Inbound Now #25 - Advanced content creation & building white papers with Michael Stelzner

Michael Stelzner joins us for another exciting episode
Michael is the founder of, author of the books Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition and Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged

In this episode, we chat about:

  • Attracting outside experts to help with content creation
  • Leveraging fire starters to boost your efforts
  • Pinpointing your RIGHT buyer persona
  • How Your business is like a rocket ship
  • Creating white papers and implementing white paper best practices


David: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of Inbound Now. I’m your host, David Wells, and with me today I have a very special guest, Michael Stelzner. He is the founder of, one of my favorite social media blogs out there. He is the author of “Writing White Papers,” and his newest book, “Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition,” just launched yesterday. So, welcome to the show, Mike.

Michael: David, thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

David: Yeah, I was glad to get you on here. I read the book over the weekend. It was great. Props to you there.

Michael: Thank you.

David: I wanted to get you on the show today to talk a little bit about some of the core concepts from the book. Mainly, you talk about how companies out there can leverage outside experts and their content creation. How companies can target their right buyer persona, because a lot of people out there are writing for the wrong audience. They might not narrow that down. Then dive into you have two concepts in the book – primary and nuclear content. I wanted to dive into that and then talk about white paper best practices. How does that sound?

Michael: All right, cool. Sounds great.

David: All right, let’s do it. So in the book, you talk about how companies can recruit and attract outside experts to help out with their content creation. Can you speak a little bit to this and how companies can attract those outside experts?

Michael: Yeah. Well, this was really instrumental to the growth of Social Media Examiner in the beginning because we were in a marketplace where we were a nobody. In reality, social media is such a huge marketplace, and I’m sure the marketplaces that your customers are in is also a very competitive marketplace.

The advantage to finding experts in your industry, and let me back up and define what these experts are. Ideally, an expert is somebody who has such great knowledge inside their head that, if you can tap some of that knowledge and share some of that with the readers of your blog or whatever kind of medium you’re using, you’re going to do a couple of things.

First of all, you’re going to share great knowledge with people, which they’ll love. If the expert is recognizable, there’ll be some sort of, wow, I can’t believe so-and-so got so-and-so to be on his show, for example. But more importantly, also experts can lead to strategic alliances down the road. The trick to working with experts is to, first of all, find people that are already out there doing things that would indicate that they’re open to being able to talk to you or be interviewed by you or be on your show.

For example, if you look at major trade shows that are going on in your industry, look at people who are presenting at those events. Those people have been vetted by the event organizers, and those people have some level of knowledge or audience that brought them to that event. When they go to that event, they’ve already got something prepared that they’re going to be talking about.

Why not do what we did and bring a video crew with you, or your own little video camera with you, and interview some of these people, because I can assure you they are prime suspects. They’re perfect candidates to be interviewed because that’s the reason they’re at the event in the first place.

Other great candidates are people that have written new books. The easiest way to get through due to an expert is to reach them when they have a new book out. I know you know this firsthand, David. There are people that are impossible to reach otherwise. But when they have a book out, they’re out there on their PR tour, and they’re more than willing to share some great information with you.

So the key is not just to go to these experts and to just tap their knowledge. The secret sauce is to offer to do something for them without asking anything in return. So many people, like the Seth Godins of the world, and the David Meerman Scotts of the world and the Guy Kawasakis of the world, are constantly inundated with these requests that I’ll call fake requests. They’re designed to get Guy Kawasaki to do something for them.

If you want to stand out, all you have to do is do what I did. Send an e-mail to Seth Godin, for example, and say, “Seth, how can I help you?” I didn’t ask for anything. I just said, “How can I help you?” He said “Hey, we’ve got a brand-new book coming out. We’ll be in touch.” Sure enough, his person got in touch with me. I did a half an hour interview with him, created a really cool blog post, and I’ve done a second interview with him since. Now I’ve got rapport and a relationship with him.

Same thing happened with Guy Kawasaki. But what’s really cool about Guy is Guy came up to me, out of the blue, and said, “Hey, I’d like to speak at your event.” Now how many people watching this video would like the Guy Kawasakis of their world to just approach them, out of the blue, and say, “Can I come speak at your event?” My response was “Sure! I’ll make room for you.”

Experts, so many people don’t understand how powerful they are, and, David, I know you have first-hand experience working with experts all the time on your show. Very powerful.

David: Right, definitely. So you talk a little bit about bringing experts, but then there’s also another category of experts, and you call them fire starters, right? These are really, really influential experts, kind of like the Seth Godins or the Guy Kawasakis that you’re talking about. How has an influential expert, one of these fire starters, helped you personally?

Michael: Okay. That’s a great question. When we started Social Media Examiner, back in October of 2009, I didn’t know anything about social media. I’ll be honest with you. But I know someone who did and her name was Mari Smith. I knew some other people, Denise Wakeman from the Blog Squad and Chris Garrett who co-authored the book “Pro Blogger.”

So I reached out to these people and I said, “Hey, would you like to be part of something that I’m growing here? It’ll be a mutually beneficial situation for both of us. You’ll have an opportunity, because you know my track record from my prior world that I was a bigwig in, the White Papers, which we’re going to talk about later. All I’d like to do is basically give you my platform to write about whatever you want. Maybe you could just write one article a month.”

Mari Smith and Denise and Chris were absolutely instrumental in the beginning, because when other people that were experts saw that these people were already involved, they started coming to me in masses. Jason Falls is another one that was one of my fire starters early on in Social Media Explorer.

So the key is these people have so much influence that all they have to do is say, “I suggest you check this out.” it’s like dropping a match in the kerosene and all of a sudden people come. If you think of your business as a rocket ship, they can propel you to places you could never get to on your own. The way to get fire starters is to start by doing stuff for experts with the hope that some of them will become strong relationships with you and maybe mature into a fire starter.

David: Right. you can leverage … they have their existing platforms already, and that’s what kind of helps propel you, right?

Michael: Absolutely. They’ve already got the people that you want to get to, and they’ve already got the knowledge that your audience is interested in, so it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. If you can bring enough of them together, you can really grow really fast.

David: Okay, cool. Yeah. There’s a great chapter in the book about doing expert interviews, and you kind of lay it out step by step. I found that really, actually pretty useful when I read it this weekend. Cool.

So in the book, you also talk about narrowing down and focusing on your right target persona. I think a lot of companies out there, they’ll just start blogging and not really have that end consumer in mind, right? So what tips would you have for companies out there trying to pinpoint down their buyer persona?

Michael: Well, it’s pretty straightforward. First and foremost, you probably have customers and you want to ask yourself, “What do they share in common? Is there a certain industry in which they all operate or predominantly operate? Is there a certain kind of task that they all share? Is there a certain gender or range of age? Are there certain things that are problems that they share in common? Are there certain topics that they’re passionate about?”

Social Media Examiner, our demographic profile, if you will, is a woman who is ideally a marketer or a business owner that’s between the ages of 30 and 50. She is interested in marketing, knows a decent amount about marketing, knows that social media in particular is very critical to the growth of her business, but doesn’t really understand how to make it all happen, and wants to know how to use the tools, doesn’t have the time, wants to cut to the chase.

I mean, that’s kind of a quick summary. When you think of who that person is and when you can visualize that person, that will help you when you make a decision about who you want to interview as an expert, what you want to write about on your blog. The activities that you do should always be checked against that persona.

If you find that you’re off-track, it’s probably because your audience isn’t interested in what you’re talking about. You just need to constantly go back to who is it we’re trying to reach and what’s our purpose? You don’t need to just have one. You can have more than one, of course. I know you guys have two at HubSpot, right?

David: Yeah, we have two buyer personas here, and yeah, we target the different types of content towards them. So to get back on track, you talk about, in the book, your vision statement. So could you explain a little bit about that?

Michael: Yeah, it’s important to, especially when you’re first getting started, vision comes into play. It’s important to have … a goal is something that’s tangible, and that’s here and that’s right now. It’s objectable and achievable and all that stuff. But the vision is something that’s way out there.

Like Nike had a vision – I can’t remember exactly what it is – but their vision was something like our product on every athlete, asterisk, and the asterisk said if you’re human, you’re an athlete. So that’s a vision. That’s a vision that helps them justify their movement into other countries, for example. They’re supporting up-and-coming athletes in Africa or other nations of the world.

So developing a vision that is clear and something that kind of gets everybody looking in the right direction is important for the long-term projection of your rocket ship. Then once you have a vision, you can set goals. Once you have goals, you can kind of set markers to get to those goals. Then you can have a game plan set out, and you know exactly if you heading in the right direction.

David: Gotcha. So like kind of walking back from the vision and being able to assess from there.

Michael: Absolutely.

David: Cool. One of the other concepts that I liked in the book, you have two different types of content and you call it fuel for your business. That’s what content is, and we totally believe that here at HubSpot as well. So you have primary fuel and nuclear fuel. So primary fuel, I like your rocket ship there. Nice. So can you talk a little bit about primary fuel, the different types? You have how to articles, expert interviews, etc. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Michael: Yeah. If you think of your business as a rocket ship, kind of like this right here, your goal is to keep it moving forward. Just like you have to put gasoline in your car every couple of days, if you don’t put gas in there, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere. Content is the fuel that you put into your business. People are what consume the fuel.

The more people consume the fuel, the faster your rocket ship goes. So in the world of fuel, there’s primary fuel and nuclear fuel. Primary fuel is the stuff you produce every couple of days. It’s your blog posts basically. It typically has about a 72-hour shelf life, which means you can publish about two or three of them a week and get by. It includes things like how to articles, interviews like we’re doing right now, case studies of successful people, whatever kind of content your audience is desiring.

That’s your primary fuel. If you can produce every day, and even multiple times a day, then you’ve got each of these things operating independently and overlapping each other, and you can move even faster, which is I know what you guys do over at HubSpot. At Social Media Examiner, we just publish one per day.

Now nuclear fuel is more complicated because it’s that special kind of content that’s hard to make. Just like in real life, nuclear fuel is not easy to make, and you want to use it carefully. In the case of nuclear fuel, we’re talking about things like reports that are based on surveys. For example, we do this thing annually called the “Social Media Marketing Industry Report.” We survey thousands of people. We release this 40 page report. We don’t require any registration, and people go crazy over it, and typically tens of thousands of people write about it.

Contests are another example of nuclear fuel, designed to get people excited and engaged and competing for something. So these kinds of things should be strategic to either help you get started when you’re first getting under way with your business or at key moments in your business before you are about to launch a product.

David: Right. And the nuclear fuel, it’s a little bit harder to create, but it has such a longer shelf life, where it can …

Michael: Absolutely. The tail on it is like, instead of 72 hours, it can be a year or longer. For example, the Social Media Marketing Industry Report I mentioned, if you type in “social media marketing,” we come up on the first page of Google, and we’ve been coming up on the first page of Google for years with that particular report. So it definitely can have a big, big bang. Lots of work, but the results can be phenomenal.

David: Yeah, awesome. So with the industry surveys, like the one that you just mentioned, they can be insanely powerful and awesome for SEO, because they attract those inbound links. Right?

Michael: Absolutely.

David: So what tips would you give to companies out there that are trying to maybe pull together an industry survey? How did you go about doing it?

Michael: Well, first what we did was we surveyed our readership. We have 80,000 subscribers. You don’t have to have that kind of subscriber base. You can just reach out. This is where fire starters and experts come in handy. If you’ve built relationships with these people, you can ask them to link to a survey. We use SurveyMonkey.

In that survey, we did two things. We collected intelligence to help us decide what our articles are going to be about in the future. But we also collected stuff that we knew would be good for the report, like what’s the biggest social media marketing question you want answered? How much time are you investing? What are the tools that you’re using? All the things that we knew that people would really want to get the answers to.

Then all that data, we were able, using SurveyMonkey, to run analysis on it and generate some really cool charts, and we created a big PDF file. One tip is that, if you can, embed a re-tweet button inside the PDF file in key strategic locations. We’ve got one on the opening letter, one in the middle, and one at the end. It just says something like if you like the report, click here to post this on Twitter, and it posts a prefabricated something like, “I’m reading the Social Media Marketing Industry Report. Click here for your free copy.” That kind of stuff keeps the report alive and allows it to have that longer tail.

David: Okay, cool. That’s actually a really good idea, embedding that tweet link in the PDF. I haven’t heard that before. I’m going to try that out. It’s awesome. So switching gears, talking about PDFs and white papers, you’ve written over 130 white papers over the past years for some of the top Fortune 500 companies. So what have you learned along the way and what can you share?

Michael: Well, first of all, for those who don’t know, a white paper is a cross between an article and a brochure, and it’s predominantly used in the B2B world for lead generation. One of the tips that I’ve learned over the years, like I’ve had enormous, crazy results. I wrote a piece back in 2002 called, “How to Write a White Paper.” I’ve had over 85,000 people register to get a copy of that, and I’m still getting like 50 leads a day off of that thing. I mean, that’s a serious tail.

But the trick to creating this kind of content is to focus on the needs of people, of a specific audience. This comes back to that persona stuff we were talking about earlier. Start by talking about what are trends going on in the industry, what are some problems that are faced by the reader, and maybe, historically, how people have gone about solving those problems. That lures the reader into the piece. It gets them to see this isn’t a pitch piece. This is something that is interesting to me.

Instead of introducing the HubSpot’s awesome inbound marketing solution as the solution that you’re selling, try to talk about it in a generic way. For example, for Microsoft, we talked about next generation customer care. We didn’t say Microsoft Call Center products. For FedEx, we talked about international air transit from China, instead of calling it FedEx next day from China, from Shanghai.

So when you abstract out the brand, whether you’re a small brand or a big brand, and you talk about it as a concept, that overcomes the sales radar that everybody has in their head, I’m being pitched to, and instead you’re educating people. So the trick to a good white paper is to educate instead of sell. Save the selling for the last couple paragraphs of the paper. In that process, you can establish yourself as an expert in the mind of the reader. Some of those people will want to come back and find out more about what you have to sell.

David: Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of times, when I’m talking with clients here, they’re kind of worried about giving it all away for free in the white paper. So what are your thoughts there? Should they hold back in the info that they’re giving out or …

Michael: It’s a wonderful question. What I like to tell people is your competitors already have all the insight on you, because chances are pretty good all your confidential presentations that you gave to your customers, they’ve given to your competitors. The moral of the story is it’s a risk/reward thing. You have to ask yourself, “What’s the risk of me not demonstrating amazing insight to a reader versus my idea being stolen?”

I think that it’s much riskier to not get the customer because you haven’t demonstrated your expertise than it is to risk the possibility of a competitor taken a couple pages out of your playbook, because, in reality, most white papers are seven to eight pages. There’s just no way that your secrets are going to be so well documented in seven to eight pages that someone could do it and communicate in a way that you do it.

So I say go for it. It’s always been my mantra. Give away all of your secrets, don’t hold anything back. By doing that, you’re demonstrating to people that you truly are the expert. Some of those people are going to go ahead and just use the white paper and do it on their own. But a subsegment of those people are going to say, “You know what? I am just going to call this guy. I’m going to call this gal. I’m going to hire them because they’re clearly an expert and I don’t have the time to do this.” That’s the perfect situation. That’s exactly what happens when you do what you asked, David, which is to give away as much of your secrets as you can.

David: Right. I think that’s the situation that most people find themselves in. They’ll read it and be like wow, this person knows so much more than I ever will, even by rereading this white paper a thousand times. I’m just going to get them to do it. At the end of the day, it comes down to a time issue.

Michael: Absolutely. And you know what? Not every person that reads your white paper is going to turn into a customer. But the likelihood that they will is going to go up a lot if you provide great information in the paper. The likelihood that that paper will be shared inside the organization or amongst peers will also go up greatly. So it’ll create this much larger audience, upon which a subset of them will be even larger that are prospective customers. It’s the way few to really take off, crazy like.

David: Okay, cool. So do you have a preference on naming a white paper? Like call it a white paper, call it an e-book, call it a guide, a kit?

Michael: Free report. It doesn’t really matter. Call it whatever you think your customers are going to think is valuable. In the B2B world, white paper is very well known. But if you’re in the B2C world, a guide or report is going to be just as efficient. The label is irrelevant, I think.

David: Right. Okay, cool.

Michael: It’s the content that matters.

David: Gotcha. So, let’s see here. In the book, you talk about the concept of social proofing on your website. I thought that part was pretty interesting, and I like to do it on some of my sites too, where you basically show social media numbers, kind of letting people know how many people subscribe. What other things have you done to kind of socially proof Social Media Examiner?

Michael: Yeah. So social proof is the concept of, if everybody else is doing it, maybe I should do it. If you think about McDonald’s, 99 billion served under their sign is like this sign to everybody, look, we’ve served billions of people. So if you’ve never been here, you may as well come, because billions of people couldn’t be wrong.

So what we do at Social Media Examiner is a couple of things. We have an e-mail newsletter that goes out every single day. In the tagline of the newsletter, it says, “Serving 80,000 subscribers daily,” which sounds pretty impressive. We change that number as our subscriber rates go up, because we don’t want people to unsubscribe. We want them to realize that there’s 80,000 of their peers that are getting our stuff every day in their inbox. Think twice before you unsubscribe.

When you visit, on the side panel it says join 80,000 of your peers and get blah blah blah by signing up for our newsletter. So we used the number and a little graphic right there as well. Then, of course, you’ve got the social sharing buttons that you see on our site, like the Twitter comps. We put that right at the top.

Most of our articles get 300 to 1,000 re-tweets every day, and most people who are familiar with that are like holy cow, that’s outrageous. If 300 people have tweeted this thing, I’m going to read it. It must be valuable. So those kinds of things are very, very under the radar kind of ways of persuading people to maybe give your site or your content a second look. Don’t underestimate their power. They’re pretty impressive.

David: Yeah, definitely. So would you say like, if you’re not to a certain point, like say you only have maybe 100 fans on Facebook or less, should you display that fan box, or should you kind of hold off until you reach that critical mass? What are your thoughts there?

Michael: Absolutely display the fan box because what’s cool about the fan box is that it also shows your friends. So if David Wells visits Social Media Examiner, he’s not a fan of Social Media Examiner, but he’s on Facebook, he’s going to see all of his buddies that are fans of our site, and he’s going to be like, “Wow, okay, I didn’t know Jack was on there. I’m going to go ahead and become a fan.”

That’s also social proof, because it shows your friends. The second thing is the fan box is one of the strongest ways to build a following. Because when people are reading your great content, if they see your fan box, with the click of a button, it’s effortless, they can become your fans.

For my new book, I’ve got a special fan box set up, and we’ve only got about 1,000 fans on there. But it’s only been up there about a week or two weeks, and it had none at the beginning. So it’s better to have it than not have it, in my opinion, because of some of the cool things that Facebook does with the pictures and the names of your friends.

David: Absolutely. I do like your page, so I’m on there. I subscribed.

Michael: Cool.

David: So one final question here. What would be one of the key takeaways you want people to take away from the book? I mean, why did you write it?

Michael: The key takeaway that I talk about in the book is this thing called the elevation principle. The elevation principle is great content, and we’ve already talked about what that is. Plus other people, and we’ve already talked about outside experts, minus marketing messages. So great content, plus other people, minus marketing messages equals growth.

See you can’t just create great content. You can’t just work with experts. You need to do both of those, and you need to take your marketing messages and put them aside. HubSpot is the perfect example. I write about you guys in the book because you do a great job of not over pitching. Because when people read your great content, if they see advertisements all over the place, it’s going to taint it, because they’re going to see your content is just a bait piece instead of a gift. You want your content to be a true gift. When you give a gift, you don’t expect anything in return. When was the last time you went to a wedding sponsored by Nike? When was last time you opened a present, and before you got to the present, you had to watch a commercial? These are not things that people like. They hate it.

So, if you can cage the marketing messages, then you can draw people to your business, grow your rocket ship much faster. That’s the model HubSpot uses. That’s the model Social Media Examiner uses, and that’s what I suggest you experiment through with for your business.

David: Awesome. So Mike, where can people find you online, and where can people pick up the book?

Michael: I’ve got a free chapter, no registration required, at Just click a button and you can see the PDF. Then is where you can find me and you can find my Twitter ID and Facebook, and all that fun stuff.

David: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show. I highly recommend “Launch.” I read it over the weekend. It is pretty in-depth, step-by-step. If you’re new to this whole inbound marketing thing, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

Michael: David, I really appreciate your endorsement, and thank you so much for having me on the show.

David: Yeah, no problem. I hope to get you back sometime, and, yeah, I’m going stay tuned to your blog.

Michael: I would love it. Thank you.