November 28, 2016
Aaron Orendorff is Saving the World from Bad Content
Aaron Orendorff is your “stereotypical Northwestern outdoorsy guy” with a marketing backstory that’s anything but stereotypical. We sat down with Aaron to talk through his obsession with getting rejected, his mission as a marketer, and how one of the toughest seasons of his life led to a blossoming blogging career.
Finding viral success
Love him or hate him, the Obama campaign changed the presidential game when he raised a record-breaking $1.1 billion in total funds in 2012. $690 million of that, or about 62.7%, came through “various web properties”, many of which were headed up by one man, Kyle Rush, the former Head of Optimization at Optimizely and Hillary Clinton’s deputy CTO throughout her run. Aaron connected with Kyle a few months ago for the Unbounce piece: Clinton vs. Trump: 18 CROs Tear Down the Highest Stakes Marketing Campaigns in US History. The article also featured expert opinions from most of the household marketing names you can think of, like Neil Patel and Oli Gardner. Since being published, it’s been shared nearly 7,000 times, quoted by Inc., Entrepreneur and the Huffington Post, and has become Unbounce’s undisputed top-post of the year (they even wrote a post _about that post__ … I know: meta)_. It’s success, and the list of contributors, was a “dream come true” according to Aaron. The way it took off was “unbelievable”. Aaron’s taken that same approach and process, applying it to Copyblogger’s most-shared post of the last two years, a Content Marketing Institute post that he believes will be the “biggest of the year”, and even a SaaS property rental company (where it’s “been demolishing”). His iconiContent playbook is straightforward: Find irresistibly newsworthy topics on Google trends, do boring keyword research, and use proven email scripts to get buy-in with influencers before a post ever goes live. Then rinse and repeat. (Side note: iconiContent is pronounced Iconic Content. “Don’t be clever when you name your business”, quibbed Aaron.) His Clinton vs. Trump post was a milestone. A pinnacle. And a launching off point for his career and life into 2017. All driven by a singular, insatiable mission.
Save the world from bad content.
It’s fair to say that most content marketing…is junk. Despite the popularity, the buzzwords, and glowing statistics, most of the stuff being churned out on a daily basis by the business world is garbage. One of the reasons is because it’s trying to do too many things. Example? Several of Aaron’s clients have approached the idea of running a blog post to promote their booth at an upcoming event. Instead of creating something that people will love, like a top tools list or tips to have an amazing conference, they want to pump out the same old “come and see our booth” message. The result is that people see through the sales message and ignore it. In that vein, it’s unfortunate that the phrase “content marketing” is a misnomer. “The two concepts couldn’t be further apart,” says Aaron. In fact, there should be a brick wall, with barb wire, and a moat on either side of “content” and a company’s “marketing.” Otherwise, the two messages get mixed up and dilute each other’s potency. Landing pages and copywriting should convert, sure. But content marketing should entertain, delight, attract…and even save. That might sound kind of deep for any kind of marketing, but content marketing’s aspirational goal should always be to “save [people] from some hell and deliver unto them heaven”. Aaron chose this mantra not just because of his background in seminary, but because these visceral and transcendent terms get at the meat of what you’re trying to do with great content. Namely, speaking to people’s honest business struggles that they’re fearful of admitting. For example, a recent client of Aaron’s had a rough 2016. Yet their upcoming State of the Union to the company was chock-full of the standard fluff and puff you’d expect to see. Rather than publish the piece straight away, Aaron pushed back. “These are highlights”, he said in a curt email. “I need the lowlights because that’s what everyone inside the organization is thinking and feeling. Until you deal with the elephants, nobody will hear ‘What’s next’”. “Telling the truth is dangerous and powerful”, Aaron remarked. And he would know.
“Let’s get rejected”
Aaron obtained his BS in English, before attending seminary for graduate work. He went on to teach college communication six years ago, drawing on his experiences and mentors from seminary. But a new job in the middle of rural Oregon four years ago changed things. He was “building a bomb in his life for two to three years.” It was the usual suspects; drugs, alcohol, resentment, and expectations. They took over, leading to a downward spiral. Aaron lost his job, his family, his home. Eventually he was able to rent a room from a guy on Craigslist. “Thankfully he didn’t do a background check,” said Aaron. But necessity is the mother of invention. Without many other options, Aaron was forced to start from scratch. He devoured everything and anything marketing-related, eventually picking himself up through blogging. In June of this year, Aaron gave a talk at Unbounce’s Call To Action conference. His parting words to the 1,000 in attendance? “Let’s get rejected”. The inspiration came from a visceral place. It was a plea. A rallying cry. It signified the attitude it takes to “get back up after a client tells you something sucks”. To “get back up from rejection from guest posting”. To get back up when you’re forced to start from scratch. The point isn’t to celebrate failure, but to learn from it, embrace it, and then move on as quickly as possible. The first time Aaron reached out to Hillary Clinton’s CTO, Kyle Rush—prior to the viral Unbounce article—it was actually for a Smashing Magazine piece. He went through the entire lengthy process. He even put together the article in code for them, despite having “no idea how to do it”. And on the last step? It was rejected. When you embrace these failures along the way, a funny thing happens. Their effect loses power. They’re not as crushing or debilitating as they used to be. And counterintuitively, sharing these vulnerabilities make you more human. It helps others empathize, connecting with who you are and what you’re saying on a fundamentally different level. Because at the end of the day, people want to know that “you’re human like them”.
The routine path to progress
Research is time-consuming, boring, and can reek of routine and monotony. Yet there’s no way around it. In order to write something of value, you must sit down and go through the surveys, the reviews, the data, and the crap. Each and every time you write. Each and every day you wake up. Because somewhere down there, in between the dumb Facebook comments from angry customers or the insightful trending data which piques your interest, you find the hell. And the heaven. What’s Aaron’s favorite online tool for all this research? “A Google spreadsheet.” “They’re not fun. Or sexy. But my research notes are what make good sales copy.” Just a few weeks ago, Aaron submitted his resignation to the local community college he was still teaching at. Despite his fondness of it, he says it’s time to double down on his blossoming writing career. When asked about current marketing trends, Aaron says that even the formula for growth hacking comes back to “asking customers questions, getting to know them, and then trying stuff out”. In other words, it’s still human psychology. It’s still “the fundamentals.” Instead of rushing off to recommend the latest Inbound.org hack then as a parting tip, he instead thoughtfully remarks, “Get good at the basics and fundamentals”. “Because they take a lifetime to master.”