Jeff Ferguson of Amplitude Digital On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level
One of the big misconceptions about the process of digital transformation is that once the upgrades are in place, the process is done. However, for the transformation to stick, the planners need to take into account what consultants often call Organizational Culture. The principles of Change Management also highlight a similar idea, which is that if management doesn’t establish and encourage a culture of change within the organization, employees will slowly return to their previous ways. This is about more than just chastising team members for not using the latest and greatest technology around the office, but more about setting a great example from the top down. During our SEO work within large organizations, we ensure that we do more than just hold a couple of education sessions for key personnel. Instead we work with all levels of the organization to ensure that everyone is on board with their new roles and processes are put in place to carry on the SEO education once we have left the building.
As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ferguson.
Jeff Ferguson is a passionate growth marketer and digital educator who has led the online marketing efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark, InterActiveCorp, Experian, and Napster.
In his current role as Head of Production at Amplitude Digital, he has worked with renowned brands such as Belkin, Billabong, CBS, eHarmony, JustFab, Manchester United, Paychex, PetSmart, Popcornopolis, The Smithsonian, Stila Cosmetics, ThriveMarket, Sony, and many more.
Honored as one of PPC Hero’s “Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts” for three years in a row, Jeff Ferguson is a regular presenter at Ad:tech, AllFacebook Expo, Conversion Conference, eMetrics, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), Digital Hollywood, Online Marketing Summit (OMS) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES). He has been both a speaker and board member at Search Engine Strategies (SES).
Jeff is a columnist for Search Engine Journal, where his legendary data research projects have tipped many sacred cows of SEO and paid media advertising malpractice.
As an adjunct professor for UCLA, Jeff teaches introductory and advanced digital marketing classes and designed the school’s first-ever course on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Jeff volunteers time with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) and Digital Analytics Associations (DAA) on both the national and regional levels, where he serves as a board member of the Los Angeles chapter.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started as a Computer Science major in college but switched to Communications and Advertising after a few years to become a copywriter. Near the end of school, my advisor told me that I was a couple of credits away from a double major, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt.
After graduation in early 1995, I sent my resume out everywhere, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the internet and this new thing called the World Wide Web. I passed at first, but after my first monthly bill for my student loan arrived, I told the next company, “I know everything about the Internet!”
I landed the job, ran out, bought a big book on HTML, and never looked back.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Early on, while working at the first job I had out of college, I learned a valuable lesson about picking my battles.
While I held the title of “Webmaster” and wrangled all things digital marketing for the company, I was asked by the head of marketing to write sales copy for an upcoming update of a dental office point-of-sale software the company had sold for years. Like I mentioned earlier, I had initially wanted to become a copywriter, so I took the assignment very seriously.
I proudly turned it in and waited for the day it would appear in various marketing materials. Not long before the day, the copy was to go to press, and my boss pulled me aside to let me know that they had hired another copywriter to “punch up” my writing.
For some reason, I was furious. As far as I was concerned, that copy was perfect as is, and how dare they mess with my work. While I was able to hold back much of my anger when talking to the VP, it was evident that this was a hill I was willing to die on. I was so angry that my boss sent me home early, telling me to cool off before coming back to work.
The next day, I ran into the freelance copywriter they hired to revise my work. In hushed tones, he told me outright that it was kind of silly for them to pay him for what he was doing since the work was already great. He admitted that he was basically “dotting i’s and crossing t’s” and that I had a future in writing.
My takeaway from all of this was patience. When I was told that my work was getting revised, I had no idea what extent and if I had shown some patience by waiting to see the changes, I would have saved myself the embarrassment of my outburst in front of my boss.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had many mentors over the years, which is why I do my best to mentor my own employees as well as volunteering to mentor others on various platforms across the web.
One of my early mentors, who oddly started off as one my sales rep for advertising on AOL, once told me his favorite piece of advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”
He didn’t mean I was an asshole at the time, but that having that kind of attitude in business doesn’t get people very far. I’ve kind of used that as my North Star in my life the best I can, and I think it’s one of the reasons why most of my agency’s business comes from referrals.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have two books that have changed my perspective on business.
“Thinking Inside the Box:12 Timeless Rules for Managing A Small Business” by Kirk Cheyfitz. Written after the first internet boom and bust, Cheyfitz dismantles most of the ideas around “The New Economy” and reminds readers that things like “profit” and “cash management” are still very much a thing.
My understanding of business was always firmly planted in reality, thanks to my education and some of my early employers (Hilton Hotels, Kimberly Clark). Those companies may not have led the charge of digital transformation, but at the very least, embraced the technology while never forgetting the basics. Many startups tried to tempt me to jump ship during the first internet boom, only to see those companies fail. This book explained it all, plus reminded me of what was truly important in business
“The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets” by Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker. I picked this book up years ago because it mentioned one of my previous employers, Napster. The book details how slight deviations from the norm have radically changed entire industries and how the companies that don’t embrace those deviant tendencies can get left behind.
As I mentioned earlier, I worked for many “old school” companies early in my career. They provided a lot of stability but not a lot of opportunities for trying new things. This book became my bible for how to change internal thinking to allow for “deviant behavior.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
After 15 years on the client-side of advertising and working with some of the largest advertising agencies in the world, when it came time to start my shop, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want it to be.
My business plan stripped away a lot of the bureaucracy that seemed to rule the big shops those days. None of the endless forms or long turnaround times I saw from the big shops while still focusing on classic media planning and buying principles, a concept that had fallen out of favor with the flashy digital media shops of the day.
Plus, I stripped away a lot of the attitudes I experienced from agencies at the time. No more acting like what we were doing was some form of dark art that mere mortals could never understand. We would offer marketing services, pure and simple, but using the modern digital media I had grown to love.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m currently working on a book on search engine optimization entitled, Killing SEO, which focuses on SEO at the enterprise-sized company level, but it will also serve as the textbook for the SEO course I teach at UCLA.
The title of the book is based on two concepts: Killing at SEO, and Killing SEO. Killing at SEO details all the various SEO knowledge I have acquired in my 25+ year run in the digital marketing industry. Killing SEO introduces digital transformation concepts designed for enterprise-level companies that allows them to move past the hiring of high-priced SEO gurus and how to update the skillsets of their existing personnel to add SEO best practices to the DNA of their organization.
SEO will never go away, but maybe if organizations approach the practices of SEO as just part of the job of the right people, then the concept of SEO as a separate practice will fade away.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?
The concept of digital transformation doesn’t need to be overly complicated. In reality, it simply means the integration of digital technology into the fabric of an organization. This integration can fundamentally change the way a company operates and delivers value to its customers.
While the concept of digital transformation gained traction in the late 1990s with the expansion of the world wide web, the history of the process dates back much further and includes the use of personal computers for everything from accounting to marketing to logistics. These days, digital transformation can take on the form of using big data resources for business decisions great and small, to having websites as communication tools both inside and outside the company, to a wholesale shift to digital media for advertising campaigns.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
Technically, there is no limit to the size of the organization that would enjoy the benefits of digital transformation; however, in most cases, medium to enterprise-sized companies tend to benefit the most from the effort.
We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.
Over my career in digital marketing and during my time at my digital media agencies, Fang Marketing and Amplitude Digital, I have had many opportunities to assist companies with their digital transformation.
Some specific instances have to do with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for companies like Sony Pictures Television, The Smithsonian, Manchester United, Hilton Hotels, and Kimberly-Clark. There we used the concepts of digital transformation to integrate SEO best practices into the very DNA of day-to-day operations so that the need for outside consultants was reduced significantly.
We do this by lifting the shroud of secrecy around the concept of search engine optimization and remind the existing personnel that SEO is no more than a repackaged collection of marketing, website design, and public relations tactics that also happen to help with organic search engine placement of their web pages. The process upgrades their existing skill sets by showing them how their target audiences live in a world where search engines exist and how they should adjust their tactics to accommodate that fact.
For instance, at The Smithsonian, specifically for the group that works on The Smithsonian Magazine website, the team was already in the business of creating great content. It was just a matter of informing them that their audiences use search engines to find that content now and how to use the myriad of available resources for things like keyword research to adjust their writing based on how people were looking for the scientific and other historical information they were used to sharing via their publication. We also updated the skill sets of their website design and public relations teams by teaching them the best practices needed to make their usual output more search engine friendly.
The end result was a team that had evolved to include digital into their everyday activities rather than making them dependent on outside help to optimize their work after the fact.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
Digital transformation is change, and change can always be challenging for any sized company, but especially so for enterprise-sized companies. In general, people don’t like change, and they certainly don’t like to be told that they need to do their jobs differently when everything appears to be doing well already.
To resolve these feelings, we rely on a collection of practices known as Change Management, a process that has been in use by companies for decades before “digital transformation“ was a thing.
We’re big fans of the methods taught by McKinsey and Company (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-four-building-blocks--of-change); however, we also pull in various best practices from other consultants to round out the experience. Most people have heard of parts of the concept of change management if they’ve read anything about introducing something new into an organization, such as “getting buy in from upper management;” however, there are many more steps required to make this process work properly.
People who claim that SEO cannot be done without the use of specialized SEO consultants usually don’t bother to introduce the concepts of Change Management into their process, which is why, after the consulting is done, everything goes back to the way it was before.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
As I mentioned before, most of my company’s role in digital transformation has to do with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). While the concept of SEO being a part of the “digital” scene isn’t much of a stretch, the idea that SEO could be something that is integrated into the everyday workings of existing businesses can be a little hard to swallow.
Digital transformation has some common processes that you may have seen elsewhere, but we have adapted them to fit our SEO education programs for enterprise-sized businesses.
- One classic trope of digital transformation is the concept of “revolutionizing the customer experience” through the introduction of digital. To me this has always screamed “SEO” and its alignment with what some people called “content marketing” these days. In reality, content marketing is just copywriting (or the creation of other content) for digital platforms, including your own website, and copywriting has always been a way to revolutionize the customer experience. These days, that customer experience can be revolutionized by providing helpful information to a company’s target audience by way of how-to guides, frequently asked questions, help centers, and much more, and all of these types of content are great opportunities for organic search engine placement. This brings us to the second item on my list, Business Assets.
- Starting my career in the mid-1990s meant that I was in what was most likely the tail end of the first wave of digital transformation. I can remember what seemed like endless days of people printing out reams of paper-based documents while saying, “What happened to the paperless office?” What they were referring to was one of the promises of digital transformation, the digitization of assets. In the world of SEO, “assets” can be just about any form of content you can create: blog posts, FAQs, how-to videos, testimonials, sales sheets, white papers, and much more. While the digitization of assets allowed organizations to move these assets from paper to pixels, it also provided an amazing opportunity to get the information within these documents in front of a wider audience. Google and the other search engines know this, which is why they put content first and foremost in their ranking algorithms.
- Another popular concept in digital transformation is “evolving operational processes.” As you may have noticed in some of my other answers, I don’t believe modern SEO practices should be a separate function, but instead the extension of responsibilities by existing personnel. Because SEO was always sold as a separate kind of magic that most mortals could never understand, the adoption of the tactics used by SEO in existing roles has been stunted, but this can change through the process of digital transformation.
- One of the big misconceptions about the process of digital transformation is that once the upgrades are in place, the process is done. However, for the transformation to stick, the planners need to take into account what consultants often call Organizational Culture. The principles of Change Management also highlight a similar idea, which is that if management doesn’t establish and encourage a culture of change within the organization, employees will slowly return to their previous ways. This is about more than just chastising team members for not using the latest and greatest technology around the office, but more about setting a great example from the top down. During our SEO work within large organizations, we ensure that we do more than just hold a couple of education sessions for key personnel. Instead we work with all levels of the organization to ensure that everyone is on board with their new roles and processes are put in place to carry on the SEO education once we have left the building.
- Out of all the various digital transformation concepts, People Empowerment is probably my favorite. As I’ve stated previously, for too long, SEO has been sold as some sort of “dart art” that mere mortals could never understand when in reality, modern SEO is more about mastering modern marketing principles than technical wizardry.
When organizations empower employees to take on the various tasks around search engine optimization, the organization truly transforms into an SEO powerhouse that is able to integrate content, website design, and publicity best practices that also improve organic search engine rankings.
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
Creating a culture of innovation is very similar to introducing changes to an organization. You might not need all the steps of Change Management we introduce during our consulting process, but a few of them might make the difference.
Specifically, the concept of rewarding personnel is probably one of the more important concepts. All too often, companies push for innovation, but rarely reward the innovators. This can be done by way of monetary incentives, but also promotions, gifts, and more. No one likes going through the laborious process of innovating only to be told that it was a “team effort.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
See my “don’t be an asshole” story.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I can be found on Twitter, and just about everywhere else, as @countxero.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!