The Engagers: Lee Odden

In this edition of The Engagers, we sit down with Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Online Marketing and author of Optimize. He’s built an incredibly engaged following and become one of the most respected voices in the content marketing and SEO industry. His down-to-earth advice is always a breath of fresh, pragmatic, implementable air.

You’ve built a thriving agency and a major online marketing publication without outbound marketing or outbound PR. What role did influencer engagement play in getting you to where you are today? 

That is an excellent question. Early on I observed that people with opinions and the skills to be persuasive about them online attracted audiences. They inspired trust and confidence in their own expertise, which could be conferred upon others. Connecting with those that already had the expertise and credibility was very appealing, so I started engaging with people I perceived as influencers.

From conference speakers to conference owners, I figured out ways to create value for other influencers until the tide turned and people started coming to me.

Our blog (toprankblog.com) follows an editorial schedule that is designed to attract, engage and persuade audiences at varying stages of awareness and interest in our agency. One dimension of that approach includes publishing interviews with expert practitioners, industry thought leaders and authors. We also take on guest posts on an invite only basis from those same types of influencers. This gives them exposure to a different, yet relevant audience and it gives us added exposure as well.

We write about topics that our target audiences (customers, industry media, potential employees, current clients and partners) will find valuable. For marketing this means creating thought leadership posts about the direction of the industry targeted towards senior executives. Engagement is lower, but attribution of new project inquiries with this type of content is high.

We also create practical content in the form of lists, examples and tips that get a lot more engagement and sharing, but are not attributed to inquiries as much. They keep us top of mind amongst practitioners, potential employees and those who influence decision makers. When we have an influencer contribute a post, we almost always ask for content from them in this format.

Together, different types of content and the inclusion of influencers in co-creation like the Content Marketing Secrets and B2B Marketing Innovation eBooks keep TopRank top of mind amongst the different audiences we’re interested in and helps build our overall community and inbound consulting inquiries.

Our work with influencers is not limited to content of course and I am very active at networking online and off with industry experts and thought leaders to learn, create value and collaborate.

As someone who excels at engagement online and off, what is the most challenging part for you? In other words, what is your kryptonite?

OK Lex Luthor, that’s a good one. Nice try.  What I will say is that my natural state is as an introvert. With that in mind, the sheer volume of networking online and off as well as 20-25 speaking engagements a year might seem a bit uncharacteristic for someone whose natural instinct is to be shy. But, that is a challenge that I’ve had to overcome. It is no longer my kryptonite but I still need to work at it.

Let’s face it — the notion of online influence can be a controversial subject. How would you explain online influence to someone who is skeptical?

I think it’s important to have a good understanding of what an influencer is. To me, it’s someone who stands for something, has attracted an audience or community of interested people and can inspire measurable action.

The challenge is in qualifying who is an influencer about what. There are tools for that (like Traackr) but there’s also no substitute for first hand experience and participation in a community to understand who the influencers are.

When someone can affect outcomes because of who they are and how people respect them, then that’s a valuable resource.  I don’t have any illusions about creating an engagement strategy based purely on connecting with big name influencers though. That’s nonsense.  Niche influencers tend to have more pull and when they speak, people listen, and more importantly, they act.

Have you downloaded The Engagers yet?

In your book, Optimize, you write about how SEO, social media and content come together to create a new marketing paradigm. Why should a marketer integrate influencer engagement into this new online marketing mix?

Optimize is about taking into account the customer journey and creating an online marketing strategy that identifies the ways in which information is discovered, consumed and shared. Content is central to this approach since content is the reasons search engines exist and it’s what people share on the social web.

Connecting with subject matter experts that create content, share it on the social web and that are active in the industry folds well with a customer centric approach. Empathy with customer goals, pain points and journey to find answers can also be used with thought leaders in an effort to connect with their communities and spheres of influence.

Creating value for influencers rather than simply pitching and asking them to do something has been the most successful approach for us. It’s about “give to get” in a way that the influencer feels compelled to help you since what you’re doing is so relevant and meaningful to their interests.

Concretely, how do you go about figuring out how to reach out to someone? What steps do you take when you identify an influencer you would like to engage?

You want the secret sauce, eh? Here’s what I can tell you: To be efficient, you really need to use a tool to help surface those individuals that represent the centers of influence that are meaningful for the topics and audiences your brand wants to be connected to. At the same time, it’s important to have first hand knowledge about the industry and the common problems people are trying to solve.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s about “give to get” so it’s important to understand what the person you’re reaching out to finds valuable. Think about how you can help them. Also think of this as romance, not a booty call with someone you barely know.

Influencers that are high in demand will be numb to standard pitches. Comment on their posts, retweet with annotations and be smart and relevant in your communications with them. See how they respond to those efforts and optimize your approach accordingly. Networking with influencers is something that takes time and I’d recommend that it be consistent, whether you have something to promote or not. When the time comes, they’ll be warmer to the idea of helping you out.

As an influencer in online marketing yourself, what is the most creative request you’ve ever received from a marketer?

The most creative thing I think someone has done is really a tie.  First, chocolate covered crickets from Grasshopper, a virtual phone system got my attention.  Another effort came from Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo who created a custom video pitch as well as hand written letter promoting their Social Media Marketing eBook, which we then wrote about on our blog.

I think the takeaway is that no matter how creative you are, the creativity is not a substitute for the relevance of your message. The message still needs to deliver. That same lesson applies to online or content marketing.  A combination of creativity and incredibly useful content is needed for the win. Clever graphics or useful tips alone are no longer enough.

If someone wants to engage with me, they’ll need to bring something of value and that’s highly relevant. I cannot stand pitches for things that are not part of my interest area. I am interested in growing my agency with new consulting projects, attracting superior talent to work on our team, industry media coverage and paid speaking or workshop engagements. That’s what our blog is for, so any pitches that somehow don’t help me advance those goals, simply aren’t going to be considered.

If there really was a team of superheroes named the Engagers and you were on it, what name would you give yourself?

“The Optimizer” of course.