Why most marketing teams fail at content, with Skyler Reeves

January 12, 2022


Skyler Reeves, CEO & Founder of Ardent Growth, shares how he applies financial modeling to content marketing to drive ROI. He’s developed an algorithm to assess what TAM looks like for any given industry by analyzing keyword data. In this conversation, we cover:

  • How to apply financial modeling to content marketing plans
  • Why most teams fail at content marketing
  • The metrics marketing should and should not focus on
  • The importance of having a repeatable production process

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop podcast where we go in the trenches to help you learn more about digital marketing topics and trends. I’m your host John Tyerman. And I am joined today by Skyler Reeves, CEO and Founder of Ardent Growth, an agency that specializes in content marketing for SaaS companies. And we’re here to talk about why most teams fail at content marketing. Skyler, how’re you doing today?

Skyler Reeves:  Well, John. Thanks for having me on man.

John Tyreman:  Absolutely, yeah. I’m curious, in your bio, it says that you served as a combat medic in the Iraq War. First of all, I just want to thank you for your service. I’m curious, is there anything from that experience that has helped you in your digital marketing career?

Skyler Reeves:  Oh, without a doubt, I mean, so first of all, thanks for paying taxes. That’s always what I tell people when they thank us for our service because we never really know what to say. So yeah, I mean, there’s undoubtedly a lot of structure and like, you know, dealing with adversity, things like that, and kind of also being able to just roll with situations as they come upon you and adapt. But one of the biggest things that I will never forget to this day that sticks with me is we were in the middle of a training session and, which is not the same thing as hazing, and I remember Staff Sergeant said to me, you have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And that’s one thing that has stuck with me for a very long time. You know, whenever we’re working with a new business,  whether it’s in business or life, you know, anything, there’s always these unknown variables that pop up and kind of, you know, throw a wrench you know, in the system and mess things up and so they can get very uncomfortable and sometimes people like things just to be a very structured, ordered way, but learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable has helped a lot when it comes to adapting and just kind of saying, okay, like, this is the situation we’re in, what are we going to make of it?

John Tyreman:  Absolutely, and one of my favorite sayings is growth happens outside of your comfort zone. So if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable, then you’re in that growth zone. So I think that that’s absolutely a transferable experience and model and mentality. I want to get to why you think most teams fail with content marketing, but first I just want to ask you about your general marketing philosophy. Your Twitter bio says that you apply financial modeling to content strategy, and that really piqued my interest. What do you mean by that? Can you unpack that a little bit?

Skyler Reeves:  So whenever… It definitely would be helpful to clarify that, you know, when we’re talking about content strategy, we’re typically talking about within channels that are attributable and trackable. You know, because not every channel is and that’s not to say that you need to only focus on channels that are attributable as well, but we apply, like primarily to like things like SEO. You can apply it to paid as well, easily. It’s a lot easier to to apply it to paid, but I don’t think most people have a problem with that necessarily. But when it comes to SEO and trying to know in advance, how are we going to, you know, justify this investment. How do we know what the ROI is going to be? Or you know, you never know exactly right, like, and no CMO or CEO really expects accurate numbers or looking for directional accuracy to reduce risk, right? So yeah, our approach is to say like if you’re going to play in content, if organic SEO is the channel that you’ve chosen for distribution based on… could align to your business model and strategy and where your customers are and how they’re learning about your products or services and your TAM. Then you want to use some financial modeling to be able to know which content you need to create. I can unpack that a bit if you want. I can try to unpack it without being too elaborate, but I’ll let you let me know what you’d prefer there.

John Tyreman:  Sure, yeah. If you could just kind of go one level deeper under which you mean by that, I think that’d be really helpful.

Skyler Reeves:  Sure. So when we’re planning content strategy, what we’ll do is we want to assess what the TAM looks like for the industry that you’re in. And so you know, whether you’re local, national or global, etc, you know,you want to map out your TAM. We do that through keyword research primarily versus the kind of standard approach which looks at you know, taking your like current growth rate and user access rate, things like that and or the, you know, looking at like a Gartner report or something like that. But we say okay, look, if people are searching for things that’s indicative that there is search demand out there, and so we capture everything in the total gross market that we possibly can. It is a monumental amount of data. The problem with that data then becomes is like how do you actually make sense of it once you have it all. We developed an algorithm to do that for us. And in that algorithm, we’re able to map out let’s say you take, you know, half a million to a million keywords. They each have their own associated estimates on volume and traffic and CPC value and things like that, right? They map to different parts or multiple parts of the funnel which have various conversion rates, and you know what the value in terms of a customer would be? And so we map all this out closer together. That way, you’re able to group things and understand what’s the value of each sort of cluster of content. And the way we do that is we say okay, look at search volume. Look at the SERP layout, you know, how does the SERP look is there… so that’s the search engine results page if you search something on Google. You know, sometimes you’re gonna have a local pack, a little map pack at the top, sometimes you’re gonna have people also ask… sometimes you’re gonna have ads, right? 1, 2, 3, 4. All of these things affect click through rate on a search results page between mobile and desktop, right? So we look, we map all this out, we figure out where are you currently ranking, if you’re ranking at all, and we say okay, like in an ideal scenario, if you’re ranking number one, like what would your click through rate be based on the SERP features. You know, if there’s a local pack above you, and you’re ranking number one, the number of people that are actually going to visit you dramatically drop, right? So we model this out on CTR curves. So click the rate curves, what’s the percentage of searchers that are actually going to click on a result? And then we look at the value of the page. If we don’t have… you know, a lot of businesses depending on their sophistication don’t necessarily have a good, you know, drilled down defined average order, you know, per customer average, you know, average customer value or lifetime customer value, etc. If we don’t have that, then we look at okay, the second heuristic like CPC, what are people willing to bid on this, right? So what would the traffic be worth if you had to pay for it? And grouping that together across an entire hub, you’re able to say here’s the value of ranking number one, for this keyword set. And from there, one important thing to note is like, you know, if you do this at the individual keyword level, it’s not representative of what the actual value of that piece of content could be over a 12, 24, 36 month, you know, lifecycle. 

Skyler Reeves:  Because typically, if a page is, you know, created appropriately, like it’s gonna rank for hundreds, thousands… The potential is that you know 10,000 keywords depending on how big of a topic it is. And so you want to aggregate what’s the value of all of those keywords at their click through rate and CPC value for that entire piece of content whenever we do this? And from there, you will say okay, so the value if we were ranking number one would be this, you know, some X amount. And then from there, you have to say, Okay, now let’s consider costs. So you figured out you know, what the value of content would be now you have to determine your cost. So you’re looking at, you know, how much does it cost for you to produce content? You know, how much does it cost for it to rank, right? Whether that’s link building or the competitive landscape that you’re in. How long do you expect it to take to rank, right? So you have to kind of forecast out to, you know, and account for that lag time there. And from there, you’re able to model out. So we use a tool called Causal to do this because it allows you to create different scenarios and financial models within it. You can pick numbers based on what you know what content costs, what you can make, what links cost to make, how long do you think it’s gonna take to rank, etc. And you’re able to map out kind of by category level, so you can think of – imagine if you’re doing home services, right? So you may have painting, you may have cleaning, you know, residential cleaning, you may have commercial roofing, right? Well, when you model this out, you’re able to see what’s the value of each of those independently of one another, and that helps you make decisions about okay, well, which one should I invest more money in? Because what’s, you know, how long is it going to take to rank?  Is it gonna be easier for us to rank faster? And what’s the return on that gonna be? You can also calculate an opportunity cost as well to ask yourself, okay, when you make a decision to make content piece A, you’re actively choosing not to make content piece B, right? Which is gonna increase the lag time for it, to eventually rank as well and begin attributing revenue. From there once you have those numbers and model amount, the only other thing to really consider is, you know, factor in associated long term costs and things like what’s it going to take to refresh this content? You know, how often are you going to have to refresh it and kind of keep it up to date? Is it something that’s timely? You know, that you have to consistently update? How volatile are the search results? You know, or if you updated this content are your competitors very quick to update theirs as well? Right? And kind of creating that rat race. So factor in those costs as well and then just map it out over how long you think that it’s going to take for it to generate revenue for you. So the nice thing about content right, is pretty basic content, it’s a one time upfront investment with a very minimal diminishing cost of upkeep over time. But the return that it can provide to you is compounding over months. Right? So an example of that would be:  we create a piece of content… One of our very first clients when we first started, we worked a lot with local businesses in the very beginning. And this was a chimney sweep and chimney sweeps are a very niche industry and they’re based out of DC. We created one piece of content for them. We created multiple pieces, but this one piece that stands out in particular was about, what to do if your pilot light won’t stay lit – right? This is a problem that a customer has. And that one piece of content cost about $1,200 to create. And over the course of 12 months, that one piece of content, the leads that they generate from it, ended up, you know, equating to about a quarter million dollars in revenue, you know, in net new revenue. So, once you have costs, right, calculate value and then look at it over time to say okay, like, what’s the actual ROI here? So that’s how we like to approach it versus just picking topics up in there and throwing them at a dartboard to decide what to create.

John Tyreman:  Well, throwing darts at a dartboard – that’s no strategy whatsoever. Yeah, and I guess to your point, it would pay to focus a little bit more on those evergreen topics if you want to reduce those associated long term costs, like frequently updating pieces of content. And I recently swept my own chimney so I know how much of a pain that can be. So this is great background, Skyler. Thank you so much for going into a little bit more detail about what you mean by applying financial modeling to content strategy. So let’s shift our focus a little bit. A lot of marketers, especially in the B2B software space, they invest in content marketing, but you contend that most teams fail with content marketing, why is that?

Skyler Reeves:  There’s a variety of reasons. The main one is either a lack of strategy or the incorrect application of strategy. You know, picking the wrong strategy for the business model. And I think the problem with strategy is I think what a lot of people think is strategy is really just either planning or tactics. You know, we think about this in the military where, you know, the general plans the strategy, right? And  I was a line medic on you know, with the infantry down in the dirt. You know what I mean? And we don’t always have insight into the overarching strategy, but we know how to execute the tactics. So there’s a time and place for tactics. Tactics are adaptable to the situation at hand. Strategy is looking at the landscape, aligning it with your goal and saying, this is what we’re going to do, that’s, you know, that’s gonna get us there. And then from that, from there, you then make a plan. And then you deploy that plan, right? Which is like a mission in the military, and then the tactics just kind of occur based on the situation. So the biggest one is the lack of strategy or a fundamental misunderstanding of what strategy is, and then also the misapplication of strategy. You know, we focus heavily on organic SEO and on providing strategy for that. But we’ll tell businesses, you know, depending on the business model, that we don’t think that that’s necessarily the route that they need to go. It’s not always the right answer. And, you know, even though it’s, you know, not in my best interest to tell everyone that like, it’s true, you know, and that’s core for us to tell people that because that’s a part of our business strategy is to do what’s right about the customer. And because if I send them down a path that isn’t going to, you know, even if it’s, you know, you can have the kind of middle scenario where there could be something better, right? So we can still get results, but there may be a better alternative and it’s like, okay, if they don’t know, no harm, no foul. But there really is right, ethically? And then on a worst case scenario, if it’s just fundamentally not the right strategy for them, itt’s detrimental, right? And that’s going to hurt word of mouth and referrals and everything, you know, our brand, our reputation going forward. So, even though it’s not my business to tell people if SEO is not right for them, at that point in time, right, that’s short sighted. In the long term it is because then they’ll be more likely to refer me to someone in the future if I’m pointing them in the right direction. So to unpack that, I guess a bit would be you know, if you’re a business that’s… you have to think about where your customer is at. Like, where do they consume information? Where do they learn about new things? Where do they communicate with people? Like how do they make their buying decisions? And that’s not always on, you know, through SEO. That’s not always through search. More importantly, depending on the type of business that may be sort of the last sort of step that they’re taking before they actually make a decision. So if you haven’t planned in advance on how to be a part of the conversation prior to them actually go into search, which is more indicative of like high intent to make a decision, whether that’s to hire a plumber, or purchase a new email marketing tool, right? If you haven’t been proactive about being a part of that communication, and being a part of the consideration set whenever they get there, I think you’re wasting your money for the most part. So again, depending on the business model, and, you know, B2B, for example, great for SEO, especially if you’re like a low sort of priced SaaS product, it can be helpful for almost every say B2B SaaS company in the long run, but it’s not always the best place to start. For example, with top of funnel content may be great for your middle funnel, kind of convincing comparison type content, your conversion based content. You know, obviously having information out there about your pricing and how you work and you know, what your tool or your service provides. But you know, top of funnel, you’re really better off I think, focusing on social and I don’t even necessarily mean advertising, I mean, organic or participating in communities where people are at – lots of Slack channels, right?

Skyler Reeves:  But there the problem lies is that a lot of businesses don’t want to… they have a hard time when it comes to attribution on those channels, when they’re not paid. And so it’s hard to get buy-in for budget to actually execute on that and clearly pour into it because you don’t have true attribution. But what they don’t realize as well is that, you know, someone searches for something on social or they’re having a conversation with someone on social, ask them for recommendations in a Slack channel or in a text message or discord channel or whatever. And then they go search that company on Google and maybe sign up, call you to have you come up on a service. And your attribution software says that you know, SEO or a search gets the credit for it when really it started, you know, back from word of mouth referrals. So yeah, so it’s… the first is either just no strategy whatsoever, throwing darts at a dartboard right? Just picking something because that’s what someone else in a completely different industry type told you would work, you know that what worked for them, is gonna work for you, which isn’t necessarily the case. And then the second is, maybe they decide on a strategy and it’s the wrong strategy for their business type.

John Tyreman:  It seems like there’s a couple of different factors at play here. So number one, it’s that your business model, your industry has a lot to do with your content strategy, but then it’s also you know, sometimes it all depends on where you are, I guess in your business or marketing maturity, where sometimes it makes sense to invest in SEO. Other times, maybe it makes sense to invest in social media, or other other kinds of things. I’m involved in a few niche Slack channels myself, so that’s absolutely a place that I’ll go to network and to ask for referrals and information. I’m curious from your perspective, when… let’s say that a B2B software company has a plan in place for SEO, they’re going to apply this financial modeling this topic clustering to their SEO strategy. What sort of metrics should those marketers really focus on?

Skyler Reeves:  So I can tell you the one they normally focus on and what they should focus on. So normally, they’re going to be looking at things like you know, like leads, which I think is fundamentally flawed. You know, one day it’s to define like, okay, what is a, you know, what is an MQL? What is an SQL? But when you don’t have an alignment between sales and marketing, it creates bad behavior where marketing focuses on just getting as many leads as possible rather than focus more on selling, which is a sales job right? To get contact information, and so I wouldn’t focus on leads. I would focus more on like, revenue generation like, what like what’s that pipeline look like from… like, what revenue generated from? Those leads versus just the number of leads? So if you tie everything back to revenue, for the most part, like in the long run, even if it is kind of obscure sometimes or convoluted, you can’t really go wrong, I don’t think. Versus if you just focus on the number of leads that you’re creating, whether it’s, you know, they go create a lead magnet to trying to get somebody to convert, written piece of content, they annoy us with a pop up or they’ve got some out of place CTA in the middle of that content, or they’re  saying something about themselves. They force it in there and it’s just obvious what’s going on it doesn’t … you’re not gonna fool anyone who has real decision making power. Like they’re not idiots, right? So I wouldn’t focus on leads. I would focus on like, what kind of content do we need to produce that is going to attract the right type of people who like are qualified for our business or, you know, like, sales, qualified opportunities versus just leads, because otherwise you just end up with a ton of leads that aren’t qualified to buy, that waste people’s time and waste their time, right? Because they’re not qualified, which means that you know, if somebody else who maybe was a good fit for you, if they’re ever talking to them, they’re not going to recommend you because they’ve got a you know, they got a bad experience with you because you weren’t a good fit for them. So they just think that they’re not gonna be a good fit for someone else. So yeah, I would focus on you know, what does the revenue generation look like through that pipeline from a visitor or a lead that comes in that actually turns into revenue? And then on top of that, I would also ask people… Chris Walker, you know, kind of promotes this quite a bit. You know, add a free text form field to any sort of contact information that you have on your site that asks people how they heard about you. Because then you can get insight into other channels and really, what’s driving that demand to get them there in the first place.

John Tyreman:  I like that idea about adding that freeform text field and I follow Chris Walker, too. He does put out a lot of really good stuff. How important is having a process for content creation? Can you talk a little bit about a structure that marketers could follow to help produce the right kind of content?

Skyler Reeves:  Yes, so this would be what I would say: The most common reason outside of strategy that content fails is a lack of structure and process in your actual content ops. So assuming you got a strategy in place to me, you know what content to create, I think one of the biggest problems comes to either whoever is running content ops, if it’s a… oftentimes, let’s say in B2B SaaS, you’ll see it’s a content marketer of one, right? it’s one person that’s basically given the, you know, given the flag and told to charge and you know, that’s… even if they’re given a budget to work with external… with freelancers or something like that from a content perspective, you have to make sure that they know what they’re doing, like do they have a proven track record of executing and getting results? If they don’t, then you need to figure out how to give them that framework in place to set them up for success. It’d be no different than hiring a salesperson and not training them to sell your product, right? You bring in a salesman often, whether they… if they come in as an SDR, they kind of learn on the way up but if you bring in a salesperson right off the street, sit them down the chair and and tell them to start selling, they’re not going to do very well at first, right? They have to learn and understand your product and understand your customers before they can really sell and I think they honestly need to start with the customer. So the process would be you want to take whoever’s running content, wherever the team is, you want to have one person that it is their sole responsibility to keep your finger on the pulse of the customer and the buyer. And again, we’re looking for information, what questions they have, how do they consume information, what, you know, convincing them, what are their pain points, you know, how do they like to buy etc. Like really, like make it your goal to understand them thoroughly. From there, you’re going to learn a lot that gets you like, am I getting like well over halfway? But then when it comes to creating that content, if you’re working with freelancers or if you’re writing it yourself, you either want to be a subject matter expert or have access to a subject matter expert. That doesn’t mean that they need to write the content. It doesn’t mean you have to annoy them or you know, take time out of their schedule every single time you need to create a piece of content. If you have a strategy in place and you have a plan in place and you said okay, like  we’re going to create this content hub over some x topic, right? You know, it’s going to be say eight to 10 pieces of content. You want to interview that SME, and based on the questions and the things that you learn from customer insights, you’re going to be able to drill down and ask very pointed, specific questions of the SME to really understand how they would respond to these things. Now that SME can be anything from an executive to a customer, sports, sales… I would encourage really having conversations with all of them. Interview them, like you’re a journalist, collect information and then use that to craft your content. So you know, obviously align it with like best practices in terms of SEO, but when it comes to the language that you use, the examples, the analogies, the stories that you tell, right? Since you know your customers, you’re gonna be able to write it for them and since you’ve had direct exposure of how an SME would address pain points, really knows the differentiation between you and a competitor, right? Or why you’re better etc. They’re gonna be able to articulate that in a way that a freelancer never will. Right? Unless a freelancer has spent a long time ingraining themselves in the business. You take those pain points from the customer insights, right? You’re able to write for them, you know who they are, you know how they talk. Pair that was SME insights. and you actually produce a piece of content that is convincing and isn’t boring, isn’t bland and doesn’t damage your reputation over time and can actually convert somebody to either submit a demo request or even higher up is really just to come back and listen to your content again or share with somebody or remember you whenever they do decide, you know, that they want to move forward with something in the future. There’s a lot of times I think people forget that there’s a difference between TAM and SAM. TAM is total addressable market. People are in the market but they’re not ready to buy. SAM is serviceable addressable market. People are in marketing ready to buy right? Your content can serve both. What you want to have that content do, which is done through having that process of interviewing and mapping it to multiple pieces of content from that SME from a one hour interview. As an SME you can get all the insights you need.

Skyler Reeves:  Again, you have to do the customer diversity or you won’t know the best question to ask but you put together, you put out content, people who are exposed to that content consume it. They may not be ready to buy right then, right? But in the future, whenever they are in market and they’re ready to buy, they’re much more likely to remember you and that’s the goal is to be in that consideration set right? Like think about how many CRMs there are. There’s like a hundred, right? But if I asked you to recommend one right now, you’d be able to name probably about four to six off the top of your head. Right? And why is that? Right? Sometimes it’s just as pure, just blanket, you know, saturation, but other times it’s because they left a good impression with you. Even if you never used them, you might still recommend them. …all the times I’ve recommended a tool that I’ve never even used just because of my exposure to their content, I understand how they work, I’ve talked to them, you know, I like them, I like the content they put out. I’ll say hey, check these people out. I think they’re a good recommendation. So yeah, that would be the process. Have the SME pair with customer insights and use that to craft your content and then of course, aligning it with best practice in terms of you know, SEO and distribution and you know, what channel you repurpose that content for. And most importantly, when you do ever repurpose that content, don’t try to force a round peg in a square hole right? Or a square, whatever. You know, don’t just like take your post and say something about it and add a link to it and put it on LinkedIn. Like that’s not what people want. Right? Take the content, take the essence of it, rewrite it and just post it on LinkedIn but not with the link to the post. You know,  that’s more that’s more useful and it’ll get more reach anyway, but yeah, understand, like what distribution channels make sense and adapt the medium to that.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, I’m a big fan of Ross Simmons, who says create once, distribute forever. That’s his tagline. And yeah, I like to say copy, paste and edit for the medium. So, you know, that’s  what I have found success with in terms of repurposing content. What I find interesting about your process, Skyler, is that you didn’t mention keyword research as kind of the driving force behind it. It was, start with the buyers, understand them, go to your SMEs and really drill down and then that creates the content. Where does keyword research fit into all this?

Skyler Reeves:  So I would put keyword research underneath that kind of like SEO best practices things. But where we – this is important to bring up because the way we approach it is that we think a lot of times people will just do keyword research and they go create content right? And completely leave customers out of the equation which is like a recipe for content that never converts. We made that mistake ourselves in the beginning. Your piece of content that drove like 10,000 visits per month never produced a single qualified lead, right? That’s like okay, that was a waste of time. But what you want to do is you want to do your keyword research… Again, this is assuming SEO is the right distribution channel for you. You’ve done your keyword research, you’ve got your financial models, you’re able to say okay, here’s the topic, the pieces of content that I need to create, right? In this order. Like that’s a whole nother kind of problem to unpack but once you know like okay, here’s the content I’m gonna create based on the keyword research which, if you’ve done financial modeling off of it, is super helpful. If you don’t have, if you’re not working with someone like us like taking a look at things, like you know, if you’re using Hrefs, got like traffic potential, use that and multiply it by just a base CTR curve and say like, what would the value of this be, how likely would people convert, etc. Use that to pick the topics but most importantly is you don’t just blindly go create that content. What you want to do is you want to take the intelligence that you’ve gathered from customer research, and you want to find topics where they align with one another. And when you find that alignment then you’re actually able to make content that isn’t just for vanity metrics, that isn’t just there to rank and bring in unqualified traffic and waste SDRs and AEs time with garbage leads, right? You have to create content that actually resonates with the reader that you also rank for. So you want to find alignment between the two. And that’s kind of the best approach. Some people will say like, all you need is customer research and an SME, you know, kind of just put it out and that’s great if SEO is not your distribution channel. It’s great if social is your distribution channel, youtube, podcasts etc. Right? Not so great if SEO, you know, is where you’re trying to kind of build traffic over time. But you don’t, you can’t just blindly go with keyword research either. You’ll, like I said, you’ll end up with a bunch of large traffic numbers but no revenue off the back of it, which is you know –  unless you get lucky, so.

John Tyreman:  Well this is really great. Skyler. Thank you so much. It sounds like marketers who invest in content marketing typically fail because they don’t have a plan, they don’t focus on the right metrics, and they don’t have a process for creating relevant content. Well, Skylar, thank you so much for coming on the show today. If folks want to learn more and connect with you, where can they find you?

Skyler Reeves:  The best places would probably be on LinkedIn. Just search for me on LinkedIn, you’ll find me there or the various Slack channels that I hang out at: Jimmy Daly, former VP of Marketing or Marketing Sales at Animals created a Slack community called SuperPass. That’s a really fantastic Slack channel to join. It’s free. Another one if you want – that one’s focused on content itself – if you want something that’s more broadly related to marketing, I would check out Traffic Think Tank. It costs money, but that helps kind of filter out the, you know, the noise, more or less. That’s another good one that covers everything from agency side to SEO to advertising to you know, publishers with news and you know, across the whole the whole gamut of things. 

John Tyreman:  Very cool. Well Skylar Reeves. Go connect with him on LinkedIn and on SuperPass and Traffic Think Tank. Skyler, thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Skyler Reeves:  Thanks for having me, John. Appreciate it.