When the marketing team at Mailshake — a company that provides software for salespeople doing email outreach — made its content marketing plan, they knew they wanted to go big.
They interviewed customers and stalked the service team.
They collaborated with influencers.
They outlined a content piece that went far beyond a 700-word, “keyword optimized” blog post.
The Cold Email Outreach Playbook, a massive “how-to” guide for anyone doing cold email outreach for sales.
We interviewed co-founder Sujan Patel to get the full story of this and similar projects produced by Mailshake.
As Sujan told us, it took almost six months to put the playbook together, but the results of their efforts have been tremendous.
In the year since the guide was published, the playbook has driven:
- 50,000+ website visitors
- 590+ paying customers
As for revenue, with a product that costs $19/month per user, it’s safe to say the Cold Email Outreach Guide has generated mid-six-figures in revenue — so far.
“This is a strategy I’ve done at several companies, and every time, the ROI has been more than worth it,” Sujan told us.
The playbook was so successful, in fact, that the Mailshake team followed up a year later with their second “big content” piece — The Cold Email Masterclass.
What follows is the exact, step-by-step process Mailshake uses to create “big content” pieces that drive traffic (and sales!).
As you’ll see, big content isn’t easy.
It takes time, research, and a stubborn commitment to follow through.
But if you do it right, it can drive significant results for your company.
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Step 1: Find a Topic Idea (3 Research Methods)
Once the Mailshake team decided to commit resources to a massive content project, they needed to know what to write about.
Unlike many marketers, they didn’t start research with a list of ideas in mind.
Instead, they tapped into three different sources to research what problems were actually being faced by salespeople (their target audience).
Research Method 1: Talk Directly With Your Customers (And Interpret Their Stories)
Finding a knowledge gap is key to creating useful content that people will want to share.
To do that, the Mailshake team got real customers on the phone to talk about their experiences. Every time, they said, “Walk me through your process.”
Doing so let customers explain what they did — and made it easier for Mailshake’s team to see where potential customers needed the most help.
After the calls, they compared notes and shared call recordings to identify common threads.
It was through this process that they discovered their customers’ “biggest bottleneck”: actually writing cold emails.
Research Method 2: Dig Through Support Tickets and Help Inquiries
In addition to sitting in on customer support calls, the Mailshake team got access to support ticket history in their Help Scout account.
Then, they typed in one word: “trouble.”
As it turns out, customers searching with “problem” as one of their keywords are often experiencing a problem with the company’s software.
But customers who used the word “trouble” as a keyword often needed help with a process — which is exactly what good content addresses.
By searching for phrases that included “trouble,” the Mailshake team quickly found a list of phrases customers used when they struggled with some part of their job.
One of the more common results was “trouble writing an email.”
That’s an issue a content guide could help solve.
Research Method 3: Chat With Members of Your Target Audience (Who Aren’t Customers)
The first two research methods are great — if you have an existing customer base and a good support system.
But what if you don’t have a large customer base? Or a well-oiled support team?
For the playbook, Mailshake team members reached out to non-customers to learn about their pain points.
- Respond to cold sales emails from other companies and ask to chat about what it’s like to write cold emails
- Find sales professionals on LinkedIn and ask for a few minutes of their time
- Message successful bloggers and ask them about best/worst cold pitching practices
- Ask for interviews with marketers they found on GrowthHackers and Inbound
- Reach out to conference organizers
For example, they might respond to a cold email sales pitch with, “Hey, does this pitch work for you?” and take the conversation from there.
They focused on people in those niches because those were the people most likely to use Mailshake’s software.
Step 2: Conduct Keyword Research to Validate the Need
After you have an idea, the next step is to validate the need and opportunity for it.
Fortunately, here’s where you can put your marketing know-how to work by researching keywords and competition.
If you can’t find search volume for your idea — or there are already large resources explaining a problem in-depth — you can simply move on to another topic.
Mailshake used keyword tools like SEMRush and Ahrefs to analyze search volume for terms around “cold email,” then looked at the competition to see what other resources were available.
They searched for a happy medium between search volume and competition.
Ultimately, they chose the mid-tail keyword “email outreach” to serve as the backbone of the Email Outreach Playbook.
Step 3: Create the Table of Contents
Once they settled on “email outreach” as the core topic, they wrote a Table of Contents.
- Exhaustively listing everything salespeople need to know about cold email outreach
- Outlining those topics
- Conducting keyword research (again) for every section and subsection
Each section earned its own mid-tail or long-tail keyword for SEO purposes.
After that, more long-tail keywords developed naturally within the piece itself, since Mailshake was targeting their audience’s problems with that audience’s own language.
The first few lessons listed in the Masterclass Table of Contents. Note the keywords—like ‘how to write a good email’—already used in headings.
Step 4: Reach Out to Influencers (Before You Start Writing)
While still outlining the guide — before they started writing — Mailshake did something clever.
The team reached out to influencers in the email outreach space to ask if any of them wanted to contribute to the guide. They even contacted their competitors.
This strategy served two purposes:
A content piece will be that much better if you talk to experts in the niche, even if they’re competitors. Their wisdom can enhance your writing.
Influencers who contributed to the playbook were much more likely to promote it when once it was published.
Mailshake reached out to professionals of all different backgrounds — copywriters, CROs, CRM experts, and more — who could tackle the subject matter with new (but helpful) takes on the content. It’s a strategy they also used heavily for the masterclass project.
The team also included useful resources that have already been created and added backlinks acknowledging the source.
Mailshake mentioned Rand Fishkin’s advice and gave him proper attribution in the Cold Email Masterclass it published this year, complete with backlink.
If you employ the same strategy, look for experts who can contribute to the authority and authenticity of your piece.
You can link to their work or even have them co-write a section of your piece.
Later on, these contributors will be much more likely to promote and link to your content.
These relationships can also lead to partnerships for co-promoting your content down the road. If they have an email list, for example, they might be willing to share your content when it launches.
Step 5: Use Design for a “Wow” Effect
Once the content was laid out, Mailshake’s designer got to work.
“What makes a ‘wow’ experience is design,” explained Sujan.
Just like you would carefully package a product with eye-catching colors and smooth designs, so too should you creatively package mega content.
For a piece that’s “between 16,000 and 17,000 words” in length, that user-friendly packaging makes a world of a difference.
The playbook uses all kinds of great design tricks, including:
- Neutral background color palette
- Headline colors that pop
- Illustrative pictures
- Reader-friendly chart formatting
- Formatting emphasis on key takeaways
Whether you’re reading every word or just scanning the page, the playbook design is easy to read and makes key information easy to digest.
Step 6: Launch It Like a Product
As launch day snuck closer, the Mailshake team prepped like they would for a software release.
Here were their top three strategies:
Launch Strategy 1: Get People to Review (and Share) Your Content
To supplement those influencers, Sujan added, “Quietly get 50-100 people to review your content before launch.”
Think about it:
If you have a new video game, you would let influential gamers play it and review it before you release it to the public.
If you made the next best keyboard, you would send some free keyboards to well-known reviewers right before (or during) launch.
So why wouldn’t you use “beta-testers” for a piece of big content?
Not only were reviewers happy to send feedback on the content, they were much more likely to share it with their networks during launch.
Launch Strategy 2: Target Communities
Mailshake found several creative channels to launch the playbook, such as on Product Hunt.
Mailshake featured the Email Outreach Playbook on Product Hunt, garnering 277 upvotes on the site.
They also promoted the playbook in private communities like Slack channels, Facebook groups, and LinkedIn groups.
Launch Strategy 3: Launch to as Many Email Lists as You Can
Once of Mailshake’s most successful strategies was launching the Playbook to their email lists.
Between Sujan’s email list and the Mailshake email list, that’s a (substantial) audience of 55,000 subscribers.
But don’t just stick to your own email lists.
Find influencers and collaborators who will launch it to their lists as well (such as influencers from Step 4).
Step 7: Keep Promoting
Altogether, influencer and contributor relationships from the playbook bloomed into six months of promotion partnerships for Mailshake, a tactic they repeated and expanded for the follow up masterclass.
A video interview with Steli Efti, co-founder of Close.io, is part of Mailshake’s Cold Email Masterclass.
Follow up webinar featuring Sujan Patel on the Close.io blog.
But even after their ‘traditional’ promotional tactics ended, Mailshake’s team still promoted the playbook by linking to it internally and using it as a customer support tool.
In fact, customer support specialists often shared it with customers in response to commonly asked questions.
This strategy kept a steady stream of traffic flowing to the guide on Mailshake’s site.
Mailshake’s North Star Metric for Content (Hint: It’s Not Revenue or ROI)
When Mailshake released The Email Outreach Playbook, they knew they wouldn’t see a massive spike in organic traffic right away. And that was fine.
Mailshake’s business came from two main channels:
- Word of mouth
- Content marketing/SEO
Word of mouth resulted in over 50% of new business for Mailshake. Together with content marketing, the two accounted for about 85% of new business when the playbook was in development.
So, Mailshake’s team designed the playbook to be effective in both channels.
But, they had another motivation for creating the playbook: they were latecomers to their niche and needed a way to stand out.
“We’re never gonna beat people on every little product feature,” Sujan admitted, “but we can beat people on being a market leader, and that comes by educating folks.”
So, they started tracking brand mentions before and after releasing the playbook.
In a year, they watched their brand mentions rise from a handful per month to 65/month (as documented on Buzzsumo).
That brand visibility and authority is helping them carve out a permanent position in their niche.
If brand mentions increase, their visibility is increasing—making it easier for new customers to find them.
The Payoff: A Content Asset that Continues to Drive Traffic
Sujan is a firm believer in producing content for the long game.
He was inspired by a conversation with Matthew Bellows, the CEO of Yesware, who gets roughly 200,000 visits to his blog per month.
It’s an impressive number. But it’s important to know another detail: Matthew has been publishing content for ten years.
Creating and promoting content this way isn’t like running an advertising campaign.
In the short term (read: a couple months), the playbook may not seem worth the investment.
But over just one year, the ROI has turned more than positive, easily recouping the development expenditures Mailshake madeon the playbook.
It’s why the team followed up with the Cold Email Masterclass, which launched a few weeks ago and has already generated over 15,000 visitors to Mailshake’s site.
It’s a testament to the improvements Mailshake made to its process in the year since releasing its first big content piece, which brought in 50,000 visitors over its first year.
The techniques used were the same as for the playbook, but with bigger, better execution.
Big content has grown into more than just a marketing strategy for Mailshake; it’s part of their brand identity.
“When you create an epic piece of content, the brand gets carried up with the content, not the other way around,” Sujan said.
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