Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision 33, and my guest is Ray Van Hilst from Yoko Co. Welcome to the podcast, Ray. Please tell us about yourself and Yoko Co.
Ray Van Hilst: Thank you for having me, Carl. Yoko Co. is a digital marketing agency. We work exclusively with organizations making an impact in the world with a motive beyond profit – nonprofits, associations, and for-profit companies doing game-changing technology/work. Companies that are motivated to make this world better. We believe an organization's website is their biggest lever for making a positive impact, so we help them maximize their web presence. I'm the director of Client Results. I help clients move from "Wouldn't it be great if …" to planning a content strategy to make it happen.
Carl Lewis: Your website says it was over a decade ago that Yoko Co. decided to work with only those types of businesses. What prompted that decision?
Ray Van Hilst: Chris Yoko, the CEO, and the team asked, "What kind of work energizes us? What makes us excited?" Nothing against people building or selling widgets, but is that fulfilling? They looked at the clients who care as much as we do. And we found that the clients who see the end benefit of their jobs are the most passionate and go “all in.”
That’s one of our rules of engagement: go all in or leave. We care passionately about helping our clients do better in the world, and we need them to care passionately about their work too. We work for eight to 10 hours a day – let's make sure we enjoy it and feel positive.
Carl Lewis: That appeals to me because I worked at two nonprofits. One was religious; one was a medical relief agency. I thought it would be fun to discuss how these businesses have had to change in the last year and a half. Their change differed from, say, a distribution company. What have your customers cared about differently since the pandemic?
Ray Van Hilst: When the pandemic kicked in, there was a sense of panic and collapse. Everything contracted, and people stopped spending – especially in nonprofits that should be spending their money on their outcomes and helping people rather than on marketing projects with us. And we understand. But then people realized COVID-19 wasn’t a short-term thing, and they needed to adjust.
One thing we saw was that the organizations with the most agile technology and mindset pivoted faster. And if they were willing to experiment, they got ahead of the curve. For example, we saw traffic decrease across many of our client sites, but web traffic for associations that handle continuing education increased.
People were saying, "I still have to get continuing education for my job. And I'm not at work, but I can do it from home. It's even more convenient – I can do it on my own schedule." That's an example of using your content to respond to needs as things changed.
Carl Lewis: When there was an economic downturn during my time at the nonprofits, we found that our competitors were always competing for the donation dollars to continue what we were doing. They would shrink their programs and have fewer fundraising events. But I oversaw fundraising at my organization and decided downturns are opportunities to step up. That seems like what you're saying. And we found that when the economy drew down, we could still grow – with the right mindset and if we did more than before.
Ray Van Hilst: Yes. Our clients also saw opportunities to stop doing things. When business is good, we start special projects, but when things get tighter, we ask, “Was this the right thing to do?"
Carl Lewis: What did people change about their websites as quickly as possible to adapt to COVID?
Ray Van Hilst: There were several areas of identifying immediate content. For example, one client is the American Association of Endodontists (AAE). People still needed root canals, but there was a lot of concern about the safety of going to the dentist.
So, there was a period of, “How do we react?” But now, the AAE has a patient site explaining what people need to know about getting root canals during a pandemic. It goes back to content strategy 101: Address what people are worried about and make that content front and center. The AAE did a great job. And as things open back up, we can prioritize other content.
Also, people were stepping up their search engine optimization (SEO) game, and search traffic jumped as people were online more. The question is, “Does your site have the content to address people’s questions?” If not, creating that content and adding a user journey to confer off it are crucial.
Carl Lewis: Some reports said that internet traffic increased dramatically in the last year. How did that play into what people realized they needed to do?
Ray Van Hilst: One trend was that traffic across all our sites dropped slightly throughout the pandemic as gross numbers, but engagement went up. It’s because the tire kickers weren't coming as often – the people coming were more focused and looked at more pages. With all the sites we manage, those with defined user journeys saw more conversions and opportunities to engage.
The other trend is the importance of SEO. We've seen traffic go up via organic search, particularly in this pandemic, and there were at least two major Google search engine algorithm updates. That will change things. But if you're offering helpful content, you’ll always win in this game. You can't keep up with Google's algorithm changes. That's a game of Whack-a-Mole. But you can have authentic, helpful content that speaks to your audience and helps them succeed. Google will always reward that content, and your traffic will go up.
Carl Lewis: Let's talk about content. In my organization, we work hard to create new content constantly because no matter how good/relevant your content is, the algorithms want new stuff. And there's a premium to pay for that. How big a challenge is it for your clients to constantly answer the same questions in new ways with new content?
Ray Van Hilst: The first thing organizations struggle with is figuring out which questions to answer, what content to create, and how to align that with their strategy. We have one client with a fabulous blog program. I asked, "Where do you get the content?" The CEO said, "I write about my ideas." And I said, "There's a place for that, but you have to ask if it’s content related to something your users are trying to solve or interested in." Because otherwise, it won’t help your SEO.
When someone comes to your website, they're not coming to learn about you. They have a problem. It's our job as marketers to say, "Here's your challenge – let me help you solve it. Here’s some information for you." That's how you can keep that pipeline fresh. Your other opportunity is evergreen content. You can create a landing page about a subject on your site, and Google's okay if you update it. Add information, make it more relevant, and resubmit it to Google. That’s your pillar page for a core concept, and then you have other pages to support it, like blogs that link back in.
Carl Lewis: I used to work for a CEO at a small consulting firm. He read a book every weekend, and then at our all-hands meetings on Mondays, he told us about the book he read. No other agenda. It's like, "Where are we going with this?" There wasn’t a theme. And I can see how that's easy for a CEO because many are well-read and have a lot on their minds. They like to share it. But doing it strategically, like, "Which questions do people need answers to?" is more important. The challenge is doing it in a new, fresh way.
Ray Van Hilst: Yes. And there’s a place for that thought leadership and pushing what you do forward, but that should be 30%-40% of your content. You still have to cover the base. You can write the best book in the world, but it won’t be a New York Times bestseller or change the world if no one ever reads it.
Carl Lewis: Companies typically know what they do and believe, but many struggle to discover what customers want them to talk about. They can be on a different page, which leads to their website’s content not being 100% relevant to their customers and prospects.
Ray Van Hilst: It's classic. If you go into most SaaS companies and ask them what content they need, the salespeople will have many ideas because they talk to the customers. Customer relations and support will also have ideas. Marketing will say, “But this is our branding message. It's going in with that.”
Carl Lewis: Exactly. It's difficult to answer customers’ questions because we get bogged down by what we want to tell them versus giving them the answer they want. And when they're looking for answers, they're only on your site because the search engine told them you might have answers. They don't even know you in the prospecting stage; they’re just looking. And creating content that’s relevant to the people you want it to be relevant to is challenging.
Ray Van Hilst: There are two things you can do. One, you can go outside your building and talk to customers with an open mind and be ready to hear things you may not want to hear. Don't talk to the customers you always hear from – the frequent flyers you know and those who give you most of your revenue. Dig deeper and talk to casual buyers and infrequent users about the journey of what they were looking for.
Next, map your content toward their understanding of what you do. We use a methodology we call the conversation spectrum. It’s how someone goes through content. The stages are oblivious, curious, intrigued, invested, and converted. It's a variation of awareness, knowledge, liking, and preference we learned in college marketing. But to people, it’s, "I have a problem to solve." As you said, they don't even know you exist. They just googled. Hopefully, they get to your website and say, "Here’s an answer!" That's a way to manage the conversation and not overwhelm someone through your website journey.
Carl Lewis: Yes. Because the search engine just takes you to the landing page, which isn’t actually your page. They bypassed who you are, what you do, how you do it. You're trying to build a relationship by providing value.
Ray Van Hilst: The sad part is that the landing page is something someone put up in a hurry. Think about the website design process. We have five meetings about the homepage, then it's, "Okay, we're good. Move on. Build the other 400 pages." We don’t consider that the homepage is rarely the first thing someone sees. What's the call to action? What's the next step? Does this page look as good, and does it work as hard, as the homepage?
Carl Lewis: And as you said, landing pages must be refreshed occasionally. My company’s growth makes me think we do a good job with marketing. Our sales guys would say it's all them, but our marketing department assists with that endeavor and the website. We remake ourselves every two or three years. The information isn’t significantly different, but it's refreshed. It has a different look. It's organized better.
Ray Van Hilst: That's important. Marketers – and budgeting for marketing – must be aware it's no longer ‘set it and forget it.’ Your website needs constant investment. We tell our clients they should budget 20% to 30% of their budget for maintenance and ongoing improvements after they finish the first project.
Define your KPIs, test, improve, repeat. Keep making modifications as you do that. Financially, many organizations say, "We're going to spend a ton of money on the website. We're going to amortize this over five years and not spend any more money." Five years later, they wake up and realize the website is ugly and doesn't work anymore. Had they spread that cost out, five years later it would still be an attractive website that’s meeting their goals.
Carl Lewis: A lot of smaller organizations struggle to put money in their marketing budget. Because the outcomes can be nebulous – especially without tracking mechanisms to see the results of that investment. And many companies don't have those. How can they recognize the value of investing in marketing?
Ray Van Hilst: Define your goals and KPIs. What do you want to do? How do you define success? We do this in our kickoff meetings. We say, "What does qualifiable success look like at launch and six months later? What about quantifiable success?" More leads? More donations? If it’s our animal welfare client, maybe it’s more adoptions. The challenge is that your teams are busy. And organizations – especially nonprofits – don’t often put someone in charge of the website.
But a website needs an owner. A managing editor within your organization. A content strategy. A governance strategy that says, "Jane is the managing editor, and she's going to decide this, our content cadences, our roles." Etc. That's her primary role. Many organizations say, "Marketing director, you're in charge of my user conference, email campaigns, and social – oh and by the way, the website."
Put someone in charge. Include analytics. We offer our clients analytics support because we look at trends across every site we build, host, and manage. We can offer insight into where you look good and where you need to improve.
Carl Lewis: We’re a nation of small businesses. As a country, we probably have more nonprofit types of companies than anywhere in the world. Now that we've gone through this weird time, do you think any big lessons will help us going forward?
Ray Van Hilst: One: Embrace the concept of ‘digital first.’ Your digital strategy can lead the way to get your message out and engage your audience. A friend owns a coffee shop here in Northern Virginia. He said, "I need a website." I said, "You haven't even started roasting coffee." He said, "I need a website first." And he got it. He now has three locations, and he's doing awesome. Always keep that ‘digital first’ attitude.
Two: Don't get stuck on shiny objects. The shiny object syndrome is real. We work in WordPress, but you might look at a larger system. You may need Sitecore. Or HubSpot. It's okay to start small. I've helped people get set up on Squarespace and Weebly. They work. Get your training wheels on the tools you can use, then grow into the next thing. It’s like the bikes we were talking about before we started recording. Don't buy a $12,000 carbon fiber bike if you've just started cycling.
Carl Lewis: I started with a Yamaha 125s. I think it was a Suzuki 185. Then I went back to a Yamaha 450, and that one hurt me. Same principle.
Ray Van Hilst: It’s natural. I read a study about how people overbuy in their marketing technology. They aspire to it, but they don't have the bandwidth for it. And the good thing is, most tools you can easily migrate. I try not to encourage clients to go all in on one particular tech stack because it creates more work if they have to move. But look at ways you can plug and play and grow in different places within your marketing technology.
Carl Lewis: So, that was all about business. What's it been like for you personally over the last year? What changed for you?
Ray Van Hilst: Our company was already remote, so when everyone suddenly went home, we still woke up and came to our offices. My wife teaches second grade in Vienna, Virginia. Obviously, we were spending more time at home together, and I got to listen to her teach and engage with her kids. It was the highlight of the pandemic. Listening to my wife teach is like watching Tom Brady play football. It's what she was born to do.
People in our industry are people pleasers. We care. With our clients struggling, we put in extra hours. We said, "How can we help our clients through this?" I listen to a podcast called Build a Better Agency, and they talked about this. We realized we must be kind to ourselves. Be there for our clients but don’t burn out because then we can’t help anyone.
Carl Lewis: I know many people are dissatisfied with their children being in remote situations, but I can't imagine what it's been like for teachers to go from in-class to remote. I imagine they're as anxious as everybody to get back to the good old days. Right?
Ray Van Hilst: Definitely. And this week, she had all her students back in class for the first time since last March.
Carl Lewis: That's great. My grandson is in a room behind me here, and he's struggling to get through remote learning. There are things he's eager to get back to in the real world.
Ray, thank you for joining me today. I enjoy speaking with people who work with nonprofits and help them do well. Good luck on Yoko Co.’s special mission.
Ray Van Hilst: Thank you, Carl.
Carl Lewis: You're welcome. And to all the rest of you, until we meet again, stay connected.