Growth Hacking Interview Series #118: John McElborough
John McElborough (@johnmcelborough) is one of the UKs most in demand digital marketers. He has delivered on search, paid media and conversion optimization campaigns for some of the UK’s most recognised brands as well as helping thousands of smaller businesses and start-ups succeed online through his writing, training and consultancy. He currently runs the online advertising agency Inbound360 and blogs at johnmcelborough.com
How did you start out as a marketer?
I guess I fell into digital marketing. I started building websites for people when I was about 19 or 20 while I was studying. I was pretty terrible at it, but so we're most people in those days! Inevitably people started asking me how they got traffic to these sites I was building, I didn't really have an answer, but I guess something clicked around then and I realised it would be good to find out.
Later I joined an agency originally as a developer but they'd also started offering SEO, Google Adwords, email marketing, that kind of stuff to clients. I got involved in that work and figured out quite quickly there was more money in marketing than development!
Looking back what is your hardest struggle when it came to delivering results?
With hindsight I spent too long and too much energy looking for shortcuts and tricks to drive quick results. I'm kind of obsessed with trying to hack and crack systems and find better ways of doing things so I've had to teach myself to channel that into strategies that deliver long term value.
That said I still love a good shortcut when it's justified, like just the other week I blogged about how to buy Facebook likes for ridiculously cheap (https://johnmcelborough.com/facebook-page-likes/). Stuff like that will always have a place, but now I try to focus more of my energy on the big ideas.
How did you get your first client back then, and what kind of service did you do for them?
Well I started off in an agency and they had some good clients so I cut my teeth on some big brand projects pretty early in my career. When I went out on my own I worked out that even big companies and agencies had a real problem when it came to delivering links for their SEO campaigns.
I had a pretty robust process for doing this so I could sell that in surprisingly easily and that got me in the door with some decent clients early on. I was punching above my weight in that sense but they saw I could deliver on what I promised and that opened other doors for providing them with wider consulting services.
What do you find most rewarding about what you do?
Most of my work is commercial, making companies who already have a lot of money, more money. That makes the world go around but it's hard to get too excited about. I do quite a bit of work for charities where it's easier to see the human value in what you're doing. I also love working with startups, helping them take an idea to market and making it a success.
We have a lot of readers who are bent on becoming freelancers, aside from freelancing how else can someone earn online, and what is your advise?
You’ve got a chicken and egg situation when you start out, nobody wants to hire you because you don’t have client experience and you can’t get client experience because nobody wants to hire you!
There’s a simple way to get around that problem though. Find your specialism and get it nailed down before you try to pitch for work. Don't be a generalist, trying to offer too much when you’re starting out and have limited experience just makes you look like you don't know enough about one thing.
When I was freelancing for me that was link building. When people saw I could deliver on that, they wanted to know what else I could help them with. Once your foots in the door and people trust you that's as simple as saying “hey, i know you're doing X but have you thought about doing Y, I could help you with that if you're interested”…
I did the exact same thing later when I started my ad agency in 2013 all we offered was Google Adwords but we knew we were damn good at it, soon we branched out to other ad networks and now we do more with Facebook than Adwords.
Clients and prospects tell me all the time that they came to us because we're specialists and don't try to offer the world.
Being laser focused isn't just a sales tool either. It means you get better at what you do, deliver better results and get more referrals. Making a sustainable business as a freelancer, or a small agency for me is all about referrals.
How is your typical work day structured?
I might be at home, in the office or out at clients. I wake up as early as my wife will let me and I try to get the heavy lifting done in the morning when I'm most productive and push calls and meeting to the afternoon. Honestly though I'm not one of these obsessively time efficient people!
What recently-developed marketing strategy, technique or tool interests you the most right now?
I actually just wrote about the tools I use here https://johnmcelborough.com/digital-marketing-tools/. Right now I’m most excited (if thats the right word!) about ahrefs (http://ahrefs.com). The software those guys have developed in a short space of time is really impressive and I've replaced a bunch of other tools I used to use with it.
What I'm finding works really well at the moment is identifying new or viral content that's already popular using their content explorer tool, creating something similar, ideally better, then promoting that content to the people who shared the original article with twitter ads. Do that in weekly cycles and you can pick up some serious traffic but you have to be organised and ready to publish quickly.
What do you do to stay up to date with new marketing techniques?
I try not to jump on too many bandwagons. I've got a set of go-to tactics that I've been using for years which I can make work for most businesses. Aside from that I stay curious about what other forward thinking companies are up to and try to reverse engineer what they're up to.
Obviously it pays to read as much as you can but don’t fall into the trap of thinking thats a substitute for trying stuff for yourself or looking at what other companies are doing out there in the real world. Marketing blogs in particular are great at talking about theories but often they’re rehashed ideas that the blogger has read somewhere else and they’ve never used themselves. There’s no substitute for experience.
For me personally I’ve always had little side projects running that don’t take up too much of my time but which I can use to experiment with new ideas and techniques to see if they work. Its important to have a playground for this kind of testing.
Which one book/blog post would you recommend every Marketer should read?
All of Steve Krug's books on usability have been great. Having a proper understanding of usability helps you with everything you do in online marketing
What advice would you share with other Marketer's who want to become more productive?
Focus on what you do well until you're the best at it.
If there's one Marketing Guru you'd recommend who and why.
I don't know about gurus but anything that conversion rate experts put out is worth your time reading http://www.conversion-rate-experts.com/articles/