LinkedIn’s Jason Miller on Egos, SEO, and His Plans to Build an ‘Owned Media Empire’

When I walked into LinkedIn FinanceConnect last month, I saw a man do one of the bravest things I’d ever witnessed in person.

Finance marketers aren’t known for their sense of humor, but there he was—this rabidly energetic man on stage—working the crowd for laughs like a stand-up comedian, introducing upcoming speakers like the hype man at a concert, and damn-near pleading for a chortle of laughter that would loosen the Windsor knots around the necks of the very serious men in the front row.

This, I realized, must be Jason Miller. LinkedIn’s head of global content for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions has a well-earned reputation as a different kind of B2B marketer. His path to success has been downright bonkers. At Marketo, he generated a ridiculous amount of revenue with a coloring book. (Yes, really.) His B2B marketing book, Welcome to the Funnel, is as much about rock ‘n’ roll as it is about lead gen. Most guys in our office have man crushes on Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum. Our VP of Marketing Ray Cheng has a man crush on Jason Miller.

I pretty much had no choice but to interview him about all things content marketing. And in honor of Ray, I started the interview with a pickup line.

So how did a journalist and a rock ‘n’ roll photographer like you end up in a content marketing interview like this?

Funny story, actually: When I was in college I played in a hard rock band. We had a showcase with Mercury Records and we needed to find somebody to open up for us. We invited our friends, this band called the Love Hogs, to open up our show.

The guy from Mercury Records came out and he signed a development deal for the opening band and left before we came on. I was really depressed, and that’s when I quit the band and decided I should probably go to college. Because of my love for playing in the band, I lived vicariously through music and the music industry. I thought the music industry was where I was going to be the rest of my life. I wanted to be a record exec in New York. That was my dream.

Around 2009, the industry was just still trying to figure out digital. It was bringing in new ideas around social media marketing, blogging, big data, and my efforts to try new things fell on deaf ears—so I quit. Went back to school, got a couple of digital degrees, learned about SEO marketing, pulled my way to a startup, and now I’m here.

It seems like you’re the guy bringing the creative juices at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. How does that mesh with the analytical side of this company?

That’s interesting because I learned pretty much everything I know about social and content and demand gen and email and analytics and whatnot when I was at Marketo. I reported directly to Jon Miller. Jon Miller has a degree in physics, but he’s a marketer. He is a brilliant marketer. You can imagine the hellish time I had creating a dashboard that would really mean something to him.

“I thought B2B marketing was pretty boring when I first started. All the content was written like a bunch of instruction manuals. Every cover was the same dark ominous cover with some 12-point Times New Roman font.

Everything that B2B marketers were doing, I just did the exact opposite.

I switched my love of rock ‘n’ roll and my love of Jerry Seinfeld and I pulled a George Costanza and did the exact opposite. Everything that B2B marketers were doing, I just did the exact opposite—I did [content] I thought would be funny and entertaining.

Jon pretty much told me to do whatever I want. He gave me the creative outlet. But he told me: you have to tie everything you do back to metrics because you have Marketo and you have the ability to do so. So keep your cost per lead under this amount and have some fun.

He did say: There is one metric I want you to focus on that can’t be measured. I just want you to get people to like the company.

When I was in the music industry, I had to take the bands out and entertain them. I’m an entertainer. I figured I could apply that to the top of the funnel, add a little personality, add a little fun to content, pull people in.

I like to think they knew what they were getting when they called me up—a little Axl Rose, a little Jerry Seinfeld, a little edge with my content. I like to turn things upside down—look at things different.

What were those metrics and that attribution model that allowed you to have your fun and be creative?

People over-complicate this model all the time. Why do you create content? You create content because the buying process has fundamentally changed and you need new ways to start conversations and engage with prospects.

We measured, number one, referral traffic. That’s a huge goal. Not only referral traffic but non-branded referral traffic, meaning if somebody is coming to your site without typing your keywords into the search engine, then they must be coming from your content.

Here’s another thing: The content purists will tell you never to gate top-of-funnel content. I don’t care about that. I do the exact opposite. I gate everything that’s worth an email address. If the value was worth more to that person than an email address, then we we’re winning.

The content purists will tell you never to gate top-of-funnel content. I don’t care about that. I gate everything that’s worth an email address.

We looked at referral traffic, non-branded referral traffic, and quality of leads, of course. Were the sales cycles shortened based on top-of-funnel content and middle-funnel content? Was it accelerating and awakening leads that were already nurture tracks but weren’t responsive? And, of course, we looked at engagement.

I think it’s a matter of time before research is going to tell us that social signals play a role in [search] rankings, but in the meantime, I think they play a pretty good early indicator of whether your content is relevant, if people like it. Then we use multi-touch attribution. So can see which channels they came in on and the pieces of content they consumed all the way to revenue. So we track that as a touch point, using multi-touch attribution, and then we divvy up those little touch points and attribute them to pipeline. Then we’d use Marketo or Eloqua—whatever the hell marketing automation [software] you use—to see which content, which campaigns, which outlets drove the most pipeline.

How have things changed in your role at LinkedIn? Obviously it’s a fairly different company than Marketo—have your goals and approach changed significantly since you made the move?

You know, I market to marketers, so what I really do is I find problems and I try to come up with innovative solutions to them and I write about them. That’s all I ever do. That’s all I ever did at Marketo. It got me where I’m at today so nothing has really changed—we use Eloqua now, which is interesting. [Laughs]

It’s not about creating more content, but creating more relevant content. We can’t all be the HubSpots of the world. They do a great job pushing out a ton of extremely relevant content. They’re a volume player, and it works for them. But most of us, we can’t really do that volume play. So I focus on the number one burning question on our prospects’ minds, and then I go in with one “big rock” piece of content.

It’s not about creating more content, but creating more relevant content.

LinkedIn Marketing Solutions operates almost like its own little startup. [When I came in], There were two people on the content team. There was an opportunity to educate around content marketing best practices, and a blog that needed some love and optimization.

A couple of years later, the LMS blog is in a really good place helping us drive MQLs, pipeline, and ultimately revenue.

This whole world of creating content for marketers is an interesting one. I’m in it, you’re in it. Recently, Rand Fishkin over at Moz said something really interesting in his “Whiteboard Friday” video. He said it’s not good enough to create good unique content anymore—you really need to create something that’s ten times better. When I look around the marketing content landscape there is a lot of generic 101 stuff out there. What do you think that people creating marketing content really need to do to stand out?

I love Rand. “Whiteboard Friday” is one of the pieces of content I watch every week. The Moz blog is something I read every morning—it’s a great mix of everything I think a hybrid marketer needs to know about.

It’s interesting to see a lot of SEO experts shifting their focus to how SEO supports a holistic content marketing strategy, and content marketers shifting to better understand how SEO plays into their strategy. Rand and the folks at Moz are a perfect example of why you need to be an expert in more than one marketing discipline.

Let’s be honest: How many content marketers create content answering their prospects’ pain points versus content marketers create content they think they know needs to be created? I don’t create anything that doesn’t address a problem or offer an innovative update to an old solution.

In order to stand out, you need budget to do native advertising and pay to promote your own good content, some keyword research to understand the conversation about what content you should be putting out, and then on top of that you probably need somebody with a really big, bold, outgoing personality—and maybe a comedian.

I’m curious about your content ideation process. What’s the mix between just wanting to continue to double down on the tried-and-true stuff versus experimenting with new formats, ideas, and approaches?

I’m always trying to find out the next new thing, but I am just tired of the shiny-object syndrome, like Pinterest and Snapchat and stuff I’ll probably never ever use and I don’t really care to. The search engine’s job is to provide the most relevant answer to a search query’s type in. A content marketer’s job is to be that answer. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you need to own that conversation.

I’m constantly taking cues from being in the city or at a show and I’ll take little pictures or take little notes. On my OneNote, I probably have around 400 to 500 half-written blog posts, ideas that might have something to them. I take it back to my team and we get into a big whiteboard discussion on a Friday we call spitballing. We drink some wine and see what comes out of it.

In order to be a successful content marketer, you have to do a tremendous amount of trial and error, but you have to have a foundation to support your trial and error.

In order to be a successful content marketer, you have to do a tremendous amount of trial and error, but you have to have a foundation to support your trial and error. You certainly shouldn’t be trying to do anything unless you have some sort of foundation driving the results while you are trying to figure out what to do next.

We’re not going to start seeing the LinkedIn Marketing Solution Snapchat Discovery Channel anytime soon?

[Laughs] Not unless I read a blog post about someone using Snapchat to drive revenue for a B2B audience. If Snapchat wants to get me to use Snapchat, write that article and target me on LinkedIn.

I think if I wrote that blog post, it would have a 75 percent email open rate. Just so many subject line buzzwords right there.

The other thing and I think about a lot too is that I have never done this by myself. If you go about this alone, you’re probably going to fail and probably get fired. Again, bring an agency on board to help out with concepts and creatives, bring some additional writers on board to help out with writing and fleshing out your ideas.

A team of two with the right agencies and partners can market like a team of 10,000 with today’s technology. I don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of that. I see a lot of egos hijacking content strategies. I see a lot of people doing Meerkat sessions that have no business value. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

When you look at the social media landscape right now, it seems like every single social platform—Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat—is really doubling down on original content to keep people on the platform. Do you see the potential for LinkedIn to become even more of a publisher in its own right? Could the Marketing Solutions blog be blown out to a full-fledged business publication?

I’m not really in a position to answer a question that big around LinkedIn specifically. But as far as LinkedIn Marketing Solutions goes, I do see us building what I call an owned media empire.

As far as LinkedIn Marketing Solutions goes, I do see us building what I call an owned media empire.

We’ve built this brand around the “sophisticated marketer.” In order for something to get stamped with the sophisticated marketer’s brand that we built, it has to reach a certain bar, and not every piece of content gets there.

We found that once we purchase a piece of content with the “sophisticated brand” on it that it usually does really, really well no matter what it is because we built this certain level of trust around that brand. Shane said something that really resonated with me last year at Finance Connect. I quote him in this all the time. It was about branded content and how we’re not really that good at it yet and we are still learning. Somebody asked him the question, like, “Are you afraid of companies creating content on their own turning off readers because they added their own logo or whatever?” He said something to the effect of “Your content should be so damn good that you want your brand logo to be on it.” I think that’s where it’s headed. The whole branding content thing, I know it goes back to 1906 or whatever, but we are really not that good at it yet in many cases. I think we’re getting better.

Do you think the way forward for brands is really building their owned media empires like you said, as opposed to just relying on advertising for your BuzzFeed but building magazines and publications of their own?

I completely agree. The one piece of content I took home from Finance Connect was your guys’ magazine. I read it on the plane and I still have it. I brought it home. It’s sitting on my coffee table, for Christ’s sake! Because it was so well done.

I was doing some research for though leadership for a presentation in London a few weeks ago. I was trying to write the case for B2C thought leadership. And I came across the story of Betty Crocker in the 1930s. They were selling flour. How do you differentiate yourself from the other guys selling flour? Well, they were trying to sell flour to people who were baking things. So they started the world’s first cooking show—a radio show.

It cost them a tremendous amount of money back then, but now you can do that with a podcast for 50 bucks or even free. Then they took a step further and created the world’s first cookbook.

That’s how they differentiated themselves, and now they’re a huge empire, but it all started with them building their own little media company. Shit, look at HGTV or Food Network or MasterChef. Those wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Betty Crocker. I think a brand today can take a page out of Betty Crocker’s history and say, “How do I create my own little owned media empire?”

Image by Thos Ballantyn

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