Lee Odden, Founder and CEO of TopRank Marketing, a B2B digital marketing agency, talks about how a customer-empathy-focused approach, building authenticity, and maintaining credibility can do more than convert prospects to sales. He suggests content can also be used to create anticipation, increase customer retention, and inspire advocacy – things that are far more important for long term company survival. In its efforts to improve its own marketing, TopRank developed tools which led to new lines of service when customers said, “We want that thing that you’re doing for yourself for our tech company.”
TopRank develops B2B influencer marketing services and integrated content marketing solutions for other marketers as well as tech, healthcare, and other professional services industries, and has an impressive client list that includes: LinkedIn, 3M, SAP, Dell, and McKessen
Lee, an active speaker in the industry, will be in Montreal June 13th for a content marketing conference; in Mumbai on June 28 for the Indian Digital Marketing Awards and Conference, and in Minneapolis on July 25 for another conference.
See Lee at this year’s September 4-7, 2018, Content Marketing World Conference and Expo https://www.contentmarketingworld.com/ in Cleveland, OH:
1. On September 4, 2018, Lee will lead “Rocket Science Simplified: How to Optimize, Socialize, and Publicize B2B Content,” a workshop on how companies can more effectively promote and repurpose their content to increase ROI:
2. On September 5, 2018: Lee will present “The Confluence Equation: How Content and Influencers Drive B2B Marketing Success,” a seminar on enterprise B2B influencer marketing.
Author of Optimize, Lee has published TopRank’s Online Marketing Blog for 10 years, the only blog that has been ranked as the #1 content marketing blog three times by Content Marketing Institute.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Lee Odden, Founder and CEO of TopRank Marketing based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome, Lee.
LEE: It’s great to be here, Rob.
ROB: Thanks for coming on. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about TopRank and how you arrived at this point?
LEE: Sure. Arrived . . . it’s more like how did we get on this boat? How did we get on this journey? It’s been a bit of an interesting journey for us.
TopRank Marketing is a digital agency that is very focused on serving B2B companies—a lot of tech and healthcare companies—with integrated content marketing solutions. We’re usually accountable for demand gen/lead gen types of objectives, although we play across the customer life cycle in terms of the assets that we deliver.
We started as a PR firm in 2001, and I joined as an SEO guy, helping that PR firm optimize its own website. Fast forward, I got included in some pitches. Media relations started to give way to more and more SEO, more content, and as time went on we got into creating blogs and doing social media for people. It’s really expanded.
Now we’re doing a whole bunch of influencer marketing work, but all of our work is integrated. What’s interesting is we get to work with some pretty interesting organizations, like LinkedIn, 3M, SAP, Dell, and a company you may not have heard of, McKessen, which is a Fortune 5 company for the last 11 years. We’ve been doing a variety of things for different businesses there.
So, it’s been an interesting journey. What makes all the magic happen is, of course, this incredible group of people that I get to work with.
ROB: Tell me a little bit about that group. Who were some of the key hires? Obviously everyone’s a key hire in this sort of organization, because you can’t push anybody . . . “This guy’s terrible, this gal’s terrible–put them on Client #5.” You can’t do that. But, what have been some of the inflection point hires that have really helped you scale and grow what you do and how you do that well for clients?
LEE: Behind it all is Susan Misukanis. She’s the original founder of the PR firm, and she continues to lead the organization as the president of the company. We’ve got a combination of answers to that question.
One is: Hires that we made long ago, people who’ve grown up within our company. We have a VP of Client Services, for example, who started here just a couple of years out of school, and she’s risen up through the ranks, had many of the different jobs in account management that are possible here. She’s one of the smartest, most high-performing individuals I’ve ever met. She inspires the people she leads. It’s a wonderful thing to have a person like that on your team.
There are a couple of other people like that, too. Our Director of Agency Marketing started with us a couple years ago as a manager, went to the client side for a couple years, came back as the director, and then has recently moved over to lead our influencer marketing line of business and has really grown and blossomed.
So, yeah, those people who have grown up in the organization that have been really key hires for us, and they’ve really taken advantage of the collective wisdom that we have here and also mentoring.
At the same time, we brought in recently a VP of Marketing Operations or Operations who had 15 years of experience at a creative agency, bringing a new perspective in. That’s been really a great addition to our team, bringing in that outside perspective and also a different set of skills than what we had already.
We’re still looking, of course. We’re still hiring. But those are some key hires.
ROB: Send in those résumés! Is there any role you wish you had hired sooner in particular? Maybe one that stands out?
LEE: I would say I would’ve hired a dedicated HR person and a finance person much earlier.
ROB: Were you doing those fractionally before that, with a contractor?
LEE: A combination of shared responsibilities of people here and then—I don’t know if it’s fractional so much, but yeah, contract and then some outside services.
ROB: Got it. Anything you learned when you had full-time HR that you realized you should’ve known much sooner?
LEE: My idea of HR is someone who can both manage the legal stuff and the operational stuff of HR as well as recruiting, which is far too much to expect, at least in our labor market. That’s something I would temper my expectations with a little bit.
ROB: You mentioned—I think it’s interesting—starting as a PR firm and these shifts in strategy, these shifts in specialization. They don’t happen overnight, and in some ways they almost can sneak up on you sometimes. How did you realize that you had evolved and turned the corner from a PR agency to a more full-service and content-focused agency? What led to that realization?
ROB: Was it intentional, or did it catch up to you?
LEE: It wasn’t necessarily intentional. I’m a practitioner at heart. I came in helping to optimize media relations programs by optimizing newsroom content and press releases and stuff like that and started to see such a significant increases in traffic that the PR contacts on the client side could take credit for . . . that marketing started to notice on the client side and said, “Hey, who is that company?”
The product was a service within the PR firm called TopRank. It was decided by Susan that that should be the company, because that’s where most of the revenue was starting to come from, that’s where all the growth was coming from.
Through our own experimentation with social media and blogging and working with influencers, we’ve taken the learnings out of the experimentation for our own marketing and then created new lines of service for our agency.
Also, people would notice. We’ve been successful with our own experimentation, so people literally would approach us and say, “I want that. I want that thing that you’re doing for yourself. We want that for our tech company.”
ROB: How do you get on the radar of someone? LinkedIn, in particular, is largely in the business of servicing B2B content to people. What is it that you think gets you on their radar and makes you unique enough to help them in an area where it might be hard for them to ask for help?
LEE: Relationships are key for us, in terms of how someone like LinkedIn or all the other companies—the other brands I mentioned—have come into relationship with us.
It’s because of our agency’s credibility, my credibility in the industry. I do 25 speaking events, at least, in a year, internationally. I have well over 300,000 in my network personally and spend a lot of time implementing influencer programs with marketing industry leaders, both brand and competitors. That engenders some authority and trust, and word-of-mouth, obviously, is super powerful.
So that’s what gets us in the door, but in terms of our ability to deliver, why would they ask us? It’s just our ability to serve. Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing. We under-promise and over-deliver. We’ve become quite adept at managing relationships with large, complex organizations, starting with McKessen—like I said, they were a Fortune 5 company, a $190 billion company—We started working with them so many years ago, and we had to learn very quickly how you serve a company with so many different stakeholders and the bureaucracy and approval process and all those sorts of things. That ability to navigate those situations has proven to be very, very effective as we are referred into other large organizations.
So there’s a trust thing, and then the ability to deliver, ultimately.
ROB: That’s super impressive. I think what you’re saying there—in terms of working through the way the decisions get made, some of the bureaucracy—ties back to something you have said a couple of times, which is to serve and to come in from a mindset of serving. If you just want them to operate the way you think they’re going to operate, you’re going to drive yourself crazy and lose a customer.
LEE: Yeah, exactly. A lot of organizations, no matter how large they are, the reason why they think something is important is varied. Being able to suss that out . . . what is the true motivator for them thinking that they need what we do—and finding the reality—and bringing that into the conversation . . . is really, really important. Otherwise you can become just a commodity or something that is temporal.
Of course, we want to be very valuable for a long, long time for our clients. That service mentality and understanding, as a professional consulting organization, that we have to find the data that defines why something is and how to make a path from where we are to where we want to go, irrespective of what might’ve been the genesis for the initial engagement.
ROB: It sounds like you’re super deep on content marketing. I think people asked you to come out and talk about it all over the country and perhaps all over the world. What are some of the things that you think people get wrong a little bit when they’re starting to try to do content marketing? And how should they think about good principles instead of just how to waste time and make content that nobody cares about?
LEE: I think a lot of people start with content just because it’s a reaction to the fact that their competitors are doing it, or maybe they are driven by SEO. They think, “Let’s make more content so we can have one webpage for every keyword we want to rank for.” Those are useful things, but they’re only a sliver of the story.
What we want to do is understand the customer, because Google doesn’t pay us; it’s the customer that pays us. Understanding what questions buyers have at different stages during their journey and then become the best answer for those questions. That’s really our approach, a best answer strategy.
The mistakes people make are often something around—not laziness, they just—“What’s the minimum thing we can do for the maximum impact?” as opposed to empathizing with the customer and thinking about experiences and thinking about things long-term, and thinking about the cumulative value of creating a body of content and a reputation around content that actually creates one of the most important mental states you can possibly have amongst the community, and that is a state of anticipation. You have people subscribing, mentally and literally, to your ideas. That can all be achieved through content.
When you look across the customer life cycle, from awareness to conversion to retention and advocacy, content satisfies all of those objectives. When people only look at conversion and that’s it, that’s the shortsightedness that costs them, ultimately, a lot of revenue.
ROB: Wow. I think that’s good to think about rather than just coming along for the ride and making content for the sake of content.
LEE: Yeah, exactly.
ROB: How did the company come into existence? You’ve mentioned Susan, you’ve mentioned how you joined early. What led to the creation of TopRank? What was the origin story before?
LEE: Susan started Misukanis & Rogers Public Relations in early 2001 with some folks that she had worked with at other companies. I came in as a consultant.
We thought it was a good idea for British Telecom’s U.S. division, called Centegra [sp], to include SEO in their media relations pitch—meaning that we could help the PR department attract organic traffic to their PR content, therefore justifying even moreso their existence and contribution to the business. So we were able to displace Weber Shandwick as the agency. We were just four people. They were looking for a boutique PR firm.
After that, we started including SEO in more and more pitches. Over a couple of years, SEO and blogging and that sort of thing really became the majority of revenue. Susan thought, “You know what? Let’s just call the company TopRank Marketing,” and we switched spots. I became the CEO and she became President and COO.
ROB: That’s an interesting dynamic in and of itself. How did you realize maybe it was time to switch seats? She had started it—was that a realization on her part? Was it having worked together for a while and seeing complementary skills in each other?
LEE: It was complementary skills for sure, but it was definitely a realization on her part. I’ll be honest, I had no intention of being CEO of an agency necessarily. I was just really passionate about the work.
I was really excited about the work itself. Solving really complex problems, helping people see zeroes in the percentage of increase in improvement and the things that we were doing, and just the chase. It’s kind of like the old “fixing a plane while it’s flying” kind of thing, hitting a moving target and all that was just a fun thing to me.
As we brought on people, being able to teach them these things and to duplicate processes and that sort of thing was also very interesting. So, ultimately, she just looked at me during a meeting as we were looking at revenue and forecasting planning for the coming year and she’s like, “Let’s just call the company TopRank marketing.” That’s how that happened.
ROB: An interesting common thread across the entire scope of work that you’ve done as you’ve built the company—whether you’re talking about PR, whether you’re talking about SEO, whether you’re talking about content marketing now, all of those are things where there can be tempting ways to try and hack the system. You can learn all these SEO tricks, you can learn PR tricks, you can learn content marketing tricks.
But it seems that for survival in the long run, you have to have this disposition towards authenticity. I mean, you have to know your stuff when it comes to SEO, but there’s a common thread of authenticity. How have you been able to resist the temptation of chasing the ephemeral opportunities?
LEE: A big part of what drives our approach is customer empathy. We take that approach in terms of the relationship between our customers’ buyers and information, and documenting their preferences for information discovery, their content consumption preferences, and of course, triggers for action.
With that simple model, we have data that supports the choices that we make. We know whether Snapchat for B2B is just a silly idea, because we have data to prove it, or the absence of data, actually. With that data-informed approach—there’s also insights and conversations we have with customers as they understand their own clients that comes to bear when deciding where we should focus our time and energy.
That is complemented by our own experimentation or our own marketing. We have about the thinnest marketing department you could possibly imagine, and the reason isn’t for anything other than it is effective as it is. The insights that we gain from experimenting ourselves—because we do marketing for other marketers as well as for tech, healthcare, and other professional services industries—that reveals a lot of insights as well about what we should pay attention to.
ROB: Very good. We mentioned some learnings along the way. What are some other things you’ve learned from your experience in building TopRank that you would perhaps do differently if you were starting over from scratch?
LEE: All the ideas, the intuitions I had about developing software or new offerings or approaches based on the experiments I was running, I would follow through on those a lot more aggressively than I have.
I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened where I’d document, like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this or did that,” or “We should make this or make that thing,” and then a year later, two years later—yep, somebody else made it. Somebody else did it, and they’re cashing in quite a bit on it.
ROB: What are some examples of that? Let’s dig in, just to understand your mind and some of these ideas and what that might look like for someone else who’s having similar thoughts.
LEE: From a software perspective, one example would be a couple of years ago I had this idea—we started working with influencers 6 years ago in a way where we got paid by companies to help them develop influencer programs.
I thought, because of our integrated approach, I’d really like something that works with WordPress or a content marketing management platform that pulls in SEO data. So, I’m being presented with the keywords and it’s doing dynamic analysis of my content from a keyword standpoint. It’s pulling in aggregate social conversation data, so that I’m being informed with the social shares I should create for that particular piece of content. It’s also recommending influencers to me that I could use either for pull quotes or to invite to participate . . . and then metrics around all of that.
That’s something that I wanted to make and I never really followed through on it, and now things like that do sort of exist. There’s still an opportunity, probably, to make that. But that’s an example.
ROB: Who does a pretty good job of what you had in mind, and you said, “That’s close enough that maybe I shouldn’t build it anymore”?
LEE: I don’t know if it’s super, super close, but the folks at Scoop.it! have made a product or offering called Hawkeye. Scoop.it! is a curation software platform that became a content marketing platform. So they’re starting to pull in different data like that. I don’t think they’re doing all the things, but it’s close enough to use it in the answer to your question.
ROB: Got it. What other lessons or maybe learning?
LEE: I probably would have found a way not to be in business with any of my close relatives. [laughs] I mean, it’s doable, but I think life can be a lot easier if you can avoid doing that or make a change. That’s probably something I would do a little bit differently, from a learning standpoint.
ROB: Interesting. I feel like there’s a story there, but I won’t . . .
LEE: [laughs] It just takes a lot of extra energy, and not everyone is wired to keep things separate. You know what I mean? All that extra energy has to come from somewhere, so there’s a cost to that. That’s something I’d probably go about a little bit differently.
ROB: Understood. I think that’s some interesting insight there. Even with close friends. What does Thanksgiving look like when business is good, when business is not good, when you’ve disagreed on something? Because it’s healthy to disagree. It’s necessary.
ROB: What’s coming up for you or for TopRank or marketing in general that you’re excited about?
LEE: Because I’ve had an opportunity to work with this business for 17 years now, I’ve been able to mature myself. What I’m really excited about is developing our upcoming leadership. We’ve got a rock solid team right now, and they’re not just smart, but they’re ambitious. We have an agile environment. It’s just a really nimble organization that is very passionate about the work, about serving our clients, and I’m really excited about developing our future leaders, coaching and nurturing people to become speakers, to get to the next level of whatever executive position they’re at.
I’m also very excited that we’ve brought in creative capabilities that we haven’t had for a long time—everything from graphic design to motion graphics, interactive graphics or interactive microsites and that sort of thing. That combined with more data-driven marketing and analytics insights, with our content and optimization capabilities, really has resulted in a killer app, if you will, in terms of what we’re able to offer our clients. I’m really excited about that, where it is right now and where it’s going to be.
One of the other things I’m excited about is that we’ve become probably a dominant brand in terms of B2B influencer marketing. Dell and SAP, for example, are continuously used as case studies for their B2B influencer marketing programs, and we work with both of them. We had a client that we did a pilot with last year; 22% of their sales pipeline revenue for the entire year was tied to that one influencer campaign.
We’ve really figured out a lot when it comes to influencer marketing. So I’m excited to see where that takes us when we hit our 20-year anniversary in 2021, how we’re able to impact the industry and impact our clients. I’m excited about that.
ROB: It’s super exciting to hear you—you’re not the newest firm, but there is this consistent thread over time of the quality of the content and into B2B. I think some of the disciplines you work in are areas where it can be hard to hold marketers accountable, or they may not wish to be accountable when it comes to content, SEO, or PR.
LEE: You’re right.
ROB: So, to have your focus on being even more opportunistic around metrics, I think that’s a big part of why you’ve grown to where you are and why you are recognized as the leaders that you are. It’s exciting to see.
LEE: I agree with you. Susan has been a big part of, because of her background, making programs accountable even though maybe the engagement didn’t call for that level of accountability.
ROB: Right. Lee, when someone wants to get in touch with you and TopRank, how should they find you?
LEE: They can certainly come to toprankmarketing.com, which is our agency site. Our blog is at toprankblog.com. You can find me on “the Twitter” @leeodden. I’m pretty active there as well as on LinkedIn.
ROB: And you’re speaking on the road a little bit these days. Where can people come see you and TopRank in the skin?
LEE: I will be in Montreal June 13th for a content marketing conference. After that I’ll be in Mumbai for the Indian Digital Marketing Awards and Conference. That’s June 28th. July 25th, I’ll be in Minneapolis for a conference.
And then Content Marketing World in September. I’m doing a workshop on how companies can more effectively promote their content and how they can repurpose their content to get far more value out of their investment. I’m also doing a solo presentation on enterprise B2B influencer marketing at Content Marketing World.
ROB: Super exciting. I hope people can make it out to those. Content Marketing World is chief among them in terms of what people may have heard of.
LEE: Absolutely, yes.
ROB: That’s exciting. A special thank you today to Mathew Sweezey of Salesforce Pardot for this introduction. Lee, thank you for coming on and sharing your journey, sharing insights. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you.
LEE: Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Take care.
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