Today’s in-house spotlight is on Shane Vaughan with Balihoo, a startup search engine for the media planning and buying industry. Shane began his search marketing career at Hewlett-Packard and left to join Balihoo in January, 2007. Shane went from a customer acquisition side of marketing to search engine marketing and now leads all of marketing for Balihoo. Now that Shane is over all of marketing for Balihoo, he sees how the skills he developed as a search engine marketer pave the way to success in all aspects of marketing.
Biggest Take-away: If you’re looking to hire a leader for your marketing department, you just may want to consider prospects with search engine marketing under their belt. As Shane says, “Search marketers are building a skill set that allows them to bring precisely the right message to the right person… and then track the response to that message down to an individual level.” At a macro level, this is “the holy grail” of marketing, says Shane.
On to the interview…
Jessica: You came from HP to a startup called Balihoo. What challenges are unique to an in-house search marketer at a startup .com versus a more traditional company?
Shane: Certainly one of the major challenges of in-house search marketing at a .com company versus a larger, more traditional organization is simply that you have fewer resources available. People, dollars and time tend to be spread very thin at a smaller company. I’ve found that it’s much more critical not to just identify opportunities in search marketing, but to be much more diligent in prioritizing those opportunities and setting your company up to pursue the highest-return options and leaving the rest for another time.
The other side of the resources coin however is that it’s much easier and faster to focus your resources in a smaller company. Getting marketing, IT, content development and senior management support of a search marketing initiative within a large organization can often be a long, painful process. However a smaller company can more quickly identify the opportunities and focus all of the resources of an organization to achieve success in that area.
Jessica: The decision to make the switch from an established company to startup is a tough one. What were the key factors you considered and what made you take the leap?
Shane: I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug and always assumed that I would be taking that leap, be it sooner or later. For me, the decision really came down to one major factor: the ability to have a significant impact on the business. In a large company it oftentimes becomes difficult to see your impact on the business because the goals of the organization are simply so large and expansive. At HP, although I might be able to increase online sales 20% through a highly-optimized PPC campaign, it was a struggle to see how that truly impacted the future direction of the company given that those dollars represented just a drop in a very large bucket. Conversely, at Balihoo, when my SEO efforts get us top-ten placement in the engines and we realize the traffic from that placement, it’s practically cause for an office party.
Jessica: I find that at a .com SEO is a large portion of the business model, often making search marketing easier than non web-based businesses. What has your experience been?
Shane: I think that’s very true. I believe that a big reason for this is simply due to the fact that, by nature, individuals within a .com business have a base-level knowledge of SEO and understand its power. When the highest levels of senior management are already so bought into the value of SEO that it’s a part of the business plan, you can be assured that you won’t have to do too much in terms of “sell-in” of your SEO efforts and initiatives.
Another interesting side-note to this point is that when SEO is fundamental to the success of a business, it negates the issues that many in-house search marketers have of “getting their voices heard.” Since its inception, search marketing has always struggled to get a seat at the table with “traditional” marketing vehicles like PR, advertising and direct mail. Nearly every search marketer in a large company has had the experience of finding out about the key marketing strategy meeting that happened yesterday to which they weren’t invited. However, when search marketing is a fundamental part of your business, it’s often the search team that leads that strategy session.
Jessica: You went from a very large, widely known brand to a startup. Can you talk to us about the challenges you faced and the ah-ha moments you will take with you your entire career?
Shane: Shortly after joining Balihoo I attended Ad-Tech in San Francisco which was a major ah-ha for me. As a previous attendee of many Ad-Tech’s representing HP, I was used to putting significant efforts towards “flying under the radar”. I was typically very careful with handing out my business cards lest the overzealous sales folks get a hold of them and see dollar signs flash before their eyes. If there was a particular company or individual that I wanted to meet, simply stating that I led Search Marketing for HP was enough to establish credibility and open doors.
I quickly realized that leading marketing for a pre-launch start-up didn’t carry quite the weight or significance of an HP. It turned out that I had to work hard to get noticed, I had to actively sell myself, my company and our value proposition. To be honest, however, it turns out that I actually like it better that way. I like knowing that any doors that did open for me were based on merit, based on the value our company could provide. It felt good knowing that I wasn’t simply riding on the coattails of a brand name or previous success, but it was up to me to create the opportunities
Jessica: One of the interesting experiences you have had at Balihoo is the opportunity to try out many of the tools out there, something larger companies shy away from. What are your favorite new search marketing toys?
Shane: I was always frustrated at HP because I didn’t have the ability to play with all the new gadgets coming out…our site was simply too big and too established to experiment with. However, now that I can play with those toys I’m astounded not only by the volume of tools available, but also with the sophistication of these tools, many of which are free.
Google Analytics has become a staple for me. I think it’s such a well-designed product that does a fantastic job of allowing me to get to the relevant data to make better business decisions. At HP we used a much more sophisticated web analytics package, however it was so complex (both the software and the site) that it became incredibly cumbersome to pull actionable data off the site.
Additionally, I’ve become a big fan of Google’s landing page optimizer. Again, a very simple product that does an incredibly complex task. The ability to A/B test and run multi-variate testing on an individual page has long been relegated to extremely expensive testing functions (many of which we used at HP). However, this is a free tool that allows you to run simple versions of these tests…it’s an incredibly powerful tool that anyone who is involved in search marketing should be using.
Jessica: Because Balihoo is a startup, you had a great opportunity to have the site designed with search marketing in mind from the very beginning. How did that influence the development?
Shane: There’s no question this was extremely valuable from a search marketing standpoint. I started from scratch…a blank slate…and really that’s a dream for a search marketer. I was able to do my keyword research before anything was even developed. My original outlines for site structure included these keywords and they were fundamental in the development of the site and the content.
My SEO experience has typically been “backward looking” as we took existing sites and existing content and tried to optimize those. The ability to be “forward looking” from a site infrastructure and content development was so refreshing and I believe so much more effective.
Jessica: What advice do you wish you had received before leaving a search marketing position at an established company for a startup?
Shane: One of the things I never did a good job with at HP was building my professional network of associates. In a large company it’s easy to end up in a kind of bubble…a protected world of people that you work with that is somewhat irrelevant to the outside world. Once I moved to a small company, I realized how valuable it is to have a strong network.
Jessica: You oversee all of Balihoo’s marketing initiatives, and currently training the team and passing on your search marketing knowledge. Training a team with zero search experience is a challenge. What are some of your lessons learned? Which aspects are particularly challenging? And to help those training a team right now, which aspects of search marketing to people catch on to fastest?
Shane: No question that it’s a challenge to bring an entire team up to speed on search. The team I’m working with has significant background in advertising and marketing, so I’ve found that the PPC side of search was the easiest and quickest learning curve. That’s where we’ve started and found the most success. I’ve found that SEO is a much more difficult skill to teach. I think the issue here is that SEO is as much of an art as it is a competency, and that’s a challenging aspect to tackle.
We’re using the training courses offered by SEMPO and have found them to be incredibly valuable and a great way to bring our folks up to speed quickly. It’s incredibly valuable to have an on-line course you can run folks through for beginner or advanced training.
Jessica: When we chatted last you talked about how going from a search marketing role to managing all of marketing made you realize that search marketing skills are the foundation by which the next generation of marketers will be successful. Can you expand on that? Can you also talk about how search marketers can use this insight to their advantage?
Shane: I recently wrote a blog post about this about topic. Search marketing is a relatively new tactic that has been added to the arsenal from which marketers can draw to make their businesses successful. The last 5 years have been very “hot” for search marketing and it’s seen a dramatic rise in importance and spend. However, if you take a step back, you realize that what search marketing does really, really well is the exact same thing that marketers have tried to do for the last 100 years: get the right message to the right people at the right time. It just so happens that search marketing is an incredibly effective way to use technology to make that happen.
Search marketers are building a skill set that allows them to bring precisely the right message to the right person…and then track the response to that message down to an individual level. From a macro level, this is really the Holy Grail of marketing and what every other marketing tactic aspires to achieve. I believe that individuals that excel in the principals of search marketing today are building the skill-sets to be the leading marketers of the future. Taking these principals and applying them to all aspects of the marketing mix is an extremely powerful method of looking at marketing as a whole.