• Credit: Jay Paul Photography

Jason Hughes and Marcus Sheridan swapped foot traffic for web traffic, and they haven’t looked back since.

Google the words “fiberglass pools” and among the top results is a blog, titled “Top 5 Fiberglass Pool Problems and Solutions.” It’s informative and frank — not the sort of thing you’d normally expect a seller of fiberglass pools to publish.

But Hughes and Sheridan, both 36, have utilized all manner of social media to honestly educate consumers about the product they sell. “We come from a teaching philosophy,” Hughes says. “Hand-in-hand with that is transparency.”

It’s an approach that turned around a stagnating business and garnered the co-owners of River Pools and Spas national attention. Earlier this year, the New York Times business section profiled the firm in an article called “A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy: Answer Customers’ Questions.”

So how did they use content marketing to position River Pools as a leading authority? The answer starts in 2001. Hughes was only 23 when he and Jim Spiess set up shop in Warsaw, Va. Sheridan joined the company shortly after. They were young and inexperienced, “and it showed,” Hughes says. “We took our licks earlier on. We learned everything on the fly.”

They found their footing gradually, identifying a niche in the fiberglass pool market which resulted in business doubling year after year. But then a thieving bookkeeper set them back. The employee was sent to federal prison, Hughes says, but by the time River Pools got back on its feet, the economy tanked.

The recession meant they needed to rethink their marketing strategy. Initially, the partners planned to become the dominant fiberglass pool dealer by opening multiple retail stores, but then Sheridan had an epiphany of turning the company’s website into an informational clearinghouse to educate potential buyers about fiberglass pools.

“We decided to answer every single question we’ve ever been asked by a customer, whether it was a positive or negative reflection of who we are or what we sold,” Sheridan says.

They closed their second location in Richmond, Va., let go of their webmaster, switched to a user-friendly content management system and began churning out dozens of keyword-optimized blog posts and YouTube videos to drive traffic to riverpoolsandspas.com. “We realized quickly that the website was producing the leads,” Hughes says.

How? Prominently featured at the bottom of each blog post is an invitation to download a free e-book Sheridan wrote, titled The Only Fiberglass Pool Buying Guide You’ll Ever Need! Downloading it requires just a name, state and email address.

Comments posted under blogs also offer an avenue to engage with prospects. A thread under Hughes’ entry on fiberglass pool problems stretches on and on. He addresses questions individually and invites readers to reach him on his cell for further discussion. No one is left in message-board limbo.

Today, River Pools’ story has been featured in numerous publications and websites, Sheridan says, and the publicity has boosted its bottom line. The firm installs about 85 pools a year, but expansion could be on the horizon.

“We have an international brand that’s stuck in Virginia and Maryland that needs to grow,” Sheridan says. “Whether we franchise or become a manufacturer, time will tell.”

These days, Sheridan owns a third of River Pools as a silent partner. He now authors blogs and e-books about content strategy on his Sales Lion website. He speaks around the world about the “honest economy,” in which he advises businesses to be more transparent to earn consumer trust.