Welcome to Rankwatch’s Marketing Lego thought leader interview. Today we will talk to Ali Schwanke, founder of Simple Strat, about how her agency helps clients excel at inbound and outbound marketing strategies. Ali also shares her opinions on social signals and gives her advice to help new business owners create successful strategies.
Hello everyone. And welcome to another Marketing Lego thought leader interview. My name is Harshit, and I’m the Director of Business Alliances of two brilliant marketing SAAS tools, RankWatch and WebSignals.
Today’s special guest is a highly experienced marketing consultant, a HubSpot platinum partner- CEO, and founder of the marketing agency ‘Simple Strat’.
Ali, a big welcome to you, and I am so happy to speak with you today.
Perfect. AIi, please tell us about yourself. How you were like as a kid, and how you got to where you are today?
And I think my parents will tell you that all my life, I was always independent and wanted to achieve at a high level, but I also found myself drawn to both math and creativity. And those two worlds really collide, I think, here in marketing pretty well. And, in most recent years, that’s found its way into helping people make the most out of a tool called HubSpot.
And so I run a channel called HubSpot hacks, and ironically, the name of this show is Marketing Lego, and I’ve got a Lego wall behind me. And, we used to have an office in person. Now, we are all remote. We had our cubicles made out of Legos, but between this set and the other set, we operate remotely and help people mostly with sales and marketing tools.
But we’re spending our time more on the service tools. And then if they need help executing on HubSpot, we do help with content marketing strategy- execution of, you know, email, social blogs, videos, things like that.
So it’s like a good mix and match of services, which are recurring in nature — for the agency and also a few one-time setups. Like, you set up HubSpot for your clients and stuff like that.
It doesn’t turn out like they think it should just because they haven’t done it. And we find the same to be true with HubSpot. We’ve seen a lot of different instances. We’ve seen a lot of different situations. We’re familiar with the tool we’re using every day. So when we come in to partner with folks, we can get them there faster, and typically we can help them avoid some of the roadblocks and obstacles that you might encounter if you don’t work with an outside party.
So Ali, please tell me a bit more about the services offered by your agency. I know that you’re way too big on B2B consultation and HubSpot, but what services do you offer?
One, we really just classify as HubSpot Consulting. So that’s training on HubSpot that might be helping you make sense out of your portal if someone happens to leave your team and you need an admin to get involved.
We’ve got a consultation actually today where the organization had put HubSpot in place and then really didn’t do much with it for the last couple of years. And so now they’re ready.
They’re kind of ready to get back to school and do more with it. And then we’ve also got, when people are looking to purchase HubSpot, it can be challenging because they have four different hubs, four different levels.
So, you know, essentially a number of scenarios and people tend to get overwhelmed by the options. So we help them buy — so buying assistance, but that’s all on the HubSpot side.
On our content marketing side, we help with strategy. So if you’re trying to figure out how to drive more traffic, whether through thought leadership or search, whether that’s blogs or video or podcasts, whatever, we’ll help you come up with that strategy and then produce.
So if that’s producing a podcast and distributing it; if that’s producing a video series, writing blogs, and analytics and everything else that goes with it.
Oh, nice. Since HubSpot is all inbound, right? (they advocate that a lot), so, as an agency, have you adopted inbound up to its core or do you still practice a few of the outbound strategies right now for your clients?
True cold outbound, you know, buying lists and sending out cold messages, direct messaging people on LinkedIn — we don’t do a whole lot of that. The main area we’d do any of that would be soliciting guests for a podcast like this — probably the same way that you do. But, most of our work is inbound.
We’re trying to figure out what people search for online, whether that’s searching on YouTube or searching on Google. And we want to create content that will help intersect their journey and then drive them obviously to our client’s websites.
Do you have any specific criteria for choosing your clients?
Because content’s a large investment, and you want to make sure that the ROI is there. We tend to focus on companies that have a longer sales cycle so that the customer acquisition cost is a little bit higher, but then their lifetime value is much more significant. Obviously, it is worth it.
I think that makes sense, Ali, because one of the biggest challenges marketing agencies face is the churn rate. How do you deal with that? This is one of the strategies that you look for clients who have long-term goals so that you keep on continuously adding value to their project. And the duration itself is long. But are there any other programs you run to increase the retention rate of your agency?
I mean, one is obviously running a business in today’s environment is very…the last two years have been fun. We’ll call it fun, right? But I think there are two big things when it comes to client retention. One of them is the management of client expectations. And I know that becomes more and more challenging when we have, like, I love the platform Wix, in terms of their commercials.
I think it’s challenging when they’re putting a message out in the marketplace — you can design your website; you can be a marketer; you can do this in a week. And there’s a big difference between “You can do it, but should you do it? And do you know what you’re doing to get results?”
And so when we, in inner conversations, talk about creating traffic to a website, it’s going to take a while for you to produce enough content and rank, and eventually have the mechanisms to convert those people to customers and nurture them on your CRM.
And I think everybody wants people that are ready to buy today. And if you think about that, as consumers, we don’t buy like that. We tend to skirt around and look for as much content as we can. And we tend not to want to talk to a salesperson until we’re ready. And our customers are the exact same way.
And so, I think marketing agencies have to continually educate their clients, and sometimes that’s super exhausting. Sometimes clients just want to go to the company that’s going to give them what they want to hear regardless of the results. And that’s one thing that I think we’re up against in the industry.
The other is just… There’s definitely expertise that you need in certain industries. And so when you tend to have that, it’s easier to retain clients when things shift significantly — pandemic, it is one of those examples. Anybody who specializes in restaurants or hospitality lost their entire client list in a day.
So, I think it just depends on keeping your ear down to the ground, just like a good entrepreneur would. And what does the market want, and how do you continually improve that offering so that your clients can manage expectations and also kind of be a little innovative at the same time.
AMakes sense. Can you please tell us a bit more about the client journey in your agency? What do your organization’s onboarding process and the first 30 days look like for a client?
I would like to know a bit more from the client’s point of view.
And then we use the HubSpot platform to send a quote and have that approved that way because we want to use HubSpot since we’re promoting HubSpot, obviously. And each person is assigned either a HubSpot consultant, if they’re HubSpot specific, or an account coordinator.
And once they have all of those things crossed off, we have a kickoff meeting, and we help them see what to expect in the first couple of days to weeks. And a lot of that’s information gathering, learning about their team and then helping them outline those goals and create a roadmap to achieve them.
Let’s talk a bit more about content. It is a big part of the service that you offer, right? So, how do you plan the content for your clients, keeping your SEO angle in mind?
So there’s a lot… One of my favorite tools is Airtable, really great tool — people search for it now by name, but when it first came out, nobody was looking for a better spreadsheet. They just weren’t.
And so, they had to create the demand, which meant the search was a little challenging. So they had to take some other routes, but if your product or service has search potential, we definitely look at a couple of places.
We love SEMrush to look at what the environment of ranking looks like? Who is the competition? Can we rank for the featured snippets? Can we rank with images? Is there a video play opportunity? All of that we discuss with our client, and then it really comes down to what capabilities they have and what they want to leverage.
If they’re not good at answering interviews like this, we probably can’t leverage things like podcasts because that’s not going to showcase the best part of their brand, but we help them identify those opportunities and then build (we’re fans of) pillar page concepts or color cluster content.
So a lot of times, we’ll start with written content because it’s easier to execute, and it doesn’t require as much of them being on camera.
It makes so much sense for building topical relevance. HubSpot offers a great tool for pillar and secondary pages that works brilliantly. And also, since we talked about the keyword research and the content planning part, what’s the biggest struggle you face?
Because I know for a fact that keyword research itself is a time-consuming task, right? It’s very manual right now. Are there any hacks you can share that reduce the time and you’re still able to deliver a quality analysis report to your clients? Is there anything you do around it?
But when you search for a recipe, you want a recipe. You don’t want the life story of the person who made the recipe in all of the things. So the people that I tend to go back to, now that I’ve discovered their recipe blog, are the ones that have offered me a “skip to recipe” feature. Once you give me what I want, I’m more inclined to go back and read your story.
But if you try to gimme your story first and then the recipe, you just annoy me, and I think a lot of that’s happening online. And again, for a good reason, they’re trying to cater to the algorithm. Just the other day, there was a forum where someone had asked a question, I read through all of the answers, and no one had really answered the person’s question.
So if you think about that in terms of the content, we’re creating for clients, for ourselves, that’s ultimately where HubSpot hacks came from. If you typed in the search phrase “how to add a user to HubSpot”, you and I might think, well, that’s pretty easy. They have a knowledge article about that in HubSpot, but there was no video.
And people, you could tell, in forums, were still asking questions. So although I didn’t have a ton of search volume, it was a long tail phrase, and there were a lot of those like that. And I think those are the things that, as Content developers and SEO experts, sometimes it’s not the total amount of search volume for that specific phrase.
It’s how much potential 150 of those phrases don’t actually look like to create content. So those are, I think some of the… Like we would call them wide-open spaces that exist and the keyword research.
If you get overwhelmed at first, literally just ask your client a bunch of questions and search for exactly what they told you because they have more insight than sometimes the tools do.
And you have to go with your gut.
That’s true. I think the seed keyword that the client shares or the sales team or the marketing team shares basically becomes the pillar. You can build around it, but a client knows the business better than anyone else, right? So it makes perfect sense.
I’m just curious. Are you much more focused on the on-page optimization part right now? And when I say “on-page optimization part”, I mean, more on the website front and leveraging that strategy more, or do you look into the off-page strategies too?
For example, when it comes to SEO, things like link building and more. How exactly do you proceed with that?
So that’s kind of table stakes. We do leverage more guest posting and shared, I’ll say shared social engagement strategy to get the content out. So if we mention a couple of, let’s say, three companies in the blog, we’re going to reach back out to them and say, “Hey, we recently wrote a blog post mentioning you. Would you mind sharing it?”
Hopefully, that might gain us a backlink. We don’t have a team of 15 people in the back running backlink outreach, but some of the good content that you create naturally does garner backlinks. So it’s a little bit of creativity plus making sure that there’s some of that; I mean, if you have a guest post on our website, you’re going to get a backlink from us, right? So if we can secure guest posts for our clients, they will naturally earn a backlink in that arena.
And Ali, what are the main KPIs you track to measure the content success altogether? It could be a blog post or a service page you created for your client. How do you go about measuring that?
And so we tend to ask them, “what are your goals for this quarter?”. And so we’re measuring both short-term outcomes and long-term outcomes, to ensure that they can see the value of what we’re doing. Sometimes when you’re first getting started, the goal is literally, publish three blog posts.
So if they haven’t published any content in the last two years, sometimes just getting things over the finish line is the goal. But in terms of KPIs, I mean, for us specifically, we look at blog traffic. We look at search terms that we’re ranking for or where we are on page one. If we happen to be on page one, we track the search terms over on YouTube, and then we also track the number of leads and conversions on our forms.
Also, Ali, please share some useful tips on improving the marketing content? It could be any form of content; since we discussed the KPIs, the next step will be how you improve the engagement or any other metrics?
And most of your audience is not going to be a PhD-level educated person. So when in doubt, have the sales team review your copy and ask, “would a customer talk like this?” so a customer is going to understand. You might be talking smart just to sound smart, and it might not be effective. So that’s one of the first places that you can improve.
The second is the use of visuals. So a lot of us process visuals 20,000 times faster in our brain than we do words. And most blog posts, or even just content in general, can be repurposed as a visual image, and it can be more effective and convey the message to people that just don’t convey or don’t understand words.
So that’s definitely one place that you can be super creative with. Or you can just use your product, use screenshots and just make it, you know, more visual to me.
The last thing I would say is using your sales team, and as you just mentioned, just keep a written log of all the questions you get across the course of your company: objections, intro sales questions, what it’s like to be an employee. Use that and create content around that because sometimes you can use that, and it can lead to keyword opportunities.
So you’re not spending all your time on research for stuff that might get engagement. You actually know people are already asking the question.
That’s true. And also, when you create engaging content, a lot of other bloggers in your niche link back to you. They kind of like take your asset and put it up there on their blog, increasing authority.
Ali, since you also do social media, right? You do manage it for your client. So, have you noticed social signals actually impacting your inbound? Basically, from the search point of view, or your client’s performance, with respect to SEO. Anything like that, have you ever witnessed?
So again, I can’t speak specifically to the social signals on organic, but I know that if it gets shared multiple times, there’s a good chance that someone might find it and get a backlink for us. So it is interesting, but definitely not something I have a super strong opinion on.
Right. Let’s talk a bit more on how exactly you revamped the old content? For example, one of your clients’ content pieces is ranking for a specific keyword on the top position for a certain duration of time, and then it slipped. Then there’s definitely a need to revamp it again.
So how do you strategize to regain those rankings?
What’s expected from that search phrase today? What are people looking for? What are the relevant examples? We might have outdated examples in our blog post. So we are looking to see if someone published a guide and it happens to be from a more authoritative source versus us, then we probably need to get some more backlinks.
So I think it really depends on what the content has pushed us down and what that means for us. And then definitely making sure that there’s “update the references, update the intro, maybe it needs a new title”. Those types of things.
Which tools do you mainly leverage to do these sorts of analyses?
I would love to know your advice for new businesses — which inbound strategies should they really invest in and focus on while starting the business?
And I’ve talked to a lot of founders that want to offload marketing as soon as possible. They want to hire an agency but haven’t quite figured out their product-market fit. They haven’t figured out how long the customer journey is. And so you really, when you’re a new business, have to find the people that have the pain right now, and that’s just a lot of hustle.
So when you’re a new business, in terms of inbound, the best thing I think you can do is leverage the brand of the founder because typically, the founder is the one that has industry expertise. They already have a brand. And so if they start creating content about something, you’ve got the power of both the search phrase and their name, and that’s a little bit of our secret sauce.
But I would say they’ve got that down. The next thing that I think happens to be pretty prevalent for them is going after whatever content isn’t being created in that space and satisfying a search intent that doesn’t exist.
So if no one is creating how-to videos in your industry, you can go there. If no one is creating really good visual diagrams on how the X, Y, Z process works, you can go there. It really depends on what’s out there and what whitespace exists for you.
That’s very wise advice. And since many companies come to you, they might already be using HubSpot, but they need a consultation to improve some of their other objectives.
So, what are the common mistakes that you see businesses make, specific to HubSpot automation, and how to avoid those?
So we’ve got a client that produces a podcast, and we help them solicit some guests there. And one of the best ways we’ve found to build relationships is LinkedIn. Well, there are LinkedIn automation tools that can make that quote-unquote “easier”, but to be frank, I’ve found that if you simply put some customization — that you actually read the person’s profile and create a custom pitch — you’re better off pitching 10 than sending a blanket message to 500.
So I think the challenge with automation is there are places for it. And then there are places where you still need to have a human managing that because we are still craving human-to-human interaction, especially after the last two years. And the other challenge I see is that it just takes a lot of work to maintain automation, and it’s not a “set it and forget it”.
So we’re brought into portals all the time (ours included), where “oh, wow, how long has that been running?” And I didn’t even know that email was still being sent after this thing happened. So there’s definitely a need to… like with your house, you have to set a cleaning schedule. And if you don’t, it can get pretty unwieldy pretty quickly.
Makes sense. Ali, please share one of the most successful case studies where your consultation has done wonders for a client? Because again, like the agency has been in business for quite a long now, I’m sure there must be some success stories you would like to share with us?
The caveat is required in an investment of time. But I think that’s true of all really good marketing initiatives — it’s going to require some time or effort. I always tell people you can pay with time or money or both. And in this case, it’s a little bit of both, but the tip of the iceberg is really just starting to show itself here.
And there’s been direct impacts in the last couple of weeks with a business that came in and transacted in a matter of days. So, you know, it’s exciting to see that.
Brilliant. And any horror story you would like to share because it’s an everyday affair in agencies, right?
One of the biggest failures that I had early in my career was probably not recognizing the businesses asking for marketing help. And they really need sales today. So what they think they need is marketing and what they actually need is sales.
And so they might need to actually go again. This is one of those where if. You can give feedback, and they can choose to take your direction or not. But you know, if you can’t answer your customer emails quickly — one customer wants to buy from you, that’s probably something you need to fix before trying to get more people in your funnel.
So there are some times like that, that I’d say marketing (sometimes good marketing) really only exposes bad processes or organizations or bad products. And there are times that I probably should have said no to helping them. And because we kind of got down a road and said, you probably just need to work on your sales process.
It’s very hard to say “no,” at least at an early stage of your business, right? You have just started at that particular time, and you want to grow your agency. But I’ve seen many agencies attain a certain business milestone. They tend to open up by saying “no” to businesses and not crossing the line, and going beyond what their core expertise is altogether.
I’m just curious, Ali, since you’ve been a brilliant marketing consultant, do you also help companies with sales enablement? Because that’s, again, a very big and a very useful model that HubSpot offers.
Are you into that or not at this stage?
And so they tend to be pretty appetizing — content plays a big role in that. So how was your team using case studies? How are you answering the objections of your customers? Do you have a way to make sure that customers feel trusted and valued before they transact? And there’s a lot of times that I, myself, as a customer, will think that way when I go through a process, and I’ll think, why are they asking me for sale yet?
They haven’t even answered my questions. So it’s important that so many people think with empathy, which marketers should be really good at. Sometimes in sales, we get tunnel vision because there’s a quota ahead of us, and we tend to forget the empathy part.
And so I think marketers can work with sales teams to really kind of heighten that level of awareness in sales enablement, and then also use the tools at HubSpot more effectively to make sure that they have what they need in order when the customer’s ready to transact, they’re there and then can onboard them.
That’s perfect. I think we are coming to an end here, Ali, and I would like to have a quick rapid-fire with you. Are you ready for that?
What is your last Google search?
So I made them last night, and I search the recipe up every time.
Perfect. What is the best advice you have ever received?
That’s very wise. At what age were you the happiest, and why?
So I think there’s, as long as you’re continually learning and becoming the best version of yourself, it should be today.
And since your team has been working remotely, you’ll love this question. What’s the funniest thing you have ever witnessed on a zoom call?
All right. What trait defines who you are?
Nice. And coming to my last question, what career did you dream of having as a kid?
You’re still consulting. You do have diagnostic calls.
Thank you so much, Ali, for all the time and all the valuable tips and lessons that you’ve shared with us. I’ll definitely put down your YouTube channel. So brilliant.
All the hacks you share and your co-founder shares with you. That’s really helpful. Right. Thank you so much. I really appreciate all the time.
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