Smoke Testing Your Content Marketing Ideas Season 1 Episode 5

Jay Baron: Welcome to the Marketing First Podcast for accounting firms. I am Jay Baron, founder of Madtown.

Rusty Hall: And Rusty Hall here, long-time lead engagement professional.

Jay Baron: And we are going to continue this theme of content that we’ve been talking about over the past few podcasts. One thing a lot of accounting firms don’t do very well is actually testing and validating their ideas.

Rusty Hall: There’s a lot of things that a lot of people don’t do, right? You know, they just kind of launch off into it. They get a great idea, and they think everybody’s going to love it, so let’s dump all our resources into it.

Jay Baron: Yeah, well, that’s true, but I think accounting firms are probably the worst at it. I mean, I’ve worked with firms that have spent six, 12, I mean, two years planning new services, new industries they’re going to go after, and what we really want to talk about, and specifically with content, is instead of spending all that time planning and getting your ideas going, is to actually validate that idea, and doing something through actually what we call smoke testing, getting an idea out there, testing it, and validating the idea before you pump in all these resources to it.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, this was actually kind of born out of the startup industry and from the product side, where they would put out what they would call the minimum viable product, just the bare minimum to just see if there’s interest. It’s really based on the old adage, “If there’s smoke there’s fire,” and that’s what we’re really trying to target with content, because to your point, Jay, especially in accounting that requires a lot of legal research, you’ve got to take some of your consultants and professionals off of the moneymaking tasks so that they can do the research and help do the writing on these big pieces of content. You’re really at risk for losing money if you don’t make sure that there’s an interest in the content you’re going to be pulling those resources into.

Jay Baron: Well, the problem is too, is firms, they’re slow at all this. Accounting firms just take forever. By the time they get firm partners, and firm partners actually agree on actually taking action, I mean, it’s taken them so much time. Think about how long it takes if a firm wants to build a nice piece of content, a big cornerstone asset, they have to brainstorm that topic, they have to get buy-in from firm partners, and that can take weeks or months, especially in accounting firms. They all want to have their say in that piece of content. Then you have to write that piece of content. You need to design it out, then you need to go back through and have everybody reread it again, and there’s rounds of revisions. That whole process takes, actually, months to actually get a piece of content that’s actually going to generate leads together.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and like we talked about in previous podcasts, this is a cornerstone asset. You’re going to be basing a lot of your strategy around this thing, so the last thing you want to do is develop a cornerstone asset that’s going to be off the mark when it comes to generating leads and breaking it up into more content. You’re going to be running with this thing for a while, so smoke testing is just kind of a great way to kind of gauge and make sure that you’re on the right path for creating this really resource-intensive piece of content.

Jay Baron: Yeah, that’s right. Let’s kind of get into what smoke testing really is in a firm and how they can leverage it. What we’re hoping firms do, really, is actually smoke test their content ideas. We’ve talked about in the previous podcasts the cornerstone asset strategy and how that can save you time and money and resources and help you generate leads. But before you even start creating that piece of content, we can actually go out and actually test that idea. So we can actually start brainstorming, test that idea through email marketing, through social media, through AdWords. There’s all these other channels that we can actually do.

The first step is, let’s brainstorm, get the firm leaders together, get marketing together, and actually brainstorm some content ideas.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and that’s really where your content is going to start anyway, so this brainstorming session, the ideas that come out of that are going to be valuable for a while. So you can go ahead, and you get a lot of valuable information, but then out of that brainstorming session is where you can kind of really pull the pieces that you want to go and pull a smoke test with and see if indeed there is the interest that you as a firm think there may be. Use all your channels to do this, but as Jay kind of lined out for us here, we’ll start with looking at maybe the email marketing side of smoke testing on your database.

One of the things that I always like to do with these things is, a lot of tools make it real easy to create a random sample, and so when you’re thinking about smoke testing, you may have-

Jay Baron: You’re talking about email marketing tools, correct?

Rusty Hall: Yeah, email marketing tools. You can manually pull random samples. It’s just there’s tools on the market that make it easier. One of the things we like to do is think about it as a fully random sample and then pick a segment sample that you think would be interested in this content you’re going to create, so you have kind of a control group with your random sample, and then you have people who you assume are going to be interested in this topic from the get-go.

Jay Baron: Right. A lot of firms, too, they might not have a big enough database, so if you have to send it to your whole list, that’s perfectly fine. The idea here is what we’re doing is, you spent 30 minutes to an hour brainstorming content ideas, coming up with, “Hey, what should our next cornerstone asset be?” And then what we’re going to do is we’re going to take that idea and we’re going to craft an email around it, and we’re going to distribute it out to your email marketing list. We’re actually not even creating the content yet, we’re just going to send it to that email database and say, “Hey, is this something you’d be interested in?”

Rusty Hall: Right, and just kind of gauge the … You get all your engagement rates back on your email. See how much people interact with this thing. See if they’re opening the email, if you’re getting good feedback on it. It really is just about kind of pinging the database with this topic idea that you’ve come up with, and see what kind of feedback you’re getting off of it.

Jay Baron: That’s right. What you’re doing is, you’re creating your brainstorm, you’re creating content ideas, and you’re going to email it to your database, and then you’re going to look for things like what’s the open rate on this email and what’s the click-through rate? And all you’re going to do is … if people are clicking, you’re wondering well, there’s no content, why would there be a link in it? We can send them to a thank you page that simply just states, “Hey, thank you for your interest in this content. Once it’s complete, we’ll send it out to you.”

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and we’ll talk a little bit more on how you can kind of incorporate landing pages into this strategy, but yeah, really it is just about sending them to a place where you can kind of measure that engagement on it.

Jay Baron: I gotta laugh, because a lot of people don’t know, we actually record this at the local pub, and there’s this guy walking by, trying to be as quiet as possible as we’re drinking a beer.

Rusty Hall: He literally has like 10 cases of beer, though, on this dolly. He’s doing a good job though. You probably can’t even hear him in the background. He’s being real silent.

Jay Baron: And that’s what great about … We started this podcast, and we’re just trying to have fun with it, so we do it at our local, just a local pub. We do it in the back room. We enjoy some drinks. I don’t even know what we’re drinking right now, Rusty.

Rusty Hall: This is Revolver Blood And Honey, local Granbury beer.

Jay Baron: Yeah, so a lot of people won’t even know if they’re not even from the Texas area, probably, what this beer is. So we come to our local pub, but it was just funny, because we’re talking and we’re laughing as this guy’s walking past. So if you hear some noise in the background and stuff, that’s really what’s going on, guys. We actually do this at our local pub.

Rusty Hall: Just sit in the back room talking about how to smoke test using email lists, right?

Jay Baron: Yes. A little bit back on track here is, so that’s what you’re doing, is you’ve created this content idea, you’ve sent an email to your list, now you’re just managing the results. Do we have a higher open rate on this type of content? Are we getting a higher click-through rate? You know, we’ve done this with some firms where if you’re looking at like an 8 to 10% click-through rate, that’s huge. You’re getting a lot of traction around that idea, where most firms, they’re getting a 1%. So if you’re getting a huge lift on your click-through rate, this is an idea that’s kind of been validated. You need to run with it and actually go create that piece of content.

Rusty Hall: For sure, for sure. And email’s a great way to start, but give me some examples of another channel, Jay. Where would you go? We’ve done, maybe, an email smoke test. We’ve kind of validated that hey, there’s good interest and engagement on our email test. So what’s kind of our next step? Where would you take it?

Jay Baron: Before we even get that far, though, I think one more important thing to understand with the smoke test and email and what we’re doing is how long it all took. You could spend an hour brainstorming ideas. You spend 30 minutes to an hour actually crafting the email. In two hours, you’re testing your idea, where a lot of firms would have spent weeks to months creating that whole piece of content and then running with it, without even knowing if the idea actually is validated and if prospects and their clients are actually interested in it.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, wouldn’t you rather test than hope?

Jay Baron: Right. No, but that’s what a lot of firms do, and I think the whole idea of smoke testing is how fast can we get this idea validated and created without wasting a bunch of firm time and resources? Think about partners, all they care about is that billable hour, and if they’re wasting time reading content and coming up with constant ideas, we all know they hate creating that content anyways. It’s always a struggle to get firm partners to create that content. So if you can validate it and say, “Look. Look at all this interest we have around this idea. Now let’s go create it,” that’s going to help tremendously, and you didn’t spend any time.

Now maybe back to your other point is, maybe you tried the email route, that worked great, or maybe what’s a different way we can test? We’re having a lot of success doing smoke testing around social media actually, so it’s really about you brainstorm your topic, and now you go out and you go create hyper-targeted ads around that topic. So you say, all right, this is our idea. You can actually use Facebook to target down to all right, we know we want to go after this industry, these job titles, this income range, and you can actually create an ad. You don’t got to spend much time. You can go get a stock photo that’s kind of relevant to the ad topic. You spend 30 minutes kind of crafting your ad, and you launch it and you test your idea that way.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, that’s a good point, and also on social too, I mean, social media posts really are kind of the ultimate minimum viable way to test here, because let’s say you’ve got your brainstorm topic and you need to commit to kind of doing regular posts around that topic. But let’s take something like Twitter, for example, where you get great analytics and engagement and views and impression rates. Stick to that topic and just do a series of tweets around it, and just see what your engagement is on those posts, so you can start getting an idea of how engaged people are in a specific topic. Twitter does a great job of that, when it comes to topic-specific content. And you’re not even really developing anything, you’re just looking at impressions at that point. So I think social is a real good place to kind of start seeing, for mass appeal, is this a viable topic that I’m thinking about developing?

Jay Baron: No, and the great thing too about running a social media advertisement, I think, around your smoke test it twofold, is one, you don’t have to create a landing page. You can now collect leads right on the social media network, so you can start getting name, email, phone number. And on top of that is, you’re actually getting leads. So you haven’t spent the idea to create this piece of content, you’re just really testing it, and here you’re actually generating leads from your idea to see if you can validate it.

Rusty Hall: Yeah. And it’s awesome the way that social media has evolved so that we do have lead collection there now, so we can do those kind of fun things and that fancy stuff. The other thing, too, on social is, you know, a lot of industries will look for big social influencers, guys with a lot of following and a lot of weight, so if you can target those social media influencers in some of your posting around your topic, see if you can get some of those people who are really heavyweights in the industry around your topic interested to pick up what you’re putting out.

Jay Baron: Well, what you could do, honestly, is … and you’ve got to be careful. Again, we’re trying to test and do this a fast as possible.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and you don’t want to skew the numbers by any means.

Jay Baron: You could always reach out to thought leaders with your idea and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about running this idea. I want to do a smoke test around it. Would you actually push this out, and I’ll share the results with you?” Thought leaders would like that type of information as well, to say, “Hey, we’re going to smoke test this idea. If you could publish it out and push it out to your followers, and let’s see if there’s anything valid around this idea.” That’s a great way to kind of determine idea without actually doing the advertisement behind it.

Rusty Hall: It is, and the other cool thing that you kind of get with that is you already get a little initial buy-in from a thought leader who might be willing to participate in that big piece of content, if this thing goes. We had talked earlier about getting industry leaders to weigh in on your cornerstone asset, be a part of it. This is a great way to kind of start gauging their interest as well as your mass audience.

Jay Baron: Yep. I think today was the worst day to do our podcast, by the way, with all the noise, but we’re committed to doing one take, and we’re going to get through it, guys, and hopefully the information’s good enough. You know, and on this social media idea, there was actually one group I think did a really good job, so Thriveal CPA Network is a network for entrepreneurial, smaller, high-growth CPA firms. And what I saw Jason doing is actually running ads around this idea of three steps to high-growth accounting firms. He ran this idea, and he actually had ads running on Facebook before the guide was even available.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, I’ve seen that a couple times actually with kind of advertising around that topic. We’ll talk a little bit more about landing pages later, but it’s pretty easy with tools nowadays, like Unbounce or a landing page creator of some kind, to just put something up like that and do kind of a pre-order system, which is what you’re talking about. Get people to sign up. Make it like a really easy kind of minimum buy-in, like just name and email, would you like to pre-order or be on the list for when this content’s available? Then you can start kind of tracking that conversion rate on that page, and once you get to a good conversion rate, something based on what you would usually have for a content download, then you know hey, it’s time to go ahead and start researching, creating that asset further.

Jay Baron: Yeah. And then lastly, why don’t we move in … so you can do the email testing, you can do social media testing around it. Another idea is actually AdWords, to actually test the idea that way. It does take a little bit longer to test it that direction, but what you can do is you can create ads, you can create the ads around the cornerstone asset or the piece of content you want to create, so you can validate it by are people clicking my ad? And then what you’d have to do is you’d create a landing page with a form fill-out, so again, you can actually start generating leads from this idea. And then once somebody fills out that form, just say, “Thank you for your interest. Once the piece of content’s complete, we’re going to send it over to you.”

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and you’re generating leads right off the bat with this thing, which is kind of a cool thing. Before it’s even been created, it’s already going to work for you, hopefully. Of course, the other side that we’ve got to talk about is if you’re not getting any engagement on this stuff. If people aren’t filling it out, it may be time, if you’ve got something from that brainstorming session, the other kind of cool thing you could do with AdWords or your landing pages is start A/B testing. Maybe you had two killer content ideas that came out of that brainstorming` session. Maybe people couldn’t agree on which one’s the better one. That might be a chance when you could start maybe A/B testing two different topics through AdWords and through your landing pages that you create.

Jay Baron: Yeah, that’s a great point, is you can actually start A/B testing different ideas through these different channels, so instead of just running one smoke test you can run two smoke tests at a time and say, “Hey, we have two different ideas. Let us find out which one’s actually better, and then we can determine it that way.” And again, you’re figuring out by, actually, interest. So if people are actually signing up to get this piece of content, you’re getting leads on top of it. So that’s the great aspect, is a lot of firms, they create content and then they say, “All right, let’s go run with it,” and what typically happens is crickets. They don’t get any interest at all. So we’re saying let’s not get that far. Let’s test the idea before we even consider writing it.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, and even on a minimum level, let’s say maybe you don’t want to go the email route or you don’t want to go through the time to do the AdWords route, using your blog is a great way to do this. So take those topics, create two blog posts around the topics you have in mind, and then … this is something that I borrowed from, they kind of keep a running track on the sidebar of the blogs that are bubbling up to the top, based on engagement. So throw that out there into your blog content stream, and then see if that topic that you’ve got in mind, see if that organically bubbles up through engagement on your blog pages. And that’s a good way to kind of see hey, people are most interested in this on my blog, so this is the topic we should run with.

Jay Baron: I actually wrote down a note while you were talking. This is another way where, again, you could do on your own channel. The downfall of doing social media and AdWords is that you do have to spend money. You’re running ads around it. You want to go out and actually test it to your audience. It’s really the best way for a lot of firms, because they don’t have enough website traffic to really validate any ideas without actually going out and spending money. And social media’s super cheap to actually go out and do this. AdWords is a little more expensive, depending on the keyword you’re trying to target, obviously.

But another great idea to kind of piggyback off the blog is actually just doing a website pop-up. You can create a pop-up on your website. If people are clicking it, you can that to determine if people are interested in it. Again, you can have a lead capture form that once they fill it out says, “Thank you for filling out this form. We’re going to send it to you once the actual piece of content is complete.” But the website pop-up is a really easy way to actually test, as long as you get enough traffic to your website.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, they are, the page pop-up is great. Also, I’ve seen this used a couple times is the page exit pop-up. Once they’re going to navigate off of your page, you do your pop-up there. I like that one because it’s like I’m already leaving, so I might as well leave my opinion when I go.

Jay Baron: Yeah, which is “Don’t put a pop-up when I’m trying to leave your site.”

Rusty Hall: You’re killing me.

Jay Baron: Those are the three big smoke tests that we’re doing. We’re doing those email marketing tests. There’s social media. There’s AdWords. You can do the website pop-up test if you’re getting enough traffic. But I think it’s important maybe, we’re smoke testing content ideas, but there’s so many things that firms should actually be testing out in terms of calls to action, potential wording on their website. I’m a big, a big advocate, because I see so many firms do this. They spend so much time coming up with new services, new industries they want to go after, and they plan all this out, and they spend 12 months getting together to go after this niche, and they haven’t validated it all. So it’s not just content. Smoke testing new services that are coming out, smoke testing new industries and niches you want to go after.

Rusty Hall: Yeah, it’s a great way to think about it. Smoke test your service lines that you’re thinking about adding, and just see if there’s interest in that. Jay and I talk all the time on this podcast about finding your niche, because niche is so important, and brand identity, but don’t be afraid to test that as well. And you can use some of these same techniques, like the pop-up squeeze pages, social media testing, to validate those concepts as well. So it doesn’t have to be limited to just the content side.

Jay Baron: Yep. Yeah, even though we are focused on the content side, because firms are struggling with content. They create content that really doesn’t get any results. Obviously, some of it’s the content just sucks. I think a lot of it is the content’s just not validated, it’s not a good idea, they didn’t go out and actually test the content. And I think once you start testing, you’re going to care more about the idea and the piece of content you’re creating, because you’re saying, “I’m going to validate and prove this is a good idea.”

Rusty Hall: Yeah, agreed. No doubt about it. The myopic view is a little pervasive in a lot of these guys, like, “I’m interested in it. Everybody will be, right?”

Jay Baron: Right. And I think the whole idea of smoke testing your content is, you’ll know exactly where to spend your time and resources, because you’re going to figure what content people are actually interested in. So you don’t spend as much of those partnered resources actually wasting them on ideas that just aren’t validated, are not good ideas, because that’s what happens. I mean, how many times, especially if you’re in marketing in an accounting firm, does a firm partner come to you with an idea, you run with it, and nothing happens? This happens far too often in firms, they have this great idea. And firm partners, when they have an idea, you’ve got to run with it. You don’t validate it. But now you have a method to say, “Hey, let’s validate this idea before we actually run with it.”

Rusty Hall: Yeah, validation is key, because like we said at the top of this podcast, if you think well, that sounds like it’s going to take time, it’s going to take resources, think about the time and resources it takes to develop one of these pieces of content out, and then tell me if you don’t have a couple weeks to spare to do some brief smoke testing, just to make sure that you’re not going to be burning months of resources and time and effort.

Jay Baron: Yeah, it’s brainstorming, writing, design, and then you’ve got to do promotion on top and all those other aspects, and like I said, firms are far too eager to run with these ideas and not really gain any traction behind them.

Rusty Hall: True enough. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, Jay.

Jay Baron: Awesome, guys. Well, this kind of sums it up for the Marketing First Podcast here.

Rusty Hall: Love it. Another good one.

Jay Baron: All right. Thank you.

We're Not for Everyone

But when it's right, it's really right. Let's have a conversation and find out if we're a good match.