Leveraging Data to Transform Your Social Media Strategy

Marketing Tools & Tips The Data-Driven Marketer

Data fatigue is real. How do you know which data to use to make strategic marketing decisions?

This question can be especially important for agencies, who are dealing with a barrage of data on behalf of each of their clients. Our guest in this installment of The Data-Driven Marketer is Lee Odden from TopRank Marketing. Lee and Seth Bridges, our co-founder, set out to answer this question and many more in this recorded webinar session.

TopRank Marketing is a data-driven digital agency that helps start-ups and established brands alike connect with and convert customers. Lee walked us through how his team data to help his clients understand their current performance and where they can focus their efforts to engage and widen their audience.

In this interview conducted by our very own co-founder, Seth Bridges, Lee shares:

Full Transcript

Seth Bridges: Hey, everybody. Good morning. My name is Seth Bridges, and I’d like to welcome you to the most recent episode of the Data-Driven Marketer. Today, I’m really excited. Our guest, Lee Odden, is the founder and CEO of Top Rank Marketing. They’re a digital marketing agency in the greater Minneapolis, Minnesota area. He is gracious enough to come spend time with us before he takes off to his next big speaking gig in India. And you’ll see him later this year at Content Marketing World in early September as well. So, Lee, I’m really excited to have you. Thanks for being here.

Lee Odden: Thanks, Seth. I’m excited to be here, even though it doesn’t look like I’m here.

Seth: Yeah, sorry, everybody. A little technical difficulties. The internet is not exactly working today, but you’ll see…

Lee: It’s all good. It’s all good.

Seth: But imagine with me. And yeah, we’re recording this. So, even if you’re not able to or have friends and colleagues who aren’t able to make it today, the recording will absolutely go out on our blog with the transcript and questions. Please ask questions as we go. One of my teammates has got Slack up, and she’s going to be aggregating questions and trying to feed them into me as we go. If it makes sense, we’ll jump right in, and I might even interrupt Lee and have him answer some of the questions. If not, we’ll definitely save the time at the end to do your questions. So, please keep them coming. This is a very smart individual who knows a lot about what we’re going to talk about today, which is how to use data to improve social strategy, content strategy, and your digital marketing in general. So, Lee, are you ready to get going?

Lee: I’m ready, Seth.

Seth: All right, let’s do it. So, one of the things that you hear as a phrase in life is data-driven. So, data-driven marketing, data-driven sales, data… Fine, we’re all guilty of that. But I think data matters. But from your perspective… You’re the one out working with a broad array of clients. How important is data in the work that you do with any and all of your clients?

Lee: That’s a great question. And I think there’s just a little bit of irony to the fact that it’s actually due to data and information overload that consumers are facing on a daily basis that data has become even more important for marketers to stand out, to be more relevant. I’ve seen some… I don’t know if you know, but I saw a stat from a university. In America, in the United States, we are confronted with an average of 64 gigabytes of media on a daily basis, which is crazy to imagine. And that’s like a paradox of choice at scale.

Because people are tuning out and so on and so forth. So, really in order for marketing to be successful, it’s not just about creating useful content that informs buyers, because good luck contenting with them because they’re a thousand other messages as well. It’s got to be even easier for those customers to find the content in all the right places and for that content to deliver a combination of utility and experience. And without data insights about customer preferences, it’s really difficult to deliver on that. And we do some work around tailoring data.

There are a number of factors that kind of fit into that, and it really depends…how much or how little depends on the sophistication let’s say of the client and the approach follows. And an agency that primarily creates content to help clients solve marketing problems, we use a customer empathy model. And that focuses on the relationship that prospective customers have with information during the buyer journey. So, it’s a simplistic three-tier model. And the data fits underneath each one of those segments of information that represents sort of a mini buyer journey. You know, “How do they discover content or solutions content? What are their preferences for consumption? And what the triggers that motivate action?” And we can go light or deep depending on the situation. And it’s all about the data.

Seth: So, depending on that… You were kind of talking about where a particular customer is with their either organizational maturity or the maturity of the marketing organization within a larger organization. It sounds like data…using data to focus and prioritize content in any part of this journey is important. But do you actually tailor how much data you bring or data insights you bring to the client versus what your team is using internally? And does that change as a function of that maturity?

Lee: Yeah, the magic of that sort of three-tiered model allows for simplicity or sophistication according to the client’s situation. So, when clients have customer segments and even things like personas all sorted out, we can get very specific and very sophisticated because we’ve already got a lot of that utility and emotion all wrapped around who is that best customer, and what do they care about. If they don’t have that, then we usually use a phased approach, and we grow with the foundation of what we can trust, and we grow from there. We built on, we optimize, we elevate our understanding as we complete our understanding of who the buyer is and what they care about.

Seth: If you take that sort of more simplistic end… Because I know…I’m sure there’s a range of viewers right now from sophisticated to simple or serving clients who are also from sophisticated to simple. Can you give an example of an engagement where you step in, and there’s not a lot of established content and/or the client’s maturity with respect to either content creation or persona understanding is somewhat simple. What do you do? What does that look like in terms of getting to a place where you feel like, “Aw, this is where we need to be.”

Lee: So, what we’ll do is some primary research there. If there’s a lack of data, CRM data, analytics data… It’s not always a lack of data, sometimes it’s a lack of access because IT loves to keep the gates closed. So, we’ll do some primary research. We’ll do some surveys with stakeholders within the organization, and we’ll ask them questions that help reveal their understanding of the buyer’s preferences according to discovery consumption and engagement. And there’s an example I’m thinking of, an IT service management company that…

There’s actually a report that we generate, we call it a rhythm report because we want to get the rhythm, I guess, of that target customer, what’s the rhythm. So, what we’re trying to understand there is things like search keywords, social conversations, and topics, what publications they read, what…who influences them and what influences them. That’s all in the discovery bucket. And so we did that. And this is for a CTO, chief technology officer, that would be most prone to be the buyer of IT service management solutions. B to B enterprise sort of offering.

And so by collecting that information through a combination of primary research to get things started, asking questions about… “Yeah, what publications do your customers actually read? What do they subscribe to? Who do they listen to? What people are tasked on the buying committee to make recommendations?” Stuff like that. Also asking questions about content preferences like, “What devices do they use? iPhones, iPad, desktop? Are they reading white papers or not?

Are they looking at eBooks, infographics, videos, and so forth?” And then as far as triggers that motivate action, we take a look at early/middle/late stage. So, things that surface, an idea or a solution, just as it’s first entree into the conversation to consideration like, “Who’s the best?” And the kinds of things that motivate them to actually make a decision. We ask those questions during that sort of initial survey, and that then helps us create this rhythm report that articulates the go forward for constructing a content plan.

Seth: And what are some of the…? If you have an engagement where, again, it’s sort of a clean slate, obviously if the internal team understands the customer…is spending enough time with a customer, understands the business where you can actually do that survey, great. What do you use in terms of data sources to analyze or to understand, “Cool, they’ve told me that they read these ten periodicals, or journals, or online newsletters, magazines, whatever.” Where do you go from there in terms of understanding what that content is, how it resonates with these audiences, etc.?

Lee: So, we do take…I don’t want to say with a grain of salt…something like that. We do understand the inherent bias in the individuals that are answering these surveys, you know, the stakeholders inside the organization. We understand this is just a relative measure. But what we’re looking for is points of interest that we can then use to validate. So, in particular, we’re looking for individuals that represent that ideal customer. And so once we understand an entity or an individual identity, then we’ll be able to use tools to find out where they’re interacting publicly on the social web. So, obviously we’re a customer of Rival IQ, but we also use tools like BuzzSumo, because we do so much with influencers, we actually use a couple of tools. One is Traackr.

Another one is Analytica. And this is all public information, of course. So, we have no access to their private information. And so we’ll poke around there and try to get an understanding of the places where they’re spending time, the publications that they’re referencing, siting, and sharing, where is there engagement for that ideal customer. And so if we get 10 or 20 of these ideal customers, these are actual customers, or they’re actual prospects, then we can model some insights around what we find about those people and their behaviors and their intent. And that helps translate or augment the…translates into a component of the rhythm report that then is used to architect a content plan.

Seth: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I’m glad you mentioned BuzzSumo and Traackr. But I was thinking about BuzzSumo particularly once you’re able to identify sort of places where you know these target personas or target customers spend time, because then you can actually go figure out content resonance, some of the influencers who are sharing, and understand a little bit more about who these people like to engage with. So, yeah, that’s awesome.

Let me take this survey thread and pull it and kind of go more broadly. Great that you’re able to have access to the team and do surveys there. Are there industry level surveys or…? I know we produce annually for higher ed, and for social media benchmarks, and things like that. But obviously… And I’ve read a lot of the writing of your team. You all obviously consume a lot of industry level benchmark reports and guidance reports. Can you talk a little bit about how that kind of broader level survey data feeds into some of the actions that you take as well in these sorts of engagements?

Lee: Yeah. Especially with a situation where we need to create some validity, some third party validity, around a recommended solution or approach, this is not unusual. Obviously, everyone does this. But this is the most common thing we’re doing is sighting third party statistics. So, if we’re trying to convince someone that… And we’re really not in the selling business. It’s just when we’re working with actual customers that we’re trying to decide a course of action of some sort, we’ll leverage industry stats to support that…a particular direction.

So, like a blog. Like if someone was resistant to a blog… I just saw this stat on CMI. After reading recommendations on a blog, 61% of US consumers made a purchase. That’s interesting. [Laughs] And so things like that, we’ll all go, “Hm.” They’ll make that executive or that decision maker go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And of course, we try and augment. I have to say this is where the magic happens. It’s not just adding third-party statistics to an argument posed by the agency or the internal marketer, but it’s when you…it corroborates other hypotheses that are formed by some private data. That’s where the magic happens. Or makes it a lot more powerful.

Seth: Sure. I think it’s interesting… you talk about that as… It seems maybe obvious, but if you’re working with a team who needs broader buy-in and is part of your job as the agency to help them make the case that these investments are worth it, that absolutely seems like kind of a masterful bit to use that.

Lee: Yeah, and actually there’s a lot of value, too, in the third party industry statistics in a lot of different ways. In fact, one of the things I would share…this is like a content tip almost. I have someone who’s doing curation for us every day. They’re just doing curation and sharing, and managing social channels. What I have them doing is when they find industry statistics that are germane to our business, they save them in a spreadsheet, and they tag them with keywords. So, over time, we have this huge library of…a great taxonomy of industry statistics that make it super easy to then go find that stat for that obscure scenario that client XYZ really wants to get some third party data proof about something. And this is a habitual sort of thing that can really scale up to something really useful for an organization.

Seth: Can you give me an example of an actual big win where it wasn’t…not that it wasn’t going well, but, “Man, I pulled this stat about the blog,” or something from a social perspective where you’ve gotten that resistance, but you came through with a…a stat corroborated?

Lee: I think… So, there’s a fuzzy and a specific example maybe. A fuzzy example is one where someone was reluctant to invest in a strategy. And I don’t have the exact stats off the top of my head, but it was a very inverse proportion where from a content marketing study that showed the percentage of companies that had a documented content marketing strategy achieved this significant proportion of results and effectiveness compared to those who did not. And that led to an investment, a financial investment into some research and answering the question of why as opposed to just executing on production. Because a lot of companies think, “Well, we just want you to make blog posts. We just want you to make eBooks, and videos, and infographics. Just go make them.” As opposed to really connecting them to solving a problem for the customer. Yeah, imagine that.

Seth: Imagine that.

Lee: [Laughs] Maybe a more specific example is…well, we have… We’re a many service digital agency, so we’re doing ads and organic sorts of things. And so we’ve had… I’m thinking of a particular client that was very focused on doing nothing with content or inbound really. They’re only focused on ads, targeting ads. And there was a stat, content marketing generates over three times as many leads as outbound marketing and costs 62% less. I remember that because that was pretty compelling. And that changed some minds, again, about investing in a different way. And investing in a complementary way. We don’t play this mutually exclusive game at all, because of course what matters is the customer. And so if a customer, a percentage of customers, respond to ads, and a percentage of customers respond to organic visibility through content and inbound efforts, hey, that’s fantastic. Right?

Seth: Yeah. And is this…? It seems like this is a place wherein a mixed…kind of…hopefully, everyone has lived in a somewhat mixed world where you’re augmenting some of your inbound with some paid, paid media, PPC, whatever. But obviously you can produce, and test, and distribute your organic content, and whoever comes, sort of comes. And the people who are already on your site and who are already in your CRM who you’re pushing this content… Like this webinar. We do this webinar series because it gets a lot of engagement with our existing customers, with our prospects, and drives new demand. And we see that because of the data. That makes it a lot easier for me, for example, to go decide to do paid media to attract even more people to these programs…

Lee: Absolutely.

Seth: Is that something that you’ve found as well where you can kind of…back and forth?

Lee: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. So, the DNA of that idea for us is through search, because we started pretty much as a search agency many years ago. And so using paid media to do test campaigns, have hypothesis’ about keyword segments and topics, and kinda throw that digital spaghetti against the wall, collect some data, and then use that to inform organic initiatives has proven to be something that is very translatable to lots of other types of media and content or channels, I should say. So, if a client has a popular blog or has a certain threshold of visitors to a blog, we can post content on that blog, and there’s already a subscribed community that’s paying attention. There are things that we can find out there organically that can actually reverse inform some of the paid media that we might do on social or other means to attract attention to that topic.

Seth: And do you find yourself using social at times in a similar manner where you’re able to use that as the digital spaghetti as it were?

Lee: Well, it’s so available. Of course. You’ve got the firehose of Twitter data and the public data of a couple of other places, and that makes it very appealing because it’s so available. And it may not represent the totality of the social web, but it’s such a volume that you can tease out what’s useful. So, yes, absolutely. Both organically publishing content on social and then using information from that experience to inform paid and vice versa. Yes, absolutely.

Seth: And I’m going to jump for a second. I know you do some work obviously with B to B clients and thinking about the struggle, I think, that many B to B clients have with social media generally. How much do some of these content proof points, industry sort of benchmarks, etc.…do they work equally well whether you’re servicing a B to B client or a B to C client when it comes to the social media aspect particularly?

Lee: That’s an interesting question. Because this generally… And this is a sweeping generalization of course. But B to C companies tend to be a little more hip to the social because they see what their competition is doing. They see…the live it. In a consumer world, social, product evangelism, and promotion is a lot more rampant. Rampant is a negative word. It’s a lot more present. And so they come to the table with a lot more feeling of credibility towards social and consequently, social statistics and that sort of thing to validate points of view than in B to B.

That’s not to say that B to B isn’t certainly warming up generally to social. It certainly has. But that would be a point of differentiation I guess is that you have these predisposed notions or experiences that are very different. And you still have people in B to B still playing the white paper game and the case study game, and things that are a little more traditional than, oh, something like we just published for Content Marketing Institute.

So, we helped market the Content Marketing World Conference, and we just published a series of videos that were like Mario Brothers kind of animations including influencers. And it’s like that’s just not common. And so social…the amplification of that, of course, occurred almost exclusively through social. Or for an accounting client, financial planning and accounting. You’re not finding a lot of Candy Crush-themed microsites quizzing you and having all kinds of fun bells and whistles, and all the things that Candy Crush does for you.

That’s another example that is primarily amplified through social. Those are B to B solutions, and they stand out because a lot of people aren’t doing those sorts of things. So, it’s like we’re all consumers. So, while I said that B to C is predisposed to social, well, those people that work at B to B companies are humans, too. And they’re on a personal level predisposed to social. And so what’s interesting about doing interesting things through social for B to B is that it does really stand out.

Seth: Yeah, I think it gets back to understanding the persona, understanding…if who you’re trying to reach or who is your buyer actually is one a particular social channel. Probably not all of them but knowing where to be and then understanding that Candy Crush probably actually does resonate with the right demographic for financial planning, for example. Because everyone-ish plays Candy Crush, present company excluded.

Lee: Me, too. Same here. Don’t invite me. Don’t invite me to play Candy Crush. No, don’t. Don’t do it.

Seth: So, look, if industry reports, and benchmarks, and things… This is at the high level. This is like there’s no private data, maybe I don’t even have this client, maybe I’m pitching, or maybe I’m working on an audit, but I’m fighting with IT to get the data. That’s up here. But at the other end of the spectrum, we’re talking about GA, Omniture, Facebook, Facebook Insights, Ads accounts, Search Console. We have it all. Of course, there’s less competitive. There’s less context from a competitive perspective or from an industry perspective. But wow, man oh man, from top to bottom, we have all the data. I’m assuming you…IT problems aside, you’re typically working with your clients, all their private data that you can get. True?

Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Yep, all your data…

Seth: When you are… Oh, go ahead.

Lee: No, I was just going to be silly and say all your data belongs to us. All right.

Seth: Funny story, I had that as a headline at some point on our website, and a former boss, VP of marketing, she said, “I don’t think you understand your audience because I don’t get it.”

[Laughter]

Seth: So, I wrote a really nice blog post about not understanding your audience, and that blog post did really well. How ‘bout that?

Lee: There you go.

Seth: Marketer failures, all your base.

[Laughter]

Seth: When you get down to that level of data, where do you find particularly for a content, or social media, or kind of both engagement…where do you find yourself spending the bulk of your sort of analytics time? And is it because of…? Well, that’s question A. Question B is is it because it’s just hard to do the analysis, or is it because it’s that important? Or both?

Lee: Well, it’s dictated by the nature of the engagement. So, if the strategy calls for us to do… Well, we’re almost doing it in content. So, it’s content and then like an equalizer, we’re doing a certain amount of effort with search, and social, and influencers, and some conversation rate optimization. Which those are our equalizer bars, basically. And then paid spend. Then we’re going to look at the private, if you will, analytics for each one of those.

So, their social advertising program, their paid search or Google AdWords program. Google Analytics is probably the most common source of data that we’ll have access to or given access to that we can go in and find out what’s the current situation, what’s the truth in terms of what’s actually happening and to the degree that we can discover why. And we can reconcile that against some of the goals that are outlined in the strategy. And that’s what helps drive the go forward recommendations in terms of the tactical mix. So, if that helps answer your question.

Seth: It does. But the reason I’m thinking is because so many of… I guarantee so many people in the audience and certainly, our customers are social media marketers, maybe just content marketers, maybe both. But we all flex and do lots of work. But I would say that in general that there is less comfortability, less familiarity with the richness of what you can learn beyond the basics from Google Analytics and how that actually can be so informative to both strategic as well as the execution of some of these things. Do you find that your agency being really sharp when it comes to understanding the impact of transforming web analytics into action is either a differentiator for you or a place where you’re bringing a lot of value for the clients?

Lee: I think it is. I really do. We have some phenomenal resources internally in terms of data analytics. And we actually have created our own dashboard that is based on a business intelligence platform. And so we’re pulling in disparate data sources. So, including Google Analytics as well as some social and other CRM data to provide or create these custom dashboards for our clients. And some of it is public, some of it is just available to our account managers and the internal folks. But that is absolutely a differentiator. In fact, we’ve had clients say, “This is great. I don’t even have to look at GA anymore. I don’t have to look at these five other things anymore. I can just go look at your thing, and this is so convenient for me.” And it’s actually convenient for us, too. So, yes.

Seth: I find personally that… Obviously, I love competitive benchmarking. I do love seeing how other people succeed in the market and using kind of competitive SEO tools, and looking at SEMrush, and Moz, and some of the other tools that make that available as it pertains to content. But at the end of the day, knowing that there are certain pieces of content that just kill every time and that we can’t do those pieces every month, but when we do, it’s okay to invest because you see that the payoff has been there in the past and almost certainly will be there in the future. And that comes from GA. That comes from your funnels. That comes from chasing it down and saying, “Yep, dollars go in, dollars come out. And we all like dollars.” Whatever your currency may be.

Lee: Absolutely.

Seth: A question just came in. It’s a little bit of a rewind, but I want to jump into it just because I think it does get to this analytics and persona question a little bit. Somebody asked, “How do you…? What do you recommend as an approach when you really have either a broad array of personas or personas that are just very different in terms of what they’re looking for from your company in terms of utility or purchasing?”

Lee: Well, I try to use outcomes at the prioritization schema. So, what is your best customer in terms of revenue opportunity? Or where is the white space customer? And by that, I mean the customer where they represent the greatest opportunity and the least competitiveness. That’s what I mean and closing the gap there. Because ultimately, revenue answers all questions for you. The people you answer to will be very interested in whatever revenue outcomes, no matter what else is valuable and business valuable that you may communicate as a result of having worked with different personas and targeted customers.

But ultimately, it is revenue. So, who’re your best customers? Who represents your ideal customer relative to some of your primary business goals? Obviously leads, and sales, and revenue, and sales cycle…shortening sales cycle, increasing order of volume, order of frequency, things like that are very, very motivating. So, if you can identify specifically which customer segment or two represent those opportunities, that’s what I would focus on. That’s how I would simplify and prioritize.

Seth: Got it. But to simplify just for… So, it’s not water things down. It’s not go after everyone. It is find where the dollars are coming from and focus?

Lee: Yes, your unicorn customer as Larry Kim would say.

Seth: Okay. There are always ways to get more of them. And lots of us serve different constituencies. But it’s tempting to find the commonalities and try to market to the commonalities. And you can probably do okay, but I don’t think you can kill it with your priority persona if you’re doing that. And I’m curious as to your opinion.

Lee: Well, I think the idea is that you document your success and then duplicate, meaning get really focused and specific on that profitable opportunity customer and become successful serving them. And the things you learn about that apply to other customer segments or other personas that you’re after. Because then now you’ve got something behind it to justify the actions. You’ve got data. And they’re not the same person, of course. But some of the things that you do, the way you approached solving those information and content problems can be applied to those other customer segments in their own way.

Seth: Yeah, and I think it’s funny because some of these things…I think they feel obvious, but I don’t know that they are obvious all the time. And it seems like it takes someone else stepping in and saying… And this is the role that you play probably in a lot of your engagement, which is like, “I’m going to kind of state this obvious, but we’re going to help you take a step back, isolate what’s working, figure out how to map it over here, and kind of do that until we make money.”

Lee: Right. And you’re right, that is a role that we play in that is to provide leadership and confidence for the direction to be taken. Because it’s amazing how often, how frequent companies just need confidence. Or it’s the people that are on…their reputation, their position is on the line for making the right decision. And so they just need the confidence to make the right decision. And it’s amazing how many optimization or marketing performance optimization opportunities exist simply by understanding and executing well the fundamentals.

Seth: Do you find that…? I find this a lot. People end up making these decisions…they get the confidence, they do the thing, and then they get very excited about doing the thing and forget to go back and kind of measure up and check in. Is that something that you find in a lot of your engagements? Failure to go back and kind of check in with the data?

Lee: When they don’t have an assigned account manager from an agency that is responsible for following up and managing the success of a program ongoing, yes, there is shiny object syndrome within brands, too. Because… And It’s not always shiny objects in the sense that a marketing consultant will find a new technology or something, but it might be other responsibilities that’s being added onto them, and so they get distracted, and they don’t follow up. They don’t follow through. Not because they don’t want to sometimes, it’s just because they’re tasked with so many different things, and they don’t have the resources to do the job.

Seth: Do you all have a cadence to how you do these more kind of retrospective kind of both backward and forward-looking? Is this something you guys do with clients on a monthly basis, on a quarterly basis, less frequently than that?

Lee: Sure. Well, at some level…there’s always opportunistic sorts of reflection or surfacing as it happens. But there are pretty larger reviews… There’s a certain review that happens roughly on a monthly basis but definitely on a quarterly basis. And then about three months before a client renewal is coming up, we start to…we have a sequence of activities that fit that category as well.

Seth: So, there is the nugget of wisdom from Lee Odden right there, everybody. It’s not the month before the renewal. It’s not a week before the renewal. Three months before the renewal.

Lee: Absolutely.

Seth: Because it turns out it’s hard to cram that stuff in at the very end. I don’t care what you’re selling. We sell software. Doing the renewal a week out is not a good idea. It’s not about data. I can tell you, it’s about data. Don’t do that. I’ve seen what happens. Client level data obviously is the place where you know everything. You know what went in, you know what comes out. We started out talking about industry level benchmarks. But… Not even but.

And I know because of the business we’re in and the customers we work with like your agency and so many other agencies and brands, there’s a lot of value from competitive data as well, particularly when maybe your customer is on the more simplistic end, and you don’t have a lot of those proof points. Can you share with us a few examples…? I know you’re a Rival IQ customer, so that’s all I have to say about that. But how you use competitive data, whether it’s again, social, SEO, some of the ways to either…well, to drive your engagements and sort of what role it plays.

Lee: Sure. Obviously generally we like…we start with broad-based comparisons for things like…to understand share of voice, overall footprints, share of topics, share of influence, and ads, and that sort of thing to really understand what we’re up against, what the weaknesses and strengths are so we can identify opportunities. And that manifests in a couple of different ways for each of the channels that we work in. So, SEO obviously. We want to understand the share of search for a particular category and where the keyword opportunities or keyword/topic opportunities are so that we can find an ideal ratio target.

So, I think I mentioned something about this before where demand is high, but competition is low. An ideal ratio situation there… And we’ll use competitive research. So, SEMrush is beautiful for a thing like that to identify some of those opportunities. Moz, I think, has a keyword difficulty tool that adds some insight around that as well. So, we’ll look to understand who the competitors are in the first place according to keyword, and then we’ll drill down from there from an SEO perspective. On the SEO side, competitive… This is what I love about your product, too, is the landscape. So, when thing spike, I get notifications.

And it’s great to see what people are doing that’s really standing out. And it’s not just about, “Oh, I changed a title tag,” or something like that. But it’s like, “Oh, look, they’re getting 5,000% more engagement.” Then I go and look, and I see they only post once a month. Okay, that’s moot. It’s a moot point. Most often, what it is is, “Hey, we’ve got hundreds of percent higher engagement,” and they did this really cool thing. And we see that pattern repeated very easily across a portfolio of competitors. I’m just saying that this is why I’ve been using the tool for so long. And it makes it super easy to see what’s going on from a social perspective across this whole group of companies. And then you can see patterns. You can understand consistently what kinds of things are actually working with competing companies in your category. And you can learn from that.

Seth: And are you able to use those as proof…? I’ll give you a few examples, and you can… I know you do a lot of work with influencer marketing particularly.

Lee: Yes.

Seth: I know that we just did our big benchmark study back in April. And last week, I just did a big follow on looking at a little bit of trends over time, and we dove into a few examples. And one of the things that popped out really strongly was user-generated content, particular Instagram, for midsized brands who maybe don’t have the budget to produce that level of quality content, but they absolutely have the reach and the brand. And so sourcing from a community of influencers around them absolutely turns into what could be a mediocre Instagram profile into something that seems pretty epic. Do you find that taking proof points from a competitor or someone that maybe you admire, respect, we can show you how they’re doing these techniques…is this something you do either using our tool, using any of the tools to figure out how to convince them that, “Hey, this is working.”

Lee: Well, yeah, of course. We’re using the motion of pride to be persuasive. And maybe sometimes fear of loss as well, just saying, “Look how the competition is kicking your butt. And here’s evidence of how they’re doing that exactly. There are things we can learn from this. In fact, we might even be able to do it better now that we see what they’re actually doing.” So, yeah. As a persuasion tool, yes.

Seth: Go ahead.

Lee: No, I was just going to be persuasive, showing those examples of what the competition is doing plays a very specific role in the argument. And in combination with other things, very, very powerful.

Seth: Are there particular strategies or techniques that you find using these kinds of proof points are super valuable? I’m thinking about things like influencer, UGC, video, contests, just a range of activities. Do you find there are places where you’re saying, “We need to be doing this,” but it’s a harder one? But then kind of the data comes back and helps?

Lee: Well, certainly it does happen where we something that… There are some things where the activity manifests through social channels, and so you think you know all that’s going on because of what’s visible, but there may be more going on than that. And I guess we’re guilty of doing that sort of thing. So, where we have multilevel purpose content marketing programs, and it looks like we’re just doing a simple influencer list, but we’re doing five other things besides that, and there’s no way you can tell, but we’re generating the benefit from it.

So, I think there are things that we have found that looked…or there was a hypothesis that a certain direction would make sense, and there was pushback in that, “This would be too difficult,” or maybe we don’t expect it to return value proportional to the investment, and then finding an example of that, of a competitor actually doing that thing, has been helpful in making the argument. Without performance information, it’s kind of hard. You can get obviously high level like top of funnel type of visibility, impressions, views, that sort of thing. But without ROI data, it’s kind of hard to make the totality of an argument to go a particular way. But you can inspire more confidence.

Seth: Yeah. I will tell you, we produce a lot of data based reporting, like industry level or particular case studies, industries, but it all comes from we have data on hundreds of thousands of companies, and so why not use that data. But that wasn’t necessarily always something we invested a lot of time in. And we stepped back, and we analyzed a bunch of our not even competitors. I don’t consider Moz, and HubSpot, and BuzzSumo… These are not competitors, they’re just awesome companies in the space.

But when you step back and study some of the things that they’re doing that earn a lot of attention, particularly in channels like Twitter as you said are so measurable, it stood out that all of them were getting the most love for example in our space doing studies based on private data about their business or about… Take BuzzSumo, Steve Rayson. He does these, “We have a billion posts. Let me tell you what we find when we aggregate data from our product.” It’s like they’re the ones who can do that. So, that’s kind of what we do with our data as well. Holy moly, that’s where I learned it. You see how much that blows them up, and you realize, “Oh, maybe I should try that. I should have the confidence to try that.” And then you…

Lee: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And that’s a great example. That is a great example. And you mentioned BuzzSumo. Actually, when Rand was with Moz and certainly with Steve, they also have very unique skills at making the most out of that kind of content. One thing that Steve shared with me is that he reached out to journalists and asked them, “What kind of data would you like to see? Here, I have a hypothesis about doing this study. And I’m wondering what kind of data you would like to see out of a study like that.” And they gave him feedback. And of course, when the study was published, they were more than happy to write about the report. Brilliant guy, right?

Seth: Yeah.

Lee: So smart.

Seth: Absolutely. And of course… I was trying to think of one of their most recent big pushes they did. I don’t remember the exact study. But he did all of the things. He did the work. He got pre-feedback from folks probably like you, and Ann Handley, and Ian Cleary, and a bunch of people who are big kind of speakers in the space, and got pre got their feedback, so he could include that. And then he did a little paid, it took off. The got those people to amplify. And then the next week, he wrote a post of, “How I crushed it.” And then that post crushed even more than the first post. And you’re like, “Okay, you know what you’re doing. This is fantastic.” But it’s such a good learning for everybody in the space. I don’t care what you do, you can learn from, frankly…it feels like generosity, but really it’s just good marketing from his perspective as well.

Lee: I think there’s a lot to be said around collaboration and participation in marketing. And there’s even a phrase I throw around once in a while – participating marketing. And I’ve spoken about this recently more often in that it’s a democratized approach to content creation. If you include the very community that you’re trying to market to in the content creation process itself, that investment and effort in creating something for the greater good of the industry will motivate them in incredible ways to promote and help make that content successful. And when you have a genuine approach, meaning you have genuine interest in making the industry a better place, it’s amazing how much that comes back to you in terms of good old-fashioned ROI.

Seth: Yeah, it’s like life. You have to give a little bit. You might get, you might not. But you just have to do the right thing. And usually, goodness will come back to you.

Lee: Yeah, you have to be smart about, right?

Seth: Yeah, don’t be wasteful. Don’t be…

Lee: Naive.

Seth: Well, that’s the problem with naivety. You don’t know when you’re doing it. So, I have a couple more questions that came in, but there’s a couple that kind of bundle up here around when you don’t have that ROI data, how…? One of the specific questions is how do you, Lee, or you with a client…how do you decide how much to invest when you that confidence, but you don’t have the data? How big do you go? How much of it is…how much do you put into it before you feel like both in terms of time, dollars, energy, however you measure it…how do you take that bite without feeling you’re making a huge bet?

Lee: My ideal is…well, for us, personally, we have a fairly popular blog and social network, if you will. So, we have a substantial organic audience to throw things out there. And there’s really no cost to it because it’s an on-demand sort of channel. So, for us to collect data confidence and then make decisions about investment. On the client’s side of things, pilot…doing a pilot is my favorite sort of thing because we can create a business case around further investment out of the data from the pilot. There are other metrics of course that you can try and correlate.

So, if I… It’s a bit fuzzy, right? But if you can create some equivalency between something that you don’t have a lot of ROI data around and something that you do have some ROI data around, you can develop like I said some fuzzy hypothesis about, “Well, you know, when we’ve done email or when we’ve done a paid search, we achieve these KPI’s. And the result is this ROI. Maybe there’s a little bit of correlation between that and social. And so let’s do a pilot with that hypothesis in mind and prove it out or disprove it. And then we can make some choices about investment based on that.” That would be how I would go about it.

Seth: So, like all things, trying to find an adjacency, mapping it in. So, yeah, somebody just went and asked the questions, and Cassandra fed it through here. So, I’m going to ask you. You can do with this what you will. But when it gets down to social specifically, how do you think about measuring ROI on social activities?

Lee: Well, I see… So, I can’t imagine ever executing on a social only type of thing. Social is part of an overall type of marketing program. So, to the extent that social engagement…social content discovery, consumption, and engagement matters to our particular target audience, we will leverage social for amplification of content. So, the ROI comes from the success of the content. The ROI of the… I don’t know that there’s an ROI of the social itself unless we have tracking URLs that actually show that discovery and action actually occurred all on a social channel.

And therefore, that investment in social was actually able to yield a transaction if that makes sense. So, it depends on how you go about it. And in my case, my experience is more around that idea that social is everywhere, and it plays a specific role as part of an integrated campaign. And so, therefore, the ROI is around the campaign, not about social itself. There are certain KPI’s that indicate success or not, specifically social of course. But ultimate revenue ROI comes from the campaign.

Seth: So, you get more granular. It has to be about a particular initiative, it’s not about social generally. The thing that I always find funny… Tell me what you think about this. So, we’re a B to B company. We maintain all of our social channels. But I think about our Instagram where we try to feature our team. It’s a lot more about, “Here’s who we are as people, the human beings that are trying to make everyone else’s life better. Here’s what it looks like to be here.” It might only serve for recruiting. I’ve got somebody who wants to come work here, and they spin through our Instagram. Like, “Oh, you seem like nice people. That looks fun. I’d like to do that.” What’s the ROI of that, of finding a person who’s a good cultural fit in half the time? It’s pretty high.

Lee: Exactly. Exactly.

Seth: Pretty high. But it’s hard to measure. It’s actually hard to measure.

Lee: It is. I actually wrote about this in a book called Optimize that I published, God, five, six years ago now.

Yeah, I just wrote a book. And so what we talked about in calculating ROI is people search for a lot of different reasons. This applies to creating content. Companies create content for lots of reasons, including talent acquisition. So, when you look at the cost of hiring recruiters…if you can create content that’s really easily found either through search, or through social, or whatever, you can actually reduce costs or increase efficiencies on things that you’re already investing in. Same thing for customer service, same thing…content that can be easily found, or public relations and obviously marketing.

So, I think that talent brand investment through Facebook and Instagram especially yields both the, “Wow, I might want to come work there,” kind of outcome, but it’s certainly prospective customers look at that stuff, too. They look at your culture for sure. In fact, there was an interesting study about millennials. So, that’s what, up to 30 years old. These are decisions-makers.

The first thing that they’re looking for on a B to B content website is the company’s CSR activities, their corporate social responsibility, they’re benevolent, they’re altruistic types of endeavors. That’s the first thing they’re looking for. And so when you publish the fact that on Instagram or wherever the fact that your team is out building a house somewhere, that’s actually not just showing what a good group of people you are and how fun the culture is from an employment standpoint, but it’s also something that’s extremely important to a very large group of decision-makers in both B to B and B to C.

Seth: Yeah, this is… I will tell you, we have a big website. The page where we organically get kudos is our about page. That’s one of the most top visited pages on our site, because it turns out that people actually care who the people are behind an organization.

Lee: Yes.

Seth: And Cassandra, one of our product marketing managers, she went around and interviewed all the founders in the leadership team recently and asked kind of, “What do you hope people could know about the business?” Because this is the storytelling that we do. And unanimously…we did this separately…we all answered the same thing. Like, “We just want our customers and our prospects to know that we’re people. Just we’re people working in an office here in Seattle to make good software to make their things better. And try really hard.” But not everybody gets that, which is why I think we… Sometimes you get frustrated. So, if communicating that through social is the way that we get there, then we should invest.

Lee: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Seth: We got time for about one more question, and then we’re out of time. But this one has come… Okay, this is a little bit less about data, but we have you here, and you have a lot of experience sort of running an agency building teams to serve clients. And obviously, you’ve been doing that for a very long time. So, how do you think about kind of developing your bench and bringing up staff? Because you got to find people who are analytically minded. You also have to find people who are good copyrights and good strategic thinkers. How do you do that and do that well over time?

Lee: Yeah, that’s something I’ve been practicing for 16 years. And I don’t know if I’ve found the perfect solution to that yet. Obviously, I have really talented people on my leadership team that are tasked with that specifically. We do make a very concentrated effort to create some clarity around what roles are, and how teams are structured, and what the career path, if you will, within different groups might be, and that sort of thing. So, we’re still small in the scheme of things.

We’re a boutique-sized agency at 30-some people. And I wish we had ten more. I wish we had 12 more because of the specialization that we’re involved with. But I think having… So, one part of the answer is around clarity around specific what the job is, and what the role is, and how it interacts with other people. And so what are the resources an individual needs in order to be successful, and is there a feedback mechanism in order to give them the information they need to know where they’re at? And there’s that sort of individual level and also team level feedback.

There are goals and feedback mechanisms to help that happen. And at the same time, there’s a cultural aspect, meaning we just went through a purpose initiative in fourth quarter last year to identify what is our purpose. Outside of a business, what are we trying to achieve? And we’re trying to leave a legacy of clever, courageous, and brave marketers. Something like that. That’s horrible. I should not be pausing on that. Anyway, the idea is that there’s something bigger than just driving of revenue and having successful clients.

It’s like, “What are we trying to actually create?” And so that effort helps with recruiting obviously. It helps with the why – why am I here, what are we after, what gives my work meaning. You know what I mean? So, there’s this very specific and tactical sort of thing. And then there’s this sort of loftier aspirational element that helps develop the team.

Seth: And obviously investing in…bringing in folks who maybe don’t…who are more junior…maybe not necessarily junior but just don’t have all of the experience or all of the depth in each of these sort of focused areas that you need to be successful in digital marketing today… When you’re thinking about investing in these folks and bringing them up, do you get kind of granule and like, “We’re going to work on your analytics skills,” or, “We’re going to work on your content mapping.” Or is it more like project-based, and they’re sort of leveling up across the board as they go?

Lee: It would be…especially initially during their first year, it’s going to be very specific. And so the role delineation has capabilities identifies very specifically. And so their upstream supervisor is going to work with them on those things. And so also we have a new VP who’s really pretty much just focused on optimizing the way we do our work, and project management, and that sort of thing. And so sort of like a counseling sort of role. And so… And then as someone matures, of course, it gets a little more… Someone might see themselves moving into another role, or we might give more cross-functional training to that person. The bar is high. The bar is high because our clients expect that.

Seth: Sure, you have to be the expert.

Lee: And the good news is that there’s plenty of people who’ve gone through that journey, that first year, second year, and the teamwork for bringing someone up isn’t just…it’s not just up to their supervisor. It’s a team effort. And so I’m very happy how helpful my team is at supporting each other and being excellent, and knowing that we’re in this together to win for our clients.

Seth: Yeah, it sounds like…again, it feels like we’ve had a lot of like, “Hey, state the obvious, do the right thing by your people. Support them with a team.” But again, if it’s not top of mind, then it’s not stated. And it’s awesome that you guys took the time last year to actually set forth the purpose so that people can reflect back and make that be apart of your organizational culture. I’m sure it’s one of the big pillars of your success.

Lee: Absolutely.

Seth: So, Lee, we’re out of time. I really, really appreciate you coming and sharing some of your wisdom with us. I know everyone who asked questions…hopefully, we got you answers as we went along here. Anything that got unanswered we’ll try to collect up some answers and make sure that we publish that long with us. But the recording will go out today or tomorrow. And Lee, where are you off to next? You’re off to India soon?

Lee: Yes, I’m off to Mumbai to go talk about how to create more influence for marketing in the boardroom. And I’m excited about that, yeah.

Seth: I’m jealous. A little travel. A little warm weather travel.

Lee: We’re looking to it. First time traveling there. And I really appreciate being on. You’re a joy to talk to. And you know your stuff. And love the product. And so I hope everyone…as you said…has had their questions answered. If not, please fire them off, and I’m sure we’ll find a way to get them answered.

Seth: Absolutely. Cool, Lee. Well, safe travels. Thanks so much. And we hope to see everybody here for the next Data-Driven Marketer. Bye.

Cassandra Schwartz

Cassandra leads our product marketing, focusing on product, brand, and communications needs. Cassandra has worked in marketing and communications for nearly a decade helping businesses like Microsoft including Xbox and The Garage, Pike13, and many others connect with their audiences. Outside of work, Cassandra keeps extraordinarily active. An avid community builder, she leads the Seattle Lean In Circle, and co-founded SheHasDrive, as well as a peer-mentoring program based in Seattle. Since moving to Seattle from Kansas, Cassandra has adopted an outdoors lifestyle that includes hiking, skiing, and kayaking. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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