The “Editorial Cabinet” Tactic, or the Easiest Content Marketing Value-Add Ever

(Skip to this section if you want to ignore additional exposition, rants, and context, and just learn what the Editorial Cabinet tactic is and how to use it. You should know, however, that people who always seek the summary or TLDR version tend not to be as interesting in conversation. Caveat Emptor.).

You know that signal-to-noise problem in content marketing people always talk about (AKA “content shock”)?

It’s tough to break through the noise nowadays, right?

I’m pretty sure shitty roundup posts (along with fake case studies, rehashed listicles, and misguided ‘10x content’) make up the vast majority of mediocre noise on the internet. Bad content with little to no actual utility for the reader. Mirage content.

The idea is this: roundup posts are a form of cheap content (you don’t have to write most of it, and if you’re truly lazy, you barely have to curate it), and you get a bunch of embedded content promotion potential. The assumption is that those included on your roundup post will be grateful for the exposure, so they’ll all share it.

Once they share it, the assumption follows, links will come and ongoing traffic will permeate your analytics, showing your boss that, yes, blogging does bring business.

Lots of faulty assumptions here, but I’ve already covered those in other articles. Let’s cover a different aspect of these cheap posts: they’re a pain to read!

It’s not that including experts in your posts is the problem. That’s absolutely not the problem; we need *more* subject matter expert written content.

The problem is bad curation and lazy editorial. The tactic I use to make expert quotes much more valuable is called the “editorial cabinet” technique.

You might find it helpful, or you might find it banal (spoiler: it’s basically just journalism).

The “Editorial Cabinet” Tactic: A Journalistic Win/Win

Experience is the most expensive commodity, because the cost is time and focus, and not money (which can be leveraged and is replenish-able).

To an extent, the resource costs of hiring amazing writers, even the best in the world, is capped, and usually tapers off asymptotically as you get diminishing returns paying beyond a certain amount for a blog post.

That specific cost depends on a lot of things, such as the industry, the state of the economy, and your negotiating prowess.

However, not every subject matter expert is also a good writer, and most writers aren’t true subject matter experts.

This is actually very rare.

If you can both walk the walk and talk about, you’ll undoubtedly become very successful. Outside of writing about writing, blogging about blogging, marketing to marketers, and other insular spaces (communicators *should* be able to communicate about communicating – that’s the default), there are very few people I personally know like this.

Of course, there are some that come to mind who can both write well and are deeply knowledgeable in their field. In experimentation/data science, I think of Peep Laja, Ronny Kohavi, Lizzie Eardley, or Emily Robinson. In SEO, I think of Ross Hudgens, Britney Muller, or Aleyda Solis. In health and wellness, I think of Dr. Rhonda Patrick or Dr. Peter Attia.

When building a content program, you may be able to find someone like this to run things, but it’s very unlikely (they’re going to be expensive and very in demand – the odds are you can’t compete with their other opportunities).

So this is where the constant argument and false dichotomy comes in: do you hire writers or subject matter experts for a content marketing program?

Of course, the real world answer is “it depends,” but more helpfully, it’s “use a mixture of both.”

Without beating around the bush, you want to hire a writer or editor to work with subject matter experts. That way, you borrow someone’s hard won expertise and experience, but it’s written in a clean and readable style and format that the reader can actually read (and enjoys reading).

It’s painfully obvious when a technical topic is written by a writer who has never done the work they are writing about. I could tell within two paragraphs when I used to edit CXL articles.

(Side rant: writers without subject matter expertise pining for search rankings have arguably ruined A/B testing and other topics for a large amount of new readers to the topic. They spread pernicious myths and misinformation to the extent that new practitioners had an uphill battle getting even the basic stuff right. No one even knows what “conversion optimization” even means anymore, and the same thing happened with “growth” and “SEO,” and lots of other principally useful things. That’s why CXL Institute (and other programs like it) was and is such a success – a fountain of high-integrity content built by actual experts but edited by professional editors.)

So, what’s the “Editorial Cabinet” tactic? (This is the only important section of this whole article)

Hire a professional writer or content editor to head up your program, yet work with a ‘cabinet’ of true industry experts and practitioners to craft the brunt of your content.

Don’t send emails asking them for their “number ONE tip for acquiring leads,” or other basic, lazy questions. Act like a journalist. Get on a call every once in a while. Do a ton of research and reading, and then come to them with tailored, respectful, and interesting questions.

Use their answers in the blog post you’re writing.

Maybe your company sells digital analytics software, so you write about adjacent subjects such as A/B testing, basic statistical analysis, and customer experience. So you have 3-5 experts in a CRM, spreadsheet, or little black book who you can reach out to when you’re writing a piece on a given topic. You actually color code experts by their specific domain, and you’re continually adding to this document as you learn the space better (read more books, attend more webinars, listen to more podcasts, go to more conferences, etc.). It takes time. You’ve never resorted to finding ‘influencers’ from a tool like BuzzSumo or a “who to follow on Twitter” listicle. You want real experts.

You do several hours of research on your topic of choice (the topic, of course, that you discovered from a combination of customer research – namely your blog reader survey – and SEO keyword research to quantify the opportunity). You read what else is out there on the topic, you even buy a book on the topic (let’s call that topic A/B testing statistics). You read a couple academic papers, and you’ve got a good outline.

Now, and only now, do you reach out and see if you can trouble your ‘cabinet advisors’ in that area to ask a few questions.

If they’re willing, you email them some questions, or maybe you get on a call and record it and transcribe it later. In any case, you’ve got a couple good quotes to add to the article.

Lucky you, one of the experts (his name is Matt Gershoff) even helped you fix some faulty assumptions in how you were initially going to frame the article in the first place. He gives you some metaphor about cheese and milk, and you decide to throw that in the article as well..

Blogs I Like That Use the “Editorial Cabinet” Tactic

I discovered the “Editorial Cabinet” tactic while working at CXL.

When I first started, I had very little knowledge of online controlled experiments or conversion rate optimization, so I needed to bolster my own knowledge and research capabilities with people who had been there and done that.

Through Peep’s network and introductions and my own outreach, I began interviewing CRO practitioners and including their quotes in my article. I studied Journalism in college, and this felt like Journalism. It also worked perfectly, because it augmented my knowledge and made the articles better and more accurate.

It also helped build my network, and the practitioners who helped with the articles usually helped share the piece to their networks.

I’ll forever be grateful for the network of experts that helped me in the beginning by providing quotes, answering my dense questions, and inevitably, helping me do a better job at marketing CXL (people like the aforementioned Matt Gershoff, Andrew Anderson, Talia Wolf, and many more).

Now I’m actually pretty good at experimentation and consider myself a practitioner (to the detriment of my writing ability, which has slowly decayed and is now merely adequate).

But when I started, I used the Editorial Cabinet tactic as a matter of necessity so Peep wouldn’t fire me for publishing bad content.

Meanwhile, other blogs had more consciously adopted this as a holistic blog strategy, like:

Note: for some strange reason, the B2C and ecommerce worlds haven’t really tapped into this tactic, despite usually having tons of influencers in their niche. Expect that to change as more consumer brands invest in content with rising paid CAC. Feel free to send me examples or comment if there are any notable.

Recently, Kieran Flanagan and Scott Tousley interviewed Podia CMO, Len Markidan, on the Growth TL;DR podcast. In it, he discussed the “Inner Circle” tactic. Basically, when they started working on content at Groove, they asked all kinds of influencers to give them feedback on their content and added their quotes in the piece before publishing.

Hearing this, I was immediately reminded: this is basically what we did at CXL!

It sounded like, at least in retrospect, Groove’s aim was a bit more strategic – they wanted to build in an inherent promotion spike, so they got the influencers to feel ownership over the article (IKEA Effect).

I actually think the best way to look at this tactic is first a way to get better content quality, and only as a bonus, to increase the reach of your piece. Turns out there are a lot of charlatans with lots of Twitter followers, so going after “influencers” only is a bad play.

How to Pull Off the “Editorial Cabinet” Tactic (Los Específicos)

This is just my opinion, but the more curated your cabinet of experts, the better. The goal of this tactic is actually to create better content, and a promotion boost is only an emergent property.

If you look at it only as a promotion boost, your incentive structure will lead you to the bottom, writing uncurated lists of “100+ experts give their #1 tip on giving expert quotes.”

I’ve been included in tons of these uncurated lists, and let me tell you two things:

  • No one likes reading them
  • Even though I’m included in the list, I’m not going to share it. I feel no affinity for the editors that include me in uncurated roundup posts, and I don’t want to subject what little audience I have to uncurated laziness.

Act Like a Journalist: Gather the Best Sources

Contrast that to this great article on seasonal A/B testing from the brilliant Shanelle Mullin at Shopify.

It’s sprinkled with quotes from experts, but they’re all carefully picked practitioners, and Shanelle, while using expert quotes, controls the narrative of the article in the end.

Her voice is what you remember, and it’s not just a loose collection of quotes strung together to try to rank for whatever keyword.

Now, if Shanelle asked me for a backlink or to share her recent article, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Of course, I’m friends with Shanelle, but even if I weren’t, when she reached out to ask for a quote in this piece, it felt like she actually wanted to know what I thought.

It wasn’t a transactional thing where she clearly just wanted a bunch of “influencers” to share the piece when it goes live.

Create an Expert Database: the G2 Method

It’s easy enough to keep a personal list of contacts if you’re running a small content program. Even at CXL, I usually knew off the top of my head who I wanted to ask about a given topic. But what happens when you scale a content program and have like 10 writers working on different topics?

More so, what if you happen to run a content agency (hire us ahorita) and work with several different clients in different spaces?

Here’s where I think G2 has been super innovative. They have two external databases, one where people can sign up to give quotes on an area of their expertise, and one where they can sign up to be guest writers.

I’ve also been told they have an internal database where internal subject matter experts are tagged and can give interviews or quotes for more technical pieces. It’s like they made their own GLG consultant network, where content marketers can pick the brain of an expert at their own companies. Brilliant.

What Not To Do: An Optional Rant Mini-Sermon in Praise of Earnestness

Don’t be transactional. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t try to “trick” people. Just be straightforward and respect people’s time and expertise. Go into these things genuinely, seeking not only to better your content, but to better your own knowledge. It’s easy to become cynical, automating and delegating away all of the work you feel you’re too good to do. But I always love seeing people take pride in the craft, no matter what they’re doing but especially with content. People will read this and you owe it to the world to put out the best piece of work you can. If for no other reason, do it because your ego refuses to attach bad work to your good name.

And never, never, ever, send a canned email with a finished article to someone you don’t know and ask them “give some feedback.”

Don’t be a weiner – you know you don’t want feedback, so don’t try to be clever. Respect people and their time.

Conclusion

Content creation is hard and expensive, especially if you operate in a niche or technical market. Normally you have to find employees who both deeply know the topic at hand and can write well AND know marketing stuff (promotion, SEO, etc.).

There is a workaround though, and it’s basically that you hire great writers that act like journalists. You build an ‘editorial cabinet’ of experts in your industry who you can interview, grab quotes from, and collaborate with. I’m not talking about shitty, lazy roundup posts, but more like real journalism, where you take pride in the craft and the end product.

This is a great way to improve your content quality, lower the pressure on your content writers, build in a network for promotion, and network within your industry. In my opinion, there’s no downside.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

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