When it comes to gathering advice on digital advertising and maximizing customer funnels, I often lean on Rachel Lazar, founder of Lazar Marketing based in Seattle. Rachel’s agency is full of talented, data-driven, direct-response ninjas focused on growing sales and customer acquisition with trackable results. She cut her digital marketing teeth in the early days of Amazon (1998-2002) and learned to embrace big data before most companies knew the power of tracking customer actions and response online. Rachel is always matter of fact and data-obsessed, and she has a healthy skepticism about the latest shiny digital marketing tool that all too often distracts from her tried and true methods of maximizing ROI for her clients. I sat down with Rachel a couple times to put this story together, and I hope it inspires you to take your digital ad game to the next level.
Give us a little bit about your background. How did you get started in digital marketing?
Lazar: Sure. After working in PR I moved back to Seattle to work for Amazon. Back then most people hadn't heard of Amazon. I interviewed for two positions and was offered a marketing role. I spent four years there on the central marketing team. I got to do a number of different things, but I think the one that really helped shape my career was running some of the earliest (ever) digital marketing campaigns.
I helped launch Amazon’s toy store, consumer electronics store, and the partnership with Target™. Since Amazon is maniacal about tracking, reporting, and metrics, I learned how to do this while I was there.
In 2003, I left Amazon for RealNetworks, which was another good-size Seattle company in the digital audio and video streaming business. At the time they didn't have any direct-to-consumer marketing channels. They were primarily marketing through really fun and interesting, but not super-efficient content partnerships.
At RealNetworks, I got to work with Major League Baseball, the PGA tour, and CBS News. I was able to pitch and launch various direct-to-consumer marketing channels and help build out that centralized marketing team with the in-house expertise to create and scale these channels that supported a number of different businesses. It felt like a startup within a larger company.
Any interesting stories from these early days of digital marketing at these “startups”?
Lazar: Definitely. When I was at Amazon it was even before search marketing and the super early days of setting up tracking. Amazon had this in-house tracking system, called Obidos, which they now have a whole building named after. We would plug in the tracking codes, run the ads, and drink from the fire-hose of the data we were collecting. It was a really interesting and fun time. I was lucky to get my hands on a lot of these emerging techniques.
Likewise, at RealNetworks, Rob Glaser and the team were really focused on mobile, but this was before the rest of the market got there. We were working with Rhapsody™ (the digital music service) which, unlike Apple’s iTunes, was about digital music subscription. This was far before Pandora and Spotify showed up and frankly was a little bit too early. But it was great to be a part of that sort of forward-thinking advertising and digital strategy.
Were there any memorable campaigns (good or bad)?
Lazar: One hilarious project that I would work on each and every year was the reality TV show Big Brother. The show had a cult following, which I think they still have. RealNetworks was partnering with CBS at the time, and we would stream multiple live Big Brother cameras from the Big Brother house.
We could see the feed/viewing volume and noticed lots of people watching the participants sleep at night. People were up all night watching these cameras into the house and couldn't wait to sign up and pay to get access. It was really crazy and eye-opening.
Any early Amazon stories?
Lazar: Sure. In Amazon’s early days they would ship the corporate folks off to the distribution centers to pack books and other items because they couldn't hire people fast enough. One year I remember having our lunch break at 3 in the morning sharing a burrito with Jeff Bezos in the Seattle Distribution Center.
After I left RealNetworks (who had acquired Rhapsody), I began to think about jumping out on my own. I had seen a number of colleagues go out on their own and it was a stretch for me because I'm definitely a long-term stayer (4 years at Amazon, 8 years at RealNetworks). But I wanted to be able to work with multiple businesses. I wanted to be able to have some flexibility after having my second child and be able to really make an impact on the businesses that I work with.
What is Lazar Marketing all about?
Lazar: We've focused primarily on digital and mobile marketing. We do some offline marketing when the client warrants it, but we're really focused on targeting new customers, acquiring new customers and driving revenue for our clients. We're very direct-response focused, so focused on channel marketing and putting together a strategic marketing plan. Depending on what the client needs and their in-house resources, they can take the plan and execute with or without our support. Because we’ve worked with a lot of startups and smaller companies, we come in as the marketing S.W.A.T. team and roll our sleeves up to get new acquisition channels going and optimize them and report back to the client.
Can you talk about some of the acquisition channels you work in?
Lazar: Lazar Marketing focuses on digital and mobile marketing channels including paid search, SEO, paid social, organic social, email, and virtually any other marketing channel that is focused on getting in front of and acquiring new customers.
How does direct response tie in with organic traffic? Often clients seem to be focused on one or the other rather than seeing them together.
Lazar: First of all, the metrics are different from an organic/SEO perspective. While you’re not paying for organic traffic (once the content is created), there are still things that need to be measured. I would say the same goes for organic social media, which is a really important component of building a business and building a brand and growing your awareness and traffic. It's not going to necessarily turn into new clicks (new customers and revenue) like paid media where you have a little bit more control. But there are metrics such as reach, followers, and engagement that still need to be tracked and focused on to improve your overall approach to building your brand.
How do you measure branding efforts?
Lazar: I think what’s challenging is that a lot of smaller businesses and startups just want to focus on picking the low-hanging fruit. While I'm running direct response channels, I know that a rising tide floats all boats and I will want some broad air cover. Brand awareness, PR, and content marketing all help to elevate everything that you do.
For example, if you are a new company, there are very few people searching for your brand terms because nobody knows about them. But if you get featured in an article or you start to get some content shared out in the world, you can start to see those brand searches pickup as people take notice and start to look for you. That awareness helps everything that you do, including all of your metrics.
Speaking of metrics and your history with early days Amazon, how do you think about data now in 2018?
Lazar: We are very much focused on the right metrics, not all of the metrics. I think sometimes companies can get caught up in trying to understand everything. What you really need to focus on is the core metrics that matter and that will affect the business. So, we try to stay very much focused on those core metrics with our clients.
Sometimes, we’ll take over for other agencies and consultancies and see such complex reports that the client isn't going to take the time to read them or understand what is happening with their business. Some of the metrics reports won't have a huge effect anyway. We have been able to consolidate the core metrics that matter, such as click-through rates and conversion rates and cost per conversion.
One conversation that we have a lot with clients is about focusing on the right conversion metrics. For example, a click-through rate can be really deceiving. If you're really focused on getting a high click-through rate, but you're seeing a low conversion on those clicks that might not matter.
We might advise the client to keep an eye on their click-through rate, but converting people on the back end is far more important. Likewise, for B2B partners who report that LinkedIn clicks are often much more expensive than other channels. This might be fine however if they convert to better customers on the back end. Not all leads are created equal. Make sure that you understand the quality of your leads from different channels so we're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If they're more expensive, but they're five-times more valuable, then we'll do that all day long.
What are some common stumbles or misunderstandings when it comes to digital marketing and working with experts like Lazar Marketing?
Lazar: A couple things come to mind. First, I think some people have the misconception that there's a silver bullet out there for their business, where you find something that works and then you can set and forget it. Paid search is a great example of that. I mean, I love paid search. It's incredible. It's still the most targeted marketing channel for most businesses because it's intention-based instead of audience-based, but you can't create more searches. So, if you're a company targeting New York City, and you're selling shoes, you're going to cap out at some point of that specific search and you're going to hit a ceiling and that's where you have to expand to other channels.
Another common misconception is that many assume that we can predict what the metrics are going to look like. Unfortunately, that's not true. Digital marketing is still very much part art and part science. You need to have the right resources to have the best chance of success—for example, strong creative (messaging, imagery, video) and landing pages that take advantage of best practices for your particular conversion. Then you need to be focused on the right channels and set it up the right way.
Even the search volume estimators are directional at best. Every business is different, until you get out into the world and start testing. It's really hard to estimate what's going to happen. Note: search volume estimators help you gain insight into your potential click volume and click costs for PPC campaigns. For example, Google will estimate what clicks are going to cost and what the volume looks like and scope out your spend and ROI. Facebook has the same type of technology, but it is far from perfect.
How does Lazar Marketing work with creative teams on campaigns?
Lazar: We are a firm that believes in constantly testing new creative and messaging. With Facebook and definitely LinkedIn, you see creative fatigue fairly quickly. It also depends on how big your audience is and how big your budget is. For example, if you've got a huge audience and a small budget you can run longer because you won’t keep hitting the same people. But I’m finding I can only run for a week or two on LinkedIn and then we need some fresh content. Facebook really varies for us, but you should rotate creative at least once a month if not every two weeks. The length of a given campaign or group of creative really varies by channel.
Sometimes we have a designer on our team so we can create assets for companies that need that support. We also collaborate with a number of different agencies making sure to brief them on the client’s strategy, approach to content, and the media plan. We make sure we’re looking at the right channels and then staying in lockstep as assets are delivered and put out into the world. It’s also so important to pass back feedback on what's working and what's not so the creatives can iterate.
What are the common pitfalls or bogus metrics you watch out for?
Lazar: First of all, you want to make sure to set campaigns up the right way. From the targeting and creative testing approach to tracking implementation, it's critical the campaigns be set up the right way from the start so you have a solid foundation to build from.
After that, a common misconception I see is thinking that you'll be able to hit it out of the park on your first try. You need to be patient and plan to allow for the optimization to happen. Once campaigns are live, there's a lot of learning and a lot of optimization that has to happen. For example, adjusting your keyword searches to changing your messaging to testing different segmentation and targeting on Facebook. It is really important that there's constant optimization happening to try and maximize your ROI.
While you’re testing, do you keep a running list of lessons learned with each client?
Lazar: Yes. We conduct testing throughout the month, and in our month-end marketing reports for each client we walk through all key metrics as well as testing results so they can carry those key learnings forward.
What advice do you have for future clients looking to hire a digital marketing agency or direct response company? What should they be paying attention to?
Lazar: I would definitely make sure there's a lot of communication. We've brought on some clients who just sort of trusted that their agency partner was doing a great job and didn't have access to the accounts and didn't have ongoing conversations. That's so critical. You can't just set it and forget it. You need to really partner on all of this.
Also, there's a lot of agencies that will just sort of block and tackle on one or two channels.
My team is full of grownups and everyone's got at least eight, ten years of experience. We look at everything. For example, we’ll tell you if your landing pages are ugly and teach you about conversion. We get our hands and eyeballs on things outside of just running channels and whatnot. The more seasoned the team, the more insights you’ll get.
Before you work with a digital marketing firm, you should pull together as much information as possible about your customers, product category, and current business metrics. We always include a discovery phase where we get knee deep into the category and business to make sure we understand as much as possible. But it's really important clients have as much information as possible on all of those things before you go out into the world and spend money on marketing to try to acquire more customers.
And what's the right size client for you?
Lazar: We work with businesses of all sizes, but many of our clients are small to medium in size with strong funding and interest in marketing growth and testing.
What trends are you watching in digital marketing and paid traffic? What are you excited about?
LinkedIn: I think LinkedIn is interesting. They have historically fallen behind the other platforms from an offering and tracking perspective. But, I think they've made some big strides in the past year. They still have a ways to go, but I'm hopeful that that platform will grow. I'm interested to see what other platforms come forward.
Snapchat and Pinterest: We have clients that ask about Snapchat and Pinterest. We don't necessarily recommend those right now because they are more expensive and don’t drive conversions as much as other direct response tactics and channels.
Google and Facebook (Instagram as part of FB) are leading the way. I am betting that with Instagram being part of Facebook, they will figure out a way to be interesting to both smaller companies and direct-response companies.
Attribution (deriving what marketing content and activities actually created the clicks or sale) continues to be a huge point of conversation and nobody's figured it out perfectly. If they tell you they have, they’re lying. Someday a big wealthy company is going to figure out attribution with a cross-platform solution for the smaller companies. I think it is going to be really, really interesting to sort of connect the dots with desktop, mobile, offline and understand the customer holistically and how to market to them.
Facebook messenger (and other chat marketing): It will be interesting to see how messenger and chat marketing opportunities evolve and to test them. It’s always important to test different opportunities separately. For example, Facebook testing of newsfeed versus right-hand rail versus messenger versus the audience network. I don't lump them all in together because everything is going to perform really differently.