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024: Community Driven Content with Sean Blanda (Director of Content, Crossbeam)

Community Driven Content with Sean Blanda (Director of Content, Crossbeam)

Sean Blanda is the Director of Content at Crossbeam. Crossbeam is a Partner Ecosystem Platform that helps companies securely exchange data when partnering. People use Crossbeam for real-time account mapping, sourcing leads, and vetting co-marketing opportunities.

Sean is passionate about content that builds communities and brings people together. In this episode, host Allie Decker talks to Sean about how he’s scaling his content team at Crossbeam and how being a Director of Content isn’t that much different from SNL’s Lorne Michaels. 

Connect with Sean at and follow him on Twitter

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Key Takeaways

9:45 – Lead with the voices of others

Sean says that the content you focus on should highlight things your community is talking about. Don’t be afraid to go niche, as the era of general interest content is long gone.

“Your opinion, or your worldview, or the way you want the world to change, should color the kinds of people you reach out to, and what you ask them. I think you should always lead with the voices of others. Because people reading your site or going to your event, they’ve already opted into the way you think. They don’t need to hear it again. Instead, you should make use of your platform for other supporting discussions. And also as a content marketer, you don’t know all the things you think you know. So get the community to reflect it back to you. They know more than you. Every company has founding values or the thing it’s trying to change. Maybe you work for a company that wants to encourage remote work. That’s the opinion in which you would then go to market with…General interest stuff doesn’t exist anymore. You need to be so hyper-specific of the thing you’re talking about, and where you want that specific niche to go in the future. Those two things need to be pretty clear from the brand.”

11:41 – Ask tough questions to nail down strategy

Sometimes, companies don’t have their mission and goals as dialed in as they think they do. Content marketers can help that process by asking the right questions. 

“Every company should have its values in what you think. if they don’t, that’s a bigger problem that you should help. And actually I’ve been at companies where we do that. Where by virtue of making an editorial strategy, you ask some pretty tough questions. Like, who are we targeting? What do they care about? What do we want them to know about us? It has to be one thing. It can’t be 10 things. Sometimes you can force that value discussion for a smaller company, but you need those values. A thing I try to do at every job I get to is write a two-page brief on, this is what I see the company’s values. Here’s the person I think we’re trying to target at the top of the funnel. Here are the things I think they care about. Here are a few pillars or strategies or campaigns we’re going to roll out with. And here’s how we know it will work. Getting that all foundationally set before you even write the first thing is extremely important.”

14:23 – Create benchmarks to measure success

Traffic and leads captured don’t have to be the only ways to measure success. Sean also measures the number of users who reach particular milestones, and maps that back to whether they’ve consumed Crossbeam content in the past. 

“The two things we’re causally measured on are yes, traffic. But that’s not the hard line. Two would be email addresses and leads captured, with how many people raise your hands that are interested in what we have to say. Third, I said two, but there’s three. The third is there’s a particular phase in our product journey that we know people tend to stick around in the product. And we measure how many of those people that get to that step have consumed a piece of content. And we want that number, that percentage, to be a certain number. So X percent of people who reached this step in the product read our content.”

15:20 – Let your audience guide you

The best content ideas come directly from user needs. Sean keeps his ears open. When he hears a problem theme come up multiple times, he knows it would make a great piece of content. 

“The data should support what the community is saying. As an example, the community said to us time and time again, ‘I feel lost. There’s no roadmap for this job. I don’t see a lot of guides out there. I’m kind of stabbing in the dark. I don’t know how much to pay people I hire. I had nothing.’ So that tells me I need to pull the data of salary information for this group, or I should put out a survey about common struggles, so we can then write the content that caters to them. Everything is led by what the audience is telling us.” 

19:12 – Think of your content team as a creative studio

When he was working at InVision, Sean broke down his focus into buckets of time for internal requests and external projects. This ensures you have time for the higher-level creative work that will help your team and professional skills grow. 

“In many software businesses, the content team is essentially like an in-house creative studio. And I try to treat it that way. When internally our clients say, we’re launching things. This is why we think it’s important. And we can say, all right. Here’s how we think we should execute it. And then we work together to do it…I actually came up [with this concept] when I worked at InVision. InVision’s a thousand people, a very large marketing team. We realized that it’s always immediately fulfilling to handle internal requests rather than go out and talk to people externally. You can get very easily mired in people asking you for designs, for copy, for blog posts. And you could do that all the live-long day. But I don’t think you advance your career in your team in the company by doing that. I always found it good to separate it and say, this is internal work and this is external work. And the way in which that’s separated can be your team, you can have people that only work on an internal and external. It can be by hours during the week, like we’re dedicating 100 man-hours a week to this and that’s it. You have to box it down to prioritize, and also to make sure that you keep doing the more important, but not urgent work you need to do to grow a content team.” 

20:45 – Make a content plan and get signoff 

Sean says the earlier you map out your content plan and how you will measure it, the sooner you can present it to executives and move forward with confidence. 

“I would say the best thing is having have all the fights early, and have a discussion early. Be really, really candid about, we’re going to do this quarter. And we’re going to do this next quarter. This is how we’re going to measure it every month. If you don’t have a quarterly plan and a yearly plan for your team and your executive team isn’t signed off on it, you’re just asking for misunderstandings…Our CEO Bob Moore is well versed and extremely smart in this space. And I lean on him as a writer and I lean on him as a subject matter expert when coming up with campaign. He’s very involved in our marketing efforts in a very positive way. It’s rare that, or if ever, I surprise him and shock him with something. He’s in the room when we talk about this stuff.”

21:48 – Educate executives on the value of qualitative content

A great way to get buy-in from the higher-ups? Ask them for examples of content they love, then break it down by showing them how it’s working to appeal to them in qualitative ways. 

“The thing that I’ve seen work is ask them what their favorite content arms are. Like ‘oh, I really like how Stripe does it, or I love how Adobe does it,’ or whatever. Pick the company that they have in their mind that they want. And then you’ll be able to prove that, like, ‘See that piece they wrote that you liked? That’s just for conversation. That’s qualitative, because their audience was asking you for it. There’s no keyword attached to that. They’re not pulling a bunch of data from their apps. They’re just writing something that they think the audience would like, and you were the audience. That’s why you liked it.’ You got to make people understand that when they’re on the other side of the equation when they’re reading something, when they are going to an event, they want that less data-backed stuff often.”

25:02 – Choose your channels wisely

Sean’s a fan of being very intentional about the channels they post content on. So far the blog is their primary vehicle for content publication, followed by email and LinkedIn.

“I think everything germinates from what we write on the blog. That’s our main way of talking to people, distilling insights and learning about it, testing do things go well? I’m a big fan [of the concept that] you should only focus on one, maybe two distribution channels at first. And the one we have focused on is email. We have around 25,000 email subscribers to our weekly newsletter, which is all advice on partnerships and business development. We’ve since expanded out to a little bit of social, mostly LinkedIn. We do SEO work slowly as a part of what we do, but that is not the driving part of the strategy. Now that events are a thing again, we’re doing IRL events, I have a few that are coming up. And then digital events, webinars, and things like that.”

26:19 – Running a content team is like hosting a dinner party 

Sean had a wonderful analogy for running a content team: it’s like hosting a dinner party. All the focus should be on making sure your guests (aka team members) get lots of attention and leave wanting to come back again.  

“I equate it to hosting a dinner party. When you host a dinner party, you shouldn’t be the star of the dinner party. Your job is to make sure everyone else is having a good time. And a success is that people leave there and go, ‘I met a few people, I had a great time. I would love to come back’ The success has nothing to do with whether you were the star of the show or whether you were listened to, or whether people would pay attention to you. That is what I think running a good team is like, where the success of your team and any outputs of your team should be creatively fulfilling work. And if they’re not, it’s very hard. And you either have to balance it with your own creative work, or realize that maybe it’s not the right fit for you…That’s the dynamic I think a good Head of Content does. They create an environment where the people below them can be superstars and successful.”

29:21 – How to embrace the Head of Content role 

Sean had yet another fantastic analogy for what it’s like moving into a Head of Content role. In his words, it’s like building your own dream house versus moving into a rental. 

“When I worked at Adobe, I came in as the associate editor, which was bottom of the totem pole. And by the end, I was the director in which I had direct reports. And the way I thought about it is, it’s kind of like you rent a house for a while and you get the idea of how to rearrange your perfect house. And you’re watching HDTV and you’re like, man. If I had my own house, I would do it this way. And then someone just gives you the chance to build your own house. That is exciting and extremely creatively fulfilling. So I view it as it’s a chance to spin it up or change this thing which I kept staring at. That’s how I thought about it and how I continue to think about it. And that’s one reason I love working at Crossbeam is I was the first content higher, so I could help guide the initial strategy. I’m not moving into someone else’s house, I’m building it.” 

31:02 – Put yourself in your writers’ shoes

A good Head of Content finds ways to stay humble and empathic to their team members. For Sean, this means being receptive to feedback on his own work. 

“You should occasionally have someone else edit you, so you remember to treat your writers with grace and respect and empathy. Because sometimes I think people lose sight of that. I would freelance pitch things and have people give me feedback to one just for funsies, but two, I remember I pitched a national publication and I was like, this will be fine. There will be no edits. And the woman editing me dressed me down and tore it apart. It was like at first my ego got in the way and I was like, oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then I thought about it and I was like, no. This is a gift. Because I can finally get a reminder that you don’t know everything, you idiot.”

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Allie Decker

Allie is co-founder and Head of Client Success at Omniscient Digital. She previously led content initiatives at HubSpot and Shopify.