An epiphany can materialize in any number of disguises. For Joe Chernov, it arrived as a blog post written by HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan. It was titled “Is PR Dead?”
It was 2009, and for the previous 15 years Chernov had made his living in PR. But reading Halligan’s post felt like he had been punched in the pancreas. The post basically cast the PR industry as an endangered species, a vanishing gazelle among the growing thicket of social media and content platforms. Suddenly Chernov felt as relevant as a switchboard operator.
“I was like ‘Uh-oh, I’ve gotta rethink my career,’” he says. “I just knew [Brian] was right because of my initial reaction: I tried to find fault with his argument. I responded to it by commenting that PR is becoming a cobbled-together monstrosity and I asked, ‘is Frankenstein dead or alive?’ And the fact that I couldn’t shake this feeling told me something was happening there, and I knew, at some time in the future, I needed to get out of PR and pivot into something else.”
“I was like ‘Uh-oh, I’ve gotta rethink my career.’”
But the Halligan post represented only the first punch absorbed by Chernov in a quick one-two combo. While trying to pivot toward a career in social media and inbound marketing, he interviewed with an agency and brought his PR portfolio—clips of CBS Evening News, The Economist and other A-list placements. The interviewer looked at it and said, “Great. How many Twitter followers do you have?”
Chernov nearly broke into a sweat. “I thought Oh, damn, I am screwed,” he says, at that point feeling an acute urgency for career reinvention. He eventually took a job in a PR/social media role with Eloqua, where his first moment of enlightenment on his new path occurred.
“The fact that I couldn’t shake this feeling told me something was happening.”
“If you beg, borrow and steal to try to get a journalist to write about your company specifically, the odds of success in getting that ‘paragraph one’ story are very slim,” he says. “That just never happens anymore. But the first thing I learned was that if you publish something that gets shared in social and people naturally gravitate to it, and you use that as the tip of the spear in PR, then you can get paragraph two for your company.”
The light had switched on, and for Chernov this understanding of “hacking PR” was the key to his evolution in content marketing. “The first metrics I had for my content effort were PR metrics,” he says. “How much press was it ginning up?”
Realizing that his PR skills had equipped him only for top of funnel marketing, he endeavored to address the deficiencies in his technical chops for lower funnel content. “There are technical people and technical roles in every company,” he says. “I have had to train myself to tune in deliberately when I feel myself tuning out, which tends to happen for most of us when the conversation strays out of our comfort zone. There's more than enough opportunity for us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge if we simply engage when our reflex is to disengage.”
“I have had to train myself to tune in deliberately when I feel myself tuning out.”
The self-training in inbound eventually landed him at Hubspot, where, in a sense, his anxiety had been hatched by Halligan years earlier. He had interviewed several times with the company over the last few years. By 2013, the fit was right. As the VP of content, he oversees the mammoth that is the HubSpot content farm, where more than 2 million eyeballs every month visit the trio of agency, marketing or sales blogs. His future plans for HubSpot’s content are ambitious.
“We have 13,500 customers and we have access to each one of those portals and everything they’ve done in HubSpot,” he says. “So I want to hire a research analyst to mine that data and look for patterns and then produce original research, the kind of research you would expect to be published by a Forrester, but we will have primary data: what marketers are actually doing and how it’s working.”
“CEOs and VPs are just not going to download an e-book, certainly not at scale.”
Just recently, HubSpot debuted a Podcast, The Growth Show. Produced by HubSpot marketing manager Dave Gerhardt, and hosted by CMO Mike Volpe, the podcast is an interview style chat with CEOs about both marketing and more general business development topics, with the expectation that it won’t convert C-suite execs into buyers—(Chernov warns to never attach a lead-generation KPI to somebody whose title begins a with a C or V.)
“We’re not trying to convert them,” he says. “That’s a really important distinction. CEOs and VPs are just not going to download an e-book, certainly not at scale. We want them to think of HubSpot as being for them. Right now we’re not as front-of-mind as we’d like it to be for the CEO or CMO herself.”
“A lot of the growth just comes from straight-up hustle.”
The Growth Show debuted in early 2015 as the fifth most downloaded podcast on iTunes. “We obviously have an unfair advantage where we have two million monthly readers blog about our podcast,” says Chernov. “But a lot of the growth just comes from straight-up hustle. Apple put us on the front page of New and Noteworthy, and that’s not from our marketing, that’s because there’s some meritocracy out there and the content is good.”
After all, if the content has no merit—be it a podcast, blogpost, e-book or video—it’s unlikely to create an epiphany for the audience, and no PR person can tell you otherwise.