Rev Ciancio, three-time agency owner, went from being a Yext superuser for his restaurant clients—ensuring the accuracy of digital information about their brands—their name, address, phone number, hours of operation, menu, handicap-accessible bathroom information—to his position as Director of Industry Insights at Yext (New York City). In this interview, Rev explains that, while people in hospitality knew that customer service was important, they often failed to understand the importance of internet reputation management, as is the case for many companies.
People have shifted in how they use the internet to discover businesses—searches have gone from desktop to mobile, from search bar to voice search . . . with a new dependence on AI, VR, chatbots, and knowledge graphs to deliver the requested information.
All search methods have three layers.
- A UI (user interface), your link into the system—the browser search bar or the receiver for voice-activated systems.
- AI (artificial intelligence), processes information and selects its response from the knowledge graph
- Knowledge graph (a comprehensive database of information)
Businesses have no control over the user interface a particular prospective customer will use . . . and no control over how that system processes information. Businesses can manage the information customers receive if they manage their information in the databases . . . and must do so if they want to ensure that their businesses meet customer expectations.
Rev emphasizes that putting effort into marketing a company does not make sense if, when someone searches for information, that information is not accurate and consistent across platforms. Additionally, he notes that ratings and reviews must be managed.
Rev can be reached on Instagram, Rev Ciancio on Linked in, @revciancio on Twitter, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For those interested in food, follow him on @revciancio or @funwithfries (French fries).
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Rev Ciancio, Director of Industry Insights at Yext. He’s based in New York City, but prior to joining Yext, he was also a three-time agency owner. Welcome, Rev. It’s great to have you here today.
REV: Hi, Rob. Thanks. I’m psyched to be here. Psyched to talk to you.
ROB: Excellent. Why don’t you start off by telling us—people may not know, and we don’t normally have a lot of “vendors.” Here we have two vendors talking on this podcast. We largely want to serve an agency audience and people who want to be in that world and want to know how to work with agencies.
Through that lens, why don’t you describe a little bit about what Yext does and how that stems from your own agency experience, what you’re doing now?
REV: Sure. I’ll give you some background on me that’ll help tell that story out. I am what’s known as a “serial agency owner.” [laughs] In my last agency, I basically was more of a consultant, so to speak, than an agency, doing hospitality marketing for small restaurants and small restaurant chains.
My primary service, what set me apart at the time that I owned that agency, was—I didn’t brand it this way, but essentially it was an “I’ll do Yext for you” type agency. What that means is I was managing all the public facts about their brands—their name, their address, their phone number, their hours of operation, their menu, do they have handicap-accessible bathrooms—all these things that you would look for in search. I managed that information for these restaurants as an agency consultant using Yext as my software.
Nobody was really doing that at the time. There still actually aren’t a whole lot of people doing that, so if somebody’s looking for an inspirational agency idea, I went from zero customers, zero clients, literally no leads—I was totally a startup agent—to billing about $22 grand a month in like 90 days, with that as my lead service.
Yext hadn’t really seen anything like that happen before and called me and said, “This is awesome. Do you want to come work here?” [laughs] I’m super passionate about helping other businesses and other agencies to be successful. That’s sort of my calling on Earth. I looked at this as an opportunity to go help evangelize not only a product that I believed in, but also the ability to help a whole lot of other agencies and businesses be successful in their marketing.
My first role here, although it doesn’t really exist anymore, was the Director of Partner Marketing. I was basically the marketing representative to our agency partnerships. So, I have a lot of background in agencies and working with agencies and helping agencies.
ROB: Right on. I think one thing you’re highlighting here is that historically there have been a lot of tools that have been geared toward enterprise pricing. If you’re talking about a smaller local business, there just hasn’t been an appetite or maybe they haven’t had the budget to spend that has aligned well with a tool like Yext that an agency could chop that up.
How did you realize/when did you realize there was an opportunity to bridge that gap? Did you have a cold start problem or did Yext give you a pricing plan that let you ease into it?
REV: I think we have to go back to story time for this one. [laughs] I was working for a ground beef manufacturer that made hamburger meat for restaurants.
One of the primary things I had to do at that business was provide these consultant-like services to their top tier clients. Their customers, who were national chains all the way down to small businesses, would call me and say, “Hey, what’s a good go-to-market strategy for Instagram?” or “How should I reply to Yelp reviews?” or “What’s your take on hiring a PR agency?” I was doing consulting.
The one thing that I saw at the time and I still see small businesses getting wrong was not managing all this digital knowledge, all these public facts about their business, and then not prioritizing reputation management as it relates to being found on the internet. They got the customer service side of it; people understand customer service in the hospitality business. But they didn’t understand the effect on discovering a business online.
So I was like, literally every phone call, “You should use Yext. You should use Yext. Hey, Yext is awesome. Have you checked out Yext?” One day I went up to the president of that company and I said, “Look, I think this is a really cool service that we give our customers, but you should charge for this. This is great. People would come to you for this.” He was like, “Cool idea. I get it. We make hamburgers, end of story.”
I kept going back to my desk and I was like, this is an agency. This is actually a real thing. I’m going to jump ship and go do that. And I did.
Yext was the tool that gave me the confidence that I could do it. You look at, as an agency, what services you’re going to provide. Are you building websites, are you doing Facebook advertising, is it a creative agency? What is that service? I looked at Yext as a service and as a software that was going to set me apart from the competitors. Like, hey, nobody else is really doing this.
So Yext gave me the right tool. I asked a couple questions about pricing, but then I just made it up on my own and I ran with it.
ROB: If someone’s starting and maybe they even have clients in this space, what are the pain points that get somebody, a business, to move from trying to manage the stuff themselves or thinking it’s not a problem to saying, “Now I want somebody to help me manage my online reputation”? I’ve heard it’s a problem that people will actually go in and change businesses’ addresses. That’s a real thing, right?
REV: Actually, you’ll laugh—before I was here, when I was still running the agency I had a blog that I would write, and still the number one page that gets the most hits is “What to do when somebody changes your Google My Business info.” It generated probably 87% of my leads. But yeah, that’s a real thing.
So how does somebody know they have the problem, I guess is the question? Or what is the problem?
ROB: Yeah. If someone’s trying to sell these services, maybe they even have a client who would be a good client—whether they’re going to use Yext, whether they’re going to have an intern refresh pages every day; I don’t know what else they would do—how do they create the sense of need with the client if the client doesn’t realize there’s a set of problems that really should be paid attention to here?
REV: I love this question. I’m a FOMO seller. [laughs] I don’t do this at Yext, but when I was an agency I had no problem almost shaming somebody into like, “Why aren’t you doing this? Don’t you know how important this is?”
The truth of the matter is we’re witnessing this major platform shift on the internet and the way that people discover businesses. AI and VR and chatbots and knowledge graphs, all this stuff is real.
I read a stat the other day, just to use restaurants as an example—by the way, I’m clearly into food—1 out of 4 people who use voice search for restaurants visit a restaurant in the same day they searched. If you hear that stat and then you go ask Alexa “best pizza near me” and you own a pizza shop and she doesn’t answer you, you’d better figure that out.
When you talk about the pain point, first of all, if all of your competitors are figuring this out, or if as an agency all of your customers’ competitors are figuring this out, and you and your customer are not, you’re going to get left in the dust. Because this is here now. People are like, “We’re in a mobile-first world.” That is so old school at this point. We are voice search. That’s where it is.
Number one, you want to make sure that your customers or your business are being found. That’s just truth. That’s just how things work.
But in terms of—how do I frame this? I’m trying to not dance around the subject and be direct. If you’re not managing this information that people are using to find your business—and it’s not just about coming up in search.
Clearly that’s important, but look at it this way: if you say, “Hey Rev, you should go check out this taco place. It’s awesome,” and I trust your opinion, I still need information about that business. What time do they open? How do I get there? What’s on the menu? Do they take my credit card? Even after I’ve made a decision to patronize a business, I still need those public facts.
People look at this like it’s a search game. Well, I actually think it’s the customer journey. If you’re that business or it’s your customer that’s that business, how do you get somebody to find your business? How do you give them confidence that they’re going to get what they need or what they want from your business in terms of a product or a service?
How are you going to guarantee them the confidence that they’ll be treated the way they want to be treated? And then how are you going to show them customer service after they’ve walked out the door and return that funnel?
To me, that’s all online. That is managing your digital knowledge. That is managing your ratings and reviews. That is all of those things wrapped into one.
ROB: Interesting. This is a curiosity that I haven’t even really thought about: which platforms are the different voice assistants using to decide which is the best pizza restaurant near me?
REV: Google Home is obviously using the Google knowledge graph. They all have their own knowledge graphs. Alexa has a knowledge graph, Cortana has a knowledge graph. They basically all get information from somewhere.
If you’re using Yext—not to make this super Yext-y commercial-y; clearly, I will talk about where I work—but we’re the first company to integrate with Alexa. We announced it 2 weeks ago. If you want to make sure that your information is correct in Alexa, the only way to do that right now is Yext. You’re basically inserting your correct information into her knowledge graph.
ROB: Got it. What does Amazon use for their rankings and reviews, then? What is their knowledge graph for that?
REV: They haven’t totally revealed how they surface answers. It’s a little bit of a mystery still there.
But the point is—let’s go to the 40,000 foot view. The way Alexa works, the way that Google, Bing, Yahoo, Foursquare, CitySearch—they all actually work the exact same way. They have three layers.
They have the UI, which is what you interact with. In a browser, it’s the search bar. If it’s Alexa, it’s the voice. They have the user interface. They have the AI. This is how they process information and decide which answer to give you.
Then underneath that is the knowledge graph. The knowledge graph is this brain-like database in every single one of these intelligent services, from Apple Maps to Siri to Yahoo Search. It’s a brain-like database that stores everything that they know about the universe.
Now, you can’t control the UI and you can’t control the AI, but what you can control is what the knowledge graph knows about your business. How do they surface the answers? They’re going to tell you however they do that, but it’s more important that you are managing the information that they have about your business.
ROB: Got it. If we’re thinking about other pieces of this, obviously operating hours for a business are also key. If the customer goes to your establishment and you’re not open because the hours were wrong, they’re not very happy.
ROB: How many different places are a typical business’s business hours being posted? Let’s say they’ve gone into Google, they’ve gone into Bing, they’ve gone into Yelp and a couple other things. How many places is that data then getting federated, copied, and maybe not being maintained when they change their hours on their Facebook business page, let’s say?
REV: I don’t know that there’s a finite number. Even if I knew what it was today, it would be different tomorrow. Think about it, the more these things that use knowledge graphs are coming online—a couple years ago, what happened? You put a query into search, you got 10 blue links, you chose your option, you moved along.
But now we have map packs and knowledge graphs and voice assistants and VR and chatbots. If I gave you a list right now of where the hours of operation exist online for a business, it’ll be different next week. As these intelligent services start to power cars or clothing or smartwatches or drones, that information is going to go into even more places.
All the places that information could live about a business is growing and growing and growing.
ROB: Were you doing other services in your agency for these businesses as well? Were you doing social, were you doing SEO, were you doing pay-per-click? How did you look at the breadth of services?
REV: I had a number of services. The answer is yes, but I basically looked at a number of other consultant agencies and saw what they were offering to restaurant/hospitality customers. I said, which of these do I understand? Which of these am I good at? And which of these do I think I could do a pretty good job at?
That is how I came up with my menu of services. But you couldn’t work with me unless you also had Yext. If somebody came to me and said, “Hey, do you do social?”, my answer would be, “Yes, but I won’t do it if you don’t have Yext.” They would, “We’re looking for pay-per-click advertising.” I’d be like, “I do that, but you have to have Yext.”
To me, the reason is I wanted to prevent a leaky budget. Let’s use a restaurant example, which I will clearly continue to do. [laughs]
If I’m a restaurant and I’m launching a limited-time offer or I have a new summer menu, I spend all this time, my chef comes up with the dishes and then we print up new menus and we put it online. We bring some influencers in to take pictures and we have an event and we send out a press release—we’ve done all this work for this new item. Suddenly it’s out there.
Then as a customer I see that bumblebee-shaped pizza—I’m making things up here—bumblebee-shaped pizza on Instagram, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s really cool! I want to go eat a pizza that looks like a bumblebee” and then I go to Google or Yahoo and I search “bumblebee pizza” and I don’t get that restaurant—that’s a leaky budget. That’s a problem.
For me, I didn’t want to go spend time doing all these other marketing efforts and then have somebody go search for that thing or that restaurant or that place and have the wrong info. To me, and how Yext sees it, managing your digital knowledge is foundational to marketing. You do that first and then you layer everything on top of it.
When I was putting together those agency services, I was like, I’m happy to do all these things, but we’ve got to make sure that this budget is locked down by making sure all these public facts about your business are correct.
ROB: One interesting trend that I think I’ve seen a little bit, but you probably have seen a lot more—it used to be that an agency would go to some chain restaurant and they would just be pitching for the main brand’s business. They would just be pitching for a website build and some paid social behind the main brand, and maybe some pay-per-click and maybe a little bit of reputation management and whatnot for the main brand.
It seems like some things have begun to change where, particularly in large-scale multi-location—let’s say a 1,000-location pizza chain—there’s room also to do marketing at the local level. How do you see that changing, and what new opportunities might there be now that a local store may actually have some chunk of budget that they maybe didn’t have 5 years ago?
REV: I love this question. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of two pizza shops or you’re one of 34,000 McDonald’s locations or a single Home Depot. There are inherent facts about those businesses that are local. Their name is not, but their address is and their phone number is and how I get there is, and maybe your service or products are different from location to location and the things you do.
I know there’s a Home Depot by me that’s open 24 hours, but there’s another Home Depot that’s equidistant from me that’s not open 24 hours. In that regard, each of those locations is local, and they have a set of customers that are local to that business. In that regard, every chain business, every location is local.
If you are marketing at the top level, I believe that you are marketing the brand. But if you’re marketing the store, you’re marketing to that customer in that town. Every town is different and every store is different.
ROB: Interesting. It sounds like you deal heavily in facts, and that’s cool.
REV: I talk like I know everything. [laughs]
ROB: I think alongside that is this whole other pillar of creative, and to your point, local and to a certain extent community. Have you seen anything interesting to help people manage that distinct need of not necessarily fiction, but certainly more editorial at a local level?
REV: I think that creative and brand marketing is actually really difficult for a chain business at the local level. If you’re Home Depot or McDonald’s and there are brand initiatives, new products, new services, new things you’re offering, it’s hard to turn that over to the general manager of a store in Topeka, Kansas and hope that they understand everything that is a brand value and how to speak about it.
I think creativity at the local level is really hard, but I applaud a brand that can figure out how to do that. Maybe it’s sponsoring the local Little League team or hosting an event in their parking lot or Customer Appreciation Day, stuff like that. Things that don’t really involve the creative aspects of the brand, but are more about the community and customer care of the brand. Does that make sense?
ROB: Yeah, I think that makes sense. When we’ve seen people talk about doing that well, it’s quite often been people who have been able to empower someone at the local level to some extent. We’ve seen some tools out there that are intended to power at the local level with some oversight from corporate.
I’m not quite sure how good that is or not. I think I follow my local Chick-fil-A; I’m not sure. I follow a lot more independent restaurants than I do chains, is what I can tell you.
REV: I used to live across the street from a McDonald’s in Jersey City where the owner of that location had her own—it wasn’t her name, but it was like McDonald’s JC or something. The entire Instagram feed was just pictures of her customers. I thought that was pretty cool.
I don’t know if she got permission from McDonald’s to do that or not, but I distinctly remember it. It impacted me. I definitely have walked into that McDonald’s—by the way, I’m also admitting here that I do eat McDonald’s—I definitely would walk in there and I would look for her in case she was going to take a picture of me. [laughs]
I think that’s pretty cool. That’s putting a lot of trust into a location, but if you can figure out how to do it, I think it’s pretty powerful.
ROB: It definitely seems like the main opportunity rather than just syndicating and pushing down—even if you give a location a content library—it may be great to equip them with assets, but it’s also great if they can generate assets, I think.
REV: Are you familiar with Flying Saucer Draught Emporium?
ROB: I am.
REV: They’re one of the few brands that I’ve seen out there that does an awesome job at this. Almost all or several of their locations have their own Instagram page. You’ll have Flying Saucer KC for Kansas City or whatever.
They’ll do that to promote like having tap takeovers or a special menu or pictures of their customers. Again, I clearly keep going to restaurants as my example, but I love that they’re empowered to do that. I don’t know if that’s an agency doing that for them, but I think that’s really cool.
It just requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat and a lot of trust in the brand. I think a lot of communication about what are the brand values.
ROB: Outside of restaurants and probably some fashion retail, what are some other local businesses that, if you were back running your agency, you would be thinking about as markets? Is it doctors? Who else should an agency be looking at as someone with a local reputation problem, with a local fact problem if you will?
REV: That’s a great question. I believe the quote is “the riches are in the niches.” I would never go back to being a one-stop-shop agency. Every agency I’ve ever owned has dealt with some sort of niche.
But specifically, if I was going to go back and say, “Hey, this local marketing thing is real; who am I going to do it for?” I love restaurants. I don’t know that I could say “no” to doing it again. But if somebody was asking for my advice, I would go look at professional services like lawyers or maybe home services.
Just to give you why I would say that, the margin that a restaurant makes is oftentimes 10-30%, maybe, whereas the margin is much higher on somebody who does HVAC installs or a lawyer whose fees are $200-$300 an hour. If their cost to acquire one customer is the same as it is a restaurant, they’re going to be willing to do more and pay more. They’re going to have more of a budget to do it.
ROB: I hadn’t even thought about this. Are you out there managing reviews on sites like Thumbtack as well, then, and Angie’s List and all that? Is that a whole other mess of services where people should be thinking about reviews also?
REV: I’m personally not. What Yext does, we don’t integrate into the home services review sites. But I would advise an agency or a local business, whatever genre you’re in, whatever niche you’re in, there’s a review site for it. Go find it and manage your reputation.
- A) You want to know what people are saying about you. B) You’ll get insights on your business that you may not have gotten otherwise on things you could do or things that maybe you could accentuate because your customer loved them or things you could stop doing because people don’t love.
But also, not all of them, but a lot of review sites, especially Yelp, Google, Facebook, Foursquare, there’s an SEO benefit to managing your reviews. In April of 2016, Google came out and said, “Here’s how search works. Here’s how we know what answers to put in the map pack. Relevance, distance, and prominence.”
Relevance is how well the public facts about your brand match everywhere on the internet, meaning if your name, address, phone number, and hours are the same everywhere or not. Distance is a function of relevance; where did I search? Was it near me? Was it in Tupelo? What did I search?
That last piece, to answer your question, prominence—that’s Google telling you and everybody else that they are ranking businesses online based on their reputation. The business with the highest amount of most recent ratings and reviews is going to come up on top of search.
And it reflects across the internet. Yelp works that way, Foursquare works that way, Bing works that way. They all work that way. I don’t know that the home services, the Angie’s List type of sites or Thumbtack are there yet, but I would still—this is your brand that’s out there. Why would you not want to be managing it?
I know that if people are talking about me somewhere, I want to hear it. If I can respond to them because they said something nice, I want to thank them. Or if they said something bad and it’s just incorrect, I would want to correct them. I don’t see how a brand is any different than a person in that regard.
ROB: To summarize a little bit, reviews are growing in prominence, importance, and the number of verticalized places that they are. The number of places that your location data is, that’s increasing. The number of random people who can mess with that location data with your hours, with your address, that’s not going down.
What do you think is also changing and emergent in the next couple of years that we should be thinking about as marketers?
REV: I would say everybody—not in the next couple of years needs to be thinking about this, they need to be thinking about it right now—is voice search. How are you managing that these voice assistants know the right information about your brand? That is today, and that’s not going to go away. That’s actually going to increase.
Not since the mobile phone—and there’s a billion stats out there; you can just go google your favorite site and get one—not since the mobile phone have we seen this speedy of a tech adoption in the history of mankind. It’s growing almost faster than the mobile phone right now.
ROB: It almost feels like SEO all over again. SEO now, there’s some cryptic stuff to it, but largely to your point, the signals have been articulated. But when we talk about what makes you rank on a voice assistant, it’s kind of a shrug, right? Which means there’s an opportunity to help. There’s an opportunity to discern those signals, and it’s probably an opportunity people aren’t paying as much attention to even though the stuffing’s been beat out of SEO in some cases.
REV: To your point, and just to take it in a different direction or maybe define that out a little bit, there are some questions that you can ask search, regardless if it’s voice or a browser, that just have black-and-white answers. “What is 1 + 1?” “What is the address of this place?” “Who was the 29th president?” These are black-and-white answers.
“What is the proper method for using a Phillips head screwdriver in the dark?” That’s a much harder question. That doesn’t necessarily have a black-and-white answer. By the way, I have no idea where I came up with that example. [laughs]
All those black-and-white facts, those are easy to manage. “Who’s the forward for the Knicks?” “Who coached U of M in 1983?” These are just facts. A business or an agency that’s working with a business has the ability—there are tools out there like Yext that allows you to manage those facts and give those correct facts to these intelligent services.
It’s the long-tail stuff that’s a little more difficult. That’s where the SEO stuff gets difficult. How do I get a rich snippet? How do I answer my customers’ questions? That’s the harder stuff. The black-and-white stuff is easy. There’s software. Go get it.
ROB: Rev, this time has flown by. We’ve covered a lot of territory. I think I’ve learned a lot; hopefully other folks have learned a lot and have a lot to think about.
When people want to find you, where should they find you, online or otherwise?
REV: I am definitely online. The easiest or best place, or the place that I’m the most active, is Instagram. We didn’t cover it in this talk—that’s probably another one—but I’m a bit of a food influencer. I run four different food accounts with about 240,000 followers. So if you’re really into gratuitous food photos, follow me on @revciancio. I also run another one called @funwithfries that’s just French fries.
But if you’re like, “hey, less of the food, more of the knowledge,” LinkedIn is a good place to get me. Again, just Rev Ciancio, @revciancio on Twitter. Or if you really want to get deep into the food thing, google “expert burger taster” and I’m likely to be the top couple results. [laughs]
ROB: Amazing. Yes, there is an entire Instagram account that I can vouch for with amazing burger pictures. I saw a video where you were holding up lighting to get a better burger picture, so you put in the work. We appreciate it.
REV: Awesome. I throw my email out there all the time—if anybody has questions about how local search works or what a partnership for an agency looks like with Yext, email me: email@example.com. I answer all my emails; they all go right to my inbox. I welcome anybody to reach out to me that has questions.
ROB: That’s great. Thanks a bunch, Rev. Thanks for sharing and coming on the podcast.
REV: I really appreciate the opportunity to talk today. Thank you.
ROB: Bye bye.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.