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10 Key Things I Learned From Working at a Search Startup

cohen-alex
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Top Tips...Four years ago, I joined a relatively new company called Commerce360 – then a digital agency with a strong focus on search. The company was formed by two serial technology entrepreneurs, Lucinda Duncalfe and Craig Danuloff, with the explicit goal of finding a technology opportunity.

We were early customers of some second generation search technology, but quickly hit the limit of what existing tools could do. We had found our technology opportunity and made the switch to a software company.  

Shortly afterward, I took over the marketing role and we rebranded as ClickEquations. In early June, ClickEquations was acquired by Channel Intelligence. Later this month, I’ll be joining H. Bloom as director of marketing.

I’ve learned a lot in my time in the search community, which has always been very generous with its knowledge. In my continuing effort to give back, here are the 10 key things I learned working at a search startup. It’s a mix of tips about search marketing, B2B marketing, and life at a startup.

1. Education is Everywhere

When I started marketing ClickEquations, I knew very little about paid search – something of a problem when your product is for search marketing. 

The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of training on search marketing and articles are constantly being written. 

  • Conferences: If you’re new to search, you must attend at least one search conference. It’s the quickest way to get immersed in the field and you just can’t get that kind of in-person networking anywhere else. They’re held throughout the year in cities including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco (SES San Francisco is just a couple weeks away). Make a point of going to the parties and social events. Trading notes with peers often reveals a lot of tricks and contacts you wouldn’t get elsewhere.
     
  • Email newsletters: The great thing about PPC is that it changes on an almost weekly basis. The easiest and lowest time commitment way to subscribe to the two major email newsletters from Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land
     
  • Blogs: In addition to the two major search news sites, blogs are the best source of current, practical information in the field. Need to learn about remarketing? The best way to use sitelinks? The help files only get you so far. I recommend these:
     
  • Twitter: Twitter has mostly replaced my RSS reader to find interesting articles and get breaking news. It’s also a great place to network with other PPC professionals. The best example is the #ppcchat hashtag conversation that happens every Tuesday or so. Here’s a streamcap from a recent chat. This is a good list of PPC people on Twitter to start following.

2. Reputation is Everything & Being Awesome at Sharing is Key

Thought leadership was a big part of how ClickEquations built a name for itself and for good reason. If you’re viewed as an expert, people are more likely to listen to you and trust your products and services. It’s time intensive, but cost efficient.

The online marketing community is small and your reputation can’t be bought. Reputation follows the 1000:1 rule. It takes 1,000 good deeds to build a reputation, but only 1 slip to destroy it. 

I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity. There is just far too much noise online and we all have far too little time. Between one and four great posts per month is much more valuable than four to eight mediocre pieces of content.

Being awesome at sharing is key. People probably don’t want talk about your product most of the time. But, they are willing to share interesting information, things that help them do their job, or anything that helps them express themselves. 

Don’t just tweet out your press releases. When you’re presenting, don’t just shill your products and features. Give value and you’ll get trust.

3. Conversion Rate Optimization is Essential, Not Optional 

I was working on my friend’s PPC account and all of the basics were in place: tight ad groups, relevant copy, and good negatives. The numbers weren’t working though. So, I launched a series of tests for landing page variations. Within a month, conversions doubled and CPA dropped by 75 percent. 

No amount of work before the click can save you from a poorly designed site that isn’t persuasive. Conversion rate optimization and landing pages are essential, not optional. 

4. Beginners Can Prosper

Before 2010, I had never spoken at a major conference. By the end of the year, I had spoken at eight. I’m consistently impressed that, in many ways, the search community is a meritocracy. If you put in the work, you can get ahead.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to start a blog. You have 100 percent control over the message and the list (your readers) is yours. Most people won’t bother to start a blog. Most people who start a blog will stop after a few months. If you start, persist and focus on quality, people will notice. These blogs can help:

Having a name, and articles to point to, helps in landing a speaking gig, but it’s not required. The trick to landing a speaking slot is to pitch early. Most shows plan their agendas at least 3 months in advance, and many are done 6 months in advance. 

Shows typically go through two phases of planning: setting the agenda and picking the speakers. That gives you two opportunities to get selected. Pitch at both times and pitch early. 

5. Conserve Cash and Spend Strategically

In a startup, cash is king. It determines what you can invest in, when you have to get funding, and under what terms. 

The easiest way to cut costs is to outsource to online companies. In some cases, you trade off a little domain expertise and they require some hand-holding. 

  • 99 Designs – Great for graphic design, especially simpler projects like banner ads, logos and business cards. They run design contests, so you have to commit to reviewing the drafts. But, if you find a good designer, it’s easy to book them for side projects afterwards. Custom banner ads are only $200 for 1 treatment in a variety of sizes, which is a steal and great for refreshing creative quickly. 
  • Elance – A wide variety of freelancers, with more writers. It’s good for research and content help. 
  • oDesk – Similar to Elance, but with more of a focus on development and technical freelancers. Great for coding projects (e.g., Wordpress). 
  • Mechanical Turk – Amazon’s service to outsource basic tasks to human workers. It’s ideal for routine work better done by people than machines (e.g., classifying photos). The cost is very low and you can scale easily.
  • PrintPlace – This is the best vendor I’ve found for printing collateral. Prices are reasonable, they have heavy stock and turnaround 

6. You Need Lead Nurturing & Scoring

With B2B marketing, the sales cycle is always now, but buying cycles vary significantly. It can be 60 days or 2 years. 

There is also a finite pool of people actively shopping for your product. But those same people are looking for education in their field – white papers, webinars, conferences, etc. 

That presents two related problems:

  • Converting education leads into sales leads
  • Influencing sales leads throughout the buying cycle at scale

The bridge for moving both types of leads to opportunities is lead nurturing (targeted email marketing) and lead scoring (prioritizing leads based on scores from fit and online lead activity). 

Successfully implementing lead nurturing requires:

  • A clean SalesForce implementation.
  • Content to send to the leads (blog posts, articles, white papers, links).
  • Specialized software (I use and recommend Marketo, but there are other choices like Eloqua and Pardot).
  • Someone to manage the channel. I kept everything in house, but there are specialized lead nurturing consultants, like DemandLab, for strategic or tactical assistance.
  • Executive commitment. The success of lead nurturing depends as much on sales and marketing culture as anything else. You need executive buy-in to invest spend the money on the software, the time on the programs and commitment from sales to use lead nurturing and scoring in the sales process. It’s very much collaboration and a commitment you should get before you start. 

7. Create Late Stage Content First

In B2C marketing, the shopping cart and landing pages are closest to the sale and even small improvements can provide big, quick wins. 

The equivalent in B2B marketing is late stage content – collateral that addresses the specific needs of buyers who are close to a purchase decision. 

B2B buying isn’t purely logical and, emotionally, it’s driven a lot by the desire to mitigate risk. Focus first on late stage content, including:

  • Product Info – Presentations and sell sheets for the reps to deliver and standalone decks that leads can pass around internally.
  • Demos – A standard story to position your company and product consistently across reps and demos.
  • Objection Handling – Common questions and responses. Sales reps aren’t expected to be subject matter experts, but they need to be ready to field detailed questions.
  • Competitive Comparisons – You’ll always be in some sort of shoot out with a competitor. Regardless of how well you position, a prospect will always ask “How are you better than ____?”
  • Case Studies – Everyone wants to see proof from third parties that the claims about your product are valid.
  • Implementation Information – Eventually, prospects want to know what it takes to get started with your product. Material that helps explain setup, orientation, and support are helpful in late stage conversations. 

Those documents are the basic arsenal for any sales team. It’s the first thing they’ll need for any sales conversations and they support outbound prospecting.

8. You Need A Brand Separate From Your Company

For me, writing and speaking has opened a lot of doors. Professionally, it made it much easier to promote ClickEquations. I was able to connect with influencers and decision makers, which helped with PR and word of mouth.

Personally, it has given me a platform and name recognition that I can take with me now that I’m moving onto H. Bloom. Regardless of what I’m marketing or where I am, I have a way to stay in touch with the great and generous people in the community.

Job security has been replaced with skill and network security. I was fortunate enough to have several people in the industry reach out to me for potential positions. Companies and positions come and go, but a great network can make sure you always have options. 

You can’t wait until need help to connect with people. In fact, it’s the opposite. You have to make a concerted effort to help people often and generously without expectation of anything in return. If you give, you’ll get.

9. Offline is Critical in B2B Marketing 

As much as B2B research and buying is online, offline is still essential to B2B marketing. I’m specifically talking about events. Here are a few tips I learned from sponsoring trade shows at ClickEquations:

  • Location: Book events early for the best booth space. Corner booths tend to be the best, because you get two directions of traffic. Note where the entrances, food, and bars are, as these tend to determine the flow of attendees.
  • Contracts: Buy in bulk to save on shows. The more you commit to, the bigger the discount and the more frequent the extras. 
  • Contract Add-Ins: Vendors will often include extras along with sponsorship as incentives to buy or buy more. Some add-ins just aren’t worth it, some are. I like bag inserts, ads in the show guides, any ability to present in the expo hall (separate from the editorial content), and pre-show mailers. Anything on the first day of the expo hall is more valuable than the second day, because foot traffic drops off a lot. 

10. Hold Onto Good Freelancers And Vendors

Trying to find great vendors and freelancers is really time consuming. 

Word of mouth is still the best source for recommendations. First Round Capital, one of ClickEquations’ investors, smartly created an Opzi group for all of the marketers to share ideas in a closed community. LinkedIn Answers and Groups can be helpful to start the search, though it's full of a lot of sales people and self-promoters. 

I made a point of referring as much business as possible to my favorite vendors (like Felt Media) when I didn’t have work for them. That make it much easier to get on the calendar for smaller or faster projects. 

More To Come

Search has been a great industry to me and everyone I met was friendly and very willing to share. I hope to continue that tradition even as I move on.

I will continue to write for Search Engine Watch and on my own blog, Digital Alex and, of course, to tweet. I won’t be traveling or speaking as much, but I’ll definitely be at the New York shows and active in the local marketing groups. Come to the city and let’s grab a drink. I’d love to help.


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