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For the second time this year, I’ve just said goodbye to staff members who spent less than two weeks in the marketing department. No, I’m not talking about employee churn, I’m talking about our newest sales reps.  For 2011, we’ve begun a new program for inducting new members of the sales team into the company by requiring they spend two weeks with the marketing team before they hit the phones. With the second batch of new hires through the system, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what our goals were going into the induction plan and how well we’ve achieved them.

What we hope to achieve from a two week induction period on the marketing team for new sales reps:

1) Company and departmental knowledge

One of the challenges we’ve faced as a company as we’ve grown is in keeping our company culture in tact as we scale the team. On the face of things, this should be quite simple as our hiring processes make team fit a number one priority for any new hire however things have changed since we were all in a one room, open plan office together. Now, with clear divisions between departments, there are literally walls keeping the employees of the company from interacting and communicating in the way many of us are accustom to. Each department struggles to overcome these barriers and the sales team is no exception – and with the added competitive nature of a sales role, building ties with the rest of the office can take some extra resources.  The induction process includes seminars from different department heads, an overview of each department’s role within the company, introductions to the staff and an overview of the company’s history. As the marketing team has to produce a lot of related material for resources like the blog and website, they are ideally placed to facilitate these intros.

2) Product knowledge

Content creation for product support pages online and support documentation is managed by the marketing team, as is QA and bug testing. Such in-depth product knowledge is an asset to any member of the team, regardless of department, and seeing the product through the eyes of the marketing team hopefully provides further understanding of the benefits the product provides, not just a list of features. A product induction also allows time for more detailed questions about how the product works and what features are in the pipeline.

3) Industry knowledge

The marketing team has produced market research about the industries with which the sales reps will be communicating. Rather than provide paper print outs of this research, the induction period allows a more indepth discussion of what we know about different verticals, the challenges different subsets of our clients or potential clients might face, and how our product and specifically address those challenges.

4) Respect for the lead generation system

The sales process within our company is a highly consultative one – partially due to the nature of the product and our business and partially due to the initial qualification of sales leads. Throw out the phone book – this isn’t endless cold calling. The marketing team spends a minimum of 50% of its resources on direct lead generation channels including highly qualitative research into potential new clients which are then evaluated for the sales team (the rest of marketing’s time is spent on indirect channels and creating research and collateral for the rest of the company). Our aim is to build in each sales rep a healthy respect for the lead generation process and the thought that goes into warming the leads before they reach the sales pipeline. Confidence in this process leads in turn to more confident and effective sales reps who don’t feel they’re facing an endless day of unqualified cold calls.

5) Expertise

Finally we hope that two weeks of thinking like a company marketeer will help new sales reps begin to think of themselves as experts in the events space where our product is sold. In-depth vertical insight, highly thoughtful application of the product’s features and benefits to particular clients, an understanding of the customer journey before and after that individual customer interacts with the sales rep and an appreciation for the company culture all contribute to a successful sales rep within our business. Projects like contributing to market research and case studies, and composing blog posts about topics relevant to the industry help in the consultative sales process and, we hope, encourage our sales reps to continue to contribute to these projects in the future.

So, how did we do?

The two weeks are up and sales reps back to the sales department. While this was the second such induction I’ve run, the primary difference was that in our first round we had a single sales rep and over the last two weeks we had three all taking part at once. In some ways, having more than one person involved in the process was beneficial – they were able to split up the work during projects related to various marketing tasks about which they had learned and seminars with various other people in the office were more engaging as there were three participants to ask questions. On the other hand, it was more difficult to give the individual attention that really seemed to benefit our initial induction test case. There was physically a difference in the room as well – with a group of three and due to space constraints, the three inductees were sitting together on one table, instead of in the previous session where the inductee sat next to me, so I was easily accessible for direction or to just chat about what I was working on and how it was relevant to our marketing and company strategy.

Difference in group size aside, I still believe this is an incredibly effective and valuable process for bringing new sales reps up to speed. In particular I felt that the product knowledge marketing was able to provide, including in-depth discussion around the advanced usage and the benefits to different subsets of our clients, was something that would have taken an extraordinarily long time for the reps to learn on the job. Likewise, having an opportunity to instill some respect for and knowledge of where leads come from will make a difference in how the reps approach each call – with the knowledge that someone has done quite a lot of work to get that lead to them and not with the defeatist attitude of someone who expects to be hung up on.

If our three inductees left the marketing department feeling more confident in their product knowledge, more aware of the people and departments within the company and with some level of expertise which they can share with potential clients on the phone then these two weeks have been an incredible success. I look forward to seeing their progress over the next few weeks to see the answer for myself.

Top Floor Flat Takeaways

  • As our company’s grown, we’ve no longer been able to let new hires absorb company culture and knowledge the way we did when we were all in one open plan room
  • We first identified what it was that we wanted new hires on the sales team to learn in their first few weeks with the company (company knowledge, product knowledge, industry knowledge, understanding of the sales process and the expertise for consultative sales) then recognised that the place for new hires to learn all of that was with the marketing team
  • We find it important and a valuable use of time to run a two week induction for sales reps where they sit on the marketing team to learn those pre-defined skills which can quickly get them better prepared to sell the product.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the internships I had when I was younger that allowed me to develop my career and get a great idea of what kind of job I actually wanted, and trying to apply that thinking to what sorts of internships I’d like to run myself. Here’s a list of the top level takeaways that I think really made a difference to me when someone was considering my internship application and that I want to bring to the table for internships I run.

Select interns with the same rigour as hiring a new member of staff.

Because internships in the UK are unpaid, and very low pay in the US, it’s easy to make excuses for great (or not so great) internship candidates that you’d never make for potential full time employees. Just because these interns aren’t taking a salary doesn’t mean that they should be any less of a fit for the company. I’m not talking about experience – if they had that they’d be applying for the full time job. This is more about company fit, drive to succeed, skills like the ability to work independently or learn quickly (or whatever is relevant for that particular internship role), and ability to be successful in the particular internship for which they are applying. These are people who will be sitting in the office, interacting with the entire team, working on important projects and contributing at a significant level – their bad attitude could bring the entire team down. There can be internship vacancies which never get filled – or take months to find the best candidate. While it does mean that a company may be short-handed for longer than anticipated, it also means that when they select an intern, it’s the right person who can really make an impact. A related point to this – the best interns often make the best employees. On the other hand….

Be clear up front about whether or not a job is available at the end.

One of the things I wanted to hear up front during the interview process is whether or not there is any possibility of a job at the end of the internship. In some cases, a company may be looking to transition an exceptional intern into a full time staff member – and are aware of that at the beginning of the process. Unless that is the case, talk about the experience you can provide, the skills an intern will learn and the success of past interns but never make false promises about the likelihood of further work within the company. This is a make-or-break point for some candidates if there is no job available, and a powerful driver for interns when there is.

Have a clear daily, weekly and monthly timeline for interns before even posting a vacancy

I think with marketing internships, especially when the team is growing quickly, it is easy to feel the need to bring in a spare set of hands to help with the general day to day work. This can be standard in a start up where there is so much work to be done that getting a skilled, excited intern through the door can seem like the perfect all-rounder solution to pick up the slack. Inevitably interns are then involved in a variety of great projects around but sometimes it can take a couple of weeks to find out which of those activities were best suited to the intern in question. What’s much more efficient is to define specific tasks and roles – even going so far as to do a first draft of a daily timetable as well as weekly targets and monthly goals. This helps in drafting very specific internship listings ensuring the role not only attract potential interns who are interested in that aspect of marketing but also ensuring that potential interns know up front what will be required of them – and can get them started right away without wondering if the tasks are suited to their particular skill set and interests.

From day one – and every day onward – show how the intern’s role is important in the company

While a senior level staff member or someone managing an intern can often see how important that intern’s role is in day to day work, if the work is just a part of a bigger project, it can be hard for the intern to get that same view. While interning for a Bay Area start up, I had a task that could have seemed repetitive and dull – until I was shown how this was setting up the company to run A/B testing on a critical part of the new user registration process which could be measured against how much lifetime revenue new users generated. Now this was an exciting project and I could clearly see that what I was doing could directly lead to increased revenues in a significant way. Making it clear how an interns task relates to a bigger business objective is helpful in engaging them in day to day work and putting their role in a context that can be articulated in CVs or interviews.

Make personal development a priority

An internship is an opportunity for a less experienced individual to learn skills that will allow them to get a full time, paid job – not a service created for companies that don’t want to pay for more staff. Internships work best when there is a balance between the benefit the company receives and the benefit to the intern. I was encouraged to interact with other employees of the company outside my own department, to ask questions about the running of the business, even to invite the CEO for lunch – all of which contributed hugely to my own personal development. Having supportive and mentoring environment can make the difference between an internship that is  successful and rewarding and one that is not.

Top Floor Flat Takeaways:

–          Developing a great internship program, especially in marketing, is an ongoing process that requires a lot of thought and dedication from the entire company.

–          Companies should select interns with the same rigour as hiring a staff member, and should be clear on the daily tasks and weekly goals of the internship before bringing someone into the office.

–          Make personal development a priority for interns by talking with them about where they want to go professionally, being up front about whether or not there is a job for them in the company and showing them how their role affects the company overall.

As I mentioned, I’ll be writing less about travelling and London tourist sites (having reached a bit of a been-there-done-that level with the city) and focusing more on the lessons I’m learning working at a technology start up in London. This is mostly about documenting my own experiences in a way that will be memorable and relevant for my future work in my current role, any future jobs I take, or any companies I start.

A good place to begin is with my own marketing role and how it’s changed in the nearly three years I’ve been working at Spoonfed Media. I think this is an important path for me to remember as, no matter what my job title or role is when I begin a project, chances are that it will evolve as the company grows and changes – even moreso if I’m working in another start up.

This is quite a long post (my role has changed quite a bit!) but there is one key point that characterises each of my role’s transformations – an increase in the metrics available to measure myself, our company’s success and our strategy against. Without those new metrics supporting our activity at every stage of the marketing team’s growth, I doubt we could have been successful in the rapid transitions we experienced. What I’ve come to realise is that, used properly, key metrics within the business have allowed me to grow as a professional and to grow our company’s marketing team from a small time effort to drive web traffic to a consumer website to a fully functioning department within a revenue driven software company.

When I joined the company, there were ten full time staff members, including the two founders, a 7-person editorial team and one developer. There was no marketing department to speak of, “website development” was primarily focused on creating content for our website, an events listing service, and there was no real concept of a revenue model other than display advertising on the site.

In those days, I was responsible for running marketing activity that drove traffic to the website – and kept people engaged once they got there. There was no budget so our primary promotional channels were social bookmarking sites, social networks and search engines. I spent days posting our links on forums, made friends with the power users of StumbleUpon and Digg, and created search engine-friendly site content.

One of the things that is particularly interesting looking back is the relative inefficiency of the work I was doing. Social bookmarking, writing on forums, even going to university campuses to hand out flyers are all immensely time-consuming processes for relatively small payoff in terms of traffic. In my early days in the job, there was nothing to compare our progress to – and certainly no budget for paid promotions – so this not only seemed like the best option but the only one. It was a challenge for sure – in mid 2008, Facebook wasn’t quite the behemoth it is today and Twitter was unknown outside an early adopter community so there were fewer sure fire ways of reaching a large online community at a low cost. One of the issues at the beginning was a lack of metrics by which to measure our success. We saw traffic growing (albeit at a sedate pace in those early days) and that seemed to be enough.

I’m not saying it wasn’t useful or in fact vitally important for the work I do today – in many ways what I learned from doing the manual, hands-dirty labour of trying to get our content out on the web without any advertising spend has provided the knowledge I needed to decide on which audiences to target and on which channels to focus. If I were to take this experience to another start up, one question I might ask is how this initial process of promotion can be made more effective, and more quickly transition into more efficient methods of growing a website. Certainly I would avoid the mistake of thinking that time consuming work that doesn’t directly use cash resources from the company is free. Creating a costing model for the social bookmarking, forum and social networking work around the time spent and as a proportion of my salary would have given me more insight into how much we were indirectly paying for the relatively small amounts of traffic and would have possibly helped us move more quickly into our next stage as a marketing department and to the first real shift in my own role in the company.

As we grew, it became apparent that social bookmarking, forum posts, competitions and the like had been an incredible way to learn about our target audience and about content on the web but were neither scalable or sustainable long term. The next step was to strip away each non-scalable piece of our marketing strategy until what we had left was search engine optimisation (SEO). For the next two years, SEO would be the magic acronym in the office, affecting each part of the company from the developers, who had to think about technical changes to improve the way that search engines understood our website, to the editorial team who at first were sceptical, then fanatical about using SEO to drive more page views to their articles (who doesn’t love to know more people are reading their work?). My days were no longer filled with dubstep forums and leaving comments on blogs about London but instead with spreadsheets of keywords, Google Analytics, search optimised content creation and tracking down the owners of related sites in the hopes that they might link to us from their website.

One of the major differences between this and the first stage of our marketing work was the presence of many additional measurable metrics. Not only were we paying a consultant for help in developing our SEO strategy, but there were keyword rankings to measure, volumes of backlinks to track and the overall ranking of the website to monitor as well as the incoming traffic. What this meant is that we were able to monitor success and failure more quickly – and adjust our activities accordingly. SEO is notoriously a long term marketing activity as work done today may not affect search rankings and incoming traffic for weeks or even months but with a range of metrics to measure, and more concrete checkpoints, I found my work not only more efficient but more rewarding. It’s not surprising that between July and October 2009 we tripled our traffic – something that had taken the preceding year to do with our older strategies.

During this time, while the day to day marketing activity was still focused on growing traffic to the site, overall business strategy was looking ahead to a scalable revenue model – and even with the greatest level of optimism for our new marketing tactics and the potential web traffic available, display advertising wasn’t going to be the answer. The developers were hard at work on a software-as-a-service product that complimented our event listing website and could be licensed out to venue owners, event promoters, theatres or others involved in the events and entertainment space. The completion of that software paved the way for the biggest change in my own role as marketing director yet. While one day I was responsible for driving traffic through low cost online channels to our consumer website, overnight my job became focused on supporting the sales team in a revenue-driven business to business software company. Yikes!

By August 2010 my list of main objectives had expanded to include generation of high quality leads for the Bullseyehub sales team, increasing awareness and traffic for the Spoonfed.co.uk website, producing collateral for other company departments, identifying relevant market groups of potential customers and developing communications and promotions to connect with these audiences. Like the transition from social bookmarking and forum posts to SEO, this shift was not only accompanied by but also successful because of a significant increase in the number of different metrics available for us to measure ourselves against and use to define strategy and progress. An unbelievable wealth of information was now available to track our successes and failures, from number of leads generated to cost per lead to average value per sale to customer retention, not to mention the still-growing site traffic and SEO statistics. The challenge suddenly became seeing the valuable takeaways in the sea of numbers, a welcome challenge after the early days when no measurement was available.

Today, Spoonfed Media has 30 full time employees and is growing quickly. The marketing team, including interns, includes six outstanding individuals who are all contributing to an impressive array of projects that raise the bar for the business daily. The thing that has changed the most over the last three years has been the way our work has become metrics-driven, and as such more efficient. While I never expect my role to be fully static, I feel I am beginning to reach a point where what will change is the reports I generate and the takeaways I receive from key metrics, rather than the concept behind my day to day activities – although that was certainly an exciting experience as well.

Top Floor Flat Takeaways:

  • Just because there isn’t a cash charge for promotions work doesn’t mean it’s free. Finding metrics with which to measure early success with less efficient channels can help early start ups move more quickly into more efficient ones.
  • Focus on scalable marketing channels even if they aren’t the ones that you’re most comfortable with at the beginning. Being really good at something that won’t scale won’t grow the company.
  • Use metrics to support major changes in strategy, employees within the company and growth to better understand new projects and efforts.
  • No matter how dramatic a shift in focus within a role or company, having the right supporting metrics can make employees more confident, process more clear and growth more significant.

There are a number of different elements to online marketing and as I may have mentioned before, one techniques I have been utilizing quite a bit is called Search Engine Optimization or SEO.  SEO is the buzz topic of internet marketing at the moment and involves finding ways to make your website rank highly on search engines.  If you did a Google search for ‘London’ for example, it’s not simply luck that the results you see there have been placed at the top of the list.  Search engines such as Google carefully guard the algorithm that ranks results so that marketers and web site owners can’t take advantage of it and artificially rank more highly but there are a couple of factors that go into causing a website to rank highly for a particular search and that has created the practice of SEO.

The first and most important part of ranking highly is keyword and text optimization.  You could never expect to rank for the search ‘London’ if you don’t have the word London on your webpage.  Additionally, if you have the word London displayed in such a way that the search engine crawlers that automatically view, catalog and rank your webpage can’t see it (such as in an image or movie instead of in text) the search engine doesn’t recognize that your page has relevant keywords.  On the other hand, a popular SEO strategy used to involve “keyword stuffing” which meant adding high numbers of popular search keywords, or the same word repeated many times, penalizes the site as search engines have developed advanced ways of determining if the text is relevant and contextual or not.

The trick in writing SEO text is to compose paragraphs that involve the most popular keywords, in the format they might appear when someone types a search phrase into Google, yet making those keywords sound natural contextually.  The higher up on the page, and in your body text, the keywords appear the better.  Like a topic sentence in an academic essay which outlines the rest of the content of your writing, text in the first paragraph or even sentence of an article, blog post or web page lets search engine robots know what the content of your page is about.  For example, look at the first sentence of this post:

There are a number of different elements to online marketing and as I may have mentioned before, one techniques I have been utilizing quite a bit is called Search Engine Optimization or SEO.

This is a great SEO sentence.  It doesn’t sound like I’ve stuffed keywords in to trick a search engine but I’ve managed to include three key search phrases, ‘online marketing,’ ‘search engine optimization’ and ‘SEO’ in the first few lines of my post.  Here is an example of how I could have written my first paragraph that would have meant the same thing to my human readers but might have caused search engine robots to view my post as less relevant to people looking for online marketing and SEO information:

There are many different elements to my marketing job, all related to driving more traffic to the Spoonfed website.  One of the most important parts involves finding ways for Spoonfed to rank highly on popular web search results.

In that case, I didn’t use any key search phrases, and I probably wouldn’t find a way to fit those key words in until much farther down in my post, causing the robots to believe those subjects are less relevant to my post over all.

This has been a longwinded and fairly technical way to get to my main point which has been nagging me ever since I began to learn about SEO.  As the pressure increases to rank highly in search engines, bring traffic to websites and create pages that Google and the other leading search engines can recognize and rank, how much will this change web writing? While of course talented writers will always find a way to incorporate keywords naturally, the need to be understood by artificial Google robots can easily lead to a stilted and unnatural writing style – just look at the top ranking results on some Google searches.  As print authors are more and more turning to the web, and web authors are more and more looking towards SEO strategies to bring traffic to their site, what happens when those authors find themselves not writing for a human audience but for a robotic one?

I find it unlikely that such a writing style would ever be more appealing than natural, well-crafted prose. In what is possibly a unrealistic and utopian vision of the SEO future, some sort of AI English teacher-style robot will troll the web, knocking the web crap out of the rankings no matter how many keywords they work in.  One can only hope.


As promised, I want to explain a bit about StumbleUpon which I mentioned with regards to Oh How Lovely! the other day.  This will also give you a bit of an idea of one of the many things I do at work all day.

StumbleUpon is a social bookmarking tool which means that it is a social network (like Facebook or MySpace in that it allows millions of users to connect through shared interests or backgrounds on the same website) based around your favourite sites on the internet.  At it’s most basic, StumbleUpon stores your web favourites and bookmarks online so that you can access them from any computer.  But where things get interesting is when you bring in the rest of the social network.

When you register with StumbleUpon, you enter your interests and install their toolbar to your web browser (which adds another row of buttons to the top of your screen when you’re on the internet).  That toolbar includes a little graphic that looks like this: and when you click that button you are taken to a random page on the internet that someone else who is a member of the site had added to their list of favourite bookmarks and tagged with an interest of yours.

For example, let’s say that I discovered a page on this blog, saved it to my favourites on StumbleUpon and tagged it with the word ‘London’ (you need to provide tags for all bookmarks you save).  Then, let’s say you registered for StumbleUpon and listed ‘London’ as one of your interests.  When you click the button, you might see my page appear on your screen – simple as that!  Of course it gets a bit more complicated… in the tool bar you can give sites a or which makes it more or less likely that others will see it again.

Where this all gets very interesting is when you look at how StumbleUpon can be used from a marketing perspective.  With millions of people out there using the button, you want to make sure your page appears when they are looking for interesting sites.  It’s a very simple way to reach people who are interested in your content who may never have heard of your website.  On Spoonfed, we have hundreds of articles including great music reviews, writeups of art exhibitions, theatre commentary and more that’s not necessarily unique to London – we’d like people around the world to start noticing our quality content.

StumbleUpon has a pretty smart algorithm and you can’t just favourite your own site thousands of times hoping other people will see it.  The more diverse your own account is, with lots of different favourite sites from a number of interest groups, the more likely it is that a new find will appear to lots of other Stumblers.

Confused? The important things are that StumbleUpon lets you save your bookmarks online so that you, or any of your friends, can always access them from any computer AND it helps you find sites throughout the internet that match your interest but you may never have heard of.  Keep clicking around and if you see The Top Floor Flat or Spoonfed pages appear, be sure to give me a !