How Joe Pulizzi helped shape the modern content marketing industry

He sold the Content Marketing Institute and is now focused on helping individual creators.

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According to some estimates, corporations across the world spend upwards of $42 billion a year on content marketing, and they do so with the philosophy that by acting like media companies, they can engender trust with potential customers and drive sales.

One of the people who helped sell the corporate world on this marketing philosophy is Joe Pulizzi. In 2007, Joe founded the Content Marketing Institute, and through its constellation of articles, videos, courses, and conferences, it convinced thousands of executives that the frictionless distribution of the internet allowed virtually every company to become a media outlet.

I recently interviewed Joe about his journey. We discussed whether freelance journalists should take on content marketing gigs, which companies have been particularly good at content marketing, and whether we’re currently in a content marketing bubble.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Pre-internet content marketing

Joe would never claim to have invented the concept of companies leveraging content to reach customers; the idea predates the internet and used to be referred to as “custom publishing.” In fact, he got his start in the industry building print magazines on behalf of brands. “Let's say you were going to do some kind of a custom magazine. You're talking most likely about $60,000 just to get something to send out to 20,000 people. Most of the stuff we did was quarterly.”

Many of Joe’s clients were trade associations who used a print magazine as a form of member communications (AARP Magazine is the most famous example of this). “Most of our mailing list would come from a  customer database. If we didn't have a customer database of some kind, we leveraged telemarketing and postcards. The postcard would have these 45 questions for you to fill out and then you’d start receiving the magazine for the next year or two. It's unbelievable how many people actually filled those things out.”

Eventually, the internet made it much easier to publish content and reach customers without expensive print magazines, but brands were slow to build out content operations at first. Companies sometimes launched corporate blogs, but they were unsure of what to publish to them. “When I started going to South by Southwest, you would come across these corporate bloggers, and they were sort of looked down upon. I think in a lot of cases, companies didn't know what to do with them. These are people that are talking about what's going on inside the company, but there was this question as to whether they owned their own followers. It was a really weird moment.” 

Launching the Content Marketing Institute

In 2007, Joe got the entrepreneurial bug and quit his job. His initial idea was for a marketplace where he would connect brands with the content creators they wanted to hire (basically an Upwork long before Upwork was founded). “I thought it was going to be brilliant, but then in hindsight, you've got to remember to never build a business where you're reliant on marketing agencies for money, because they're the cheapest people on the planet. They will not pay for anything. By the fall of 2009, it was clear that the financial model was not going to work. There was no way I was going to make it. I started to think that it was time to get the resume ready because I’d need to go back to the corporate world. And luckily my wife said, ‘you know, just wait a couple more weeks.’” 

Coincidentally, Pulizzi’s blog had grown a fairly strong following while he was trying to build his company. “The blog was called the Content Marketing Revolution, and we were covering what was going on in the content marketing industry. And then I started to receive all this feedback from readers, and the feedback was:

  1. Joe, do you have any ongoing content marketing training for our enterprise?

  2. Joe, are there any large scale, in-person events for content marketing?

  3. Joe, is there a magazine for content marketing that we could get on a regular basis? 

And then it just hit me. I'm like, oh my God, I'm trying to shove this product down the throats of these marketers, and that's not what they need. What they really need is just education and training. And that’s when I pulled out a cocktail napkin and actually wrote down the business model for what became the Content Marketing Institute.”  

And what was that business model? “We were going to create the leading online  destination for content marketing education. We were going to create the largest in-person content marketing physical event. And we were going to create the leading content marketing magazine.”

In 2011, the company launched Content Marketing World, which would become one of its biggest revenue drivers. “I was hoping for 150 people to come to Cleveland for this event, and 660 people showed up. We had 1,000 the next year. And in a few years after that, we had 4,000.”  Webinars were another big business for the Content Marketing Institute. “By the time I left CMI in 2017, we were doing two to three webinars a week and charging $18,000 to sponsor each webinar. So that was a big revenue generator for us. We went from generating about $200,000 in revenue in 2010 to almost a $10 million business by 2015.”

Life after CMI

Joe sold the Content Marketing Institute in 2016 and officially left the company in 2017. For the next two years or so he took some time to rest and travel. He even wrote a mystery novel, which he published at the end of 2019. He would have perhaps continued on that path indefinitely if it weren’t for the pandemic shutdown. “I started to get pinged from people that read Content, Inc, the book I wrote in 2015. These were people who were losing their jobs and trying to start careers as freelance marketers and writers, but they couldn't find work. And then I looked and my book sales for the book had been going up since the lockdown, and I'm like, that's weird. This is a six-year-old book. Why are people suddenly interested in this thing now?”

It slowly dawned on Joe that the pandemic was accelerating the growth of the creator economy, and that millions of people were making a go at generating income on platforms like Substack, Patreon, and YouTube. So he decided to start generating content again, first by launching/rebooting two podcasts -- Content, Inc and This Old Marketing -- and then by rolling out a new website called The Tilt, which has the tagline “Turning Content Creators into Content Entrepreneurs.” 

Whereas the Content Marketing Institute was focused on brand marketing, The Tilt is geared toward individual creators. At the moment, the content is distributed primarily as a newsletter, with over 7,000 people already signed up. Though the venture is still brand new, he’s excited about its potential. “I love working with entrepreneurs. I love working with digital content creators who are just trying to figure this new world out.” 

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.