Say the words, "digital marketing thought leader" and Lee Odden's name is going to come up. He's the co-founder of TopRank Marketing, a company who's Online Marketing Blog is considered one of the most influential marketing blogs around.
His company has served companies whose names you know, like LinkedIn and Dell. He's been sought after to deliver quotes to major publications, and he's got a nice, full speaking schedule.
So I felt pretty lucky when he agreed to talk to me.
Here's the lightly-edited transcript of our conversation. If you're struggling to grow an agency or consulting business, this one's a must-read.
On Starting a Marketing Blog
Carmen: Congratulations on your fifteen year anniversary with TopRank Marketing blog!
Lee: Yeah, it's amazing that anyone would ever want to write for that long.
Carmen: Well it's come a long way. And since you've started content marketing it's evolved significantly. When you first started the blog, what was the purpose?
Lee: Initially it was really just to curate news for my team, practice my writing skills, and as time went on, apparently a couple of clever things were said and attracted attention.
Back then there weren't so many blogs so a lot of people would, instead of commenting on a Tweet or something since that stuff didn't exist, people would write a blog post in response to what they read on your blog. There was this sort of dialogue back and forth. That created some opportunities for building credibility and thought leadership and that sort of thing.
So that's kind of how it started.
On Defining Success in Content Marketing
Carmen: How are you defining success for your content marketing these days?
Lee: Things have changed a lot since then. I used to write all the blog posts, or most of the blog posts.
Today I probably publish two to five times a month. So I have a team creating the blog. Success is of course aligned with the reason for writing. So initially, it was just to create some visibility, develop some expertise.
Now, our blog is responsible for millions in revenue from customers coming to us. It helps us attract talented candidates. I just got a letter. I'm holding it right now. A guy FedExed his resume. Who does that?
"I'm a fan of the TopRank blog. My passion for marketing...etcetera."
It's good for that. It also helps us facilitate relationships with the media and with industry influencers, and it helps us support our customers. So success is measured according to those different objectives.
Are we attracting new business?
Are we attracting candidates?
Are they making reference to our blog in their application materials?
And how deep are our relationships to our customers and with our industry influencers now compared to in the past?
On Adding New Service Offerings To Your Agency
Carmen: Sounds like it's very successful indeed by those metrics. Now, your agency has evolved over the years too. How do you go about deciding to add new marketing service offerings to your clients?
Lee: It's a season of predictions and shiny new objects, right, with the beginning of the year? That's kind of a timely question you're asking.
Because I think a lot of people are looking and asking, "What's new," or they're reading these predictions and trends posts. I'm guilty of writing them myself. They're wondering what they should be doing differently.
Carmen: No, I'm not familiar with that.
Lee: It's hilarious! If you're into marketing at all, this guy's got a bit of a cynical view of marketing, but it's funny. Anyway, if you get a chance, Marketoonist, about predictions.
But a lot of people are doing just that. Chasing shiny objects. Thinking, "Well, I've got pressure to perform this quarter so I should probably do something different."
Maybe they're understaffed. Maybe they're not as sophisticated. But what I know is the most successful marketers are continuously optimizing what they're already doing.
And they've got their fingers on the pulse of what matters in their industry and amongst their customers. So in our case, what we do to base any changes in service offering are essentially around three key things.
One—does the data that exists within our customer marketing programs call for us to make a change? Do we see shifts in traffic sources? Are we seeing any changes in the kind of content being consumed, and so forth.
Those are canaries in the coal mine for investigating whether we should make some changes.
Another one is are we noticing compelling evidence in the industry at large?
So in our case I get to spend a substantial amount of my time connecting with senior executives at large and mid-market companies asking them, "What's up? What's going on?"
I get to understand a little of what's going on in the industry and I can sense through the collective wisdom of that network whether it's worth investigating a change or not.
And the third is, are we, ourselves, at our agency seeing compelling evidence in our own marketing that we're doing, in the lessons we're learning from our experiments that we could then apply to customers?
We do a lot of experiments ourselves. We've got a fairly popular blog as you've alluded to. It's been around a long time, at least. Pretty robust social channels. That allows us to throw digital spaghetti against the wall, so to speak, and see what sticks. And from that we can make recommendations, informed recommendations, to our clients.
Carmen: In that vein, are you seeing any of those canaries in the coal mine? Or do you think, so far, things are holding pretty steady?
Lee: I notice that when I wrote my predictions post for this year—and I did it based on research, though I suppose I could have just said, "Ah, here's what I feel like the trends are." But I actually did some analysis of hundreds and hundreds of articles and notes that I'd kept.
It's interesting. A lot of things were very similar over last year.
Voice search. Are you optimized for voice search? Are you optimized for how consumers are interacting with devices to discover and consume information?
I was a late adopter to Apple Watch, right? I'm reading news. Not very much news. But I'm consuming a small amount of content on this tiny screen. And I'm just thinking, "Wow, who is creating content specifically for that, let alone creating skills on Alexa, or other voice-friendly types of interactions?"
So that's a thing that was true last year, it's true this year. Obviously there's a lot of noise about AI, machine learning, that sort of thing.
And a lot of what companies can do there, at least the small and medium businesses, is to rely on platforms, marketing technology platforms they use to leverage AI technologies to automate and make more efficient and effective what it is they do. In the general sense, I really don't see it being worth creating your own neural network and doing some machine learning experimentation yourself when you could just go pay a monthly fee to a SAAS company who has already figured it out with all their engineers and scientists.
Chatbots are another thing that were on my list this year that weren't on my list last year. I think that's something a lot of B2B companies (and I'm B2B almost exclusively) can bring to the table. Not only for service, but also to facilitate sales conversations and appointment setting.
And of course influencer marketing has always been huge for my company. We've been in that business for six years now.
It's really, really taking off in B2B right now.
On the Mistakes That Marketing Departments Make
Carmen: So what do you think most marketing companies do, the big mistake they're making when they're considering one of those service offerings?
Are they not paying enough attention to the data? Are they just kind of doing it? Or is there something else they're doing that's kind of leading them astray?
Lee: I suspect a lot of companies are trying to solve a problem, obviously.
They've got a pain they're trying to ease. Usually a revenue thing. Or maybe there's an efficiency/operations thing. When you look at large enterprise organizations, or when companies get really large, they want a single solution. They want a platform solution, not a point solution.
So when you're writing checks to 25 different niche companies it just creates some pain. So they start looking for changes where they can consolidate all those things into one big master platform. Of course, it doesn't do all the things, but they only have to write one check.
So there's things like that. The mistake there, of course, is sacrificing functionality for the convenience of writing one check.
Or companies not allocating the time to actually prove something out or not. If you've got a really big problem to solve, and you can validate the business case for solving it and investing in it differently than you are now, I think a big mistake a lot of companies make is they'll try a thing out—and this happens so much with software—they'll try a thing out for a quarter or two, and they'll throw an intern-level type person at it, or a junior person at it, and just hope that it works. And not take it seriously.
I know they're not doing that sort of thing with something that costs a million dollars, I hope not, but even ten grand a year, twenty grand a year, that adds up. So I think not being realistic about software procurement and setting goals and following some sort of process for validation and evaluation, not doing those things, is a mistake. It's wasteful. It really is wasteful.
On Marketing Tactic and Strategy Experimentation
Carmen: Let's talk about those experiments for a minute. What sort of best practices have you come up with for creating them, documenting them, reporting on the results and using those results to create some action plans you can move forward on?
Lee: Well, I think good old fashioned scientific method approach applies.
You've got an informed hypothesis about what it is you're trying to prove out, you test it, and iterate.
Some things are going to take more time than others, proportionate to the problem you're going to solve or the impact you're going to have. If something is large like that, it's going to warrant a lot more in-depth investigation and longer-term testing.
Not everyone has the luxury of having clients. I don't know if your audience is exclusively agencies or not. Not everyone has the luxury of having somewhere to experiment.
So, I think, something to think about, and that's important to be able to do, whether it's a side project, a side business, or if you're working with clients who are flexible and who are willing to allocate a certain percentage of retainer to experimentation, if you don't have any of that, and a lot of people don't, then you can work with an agency that will do those things.
That has that kind of function built into the services they offer, so across the portfolio of clients you can really benefit quite a bit from that kind of experimentation and testing methodology.
On Getting Started with a New Agency or Consulting Business
Carmen: Now, switching gears a little bit: a lot of our audience are marketing agencies, and a lot of them are also people who are looking to get started as consultants or to launch agencies for the first time.
What would be your best advice for them getting started?
Lee: First, I hope they've worked somewhere for awhile and developed some deep expertise and some connections.
There's usually a reason someone thinks they can be a consultant and hopefully it's not just because they saw Gary V. talk smart on a video.
There's a tremendous amount of fake-it-to-you-make it that exists in the SEO world, social media, really in any kind of marketing.
I think if your 'why' is revenue, if you want to make a living at this and have fun, then you've got to develop the expertise.
My recommendation would be to be really specific in niche.
Go really deep on that really specific thing. Create as many success stories as you can. As you become known for that specific thing then you are going to develop trust.
Trust is the currency that opens the doors for you to expand into lots and lots of other areas.
But if you try to do all the things, most people are going to suck at that. All the things you're trying to compete with each other and you'll be a gray man or gray woman and they'll forget you.
Carmen: Now when you say, "go really niche," are you talking about the industry they serve or the specific marketing service offering?
Lee: It could be both. It depends on the person and the background they have.
If they've worked at an agency where they've got different vertical marketing expertise, but they only did SEO at that agency or agencies? Then they go out on their own and they just do SEO and that's it? Then they're fully capable of working with these different industries.
Someone else who's more junior than that might just stick with one thing they know. Like they're just doing SEO for real estate agents. It might just be a couple of months.
Whatever they've got to do to shorten the time to create really impactful success stories. That's kind of where I'm coming from. By creating that trust and that reputation and evidence of your credibility, that's what opens those doors for being able to expand into other areas, because people have had these experiences. I've talked to clients. And they'd say, "What's new?"
Like they're asking, "What else should I buy from you?" In a way. And I'm not kidding! I'm not kidding.
I don't have exactly those kinds of conversations as much as I used to. When I worked at an agency I wasn't in a sales role or anything, I was the head of online marketing, my job was to implement. I had more revenue coming in than the sales guys did because in conversations with clients, being helpful and explaining things to them.
Then they'd call up, or they'd email, and they'd say, "What's new? What's going on? Let's move things along. What else can we do?"
That speaks to the power of content marketing, I think. And just being useful.
On Balancing Marketing for Your Own Agency Versus Your Client's
Carmen: For sure! In that vein, how do you think a consultant should be balancing content production for their own business versus for their clients?
Lee: Well, when you're an individual consultant that's kind of hard, especially if you're not a prolific writer or natural writer.
In my case, I was not. I sucked at it, badly, for a really long time. I probably still do. But I figured out by paying attention to others, and not sleeping as much, things that would be efficient for content creation.
The other thing would be to partner. So in my case, one of the things I did that turned out to be incredibly beneficial: I built up a blog. I gave away a lot more than I should have, but I gave away a lot of useful information. Not all of it, but it really got me on the radar.
I approached a conference in my industry and said, "Hey, I know you have sponsors, like media sponsors. What about a blog sponsor? I'll come and live blog your conference, I'll even promote it beforehand on our blog with ads and stuff like that."
And they were like, "Eh. We'll try it out. We'll see what happens."
And that started a domino effect of creating relationships with five different conferences at the same time, where my objective was to find easier ways to get to conferences, cheaper ways for me to get to conferences where I could network with prospective customers.
What they wanted was high-quality content being created for free, basically, and so everybody won. I got to a point where I was bringing two or three people with me on free passes.
I had to pay for their flight and their hotel, but you know, conference passes can be very expensive.
So I'm able to bring, as a very, very small business, a couple of people to these different conferences. Of course, as I bring different people to multiple conferences, everyone that's doing this and also writing blog posts, two to three blog posts a day, for two or three day conferences, times two or three people, all the sudden everyone's getting notoriety, credibility, my brand's attached to everything, and a book deal comes, and lots of other things.
What made content easier to create there was - simultaneously create content and prospect clients at the same time was accomplished through live blogging. I would look at the conference speaker list and see which companies were presenting, like brands, were presenting. I'd make sure I'd go and live blog their presentation. They loved that.
I'd say, "Hey, I'm live blogging your presentation, can I take your picture?"
"Yeah, great, sure, fine!"
"Can I exchange a card with you?"
"Sure, sure, I'll let you know when it goes live!"
I'd share it to them, and they'd tell their PR people, and their PR people would link from the newsroom from that brand over to my blog, because they treated it like media coverage.
That person did not think a negative thing about me. I didn't try to sell them anything. They felt something very positive towards me. They'd start reading my blog and I'd get an email two months later. "Hey, I've been paying attention to what you're doing, you seem to know what you're talking about, we have a project, are you available?"
Carmen: Lee, I think I'm going to steal that.
Lee: You should! At the same time those live blog posts, they attracted with SEO, other people we had conversations with. You know, a lot of them didn't turn into conversations, but some of them did.
On Being Prepared For Opportunities Coming From Unexpected Places
Carmen: That's incredible. That's a great strategy. Do you have any funny stories of lessons learned from your first big clients?
Lee: Well, it's not really funny, but about fourteen years ago, I was still working in an unfinished basement in an office. We're talking, at my house, I had an office, and the rest of the basement was unfinished. It was just my workout equipment.
So I get a call from a Fortune 100 company. I was blogging at the time. They said, "Hey, would you come and speak at our conference? We're having a little internal marketing conference, could you come and speak?"
And I said, "Sure."
We had three employees at the time. Everyone worked from home. I flew to wherever it was, and I was supposed to give two presentations. Day one, I go in, I give a presentation, I give 'em everything I've got, because I don't know if I'll ever see these people again, and I want them to think something positive about me so maybe they'll refer my tiny little agency to some small business technology company or whatever that they know.
Second day I come in, and the contact comes up to me and says, "Hey Lee, I just want to let you know one of our Vice Presidents of Marketing was in the room yesterday, and we're wondering if we can engage your agency on an ongoing basis."
I said, "Absolutely!"
This was a 100 billion plus company, and corporate headquarters was the entity, because obviously they have lots of business units, was the business unit asking about that.
Fourteen years later, we're still working with that company. Different people, of course, but I don't know. I don't know if that's funny. That's not an embarrassing moment or anything.
But I was jacked out of my mind giving that second presentation. For one, I'm like, oh my god, this could be something amazing, and number two!
Oh my god, how are we ever going to deliver on the requests from such a huge company?
Carmen: It sounds pretty funny to me, it sounds like they thought you were a 3,000 person operation when you were a 3 person operation and you had to kind of scramble?
Lee: I think what they thought was we were a boutique agency with very, very deep expertise in the very specific things that we did.
On Scaling Your Digital Agency/Consulting Business
Carmen: That's great! Once you had to start scaling your business because of these giant clients, what were some of the keys to doing that?
Lee: Oh, so many things. So I'm very fortunate to have an amazing management team, really. Susan Misukanis, who's my business partner, Alexis Hall, one of our Vice Presidents, and some other folks.
Talent is really a key to that scaling.
You've got to be able to see ahead to when you're going to need to start developing that middle management group. Because you can't just flick a switch and think people that are practitioners, who are good at the craft, are all of a sudden going to be good at managing other people who are good at the craft.
That's ridiculous, but it happens, and so you've gotta see ahead. That's one of the keys to scaling.
There are lots of other things. Slightly more agile marketing environment, investing in software for project management, investing in our people in terms of skills, training, professional development, going through purpose development exercises, understanding what that is, why are we all here, why will the world be a better place after you're gone.
Stuff like that all supports your ability to scale, because it helps retain the talent you have, which is critical, and it also helps attract even more of that amazing talent.
On Finding and Hiring the Correct Talent
Carmen: You mentioned the FedEx in your hand, and your amazing employees.
What are you looking for when you do hire employees?
What are those qualities that say they're going to be successful with you?
Lee: I think they have to be someone who is genuinely curious about marketing and is investing in their own ability to get smarter when it comes to marketing. Whatever that may be.
Maybe they just read some blogs. Maybe they subscribe to some newsletters. Maybe they've found a way to get to some conferences, or maybe they just network with other smart people, but they're doing something.
Of course, being wicked smart also helps quite a bit. We can mold that horsepower between the ears into just about any area of success within our company. Actual experience, with marketing or with an agency, helps, creativity is super important.
Creative problem solving, creativity when it comes to the arts or anything aesthetic. Musicians, artists, whatever is also very, turns out to be very valuable.
Accountable professionals. I don't expect that out of someone who is just three years out of college necessarily, but it does happen once in awhile. We hire more experienced people than that usually.
People who are accountable. They are mature professionally enough to be aware that if someone doesn't give them a goal or a due date they've got to come up with one. They take ownership of their role. This is a pretty rare characteristic of anyone who starts, but they certainly achieve it once they learn the TopRank Way.
Smart, creative, accountable, those are core to the people that really, really succeed for our clients.
Carmen: So you get a resume, you get a cover letter, you get an interview.
How are you measuring things like creativity and accountability when you really only have this snapshot of this person to go off of?
Lee: Our HR recruiting person has some criteria she uses to sort initial inquiries. And they tend to be more on the functional side.
Do they have the experience? Do they have the domain expertise, relative or translatable experience?
That's not a comprehensive list, because that's her job to do that, not mine, but once someone is functionally qualified, that's when like a phone interview or an in-person interview will happen.
On Choosing the Right Vendors for Your Agency
Carmen: Another important part of growing an agency is choosing the right vendors, tools, and platforms.
How are you evaluating those for yourself and your clients?
Lee: Well, it's a little bit of a tricky question because personally, for me, I cannot stand being sold to, so very few people ever get to...I rarely have that experience in the traditional sense.
Here's what happens with me:
My team or someone I trust must suggest a tool as a solution to a problem we both agree exists. They need to bring evidence of why do we need this. Otherwise I have no time. New solutions have to be connected to solving a problem. A demonstrated problem, as opposed to one a salesperson creates while trying to create need so they can evangelize.
That's, in my case, that's how it comes into me. I'm not talking to tradeshow booth people, phone calls, no no no.
I'm connected enough in the industry where I see things. I'm reading stuff, I consume, I spend 2 to 3 hours a day consuming and educating myself and I am made aware, through my peer network and through that self-education exercise of new things. Because we create content that covers the martech space, specific to marketing technology solutions, we become quite aware that way.
Once something...here's something that's different about me. Because I'm a known entity in the industry, enough, I guess, that lots of people approach, and if they do make it through my little gauntlet there, often they give the solutions free for me to try out because they want me to write about them maybe.
I don't ask for this, in fact, if I choose somebody I don't want it for free, I want to pay for it, because I want a business relationship. I don't want to feel like I owe them anything.
That's usually what happens, so I've got to be able to play with the tool is what I'm saying, or one of my people has to. They need to be able to show that it's going to actually solve a problem.
In my case, I'm just a different cookie when it comes to that sort of thing.
On Review Management for B2B Companies
Carmen: Makes perfect sense to me. So because you're doing a lot of B2B, and of course you know this is a blog for a business review management platform, do you find that for B2B companies the review space is important? What's going on with that?
Lee: Well, I dunno about B2B in general, but certainly for B2B technology and software. I'm certainly aware of Trust Radius, G2 Crowd, Software Advice and people like that. I think it's G2 Crowd that's trying to...I ran into their CMO at an event and he was telling me that they're trying to expand into services as well.
So to the extent that these software, hardware review sites...these software review sites in B2B can be helpful, also the services, I think that will expand their importance and their utility quite a bit.
But otherwise B2B broadly, B2B is so many more things than just software. I'm sure I have a limited view because I'm looking at it through my own lens. Reviews is not something we really do a lot with relative to our clients. So, yeah, I am very biased toward my worldview on that. I'm looking at that through our own lens, like how useful would that be to us? And of course there's marketing review sites and things like that I have people play with from time to time. But for software absolutely.
Carmen: Hey, your bias is what we want, because that's your unique insight that we're hoping to get, so I appreciate that. And I've come to the end of my questions today, so I definitely appreciate you taking the time!
Lee: Thank you!