Consultants vs. Hacks: How to Blog in a Way that Convinces, Converts, and Sells

by Marcus Sheridan

Have you ever been on a website and been left with the impression of– “This company is so stuck on themselves they make me want to vomit.” (OK, you may not have said it like that, but you know what I mean.)

The fact is, as more and more businesses and individuals are learning the power of content marketing to talk about what they do, their products, and their services– many haven’t figured out how not to come across as a biased hack versus the true goal of great content and copy, which is that of “informed and trustworthy consultant.

When it comes to achieving the consultant vs hack status, there is one essential key or principle to understand: Disarmament. Allow me to explain.

Not a Good Fit

I get contacted by many businesses each week as to whether or not they should be using HubSpot as part of their company’s marketing strategy. And as soon I have a conversation with someone referencing HS, the first thing out of my mouth is this:

“HubSpot may or may not be a good fit for you, as it’s certainly not for everyone. The goal of this conversation to to figure out which group you fall in…”

When people hear this statement and see, right off the bat, that I’m not trying to shove the benefits of HubSpot down their throat regardless of their business , there is a natural respect, appreciation, and trust relationship that follows.

In other words, they let their guard down and “disarmament” has occurred, allowing trust to follow.

This same principle applies to the things I write about HubSpot. I’m honest about the product. I openly discuss its problems. Because of this, people see me as a trusted voice on the software.

HubSpot Problems

By openly discussing HubSpot’s good and bad points, I’ve become a trusted source on the inbound marketing company.

Comparing Products

Let’s look at another practical example from my swimming pool site.

As I’ve discussed many times before, “Vs.” posts are incredibly important for most companies because consumers love to compare products, companies, and services all the time. This is why one of the most effective elements to a great content marketing campaign is addressing every single “vs.” related subject your client and customer base could possibly want to know.

When it comes to swimming pools, here are a few of the very common “vs.” related phrases/questions:

  • Fiberglass vs. Concrete Pools
  • Fiberglass vs. Liner Pools
  • Inground vs. Above ground Pools
  • Natural Gas vs. Electric Heaters for Swimming Pools
  • Mesh vs. Solid Swimming pool Covers
  • Concrete vs. Pavers for Swimming pool Patios

As a company, we’ve addressed each one of these subjects on our company blog. Furthermore, we rank in the top 3 of Google search results  for every one of the phrases. But if people came to these articles and found we were utterly biased, we wouldn’t garner their trust.

It is for this reason that we always give frank and honest assessment, telling consumers who each product is for and NOT for, which is a must-have element of content that converts.

For example, in the Fiberglas vs Concrete Pools article, as you can see from the following screen shot, we start the article off discussing the lack of “unbiased” reviews online about the different types of pools, and how someone had written our company in sheer frustration because they couldn’t seem to find an honest opinion anywhere.

Fiberglass vs Concrete Article

Great content is unbiased, which ultimately garners more trust and sales from consumers.

Later on in the article, you’ll find that it mentions a few key points:

  • Fiberglass pools have size and shape limitations
  • Fiberglass doesn’t offer total customization like concrete does
  • Fiberglass pools cost a little more upfront than concrete

Despite the fact that my company doesn’t offer concrete pools, we’re honest in our assessment and it’s because of this that consumers trust our words and in many cases end up filling out a form to set up a sales appointment.

The Willingness to be Real

Unfortunately though, most companies don’t do this. In fact, most companies NEVER talk about their product’s issues and drawbacks. Instead of being transparent and honest, they pretend these issues don’t exist.

But with the proliferation of facts, opinions, and content in the information age– consumers are going to eventually learn a product’s pros and cons, so you may as well just be straight from the beginning and allow the trust-process to build.

And if you’re a service-based company, talk about your ideal client. Then talk about your ideal non-client. Believe it or not, by openly discussing who your company is not a good fit for you’ll actually attract more people than you would have. Again, disarmament works.

The bottom line is that honesty still has a place in this world. It certainly has its place in web copy and content marketing.

So be real. Be genuine. Be frank.

By so doing, you’ll likely be a lone voice of trust consumers and buyers can finally believe in.

Your Turn

Do you agree with my assessment that most companies still don’t know how to produce content in such a way that is not just a straight sales pitch? Why are so many afraid to openly discuss who their product is for and not for? Jump in, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Marshall Kirkpatrick October 25, 2012 at

Marcus, this is a really good reminder – but it sure can be hard to remember. I think many people believe it’s rude or beside the point to bring up competitors, but if done in a way that recognizes some people ought to be their customers, not mine – then it sounds great. It’s also a lot easier for non-incumbents to adress the elephant in the room, the market leader in their field. It makes sense to do so.

A couple of other thoughts I’d add from some related reading:
* In order to discuss your competitors, you’ve got to have a meaningful understanding of what they are doing – something that will be generally very helpful but that too few of us really have.
* Focusing on attacking competitors doesn’t work well with audiences and is the opposite of focusing on the value you yourself provide.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

Marshall, wise words my friend. I can tell you’ve done this a few times :-)

Thanks so much for your points!

Marcus

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Rebecca Livermore October 25, 2012 at

Marcus, this reminds me of our mutual friend, Ian. Ian does such a great job of trying to convince people he isn’t the right one for them, and they end up begging him to work for them. Even then, he doesn’t always say yes.

Being honest about the good and bad of who you are and what you do puts people at ease, knowing you’re not just out to make a quick buck off of them. It also helps you avoid ending up with clients or customers that aren’t going to be happy, so in the long run helps you avoid a lot of unpleasant experiences.

While companies are starting to catch on to the value of content marketing, many of them are still using an old school mentality of trying to convince people they’re the best, rather than being honest about where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Now I’m off to write a blog post that this post inspired me to write, so thanks. :)

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

Always happy to inspire my friend ;-)

And yes, Ian was a Great example!

Marcus

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Elena Anne October 25, 2012 at

I couldn’t agree more with your take on the matter. Whether in-person or on the internet, you can tell when someone is truly informed about what they do and genuinely wants to help. It adds heaps of credibility when someone is willing to have an honest discussion about what they can and can’t do for a customer. So often, the “information” available on company sites is pure marketing spin and that makes a company seem impersonal and lacking in integrity.

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

Hi Elena! Yep, the days of pure marketing spin have really got to take a back seat to this approach if one really does want to stand out.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Marcus

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Chris Markham - Data Driven Marketing Strategist @ Bizfix October 25, 2012 at

Marcus, as ever content as sharp as lion’s incisor. There’s one additional reason to be honest and even turn down potential clients. Many companies especially when starting out take ANY client that comes along. Sometimes it a bad fit, they are unable to deliver measurable results and everyone ends up frustrated. Now that everyone’s world is online it is so easy for prospects to see your past customers’ actual performance so its downright dangerous to work with clients you can’t satisfy. You don’t want to marry every person you date, so why would anyone want every customer they ever contact as a client?
Chris Markham @ Bizfix Data-Driven Marketing

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Ameena Falchetto October 25, 2012 at

Over the years I’ve learned to say NO more often than I say yes.

Standing by what you can do, and make a difference in doing so, will win you respect and clients. And if it means you don’t get the job it’s because you weren’t a fit. (Oh and discussing competition? I don’t usually go down that route ever because every business I’ve ever set up has sought to be a leader with a distinct character where “competition” is a non-issue – we fit, or we don’t)

There is nothing wrong in saying “my product/service can’t do X, Y, Z but it can do A, B, C in an epic way” – In my experience, I know that when I told a huge client that we couldn’t offer the training he required but could do a whole range of different things we planted that seed in their mind and days later they became our biggest ever.

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

Love that phrase Ameena—”planted a seed”—transparency certainly is the great key to this. Thanks for the great example!

Marcus

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Russ Henneberry October 25, 2012 at

Read any good book on the subject of sales or copywriting and you will get this advice:

“You must raise and address every objection.”

If a prospect was reading your sales page about fiberglass swimming pools they might have the objection:

“I can only buy this if it can be a 100% custom martini glass shaped swimming pool.”

If you don’t raise the issue of fiberglass not being capable of totally custom shapes, you will likely lose the prospect because a confused mind always says no.

But, in some cases you just might “trick” the prospect into filling out a lead form or picking up the phone and calling you.

But the jokes on you. Now, you or an employee are wasting VALUABLE time on the phone with a prospect that is not a good fit. Or worse, you have a sales rep wasting their time visiting a property, writing up bids, etc.

Much better to filter the prospects through various forms of straight forward content marketing. This way you wind up with smoking hot leads that are fairly certain that you are a good fit.

One question this raises, however, is — if you are filtering people through your content — can you put measures in place to ensure that you are staying in tune with the market?

Just as an example — maybe it makes sense for you to start offering concrete pools but you aren’t aware of it because you are filtering these people before you become aware of them.

Excellent topic Marcus. Thank you for writing this.

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Wade October 25, 2012 at

I do agree. It’s hard to go to, not just a big company website, but any site in general, without them trying to shove a product down their throat.

I believe that these are the people who have still not realized that content is what sells. As you said, showing the downsides(in a vs post) could be a major selling point for some people.

If I’m buying something, not only do I want to know what it can do, but also what it can’t do. Seems as though a lot of people have forgotten this aspect of blogging too.

Good post.

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Don Stanley October 25, 2012 at

Totally agree with this Marcus. Our jobs are to be helpful to our clients IMHO. This includes telling them the good and not so good stuff about our products as well as telling them about other products. How can we be successful? Be honest and helpful.

This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from the holiday movie classic “Miracle on 34th Street” where Kris Kringle (aka Santa Claus) suggests to a Gimbles customer to go to Macy’s for a particular item. As the official Santa Claus for Gimbles, this was unheard of. His boss overhears and reports him. To his and the management’s surprise, the customers were so moved by a Santa Claus recommending another store at the height of peak Christmas season, that they brought the rest of their business to Gimbles.

The lesson here is simple: when you authentically care for the well-being of your clients, even to the extent of suggesting solutions that make you less money (or maybe even NO money), you make a lasting impression. An impression that in some cases may actually yield your more business

This isn’t anything new … it’s just something we need to LIVE and not talk about. After all, actions speak louder than words. When companies and organizations get this, I’m 100% convinced that while they might not make a sale in the moment, they’ll earn something much more valuable. They’ll earn a customer who trusts them and believes in their integrity.

Thanks for the good word as always.

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

LOVE the Miracle analogy Don, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. True transparency is so rare that it makes consumers flinch and say “wow!”

So very much appreciate you my friend.

Marcus

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Don Stanley October 26, 2012 at

Feeling is mutual my brother (aka Kris Kringle ;)

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Jon Loomer October 26, 2012 at

Absolutely, Marcus. Honesty, integrity and transparency. Sounds like a Cub Scouts motto or something, but they’re the three things I find most important to the success of a marketer.

Help first. Help second. Help third. Sell naturally.

Maybe it’s because I’m an accidental marketer and I hate most marketing “techniques,” but I find it’s far too easy to lose your voice and what makes you unique. We aren’t confident in our own gut, so we end up sounding like everyone else. And we sell, sell, sell.

It’s a balance. It’s an uncomfortable balance sometimes. I need to make money. But I find I make the most money when I resonate the most with my readers. And I certainly don’t do that by telling them to buy something.

Stay awesome, Marcus.

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Marcus Sheridan October 26, 2012 at

Your approach is inspiring Jon. And knowing your content and just how thoughtful and helpful it is, you truly do have your clients always at front and center.

Thanks for all you do.

Marcus

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Matt Mansfield October 26, 2012 at

Marcus,

You really hit it on the head with this one. I spend most of my time up front with clients educating them on this one crucial point of inbound marketing using content:

Provide content which is unbiased and useful and people will trust you and people who trust you buy from you.

BTW…this applies to search engines as well. If you provide unbiased and useful content, they will like you, too and your listings will rise. I have survived every Google search engine change this way, too.

-Matt

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Ryan Hanley October 26, 2012 at

“So be real. Be genuine. Be frank.”

There is nothing more attractive about a Brand/Business for a consumer than being talked to like a real person…

Nothing in LIFE is perfect so why do all act like everything we do in business is?

Great thoughts buddy

Hanley

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Ryan Aspy October 26, 2012 at

As everyone knows, we’re right in the thick of the political season here in the US. So, this article got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get to this point in the political realm? To the contrary, politics is almost the exact opposite of this. There’s a complete lack of transparency, and in a campaign many resort to attacking the other side (their competition), sometimes viciously. Arriving at disarmament seems to be a rare thing in politics. Actually, most people come loaded for bear. What would happen if a candidate would take the approach Marcus has outlined in this article? Because in a sense a candidate is simply in the process of selling himself or herself to the masses. (Although I understand there are distinct differences between selling a product/service versus selling oneself as a political candidate.) Would an approach like this work as a breath of fresh air? Or, would the candidate simply be tossed aside because the system is so out of control? There probably aren’t any answers for this, but I thought it was interesting to think about.

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Russ Henneberry October 26, 2012 at

Amen to this comment Ryan.

Most folks in the political sphere have absolutely no credibility because they NEVER concede a point to the competition.

Is it possible that your politics are a GOOD FIT in every situation for every person? Nope.

Is it possible that your product/service is a GOOD FIT in every situation for every person? Nope.

I think the most important point Marcus makes in this post is that making a concession to another solution leads to credibility.

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Sue Monhait October 26, 2012 at

Totally agree Marcus.

It is terribly irritating to read blogs that are so self serving. Especially since I know better based on all the education I’ve received from you on inbound marketing.

I’ve always been one to provide an honest opinion whether it falls in my favor (meaning a sale) or not. In fact, the last thing I want is a sale where my product is not the right solution for a customer’s need. It will result in time wasted on our end, a dissatisfied customer and potential word-of-mouth backlash of a bad product when what we really have is a stellar product when placed in the right situation.

Short term financial gain never equates to a strong loyal customer relationship.

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Tom Reber October 26, 2012 at

I have a strong in-home sales background. I found it was so easy to differentiate my company from the others when in front of a homeowner…simply by having an honest conversation about IF & how we would be a good fit for their needs. It take the pressure off everyone. The ‘other guys’ would show up and try to close them instead of being likable and helpful.

Put people at ease, protect the relationship (even when you’re not hired) and always make it about ‘them.’

Thanks again, Marcus!

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George Thomas October 26, 2012 at

I love this article! One of our big challenges has been to write content that really has nothing to do with us, but everything to do with our industry. I am trying to figure out if there is a good amount for a blog say 60/40 to talk about the company/industry.

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Leon Noone October 27, 2012 at

G’Day Marcus,
I’m currently working up a completely new website. This article was most useful in reminding me of lots of good stuff it’s easy to overlook.

What you say also fits very well into “The Law of Candour:” law no.15 in “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” By Al Reis and Jack Trout. Because you don’t do concrete pools, pointing out the pros and cons of both fibreglass and concrete creates a perception of openness and honesty in the mind of the prospect. That’s where marketing occurs: in the mind. This is another reality that we’re indebted to Al and Jack for pointing out.

As you know Marcus, my ideas about employee performance severely challenge the mainstream view. You’ve given me some excellent ideas about how I can use that. Thanks.

Make sure you have fun.

Best Wishes
Leon

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Joan October 28, 2012 at

I find myself compelled to buy when a salespersons, on their own initiative, lists the pros and cons of the product. The transparency seems to translate to trustworthiness, and who wouldn’t want to do business with someone who is trustworthy?

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Marcus Sheridan October 31, 2012 at

Exactly Joan. And you represent that masses I think.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Marcus

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Mitch Mitchell November 3, 2012 at

The ability to be real and honest is sometimes all that separates some of us from the rest. For instance, this past week I wrote a blog post that was a book review. I put it out up front that I was in the book and wasn’t being paid and that it would be an honest review. I think it was, even though I really liked the book, but I added at the end that it might be price prohibitive and thus wouldn’t be for everyone. Even the author of the book appreciated it.

You do that here, which is why people appreciate what you have to say. Well that and I think they like the lion in your header. lol

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Bella November 11, 2012 at

Marcus,

Again, love it. I think I am going to do a few blogs on the difference between Pet Sitting Vs. Dog Walking and also about the debate about time verses no timed pet sits. Clearly I will have to come up with some stellar title but when you spoke at the conference the whole:

ANSWER THE QUESTIONS PEOPLE ARE ASKING…

really resonated. Do you know how many pet sitters are now writing about “How much does pet sitting cost?” LOL…. I have seen about 5 since your talk! Thanks for giving me the premission that it is okay not to sell and really start putting on my “reporter” hat. LOL

I am still thinking of those award blogs…

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Marcus Sheridan November 12, 2012 at

5? Sweet! But it’s no surprise to be honest, seems to happen with every industry I go and speak at…everyone is like, “Well duh! How come we didn’t do that one already??!” ;-)

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