CONTENT MARKETING $100K VS SEM $0: Why we switched and lessons learned

Customer acquisition channels come and go. The early adopters get a great return on their investment but soon everyone piles in and the channel gets saturated. SEM used to work great but not so much anymore. Then corporate blogging became the darling for customer acquisition under the headline ‘content marketing’ but now there’s just too much noise out there. If you’re a newcomer, you need a clever content marketing strategy because writing for your blog is going to be an uphill battle for eyeballs.

We’ve stumbled enough times ourselves and thought it would be informational to share what we’ve learned so far. In this article, we discuss:

  1. Why we decided to shift from SEM to content marketing
  2. How we launched a content initiative that demonstrates our competencies
  3. The results and why we believe it will continue to deliver
  4. Lessons learned from our failed content marketing efforts
  5. How to come up with your own great content marketing initiative!

1. Going from SEM to Content Marketing

When Board Studios was born about 3.5 years ago, all we had to do was follow the tried and true recipe: build website, pay for clicks, and they will come.

We just put up a website, paid for some Adwords, and soon had our first account. Then we put a video ad on YouTube and several large accounts followed. This was back when paying $0.20 per view actually yielded results. We even had the CMO of a top-10 pharmaceuticals company email us because he saw our video ad pre-roll!

Ah… the good old days. But what happens when your competitors go from a handful to several hundreds and SEM budgets balloon to upwards of $20K per month?

Sometime in late 2013 everything changed. We went from 100 leads a month to 10 — a slow summer indeed! We still don’t know what happened and the situation has baffled our Google account managers as well as several SEM companies that have pitched their services since. SEM just didn’t seem to work for us anymore.

Side note: if anyone knows what happened around that period, we’d love to know!

After licking our wounds, we succumbed and tried another “progressive” SEM company recently but after spending $5,000 in a month with no results (literally, nada!), we have given up on SEM completely.

So we decided to give content marketing a chance: spending time and money to produce something valuable to potential clients, with the hope that they will turn to us when the need for video production arises. Who knows how long that game is going to last…

Side note: what do you think will be the next marketing frontier?

Here are the things that we tried and failed, in chronological order: press releases (nobody reads them), outsourced blog article writing (you get what you pay for), and “organic” quotes on large-traffic sites (perhaps the worst ROI of all).

More on our lessons-learned from each failed approach at the end of this article.

What is finally working for us is content marketing with our own flavor, which leverages our core competencies. We love books, we produce innovative animations, and we’re experts at explaining — the free book video summaries were born!

2. Launching as a content marketing effort

Soon after putting our team together in our elbow-rubbing office in NYC, we realized that one of the things we shared was a passion for business books. We read a lot of them, discuss them, and find ways to apply them to our business. But we hate it when they disappoint (Fanis from the team says ‘hate’ is a strong word… I like strong words). What’s worse than buying a business book with a promising title, eagerly sitting down to dedicate hours of your life to it… only to be let down?

We brainstormed a bit on the problem: well, that’s what book summary services are for — and there are so many of them out there. So we signed up for a few of them. Long, text-only summaries can be useful, but after a few months we found that we weren’t even reading those! Too dry, too boring, and we really couldn’t tell if the book would be any good afterall.

We tried out many services — including audio — but there was still something missing… insights! We wanted to hear from someone with a business background, someone building a business, someone in our shoes. We wanted to get something more than just a summary.

So we came up with “insightful book video summaries.”

Every week or so, we read, distill, and expand on a book that we were truly glad to lay our hands on. We produce a hand-crafted video — a style that we call “sketchnote” — because we find video to be the most compelling way to summarize and share great content.

3. Does it work, and will it continue to work?

If it’s such a good idea, why hasn’t anyone done this before?

The answer is simple: cost. Producing a video summary takes a ton more than text or audio summaries that are outsourced or crafted by junior associates. Even those summary services charge hundreds of dollars a year, whereas we’ve kept everything free!

In order to have a profitable business summarizing books in video format, I’m guesstimating that one would have to charge close to a $500 yearly subscription. We can offer the service for free because it’s our version of content marketing. A pure book summary service can’t compete with us because they have to make money selling this offering, whereas we’re willing to lose money on it.

In the first month since our launch, we gathered almost 1,000 subscribers and we have booked new business in the 6 figures, both through and through our sister website, where we’re now selling Sketchnotes to authors and publishers, a competitive way to promote their book through video.

Most of the new business came through the help of our authors who are very thankful for the service — we’re providing them with free marketing collateral and exposure to their target audience!

In exchange, they take it upon themselves to tweet about us and promote us anyway possible. Even when they’re promoting themselves with our video, they’re promoting us. The result: we’re reaching a far wider audience than we ever could on our own, especially if we had to pay for it.

Side note: share your content marketing ideas and we’ll try to provide some ideas on how to augment and distribute your content.

4. Lessons learned from our failed approaches

Lesson #1: does anybody read press releases?

For a year, we subscribed to one of the inbound marketing platforms, which came with free PR publication services so we decided to take advantage of the free service. We posted a handful of press releases and received a few dozen clicks through them but not a single client again.

Lesson #2: outsourcing your blog articles isn’t a good content marketing strategy.

Given our tight resources, we had to outsource the writing of our blog in the past (now, we have moved it back completely in-house). We tried a handful of eLance writers and other services that are more dedicated to social media writing.

The articles were lacking insight at best, and often contained factual errors. It took a lot of time to effectively re-write the articles, money to pay the admittedly budget-friendly writers, and the result was 50–100 views for each blog article. Not too bad, but none of them resulted in a client. We confirmed this by specifically asking new clients if they had read any of our blog posts.

Lesson #3: don’t pay to get “organically” quoted in online magazines.

At one point, we were approached by a service that guarantees the placement of an article written “organically” by a highly-trafficked site that mentions us. What does this mean? The service pays the author at an online magazine to write the article and place 2–3 mentions or quotes by our company. We can review and suggest edits to the entire article, and then it’s off to the presses.

The website had ~15 million monthly uniques, so paying a few thousand dollars seemed like a good deal to get that exposure. The article appeared on a sub-section of the website for seconds (they’re publishing hundreds of articles daily) and we got 4 clicks (no, that’s not a typo).

5. How to come up with your own content marketing initiative?

The reason why is successful is because we’re offering a valuable service that our target audience is used to paying for, and we’re doing it better and giving it away for free. We can afford that because our customer acquisition cost is still lower than the best alternative.

Our approach boils down to these steps: First, identify a valuable content-related service that your target audience is currently using. Second, figure out how you can reproduce this offering (it can be through internal or external resources) and at what cost. And finally, compare that cost to your customer acquisition cost.

You will have to make some hypotheses / assumptions, and then devise the right tests to validate them. Your first content marketing idea may not be profit-enhancing compared to your current customer acquisition plans, but eventually you may stumble onto something compelling that can change your business metrics in a way that gives you a leg up over the competition.

What are some of your content marketing ideas? We’d love to share our thoughts on them and help you enhance or augment them somehow.

Board Studios Inc ( is a FinTech-focused digital agency that specializes in business-driven storytelling and identifying cutting-edge partners to deliver innovative growth services.
Book Video Club ( is a side-project of the Board Studios Inc team that delivers a new book summary in video format every week to its subscribers.
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