It’s not every day you get to talk to the “godfather of content marketing” about his roots, but that day arrived for us last month, and Joe Pulizzi did not disappoint. 

Joe describes himself as an author, entrepreneur and the founder of Tilt Publishing, an imprint focused on helping content entrepreneurs launch their book projects. But you may know him as the founder of Content Marketing Institute and its flagship event, Content Marketing World. Joe’s written eight books, including a novel, and he works with the nonprofit Orange Effect Foundation to fundraise for kids who need speech therapy and equipment assistance. 

But let’s rewind a bit to where this all started. The year was 2000, and Joe was working at Penton Media, then the biggest B2B media company in all of North America. His department was called “custom media” and, by Joe’s own account, no one cared about it. 

Rebranding From ‘Custom Media’ to ‘Content Marketing’ 

The custom media department was responsible for helping companies like Microsoft and Autodesk tell better stories. At first, that looked like custom magazines, and then it evolved into newsletters and mini-magazines. Later, as technology changed, social media and podcasting was on the menu. 

Joe was in love with his job. 

“It was the purest way to market,” he says. “I could send my customers valuable, relevant, compelling information that wasn’t a sales pitch. I could build an audience and have them come to know and trust us, and actually profit from that as part of marketing. I was sold.” 

But Joe recognized why no one cared about custom media. There was a larger branding issue. Why would marketers care about what the custom media folks did when they couldn’t readily identify its connection to marketing?

In 2007, Joe left to start his own company — what became Content Marketing Institute. He also launched a blog called Content Marketing Revolution. Before that, the term “content marketing” wasn’t really used. But again, Joe knew why “custom media” — sometimes also called “branded journalism,” “branded content,” or “custom publishing” — wasn’t getting any attention from marketers.

“You had to call it _____ marketing,” Joe explains. “Content marketing. So I went out with this new thing, and I treated it like it had always been called that. It took a few years, and then a bunch of people from the industry started to gather around the concept.”

In 2011, Content Marketing World began with the hope of attracting 150 marketers to Cleveland. Instead, 660 people showed up. Four years later, that number skyrocketed to 4,000. 

“We went from literally nothing, to just this concept,” Joe recalls, “and we hoped and prayed it would be a thing. And now content marketing is a part of every major enterprise on the planet.” 

Enter Every Role With Your Exit Plan in Mind 

Joe has had an incredible career, but it didn’t happen by chance. Even as he started Content Marketing Institute, he had the end in sight. He believes there’s something to the “seven-year itch” with content creators in the industry, who get to that point and then start looking for something else to do. 

(A great example of this is Matthew Patrick, who built the YouTube series “Game Theorists” and its spinoff series before retiring at age 37.) 

When you start any new role, Joe recommends you have your exit plan in mind. Otherwise, someone else will create it for you, and that’s bad. 

“It’s not easy to do,” Joe emphasizes. “You really have to get into the whole Simon Sinek thing and realize, what is your ‘why’ — why are you here? What’s your purpose? What’s your expertise area that can truly make an impact on others?” 

“Those are deep questions you should be asking yourself consistently, and what I’ve found is that most content creatives don’t do that,” Joe continues. “They get into an area that they’re passionate about. They start some kind of content activity. It goes from there. But they’ve never asked themselves, ‘Where do I want to take this?'”  

Mapping out where you want to go in your role — whether you’re working for yourself or someone else — helps you make better decisions in that role. 

For example, Joe knew when starting Content Marketing Institute that he needed to get to $10 million in revenue and $2.5 million in profit in order to sell it by 2015. The numbers weren’t quite there as the deadline approached, so he made moves — purchasing an awards program, adding a West Coast technology event and more — to get the company where it needed to be. None of those strategic decisions would have happened without Joe having an exit plan. 

‘All I Want Is for Marketers to Have Options’ 

Joe urges all marketers to have personal projects, even if you’re in-house at a company. 

“Now, more than ever before, you need your own website,” he says. The website can be simple — just publish it so Google can crawl it, people can find you and your expertise, and you can start building your brand. 

“That way, someday you have options. That’s all I want marketers to have,” Joe says. “If you have this opportunity 20, 25, 30 years down the line at the same company to become CMO and reach all of your dreams — wonderful. But that happens about 0.5% of the time, and it’s going to happen less and less.

“We’re staying at jobs less frequently, but there are more businesses starting than ever before. We’re becoming the United States of solopreneurs,” Joe continues. “Set yourself up for that opportunity. Play with AI tools, find your content tilt and the differentiation that you can use to break through the clutter of everyone else doing what you’re doing.” 

You can’t go too niche with differentiation, either. If you’re thinking you’ll start a newsletter or a show for a big audience, you’re thinking too broad. You want to pick something that you could theoretically become the leading authority on. That might seem lofty, but it’s possible if you pick a narrow enough niche. 

Need proof that this works? Look no further than Joe’s origin story. “I was lucky enough in 2007 to focus on this thing called ‘content marketing.’ No one else called it that or was talking about it,” he says. “I leaned into it, and it was a risk, but it paid off, and it seems like that’ll continue until I decide to stop what I’m doing.”