Planning for Digital Marketing in 2021, with Leslie Richards, CIO of Furia Rubel Communications
Welcome to Season 2 of On Record PR. In this episode, Gina Rubel, the founder and CEO of Furia Rubel Communications, went on record with Leslie Richards to discuss 2021 digital marketing priorities for professional service firms. Before she began the interview, she thanked the audience for tuning into Season 1.
Gina Rubel: I want to begin today’s episode by thanking each of you, our listeners who have been enjoying the show since it launched just under a year ago, in March of 2020, which seems like a long way away. It’s hard to believe that today marks episode number 50, and I’m just so excited to say that number. I can’t wait for the next 50 and, eventually, perhaps 500.
As we reflect on Season 1, we are honored that so many thought leaders have joined us as guests to share their experiences, knowledge and expertise on strategies that drive business success, professional and personal success. We’ve had some fun conversations with members of the media, professionals in the legal industry, experts, business executives, and athletes.
We thank our guests for sharing their wisdom on a range of important topics, such as business management, leadership, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism as we navigate through the Coronavirus pandemic and so many other timely topics. As we think about Season 2, we remain committed to providing educational and thought-provoking resources to you, our clients, colleagues, and friends.
We always welcome your feedback, including show ideas and guest recommendations. You can contact us at email@example.com.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce my guest, and Furia Rubel’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Leslie Richards.
Leslie Richards: Hi, everyone.
Gina: I want to tell everyone a little bit about you. Leslie joined the Furia Rubel Communications team in November of 2020 and brings digital and technical expertise that will support our agency and our clients. We saw major changes as early as the first two weeks of Leslie’s arrival on the team, and they continue now, as we’re recording and presenting our 50th episode. Rather than discuss Leslie’s bio, I want to focus on information that our clients need. I’ll mention some of the things that Leslie has done and how that ties into our listeners needs as we go along. Leslie, welcome to the show. Let’s dig in.
What changes have you seen in digital marketing in 2020?
The digital environment is where we have been living for the last many months because of the pandemic. It has forced a lot of businesses, and a lot of consumers, to start using digital platforms in ways that they haven’t in the past. It accelerated our adoption of digital spaces. As I review predictions for digital marketing for 2021, the clear consensus that emerges is that digital habits developed during the pandemic are here to stay.
Leslie, you came from a digital marketing agency where you worked for 17 years. Have the challenges changed a bit over time? What are the most common challenges companies face in digital marketing?
Understanding, first of all, that consumers or prospects have already learned a lot about agencies and done a lot of research online before they start an initial conversation. You need to figure out how to be in the right digital space as a prospective client or customer is researching your firm, your company, or your organization. Understanding how to get your messaging on the right platform at the right time, in a way that is most useful to the searcher is key. Ask: How are you going to solve their problem? How do you live in the digital ecosystem where their questions are being asked?
What is the digital ecosystem?
We used to think of a customer journey as a very linear thing. They are aware of your brand. They engage in a piece of content, perhaps a blog, they see a form, they fill out that form and – bingo — you have a new contact who you’re going to market to in the effort to turn them into a business relationship.
What we know now is that the process isn’t linear. People encounter a brand online and go away. They come back to their social media feed, perhaps in a nonbusiness environment, such as when they’re sitting at home relaxing. They see brand reinforcement on social media and perhaps that drives them back to your website. They may engage next by downloading a white paper. They may receive an email as a follow up to the white paper download that leads them back to the site again. There are so many ways that people engage with digital content, which requires brands to think about how they permeate that environment – or digital ecosystem — with the kind of content that is of value to the customers who will be receiving it and engaging with it.
Is digital brand interaction the same for people looking for professional services as it is for those looking for products? Do they also need to understand the brand and have those touch points?
There are some differences between a business-to-business strategy vs. a business-to-consumer strategy. Because everyone spends so much of their time online, particularly now, their expectation when they engage with business-to-business content is that it meets the same performance standards that have been established in the consumer market, which is typically ahead of the business market. Consumers are used to having information come to them quickly. They’re used to interfaces that are frictionless, easy to navigate, and provide a good user experience. The consumer market has worked very hard to create these frictionless, user-friendly environments because revenue generation is dependent on it. As a result, that kind of environment is now the expectation. Even when you’re researching a professional service firm, you want information quickly, you want a good user interface and a good user experience. All these things contribute to a conversion.
In the last 17 years of running a digital agency, what have you learned about the importance of building online relationships that may have happened offline in the past?
You can think of permeating that digital ecosystem as a way of building a relationship. You’re building a relationship with a brand. The more engagement exists with the brand, the greater the trust. The advantage of the digital environment is we can track user behavior to understand exactly how they have engaged with our content. We can find out if they’re engaging with content on a particular subject. We can find out how long they’ve spent watching a video, which pages have been visited, etc. All of this provides a better understanding of their interest or specific need. This gives us the opportunity to respond with information appropriate to that specific user and we now have digital tools that allow us to do this. Personalization tokens in email, or smart content on websites that switches out based on the user are examples of this. There are a lot of tools that now allow organizations to personalize digital content, but to do it at scale.
What kind of websites allow you to switch out content with personalization tokens?
Typically, it’s a marketing automation platform such as HubSpot, or Marketo or Pardot by Salesforce. These are platforms that allow you — once you have acquired an email address for a customer — to start progressively profiling the customer so that you have a stronger understanding of where they fit in terms of your product or service. Then, you can start delivering content to them through email lead nurturing campaigns, and through the website, switching out the content on the page, based on who the user is and the content they have engaged with previously.
Gina: For our listeners, I want to acknowledge that that a lot of what Leslie is talking about may seem very foreign. It is why we have hired our first Chief Innovation Officer. Bringing this dialog to the forefront is important to us and to our clients.
How do companies go about making the content relevant for each target audience?
Here’s where I think Furia Rubel has a real advantage. Making content relevant is a big challenge. For digital marketers, finding how to distribute content is always a big part of the puzzle. Oftentimes it can be the hardest one to solve. Because Furia Rubel’s DNA is public relations, and because the agency has built strong media connections, and because of the understanding of how to watch the media for trends that will emerge and be relevant, Furia Rubel is ahead of the game on content marketing. The agency has the distribution piece figured out. For me, it’s very exciting to join a team with this skill set because things that are important to content absorption in the marketplace are things that Furia Rubel already knows how to do. For example, using social listening to identify something that’s trending on Twitter — somethings that’s important to either a specific client, or a specific area of the law — and then creating relevant content and understanding the media outlets that are going to be interested in that content is very important. Good content distribution strategies involve understanding what’s relevant.
It’s an important skillset for content marketers and that’s one that already exists on this team, which is exciting.
Gina: We’ve always said that it must be relevant and timely if you want to share any story from a PR perspective. I agree with you that the easy part on PR is we find out what’s relevant and then dish that up as you will. We put that on the menu. I always found it kind of quirky in the digital space where you would go to a website and every page would have a subheading named a certain way because they had to have the certain key terms in it. And I think Google has started to pick up on that.
How has content creation for Google changed recently?
What’s happened in search is actually exciting and good news for humans. Google is focused on natural language processing as part of its understanding of content online. If you want to think about how Google functions, think of it more as artificial intelligence, with “search” being just one component of artificial intelligence. As Google becomes more and more sophisticated, it is able to understand the context in which your content exists. It understands not only the page that it’s reading, but all the other pages attached to that page and whether or not the content on that page seems related to the rest of the site. It determines whether or not the website is an authoritative source for the topic.
What makes a web page or content authoritative?
Authoritative as defined by Google is a combination of volume and quality, but also an evaluation of how people are using your content. Are people referring to it? Are sites that are very credible linking back to your content, and are those sites authoritative? For example, something like Wikipedia is a site with a very high domain authority score and Joe’s Garage might have a site with a low domain authority score. If you get a link from Wikipedia that goes back to your website, that’s of much greater value than a link from Joe’s garage going to your website.
Would the same be true if the media links back to your site? Let’s say you get interviewed in your local newspaper and the online article links back to your website, would that provide high domain authority?
Yes, absolutely. Google is going to look at the domain authority of that media outlet, and it’s going to improve its opinion of your content based on the domain authority of the website that is linking back to you.
One of the things that we’ve talked about with clients over the years has been pursuing more relevant, authoritative backlinks. It’s not about having links to wherever, it’s about having links back from those high domain authority sites, correct?
Yes. To be clear, we’re not talking about you linking out to people on your website, we’re talking about other websites that link into your website. For example, .EDU sites typically have a higher domain authority than many other sites. If you are listed in an alumni directory with a link back to your company website, that’s often a valuable back link.
When clients get those emails saying, “I see that you have this blog and I would love to write an article for your website, and then you can link to me,” what should they do? Are these “spammy”?
I think it is worth evaluating the source. There are legitimate reciprocal relationships in linking strategies. If it’s a request from a credible source, and you’re going to be comfortable with their content or vice versa, ask for a backlink in return. However, be aware of sites that are not credible and be aware of sites that seem spammy – sites that might just be farming for backlinks. None of that is going to help you.
What is something that in-house marketers can do to approach SEO in a strategic way in 2021? I’m particularly thinking about professional service firms.
Content marketers will benefit from thinking about topic clusters rather than single pages. We’re no longer thinking about one-off matches to keywords as we may have done five or 10 years ago. Google has gotten much more sophisticated. Google can evaluate the context of the website in which it finds a piece of content.
For example, if you’re an immigration attorney you would start a content strategy by developing a very long page (2,000 words or more) that provides a comprehensive overview of the topic “Immigration Law.” We sometimes refer to this a “pillar page.” Once this page is published, you’ll create other, related pages and create an internal linking structure with pages related to your pillar page.
For example, you might have a blog post that talks about credible fear interviews for asylum seekers. You might have a page about DACA and other protected statuses. You might have another blog post that talks about third-country agreements. You create links that go back and forth between your pillar page and these related pages. You can think of the pillar page as your hub with spokes around it which are your other pieces of content.
This is how you would create a content cluster around immigration law. When Google gets to a page like this, it follows the links as it catalogs the site content. When developed strategically, this content will help establish your site as an authoritative resource on the topic.
Gina: It’s important that people working with website development companies don’t just think about what the site looks like. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and said, “Oh, well, it has too many words on it.” It’s become more and more important to have the right content. You just said 2,000 words for a pillar page.
Leslie: You’re right. We must be focused on the strategic purpose of the website when we’re doing planning and design for websites. We should understand the audience. We should understand how they’re searching, and where the volume is around certain kinds of searches. Then we need to create a site architecture that reflects all of that. A 2,000-word page is a long page. Therefore, it is important to keep user experience in mind because Google is also evaluating that. Do people interact with your page? Do they spend time on your page? Giving people engaging sub-headings, bulleting your copy, or adding calls to action like a contact us button throughout the copy is also important. We don’t want to confront someone with a big wall of text. Add images, add video. Video adds dwell time and Google evaluates dwell time to see how relevant your content is to people.
Does “dwell time” mean the amount of time a web page visitor stays on the page?
Exactly. It’s another indicator of whether your content is meeting the needs of the searcher.
How do you know so much about immigration law?
I am not an attorney. I have been fortunate to be on the ground floor of creating a non-profit legal services organization in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that serves the undocumented population. We provide referrals to attorneys who specialize in immigration law and have a reputation of ethical treatment of their clients. We also provide financial assistance in the form of grants to help people to secure an attorney at the outset of their case.
The organization is Immigrant Rights Action of Doylestown. We are the only group in Central Bucks serving an undocumented community. To date we have assisted in over 91 cases, and we have crowdsourced over $40,000 in legal defense funds.
Earlier you mentioned artificial intelligence, which we know in the industry is AI. For our listeners who don’t know what artificial intelligence is, can you just briefly describe it and why it’s essential to understand it?
Artificial intelligence is many things. In our context it is the ability to automate certain marketing functions based on data sets and information that gets fed to a platform — a piece of software — that helps us improve content delivery. When you think about artificial intelligence, think about things like natural language processing and machine learning — systems that learn over time. These are systems that can extrapolate based on user behavior and evolve the delivery of information based on that understanding.
Kind of like when you’re on Facebook, you’ve been on Google, you’ve searched for XYZ product, and then you go to Facebook and suddenly, all the ads show up for that product?
That’s most likely because something has gotten “cookied” along the way somewhere. But if you think about artificial intelligence, you become increasingly aware that the strategy around marketing will be understanding what information to feed the machine learning components of these platforms. That’s where the strategy is going to come in because at a certain point, the platforms are going to be able to understand and process user intent in a much more accelerated fashion than we’re going to be able to do.
As we welcome 2021, I want to take a quick look back on the digital sphere from 2020. What has changed, Leslie? There’s just so much more content, so many more podcasts, so much more to keep track of. Is it hard?
It’s crazy. Yes, it’s hard. It’s harder to rise above the noise. I saw a statistic just yesterday that said in the next week we will produce more data than we have produced in the last 5,000 years. Data and the increase of the amount of data that we’re creating is unbelievably exponential at this point. So, understanding how to use it in a marketing environment; what to look at, what not to look at, where there’s noise and how to filter it out, becomes a more critical skillset in the marketing world.
As I said at the beginning, 2020 has accelerated our adoption of digital components in our lives. Whether it was shopping or seeing our friends; going to a conference; attending a webinar; or networking with colleagues, all of that had to move online this year.
A lot of that behavior will continue, even when the need for it is less pressing. There are many companies that will not go back to an in-office arrangement or which will have hybrid workspace. There are many conferences that will continue to offer a digital component because an attendance option that didn’t involve travel expanded audience reach. These changes will stick around past COVID-19. The pandemic just accelerated our adoption of digital tools.
Gina: When I think back to last year during 2020, there were three or four conferences that I attended online that I would not have gone to otherwise because of timing. You and I both participated in HubSpot’s Inbound conference, which was fantastic. It was such a valuable time to learn some new adoption techniques. I share that with our listeners because Inbound provides all sorts of programs that can benefit anyone interested in digital marketing at any level. It may be worth considering for 2021.
Leslie: that’s a perfect example because they never offered their conference as something you could attend virtually until this year. I know that they expanded their attendee list enormously because of having a virtual option.
Gina: It comes down to being innovative and agile and willing to make change, willing to see that digital is here to stay. God knows what the next change will be.
What are some of your favorite books or podcasts that you enjoy for business or pleasure that you’d like to share with our audience?
There’s so much great content out there. It’s very exciting but knowing what to pick and choose is important. From an SEO perspective, for listeners who are interested, I would encourage them to follow people like Rand Fishkin or Neil Patel, both of whom have great blogs with information about search engine optimization and marketing.
For general business publications, Harvard Business Review would be at the top of my list. The topics are always a little bit ahead of the curve and well done.
For personal reading offline, I just started a book by Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It’s about how big data and biotechnology will shape and change the future among other things.
Gina: That’s great. I want to throw out some recommendations myself on digital strategy. You and I both got to know World Data during Inbound. For email marketing, their materials have been fantastic, and I wanted to share that with our listeners.Also, if you haven’t listened to the Maria Forleo podcast, her podcasts are fantastic. That’s one that I listen to loyally for a pick-me-up.
What do you do in your spare time, besides the fact that you volunteer tons of community service?
I walk a lot, preferably in places where there are no cars and lots of trees. I am also a printmaker and a painter. Sometimes just being in that headspace where you are 100% present and fully connected to what you’re doing is a very useful place to be. I find that I’m able to do that when I’m engaged in those activities.
I am a formally trained artist. Never did I think, as a fine arts major, that I would end up running an agency or spending a lot of my life interested in data, digital tools, and technology. In the end, it’s all about understanding human behavior and connecting.
Gina: Leslie, I have had so much fun talking to you today. Thank you for joining us at Furia Rubel Communications. Thank you for joining me as we celebrate our 50th episode of On Record PR. And thank you to our listeners. Good luck in 2021. May it be a better year!