Carter and Cameron, Partners at Creative Cave, come on the show to discuss paid ads and how they fit into their agency’s overall inbound strategy for clients. They discuss why agencies shouldn’t see paid ads and inbound as two competing channels—instead, view paid ads as a powerful channel for inbound ROI.
Hi folks. My name is Kevin Dunn, and Welcome to Agency Unfiltered. A bi-weekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners around agency operations, growth, and scale. Nobody knows how to scale agencies better than those that are already doing it and they're happy to share an unfiltered look into what has worked and what hasn't. Today, we're joined by Carter Severns and Cameron Taggart partners at Creative Cave. While some folks view paid ads and inbound as competing channels. These two see it as fuel to the inbound fire. Throw wood on the fire, drive traffic to high value content offers, and see quicker ROI with paid ads. Another episode of Agency Unfiltered begins now.
KD: Welcome guys to Agency Unfiltered. We are absolutely delighted to have you here. I think this is going to be a fun topic to dig into. It sounds from your perspective, paid ad strategy fits in really well with traditional inbound campaign. Maybe the perception is that they're usually mutually exclusive. But it sounds like you guys think otherwise.
CS: I think for us it's something that we kind of fell into given our backgrounds and as an agency what we do but it's really just, it's been a really nice marriage to kind of see how the two work together and like you mentioned it’s often thought of as maybe two separate camps or maybe even two competing channels if you will. What we found is that when you can kind of leverage the two together in the right balance it can be really powerful for what you're doing from an inbound perspective.
KD: That's great. So from an inbound perspective an inbound campaign where does that paid-ad strategy fit into the larger picture?
CS: Every client or every engagement that we get into can have really different goals right? So you could be dealing with a lot of different decision makers and a lot of different, you know, chefs in the kitchen as they call it. So a lot of times what we'll see is someone maybe up in the C Suite, maybe not on the marketing team, but they're really focused on ROI and the dollars and the numbers and the spreadsheet right. So for every dollar I spend what's my clicks, impressions, leads, all that. And then there is also the marketing side where they typically have a good understanding of a long term inbound strategy and how that can benefit you overtime as you can kind of build up that engine. So like I said, each client kind of has a different perspective or priorities and what we found is a lot of times if we can kind of keep both sides happy via paid, for that side that's really concerned about I need ROI quickly as well as getting that inbound engine going in the background for that marketing team, if we can kind of marry those two together, that can help keep both companies and both parties happy.
KD: That's great. So there's a contrast where it sounds like what you said inbound is a long term investment, but having a nice paid-ad strategy upfront can get you some of that quick return that quick ROI. So if we want to make that happen, what are the targeting strategies, the networks, like how do you guys build out those campaigns to be the most effective for your clients?
CS: Just to take a quick step back I want to give a, it's kind of a metaphor if you will, that we kind of, that we use.
KD: I'm a big fan of metaphors so I'm all in on this.
CS: Yeah, this is another one that really, you know, as we started talking through this and kind of telling the story, it started to click in my head like, talking about paid media being the fuel to your inbound fire. And a simple like, campfire metaphor if you will, it's like, if you're trying to be as hot as possible for thirty minutes then throw all the wood on the fire right. Put all that paid media budget into it immediately. If you have no long term expectations, you don't care what happens six to eight months down the road. If you're trying to have a sustainable balance of the two do you want to keep feeding that fire a little bit at a time to keep you warm throughout the entire night. So as you continue to put that fire or that paid media into your inbound campaign, you'll continue to see that fire grow and probably at a quicker rate than were you just to leave it by itself. Like a, an inbound campaign will start to drive that traffic you'll start to see that those organic results coming through, but without adding that fire to it, it's just going to take longer.
KD: So ads then is the logs to keep your fire burning.
CS: To keep the fire burning or make it burn faster, hotter.
KD: And so is it, PPC on Google? Is it Facebook, Linkedin? Where do you tend to put most of your effort, time, resources, bandwidth? What networks do you find to be the most impact for your inbound clients?
CS: Yes so to use the typical marketing cop-out: it depends on your goals. But really, that holds true right? So obviously we're a very B2B focused agency so LinkedIn is the natural choice there and that's where we see a ton of success for clients as far as leveraging content to drive leads right. But there's also other avenues that we can use when you think about, you know, bottom-of-the-funnel type conversion activities or people searching for very bottom-of-the-funnel type terms and that's where Google-Ads makes the most sense. And the other third one that's in the party there is definitely Facebook. We consider that more of a distribution channel, or an opportunity to test with an audience to see if a piece of content is really going to resonate.
CT: And definitely more awareness.
CS: Yeah it's more of an awareness type, more usually for blogs or big announcements, or kind of PR type things that we use—just because the cost-per-click is so much lower, your distribution is a little bit easier. If you're going to pay $15, $25 dollars for a click on LinkedIn you really want to be seeing a better result for that or actual conversion that's happening.
CT: Yeah, just on page search, I mean I think at the end of the day, you know, the way that people use page search, a lot of it has to do with like buying intent right? Like I'm going in to pay, to Google, and I'm typing in what I want to buy and then, yeah you can send them to a landing page and hopefully get that quick conversion. And that makes all the sense in the world. But sometimes, you know, it also makes sense to promote your content on page search. We have a client who works with a lot of companies who are about to go through an IPO, right? And so on LinkedIn or on Facebook there's no box that you can check that says, "I'm about to go through IPO!", right? And so Google's great for that because you're telling me kind of what you're searching for. Now, not everybody's going to search for pre-IPO Consulting firm, pre-IPO Accounting help right? But they're going to search for particular topics around pre-IPO. I won't get into any boring accounting topics, but when they search for those types of topics, we've created pieces of content for those various topics, and they're gated. So when somebody searches that, I can put that gated pre-IPO timeline in front of you and yes, it's not somebody coming to me and saying, "I want to buy it now," or "I need some consulting help.". But the dollar size of a deal with that type of client is so huge that I'm okay with some lower close-rates on that group of leads, because the dollar size so high.
KD: Now so it sounds like people aren't thinking about Google and adwords as a channel for driving content leads, but you're saying that there's very much an opportunity to do so.
CT: Yeah, definitely. And I think the other side of that too is you know, somebody goes to Google and does type in “pre-IPO accounting consulting group.” But more about the bottom-of-the-funnel, I want to buy now type of situation. Great, you've got him a landing page. You go to a sales meeting, and they don't close, right? We've all, we've all been down that path before. So what do you do next? Well it's the same nurture, inbound contents in the, further down the funnel concept, right? So thinking about page search within that lens of an inbound strategy makes all the sense in the world because at that point, after it doesn't close for whatever reason, you know, send them into an automated workflow where you trickle out the exact same content that you would to somebody who downloaded an ebook, right? So just think, it's not anything, you know, evolutionary it's just kind of changing your mind-set and thinking about these page search channels within that Inbound, strategy wise.
KD: Just because you came in through, like a paid ad, doesn't mean you have to be an immediate close, there's an opportunity to nurture those leads just like anybody else in your database, your pipeline on the Internet.
CT: Absolutely. And coming from sales myself, I will say that as soon as that person tells you no, that person, they disappear in your CRM, right? Sales guys get busy, there's other people that are more priority right? And so just ensuring you automate some of that on the backend, just make sure that they continue to get that type of content. Yes, signing them up for a newsletter is great. But if I know that you are interested in a pre-IPO, and that maybe isn't happening for a year or so, I can just trickle out similar topic around that for the next year.
KD: Oh, that's right, so you'll have to be able to categorize those leads appropriately. Like, we know exactly what they were in the market for, so have them on those necessary lists. You know, nurture campaigns and what have you.
CS: Yeah and then the reason that makes sense, for us specifically, is like I mentioned, we're mostly B2B so that sale cycle can be so much more complicated. It can be so much more a long-term. There's a lot more evaluation, it's a big purchase right? So there's always a lot of different factors involved and timing is always a big one of them. "We're not getting funding until next quarter.", or "We already spent our budget this quarter, "on something else.", or "We're still waiting to onboard the team member who's "going to run this platform.". Like whatever those different situations are, that just because they searched that bottom-of-the-funnel term, came through the site, became a contact that was looking like a, "Okay, let's get into contract negotiation stuff."there's always things that can happen that can slow that down, especially in B2B, so all the things that we just talked about are really important to continue to nurture that lead, regardless of, you know, when it's going to be right for them.
KD: Slight pivot here in topic, but how do you guys handle the billing and invoicing for your clients around paid ads? I think there's a number of different ways to do it. I've seen percentage of spend, I've seen flat-fees, do you guys take margins off the, you know, whatever it is. How do you guys bill, invoice, handle the finances with paid ads? You know, did you test and try different things along the way? I'd just be interested to hear that journey.
CS: Yeah for sure so I think like most agencies we tried a lot of different structures. There's a lot of different things that have worked or haven't worked for various number of reasons. And for us, it's continuing to evolve and see what works. And we'll go back to kind of each engagement or each situation is different right. So we kind of build differently by platform. Typically Facebook and LinkedIn are very similar, we'll typically have a flat-rate fee that covers all of our management of the campaign, optimizations, and reporting. And that also is usually limited to, up to a certain number of ads in a given month. So it's kind of a way that we can regulate the amount of hours we're putting into a given campaign. That's kind of Facebook and LinkedIn, and Google Ads is what you meant. We do a flat-rate fee, again that covers our optimizations, our reporting, testing, all the things that are going on in the background, and then we'll do a percentage of spend as well. So that's kind of a typical agency structure for billing, for those types of platforms and like I said, we tried different things and it's evolved over time but that's kind of where we've toned down, what makes no sense. They only other, I think, outlier I would say is that we do have a client that is a large retainer for us on the Inbound side as well as, you know, some PR stuff and we're doing video work with them. This is just one of the bigger clients that we work with. And in that situation, you know, they came to us and actually asked to be just on a set, paid media retainer.So that means it includes all of the things that we just talked about in addition to running native advertising or doing some programmatic or whatever word that is. And what we do there is we just track our hours to make sure that we're staying within that retainer each month and making sure that that makes sense.
KD: So I think size plays a part too to make it a habit.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. So it just kind of depends on that certain situation and obviously, that client I was just alluded to Is the one that we've worked with for two or three-years now so it's a great working relationship and it just made sense for both parties to say, "Lets just do a retainer.", and then lets not think about it.
CT: Yeah well I definitely wouldn't that for the new client right? Or like a smaller budget, but after you've established that relationship you understand that you trust each other, you've got long-term contracts in place, we don't want to upset or ruffle any feathers of the client just because, you know. I think in that particular situation they weren't too keen on a percentage-of-spend. Which I can, you know I can understand and they're a company where there's not a whole lot of marketing-minded people so they're not as familiar with that concept, right? And so you know, if we are doing what we're doing and we're estimating hours accordingly, we can get pretty close, you know, using some time tracking tools, stuff like that, like accelo. You know we can get pretty close to however many hours we think it's going to be. And then you know, if you do that, track hours, so when that contract does come back up, make sure that you can, you know, get it right.
KD: Yeah. And it's profitable, for us. I know with the social networks in particular, there is just a whole slew of targeting options, right? The expansiveness of how you can target audiences is just ginormous right? Do you guys, can you guys think of any like, creative or unconventional targeting options, that you put into place, that worked really well for a client?
CS: Honest, I don't know necessarily of anything that's outlandish or strange. You're fairly restricted basically on LinkedIn by what the user gives you, right? So there's a handful of boxes you can check that basically, when they set up their profile, they're giving you that information. One of the biggest values that LinkedIn has is typically, that information is much cleaner, much more accurate, because it's a professional network right?
CT: I would say on LinkedIn, some of the look-alike audiences. That's a new feature that came out this year, being able to upload list. And then I would say in the sales process, for people who aren't really in the trenches with LinkedIn, I mean maybe people here and some of our audiences, may be obvious but being able to tell somebody in the sales process, "How many people are your CRM?", you know, "5,000 or 15,000 people.", whatever it is. Well, we can upload those people on LinkedIn and put ads in front of them all day.
CS: Or upload a list of your best customers right, and then you can ahead, put in URL's, And you can build a look-alike audience based on those emails or URL's or whatever that is. But I think when it comes to targeting and really leading to LinkedIn, because that's where we do our majority of our ads. For our clients B2B, LinkedIn makes more sense. What really works for us and what really sets the foundation of that targeting is having really good buyer persona's. That almost is laying the groundwork, or the framework, for what those audiences are going to look like. There's some very granular things that we do in the background when we manage campaigns that I think is a good advantage for us. But when you have those buyer persona's, or those job titles and their interest, and all those things that you can legitimately target on LinkedIn? That really sets you off for success to build those audiences, but then on the other side of that is, are you creating content that is extremely relevant to that audience. So the more that you can get granular, and I know this is the audience, I know this is what they care about, lets just put it in front of them, that's when you start to see really good results, just really based on holding-on until you're trying to get your profit.
KD: So do you guys consult on the persona development as well, and then do you create the content? Like the offers that you put on those LinkedIn ads?
CT: Yeah definitely it's more preferred, you know cause what we've seen. We have had clients that get these deals with LinkedIn where they kind of get thrown like banner-ads into the package that they buy or whatever, like when they buy recruiting seats or whatever it may be. And those are okay and if you have the budget branding awareness then go for it, makes all the sense in the world, but if you're trying to convert people? What we've seen is that, you know, putting out gated pieces of content, through those sponsored content-ads, is really the best way to go. But to Carter's point, you have to be creating content that's actually interesting to them, and that's kind of where the Inbound, methodology of the inbound strategy comes into play right? If you're just signing up with me to do LinkedIn-ads and I'm not in the trenches with you when it comes to your inbound strategy? I'm not going to be able to make the best recommendation that I can but if I'm learning about your industry, I know your buyer persona's back-to-front, I'm sitting in on those blog calls and those content after calls and we're producing everything, start to finish. It's going to be very easy for me to go to my paid media person and say, "Hey, we're getting a ton of organic traffic, "for this particular topic and it seems to be trending, "towards these two buyer persona's, "lets put some ad dollars to that.", I bet you we'll get higher conversion rates. And then vice-versa, you may have a topic that, or a content off of, for whatever reason, it's maybe just not performing. But you chose that topic because you're talking to a subject matter expert, that is talking to their buyer persona's and saying, "No, people care about this, I promise you.". And then you go and put that on LinkedIn to kind of test the waters and see if they're ripe. You start to see those conversion rates that are higher, then you can come back to the Inbound side and say, "Okay, what do we need to change here for whatever reason, "this isn't performing organically." So these can inform each other, right? And so that's the thing Carter talks about a lot is like, making sure that your Inbound person or your Content person is in close communication with the pay-media team.
CS: Mm-hmm. and it's kind of the reason why we're both here talkin' about it. But, if you got a paid team who's sitting in a separate corner, and isn't communicating with their content team, then this whole thing of layering paid-me to end with inbound? Doesn't happen, it doesn't work. You have to be talking to each other, and what's performing well organically, probably is going to do well in pay. And if you are in-tune with what the market is doing or the industry is talking about and that concept is relevant and you know it? That's where you can take those ad dollars, and throw some fuel under the fire, and get it in front of those eyeballs that we know care about.
CT: Yup and I would say also, you know, going back to the piece that isn't performing as well, organically, but is really well through paid channels, that, often times, there's an education issue right? And so that does kind of, it solves that problem where people don't know where to search for it, but when they see it in front of them, the light bulb goes off, and you're solving that problem for them or you're educating them on this topic that, maybe it's on the back of their mind, they're just not actively searching at that time, and so it kind of does solve that problem.
KD: Once you uncover that, how do you then make changes—or what do you change about the organic side of an inbound campaign to help boost the performance of it on a non-paid side? Any particular strategies?
CT: Yeah, I think it's about zooming out and looking at the larger topic at hand. Maybe I'm focused on a sub-topic, that is maybe just too niche right? I'm going to search engine results page and I'm searching for that, maybe zoomed out, the broader topic right? I'm seeing what people are writing about. And then we're kind of getting into some SCO stuff, but then it's you know, it's looking at, basically, the way google works now is you're searching for a term and it doesn't always necessarily give you the Wikipedia page for that term. It understands that if you are searching for, the example that was brought up the other day was, it was like...aww that's actually kind of gross.
KD: Now I'm interested!
CT: I know right? Well the search was, it was like, how to handle acne or something, something like that.
KD: Oh okay, I thought it was going to be way worse...
CT: Yeah, sorry sorry. So maybe it was something simple as acne right? You're not going to necessarily find a wikipedia page for acne, I mean it's going to be, how do I treat acne, how do I do this, how do I do that. And so it's just looking at the intent of what google think those searchers are looking for, or what the intent of their search is, and then you can kind of reverse engineer that search and general results page. And then make sure that you're covering those sub-topics within your page, whether that's through a pillar page or you know, various blog topics.
CS: And I think the other thing is, if we're not seeing something get the organic reach or the growth that we expected. Or if it's resonating on pay but no one's finding it, it's like, maybe it's buried. Maybe you're not internally linking to it very well. Maybe you're not putting CTA's and other relevant pieces of content to get some more eyeballs on that piece that's not getting that growth or the sessions that you expect. So that's another thing we think about, it's like, okay, are there other places on this site, or other blogs that we've written about that are relevant to this piece that we can start linking to. Or maybe if we can put it into some drip email campaigns because we know it's relevant, it's just not being found organically, for whatever those reasons are.
KD: That makes sense, I mean, and again it just speaks to the value because you know a powerful way to get it in front of the right audience, the right time. So you can supplement, while you're exploring and figuring out the inbound side or the organic side of things, you can still get some eyeballs and ideally some conversions on that content and interim.
CT: Yeah if you can get that data a lot quicker right? You know with inbound and with organic, it could take you months to get the eyeballs on it. Then you need to understand, like, is this success or is this failure. But if we do a test on LinkedIn and nobody downloads it? All right, we learned, let’s move on to the next one. And then you aren't working on this topic for three, six months, then to learn, Oh nobody cares about this, we were wrong.
CS: And really that starts to develop like a feedback loop, right? You can start to see what resonance, what doesn't, on either platform, the organic or paid, and that can really start to form your entire content strategy.
KD: Final question for you. I don't know if I previewed this one, but we asked one of our guests. What is the weirdest part of agency like?
CS: That's tough.
KD: Besides acne ads I guess.
CT: I'd say for me it's like curveball, client prospect meetings. And sometimes you learn about those upfront right, if you go into a pitch meeting or a discovery call and somebody on the phone is kind of looney tunes, is that right? But I would say my favorite is like, when you're not prepared for it or like, you kind of got some rapport, you know, you're meeting with the client there's no real red flags, no curveballs, but then out of left field, something gets said. We've been on calls where, you know, clients get rather heated with each other, that's always interesting. Quirky personalities.
KD: You never know who you're going to get on the phone.
CT: Yeah just think you know, sitting on the other end of the call and you know, laughing with your teammates.
KD: Yeah hopefully on the mute.
CT: Yeah, exactly.
KD: Well thank you guys so much for coming on. It's been an absolute pleasure, so I appreciate you taking some time.
CS: Yeah man appreciate it, thanks for having us.
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