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Future-Proof Your Marketing with Call to Action Magazine

The Call to Action Magazine
A good marketer is like a doomsday prepper (bear with me here…)

Instead of preparing for a global cataclysm, learning about water storage and building bunkers, they’re constantly on the lookout for ways they can proof their marketing for, or get ahead of, inevitable and dramatic changes to the marketing landscape.

Frequent and mysterious algorithm changes. New ad platform features. Emerging trends, dying fads. Amidst all this, only marketers who understand these new conditions — then adapt and innovate within them — will see exponential returns.

At Unbounce, we’ve been really lucky to have a network of expert marketers around to ask about the always-changing marketing landscape. We can turn to forward-thinking strategists like Mirum’s Mitch Joel, Moz’s Rand Fishkin, Love Your Customer’s Claire Suellentrop, and even our in-house-experts, like Alexa Hubley, Carl Schmidt and CRO Michael Aagaard. We ask them things like:

  • What does the ever-increasing prominence of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning mean for marketers and their jobs?
  • Are “tried-and-true” frameworks like the buyer persona still relevant, or are there new ways of digging deeper to speak more closely to my target market?
  • Have traditional SEO tactics become completely outdated? Why are the most successful SEOs now becoming well versed in conversion rate optimization?
  • How can you use data to inform your marketing without letting personal biases get in the way?
  • Should marketing stop after the conversion? (Or is customer marketing where it’s at?)

These are questions we’ve seen tossed around recently in our newsfeeds and at conferences.

So we set out to help answer them.

In Call to Action Magazine, we aim to address these questions and dig into some of the recommendations the experts in our network have shared — those that will help you create exceptional marketing no matter what new algorithm comes along.

So, what do you say? Do you want to get lost in the rubble… or do you want to learn how you can future-proof your marketing?

Ready to Future-Proof Your Marketing?

Call to Action Magazine is filled with recommendations from marketing experts to help your marketing thrive — no matter what algorithm gets changed tomorrow.
By accessing the magazine, you’ll receive actionable marketing content from Unbounce. 
You can unsubscribe at any time.

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Future-Proof Your Marketing with Call to Action Magazine

‘Get past personas’, and other takeaways from CTA Conf 17

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This week, I spent two jam-packed days at Unbounce’s fourth-ever Call To Action Conference. The one-track event featured some of today’s most influential digital marketing speakers like Mitch Joel, Kindra Hall, and Rand Fishkin.

WiderFunnel team at CTA Conf 17
The WiderFunnel team and I having a ball at the CTA Conf afterparty.

Session topics ranged from integrity in marketing, to performance marketing success, to the marriage of SEO and conversion optimization. But most shared a common theme: Don’t forget about the real person behind that click.

Knowledge bombs were dropped, important conversations were had, and actionable insights were shared. So, in today’s post, I’m going to share some of my most important takeaways from CTA Conf.

If you attended the conference, please share your favorite takeaways in the comments below!

1. Don’t be trendy, be data-driven

Featured Speaker: Oli Gardner

Unbounce Co-Founder, Oli Gardner, kicked things off on the first day.

Fun fact: Due to technical difficulties, Oli ended up acting out his entire opening video sequence (and most of the subsequent videos in his presentation). He handled the hiccup like a pro, of course, and launched into a great session on data-driven design.

One of the strongest points that Oli made was that digital marketing trends self-perpetuate, regardless of whether or not they are helpful to a user.

I know we, as data-driven marketers, ‘know’ this fact. We complain about ‘best practices’, and buzzwords, and yet we still get totally caught up in trends.

Remember when explainer videos became the end-all, be-all for homepages?

WiderFunnel CTA Conf Recap Oli Gardner
Oli pointing out the flaws in an old Unbounce explainer video at CTA Conf.

What happened? Hundreds of blog posts were written about explainer videos, and hundreds of explainer videos were produced to talk about how great explainer videos are. And then, every homepage on the internet featured an explainer video.

But…were all of those explainer videos really what customers needed? In some cases, but certainly not in all.

Instead, Oli spoke about the need to “mend trends”, and make design decisions based on data, rather than the most popular trend at the time.

We hold the same view at WiderFunnel. You can A/B test explainer video after explainer video. But to create truly impactful experiences, you have to go back to the research phase.

Use the data you have to drill into what you think are you most important business problems. And test hypotheses that attempt to solve for those problems.

2. Choose people, not personas

I’m not a big fan of personas. I’ve never kicked it with a persona.

– Wil Reynolds

But, without personas, how do I write the right copy for my customers at the right time?!

Don’t panic.

Focus on motivation instead

Featured Speaker: Joel Klettke

Conversion copywriter extraordinaire, Joel Klettke, spoke about how to read your customer’s mind. He emphasized the need to get past user personas and keywords, and focus on customer motivation instead.

Joel Klettke at CTA Conf
Joel Klettke on stage at CTA Conf.

We get stuck behind our screens, and start writing about ‘synergies’ and features that our customers really don’t care about.

– Joel Klettke

He outlined a framework for getting your customers to tell you about their pain points, anxieties, desired outcomes, and priorities, in their own words:

  1. Ask
  2. Record
  3. Analyze
  4. Feed
  5. Measure

Note: I didn’t dig too deeply into the framework, here. But Joel put together a resource for CTA Conf attendees, and graciously gave me the green light to share it. Check it out here!

Jobs To Be Done vs. Personas

Featured Speaker: Claire Suellentrop

On Day 2, Claire Suellentrop built on this idea of the dated persona.

She explained that marketers collect many data points about our prospects, like…

  • Gender, age, location
  • Title, company, industry
  • Married, no kids, one puppy

…but asked whether or not all of that data actually helps us determine why a real human being just bought a new backpack from Everlane.

As an alternative, she suggested the Jobs To Be Done framework. JTBD refers to your customer’s struggle to make progress on something. When your customer overcomes that struggle, the job is done, and they have made progress.

The framework looks a little something like this:

“When ____________ (event that triggers the struggle), help me ______ (struggle / job) so I can __________ (better life / done).”

To identify your customers’ struggle, Claire suggests actually asking your customers. She outlined several sample questions:

  • “Take me back to life before [product]. What was it like?”
  • “What happened that compelled you to start looking for something different?”
  • “What happened when you tried [product] that made you confident it was right for you?”
  • “What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?”

3. Tell the story, don’t just allude to it

Featured Speaker: Kindra Hall

One of my favorite speakers on Day 1 of CTA Conf was Kindra Hall. (Not surprising, as she is the storytelling expert).

Kindra dug into strategic storytelling in marketing. According to her, you should use a story every time you need to communicate value in your marketing.

Kindra Hall at CTA Conf
Kindra Hall sets out to define storytelling in marketing.

Storytelling is powerful because real life humans are attracted to great stories. (And marketers talk to people after all).

Stories, according to Kindra, stick with us and make us do stuff because storytelling is a co-creative process.

“As I am telling you my story, you are creating your own in your mind. I am giving you my words, but you are meeting me half way, and we are creating a shared memory,” Kindra explained.

The most powerful moment in her talk came when she challenged the audience with the biggest storytelling mistake:

Too often, we allude to the story, but don’t actually tell it.

– Kindra Hall

She showed two example videos to illustrate her point. In the first, a company founder almost told her compelling story about losing both of her parents, but glossed over the details. The result was a pretty video, with pretty music that almost created feeling.

In the second video, the founder told her full story, explaining how losing her parents shaped her company and product. The difference in emotional impact was kind of incredible.

And making your customers feel is a huge part of making your customers act. Because we — consumers, people, humans — don’t buy products or services…we buy feelings.

4. Pay attention to people signals

For goodness’ sake, solve the searcher’s problem

Featured Speaker: Wil Reynolds

Founder of Seer Interactive, Wil Reynolds, danced his way onto the stage, and delivered a really strong talk on SEO, conversion optimization, and the importance of people signals.

Wil Reynolds at CTA Conf
Wil remembers when he f*ed up, and forgot about the HUMAN element.

He didn’t mince words, explaining that marketers too often put conversions before customers. We ask “how do I get?” when we should be asking, “how do I help my customer get what they need?”

When you do an amazing job on search, you get to help people who are lost solve their problems.

– Wil Reynolds

Wil painted a picture of how we, as marketers, are letting our own wants override solving our customers’ problems. In the world of search, Wil pointed out that Google rewards pages that solve the searchers’ query. So solve the searchers’ query!

Much like we allude to stories, but often don’t tell them, we talk about listening to our customers, but often don’t really listen.

Instead of showing them product comparisons when they search “best CRM platform”, we pay to show them a landing page that claims “My product is the best! Get in my funnel!”

This isn’t just an issue in search or performance. In conversion optimization, there is an emphasis on velocity over user research. There is pressure to test more, and test faster.

But, we must take the time to do the research. To get as close to our customers’ problem, and tailor our marketing experience to their needs.

Win at SEO and CRO with a long-term vision

Featured Speaker: Rand Fishkin

Building on Wil’s session on Day 1, SEO wizard, Rand Fishkin, gave the audience actionable tips around how to optimize for searcher intent.

Rand pointed to conversion optimization.

At its core, conversion optimization is about getting into your customers’ minds, and testing changes to get closer to the best possible customer experience. To give your customer what they need, you must soothe their pain points, and provide a solution.

You can apply this same concept to SEO: If you 1) gain a deep understanding of what searchers are seeking, and 2) determine why some searchers come away unsatisfied, you can optimize for searcher task accomplishment.

Rand Fishkin at CTA Conf
Rand demonstrates how establishing trust leads to ROI.

Unfortunately, Rand pointed out, there is still a conflict between SEO and CRO, because conversion rate and searcher satisfaction are sometimes in direct opposition.

For example, let’s say you want to get more blog subscriptions, so you add a pop-up to your blog post. This may lead to a higher conversion rate on the page, but lower searcher satisfaction. Some readers might bounce, which may lead to lower organic traffic.

But, Rand ended on a high note:

You can win with long-term thinking. By always asking, ‘are we building a brand that’s helping people succeed?’

– Rand Fishkin

5. Don’t fear disruption. Own it.

Featured Speaker: Mitch Joel

One of the final speakers on Day 1 was marketing thought-leader, Mitch Joel, who shook things up a bit. Mitch spoke about what it means to be disruptive (and how to not fear disruption).

Mitch Joel at CTA Conf
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone.”

When I ask C-Suite marketers to define disruption, the definition is never consistent. In fact, I often don’t get a definition of disruption, I get a definition of destruction.

– Mitch Joel

He asked, if disruption is the big bad wolf, who are the heroes in this marketing story?

Well, like the three little pigs, Mitch discussed three ways to be disruptive rather than be disrupted:

  1. Transformation: Business transformation is not your products or services, etc. It’s inside out. And it starts with technology. You need to be using the same tech, same form of communication that your customers are using.
  2. Innovative marketing: Innovation is not re-allocation of resources. It isn’t investing more in Google Adwords versus another channel. Real innovation is about making and creating new products and experiences that we can use to market with.
  3. Micro-transactions: Marketers and businesses get caught up in the macro transaction, in the purchase. But we live in a world of micro-transactions. This is the customer journey, and it is extremely important to understand.

Mitch Joel emphasized the fact that if you can apply these ‘three little pigs’ to your business model, you will be in a great place, though he recognized that it’s not always easy.

But nothing great is ever easy.

6. Be bold enough to be wrong

Featured Speaker: Michael Aagaard

Senior Conversion Optimizer at Unbounce, Michael Aagaard, closed out the two-day conference. His message was a simple but powerful warning against the trap of confirmation bias.

We, as humans, are not interested in information, but confirmation.

– Michael Aagaard

Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to search for and recall information in ways that confirm our existing beliefs, hypotheses, and expectations. And it is a threat to data-driven marketing.

Michael Aagaard at CTA Conf
Michael takes us back to ye olde London to make a point about the enduring power of confirmation bias.

When you A/B test, you are searching for objectivity. You are trying to figure out which variation your users prefer, outside of your own opinions and beliefs about what works best.

But it’s rarely that simple, even if you are a pro.

Michael showed us a landing page that he analyzed for a client, featuring a stock photo hero image. He said he had railed against the photo, and shown the client examples of the hundreds of other stock photos featuring the same model.

But, when he tested the landing page, he found that the original version, featuring the ‘terrible’ stock photo, was the clear winner.

“Maybe,” he said, “users don’t spend hours scouring the internet for stock photo sinners like I do.”

He urged the audience to be bold enough to be wrong, to challenge our hypotheses, and get out of the marketing bubble when we are trying to solve problems.

If we don’t get out of the marketing bubble, we end up making assumptions, and designing experiences for ourselves.

– Michael Aagaard

Go hang out with your customer success teams and sales teams; get outsider input on your ‘great’ ideas. Go find your own natural skeptic, and challenge your hypotheses.

Were you at CTA Conf 17? What were your most important takeaways? Who were your favorite speakers, and why? Let us know in the comments!

The post ‘Get past personas’, and other takeaways from CTA Conf 17 appeared first on WiderFunnel Conversion Optimization.

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‘Get past personas’, and other takeaways from CTA Conf 17

Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Conversion Rate Optimization [INTERVIEW]

Move over Don Draper, the modern day agency marketer needs to be more of a Renaissance (wo)man.

Sure, they need to be creative enough to craft a compelling pitch.

But they also need to be data-driven. They need to be well versed in analytics and the latest MarTech trends. And when budgets get tight, agency marketers need to be able to convince their clients to not cut out conversion rate optimization.

Few people know this better than Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 different countries. Mitch is a best-selling business author, international speaker and agency thought leader. But he’s also a full-stack marketer who has been doing display advertising for longer than Google itself.

Mitch Joel, president of global digital agency Mirum and author of Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete.Image source.

Since Mitch entered the digital marketing world, a helluvalot has changed — and not just in agencyland. As technology evolves, so too are consumers and the way they interact with our brands. At the Call to Action Conference in June, Mitch’s keynote, Algorhythm: How Technology Connects Consumers To Brands Like Never Before, will dive into how to future-proof your brand and embrace disruption to become a digital leader.

PSST. Hey blog reader, we like the cut of your jib. Get 15% off Call to Action Conference tickets by using discount code “blogsentme” at checkout. Offer expires May 12th.

Ugh, why can’t it be June already?

To tide you over, here’s a fascinating interview with Mitch from the Call to Action Podcast. Unbounce Director of Content Dan Levy sat down with Mitch to discuss:

  • How the agency world has evolved over the past 15 years.
  • Mitch’s experience selling his independent agency to the largest holding company in the world.
  • How everything from search results to PPC and even the talent you hire for your agency are all extensions of your brand.

Check out some highlights from the interview below. (This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.)

Dan Levy: You’re known as a bestselling business author, speaker and agency thought leader, but you got your start in the online marketing trenches doing ad sales and even PPC marketing for a site called Mamma.com. Can you take us back to that time? What did the online marketing landscape look like and what did you learn from that experience?

Mitch Joel: Actually, yes, I did do that. But my start in digital came much earlier when I was publishing music magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually was tangentially at the same time very engaged in digital media: first web browser, BBSs, stuff like that. And I actually put those magazines on the “internet” — like air quote internet — because back then, there wasn’t even really an internet.

I remember one of the cover stories for my alternative, cool, fun publication was called, “The Net.” The innovation at that time was hyperlinks. I literally was posting things on the internet from the magazine that couldn’t have hyperlinks. You couldn’t link from one page to the other. That really kept me on the trajectory where eventually I helped launch the sales channel of what at the time was one of the largest meta search engines on the internet. And again, it’s hard to imagine a world before Google. But this was pre-Google. And so the meta search engine would basically grab search results from engines like Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, and create a meta — or a better — search result that we could actually aggregate faster.

My role back then was selling sponsorships on the homepage, it was selling banner advertising. And it was also very early days of selling — literally the first time of being able to take a search result and having a banner that’s related to the search show up in the search result. And to tell you how early and nascent it was, I had to physically go into the code of the search engine to code the banner in. I don’t recommend that in this day in age. Like I don’t think anyone at Google is going into the master code to embed a search result. But that’s how early the times were back then.

DL: Wow. What did you learn from that experience that you brought forth?

MJ: Well I learned to take chances. I can tell you that when they approached me about the opportunity, my first question was, “What’s online advertising?” I mean, we are talking about a time when that first banner ad on HotWired — which became Wired — had just run.

The first banner ad, ever. Image source: Wired.

I didn’t even know what it looked like, what it felt like, what it could be. I think my pedigree in selling traditional print ads and having a construct of what it means to run a media company is what pushed me there. So it was — to this day, it was a great move. And I’m so grateful, I still have a lot of friends in my life now who came from there. A lot of people who’ve become — who’ve ascended in this industry to run major, major web initiatives are people that I hired. People that I brought into the industry. So I have a lot of pride in that.

And I also learned that — again, when I think about it, I don’t know why I took the job. All logic would dictate that at the time, I should not have taken that job. But I took the job and it wound up being great for me because it brought together what I was doing professionally on one side. And on the other side, it brought together my passion for digital. I often say that I was very early into many things. And when we started Mirum, which back then was Twist Image in 2000 (I joined in 2002). At that point in my career I said, even though I might be a little early in this space, I’m going to ride it out.

DL: Performance marketing and brand marketing are often seen as being on different sides of the digital marketing spectrum. Do you think that’s true? Do you see those two disciplines as coming closer together in an age where Facebook has gone from a social media network to just another performance marketing channel?

MJ: I think you’re right. The evolution — and by the way, Google structured themselves — for a long while, and they may still — around brand and performance. And that’s common. Where I think the confusion comes from is that within real behavioral performance-based marketing, there are heavy and hefty living around brand and experience that we often dismiss because we think that performance is still about getting the right search word, getting them to the right page.

But actually if you step back from that, the meta message is that it has to be a very relevant and cohesive brand experience. And I was somebody who wasn’t just buying generic brand keywords back in the day, to just keep that going. I actually believe that — a saying I’ve used since the early 2000s is that the first page of search results is a brand experience.


You can’t separate PPC & brand marketing. The 1st page of search is part of your brand experience.
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So there’s that. That sort of dismisses the idea that performance is not about branding. And you’re right — fast forwarding to today, a lot of my clients and a lot of people I meet when I do speaking events will say that social media is primarily a paid channel, because of what Facebook has done to throttle the content and have you pay against reach. Which I think by the way is a great model and clearly the market would agree with that idea.

But you can’t have any results — whether you’re paying for it or it’s organic — unless it’s a really good experience.

Whether or not that’s through a search result, an email marketing initiative, a great landing page *hint hint wink wink* to you guys, or a good old piece of content. I really don’t care. I’m actually agnostic to that.

DL: Where do performance channels like PPC and landing page optimization and conversion rate optimization come into the picture with the kinds of big brands that you work with? Are those things part of your offer? Do you factor them into how you pitch and bill clients?

MJ: Well it depends on whether someone’s going full bore with us or not. Like any other agency, we work on specific campaigns, specific projects, longer initiatives and then full-on mandates. And even the full-on mandates have sort of splits and fits and starts.

The way we started our company, we only wanted to work with large national and multinational brands and we’ve stuck to that model for what’s coming up onto 17 years. Because of that, being of startup size back in the early 2000s, most brands already had large media companies at play. And those media companies even back then were feeling very threatened by digital and would make those offerings.

So we would come in and grab pieces and parts of it and really focus on the behavioral side. Let us handle the drive to optimization, landing page, unique spaces, unique experience while the media companies were really checking boxes around “online video,” “search,” affiliate marketing” and stuff like that. So from my pedigree, I stand very firmly and aligned with what performance can do in terms of optimizations and moving things forward. I feel like I’m banging against the wall when everyone says, “Well we do that.” I think people do do that, but they don’t really do it.

I still really believe that a lot of the work we see is what I call “rearview mirror.” You know, we did it, we’re running these keywords to a landing page, and let’s see how it did. Post. I believe, and I know that Mirum as an agency believes it, all of that optimization, all of that data, all of that opportunity is now in the passenger seat. When you do it well and you actually are optimizing and driving and creating unique experiences on landing pages and stuff like that, you’ve moved it from the rearview mirror to the passenger’s seat and you can fix it and go so that there always is a positive result, not a result that says, “Oh, that campaign just didn’t work.” I can’t believe we still use that language in business today!

DL: Right, as if a campaign or an experience is a success or a failure — only if it meets your hypothesis. And the learnings aren’t a factor or don’t have anything to do with it at all.

MJ: Right and it’s frustrating for me because I feel like we often lose business or can’t grab the business because there’s a sentiment that we already have someone doing that work. But when you dig into what that work is, you see that there actually isn’t a lot of that stuff that we’re really talking about. They say they do that, it’s on their decks, and it’s on their site. But — and I don’t know if it’s a failure of the brand or a failure of the agency. I’m not sure where it happens. But there is a vast majority of very powerful brands really not doing enough.

DL: Do you think the problem is that optimization is seen as a discipline or a branch of marketing instead of just a mindset?

MJ: Yeah. One of my close friends is Bryan Eisenberg, who I really believe is one of the forefathers of this optimization space. He’s written books about it, “Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?” and intent and scent and all that.

My relationship with Bryan is going on for close to 20 years at this point. And he would often say things like, “You know, here we are talking about all this stuff. And the first thing a brand will cut on a budget is the optimization. Hands down.

And it’s mind-numbing and it’s mind-blowing to both of us — and years later it still remains the same — because that’s actually where you make money. And I don’t know why brands, agencies don’t get it. I don’t get how they don’t get it.

DL: Can you talk about the role content played in getting Twist on the map? I imagine that your book and your blog and your podcast were all part of ultimately attracting the attention of WPP and making that acquisition happen.

MJ: It’s a yes and no story.

It’s a yes story in the sense that it’s very interesting when they’re doing financial and product assessments to see an agency that has been so consistent for a decade. Creating the blog, the podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, that lead to 50-60 paid speaking events a year. That lead to two best selling books — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but represented by a major New York literary agent, onto a major — largest book publisher in the world, onto the global deal. And other things that come from media appearances and stuff like that.

DL: Yeah, I think that from my perspective, Twist Image and Mitch Joel were kind of one and the same.

MJ: Totally. And we built it that way. We always saw from day one, back in 2003ish, when we started the blog, that Twist Image (at the time — now Mirum) would be managing three brands:

  1. that Mirum brand,
  2. Six Pixels of Separation (which we sort of considered the sort of “content engine” — so blog, podcast, articles, speaking, books)
  3. and then Mitch Joel, this media face. This warm, hopefully friendly and personable face to an agency, which again, now seems very obvious.

But if you go back 10+ years, nobody was really doing that. They didn’t really have that. So the fact that we were sharing content, having conversations with people who just didn’t have a voice before — you know, we were having hour-long conversations with business or marketing thought leaders. That you didn’t get an hour with. You’d be lucky if you had one famous enough to get 10 minutes on Charlie Rose. Suddenly, someone is spending an hour with them, having a conversation like they would over a coffee, and publishing it to the world.

There were these assets there that were built over time, and again, I do know that when it came to the opportunity for us to be acquired, one of the metrics was the fact that there is revenue generation that comes out of the content engine. That doesn’t just create media attention and a level of fame, whatever that might be. But that there actually was revenue behind this thing. And that was very surprising and shocking to them.

DL: Meaning what? It gets clients in the door?

MJ: I mean, yeah, think about it. You pitch for business development, you spend weeks, months pitching. And business development is a cost center. It costs every agency a lot of money to business develop. You don’t win every pitch. It’s a very small percentage. And you hope that the ones you win make up for all the money you spent. When you’re offsetting that cost with speaking gigs, book deals, article writing and stuff like that, it’s really interesting that you’re creating this voice and building a platform and it actually is driving business, it’s driving revenue — both in terms of client and raw revenue. We get dollars to speak and write books. It’s not vanity.

It was always about creating equity in the brand, that would have one of two roles. That one day, we would be acquired. Or if we’re never acquired, we’re running this business in a way where all of the top players would want to acquire it. And there would be extreme value in the brand.

I like building businesses that build equity as they grow. And this channel of speaking, writing, etc — it wasn’t a core component of what we were acquired for, but it was definitely on the list.

DL: It reminds me of the Rolling Stones model, where you’re the front man, but ultimately, you share those profits evenly. I know they’ve credited that as their longevity for them as a band. It sounds like the same thing for the longevity of Twist, and now Mirum.

MJ: Yeah, and I try to not have it be ego-driven. I look at it like — my job, as a media entity, is to be extremely personable. And to know that I’m managing Mirum, Six Pixels and Mitch Joel. And I conduct myself accordingly. If you look me up on Facebook, there isn’t a ton of personal stuff. There’s a ton of personable stuff.

DL: If you had to give agencies who are looking to set themselves apart from the crowd and spur growth for both their clients and their own business one piece of advice, what would it be?

MJ: I really think it is much like a great book. A great book works not because the topic is unique. I feel like more often than not you’re reading a topic that somebody else covered in one shape or form.

It’s the voice. I don’t see that much in terms of agencies having that unique voice. Do I think we achieved it? Partially. And I think it’s because it’s a journey — you’re constantly changing it, moving it along. But if I were to go across — and we did this exercise when we were trying to figure out the branding for Mirum, Twist Image — I would jokingly tell people, “You could take the website of all our biggest competitors, take off the logos, throw them in the air, and whatever website they fall on, you’d still be pretty much right.” The services, types of case studies, type of work we do. And still to this day, I think that story rings true.

The ones that stand out, though, are the ones that have a unique voice. It could be a unique individual — I’m thinking of people like Bob Greenberg at R/GA. It could just be a unique story to tell. So if you look at an agency like WK, the fact that they’ve been large and independent, the type of work that they’ve done it’s like the voice of the agency is the work that they do. That type of thing is the only component of your business that you can have that is the defendable against a competitor. It’s how you express yourself, tell your stories, the type of team members you bring in, the type of work that you do, the stories you tell in the marketplace, where you network, what you attend. That’s the big one.

The secondary one is get involved in your industry. What  drove this business at Mirum was the fact that we got involved in places like Shop.org, the National Retail Federation, Canadian Marketing Association, Interactive Advertising — I could go on and on. And we didn’t just join and become members. We got involved. In fact, we just had a conversation at lunch about an association that I’m super interested in. And the answer we all came to was: “Not unless we can get deeply involved.” So, what you find out is that by giving (because you love this industry and you want it to be better), you do wind up in some way receiving. We don’t get involved to get results. By getting involved and being active, it just happens.

DL: Well Mitch, it’s always a real treat to talk shop with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MJ: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.

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Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Conversion Rate Optimization [INTERVIEW]

Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Should Care About Finding Their Unique Voice [INTERVIEW]

Move over Don Draper, the modern day agency marketer needs to be more of a Renaissance (wo)man.

Sure, they need to be creative enough to craft a compelling pitch.

But they also need to be data-driven. They need to be well versed in analytics and the latest MarTech trends. And when budgets get tight, agency marketers need to be able to convince their clients to not cut out conversion rate optimization.

Few people know this better than Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 different countries. Mitch is a best-selling business author, international speaker and agency thought leader. But he’s also a full-stack marketer who has been doing display advertising for longer than Google itself.

Mitch Joel, president of global digital agency Mirum and author of Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete.Image source.

Since Mitch entered the digital marketing world, a helluvalot has changed — and not just in agencyland. As technology evolves, so too are consumers and the way they interact with our brands. At the Call to Action Conference in June, Mitch’s keynote, Algorhythm: How Technology Connects Consumers To Brands Like Never Before, will dive into how to future-proof your brand and embrace disruption to become a digital leader.

Ugh, why can’t it be June already?

To tide you over, here’s a fascinating interview with Mitch from the Call to Action Podcast. Unbounce Director of Content Dan Levy sat down with Mitch to discuss:

  • How the agency world has evolved over the past 15 years.
  • Mitch’s experience selling his independent agency to WPP, the largest advertising company in the world.
  • How everything from search results to PPC and even the talent you hire for your agency are all extensions of your brand.

Check out some highlights from the interview below. (This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.)

Dan Levy: You’re known as a bestselling business author, speaker and agency thought leader, but you got your start in the online marketing trenches doing ad sales and even PPC marketing for a site called Mamma.com. Can you take us back to that time? What did the online marketing landscape look like and what did you learn from that experience?

Mitch Joel: Actually, yes, I did do that. But my start in digital came much earlier when I was publishing music magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually was tangentially at the same time very engaged in digital media: first web browser, BBSs, stuff like that. And I actually put those magazines on the “internet” — like air quote internet — because back then, there wasn’t even really an internet.

I remember one of the cover stories for my alternative, cool, fun publication was called, “The Net.” The innovation at that time was hyperlinks. I literally was posting things on the internet from the magazine that couldn’t have hyperlinks. You couldn’t link from one page to the other. That really kept me on the trajectory where eventually I helped launch the sales channel of what at the time was one of the largest meta search engines on the internet. And again, it’s hard to imagine a world before Google. But this was pre-Google. And so the meta search engine would basically grab search results from engines like Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, and create a meta — or a better — search result that we could actually aggregate faster.

My role back then was selling sponsorships on the homepage, it was selling banner advertising. And it was also very early days of selling — literally the first time of being able to take a search result and having a banner that’s related to the search show up in the search result. And to tell you how early and nascent it was, I had to physically go into the code of the search engine to code the banner in. I don’t recommend that in this day in age. Like I don’t think anyone at Google is going into the master code to embed a search result. But that’s how early the times were back then.

DL: Wow. What did you learn from that experience that you brought forth?

MJ: Well I learned to take chances. I can tell you that when they approached me about the opportunity, my first question was, “What’s online advertising?” I mean, we are talking about a time when that first banner ad on HotWired — which became Wired — had just run.

The first banner ad, ever. Image source: Wired.

I didn’t even know what it looked like, what it felt like, what it could be. I think my pedigree in selling traditional print ads and having a construct of what it means to run a media company is what pushed me there. So it was — to this day, it was a great move. And I’m so grateful, I still have a lot of friends in my life now who came from there. A lot of people who’ve become — who’ve ascended in this industry to run major, major web initiatives are people that I hired. People that I brought into the industry. So I have a lot of pride in that.

And I also learned that — again, when I think about it, I don’t know why I took the job. All logic would dictate that at the time, I should not have taken that job. But I took the job and it wound up being great for me because it brought together what I was doing professionally on one side. And on the other side, it brought together my passion for digital. I often say that I was very early into many things. And when we started Mirum, which back then was Twist Image in 2000 (I joined in 2002). At that point in my career I said, even though I might be a little early in this space, I’m going to ride it out.

DL: Performance marketing and brand marketing are often seen as being on different sides of the digital marketing spectrum. Do you think that’s true? Do you see those two disciplines as coming closer together in an age where Facebook has gone from a social media network to just another performance marketing channel?

MJ: I think you’re right. The evolution — and by the way, Google structured themselves — for a long while, and they may still — around brand and performance. And that’s common. Where I think the confusion comes from is that within real behavioral performance-based marketing, there are heavy and hefty lifting around brand and experience that we often dismiss because we think that performance is still about getting the right search word, getting them to the right page.

But actually if you step back from that, the meta message is that it has to be a very relevant and cohesive brand experience. And I was somebody who wasn’t just buying generic brand keywords back in the day, to just keep that going. I actually believe that — a saying I’ve used since the early 2000s is that the first page of search results is a brand experience.


You can’t separate PPC & brand marketing. The 1st page of search is part of your brand experience.
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So there’s that. That sort of dismisses the idea that performance is not about branding. And you’re right — fast forwarding to today, a lot of my clients and a lot of people I meet when I do speaking events will say that social media is primarily a paid channel, because of what Facebook has done to throttle the content and have you pay against reach. Which I think by the way is a great model and clearly the market would agree with that idea.

But you can’t have any results — whether you’re paying for it or it’s organic — unless it’s a really good experience.

Whether or not that’s through a search result, an email marketing initiative, a great landing page *hint hint wink wink* to you guys, or a good old piece of content. I really don’t care. I’m actually agnostic to that.

DL: Where do performance channels like PPC and landing page optimization and conversion rate optimization come into the picture with the kinds of big brands that you work with? Are those things part of your offer? Do you factor them into how you pitch and bill clients?

MJ: Well it depends on whether someone’s going full bore with us or not. Like any other agency, we work on specific campaigns, specific projects, longer initiatives and then full-on mandates. And even the full-on mandates have sort of splits and fits and starts.

The way we started our company, we only wanted to work with large national and multinational brands and we’ve stuck to that model for what’s coming up onto 17 years. Because of that, being of startup size back in the early 2000s, most brands already had large media companies at play. And those media companies even back then were feeling very threatened by digital and would make those offerings.

So we would come in and grab pieces and parts of it and really focus on the behavioral side. Let us handle the drive to optimization, landing page, unique spaces, unique experience while the media companies were really checking boxes around “online video,” “search,” affiliate marketing” and stuff like that. So from my pedigree, I stand very firmly and aligned with what performance can do in terms of optimizations and moving things forward. I feel like I’m banging against the wall when everyone says, “Well we do that.” I think people do do that, but they don’t really do it.

I still really believe that a lot of the work we see is what I call “rearview mirror.” You know, we did it, we’re running these keywords to a landing page, and let’s see how it did. Post. I believe, and I know that Mirum as an agency believes it, all of that optimization, all of that data, all of that opportunity is now in the passenger seat. When you do it well and you actually are optimizing and driving and creating unique experiences on landing pages and stuff like that, you’ve moved it from the rearview mirror to the passenger’s seat and you can fix it and go so that there always is a positive result, not a result that says, “Oh, that campaign just didn’t work.” I can’t believe we still use that language in business today!

DL: Right, as if a campaign or an experience is a success or a failure — only if it meets your hypothesis. And the learnings aren’t a factor or don’t have anything to do with it at all.

MJ: Right and it’s frustrating for me because I feel like we often lose business or can’t grab the business because there’s a sentiment that we already have someone doing that work. But when you dig into what that work is, you see that there actually isn’t a lot of that stuff that we’re really talking about. They say they do that, it’s on their decks, and it’s on their site. But — and I don’t know if it’s a failure of the brand or a failure of the agency. I’m not sure where it happens. But there is a vast majority of very powerful brands really not doing enough.

DL: Do you think the problem is that optimization is seen as a discipline or a branch of marketing instead of just a mindset?

MJ: Yeah. One of my close friends is Bryan Eisenberg, who I really believe is one of the forefathers of this optimization space. He’s written books about it, “Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?” and intent and scent and all that.

My relationship with Bryan is going on for close to 20 years at this point. And he would often say things like, “You know, here we are talking about all this stuff. And the first thing a brand will cut on a budget is the optimization. Hands down.

And it’s mind-numbing and it’s mind-blowing to both of us — and years later it still remains the same — because that’s actually where you make money. And I don’t know why brands, agencies don’t get it. I don’t get how they don’t get it.

DL: Can you talk about the role content played in getting Twist on the map? I imagine that your book and your blog and your podcast were all part of ultimately attracting the attention of WPP and making that acquisition happen.

MJ: It’s a yes and no story.

It’s a yes story in the sense that it’s very interesting when they’re doing financial and product assessments to see an agency that has been so consistent for a decade. Creating the blog, the podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, that lead to 50-60 paid speaking events a year. That lead to two best selling books — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but represented by a major New York literary agent, onto a major — largest book publisher in the world, onto the global deal. And other things that come from media appearances and stuff like that.

DL: Yeah, I think that from my perspective, Twist Image and Mitch Joel were kind of one and the same.

MJ: Totally. And we built it that way. We always saw from day one, back in 2003ish, when we started the blog, that Twist Image (at the time — now Mirum) would be managing three brands:

  1. that Mirum brand,
  2. Six Pixels of Separation (which we sort of considered the sort of “content engine” — so blog, podcast, articles, speaking, books)
  3. and then Mitch Joel, this media face. This warm, hopefully friendly and personable face to an agency, which again, now seems very obvious.

But if you go back 10+ years, nobody was really doing that. They didn’t really have that. So the fact that we were sharing content, having conversations with people who just didn’t have a voice before — you know, we were having hour-long conversations with business or marketing thought leaders. That you didn’t get an hour with. You’d be lucky if you had one famous enough to get 10 minutes on Charlie Rose. Suddenly, someone is spending an hour with them, having a conversation like they would over a coffee, and publishing it to the world.

There were these assets there that were built over time, and again, I do know that when it came to the opportunity for us to be acquired, one of the metrics was the fact that there is revenue generation that comes out of the content engine. That doesn’t just create media attention and a level of fame, whatever that might be. But that there actually was revenue behind this thing. And that was very surprising and shocking to them.

DL: Meaning what? It gets clients in the door?

MJ: I mean, yeah, think about it. You pitch for business development, you spend weeks, months pitching. And business development is a cost center. It costs every agency a lot of money to business develop. You don’t win every pitch. It’s a very small percentage. And you hope that the ones you win make up for all the money you spent. When you’re offsetting that cost with speaking gigs, book deals, article writing and stuff like that, it’s really interesting that you’re creating this voice and building a platform and it actually is driving business, it’s driving revenue — both in terms of client and raw revenue. We get dollars to speak and write books. It’s not vanity.

It was always about creating equity in the brand, that would have one of two roles. That one day, we would be acquired. Or if we’re never acquired, we’re running this business in a way where all of the top players would want to acquire it. And there would be extreme value in the brand.

I like building businesses that build equity as they grow. And this channel of speaking, writing, etc — it wasn’t a core component of what we were acquired for, but it was definitely on the list.

DL: It reminds me of the Rolling Stones model, where you’re the front man, but ultimately, you share those profits evenly. I know they’ve credited that for their longevity as a band. It sounds like the same thing for the longevity of Twist, and now Mirum.

MJ: Yeah, and I try to not have it be ego-driven. I look at it like — my job, as a media entity, is to be extremely personable. And to know that I’m managing Mirum, Six Pixels and Mitch Joel. And I conduct myself accordingly. If you look me up on Facebook, there isn’t a ton of personal stuff. There’s a ton of personable stuff.

DL: If you had to give agencies who are looking to set themselves apart from the crowd and spur growth for both their clients and their own business one piece of advice, what would it be?

MJ: I really think it is much like a great book. A great book works not because the topic is unique. I feel like more often than not you’re reading a topic that somebody else covered in one shape or form.

It’s the voice. I don’t see that much in terms of agencies having that unique voice. Do I think we achieved it? Partially. And I think it’s because it’s a journey — you’re constantly changing it, moving it along. But if I were to go across — and we did this exercise when we were trying to figure out the branding for Mirum, Twist Image — I would jokingly tell people, “You could take the website of all our biggest competitors, take off the logos, throw them in the air, and whatever website they fall on, you’d still be pretty much right.” The services, types of case studies, type of work we do. And still to this day, I think that story rings true.

The ones that stand out, though, are the ones that have a unique voice. It could be a unique individual — I’m thinking of people like Bob Greenberg at R/GA. It could just be a unique story to tell. So if you look at an agency like WK, the fact that they’ve been large and independent, the type of work that they’ve done it’s like the voice of the agency is the work that they do. That type of thing is the only component of your business that you can have that is the defendable against a competitor. It’s how you express yourself, tell your stories, the type of team members you bring in, the type of work that you do, the stories you tell in the marketplace, where you network, what you attend. That’s the big one.

The secondary one is get involved in your industry. What  drove this business at Mirum was the fact that we got involved in places like Shop.org, the National Retail Federation, Canadian Marketing Association, Interactive Advertising — I could go on and on. And we didn’t just join and become members. We got involved. In fact, we just had a conversation at lunch about an association that I’m super interested in. And the answer we all came to was: “Not unless we can get deeply involved.” So, what you find out is that by giving (because you love this industry and you want it to be better), you do wind up in some way receiving. We don’t get involved to get results. By getting involved and being active, it just happens.

DL: Well Mitch, it’s always a real treat to talk shop with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MJ: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to more interviews with digital marketing experts on iTunes.

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Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Should Care About Finding Their Unique Voice [INTERVIEW]