every aspect that you can be valuable to your clients or to your audience, and look at what ways make sense to offer that value.
Alison Jones: I loved the story of the ‘me’-marketing story, in your book Top of Mind, where you talk about you as the king salesperson, hustling your way into the houses, and making the sale. That era has just gone, hasn’t it?
John Hall: Yeah. Just imagine, I would love to see my … It would be interesting to see my wife and neighbours, if I was my little eight year old self, going and selling crappy products. If I went into my neighbourhood, I’m just trying to think of my neighbours, showing up with the popcorn. They would be nice, they’re good people, but at the same time, they probably wouldn’t buy. Everybody bought from me, back then. I would go in, and just smile at them, with suspenders and a bow tie, and you’d work it. You’d work the door, there, with selling whatever. I think popcorn, and pizza is what I sold back then. We’re just past those days. Sure, I buy Girl Scout cookies, and support things like that, as well, but we’ve moved away from the travelling salesperson and, ultimately, always selling.
Alison Jones: It probably still works. To be fair, it probably still works if you’re eight and cute, but above that, it’s not going to work.
John Hall: Yeah. Yeah. It will work, but obviously not as well. As crazy as it is, there’s information that people are … Just, before people buy, we’ve gotten to the point where we have to have these certain things that happen. We have to have some sort of trust. For example, I won’t buy anything on Amazon if it doesn’t have a certain amount of reviews.
Alison Jones: Right.
John Hall: Now, you can even game that system, these days, but at the same time, I have this perception that I don’t buy anything off Amazon unless it has really, really positive reviews. If you have anything less than a four star, not getting it.
It’s the same thing with a business, and B2B business. When you’re selling, really, anything, these days, like with the book, what I try to get across is that you’ve got to have these trust touchpoints with people. It’s almost like a totem pole. Every person, you start off at a certain level of trust. You have to have these trust touchpoints throughout your engagement with them, where it’s either they read a piece of content that was valuable, or they saw a tweet that you shared, that they thought was great, or you met in person, they saw you speak, or just as simple as maybe they walked by your book. Any time you can do things like that, that engage them at certain moments, you start going from their short term to long term memory in a way that’s positive, and it’s positioned correctly. Then, they think of you at the right moment, when they need something in your space.
Alison Jones: Yeah. I love that phrase, “Top of mind,” that you use there. You said, “Or,” between all those things, but, actually, it’s an “And,” isn’t it? That’s part of the power. It’s that triangulation, to hear you speak, and before that, they read something that you wrote. Then, you have your book, and you’re spending six, seven hours in their company. A book is an incredible way of building that up, and then they all layer on top of each other.
John Hall: Yeah. Really, integrated campaigns for anything are great. Occasionally, you can have success doing one thing. A book was, for me, it was just a natural expansion of me sharing in my expertise, and adding value for my audience. It’s been a great experience. I’ve had a great publisher. The content, very happy with how it turned out. Yeah. Thus far, people have enjoyed reading it, so that’s a good sign. Some of them have been friends, so I’m waiting for the non-friends to read it.
Alison Jones: Get your friends’ Amazon reviews up there first, right?
John Hall: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, get the friends’ reviews up. It’s good. What I wanted it to be is, for anybody who’s listening that reads it, I wanted it to not be a hard read. I think that hard reads, these days, are really tough. People want it to be consumable. I call it, they want “IDEA content.” They want Industry leading, they want Data driven, and they want Educational or how-tos type, and then, for the A, Amusing.
With the book, I was trying to hit on those different things. I wanted to have some industry leading thoughts in there. I wanted to have some data to support that. I wanted to get some education, and how-tos, and tactical things to take away, and then, also, just make it fun to read. That was really important, for me, to have those four elements of idea content in there. I think it turned out well.
Alison Jones: It did, yeah. I’m guessing that that’s a good framework for any scale of content that you’re putting out, isn’t it?
John Hall: Yeah. It was kind of funny, that just happened the other day, I just typed in, “What is the best content that I think audiences enjoy?” I put, “They love data.” I put, “They like it when it’s something they haven’t heard before,” like industry leading. Then, I said, “Okay, and then, also, they like it when it’s fun, or amusing.” I put all those words together, and I put it in one of those programmes that makes a fun word, and it came up with “idea”. Was like, “Oh, wow. That worked out.” So, yeah. Honestly, when you’re creating content, whether it’s a book, or whatever, think of that.
Now, granted, if it’s a horror novel, or a mystery novel, I guess it doesn’t have to be funny, but that’s still amusing. Everything, I think, you want to hit it from an angle that is engaging. For me, those are four pillars of engaging content.
Alison Jones: How does the content in the book relate to the content that you created for other channels? You must be creating content all the time. Did you just actually take stuff that you’d already done, and repurpose it, or did you use it in blogs, or in posts, or in articles as you were writing? What was the relationship between the two, or was there none at all? Was it completely separate?
John Hall: Oh, no. Everything should always be aligned. You should never, never … That’s a common mistake that people do, is they created a book and they don’t contribute on platforms, or they contribute on platforms, don’t do a book. Everything plays together. You hit several birds with one stone.
This last year, when I’ve been contributing to Forbes, Inc, HBR, Fast Company, all over the place, all the places I write, we were putting pieces of that in a book. Now, were we doing repurposing? No. We were actually strategically thinking through what goes in the book and what goes in these pieces. When I was brain dumping my thoughts, and doing our article, we actually, there, at certain times, we said, “Well, this would be good, to trim it to this, because this 1,500 word article would make better sense as a 600. Let’s take these 1,500 words, and let’s build this idea out a little more in the book.”
That’s the way we formed our chapters, is that we looked, and we said, “Here’s our content strategy for the year. Here are a lot of the main points we want to hit, that we think are important.” Then, as we were doing those articles, it was filling up those chapters, but we were also adding a lot of content around it, and different data, different information, things that we couldn’t include in those articles that we wanted to include in the book. It was done simultaneously, and aligned, as well. Yeah.
My advice, when you’re doing a book, you want to make sure that all the content is aligned with … A content strategy isn’t a book. When people say, “Oh, well, this is my content strategy,” that’s just your content … Your content strategy should be the way you communicate and educate people, and what goals you’re trying to accomplish. When you’re doing a book, what’s great about the … The beauty of publishing a book is that you have this central, almost knowledge bank of things that you can pull from at the same, include things that aren’t in other places, because you have this ability to do more long form. Long form content, online, is typically some of the least engaged content. Once you get over 2,000, 3,000 words, people just aren’t reading.
A book is somewhat of a blessing to expand thoughts and include details that you’re never able to in some of the short form content. Everything plays together really, really well. You’ll see, as you read my book, you’ll see that, “Oh, he’s had some of these points in the content,” but they’re going to be a lot more fleshed out. There’s going to be a lot more background behind it. I think it allows me to tell some more stories, and do a little more storytelling. Storytelling takes time and pages online, where it’s such a great opportunity in a book, that you get to have the freedom to a little more storytelling, which makes it, sometimes, more entertaining.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s brilliant. It’s a really good exposition, as well, of the way that the book and all the other things that you’re doing work together, this sort of symbiotic relationship between them. I really like that. It’s a nice expression.
I often talk to my clients about using the book as an engine of their content strategy. If you’re going to write a book, let’s think how you take the headings, the topics, the things you’re talking about, and create content that can go out across the board. Partly because you get feedback on it, as well, and you start to own that space, which is really important.
I think that point about being able to just dive that bit deeper, and take it a bit more slowly, and think it through in more detail, in a book, is really well made. It’s one of the reasons we love reading so much, right?
John Hall: Yeah. As crazy as this sounds, I actually just like turning pages. I love books. We were joking around about this the other day, that people consume content differently. When you look at different types of ways to communicate, there’s some people that just retain content different, in a book, than they do in an article online, and different than they do in video, different than they do a podcast. It’s important to think about that, and how you’re communicating. Audiences don’t all consume content the same way.
Like I said, I’m a fan of a full content strategy. A book is a key part of it. It’s a central, definitely a core part of any form of content strategy, from a thought leadership, I guess you could say, goal, when it comes to individuals, or even companies, these days. It’s crazy. These days, companies are starting to invest more in doing books for leaders within the company, more than they ever did.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it is. It’s partly a reaction against the quick bite, the quite fix, the dip in-dip out. There is something, as you say, that’s complementary and important about that immersion.
I’m a big fan, obviously. I’m a book person. I love books. One of the things that I really love about business books and reference books is a good appendix, so I was really chuffed that you had a really chewy appendix in there. It’s like, “Yes! This is great.” Just tell us a little bit about that list of tech tools that you’ve included at the end of the book, which is great. There was so much in there that I didn’t know about. You talk a lot about human connection, and authenticity, and engagement, but obviously there’s this real tech infrastructure around it, as well. You talked about that, about setting up the company, as well. Just tell us how those two work together, in this creation and distribution of content.
John Hall: Yeah. It’s simple. Why I did such a big appendix was because I wanted to remove any barrier from people actually executing things that I talked about in the book. That’s the biggest problem, honestly, with books, with speeches, with any type of stuff like that. Inspiring people is great. Being able to actually make somebody better is amazing. You actually affected their life in a way where they were able to execute on what you talked about, and it made their life better in the long run.
There’s so many tools and resources out there. There’s no excuse for you not to succeed in the area of content marketing, and PR, and communication. All it takes it following the steps of the book, and walking through it. Then, as you hit barriers, there’s technology that will help. That’s what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to give every opportunity for somebody to be like, “Okay, well, if only I had this,” and then they go to the back, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. There’s a tool that does this. That’s great.”
I also put a personal email in there, an actual Gmail email, instead of my work email, so I knew it would come to me, and it wasn’t just a work email that gets flushed. Specifically, when people reach out from that book, they’ll look in it, and they’ll say, “Wow. I can contact him,” and we will give him an answer related to these challenges and these tools. I think that’s a rare case where somebody actually puts … That is something that I will be checking daily.
It’s kind of an exciting thing, where people can actually connect with the author. I don’t have that email anywhere else, other than that book. Hopefully, as long as it doesn’t get on a bunch of spam lists, my hope is that it actually becomes a resource that people can reach out, and they can say, “Hey. I saw this tool in the back. This is what I’m trying to accomplish. Can you recommend anyone, or shoot an intro?” I have a pretty straightforward process on connecting people, and I’ll just do one line intros, and try and do my best to connect the dots. I think sometimes I can make a pretty big difference, just by connecting someone to the right resource.
Alison Jones: That’s very cool, because one of the most frustrating things, when you’ve finished a book, and you’ve loved it, and you feel like you know the author, is, actually, you have that horrible, sinking, “Actually, I don’t know the author, and they don’t know I exist.” To give them that way back into you, that’s really nice. I like that.
John Hall: Yeah. If you’re going to go buy my book for whatever, I think it’s $17.00 now, it’s was $26.00, but if you’re going to buy it, whether it’s $17.00 or $26.00, that might be someone who spent $17.00 of their … It could be a 15 year old kid that said, “Oh, well, I really want to read a book,” and they just so happen to find mine on some book list. I want to be a resource, and I wanted to make a difference. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t. That’s why I wanted to set it up as there should be no reason why you don’t get something out of this book. If you ultimately hit a barrier, email, and we’ll try and help you over that barrier.
Alison Jones: That is very, very cool. I love that.
If there’s people listening to this who are still struggling with their book, at the moment, they’re writing their business book, what’s your best tip for them?
John Hall: It depends what the struggle is.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.
John Hall: No. Honestly, struggles come in different … Sometimes people get writers blocks. Sometimes people really just aren’t passionate in their writing, and they feel like it’s truly not getting to where they want. Others are, they don’t have the time. There’s so many barriers that affect it, just because it’s a committed project.
The advice that I would say is you’ve got to form habits. When you’re doing a book, there has to be habits and a system set up. When you’re doing this, this when you’re dumping, this is when you’re researching, this is when you’re doing this, and you’ve got to stick to it. One of my good friends, Paul Roetzer, who wrote The Marketing Blueprint, we were out one year, and it was 7:00, and we were just about to have a lot of fun, and he goes, “All right, man. See you later.” I go, “I thought we were going to go out?” He goes, “Oh, no, no, no. 7:30, I have to write a two o’clocker. Can’t do it.” I was like, “You’re kidding me, Paul.”
It takes that self control. You’ve got to set up a system. It takes, at least for people who finish in a reasonable amount of time, it definitely takes some self control.
Alison Jones: Wow. That is really, really impressive.
John Hall: Yeah. I was kind of mad at Paul, but he turned out a good book.
Alison Jones: That is an awesome tip. I’m slightly scared of your friend Paul, now, for that. I’ve never seen that kind of discipline. Awesome tip, if you can do it.
I always ask guests, as well, who do you recommend that I invite as a guest, onto the show? Someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who do you recommend?
John Hall: For sure, it would be Rohit Bhargava. He’s the author of Likeonomics and Non-Obvious. He has a new publishing company. It’s called Idea Press. Where I think he’d be super intriguing is he’s an author that also understands publishing, and he’s written, I believe they’re both New York Times bestsellers. I think one of them is, at least. He just gets the world. It’s actually somebody, a friend of mine, that I have gone to for advice. I actually was going to work with him on this book, but really, I just had a great relationship with my editor at McGraw-Hill, and I’ve had a great experience there. I think he’d be a great person, and someone for any listeners to pay attention to and follow.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. He sounds amazing. I love author-publishers. They’ve always got a really interesting perspective on where it’s going, and how it works for them. That’s brilliant. Thank you.
So if people want to find out more, John, about you, about the book, Top of Mind, and about Influence & Co, where should they go? You don’t need to spell out the URLs. I will but them in the show notes. Just tell us, and we’ll put the links up there.
John Hall: Yeah. It’s topofmindbook.com, is the website for the book. Then, my speaking site is johnhallspeaking.com. My Twitter is @johnhall, and then, if you connect with LinkedIn, you can just say, “Hey, I listened to a podcast …” As long as somebody creates a familiarity thing, where they’re like … I don’t connect to anybody on LinkedIn, but if they say, “Hey, I’d love to connect. I heard you on this podcast. Would be great to connect.” As long as there’s some familiarity, I’ll connect in that way.
Beyond that, reach out. My company is influenceandco.com. Yeah. Those are the ways. It’s kind of funny, I almost want to make fun of what I was just saying, by saying, “Okay, my Snapchat’s this, my Twitter, my LinkedIn’s this, my Facebook’s this …”
Alison Jones: Do you know what? I’m all over the web. Just go find me. Brilliant. What a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much, John, for your time today. That was brilliant.
John Hall: No problem. Thank you for having me.