Russ Ruffino and The Marketing Myth that is Killing this Generation

Publications / December 19, 2015

This article was originally featured on


You blog. You tweet. You post daily podcasts. You get LinkedIn. You create endless YouTube videos. You build a presence on Instagram and Snapchat and Pinterest. Then, fingers crossed, you hope that you build a tribe that loves you. Then, fingers crossed again, you hope they buy from you. It’s called content-first marketing, and it rarely works. Sure, you may get tons of likes on Facebook, but if it doesn’t help you build a business, it isn’t worth it.

There’s a better way.

Over the past two years, I’ve built a multimillion-dollar company with one piece of content. Just one.

Here was the key.

In the beginning, instead of using the “spray and pray” approach, I obsessively focused on a “problem-first” approach. For months in 2013, all I did was:

  • Zero in on the one problem we were solving.
  • Search for customers with that problem.
  • Refine our advertising and content to speak only to that problem.

I tested the messaging relentlessly until everything clicked. When it did, my business went from $10,000 per month to $200,000 per month in just one month and has stayed there ever since.

As a result of the problem-first focus and testing, our sales process is extremely simple. We drive traffic to a single piece of content through advertising on Facebook and Twitter, and then invite anyone who’s interested in working with us to reach out to a strategy session over the phone to see if we’re a mutual “fit” for working together. Nearly 95 percent of our clientele have never heard of us before clicking on that first ad, and they make their initial purchase within 48 hours of the first click.

None of this would be possible if we had followed the faulty assumptions of the content-first strategy.

Faulty assumption No. 1: If you create content, people will consume it.

The amount of content we all collectively create every year is increasing exponentially, yet our attention spans remain the same. It means that the average blog post, podcast, or video is going to get fewer and fewer views. Bad news for the average content creator.

That is, unless you create great content. Doing this successfully takes a huge amount of time, money, and energy. If you’re busy pouring your heart and soul into your new business, those three things are in very short supply.

It could take a year or two before you start seeing a sizable tribe (and that’s only if you’re sharing fantastic content on a regular basis). Chances are, you’re either spending hours each week struggling to keep up with creating content (which the majority of marketers eventually hate doing) or you’re outsourcing the content-related tasks and paying handsomely for it. Either way, you’re spending a hell of a lot of time or money now for results that may or may not come years down the road!

Faulty assumption No. 2: If you build a tribe, they will buy from you when you release a product.

Imagine scaling a tribe for years before finally offering something to them, only to find out your sales aren’t nearly what you’d expected. It happens all the time. Just because someone loves your content, it doesn’t mean that the person needs your product, is able to afford it, or will choose your product over a better one.

You do not want to end up two years down the road, 100,000 tribe members later, with only a handful of sales. It’s not worth your time or the risk. When do you want to know if your sales funnel works? Right now!

A synthesis of 32 studies on trust and sales clearly shows that consumers would rather buy from a company that has expertise and can solve their problem, than from one they like. A global study of 6,000 sales reps from 100 companies by the Sales Executive Council found that sales reps who focus on relationship building comprise only 7 percent of top sales performers.

Bottom line: Just because someone likes you, it doesn’t mean he or she is going to buy from you. Instead of building an audience of people who might have your problem in the future, you should seek out the people who definitely have your problem today.

Faulty assumption No. 3: Startups should put energy into turning browsers into buyers.

The content-first approach implies that startups should target browsers: people who do not want to purchase your product right now, but may want to in the future.

A much more reliable approach is targeting buyers who know exactly what problem they’re facing, feel the pain of it, and want a solution now.

If you treat buyers like browsers, they’ll feel like you’re wasting their time. When you walk into a car dealership, you don’t want a keychain or a hat or a list of The 11 Best Songs to Listen to While Driving-you want a car.

Instead of spending months (or years) trying to convert browsers into buyers, you should be laser-focused on buyers and give them what they want now.

Faulty assumption No. 4: People won’t buy unless you’ve invested a great deal of time in the relationship.

It is an ugly myth that you need to build a relationship with people over months to sell them a product, even a high-priced one. Research shows that 75 percent of online shoppers buy within one hour of being on the site, with 45 percent deciding to purchase in less than 15 minutes.

This is no less true for B2B companies that have longer sales cycles: A 2012 MarketingSherpa study shows that 49 percent of B2B sales close in less than three months.

Bottom line: When we have a painful problem and are looking for a solution, we prefer to move fast.

Seth Godin predicted that permission marketing would replace advertising. It hasn’t.

The unofficial father of the content-first approach is Seth Godin. His 1999 best-selling book, Permission Marketing, predicted that advertising would be replaced by permission marketing:

“Rather than simply interrupting a television show with a commercial, or barging into the consumer’s life with an unannounced phone call or letter, tomorrow’s marketer will first try to gain the consumer’s consent to participate in the selling process.”

True to Godin’s prediction, 16 years later, the entire world of social media is based on the idea of “following” others. However, the other half of Godin’s prediction hasn’t come true. And it won’t.

Advertising is still the main way that businesses get customers, and it’s becoming even more important. It’s the main business model of many of the largest internet companies, including Google and Facebook. Last year, Google made a little over $59 billion on advertising alone, accounting for 89.5 percent of the company’s revenue.

My point? Startups don’t need to spend years (or even months) building up permission before they start selling. Content is an effective strategy for companies with a proven product and money to throw around. But for the resource-strapped entrepreneur, it is a dangerous sinkhole.

There is a much quicker, better path to your end goal.

The problem-first approach

Instead of creating 50 videos, blog posts, and podcasts, why not create one phenomenal piece of content that speaks directly to the problem that your client has today, and let that one piece of content do the selling for you?

I call this the “problem-first” approach.

Rather than focusing on creating mountains of content your audience may not need, focus like a laser on what they do need: a solution to their problem.

Bottom line: Not only will you save precious time and money with the problem-first approach, you’ll also build a stronger tribe. Instead of your followers being a hodgepodge of lukewarm leads who “enjoy your content,” you will have a targeted group with the same exact problem who are committed to solving it, and who have been transformed by your product.

Take action

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself one question: “Is it a tribe that I’m trying to build or a business?” You can build all the tribe members you want, but if you aren’t actively selling to them, you don’t have a business. You have a following.

If you want to build a business, start with the problem first:

  • Discover what your market needs.
  • Help customers identify their deepest frustrations, and understand their problems.
  • Show them that you can get them out of those problems.
  • Paint the picture of how that will transform their life.
  • Ask them if they want help.

That’s where your No. 1 focus needs to be. Do all these things now. Not a year from now after you’ve built your tribe. (They may not even have the same problems then.) Not 8 months, or even 4 months from now. Right now.

Why wait? People that have a serious-enough problem aren’t looking to casually peruse your tribe-building content for eight months to get answers. Here’s the ugly truth: If their problem is real and big enough, they want it fixed. If you give them great reading material but aren’t fixing their big problem, they’ll move on to someone who will.

They don’t need endless pieces of content. They need solutions. Your solutions.

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Russ Ruffino
Founder & CEO of Clients on Demand. Helping coaches, consultants, thought-leaders and service pros attract the right clients, at the right price, anytime they want.

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December 19, 2015