Listen up! It’s WTF Makes You Tick time, and this week we’re back to a good one.
Read all of our chat with Ryan Stewart, founder of marketing solutions brand Webris from April 2016. He discusses the ethics of black hat SEO, the do’s and don’ts of outreach marketing, and building a team that works. Is this all still relevant two years later?
April 2016 – WHAT THE F**K MAKES YOU TICK? WITH RYAN STEWART
For our fourth week in our What the F*ck Makes You Tick series, I had the pleasure of interviewing a pioneer of the Outreach Marketing industry, Ryan Stewart from Webris. During our conversation, it became evident to me that we both have very similar and interesting insights about a lot that happens in the online marketing world.
Getting into the nitty-gritty of many interesting and under-discussed topics, like the importance of hiring the right people and brand growth, we share many moments of annoyance, agreement, and clarity about our industry that many of you are going to relate to. From content relevance to the awkward debate between black and white hat SEO, Ryan and I bare all in probably one of the rawest interviews in this series.
I can’t wait to hear what all of you think about this!
John: I’ve been following your content for quite a while now, and as I’m sure, you now have many of our readers. The growth you have gone through in the last 12 months has been phenomenal, especially considering that, in my opinion, you’ve probably done most of that with outreach marketing. Do you think this a sustainable model going forward for the next 12 months?
Ryan Stewart: So, I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you’re looking at it from outreach for your own business or outreach to use as a client technique?
J: Ideally, to deliver results for your clients.
R: Yeah, so everything that we do is actually outreach these days. I have used PBN links, it’s like quitting drugs man. I just went cold turkey. I haven’t used a PBN link in a very long time, over probably 8 months now. I have used to use PBN links for clients, and have about 20 clients on a retainer, right now. We’re now doing outreach for all of them, so it’s extremely scalable. It’s very doable for agencies of all sizes and the thing is, you just have to be built for it, and you have to be prepared for it.
It’s more of a strategy, a process, and just really attention to detail and execution more than anything else, and a commitment to doing that.
The biggest knocks, I think, on doing outreach is that;
Number one, it’s not scalable;
Number two, it’s too time consuming;
And number three, you can’t do it for certain small budget clients, but it’s really not the case at all. Actually, when you’re getting into PBN type stuff, you know there are so many costs that you don’t always consider, especially if you’re just getting started.
I mean, we’re talking about hosting. We’re talking about cost of content, even just the investment of your time, or somebody else’s time to set up the PBNs – all that stuff is extremely costly. I know people think that it’s cheaper, but it’s really not. I mean, I get my outreach done, I built my team to do it. I’m saving more than 50% on the cost that I was paying for links beforehand. And this way, you know you’re doing it the right way, and you know it works better in the long term and you can build a business on that. You can build a true company/brand on these methods.
But I think there’s really two types of SEOs. There’s people that want to build a business and an agency, and there’s people that want to make money. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, but your actions ultimately reflect that. I think that a lot of people who got into it to make money realised that, “Shit, I can actually make this into a real agency and a long term thing for the rest of my life”, but you’ve gotta use a sustainable method in terms of doing right by your clients and the only real way to do that is by not cutting corners and really doing things the right way, in my opinion.
J: I’m completely with you here. I think that you already touched there on the pain point with what you do, which is the fact that the majority of people who are in the industry haven’t put in the thinking that you have, to institutionalise what you’re doing. That’s what’s costing them the time and the money, right? So, looking at the content that you put out and the videos that you put out to people who want to be doing what you’re doing, you talk a lot about value. Do you think that people who are trying to imitate what you’re doing are still not quite getting what you mean when you say value?
R: Yeah, there’s actually a great article written by Eric Enge on Moz the other day. I don’t really read a lot of content, but I was on my Twitter feed, and ended up clicking on it. It was called The Need to Become a 10X Brand. Basically, what he talked about was about how everyone, like a year ago, when I started doing content marketing heavily, everyone knew about content marketing, but it was just kind of like a side tactic; now it’s not even a debate anymore, everyone is doing content marketing.
Even the blackest of the black at SEO, do content marketing in some form. Look at Charles. Charles is a die-hard black hat SEO, but he’s been content marketing too. Which is really why he’s had so much success, because of the content he’s created. So, he never spoke about it from a content marketing point-of-view, but he will not deny the fact that content is the biggest money maker for what he’s done. So, it’s really now permeated down to everybody, even small businesses. If you have any local clients, even they’re like, “Oh, I need to create content.”
So, what’s happened is that we are now creating more content that gets published every 24 hours; this is an incredible stat that I saw. More content gets published on the web now in 24 hours; that includes status updates; that includes blog posts; it includes everything – in 24 hours – than in the past 200,000 years. Yeah, it’s crazy right! That’s how much content is being published every 24 hours. It’s an incredible f****ing stat if you really think about that!
So, what’s happened now, is when I talk about value, there’s so much noise now with content. Everyone’s creating content now. So the only way to stand out, (and this is just circling back to what they talked about in that Moz article) was not becoming a brand anymore? It’s becoming ten times that brand. You have to be so much better than your competitors, because everyone is starting to do these things. There’s so much noise, I mean, the only way to really break through, is by providing more value to your potential customers and to your audience. So, it’s almost an even playing field.
So, because everyone is now creating content, the good news is the crap content won’t get seen anymore. But if you really want to get seen, you have to be providing some sort of value. That value is going to come in some form of content. It doesn’t have to be a blog post, you could just f****ing crush it on social media, right? That’s another misconception about content is people are like, “Oh I don’t want a blog. I’m not a good writer.” It doesn’t have to be writing, it could be anything. You could just get in front of a camera and start talking, but if you’re spitting incredible knowledge, you’re doing it consistently, and you’re doing a good job of promoting it to the right people, then that’s content marketing, right? Even if you’re doing it, like you look at these stupid accounts on Instagram that crush it; it’s still a form of content. So, it’s about value. There’s no way around it, even if you’re doing things the black hat way, you still have to provide some sort of value, otherwise people are just going to go elsewhere.
J: I completely understand and absolutely agree with that. I think that one of the things that holds a lot of people back when starting to do this for clients is understanding how to find the story to tell, whether they’re talking online on social media, creating video content, or blogs. When you’re talking about your own brand, it’s very easy because, I would hope that you’re very passionate about your own brand, and you’re very embedded in it. If you’re having to talk about a plumber that operates in some city and you’re trying to create a story that can get them featured in wherever, then I think the thing that holds a lot of people back, is the creativity of trying to find a story to tell.
R: Yeah. It’s hard.
J: Yeah, for sure. Now, what I’d like to know is, coming back to the way that you run things. You obviously produce content yourself, as well as your team. You go and give talks. You deal with clients yourself, as well, I presume. And you have to manage your team. How do you manage your time, especially considering that you’ve been doing this so much over the last 12 months?
R: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m not going to give you that typical ‘I work my ass off’ response, because I think anyone that’s successful does. But one of the things that I’ve known about myself, is the ability to just work very very fast. I work incredibly fast. I can write (if I’m in the zone) a top notch 2000-word blog post, in about an hour and a half. That post that I wrote for Moz, that went incredibly viral, I wrote it in like 25 minutes. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but some people are really good at certain things. I have the ability to be super productive and also I’m incredibly detail-oriented and organised.
If you were to look at our back-end and look at the detailed processes and the videos that I built, the project management tactics that I use, it’s not about the tools that you use. I just use Google Sheets, but I’m very, very detail-oriented to make sure that my team is: number one; trained, they know what to do; number two: everyday, especially dealing with outsourcers or freelancers, you wanna make sure you’re really getting your money’s worth by giving them the right tasks and then doing it in the right order.
Most of my time is actually spent either delegating tasks or building out strategies or plans. And I think, just to back up even one more step, I think the place where most people fail, either not hitting their needed productivity or not having the time to create content, is not creating a strategy up front. It’s something that I do not think ever gets talked about in SEO. But having an SEO strategy, even before you have a project plan or even a process, build a strategy. I mean, knowing how to attack everything that you do and actually writing it down.
Every month, I’m on month-to-month for link building for a lot of clients. Every single month, after they pay the invoice, I literally sit down and I write down exactly what we’re doing that month: down to the week, down to the day, down to who’s going to be doing it. So, after that, it’s just a matter of putting it in a spreadsheet, and then commenting and tagging people, sending them an email saying, “Hey, you got to do this here. Make sure you stay on top of it.” And from there, I can kind of eject myself from the situation. But it takes me a good two to three hours up front to build that strategy. So, I mean, number one, I prioritise the things that I need to do and that need to be done; and number two, I strategize. I build a plan; I stay organised. I make sure that I have the people to do it. I don’t have a huge team. I only have one full time person that’s to be local and two full time people that are contractors and then just your typical team of freelancers and contractors.
J: Yeah. And just to touch on that, the new Webris website looks amazing.
R: I’m redesigning the whole thing. I don’t like it. I threw up some pages in the meantime. My developer is really backed-up with client work right now. I’m adding a lot of custom video to it. I’m trying to give it a different feel.
J: I think that you really touched a nerve there with a lot of people. I’m exactly like you. I would rather spend the first four days of a month planning stuff down to a T, and then know that for the rest of the month, I can be dedicated towards the brand, the team, training people, etc.
I think that you can even go a step further and say that it helps if you have the data to support your team whenever they get a task. If you’re working without sources and don’t have tutorials or templates done for them to do their work, then you are going to have a huge workload right when you start your project. You’re going to go straight into having to do that, but if you already done all of your homework on it, it actually becomes a really streamlined process. I think a lot of people get really overwhelmed, and overthink it.
R: Yeah, I’ve been through this dance a couple times. I was partnered with this agency about two and a half years ago, that we were doing really well and ended up falling through the partnership wise. But going through that process, I’m just somebody that learns incredibly fast. Probably my biggest strength is that I learn incredibly fast, and I never make the same mistakes twice. Never happens. Being able to learn from my past mistakes and understanding that, I started it only a year ago. That’s crazy actually, when I really think about it. And it was just a sh*tty little blog that I just started putting up content, but I didn’t start taking on clients full-time until about 6 months ago.
In the back of my mind, what I was doing was debating whether I wanted to stay as a consultant doing very well or taking on the whole agency role (hiring people, and stuff like that) because I could do it. The demand was there. I just didn’t want to. When I decided that I wanted to go down the agency route and really build something bigger than me.
The first thing I did was building out processes. That was the first f***ing thing that I did. And it sucked. I mean, two months sitting in front of a freaking screencast, showing how to literally, like “this is a Google plus business page”. Literally step-by-step video series that I could give to anybody a little bit of knowledge like, “Here go watch these, and go do it”. When you have that, it also mitigates the huge thing a lot of people have, which is the huge turnover of outsources and freelancers. That was the biggest thing that actually drove me to hire someone locally. It’s more expensive, but you have to have somebody there all the time. You can train them a lot better, and you know they’re not going anywhere, whereas if you’re working with somebody in the Philippines, who is $4 an hour does really good work, then all of the sudden they stop answering your messages (which happens) you’ve got that training already built out.
From my old school consulting days to my corporate consulting, I knew that that was one of the biggest things that actually kills brands, too. It’s when employees leave with that knowledge in their head, and then you have an 8-month period when nothing is getting done, because that knowledge walked out the door.
J: I hear you. I mean, we have a lot of staff in our offices in Asia, and the first issue was exactly the thing you spoke about, which is the high turnover of staff. Especially, if they are remote staff that work on their own. So, that was the first thing that we needed to erase, so what we did was get an office. We have an office manager that is purely dedicated to looking after the staff and making sure they’re happy and turning up to work. And then the second thing was to really institutionalise the process that every staff member goes through from the day that they join until the day that they leave, and making sure that we don’t have to go in and train them every time that we want them to do something new. So, I do agree with that.
R: Its incredibly painful and boring stuff, even to talk about. I think that’s why nobody is blogging about it. Honestly, and it’s just crazy. Whoever listens to me, I talk about this now. But as your business grows, it’s crazy how the things that you almost care about shift.
I mean, four months ago, I was always looking for new SEO tactics. What’s happening with algorithms? Stuff like that. And now, like, how the f*ck do I hire better people. That was stuff that I’m reading. But, seriously, it’s crazy the type of stuff that you just don’t care about. But now that, again I have somebody in-house full time and I hire for very specific things, I’m realising that hiring is an incredibly important thing that I did not pay enough attention to before.
And now, in my arrogance, I was thinking, “Oh, I’m looking for this, and I can just train them on everything else”. Personality types play a huge factor in who you hire. I mean, it’s crazy because I think, as entrepreneurs and business owners, we all think that, in our mind, everyone has the same mentality as us. They wanna work. They wanna learn. At the end of the day, we’re all motivated by different things. If you can’t tap in to what motivates your people and figure out a way to get the most out of them, then you’re going to be spending a lot more of your time, cleaning up after them, and you’re even worse than you were before because you’re also spending money on that person too. It’s just crazy how things change, and if anyone’s listening to this and they’re planning on growing, focus on processes and think about the type of people that you want to help you build your brand, because it’s incredibly important. It’s not talked about enough.
J: I agree. I think that’s something, as we’ve scaled over the last year, we’ve noticed very much, exactly as you said; you and I might have a very driven personality because we’re trying to grow what we’re doing that we’re very passionate about, but there might be somebody who’s an expert at what they’re doing, but that doesn’t have that same drive. So you need to find out what motivates them to make them use their expert knowledge. So, I agree.
Now, I just have two more questions. The first of which, something that I’m sure you’re gonna like.
So marketers (in my opinion) spend too much time worrying about whether what they’re doing is considered white hat or black hat, and I think that this debate in the marketing world actually takes away sustainable results from customers, because people are spending too much time trying to find the next quick win, rather than trying to do something that is proven and sustainable. And then optimising that, which is what I would see the black hat side comes in, and optimising that process so much that you can repeat it and scale it.
R: Sure. Was that a question?
J: I think that we’re obviously in a bunch of social groups together that discuss white hat and black hat methods, as well as your own group digital marketing questions. I just think it’s really interesting to see what people are actually looking for and how you’ll find some people that will spend their year trying to find a way to make quick money, while the other people are making money by just doing the work.
R: Well, here’s the thing. First of all, I see both sides of the coin, and while I do everything white hat now, that doesn’t mean that I try not to condescend the black hat way because 95% of black hats are just starting out. They’re just trying to make ends meet. And it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to make money online, or any business, so it’s really hard. So I don’t fault them for doing it.
I think when people start to get white hat is when they have success with black hat. I’m talking client SEO now. If you’re doing client SEO, you’re using PBN as the link, and you’re growing, you’re getting good results. I think in the back of everyone’s mind, they’re thinking, “This isn’t a sustainable model. I need to make the shift, but how do I do that, because things are going really, really well right now. I don’t wanna change my processes. I’m making good money.” So, it’S tough. Again, I don’t have any problem with how you’re doing things, I just think it’s incredibly irresponsible that you take people’s money knowingly cutting corners. That’s just my opinion. That’s my two cents.
As a business owner, if I were to be paying somebody, we’re looking at $550 a month, which is nothing in terms of client retainer, but if I’m paying somebody 500 bucks a month for a service, it’s a good amount of money. That’s not even talking about the 5 or 10 thousand retainers that some of these people are one. If you’re knowingly doing things that could penalise my business or hurt my website, like if you got my website deindexed from search, I would f**king kill you. I would show up at your doorstep, and cut your f**king balls off to tell you honestly. Everybody feels that way too, so I don’t understand the mindset of trying to build a legitimate, reputable business by doing something that could get you sued, like literally sued.
So, again, that’s just my two cents on it. I’m not saying anything bad about the people that do it, because I get it. I was there too. But I took the time to figure it out. I think that the agencies that make it to the next level, that’s what they do. I think, especially in the next two years, as SEO continues to evolve like a rocket, and once this new Type One algorithm rolls out, we might be talking a different bargain here. Honestly, we might be seeing a true end of black/gray hat SEO if Google really figures things out. That’s a rolling update too, that’s constantly live. So we might be seeing a completely different game, but we say that with every update. But still we could be seeing a lot of people’s businesses just fall to ashes because of the things they did in the past.
Again, I have nothing wrong with it. I have nothing wrong with black hat SEO if you’re not doing it for clients, because it’s almost fun. I see a tremendous amount of value in doing it. I have no issues with it, like affiliate they’re trying to burn, that’s fucking awesome. You do you. But I think that as a business owner, just putting myself in my own shoes, if I were to pay a vendor to do a service and all of the sudden they got my website penalised, and then I never heard from them again, which is what happens, you would be feeling my f**king wrath big time.
J: I’m with you there. I think feel exactly the same way about that, and at the end of the day, like you said, black hat SEO and PBNs are fantastic if you’re doing churn. They’re fantastic if you’re building lead-gen sites out, where the client is paying you purely for the results. Once your leads stop coming, they stop paying you. It’s of no concern to them if your site goes down. I think that with PBNs and any ‘black hat’ methods, as long as you don’t risk someone else’s work that is paying for your services, you are completely right to use them.
Well, just to wrap this up, what I’m trying to get from everybody is, for somebody that is starting out that wants to start something in 2016, working with clients and trying to grow their reputation and authority, what do you think should be their number one step, other than building out processes, which we’ve already spoken about?
R: I would say you really are, at the end of the day, your best salesman. Certainly, your work speaks volumes. Your work speaks volumes about what you can do. It’s your absolute best asset, so even if you have one client, I mean go out and find one client.
If you’re starting from the bottom, if you’re just getting started, you really want to build an agency. Take that one client at whatever they’re willing to pay you and do a really good job. If that means taking a really huge loss because you’re working 24 hours a day just to get them ranking results, do it. Just get it done. Find a way to get it done. Then build on that. Make it into a case study. Ask them to do a testimony. Ask them for referrals. Ask them if they have any other work. Upsell them a website. Stuff like that. I mean, honestly, client acquisition nowadays with how in demand our services are should be the absolute least of your worries. If you’re sitting there with no clients, it’s gotta be your own fault. It really is, because there’s so much ridiculous demand.
I mean, the one thing that I have really focused on doing, which again, I do not think any SEOs talk about, is building a brand, period. I think, again, I’m not talking about BestBuy. I’m talking about finding something and doing it. Finding you and doing it to the best of your ability, and telling the entire word about it. That’s not saying, “Hey, hey, hey. Look at me. I’m the best. I can rank whatever.” It’s by, again, providing value over and over and over again. I’d take a tremendous amount of pride in the work that you provide and the service you provide to clients, because it’s your best comment card, man.
Start where you can. If someone can only pay you $100 a month, or do it for free, especially if you’re doing that sort of a white hat way, there are absolutely no costs. That’s the greatest part about that, being you could do the outreach, or you could find opportunities. Find 10 guest post opportunities, send 10 emails, and write 10 articles. You can do it. It’s not that hard. You just have to put in the work. You can rank whatever local website you want by just doing that. Once you do that, you can build on it. Again, take that and put it on your f**king homepage. That’s all that you have. Put that on your homepage, front and centre. Let your work speak for you, because, at the end of the day, results sell themselves and just use that client in as many ways possible.
J: Yeah, I’m right there with you. I think that building a brand and no matter if the brand is a company brand or if the brand is yourself, it is exactly the way to go.