Next up on our ‘Traffic Builders‘ series is Paul Cawley of Learn Inbound. Paul is an experienced digital marketing and SEO specialist working with a range of clients to help them achieve their traffic and conversion goals.
Welcome to the series, Paul!
#1. First, could you give a quick overview of your background and career to date? Also, one fun or interesting fact about you would be great (if you like!).
My background is originally in Engineering, with my career in digital marketing starting out with unusual first steps building mathematical models for water and wastewater treatment plants. Like most people that joined the industry ten odd years ago, it was more a series of coincidences than any specific choices that led to my career in digital.
At school I always loved playing with numbers and figuring out how things worked, or at least trying. So Engineering appealed to me. I really enjoyed being creative, both through art and creative writing too, so when it came to making career choices I was always keen to keep my options open.
Eventually I settled on a broad Engineering degree that included a degree in Maths, also allowing me to pick up a number of modules in Computer Science, so I could pursue a wide number of those interests.
It was during my time in college I first started playing around building sites with the likes of Geocities, I’ll be showing my age here if I start mentioning Geocities and IRC chatrooms, but as soon as I discovered I could make some money through affiliate marketing I was hooked.
This became a hobby for a number of years before eventually becoming a part of my day to day work in my engineering role when asked to look after a number of project sites.
Working on optimising and tweaking sites eventually started taking up more time than my mathematical modelling did, and after years working on it I’d built out a full time position in digital marketing that I’d never really intended.
Since then I’ve moved from exclusively in-house roles in relatively niche markets to providing freelance SEO work. It lets me work with a wide mix of clients, from brand new start-ups just hitting the ground to household name brands, with both local businesses here in Ireland and internationally. It’s a career I absolutely love, combining the art of creativity and the science of numeracy and analytics to complement each other at every step.
And a fun fact? As a marketer, to make it all relevant and complementary I probably should tell a story of using split testing and conversion optimisation, without actually knowing what either of them were – to help fund a trip I took to the States when I was around fifteen.
Truth be told, my claim to fame as a kid was always the time I nailed Jack Charlton with a wayward shot at an FAI summer camp. It was just prior to the ‘94 World Cup, so Jack was an absolute hero to all of us. Getting a “Nice shot. Try and get it on target next time” after smashing a ball against his back at the side of a goal was about as good as it got for a young lad back then.
#2. Any digital marketing plan should be an integrated one, but that said, what is your ‘favourite’ digital marketing channel, and why?
My personal preference has always been for organic search. As an SEO, that’s pretty much a given.
Both as a user and a marketer it’s the one I always place the most trust in and have seen provide the best results, time after time, for both myself and clients. There are all sorts of caveats there. It takes time and is a long term investment, but people will be searching for your business or your products so whether you’re paying attention to the channel or not, they are.
It provides long term results that don’t just disappear, it earns trust, visibility and provides a business with a sustainable asset they can use in any number of ways in the future.
The flip side of this is that I do spend much of my time advising people not to get too focused on any single channel and to push for those holistic and integrated strategies. Even when it happens to be a channel I work in that they’re investing in.
The best results will always come from investing time where it will get the fastest results and move the needle quickly for a business, and that seldom tends to happen when there’s a focus on a single channel.
It doesn’t matter if that channel is social, organic search or paid advertising, the trick is finding the right balance between the various channels to optimise the returns.
With that in mind, spending more time on monitoring results in analytics and investing more time into better understanding customers is a great first step for most businesses looking to improve or even begin their integrated approach.
#3. How do you think the average SME is faring in terms of their online presence, and what could they be doing better?
This is a tough question to answer in a personal way, as there’s two very different groups here.
The average SME I talk to is doing a pretty good job.
They’ve a decent idea on what goals they’re hoping to achieve and tend to just need some help on their strategies and executing the tactics to achieve them. In most cases there are lots of quick wins that can be made and lots of best practices and obvious fixes still to be implemented on their sites.
The majority of SME sites tend to have no goals set up in their analytics, have limited data to base decisions on, or in many cases are making decisions based on inaccurate or incorrect data.
I’m fully aware though that I’m operating in a filter bubble. The people I tend to talk to are those that have been investing some time and energy in their marketing and are looking for help with niche knowledge in a specific area, and who tend to come to me through referrals from the work they’ve done. They don’t represent the ‘average SME’ and wouldn’t paint a true picture of what’s actually happening across the country.
Breaking these filter bubbles is important for everyone, regardless of what industry they operate in, so taking some time to look beyond the people we have direct contact with is very important to paint a true picture of what’s happening.
Recently here in Ireland, the IEDR released their final report in a series for the dot ie Digital Health Index. This report projects that 1 in 6 (17%) SMEs in Ireland have no web presence at all, 28% don’t have their own website, only 19% of sites can process sales and only 16% of sites are currently running analytics. When we start to convert these numbers into billions lost in sales and exports, it’s a position we need to work hard to try and improve.
Image credit: IEDR (click to enlarge)
Whether you believe it’s a lack of drive to scale a business or a lack of knowledge on how to execute it, the results are the same. It’s hurting our SMEs nationally, it’s hurting our performance financially as a country, and that can very easily be turned around if we can improve the knowledge and education of those SMEs.
On the global scale Ireland is a small country, with a small population, and if we want to scale and grow more of our indigenous businesses we need to look to international markets to achieve large growth.
Things are improving, as illustrated in the Digital Health Index reports. Our larger businesses are punching above their weight on the international stage, but our SMEs are still lagging behind the averages where we would hope to have them leading the pack.
I do imagine things will continue to improve through the likes of the Online Trading Voucher scheme which many SMEs are taking full advantage of, but we still have a long way to go and we as an industry need to keep doing our part in improving the knowledge and resources out there for those businesses looking to improve their digital footprints internationally.
#4. What has been your favourite role or large project to date, and why?
I’ve a funny feeling that asking this question of marketers you’re going to get a very frequent answer along the lines of “my current one” or the odd “my new one that’s just about to start”.
A cynic might suggest that’s just marketers pitching their newest project for attention, but the reality is it will be true in the majority of cases. As marketers, we tend to be pretty busy.
Demand has never been higher for digital services and if something is going to hold our time and attention it’s more than likely going to have to be something that we’re genuinely passionate about, excited about and believe in wholeheartedly.
Happy to live up to a cliché, I’m delighted to say it’s my current work on Learn Inbound that I’m enjoying the most and am genuinely excited about going forward. It’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while, ever since a simple tongue in cheek exchange on Twitter grew into a solution to a problem a few of us had been having.
In fact, here is the original tweet that started things off!
I'd love to see some digital marketing events in Dublin. Finding nothing on http://t.co/RrgybgEXzr.
— Mark Scully (@ScullyMark) August 7, 2013
Things have grown well beyond any initial expectations we had for Learn Inbound, with us having to change venue 3 times in 2 years to accommodate the demand each time. We’ve been able to hold fun events in a relaxed and informal environment. We’ve been able to bring in speakers with world class knowledge to provide actionable information on strategies and tactics to make day to day marketing activities more efficient and effective.
And we’ve been able to do it all our way. That’s a little different from how most other events are run and that has been getting a great reaction from both speakers and attendees.
With our biggest event to date still to come in October 2016 – a full day event bringing ten amazing marketing speakers to The Olympia in Dublin – we’re already hard at work planning our activities for 2017. We’re keen to improve the level of knowledge and education being offered to marketers and small businesses and to share that information with as many as possible, so we’ve plenty of hard work still to do.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with household names and some really interesting campaigns and sites over the years, but it’s always the work that has a close personal connection with others that stands out.
#5. What are your top tips for driving traffic and conversions from a website perspective?
Focus on your users and their needs.
It’s so easy for all of us, whether that’s business owners or marketers, to get all caught up on our sites, our goals, our metrics and the various levers we can move around, and forget to put ourselves in the user’s shoes. A site owner reads a list of fifty different things a business can do that will improve site performance, and the blinkers can go on to get all those boxes ticked.
It’s easy to spend an inordinate amount of time solving a problem, one that will benefit rankings or even revenue, but failing to see the bigger picture and solve the actual problems users have with our products, services or sites.
Things don’t happen in a silo and investing all the time in the world improving our site speed or optimising for a really targeted keyword won’t make a difference if there’s a fundamental issue that lies much deeper in our offering.
Monitor analytics closely, make sure you’re building up accurate data, analyse it so it becomes insightful and make data driven decisions on where to invest limited time and resources. Invest time chatting and talking to customers. Time spent better understanding their pain points, their needs, their goals and how we can better solve their problems is always time well spent.
Understand the search intent of your users. Understand what’s causing friction for them. Understand how you can better solve their problems. Doing these things, you’ll naturally end up optimising your site for conversions, you’ll be optimising site speed, you’ll put a targeted content strategy in place, you’ll remove technical and accessibility issues from your site – all done in a way where your priority list is always fairly clear and driven by your users.
#6. What are 3 top metrics you feel SMEs should be monitoring to track the ROI and impact of their digital marketing campaigns?
Sales, gross profits and operating profits.
It sounds flippant, but it’s the truth.
Every other metric we value as marketers are stepping stones to improving those three. We track things like bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit, engagement rates, click through rates and conversion rates so we can make decisions aimed at improving our bottom line. Aimed at improving those three metrics that are the core of a successful profitable business.
Even in a case where we’re providing information with no cost involved, we’d very much be looking at a minor variation on those where we’re monitoring just how many people we’re reaching and what the associated costs of reaching them in a variety of ways come to, so we know where we’re getting the best results.
One of the real benefits of digital marketing is that we can do a great job of tracking attribution and better understanding our customer journeys through to conversion or purchase.
We have the tools to track users across devices, across domains, across multiple channels over a variety of sessions so we can see how each channel we use and each investment we make is impacting our performance.
Or at least we can do that when we’re not getting a little terrified at just how much we’re being watched online and re-targeted across the web.
People often describe SEO and Social as ‘free traffic’, but it’s anything but. SEO has benefits that remain long after the work is done, unlike paid advertising where the traffic stops the minute the ad is turned off, but SEO requires a significant investment in time, resources and energy to be successful. It sure ain’t ‘free’.
The inputs, whether it’s time or financial, need to be monitored closely and tracked against the results to ensure time and energy is being invested in the right areas, in the right ways and at the right levels.
#7. In terms of SEO, where are most people going wrong and what pieces are they missing?
My biggest issue when it comes to SEO is the lack of testing that is done. Whether that’s in the form of accepting statements from Google as fact (when so many over the years have proven to be inaccurate at best), or taking best practices as outlined by others as unquestionable and the right way to do things regardless of the specifics of a given situation.
This should never be the case and in SEO every idea, every hypothesis and every action should be tested, monitored and iterated until it has been optimised. The hint has always been in the name.
Following on from that, there tends to be a huge reluctance in trying out new things. I do understand that sometimes it’s down to a lack of resources, sometimes down to fear of failure, and sometimes down to unrealistic expectations that all work will lead to nothing but positive results and growth – but in far too many cases we have businesses and marketers unwilling or unable to try out new things.
It’s counterproductive, it’s hurting performance and it’s stifling innovation. Simply ticking a check list of accepted best practices is never going to dramatically move the needle.
To achieve standout results we genuinely need to stand out and do something different. Trying this means we might have some unsuccessful results along the way, but even the ones that don’t provide great results directly provide a great insight for future efforts and something a clever business can build on.
As long as the theory behind new ideas is relatively sound, the benefits of a single successful new idea will greatly offset the cost of a few unsuccessful ones along the way.
As an industry we still have a huge amount of work to do in ‘better marketing’ marketing too.
When many people hear about Search Engine Optimisation they tend to get a picture of some of the extremes. Most commonly they think of the low quality spammers attempting to drop idiotic comments on their sites or the terrible spammy outreach carried out by so many attempting to drop (incredibly low quality) guest posts on completely irrelevant sites.
The issues there are many. Firstly, that isn’t SEO – it’s spam. We as an industry have been poor at differentiating ourselves from that low quality nonsense that for so long has put a black mark against the truly innovative and clever providers.
Equally, for too long these type of crappy tactics did actually provide (limited) results. With recent updates, search engines are doing a better job at limiting the benefits from low quality tactics and genuinely rewarding the sites providing a better experience and better solution for users.
#8. And finally, what are your biggest digital marketing no-no’s?
- Not using analytics to track what’s working and what’s not
- Not configuring goals in analytics
They’re the big two and the ones that make the biggest difference to most businesses when they’re corrected. Some others include:
- Not considering user experience at every step
- Simply copying competitors as a strategy
- Not iterating (both when successful or unsuccessful)
- Not paying enough attention to Local Search
- Overinvesting on a single channel due to personal preferences rather than user preferences
- Poor site architecture and internal linking
- Focusing on quantity over quality (for everything from links to content)
- Automating the wrong things for the wrong reasons (things are automated to save time, not simply because it’s easy to do)
- Not automating things that should be automated
I could go on. There are lots of things that aren’t done right and it’s easy to fall into the traps when time and resources get stretched. The common thread among all of the issues I raised is that they tend to be very nuanced. Simply copying a competitor is a mistake, but it’d be just as foolish not to monitor competitors and adapt and improve ideas you see working for them.
In the same manner, automating some things is a mistake. If you’ve ever received an auto DM on Twitter I’m sure you’ll agree, but not automating other activities to save time, resources and improve efficiency is equally an error. It’s very hard to draw lines in the sand between good and bad, it’s often a case of “we’ll know it when we see it”.
As with most things in digital marketing it’s probably best summed up with test, monitor results, and iterate.
Thanks Paul, for taking part in this interview series!
You can follow Paul and the Learn Inbound crew on Twitter @LearnInbound.
Stay tuned for the next interview in the ‘Traffic Builders’ series! In the meantime, sign up to our email newsletter to never miss an update.