Welcome to a new edition of the STSW Interview Series! Today we have Irish internet luminary (if that’s not too bold a phrase) – John Ring, Managing Director of digital agency Tinderpoint!
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!)
After doing Electronic Engineering in DIT, I was fortunate enough to get a graduate role with The Irish Trade Board. At the time it was seen as a very dynamic and successful marketing organisation despite being State-run. Traditionally it was a marketing-graduate only program I was joining but the new CEO, Oliver Tattan, was an engineer himself and wanted some people with tech skills to be able to market Irish companies better abroad.
I remember that the “selection” process was a full day and it was the day before the hardest of our final exams. All my classmates thought I was nuts at taking such a huge risk at so critical a time but I really wanted to win a place on the program. Things worked out well.
I was asked several times why go straight from studying years of engineering into marketing but I saw my niche as being at the junction of technology and marketing. I realised that relatively few people with a technical mindset are good at generating sales and business for companies and given that it was 1997 when Yahoo and AltaVista were the big web brands, I thought that making a career at the junction of web technology and marketing was a smart place to be. Twenty years later, I still think that!
Two years of cold calling, marketing, and networking on behalf of Irish companies like Baltimore Technologies in London was great training but in late 1999, I was finished and looking for a job in both London and Dublin. One role I saw that I really liked the look of was Internet Manager in the UK Investment Club Association.
This was dotcom boom time, so in order to get the job, I built a fully functional website over a bank holiday weekend just for the interview and so impressed enough to get the job. That’s a little bit psycho I appreciate but when I set my mind to something, I normally figure out a way to achieve it!
I’d already learnt web development skills in my spare time in London and had started studying “search engine optimisation” (aka SEO) around this time (1997-98) also so eventually I decided to work for myself. I was lucky in that I happened to share a few pints one night with the number one seller of Viagra in Europe at the time – a guy called Shak – and he introduced me to this newly arrived company in London called Google.
They had three people in their small London office who were nice enough to give me an agency agreement that kept me going for the first few years based on the commission they gave – long since gone unfortunately!
This agreement gave me the confidence to pack in the day job and I went solo in September 2002. Two years later I moved back to Dublin and hired my first employee who I’m still in touch with.
The agency was called “RingJohn” and we only rebranded to “TinderPoint” in 2015 to get the focus away from me as it was starting to annoy our 15-strong team! I was completely clueless about running a business and made every single expensive mistake possible. Let’s just say I’ve learned a good bit over the years.
Since those early days, I’ve focused on growing the business organically by specialising in Search (SEO/PPC), Content, and Social Media. To me, this means doing a very high quality job for clients and being completely honest and transparent with them.
Much of my thinking is included in our company credo here. I find that this transparency and lack of BS distinguishes us from a huge amount of competitors.
An interesting thing about me? ….. Hmmmm – maybe the fact that I’ve walked 50 metres over burning hot coals just to prove to myself that I could. I’m an engineer remember – ‘Interesting’ is not really my thing!
2. Any digital marketing plan should be an integrated one, but that said, what is your ‘favourite’ way to build traffic, and why?
A good digital marketing plan should indeed be integrated but sometimes the nature of the company mitigates against an integrated approach. One example that comes to mind is an online divorce business who we helped extensively – despite everything being in Portuguese.
While SEO and PPC was very straightforward for that business, the use of display ads, remarketing, social media, and email was extremely problematic due to the sensitive nature of the business. Few husbands want their wives to accidentally find an email coming to “Dear John” from an online divorce company. So a one size approach rarely fit all types of companies.
SEO is clearly the most cost efficient way to build serious traffic volumes over the longer term. Every smart business owner/CEO wants to be top of Google for what they sell and they don’t care about the mechanics of how that happens.
There’s the short cut approach of course of ranking a company top of Google in 2-3 months but that company won’t stay there for the medium – longer term due to the “successful” but dodgy tactics used.
Alternatively, there’s the longer term, slow and steady approach that marketing managers and CEO’s usually dislike because it’s very slow, they’ve to invest for many months with no return or obvious improvement. But when their rankings eventually start to improve, only then we, as an SEO agency, start to be trusted.
It’s because of this slow and steady approach that works well for SEO – and which also reflects my approach to life and business – that SEO is my favourite traffic generation method. Apart from word of mouth, it’s also the single cheapest source of business when viewed over a 2+ year timeline.
If your expectations are much more than this, SEO is probably not for you and other more expensive and controllable tactics like Google Ads are probably better for you.
3. How do you think the average SMB is doing in terms of their online presence, and what could they be doing better? Or if you work more with larger clients, how are they doing?
I think most small medium businesses are doing a lot better online now than 10 years ago, purely because there’s a lot more knowledge of the area so kudos to organisations like The Digital Marketing Institute, Irish Times Training and SureSkills for having led that in Ireland.
There’s a lot of mistakes that SMBs make when it comes to digital, but the main one is thinking that one or two people, regardless of their age or skill sets, can do it all themselves internally. The diversity of skill sets needed to do well in a fragmented online world can vary greatly from company to company.
What works really well for companies of all sizes is when they have a very good communicator and project manager who co-ordinates the doing of the work by others – be they 3rd party agencies, freelancers, or even internal colleagues.
Obviously it helps if they have digital skills themselves but it is crazy expecting one person regardless of how talented they are to make nice graphics, shoot and edit project videos, be a master of AdWords and “Social Fortress” link building for SEO reasons, as well as writing content and studying analytics among multiple other tasks.
This mistake usually comes from a lack of knowledge and the belief that one person can do all the digital marketing required. This is rarely the case.
4. What has been your favourite role or large project to date, and why?
We have a couple of larger clients who leverage the full range of services we offer and they’re brilliant to work with. In most cases, they use us because they want a reliable digital partner who has the commercial experience to have board-level conversations without using jargon and is very straight up with them.
One particular client is great because what we’re doing for them is in the highly regulated medical devices sector. They’re targeting B2B and B2C audiences in Ireland and internationally using search, social, and content.
Given the onerous compliance process they need to go through with their legal teams, anything we produce/say on their behalf – things like community management on social media and content marketing material – is very challenging.
More than most projects however, this has forced our whole team to work extremely closely together due to the inter-dependencies that exist for this client. I’m a big believer that when opportunities arise to improve your performance to an even higher standard than they were already, that’s only good for both us and all our clients.
5. What are your top tips for driving traffic and conversions from a website perspective?
Any “top tips” will inevitably vary based on the nature of the business. Publishing and ranking content for the “Google Answer Box” (aka “Position Zero”) is a good one applicable to many companies. When we see ComScore predicting that 50% of all Google searches will be voice searches by 2020 and considering that voice searches are normally very long, the opportunity to dominate any industry with “Position Zero” rankings is huge if your content is good enough.
When 98% of website visitors leave a site without converting, often times more traffic is not really the missing bit. It’s often just getting the user’s email address and dropping a cookie on their computer to facilitate staying in front of them with your brand over a long period of time.
This is especially true with B2B or high cost B2C items. Tools that boost conversions and engagement like SumoMe are common on digital industry sites but not so much on mainstream SMB or corporate sites.
The use of email lists with online ads is massive for many companies. Being able to target existing clients or prospects who have given you their email is very powerful when used intelligently.
When it comes to conversions, if you’re selling expensive cruises / holidays, have a long checkout process as it builds credibility. If you’re selling €15 iPhone cases, have a 5 second checkout process and if you’re selling B2B or high cost B2C items, make your phone number easily available. These are all very simple and obvious things that still frequently get missed.
6. What are 3 top metrics you feel SMBs and startups should be monitoring to track the ROI and impact of their digital marketing campaigns?
Digital marketing for most companies has the same status as cups in a coffee shop. It’s one element that’s important but rarely top priority for CEOs or business owners. SEO’s and digital enthusiasts usually overstate its importance as it’s what we’re immersed in all day every day.
What’s far more important for every boss is how much new business is coming via digital marketing, at what cost, and how to get more of it.
Translating these commercial KPI’s into tangible digital marketing metrics can be a struggle especially if there’s lots of phone enquiries in the business. Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) is the most critical metric to know but that usually means getting an expert to correctly configure your Google Analytics from the off.
Few companies know to do this unfortunately, until they need some credible numbers and only then do they arrive at the starting line metrics-wise.
CPA for some industries like insurance – there can be several levels involved. The first is traffic to the quote page. Then completed quotes. Then policy purchase.
An SEO agency could do a great job at bringing tonnes of traffic to the site, but if the cost of the quote is uncompetitive, the CFO in the business will see a very high CPA and likely wrongly assume that SEO is bad for them to be investing in.
The “Read Through Rate” (RTR) is vital to study if you’re doing lots of content. For example, 76% of visitors to a page read to the end of the page. How else are you going to know what’s working with your content efforts?
A third metric I’ll add in is Click Through Rate (CTR) on Pay Per Click (PPC) activity. If it’s a very competitive space, then getting above 5% is pretty ok. 10%+ should always be the target. If you’re lucky enough to have no competition, 30-40% average CTRs are not uncommon.
7. In terms of your specialist area within digital marketing, where are most people going wrong and what pieces are they missing?
While I’m personally not as “specialist” as I used to be, working closely daily with all my specialist colleagues keeps me pretty sharp and up to date with developments across all digital marketing disciplines. If there’s one specific area that companies really struggle with, it’s usually content.
Startups and SMBs often think “Well, I/my colleague can write so why would we pay someone else to do this, especially if we’re the experts on the topic?”
A great question of course, but that discussion usually only happens because they have struggled to date to produce any content. Why? Invariably lack of time.
As a busy SMB owner, for me to sit still, think about, and write the answers you’re now reading has taken me over 3 hours. Will my firm attract any business as a result? I’ve no idea and there’s lots of other things I could be doing which might be more productive for growing our business.
But I know the value of content like this and I also know how to repurpose it in multiple ways online, which is why I’ve chosen to work with Anton here who was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to contribute.
In general, I think the main pieces missing from a robust content strategy for most companies big and small is a team (internal or 3rd party), that consists of an editor to project manage, a researcher / writer, graphic designer, videographer, and promoter who will push the content.
Companies doing well online with content have all these skill sets organised efficiently.
8. What are your biggest digital marketing no-no’s? Any stories of where things went wrong?
No-No’s. There’s loads of them. Screw ups generally start with shortcuts I find. We tend to avoid these like the plague!
The most obvious and common “no-no” I can think of has to be site migrations gone wrong; i.e. moving from an old site to a new site. Most companies update their site every few years which is why this is so common.
A huge amount of our business comes from companies who upgraded their website, were assured by the web developers Google would be fine with it, and three weeks later SEO traffic has plummeted. We’re the “999” people when that happens as the calls we get then usually have the same level of panic that emergency phone call operators deal with I imagine!
The Ryanair migration is a perfect “worst practice’ example of what can go wrong if you overly trust your web developers, who reassure you without much SEO experience to go on.
Another very common thing we see is large brands having their AdWords/PPC managed by “Full Service” agencies. If you’re a big agency earning nice commissions from media buying on TV/Radio etc, why would you put huge effort into making sure every euro going to Google is working hard, when the results from traditional media buying are so untrackable?
You wouldn’t, and that’s why we generally win such PPC accounts when given the opportunity to pitch.
9. Finally, your plans and goals for the future, and what you plan to focus on over the next year or two?
As we’ve grown over the years as a company, we’ve never actually gone and “sold” our services. The vast majority of our clients come to us via word of mouth, which is great.
We have a lot more staff now though than we used to have, so it’s more important than ever for us to push our name a bit more in certain sectors, and that’s what we’re working on.
Due to the growth in content marketing and technology, ‘Martech’ is moving in the direction of marketing automation, which means targeted use of relevant content to specific interested personas, in order to provide them with useful material at the right time and in the right way.
As there is so much complexity with marketing automaton and multiple vendors like Hubspot, Marketo, Pardot, etc, most agencies avoid it completely, but clients are asking for it more and more.
We’ve started to dip our toes in it already, but it’s something we’re hoping to develop serious expertise in over the next two years as it ties into so much of what CEOs and marketing managers want from a digital marketing provider -transparent, outstanding marketing performance which enhances their brand’s visibility and reputation.
Stay tuned for the next interview in the series!