Mastering SEO with Customer-Driven Content with MJ Peters, VP of Marketing at CoLab Software
Speaker 1: Welcome to Page One or Bust, your ultimate guide to getting on page one of search engines. In this episode, we talk to a VP of marketing and manufacturing who tells us all the ways she's leveraged pillar- based marketing to get products on page one and drive more results. You'll hear from MJ Peters, a marketing leader with experience spanning the industrial equipment and B2B SaaS space. At the time of recording, MJ worked at Refine Labs as VP of Growth and has recently joined the CoLab Software team as their VP of Marketing. But before we get into it, here's a brief word from today's sponsor. Page One or Bust is brought to you by DemandJump, get insights, drive outcomes with DemandJump. Get started creating content that ranks at demandjump. com today. And now here are your co- hosts Christopher Day and Ryan Brock.
Christopher Day: Welcome back to Page One or Bust, this is Christopher Day, the CEO of DemandJump, along with Ryan Brock, the Chief Content Officer here at DemandJump.
Ryan Brock: Yo.
Christopher Day: We have with us today an awesome guest, MJ Peters. How's it going, MJ?
MJ Peters: Hey, it's going well. Thanks for having me.
Christopher Day: Absolutely. MJ is also a seasoned podcaster herself. She has an awesome podcast called The Industrial Marketing Show Podcast. Before we get started, MJ, tell us a little bit about your podcast and what you focus on.
MJ Peters: Yeah, so we run The Industrial Marketing Show. I do it with Matt Scianella over at Gorilla 76. We talk about marketing specifically in the context of manufacturing companies, because that's what I did for a very long time before making the jump over to B2B SaaS. And then I think we will also feature this show over on a Refine Labs podcast called The Marketing Movement, which is all about brand marketing, demand gen, more of a B2B SaaS focus over there.
Christopher Day: Oh right.
Ryan Brock: Is Gorilla 76 based in St. Louis?
MJ Peters: It is.
Ryan Brock: I've worked with them before. What a small world. We're in Indianapolis. There's no reason we should be that connected, but wow, cool.
MJ Peters: It's the Midwest, it's all connected.
Ryan Brock: I guess.
Christopher Day: I'm excited to see what you do on The Marketing Movement podcast. Those are all really hot topics. Some will kind of relate into today. So MJ, tell us about your journey here. Let's kick it off with your journey as the VP of Marketing at Firetrace, and then tell us how that led into your role as VP of Growth at Refine Labs, and the scope of what you're doing to grow Refine Labs.
MJ Peters: I worked in manufacturing companies for about six years, in product management and in marketing. At first I was a product marketer, product manager hybrid, which was all about understanding the customer, what they care about, positioning products, creating messaging. And I got very frustrated after a while, because I do all this great work, but it was only academic if there was no demand gen motion to get that message into the market. This was 2016, something like that. And that's when I decided to teach myself SEO. So because I learned how to do SEO, I had then a vehicle where I could get all of the insights that I was getting from being a product manager and a product marketer in front of customers using organic search as the channel. And then from there did a couple of interesting product marketing things that kind of opened up some new ventures for that company, which was Sensorex, which got me in front of a president of Firetrace who gave me my first leadership role to build the team there. Replicated some of that SEO success, did a lot of cool stuff in product management and product marketing, but also really started to figure out how to use other distribution channels that are not organic search, primarily paid social. Partnering up with Chris Walker at Refine Labs, I was his first customer. So he taught us how to do that and we opened up some new interesting channels for the business, paid social PR. And then ultimately Chris called me up one day and said, " Hey, do you want to join Refine Labs and lead brand marketing and a standup sales?" And I said, " That sounds kind of interesting." So been with Refine Labs since last March, so about a year now. And in that time we've grown over four x. I was employee number 20 and I think we just hired employee number 80. So it's been a really fun ride.
Christopher Day: That's awesome.
Ryan Brock: Wow. Well, I mean, like you said, if you don't have anything to show for all your hard work, it's really not worth anything. But yeah, I find it so interesting that the people I talk to in marketing are the ones who don't want to talk about the fluff. They just want to get right down to business and say, " How are we going to move the needle? How are we going to impact the bottom line?" And it's not surprising to hear that Scott and you are where you are. So congrats.
MJ Peters: Yeah, thank you.
Christopher Day: So MJ, on that note with what Ryan just mentioned, in looking at some of your recent LinkedIn posts, and this is going to segue us directly into Page One or Bust content all around SEO. How do we get rid of the fluff? Get down to brass tacks and be able to help marketers actually execute against SEO strategies that will result in quantifiable outcomes. But I noticed that a post that you had on LinkedIn and... Well, I'm going to paraphrase it, but you were talking about the necessity of confidence transfer, which is about four main things: Selling an outcome, not tactics. Being confident. A solution should be a way to achieve those outcomes. And then a bulletproof story. So put that in the context, where'd you come up with that? And put that in the context as we get ready to head into this SEO journey discussion.
MJ Peters: Yeah, it's been interesting standing up sales. We're kind of taking over sales from the founder, which is I think something that every seed, or maybe Series A, but probably seed stage company, has to wrestle with, is how do you scale sales outside of the founder selling deals? It's been really interesting to try to do that with a marketing background. It helps that we sell to marketers. But it's forced me to tell the marketing story to a human, live, one- to- one, who's going to have objections and pushback. And what I've learned is it's much easier to be, quote, unquote, " confident" about your story when what you're going to do is slap it on a website page. You don't have to talk to the person reading that website page. The stakes are really high in sales, and I am very fortunate that I work for a company with a super strong, compelling strategic narrative that I believe in a hundred percent. So I can get on those sales calls and I can have confidence, and I can transfer confidence to the prospects in this story. But I think that is the standard that marketers should strive for. If I had to sell this story one- to- one, to a live human who's going to have objections and pushback, and has their own opinions, would I still have absolute confidence in this story? And I think that it's a test that marketers can put their messaging through.
Ryan Brock: Yeah. It's the difference between having a silver tongue and having something to offer the world. Sometimes I wonder if I didn't have such a persuasive voice if I'd be as successful as I am, but no, I understand what you're saying. It's so much easier when there's a real story to tell. And I talk about that all the time. My best advice to new writers on my team especially, is if you're not sure how to really make a compelling case in an SEO article to someone on the other side of the screen, let's introduce you to a real person who has already heard this story and said, " Yep, that works for me." and bought in and their life has improved as a result. Talking one- on- one to a real person, it's so powerful. It's really cool to hear that story.
Christopher Day: Let's segue that in. Ryan and MJ, I'm kind of curious both what you think about this. In the concept of confidence transfer, and selling outcomes and not tactics, let's key in on this word tactics. And when it comes to SEO, over the years that the tactics that you've seen where people are doing a lot of things, thinking that that's going to make their SEO work, but it was just a myth. Keyword stuffing or things of that nature. What have you experienced over the last 5, 10, 15 years, and maybe some of those bad habits that still exist today that just don't move the needle when it comes to SEO?
MJ Peters: Yeah, it's funny. I don't actually consider myself an SEO expert. I don't actually think I know everything there is to know about SEO. Like I always-
Ryan Brock: That's good. Nobody does.
MJ Peters: Yeah.
Ryan Brock: For the record, anyone who says they do is lying to you.
Christopher Day: Right, but they claim to.
MJ Peters: Yeah, I always started at the point of being a customer expert. And you can go out and you can talk to 10 customers, and if you talk to 10 customers, you're going to find out 10 slightly different things that you can then go back and tell the other nine customers that they don't know, because you've talked to people that are their peers and their experts, you can aggregate insights. And so I went out and then learned SEO so that I could apply the right amount of SEO best practice to get the insights in front of the customers. But when I write for SEO, I'm just trying to get insights and provide value to the customer. And then I follow enough best practice to make sure that it actually gets on the first page of the search engine. And actually I would say in 2016, you could probably get away with slightly less valuable content as long as you followed the SEO rules. I think Google is getting smarter and smarter. So I actually think my approach of not really being an SEO expert, but knowing enough to be dangerous and being a customer expert, is getting more and more valuable, because I think Google's smart enough to now figure out, " Oh, this content is more valuable, and it answers the question."
Ryan Brock: You're exactly right. You're exactly right. I mean for a long time now I've hired specifically creative writers and English majors, and your odd journalists here and there, to do SEO content. And it's because I want people who are seriously aware of the reader and the reader's experience, and of the shared space they're creating with their readers in their writing. All of the rest of that junk is stuff that half the time is a myth and half the time matters far less than engagement. And I think you're totally right. Google has invested a lot of time and energy into shifting its focus from the content itself, and in metrics or indicators of success, towards the people who are reading that content. How are they engaging with it? Do they seem to like it? Are they spending time on that page? Are they clicking through to read more about what you have to offer? And it's liberating knowing that you don't have to check a long list of boxes that might not even be worth your time in the first place.
MJ Peters: I have a great story that exhibits exactly this point actually. So back when I was at Sensorex, we had a big pillar page piece of content, which I didn't know was a pillar page at the time, I just wrote a bunch of content that I thought was helpful. And I actually left because I was in a rotational program for a period of time after writing that pillar page, and then I came back. And in the interim, the company had hired an SEO intern and it was her first job. And they had her working to quote, unquote, " SEO optimize different pieces of content on the website." Just like following a checklist, which probably said things like, " Keyword stuff this. Write this way." And nothing wrong with this particular intern, she didn't know any better, but she was changing all of these things about the article. And when I read it, when I came back and I read it after she had been in there for a while, I was like, " Oh my God, this doesn't even mean the same thing as when I originally wrote this article." And I was like, " Oh, now I need to fix this." So I went over and I was talking to one of our sales managers and I was like, " Oh man, I got to rewrite this article, now it's not technically accurate anymore." And he kind of went white, " Oh my God, I send that to customers to explain this concept. You need to fix it." And I was like, " It's fine, I'll fix it." But it just goes to show you, if you just you wrote follow SEO, quote, unquote, " best practice", you're going to actually eventually get to the point where you're diminishing the value of the content to the customer. And you don't want to cross that line.
Ryan Brock: On my team, we used to call it drunk bear, the phenomenon where you would be trying so hard to force so many keywords into your content that you no longer sound like any actual human being who speaks English would ever sound in a conversation. You sound like I imagine a bear in a cave with too much vodka would sound like if he was suddenly able to speak, just a jarbled mix of words. And it's gross.
Christopher Day: So MJ, so that intern for example, how do we get people to change bad habits, or those that might have been trained incorrectly? Just to your point, " Follow this checklist. Stuff this puppy with keywords, and insert back links, and find some bots." And all this insanity that people tried to kind of like, I don't mean this in a bad way, but cheat the system. And think from a position of Google first, or domain expertise first, versus what you said earlier, customer first. Have you worked with anybody that maybe was trained improperly, and how do you unwind those bad habits to get them to think just the exact opposite, to think customer first? What is their pain, what are their questions and how do we align to that? Any stories you can share?
MJ Peters: Yeah. I mean, first of all, nothing wrong with being trained improperly. I'm just fortunate that in the first two years of my career, I encountered people who trained me properly. Thank goodness for that. So I didn't have to unlearn those habits. I would say it starts with marketing leadership. I think marketing leadership has to own and embrace the idea that everything you do is customer first. I wrote a post about this the other day actually. What is the hierarchy of an integrated marketing campaign? And its customer segment, who's your ICP? Number one. Message. What information do you need to share with them, or what do you wish they knew? That's number two. And then channel is one of the last things to think about. And that's not to say that channel isn't important, because if you don't follow the rules of the channel, then the channel will not distribute your content for you, and it'll never get in front of the customer. But you need to think about these things sequentially, so that you're targeting a customer with a message that's going to resonate with them, inside of a piece of content that they actually want to consume. And then once you have those things figured out, you put it in the channel where they spend time. And so I think coming back to your original question, it starts with marketing leadership and even top level leadership, understanding that is the hierarchy, and giving space to the people on the marketing team to actually spend the time to understand customers, rather than putting them on a hamster wheel of cranking out content, cranking out campaigns all the time.
Ryan Brock: Let's flip that on its head. What if you're a content marketer working for a marketing director who is operating on an SEO best practice list from 2017, for example?
MJ Peters: Yeah, it's hard. But I think you can find evidence that the content SEO best practice list is not the end- all be- all test for whether it's good content or bad content. I think the example I gave of the salesperson actually using the marketing content to educate their customers is a great example of that. Anecdotally, if the salespeople are using your content, that would be a very good sign that it is good content. And the inverse of that, if the salespeople are not touching your content, it's probably not very good. And it comes back to what I was saying at the beginning of the day, sales is very straightforward. It's very easy to tell when you're winning or when you're losing. So if it's helpful, the salespeople are going to use it, and if it's not helpful, they're not going to use it. And so just pulling together anecdotal evidence that, " Hey, in this particular case I might have deviated a little bit away from this checklist, but I've produced something very valuable." The other thing is, over time, because Google is smarter now, I do think that those content pieces are going to rank better anyway. It just might take some time for that effect to take hold and for you to have a data- driven story that shows that.
Ryan Brock: So what does SEO look like for Refine Labs? In your rapid growth stage right now, is that a priority for the organization?
MJ Peters: Refine Labs is funny. We are not very good at SEO in full transparency. I've been much better at SEO in previous organizations. But the way I kind of think about campaigns, or marketing at a high level, is you've got stuff you're going to do to capture demand and stuff you're going to do to create demand. And to me, SEO is one of the things you do to capture demand once you have created an interest, or there is organic interest in the marketplace for the problem or the solution that you're addressing. And it's a very important capture demand channel to address. The other capture demand channel I would say is paid search. So people come to search when they're ready to look for the solution to something, or when they're looking for more information about a problem. So what Refine Labs has done a great job of, is creating demand. So we've gone out and we have a very strong organic brand reach on channels like podcasting and LinkedIn. So we can educate the market that, " Hey, they actually need what it is that we provide, or they should actually rethink how they're approaching marketing, and that things are shifting." And once people start to get educated and understand that it actually generates demand that needs to be captured. And so one of the examples of this is dark social, is something we talk about at Refine Labs a lot. This narrative that B2B buying has changed and a lot of the buying process happens inside of channels that you can't see or track. And so now we've actually created search volume for dark social and the dark funnel, which we are not capturing, because we don't have very good SEO. So at first we needed to focus on creating demand, because nobody was talking about dark social. But now we've reached the point in our lifecycle where we need to capture it. So we probably should think more about SEO.
Ryan Brock: This is fascinating to me. You are the Batman to my Joker, or the Joker to my Batman, I don't know which one you prefer to be. But it's like I spend all of my time... DemandJump, our lane is understand what people are searching for. And I can't tell you how often my content team is challenged by customers who are so revolutionary with their product that we can't figure out how to capture search traffic properly. We have to do these really roundabout things and be like, " Well, people are searching for this. What they really are looking for is a solution to this and we need to redirect them to this thing that they didn't know about." Can we do a little exercise here, MJ, and we're asking you to talk about your business and where you're coming from, just because I'm fascinated in how you've done this. Do you want to give me your sales pitch? How are you going to tell me that story? I'm not a stranger, you know who I am. What does your sales pitch feel like, when you're in the room.
MJ Peters: It's actually quite... Some of the architecture I've already shared there, which is the first thing to understand is you need the right measurement system in marketing, to drive the right behaviors and not the wrong behaviors. So traditionally a lot of marketing has been measured with the first metric that you're looking at, is the Marketing Qualified Lead. And there's more broad, liberal definitions of Marketing Qualified Leads. But one of them is they download a piece of content, we have them in our system, and they're firmographically qualified to purchase from us. And what that ignores is, does this buyer have intent to purchase your product? Do they want to talk to sales? Because if they don't, then sales is going to call them, and then it's not going to go well for the sales rep, because they're going to get an angry person that doesn't want to be called. So that impacts your conversion rates all the way through the funnel, and you end up with this huge bloated MQL target that the marketing team is on a hamster wheel to hit. Because all you can do is pump out more content and get more people to download it. The measurement system is driving the wrong behaviors. So we come in and we fix the measurement system. We build a measurement system that prioritizes the role of marketing becoming creating intent to purchase with your target audience. Because when marketing creates intent to purchase, then you get more people coming to you, through your high intent conversion points on your website, which is forms people submit when they want to talk to sales. And no surprise, those people become sales- qualified opportunities at much higher rates. So you need fewer of them to actually hit the revenue target at the end of the day. So we fix the measurement system and we give you strong benchmarks for what the conversion rates should look like when you're measuring things the right way, because we have a huge data set of companies doing this now. And then the second thing we do is we do all the marketing execution to actually drive volume through that high intent website funnel. And that includes things like using paid search, the right way, to capture demand. And also operating inside of dark social, which is all these places you can't track, but where you need to be in order to create demand with your buyers, that you can then capture through SEO and through paid search.
Christopher Day: So tell me if you all agree with this, because this is the way I kind of think about that when we talk to folks out there that are really leading edge, not bleeding edge, but cutting edge, with technology and new ways of doing things. In the way I think about this, and tell me if you all think I'm right or wrong, is... I'm just going to dumb this down, and MJ, if I dumb it down too much, then bring it back up to where it should be. So social media, so if we're talking about dark social, people who might be interested in dark social, their brain doesn't know they're interested in dark social, but they're interested in social media, or learning more about it, or" doing it better", quote, unquote, or whatever they're focused on. So capturing them through what they're already thinking, social media, or whatever's relevant around that. And then when you capture them, then you lace in, " Ah, you're interested in social media and how to execute that channel. But really where you want to be is dark social. And these are all the benefits that can bring to you, far and above." Just thinking about social media. Do you agree with that, or disagree with that, or do you think of it a little bit differently?
Ryan Brock: I love it. I mean, it's a very complimentary approach to our perspective on SEO and demand capture. We always want to just take as many steps back as we can away from the specific things someone might be searching for, and instead try to understand the pain they're trying to solve. So, " I'm looking for help with my brand's social media." That's not what you actually want. You don't actually want that. You want some improved metrics somewhere else in your business. So how do we... Our approach to dealing with that demand is to go in and to say, " Let's redirect you." This demand generation approach is to go out there and educate people about this option that they didn't know existed in the first place. And I think that together it represents a really exciting, different way of doing marketing where you're not just wasting a bunch of time and money, which is sadly what I think cynically is a lot of what is happening in marketing these days.
MJ Peters: Yeah. And I think the redirect approach is very interesting. It's one of the key differences I think between how you want to use SEO, versus how you want to use paid search. I don't want to try to redirect people using paid search. I don't really want to pay for somebody's traffic that isn't actually looking for what I have to offer and then try to redirect them. I don't think that's a winning game. But SEO on the other hand, you're not paying, you are producing the best content possible. So I think redirecting that problem awareness into solution awareness for how you'd solve the problem is a great use for SEO, where I'd prioritize SEO over paid search as a channel for that objective.
Ryan Brock: True. As long as you're actually providing the value that you're promising by using the language that people are looking for, which is another common mistake people... Redirect doesn't mean, " Okay, we know that audiences that we're trying to reach are asking this question. So let's use that question in an H2 and then not actually answer it and just pitch our product or our service." Or whatever. To me, SEO, it's that human first, customer first. Let's think about how we provide you with the most value we possibly can. And then build that trust, and give you next steps, and give you the ability to choose your own adventure forward into our brand and what we can talk about with you.
MJ Peters: Absolutely. And if you're in a market where all their competitors are playing that game of, " I'm going to put this in the H2 and then not answer the question that you had, but the question that I want to answer for you." Then you're in a great position to win on SEO.
Ryan Brock: A hundred percent.
Christopher Day: That's what we call, you're in a position to crush them.
Ryan Brock: Hey Toph, I think it is time for our quick hits.
Christopher Day: All right. So MJ, we have a few quick hit questions for you, and just whatever comes top of mind, and if your mind goes blank and we end up cutting it out, no problem. Well, what keeps you up at night when you think about SEO?
MJ Peters: Ooh, that's a good question. What keeps me up at night when I think about SEO? Honestly, I sometimes wonder whether the reason that I've been so successful in SEO is because I just haven't ever been in an industry where SEO is that competitive. So a lot of my experience, water quality sensors in 2016, it was pretty easy to dominate SEO there. Same thing with fire suppression systems in 2018 and 19, maybe one day I'll be in a really competitive space like CRM and marketing automation. Man, I wonder if I'd be good enough to hack it in a market like that.
Ryan Brock: Well, MJ, I've picked up the baton there. So our team has been working with the Firetrace team since your departure, and it's pretty competitive, because it's so niche and it's so hard to find the needle of what is the actual juicy thing we can write about here that's going to make a difference, that also we can write about in a way that isn't just listing product specifications. So I don't know. I would give yourself a little more credit. That's not an easy topic to win with.
MJ Peters: Thank you.
Christopher Day: Yeah, and I think what you just mentioned MJ too, that's why I find your podcast, really the manufacturing space, so compelling is... If there's any manufacturers out there listening to this podcast, you are sitting on a goldmine. Your competitors have not started executing on these types of strategies yet. Because a lot of manufacturers are working through channels and they're kind of doing the old way of doing business, and there is a goldmine sitting there awaiting them for these SEO strategies.
MJ Peters: So true. And it's such a great way for manufacturers to also show their technical and their product expertise, because a lot of times the search questions are like, " How the heck do I do this?" Engineers, design engineers, are out there on Google searching for the answers to their questions and your competitors are probably behind.
Ryan Brock: Yeah.
Christopher Day: That is so true. All right, next question. Top three. So thinking back to your Firetrace days, Refine Labs today, what are your top three marketing tools you can't live without? What are your go- to resources?
MJ Peters: You got to have a source of truth. CRM marketing automation. Could not live without HubSpot. Honestly, as crazy as it sounds like, I love LinkedIn Sales Navigator as a marketing tool, because I use it to outbound connect and do customer research with people that are not customers of the company that I'm working at, which is always an absolute gold mine.
Ryan Brock: Super valuable.
MJ Peters: Yeah, so Sales Navigator is a super valuable tool for that. And then recently just building an organic presence for myself on LinkedIn. So just the LinkedIn Organic, because it's an all- star recruiting tool. I can recruit talent way easier now that I have a personal brand. And it also just helps me connect with customers even, because if I send them a connection request, they're more likely to accept because I'm out here creating content and they know I'm not just going go try to sell them something.
Christopher Day: Yep. Yeah, you're actually adding value. All right, last question. What is your best piece of advice for someone that wants to perform SEO better?
MJ Peters: Go do customer research, because it's crazy how much better you will be at keyword research and actually creating valuable content if you know deeply about the customer. I'll give you an example of this. I like to give as many examples as possible to try to not be fluffy. Back when I was at Sensorex, I came across that a lot of people were looking up a term conductivity cell constant, and I had literally no idea what that was. But I knew enough about the market that I was like, " This seems relevant." And then I went on an expedition and taught myself everything there was to know about conductivity cell constants. And I'm sure that is the number one piece of content now for that term, because I don't know who else would be crazy enough to go do all that research and write a blog post about it. And I learned a ton about my customers by doing that. And later, again, the litmus test, one of our distributors immediately shared this to their network on social media, " Oh my God, this is the best post on conductivity, cell constants I've ever seen." I was like, " All right, I'm in here with these technical people that know what they're talking about."
Christopher Day: That's awesome.
Ryan Brock: Google search term, conductivity cell constant, number one spot, Sensorex, " Understanding Conductivity Cell Constants." January 27th, 2020.
MJ Peters: Boom.
Christopher Day: That's awesome. You heard it here first. Everyone listening out there, when you align to your customer with your content, you will rank much higher and most often on page one, if not number one. Bam, MJ, that's a mic drop moment.
MJ Peters: Thank you very much.
Christopher Day: I love it.
Ryan Brock: You knew what you were doing when you set that up, didn't you? It was beautiful.
Christopher Day: I love it. Well, MJ, thank you so much for joining us today. How can people find you if they would like to reach out to you, on LinkedIn or elsewhere?
MJ Peters: Yeah, I'm on LinkedIn at MJ Peters, and then I also host The Industrial Marketing Show on Spotify and on Apple. And you can also follow our company page, Refine Labs, on LinkedIn.
Christopher Day: Awesome. Well congratulations on all your success MJ. And that's it for today on Page One or Bust. We'll see you next time.
Speaker 1: Page One or Bust is brought to you by DemandJump. Know the exact content to create to increase first page rankings and drive outcomes with DemandJump. Get started for free, today, at demandjump. com.
In this episode, MJ Peters, VP of Marketing at CoLab Software, shares how the manufacturing industry is sitting on a marketing goldmine. She joins Toph & Ryan to share her secrets for getting products on page one of search engines and talks about the importance of a pillar page as search engines grow increasingly smarter, plus much more