This year’s Search Engine Land Award winners for Agency of the Year in SEO and SEM sat down with our Search Engine Land’s own Matt Van Wagner to talk about how they make their award-winning agencies work.
Adam Heitzman is the cofounder and managing partner at Higher Visibility, a full-service digital agency based out of Memphis, TN, most widely recognized for SEO. Higher Visibility is Search Engine Land’s SEO Agency of the Year. David Black is the VP of Media at Wpromote, the Search Engine Land SEM Agency of the Year, with offices in New York, Dallas, and Chicago, and an LA headquarters.
Tell us about your agencies. What makes you different?
Adam: We understand the pain points of different businesses. And so we know we’re not the right fit for every business. But we do a really good job of trying to understand the client’s pain points and issues and see if we’re the right fit to form a partnership because it has to work on both sides. And so we don’t use the word client-agency relationship, we’re looking at this more of a partnership.
David: Our paid search team is probably the largest in the country that scale gives us the ability to do a bunch of things, one of which is learning a ton across different industries and verticals. So our goals are grounded in a client’s business objective, not their marketing KPIs.
When you’re talking about the pre-sales environment, what are some danger signs from an agency standpoint? How do you know when things aren’t going to be a fit? What are some signals that kind of indicate, “Hey, caution ahead, or let’s dig a little deeper here?”
Adam: First off, what are their expectations? If they do have an expectation, how realistic is it? Right? We all know that SEO is not an overnight success type of thing. And so if they have an unrealistic expectation that can’t be achieved in the timeframe that they’re thinking, then obviously that’s something that we want to make sure that we’re addressing early on before the partnership even takes off so that we can have that dialogue.
The second thing is, what does the budget look like? Does the budget correlate with what their expectations are? If it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that we may not be able to work with them, it just means that the timeframe might be more extended than what they would otherwise like.
David: I think it’s extremely important to choose the right type of partnership and clients. And we’ve done a really good job of being on both ends and not saying yes to just any dollars coming to us.
If we’re recommending something grounded in data, or grounded in what we think your business needs are, grounded our expertise in your industry. And if there’s pushback throughout the red flags, that we want to make sure that we have an open conversation.
How often do you talk with your clients or even your clients? Tell us about how you keep the connections nice and stable.
David: Our teams are talking to clients at varying intervals. There are teams that talk to clients hourly via slack via email. Those that are, I think, a bit more standardized in bi-weekly reporting meetings. But ultimately, it’s all going to come down to what the client needs to make sure that they’re getting the information they need in terms of the performance we’re driving or the direction we’re going. And that we’re not talking too often that it’s just it’s useless.
There are dozens or hundreds of people in your agencies, how do you keep your team from burning out? Tell me a little about how you retain your employees. What are some of the things you look for to make sure that your best performers aren’t burning the candle at both ends?
David: We don’t build products. Our people are our products and making sure that they’re happy and independent is the number one job that I’ve had. First is making sure that I have an understanding of what’s going on the ground, what they need, and how we’re operating. We restructured our team to make sure that we had more support at the bottom and at the top. It really gave us the ability to free up our managers to be far more strategic than they had been before.
We preach some things within our team that are of the utmost importance. It’s trust, transparency, and respect with your teams. So really, it’s about giving people autonomy to do their jobs while giving them the support they need to make sure that they’re not operating from a place of fear.
Adam: This year is unlike any other year. We obviously, like any other business, had to kind of shift some of our focus, particularly because the majority of our staff was actually in our office. So it was a pretty major shift when everything happened.–for us to go completely virtual. You lose that connection. That was something that we knew was important. And it was something that we recognized early on that we needed to be really diligent about–keeping an open dialogue. And so some of the ways in which we kind of do that are every single month we do a town hall with the entire company.
Separately from that every single month we do some form of employee engagement, whether that is a learning lunch or something else. So every month, so our HR goes through surveys and figures out if there are certain areas that others would find interest in learning more about. For example, when we when the pandemic first started, we did one solely around mental health. So we went and found a guest speaker to come in and talk specifically about mental health and did an entire Zoom call around that.
What are some of the things you see on the horizon that will change the world of SEO and change the world with PPC? What what what are some of the big shifts from 2020 that you see coming in 2021 that you think you need to spend a little bit more time sort of massaging working with or freaking out about whatever the case may be?
David: Data privacy is changing. I think it’s changing the way we have to work. It’s ultimately very philosophical. I’m a firm believer that people should have control over their data. I believe that it’s not necessary to have so much data to be effective marketers. I think there’s a middle ground that will be found between GDPR and CCPA and what the rest of America looks like from a marketing perspective. So I think that that shift will happen gradually. Ultimately what will be done is in the best interests of consumers, which I don’t think will hurt us too much as search marketers.
Adam: I think from the SEO side of things, it’s a little bit different. One of the biggest concerns that folks have is the fact that with the last couple of years, Google’s ad revenues have somewhat declined, and so they’re trying to do everything that they can do to try to get those ad revenues back up.
They’re to siphon off as much organic as they possibly can, to try to push more to the paid side of things. We’ve seen organic click-through rates decline over the last several years. And so from our perspective, it’s a matter of being more strategic on our approach, using more data-driven kind of methodologies to kind of define what is working and what’s not. So that we aren’t always going up against four ads, the Google My Business, or the people also ask, or the featured snippets, or whatever it is that Google is doing to try to keep people on Google properties versus organic properties. We have to kind of take a more systematic approach to try to get more visitors kind of continuing to go to the organic channels.
If you were having a conversation with a friend that’s also an agency owner, what’s the one bit of advice you would tell them to make sure that they do this year? What’s the most important thing to you, as an agency manager, do to help them guarantee their success?
Adam: It’s really focusing on the client experience. Make sure that you focus on how you can show value and manage the client’s expectations. Those are the key components: if you’re able to show value, manage expectations, and communicate with your clients, you’re going to keep your clients.
David: I think it’s simply focusing on what’s coming, emerging opportunities, and different avenues–so expanding beyond Google into different channels. And don’t make your problems the client’s problem and also give them what they need versus trying to make a buck.