Ilze Folkmane on why Printful is running a free business school

For Ilze, it all started with her love for writing. Going from a place where she had to google the term “content marketing” prior to her job interview, to then working her way up to becoming the communications manager for Latvia’s first unicorn Printful. Ilze Folkmane has become a modern content marketing wonder child, proving that the best of marketers come from all walks of life.


Printful is an on demand printing and fulfilment company that helps people turn their ideas into brands and products. Since their founding in 2013, they've been trusted to deliver 36M+ items, and Printful has scaled to a team of 1,800+ people. Printful counts 9 fulfillment centers in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Mexico, and partner facilities in Japan, Australia, and Brazil.


This interview originally appeared on our podcast.


You elevator pitch as a content marketer – shoot!


I started in content marketing four years ago. I had to literally google it prior to my job interview and got really lucky because I love writing and how you can use language for different purposes. Consequently, I got hired at Printful and thanks to the amazing growth of the company itself, I’ve been able to learn so much about content marketing. I started as a content marketing specialist, learned the basics, became a content marketing project manager and later, found myself leading a communications team full of amazing content marketers. During these four years, I’ve been able to develop and know content marketing inside out.


Looking back at these four years of intense work, what have been the biggest lessons?


Content creation is only 50% of content marketing, distribution makes up half of it. You can write amazing content, use all the SEO keywords you can imagine, but unless you think as much about the distribution, it’s not going to matter. Might seem obvious for experienced marketers, but for us at Printful it took some time to really sink in. That’s why we created a lot of checklists that once you finish writing a blog, this is what you need to do to get the content out there.


One of the biggest mistake is overselling your service or company. How do you find a good balance between satisfying the needs of your reader and at the same time, not forgetting to tell how good your company is?


It’s a very delicate balance. I think Latvians and Estonians are hesitant when it comes to selling directly. Under-marketing fits us very well.

It hasn’t been a problem for us because we always remember that providing value to the customer is our top priority. You are never going to provide value by being too aggressive. We love Printful and truly believe that our services help people reach the goals that they have. By believing in our product as well as providing additional value, I think we managed to strike the right balance between being useful to the readers and also promoting Printful as a company. Moreover, a lot of us didn’t start as content marketers, we were people who loved language and were focused on getting out the best possible content, as opposed to focusing on the marketing side of it.


Can you please describe Printful’s content marketing strategy? What are the goals?


We have a lot of goals because we create a lot of different content. Overall, I would say our main goal is to educate our customers because we only succeed if our customers succeed. We need to give them as much value as possible so they become better e-commerce sellers. Every piece of content is meant to educate our customers on some specific topics. It can be e-commerce, design or even marketing. And then for each separate channel, we obviously have more specific goals, whether it’s readership or registrations.


So you are like a business school.


We are basically running a business school as a side hustle. This year we launched Printful Academy, which is a series of video courses on e-commerce and marketing.



How can you make sure that Printful benefits form the free education that you provide? People can use these skills in other areas of life, not necessarily connected to Printful.


In short, we can’t. The knowledge that you put out there, it’s not always going to be used by people who are using your products and services. That’s fine. Whenever they will have a need for a print on demand service, they will think of Printful, because they see us as experts in this field. Attribution is still a big problem in marketing and it’s a risk you have to take if you want to go into content marketing.


Given that attribution is tricky, how do you measure your work?


We look at different numbers depending on the channel that we are measuring. But it doesn’t always boil down to numbers. Lately, there has been a lot of talk, in B2B marketing specifically, that you can’t attribute everything you do and you have to make peace with it.

I’ve been lucky to have a CEO who understands it. A lot of it goes into brand awareness or just general knowledge about Printful. As long as everyone on the team understands that, I think it’s okay not to measure everything that you do.


Printful is a global company. How do you make sure that the content you create is culturally acceptable to a global audience?


I’m not going to lie, we’ve had some problems with it because sometimes we are not as aware of current events or lack some general cultural background knowledge. As I mentioned, a lot of our content writers are actually philologists or cultural anthropologists, hence they are very sensitive to how different cultures perceive information. We also have a very strict proofreading and editing process, meaning that every piece of content is seen by at least two people. We are more likely to catch any mistakes or insensitivities this way.


When it comes to international content, we also have an international content marketing team who speaks the language of that particular country. We have a variety of different nationalities represented. For the US, most of our writers are actually Latvian. It’s not their first language but we try to keep up with the latest news and trends to be aware of.


How much is localised in terms of language?


We started out in English because our customers were mostly form the US. Obviously, English is very well-known nowadays, but there are people who prefer to use their native language, especially when it comes to complicated topics like e-commerce and print on demand.

Our first localisation was in Spanish. We localised the whole website and saw some great results in Spain and Latin America. Today we are a bit more picky with what we localise. We try to understand what core parts are important for that market. It’s not just about translating your content, it’s also about transcreation. There are some core parts of Printful that will be identical in all languages, but when it comes to additional content, our international team makes their own decisions, independent of what the English team does, because they know their target market best. You can’t really go global without going local.


What is your secret success formula for content distribution?


I’d be happy to share a formula, but given the amount of channels - what might have worked a couple of months ago doesn’t necessarily work today.

We have an email subscribers list. I think email is one of the more stable channels out there. We are also experimenting with social media.

We are very fond of experimentation. For example, we used to post links to every new piece of content and once we realised that it isn’t working, we started to provide snippets of quotes without even linking to the blog posts, just to give immediate value.

I think it’s important to not just focus on diving traffic to a piece of content, but morphing that same piece into other formats that work for that particular channel. Which again, is an attribution issue, but in the long run, it’s what attracts customers and provides value.



What about paid distribution?


We do a bit of both. Organic is the strongest, but we do also video or social media ads. Even if the content is great and performs well organically, that paid part can help you boost success a little bit farther. So if the budget allows, I highly suggest experimenting with the paid part of distribution.


What's your view on paid branded content in other media outlets? Have you done it?


We haven’t done it as much yet, because a lot of our customers are actually just one person trying to start a business. Philosophically, they are more a B2C customer. It’s easier to reach them on social media. But when it comes to larger customers like Coca-Cola or Dunkin Donuts, we are still looking for places where we could reach them. They are very selective about what they read, hence it’s hard to reach them organically. We try to experiment with newsletters where some of the content is paid and other similar outlets.


Many B2B companies have turned to account based marketing; creating personalised content to attract bigger clients. Have you tried it?


For some time now, we have been focusing on speaking to larger audiences. We are trying to create very specific content, that would appeal to that particular person or company. We haven’t seen amazing results yet, but I think there is a lot of potential here. Especially now, when segmentation is getting more difficult due to the different updates.



What’s your view on personas?


We definitely have our target audiences in mind, but I’m not a big fan of personas in general. It’s more important to address the job your customer needs to get done as opposed to their age or looks. Of course you still need to have an idea of their overall lifestyle and preferences, because that’s how you get in touch with them, but I don’t think we are going to get into personas in the nearest future.


What about reaching customers in exotic markets like Japan or Korea? Do you have a different strategy for these markets?


Printful is currently available in Japan and we have a separate Japanese content marketing team there. We certainly see different problems and challenges compared to Europe or the US even. When we translated Printful to Japanese, every piece of design and content was identical to our English website. The results weren’t great. One of our Japanese team members said that it doesn’t appeal to him because their sites look completely different. We decided to redo our design and saw immediate improvements in conversion rates.

You have to be ready to adapt a lot: the way you look, the way you talk, the way you run campaigns, the holidays you target etc. We are still learning.


Many influencers are using Printful to create their merchandise. Have you collaborated with them?


We have several levels of influencers. We are more focused on affiliate collaborations, but we are also using influencers to create user generated content. We can create thousands of nice pictures of our product, but nothing compares to the latter.


What about creating content in-house versus using agencies?


We have this quirk where we tend to do everything ourselves. Our marketing team currently has more than 100 people. Half of them are responsible for content. We have a content team, video team, social media team – we are creating most content in-house. Sometimes we use freelancers because it’s not scalable to create everything in-house. I think this works very well for us because people are familiar with the company, the values and goals. That allows us to create higher quality content and focus on the things that are important for Printful.


PR is often regarded as a superior discipline to content marketing and it can be hard to make the two work in harmony. How do you coordinate content marketing with PR activities?


We have a PR project manager who is very involved with our content team. She knows the type of content we are putting out and communicates that with the PR agencies, who in turn amplify it through their channels. PR is another distribution channel.


There is a lot of content already out there. Are you using some of that content and repackaging it or are you creating everything from scratch?


Most of our content is original. Obviously we look at what’s out there, but we mostly do it to understand what’s missing. We try to find the missing links. Moreover, the existing content is often quite poor in terms of quality.

Everything we create comes from our experience and we always try to add a unique touch. Prior to founding Printful, our founders we’re running an e-commerce store called Startup Vitamins and they realised that they were missing a print on demand service, which could provide good quality products. That’s how Printful was born.

We still use Startup Vitamins as a playing ground to understand our customers’ pressure points. A lot of our content is based on the learnings from Startup Vitamins, especially the financial part, which often lacking in the content you find online.


And finally, what resources would you recommend to other content marketers?


I’m a big fan of Dave Gerhardt, who provides a lot of value for B2B marketers on Facebook and LinkedIn. Recently, I’ve been reading about positioning and found a great book by April Dunford.

Honestly, I have yet to find a good resource on content writing. Most of it is very basic and missing an extra step that would really help content marketers develop their writing skills. So if anyone has any suggestions, I’m always open to those.