As one might imagine, a lot of things have changed pretty dramatically here at iAcquire over the past several months. We’ve transitioned from a link vendor to a strategic SEO partner that offers holistic solutions for SEO needs. During that process we’ve made vast improvements to our team and offerings and solidified our agency’s purpose and promise.
iAcquire has always been distinct in its delivery as a technology-focused company with a sales-based culture and we’ve always been committed to being an SEO agency that got stuff done. However beyond that there wasn’t much in the way of why we exist or what we stand for.
Well, I’ll tell you right now.
iAcquire exists because there are many problems in the search marketing space that are easily remedied through Creativity, Responsibility, Acumen, Fortitude and Transparency – in a word – CRAFT.
- Creativity – We believe in creative and tailored solutions to all marketing problems. We understand the concept of scale but the quality and uniqueness of the campaigns we build for our clients are paramount.
- Responsibility – We believe in honoring our contracts and commitments to our clients and take it upon ourselves to always deliver.
- Acumen – We believe that everyone working at iAcquire will bring a high level of talent and expertise to the every engagement as a strategic partner to help clients meet their business goals.
- Fortitude – We believe in standing up for what we believe in the face of challenge or adversity and will continue to support those that share those beliefs.
- Transparency – We believe in being honest and look to hide nothing from our clients.
Ours is a collective of people that believe and respect those values. Many of us came from larger companies and digital marketing agencies where those values were not at the core and ultimately the work suffered. At iAcquire we strive to Respect the CRAFT – those places did not. Therefore iAcquire promises to be the transparent, effective, scalable solution for comprehensive quality SEO for all those that we encounter.
How the iAcquire Process has Evolved
The iAcquire model has shifted considerably, not so much in the outreach process, but in what happens before and concurrently. If you recall from the Quantifying Outreach study our link building process looked like this:
The key takeaway from this approach are that a lot of analysis was done before the actual outreach and sites were identified based on their relevance and finally an actual person would reach out to them and request a link.
Now our content marketing process looks like this:
The immediate key difference is money goes into creative development now rather than in the outreach portion of the equation. Since content is the currency we use to build links there is a substantial amount of strategic planning that goes into every engagement.
It’s important to note that I lead the New York team that facilitates the strategic planning of these campaigns, but there are many more leaders in the iAcquire organization that handle the actual implementation, account management, sales and fulfillment of our programs. That said, I think it’s better if they tell you in their own words about our evolution. So allow me to introduce you to some of our CRAFTy superstars!
Jeff Nappi is the Director of Technology here at iAcquire and he’s responsible for leading the team that builds iRank our custom research, CRM and analytics platform. Our teams also collaborate to build innovative tools like Broken Link Index and Authora as well as to integrate new features into iRank to facilitate scale of new tactics across the fulfillment team. Jeff is also an SEO and his over 15 years of development skills have allowed us to make iRank a completely unfair advantage.
How is iRank designed to be used by the outreach team?
iRank has been built from the ground up and continues to evolve to enable the outreach team to efficiently discover and communicate with publishers. iRank is at the center of the day to day work of the outreach team and it encompasses every stage of the outreach process including:
- The assignment of campaigns and clients
- Research and development of the campaign strategy
- Discovery of high-quality, relevant publishers
- Managing outreach and communication with discovered publishers efficiently
- Tracking contact attempts, successful exchanges, and identifying active articles/links
- Monitoring placements to ensure they meet client specifications
What types of reporting does iRank provide?
From an outreach perspective, iRank provides several reporting tools to find relevant sites for the placement of articles. Our proprietary research report system includes keyword search reports that process and return up to 500 potential sites. Our research reports go through the following process:
- SEO metrics and details are collected for each site
- E-mail addresses and pages with contact forms are identified
- Sites that have been recently contacted are removed
- Sites that we have excluded via custom blacklists are removed
- The outreach team member is presented with a detailed report of potential publishers to pursue.
What types of reporting does iRank provide for clients?
iRank provides clients with a detailed report of article placements including SEO metrics, placement URLs, and more. These details are included in client reports as soon as our systems have verified that the articles have been posted. Given that our publishers have full editorial control, we have also introduced a method of identifying what we call “link equity”. We report to the client when an article goes live where the link has been “no-followed” or where the link was removed. In those cases we queue up an additional article to be authored to meet the requirements of the client.
In addition to reporting placements iRank provides detailed outreach reporting and SERP ranking monitoring. iRank’s ranking report system is capable of illustrating the direct correlation between published articles and improvements in SERP rankings. Our ranking reports provide easy-to-understand charts displaying progress over time.
What features of that reporting provide transparency to clients?
As the outreach team works through reports ran for clients, every action that takes place is logged. This gives us the ability to report key data points to clients which are shared with them via their own login into the iRank system. Clients are able to see how many sites we manually reviewed, how many sites were filtered out by automated processes and how many total sites came up during the research process. In addition, during the research process all metrics collected about the sites may also be made available for clients to view.
What features have been added to iRank to facilitate the move to content marketing?
Practically overnight, iRank has grown entirely new workflows and systems in order to support content marketing. It has had to expand to cover three extremely important new roles: Content Strategists, Editors and Writers. Included in these changes are complete workflows for each stage in the content development process, from the idea to writing to editing including all of the nuances of link building strategy in a single application. Large swaths of how iRank was built and how we do business have changed. Our system automatically identifies new blog posts when they go live on publisher sites, completely independently of any type of direct integration. Once we have sent an article to a publisher, we immediately begin periodic crawls of the publisher’s site so that we know precisely when the article has gone live. In addition, iRank has gained a fine-grained categorization system to give us very powerful understanding of our content production.
What improvements are in the works?
Many new features are currently under development. The most important features revolve around all-in-one solutions for the workflows of the content strategists, editors and writers. These new systems are expected to be deployed very shortly and will provide unprecedented efficiency to the distribution of our content to new and existing publishers.
Cindy Nieves is the Director of Operations here at iAcquire which means she leads our team of link builders come content marketers. A former unit commander for the Air Force and then Operations Manager for Amazon.com – Cindy is no joke. As Director of Operations she employs a Kaizen approach to continually improve processes and essentially optimize our team. There’s no one else I’d rather have had running our fulfillment team in Arizona through such a hard transition.
How did the fulfillment process work under the old model?
Cindy: The fulfillment process under the old model differed in a few ways. Projects/campaigns were on a 30 day ramp up period and we promised a high volume of links in a 30 day period where outreach used compensation to leverage placement of links.
Additionally, we only had 2 project managers which had 70-80 active projects to manage. The pace of fulfillment focused on high volume link placement. We placed over 1200+ links/month
What were some of the obstacles to the efficacy of that old model?
Cindy: Some of the obstacles include that approximately 25% of the projects required clients to approve the sites before we placed the links which slowed down production and created a bottleneck. At times, the high volume link requirements jeopardized quality. Link placement relied heavily on just SEO value where other value added incentives like promotion and social traffic were not taken into consideration.
How has the fulfillment process changed under the content marketing model?
Cindy: We are creating high quality content that people want and promoting that content through social media channels (not at the level we would like yet- but we are getting there). Now we convert new relationships into long lasting relationships instead of a short term relationship. It’s a partnership where the fulfillment takes their time to deliver quality content versus having a focus on volume delivered.
iAcquire’s process model was quite effective even without financial incentives so how has outreach changed specifically?
Cindy: The PR pitch in the initial outreach message is more developed and ask our audience about their editorial calendar so that we can continue the relationship from the start. Additionally strong rebuttal arguments combat those publishers who want payment. We use the outreach strategy of matching relevant content with relevant publishers.
That seems so simple; I wonder why everyone doesn’t just do that. So what skills has the fulfillment team had to adopt or improve under the new model?
Cindy: Learning to pitch relevant topics to publishers, rebuttals for publishers that have paid in the past, Social outreach techniques using social tools have all helped to improve our new model. The most valuable tool has been learning to understand the audience you are speaking to when you send your message in your initial pitch is the key to understanding your brand and executing the client strategy successfully.
Big shout out to Norris Rowley for what he brings to the table. Ok so what new tactics are being employed right now?
Cindy: Some social outreach is used to reach out to potential publishers and retweeting them before/after initial outreach fortifies the initial connection. Other tools we use are followerwonk to target particular bloggers. Matching relevant content to relevant publishers is the most important outreach tactic that drives efficiency. Outreach team members have the ability to view all [available] articles and can run reports based on article themes and can increase their sample size for potential placement opportunities. In the past they could only access the articles available for their projects now they can access all articles for all projects. Now they don’t ever have to pass up a site that is not for their project. It it’s a good site we have a relevant article for that site.
Tons of tactics fly around the SEO echo chamber what new tactics are being tested for inclusion into the iAcquire process?
Cindy: Google alerts are being used to find sites that are already talking about our clients and we are reaching out to them to place content. We are also using broken links technology as a consultation tool to help publishers with their sites and leverage that relationship to place content. Also, much like the Google alerts, our outreach teams are identifying brand fans via twitter and iRank search reports to make connections and placements
How have changes improved the ability to build links?
Cindy: I wouldn’t say we build links I would say we build strong relationships with people who have a need for great content (that have links in them J ). Our new vision and model supports this by creating high quality content that people want. We study our audience and our client brand to understand what content is best for both our customers (our clients and our publishers). This has improved our ability to do so by providing our customers with this great customer experience.
What is the fulfillment team’s idea of transparency?
Cindy: Transparency is building relationships by giving people content they like and care to use. We are beginning to become experts in our verticals and are using that knowledge to leverage our new and existing relationships with relevant content for their sites. All while driving results for our clients
What improvements are in the works?
Cindy: There are many improvements in the works but just to name a few: Pending email monitoring system which will automate the fulfillment process after the publisher has shown interest in content will eliminate human outreach involvement after the relationship has been created/developed and will allow publishers to be introduced to our CMS platform and opt into our content calendar for recurring content distribution.
We will soon have the ability to attach publishers to conceptualized ideas which will give publishers that are interested in content sooner than later.
Jenna Meeker is our lead Quality Assurance Manager and she has been with iAcquire for just about as long as it has existed. She brings an admirable passion for getting things done right and if I was still building links every single day (to be clear, I still do, just not that often) I would be scared of her. Her team spots issues with laser guided precision and as such there is an infinitesimal risk that anything gets by them. Every SEO agency needs a Jenna Meeker and although you can’t have one, I would encourage you to think about building your own Quality Assurance team.
What was the QA process under the old model?
Jenna: Under the old model QA evaluated link placement on the site so there were many variables that were taken into consideration (i.e. placement on the page, natural integration, spammy links).Additionally, we evaluated the publisher website offering advice and tips on SEO best practice and focused primarily on link integration and website PR.
How has that QA process changed?
Jenna: QA evaluates social traffic, how often the site is updated with fresh content (consistently), share-ability and even evaluates overall publisher site for page value and original content. Now we use blog sites more often than before and publishers have full editorial control over content once it’s placed. The most important aspect of this is that now we have to use the merit of the established relationship to leverage changes to content once it is placed.
What are some key red flags QA looks for in the manual review process?
Jenna: Some of the red flags include: Page rank criteria, lack of relevancy, poor web design, duplicate content, frequency of updated content, and spammy links/content
What skills have the QA team had to adopt or improve under the new model?
Jenna: The QA team had to learn about the new content creation process and had to learn social media skills and how to use the social media tools. Additionally, they learned how to leverage relationships by educating webmasters of the value of fresh content. Learning the quality of blog sites was important since in the past we did not allow blog site link placements. Finally, understanding the audience the site is speaking to and how it’s valuable for the client was another key learning point for the QA team.
How has the determination of the value of a link changed?
Jenna: QA has to evaluate the quality of the content surrounding the link and not just the sentence integration of the link itself. The focus is about the value of the page. If the page has high social, good PR, and high traffic it gives our client more exposure to social promotion and promotion of the brand. The value of the link is now based on the website audience where before it was not about the people visiting the site it was solely about SEO value.
Our account management team has been on the front lines of the entire transition and has had to deal with the heat from clients. Jordan Garner and Peter Menchaca both joined iAcquire in the Conductor acquisition so this isn’t the first time they’ve had to deal with moving clients from one business model to another. The talents of Jordan with her strong technical background (Computer Science degree from Georgia Tech) and her people skills as well as Peter with his outgoing personality and technical marketing understanding have been incredibly invaluable throughout this transition and I personally commend them for a continued job well done.
How has the transition between iAcquire’s models differed from the transition from Conductor to iAcquire?
Peter: Both were improvements, but that’s about where the similarities end.
The transition from Conductor to iAcquire was like upgrading your iPhone 4S to an iPhone 5. The transition from subscription links to content marketing has been like upgrading your moped to a Ferrari.
Jordan: The cost/return model did not change from Conductor to here as it has now, but I feel much more excited about this transition – as AM’s it gives us so much more flexibility to really be strategists with our client and create dynamic, evolving, and effective off-page campaigns.
What were some recurring obstacles to servicing clients under the original iAcquire model?
Peter: One of the biggest challenges with the older model was the potential for a solution to become stagnant. We saw a lot of success with our old campaigns in the early and mid-term. SEO, however, is a zero sum game, so this did not take into consideration potential ramp-up by competitors.
Lack of flexibility was also a frequently recurring issue. With subscription links, it was difficult to pivot towards new opportunities without spending more resources. This was oftentimes difficult for SEO Managers to explain to higher-ups: there is a reluctance to continue spending once results have been achieved.
Jordan: The main issues that arose under the old model of links were related to the fact that it was challenging to scale programs since links had reoccurring costs associated with them. This made it hard to justify continuously adding additional budget and resources to go after more/trending keywords, supplement existing efforts due to competitor ramp-up and/or algorithm updates, or go after seasonal terms. This model also made seeing on-going results for continued investment hard or impossible to show, as rankings would significantly improve, level off, and eventually slowly start to fall because of no continuous link velocity. The overall model did not fit well with how clients report to their bosses, how they factor in and justify marketing spend, etc., which made for harder-than-necessary renewal and upsell discussions, when the good results should have spoken for themselves.
In light of the complete move away from subscription-based links, how has the account management process changed?
Peter: We have completely new deliverables, timelines, expectations and even nomenclature to familiarize clients with, so a fair amount has changed. In addition, we have completely re-designed our entire solution process from kick-off to maturity. That said – there is more flexibility and opportunity to engage with clients and scale our solutions. We are having conversations at a deeper level within organizations and expanding our scope of work, which is awesome. To be honest – I love it: If you can’t roll with the punches in SEO you’re in the wrong line of work.
Jordan: The account management process has changed pretty significantly since we have adopted the new campaign structure. We are now able to assess the success of the strategy continuously and make changes and optimizations as we see them, which also allows for the process we use for each particular campaign to get iteratively better. Due to the permanence of the placements, we do need to be careful to do all of our due diligence upfront when selecting target URLs, and be sure we are planning for any future site/URL/re-direct changes as well as possible content changes that could alter preferred ranking URLs down the line. We can also always be on the lookout for new or trending keyword opportunities, as well as fight off competitor ramp-up and algorithm tweaks by altering the off-page strategy. By using a content schedule to outline the ramp-up order of different keywords and target URLs, we can take into account keyword priorities, seasonal keywords, and striking distance keywords to show quick wins. For longer-tail terms, especially geo pages, we can much more aptly scale the off-page efforts and drive traffic with lots and lots of those terms. We are able to perform more effective “sensitivity” tests on things like geo silos, category/product page silos, newly created pages, etc., to understand the perfect amount of off-page initial ramp-up and continued link velocity to maintain high rankings. Reporting on costs, return, etc., has been made a bit more complex as the payoff of investment is seen over a much longer and somewhat undefined time frame, but the opportunity to do continuous process improvement and better strategy targeting over time more than makes up for that.
What skills has the account management team had to adopt or improve under the new model?
Peter: Content marketing. What it is, what you need, how to do it successfully, how to report on it, and how to sell more of it.
Jordan: We have definitely had to become better versed in different kinds of cost/revenue/return models for reporting purposes. In addition to continuously improving our knowledge of what makes a great article link and how to develop and optimize a content strategy, we have had to lean a lot more on communication and project management skills as we are now coordinating the efforts of a much larger and more diverse team of talent to turn around a successful campaign, including PM’s, content strategists, writers, editors, designers, etc.
What is the account management team’s idea of transparency?
Peter: I think that transparency means setting and delivering on the right expectations with no surprises in between. Transparency is key to any successful SEO partnership, and it’s important to clearly explain and showcase all the hard work done in the background.
Jordan: Transparency to me means that the client fully understands and feels comfortable with our process, deliverables, methodology, team members, timelines, benchmarks, and results. It means as-it-happens reporting, confidence behind how we are representing their brand and messaging to content partners, and that in this sense they feel we are simply an extension of their own internal team. It means that if someone was sniffing around for a story, the client would feel entirely confident standing behind all the work we have done for them, and would even recommend it to all their friends. J
During the transition what were some obstacles?
Peter: What obstacles?
Seriously though, the most challenging aspect of transitioning any client was having to have the same conversation multiple times. In a surprising amount of companies, SEO is still not very well understood. Decisions come from the top, so the challenge is educating the c-level executives and general marketers.
Jordan: Obstacles during the transition included resetting client expectations around delivery and results, altering contracts and reporting to reflect our new deliverables, and making sure the whole team has a solid understanding of the right questions to ask of the client to make sure we are positioned to maximize success. We have also had to tweak the items we talk about on regular client calls, how we “define success”, and how we handle new proposals and upsells.
What improvements are in the works?
Peter: We’re improving our processes, both internal and external, from top to bottom. We have completely redesigned our proposal, kickoff and success tracking procedures to be reflective of our new tactics and just be better for our clients. We’re also opening doors with the solutions that we can provide. Clients face multiple challenges when it comes to SEO, and it’s exciting now to be able to provide answers for each one.
Jordan: So many! We are always improving our processes, including everything from proposals to kickoffs to success tracking to new opportunity identification. We are learning better every day how to put together smarter strategies, in terms of resource allocation content schedules, anchor text variation, etc. We are getting better and better at building better content and finding the content partners that will love it, as well as aligning this content better with the client’s own content initiatives/plans. Overall, our campaigns get better and better results for our clients every day!
John-Paul “JP” Barnych is our VP of Revenue and also joined the iAcquire team in the Conductor acquisition and before diving into the SEO space he worked at Yahoo! as District Sales Manager. JP and his team perhaps have had the hardest transition in that they have had to start selling what we’re doing as fast as we determined what that was. The expansion of our offering turned sales calls into moving targets and JP has done an incredible job keeping the ball in the air by evolving the sales process at a lightning pace and dealing with client concerns. It should be noted that JP has always been incredibly transparent with clients and continues his commitment to setting them up to deliver. I admire JP for his hard work.
How has the sales team evolved in 2012?
JP: Over the last several months the iAcquire sales process has evolved considerably. Although understanding customer needs and goals remain at the core of our discovery process we have gone from selling a compartmentalized service as a component to SEO success to a comprehensive solution that addresses the larger business objectives. As an example, in the past we focused a lot of attention on understanding customer needs and plans primarily from a back link perspective. This included assessing customer experience with link building and content marketing, existing initiatives and fairly granular data points like “what makes a good link to you?”
Today the conversation is dedicated to providing solutions that address larger search challenges. We’ve developed an amazing team of in-house experts across multiple search disciplines and regularly invite them to participate in calls. Leveraging their deep expertise enables iAcquire to best diagnose functional issues that limit overall search success (for example, we seek to understand how customers identify and segment their audiences as part of the content origination and development strategy. From this perspective, the customer development org has really become a team of consultants, coordinating internal resources and focused expertise to best fulfill customer goals. Our conversations have become more complex and now touch more stake holders at prospective accounts. We are delivering broader solutions that drive search success for the enterprise instead of at only the departmental level.
What is the sales team idea of transparency?
JP: Transparency in search is crucial. One of the largest challenges to building new relationships in the search industry is overcoming bad past experiences of prospective clients. Most of the time this stems from prospects who were disappointed by previous agency relationships. It is no secret that many agencies oversell and under deliver. In my experience the best way to get past the “once bitten twice shy” reality is head-on and with candor.
On a micro level this means openly discussing iAcquire being temporarily delisted from Google earlier in 2012. It is important for all clients to know our company’s history and our vision for the future. We are very proud of both.
On the macro level I believe strongly in “slowing things down to speed them up”. This entails investing real time and effort into each stage of our sales process to continually qualify a customer for our service and our service for the customer. Our team is very upfront with this philosophy throughout the process and we strive to follow through with great discipline. When the Customer Development team does its job properly we end up with new customers who are eager to work with iAcquire, have clear expectations, sign off on strategy and agree on KPIs. Transparency early and throughout the process make renewal and expansion conversations objective and easy for both sides.
What do you look for when hiring?
JP: To be a successful team member at iAcquire and within the search industry overall, you must possess a sincere humility to learn every day and ask for help when you need it. Change happens fast in search. To compete for the long term you must be curios, you must innovate and you must be humble. Today’s killer new strategy is tomorrow’s ineffective fad. In my opinion a major contributing factor to earlier comments about agencies that disappointment clients is their lack of belief in the need for humility. Many agencies position themselves as being smarter and knowing more about search than anyone out there. This is not iAcquire’s approach when it comes to selling or hiring.
When hiring we seek people with relentless desire to be successful, true commitment to do right by others and genuine humility to learn from their peers. Since it is really hard to find sales professionals with these traits who are also technical search marketing wizards, we support our team and customer with experienced subject matter experts. It is our goal to build teams that can grow and evolve as fast as the industry we work in.
What improvements are in the works?
JP: A ton. We’ve made several key hires over the last twelve months across multiple departments. These additions are really hitting their stride and driving our growth. For example we are now helping many customers with overall digital strategy (expanding beyond our SEO expertise). Our capabilities now include content strategy and development, analytics integration, paid search, and reputation management. Internally, we are constantly working to improve solution performance and web based reporting provided to customers via iRank. From a sales perspective, we already provide detailed forecasting and transparent modeling with every custom proposal, we are in the process of further enhancing our forecasts to include more predictive modeling based on historical campaign performance combined with specific customer data.
To be clear, my main role here at iAcquire is Marketing, but I also oversee Digital Strategy. This wasn’t the case until we’d made the switch to the new model. In the past Strategy at iAcquire was not the type of comprehensive strategy and account planning that you’d find at a larger agency that incorporates customer insights and market research. It has been my personal goal to change that within SEO in general so it makes sense that I’d make attempts to implement that thinking here. Previously strategy happened primarily in the sales process and it looked at whether the client wanted to go with paid links or not and then determining any deficiencies between them and their competitors.
Now that we’ve evolved into a comprehensive SEO solution we continue to build out a strategy team that touches all aspects of Search, Social Media and Market Research to develop an effective strategy that filters down to the fulfillment team. Everything begins with Norris Rowley our Manager of Market Research and Analytics who builds Audience Reports and Measurement Plans that will inform everything else that we do from content to link building prospects to social pushes. The next stop is Megan Brown, our Social Media Strategist, who helps lay out the social strategy by identifying influencers. Just this week Tom Harari has joined as our SEO lead and his insights will also soon permeate throughout our programs. Although she’s not a member of my team Brittan Bright brings her extensive technical sales experience and leads account management for this bigger picture offering. All of these people add up to a significant amount of firepower influencing to our account teams to deliver tailored approaches.
Respect the CRAFT
iAcquire has come a long way in a very short time. We’ve made many sacrifices to be the best team we can be and live up to the values that we’ve determined for ourselves. We aspire to be the best digital marketing agency there is, continue to deliver results and live and die by the quality of our work. There’s a long road ahead of us, but we’ll get there – one step at a time.
These are very exciting times, we’re growing, we’re maturing, and we’re innovating. If you’d like to be involved we’d love to hear from you because there’s nothing better than working with likeminded individuals that Respect the CRAFT.