Here’s How I Created a Quality Content Marketing Strategy with No Budget

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the Director of Platform at Hyde Park Angels, a Chicago-based venture capital group focusing on angel investments. Read on for a transcript of her presentation from our September 19, 2017, Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where she describes how she made every marketing channel a growth driver for her company.

Hi, everyone, I'm Alida Miranda-Wolff and I’m the Director of Platform at Hyde Park Angels. We're the most active investor in the Midwest. We’re unique in that we take a people-first approach to investing, which means that to be an investor in our group, you have to have started to scale and sold your own business or you have to be currently heading up your own business.

We invest across three verticals: business and financial services, consumer products and services, and digital media and technology. We've invested in a number of portfolio companies with about 40 active now, including Ship Bob, Four Kites, Farm Logs, Simple Mills and Catalytic. Since we were first founded, we've helped these companies raise $515 million, generate about $100 million in revenue, and create about 1,800 jobs.

Now, what I'll tell you is that when I came on board three years ago, our numbers didn't look like that and we wouldn't have even known how to talk about those numbers. We weren't thinking that way.

I was the third hire on the team and I was the only one with branding or marketing expertise, but I wasn't hired to use that expertise. That wasn't my focus. Instead I was focusing on how to boost our investor base and our number of partnerships with Fortune 500 companies and Coastal VCs.

But here's the problem: To actually do that, to get the best of the best to be your investors, you have to have a really strong reputation. And intuitively, we didn't feel that we were there yet, so I wanted to figure out exactly how “not there” we were.

I went to Northwestern and I worked with a team of data scientists to develop a proprietary reputation score to see what our reputation in the community was, and the answer was “middle lane.” People knew who we were and they thought we were credible but that was about it. We weren't going to change the world and we weren't going be best in class like we had set out to be in our strategic plan which is why we needed to build a brand for ourselves that would enhance that reputation.

But even though my team was very supportive and said, "Yes, we need to build a brand, we need to do these things,” they also said, "We have no money for you so how about we give you no budget and you figure this out."

This is what I did know how to do – work a lot and write. So that's how I came across this idea of building a content marketing strategy because the core to content marketing is mostly free, if you have the time.

1.  I made a plan

The first thing I did was build a plan, which I think is essential whether you have a budget or not. You have to have a strategic plan for marketing and communications, otherwise it's going to be a hodgepodge mix where you don't know what you're doing and you actually can't use your resources very well.

This is what I'm going to tell you, if you build your own plan, make it five pages. No more. If you build a really big, comprehensive plan, no one will read it and no one will use it, including yourself. Instead, keep it short and focus on what matters. You want your vision and your mission for your organization. Your vision is who you want to be and your mission is what you want to do. You're going to lay out your objectives for the organization, but also for the marketing and communications plan. You're going to think about those core messages that define who you are and then you're going to get them perfect right in that plan, and you'll to use them over and over again. We still use our messages from three years ago in everything that we do.

You're going to identify those key audiences like we did and you'll stack-rank them. It can feel a little bit gross, but you have to know who matters, right? We knew we had three groups we wanted to appeal to, that we wanted these messages to get to, so we defined who they were. We also defined how we were going to get to them, what channels we were going to use and what metrics we were going to measure success against, both on an individual basis and for the plan overall. Then we laid out our tactic saying, "We're going do this Twitter campaign. We're going to put this amount of content out. We're going to leverage this events marketing technique and this is the timeline we will use."

2.  I picked a platform

We started with the plan and from there we built out our platforms. With one person and no money, that meant three platforms. It's really hard to handle more. We're on 11 now, still just me, but I have more of a budget and a lot of this stuff already built out. But we started with three, so I picked Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium.

Why? Simple. I was appealing to entrepreneurs who would be unicorn companies but who were still in the early stages. They would have a two-year lifecycle with us because eventually they would grow into their Series B phase and then they wouldn't need our content, right? Then I wanted those superstar entrepreneurs with exits, who had capital and could become investors, and I wanted those partners who could support the group and add real value.

Where did those people live? Entrepreneurs, Twitter. Those partners, LinkedIn. Medium is a way to do long-form content that goes out on both channels and both feed into Medium, which builds your following there. So that's how I picked my channels.

3.  I became a master stacker

I would take one thing and I would stack 100 things on top of it so it would feel like we were creating a ton of content, but really it started with one idea. I'll give you an example. We started our entrepreneurial education series, which takes entrepreneurs through the early-stage investing process, three years ago. For our first event, I designed everything, the content, the speakers, what was going to happen, etc., and then I wrote a Medium post on all the speakers and what we were covering.

I structured content around those topics and I worked with our partners at 1871 to promote it out. At the event, I used the 1871 photographer and videographer to create more content, same event, to go out in separate campaigns. I live-tweeted to build our following on Twitter, collected those live tweets into a Microsoft Word document, really simple, really low-key, and turned that into a blog that was a summary of the event that we could then send out to every person who registered. A lot of different pieces of content and different touch points came with just one event.

4.  I cultivated partnerships / relationships

How did we build that relationship with 1871? Well, I had a CRM, I used ProsperWorks, and what I did was ask, "Who are the influencers in the community who are going to expand our network?" We have our network, but that's not big enough to reach everyone we need to reach. Who has their own networks? Who's going to help us? Then I put them together: who they were, their contact information, what they did, where they were from and what they were looking to do.

Do your research. Figure out how you can add value to someone else with your content. They may not make their own content and they need stuff for social media. They may be launching a blog and need guest posts. They may want to do an event collaboratively or they may want something else, and that's easy for you to give. I did my research on who it was and put together my target list of 25 to 50 people. After that, it's really hard to send those individual emails, so don't. Focus on who matters, figure out what they want, try to give it to them and always be open to doing those favors. And then make connections between them so that you're really expanding their networks, too. Make sure that it's valuable.

5.  I avoided complexity: plain texts, simple asks

This works only if you make it as easy as possible for them. People want to be helpful if it doesn't require any work on their part, right? What I focused on was plain text emails to the individuals that I wanted to promote that event to or share that blog. This applies to PR, too. Simple, simple subject lines: “Quick question,” “Favor,” “This would be good for your portfolio companies,” “Good story for you,” etc. Really simple, easy, to the point, no more than two to three sentences in the body text. And then I did all the work for them, pre-written tweets and pre-written posts, but no more than two because that puts a lot of content in the email they don't want to read and they're not going to. Make it super simple. For PR, I don't put the press release in the email. I start with the ask. I ask for a meeting or if they want the release, just because I know they're not going to read it otherwise.

6.  I prioritized messages and quality above all else

The other thing I did that allowed me to keep it simple is how I structured the content itself. With my content marketing strategy, 70 percent of the time went into the content and only 30 percent of the time went into promoting it. I was going to do everything first minute. Same thing with the plan, I believe in first minute over last minute every time.

With that content I was out there asking, "What is it that an entrepreneur needs to fundraise that they don't have? What knowledge doesn't exist in a Google search? What can't they find in Quora? What are they reading in these books like Venture Deals that they don't understand when they're reading in Venture Deals? Who do they want hear from that they can't access?"

For the data analysis, many of you have probably seen the reports that we've done, our whitepapers on the venture economy and what's happening today. Spending a lot of time on that research and those insights and then promoting it and running campaigns around it was crucial. That was really good for PR, too, because these reporters knew that I knew their beats. I knew what they needed, I knew what they lacked and I could give them data that they couldn't get otherwise or get them interviews with Fortune 500 folks that they couldn't reach. I put the content first and that made all of this a lot easier.

7.  I tracked everything

There's no point to doing any of this if you don't know how it performs. I use Airtable to build dashboards where I track this information. I have a PR dashboard and then I have a larger digital marketing dashboard. Those metrics that I used, I actually put in that original plan and I stack-ranked the ones that were going to be most important.

My goal at the time was not extraordinary reach, it was engagement, and so I would privilege read ratio on a Medium post over impressions, and I would privilege engagements on Twitter, again, over impressions. So I put together these metrics, I would track against them, and then every month I would produce monthly reports. I would show them to other people on the team, even if they didn't want to see them because it at least held me accountable that it kept that buy-in going so I could keep allocating my time this way. And so from those reports, I came up with two to three things I could implement. You can get bogged down in data. Don't. What is the decision that you need to make? Is it that you need to A / B test your website? Is it that you need to A / B test your subject lines in your emails? Is it that your interviews are just not performing well and maybe you need to put together how-to guides? That's what you should be looking for: "What can I implement today?"

8.  I said “thank you”

“Thank you” is the most important part of all of this. I really believe that. Every time someone shares content for you, yes, it should be valuable, it should be spreadable, you're giving them something that they should want, right? But thank them. They took that stuff to help you, so thank them in an email, thank them in person, keep notes in your CRM about how they helped you, when they helped you, what campaigns they supported, etc. Then you can start tracking what they're more likely to support or not, which is really valuable.

I write four to five handwritten thank-you notes a week, and I would say that my career trajectory is marketably influenced by how many thank-you notes I have sent. Those handwritten notes, if they're meaningful, make a huge difference. I make my own stationery, I try to make it personal, but in that note, thank them for specifically what they did, what value that drove for you, what you think you're building together, and then one thing that's personal to them, whether it's a quote that you think would be meaningful to them, whether it was a conversation that you had that you want to harken back to or even if it's a compliment that's really genuine. Make that “thank you” count.

The Results

Well, now I have somewhat of a marketing budget, so clearly it was worth investing in. We went from four deals a year to 27, we're the most active investor as of last year and named by Pitch Book. That's a huge transformation. There's a reason for that. We were able to boost memberships and partnerships because our brand fundamentally changed.

Before, our members were just not the members we needed to have. Now, they includes Fortune 500 CEOS, tech leaders like Jellyvision and GoGo, etc. We were also able to increase our revenue in partnerships by building this strong name for ourselves. We built relationships that are profitable for us with VCs like Excel, NEA, Greycroft, Bain Capital Ventures – these are the top-quartile VCs on the coast. We were also able to get that community recognition so that entrepreneurs knew who we were and we could get into the best deals, which fed into building our memberships and partnerships. If entrepreneurs are using your content all the time to improve, they believe that you can provide support and help.

We were featured in Mattermark Daily when it was still around basically every week, more than Brad Feld at one point, which is my claim to fame. I can say that I'm more influential than him, at least in that one newsletter environment. Because of the relationships I was able to build with reporters, we generated 658 pieces of earned media, and that's on a national level as well. Our name became a lot better known, so overall, I think the results were positive.