In 2006, Angie and Will Scott, COO and CEO and co-founders, started Search Influence as a technically oriented search, social, and digital marketing agency, supported with tracking and attribution, and demonstrating value across very complex systems. Challenged at the beginning to find people with the needed skills, the agency outsourced its production work and developed an intensive training cycle and “robust” documentation for new hires. Will claims that, to this day, the agency’s internal-facing superpower is training and education.
For the agency’s first six years, SEO required seeding web content with relevant keywords. Will says that today’s content has to be more nuanced . . . that SEO is now “more about meeting the customer where they are in the buyer’s journey.” The agency concentrates on three verticals: midmarket healthcare (driving patient visits to individual practitioners on up to regional medical centers and, on the practice side, generating more leads), higher education, and tourism – market segments where the strategically complex buyer’s journey is characterized by “multiple systems between a customer’s first interaction with the brand and actually closing the sale.”
When the real estate market crashed in 2008, two years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and decimated the region’s small businesses, the national economy took a downturn. New Orleans was still rebuilding. Tourism was booming. Medical and – in particular, elective medical – remained strong. At a time when many companies were failing, Search Influence . . . grew.
Unlike many agencies, Search Influence does not try to “do it all.” Outsourcing work that is not in its areas of concentration (SEO and paid advertising) and bringing on partners to provide services complementary to its quantitative efforts keeps the agency focused and nimble. Client websites are built by a cadre of website development partners. Early on, the agency built a process, an internal editorial team, and platforms to manage external freelancers who produced as much as 10,000 pieces of content monthly for a large direct-to-SMB digital marketing company. That creative management arm is still in place today. Angie questions whether it makes sense to try to develop “side skills” when the agency can so easily partner with “top talent.”
With its practice built around content, the Search Influence developed an internal tool, UpScribed, that morphed into an external-facing platform. Through UpScribed, other marketers (including those who are not Influence clients) get direct access to the Search Influence content team. When Covid “shuttered” a lot of New Orleans’s small businesses, the purposely overstaffed agency went to work for its clients . . . for free. That’s taking a rare, long-range view on things. The same clients they keep afloat today will be tomorrow’s even-more-dedicated customers.
In this interview, Angie, who has an accounting background, talks about maintaining organizational balance. Will identifies a valuable list of free business development networks and ecosystems available to help small enterprises. They can be found on their agency’s website at: searchinfluence.com or on their blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Angie and Will Scott. They are the COO and CEO and co-founders at Search Influence based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Welcome to the podcast, Angie and Will.
ANGIE: Thank you. We’re excited to be here.
WILL: Thanks, Rob.
ROB: It’s a treat to have you here. We don’t always get a little tag team like this, so that is an exciting change of pace. Why don’t you start us off by telling us about Search Influence and what the agency’s superpower is?
WILL: Search Influence, Angie and I started it together more than 15 years ago. We started rather technical. I had come out of a position where I was very focused on SEO, so that’s what we started with. Over the span of time, though, what we have decided our internal-facing superpower is, is training and education. Because we started in 2006, it wasn’t really easy to go out and find folks who had the skills we needed, so we did do a lot of training. And to this day, we remain robust documentation and a training cycle for all new hires.
Externally, we feel like the things that we do really well are still more in the technical realm. Our name is Search Influence, so search is a big part of where we spend our time. But we’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about tracking and attribution and how we actually demonstrate value across very complex systems.
Our top verticals in which we work are healthcare, higher ed, and tourism. And in almost every one of those cases, there are multiple systems between a customer’s first interaction with the brand and actually closing the sale, in whatever way that happens.
ROB: I can certainly think that through. We’re talking about healthcare – what part of healthcare? Obviously, it’s a journey. We’re not going to the ER here. What segment of the healthcare market is representative, would you say?
WILL: Our focus has historically been on the midmarket, so think a handful of practitioners up to say a regional medical center. Very much about driving patient visits, and on the practice side, more leads.
ROB: This is I’m coming to an area, I’m trying to figure out where I should go, or it might have an existing doctor and it’s an evolution over time of where my loyalty is going to go. There’s a journey there. There’s a journey in travel. All of that makes sense.
I can certainly see – you talked about 2006; there was I would say a lot of science around SEO, and it has evolved into art and science, to an extent. How have you thought about evolving your team and the documentation as there has become more of – I would almost say Google and the search engines have moved more towards searcher satisfaction with what they found, which is kind of an art.
WILL: Yeah, in the early days, say 2006 through probably 2012-2013, it was easier to be a little more heavy-handed, to think about content primarily as a vehicle for keywords to correlate to what people were searching for. I think in the time since then, we and any company that tries to practice SEO in a serious way have learned that the content actually has to be more about meeting the customer where they are in the buyer’s journey. And that’s a much more nuanced piece of content than one where you’re trying to have an appropriate keyword density and blah, blah, blah, and highly targeted internal links and that kind of thing.
ROB: Right on. You started in 2006; a few years in, we hit a weird economic spot and the market of search was rotating at that time as well. How did you think through and evolve through that transition to emerge healthy on the other side? Maybe it was always healthy to an extent, but I don’t know. The tourism thing was probably down a little bit if you were in that market at the time.
WILL: New Orleans is interesting on a lot of levels. In 2008, when everybody else was suffering from the real estate market crash, we were booming because it was two years after Katrina. Where everybody else was seeing people drop the keys off at their mortgagor and walk away, we were still in a heavy rebuilding phase.
Also, with the focus on medical, particularly elective medical – that was really a heavy piece for us at that time – there wasn’t much of a downturn. We actually grew through that recession.
ANGIE: Right. Our largest focus, though, at that point was medical. We were – I don’t know, lucky or saw something coming, I don’t know.
WILL: I prefer brilliant. [laughs]
ANGIE: [laughs] We almost felt bad at that time, I remember. It’s like when your baby is sleeping through the night and no one else’s is and you don’t want to say that they are. I think we would talk about if somebody asked, but we just didn’t talk about it because we felt bad. It was like, “We’re growing.”
ROB: And that’s been an echo for this year for a lot of people. This past year, this COVID, 15-16 months now, some people – restaurant industry, they’re just scrapping to get by. A few restaurants figured out how to nail takeout and delivery, and they’re doing better than ever. And then some folks in the digital realm are just doing great, growing. But it’s hard to talk about.
WILL: Totally. Sadly, we are not among them, because we did have a bunch of revenue in tourism and attractions leading into COVID.
ANGIE: But they’re starting to come back as the recovery comes.
WILL: Yeah. And we did this thing where because we were intentionally overstaffed – we didn’t cut nearly as much as we should have if we were trying to meet revenue. So we had staff and we reached out to our customers who were paused because of budget, and we created this thing – our core values spell CHARGE. We marketed it as the “Recharged Fund.” We put our team to work for free for those clients who were effectively shuttered because of the pandemic.
ROB: That’s a pretty bold move, and I wonder, when you first started doing that, how long did you think it was going to be before things echoed back, and when did you start wondering again?
WILL: A handful of weeks. [laughs]
ANGIE: Like everyone else.
WILL: I was actually out of town and Angie was responsible for shutting the office down on March 13th. I don’t think at any time until many, many weeks later we thought that it was going to be more than a handful of weeks that we were out of the office.
ROB: That was a rude awakening for a lot of us. “Oh wait, this basement setup I’m in? This is a lifestyle.” That’s when I went back to the office and I grabbed some tables and chairs and I said, “Okay, this is going to be for real. I’m bringing home a screen, I’m bringing home anything I want to see for the next few months.”
ANGIE: Right. I think everybody had that happen. We did the same thing. We plotted out a very careful schedule for everybody to be able to come one by one and meet me at the office to get any equipment or furniture or anything that they needed so that they could set up some sort of workspace once you realized this may be life. [laughs]
ROB: If we rewind a little bit, we mentioned earlier that you are co-founders. Talk about the journey that let you both into a place at the same time where you’re like, “Hey, let’s start Search Influence and drop whatever we were doing before.” What did that jump look like?
WILL: At that time, we had come from working together – we actually met at work, which is I think part of what makes it so effective for us. But what happened was we found ourselves at the beginning of 2006 still in that Katrina hangover, if you will. I had actually just exited another company, and we were looking for what we were going to do next.
We had the good fortune that Angie and I don’t have the same skillsets. Angie is a businessperson. She has a degree in accounting and has spent her whole career in that side of the businesses, whereas I, oddly enough, have a degree in architecture, but I’ve spent my whole adult career on the more creative and development side.
We saw this opportunity, especially post-Katrina, that there were a lot of small businesses that were decimated. It actually wasn’t too much unlike right now, except that the infrastructure didn’t exist for these companies to go online as they had to after Katrina.
Angie’s family runs a chiropractic clinic, and we saw them as sort of a prototype. They had been located in a place called Chalmette. They were the Chalmette Chiropractic Clinic. Chalmette is a New Orleans suburb that you really don’t hear enough about in the context of Katrina, but it flooded from two directions, and one of those directions came through an oil field. So it wasn’t just wet; it was wet and oily.
We really had to restart their business online. For a little while, the Chalmette Chiropractic Clinic was practicing out of our garage. And then, because it was 2006, we were able to build their brand rather quickly online, rebuilding them as New Orleans Chiropractic and ultimately the Maple Street Chiropractic Clinic.
ANGIE: And making sure that their patients could find them. At that point in time, it wasn’t just about cellphone service and so forth. People were searching online for where did they go, where did they set back up. Thankfully, Will had exited; I still had my current role, an accounting and HR role at a business, so we were able to not only have the time, because I had moved into consulting, but also have the funds and also the time to really get it going and truly focus on the business between both of us.
I think we were lucky and we also had an agreement that we would only start a business that didn’t require going out and finding investors or getting loans. So we were able to get it going just between the two of us and devote everything we had to it.
ROB: What sort of business were you working in together when you met?
WILL: That business morphed over the time that we were there. It was originally a website business, and then we moved into online Yellow Pages. You remember Yellow Pages, right?
ROB: I do. I sure do.
WILL: We actually put them online so that they looked like the book, which was –
ANGIE: Weird. [laughs]
ROB: It reminds me a little bit – I had a friend in the agency business who exited his agency, and what they used to do was take the corporate earnings reports and he would put them on CD-ROMs and make it look just like the real thing, but on a CD-ROM and maybe a little bit interactive. He built a good business of it. So you can never underestimate what that looks like.
You can see how that would lead adjacently, then, to the search side where you would have some of those technical chops of how to do that right. I can see the transition there, for sure.
WILL: It really was. I remember having a conversation with a guy who was at Yellow Pages. It was shortly after I’d exited that business and I was thinking about maybe going to work for them, and I said to him, “What’s your biggest priority for these phonebooks?” He said, “Anti-scraping technology.” He turned it around and asked me the same question: “What would be your biggest priority?” I said, “Making our data as accessible to Google as humanly possible.” So clearly, I didn’t get that job.
ROB: Yeah, there’s a little bit of a strategy delta there. But somehow those businesses managed to wander around. I knew some folks here a few years ago who were working for YP.com, which is YellowPages.com. I don’t know if they’re in there selling to car dealerships and TV stations or what they’re doing, but those businesses remain around.
There was obviously at some point a step where it made sense, Angie, for you to join full-time as well. What did it look like when you started growing the team? Who did you need to join? At some point I’m sure it came from “We’re doing this, we’re not taking investors, we’re not taking on debt” to “Hey, this is kind of a good business. We can grow it.”
ANGIE: Right. If I had to guess, looking back, I maybe spent six more months consulting within the other company. Having two of us full-time devoted to it was not necessary when you only had – we weren’t even employees; we weren’t even getting paid. So once we started having employees, you start to have to build all the processes, the handbook, the payroll. I was bookkeeping sitting at night for an hour, no big deal, super easy. But once we started having employees and growing that side of the business, that’s really when I think it took over for me.
Our first employee was actually somebody who stepped in and worked with Will really closely on what we now would look back and probably call account management, because it was strategy, and then we had – at the time we were outsourcing all of our production work. They would basically strategize with our production teams outside of the company.
ROB: Got it. That’s an interesting little strategy there. Different people still recommend, even at scale, having different percentages of the work go outside the firm and then have some burstable capacity outside of there.
I think probably one part of your journey where you’ve had to make a lot of decisions is what to add and what not to add. You mentioned you’re in three verticals now, but you could be in 12 or 20, and there’s probably some services you’ve added over time and some you haven’t. How have you navigated that decision of “We’re going to add this line of service; we’re not going to add this line of service. We’re going to add this vertical; we’re not going to add this vertical”? How have you navigated the temptation to do everything?
WILL: I think it was about 10 years ago that I coined the phrase, “If we really want to lose money, we’ll take a website client.” The thing is, there’s a very different skillset there. What we do instead is we have partners that we work with to build websites at different scales for different clients if they need them. But the things that we do really, really well are much more quantitative.
We also developed a practice around content, so much so that we built an internal tool that we ultimately turned into an external-facing tool that we call UpScribed. It’s a platform that other marketers can use to have direct access to our content team.
We had a period in time where we were the backend for a company that has been acquired – and they may still have the same name – Yodel, who was one of the big direct to SMB digital marketing companies probably between 2007 and 2013-2014. We were doing as much as 10,000 pieces of content a month for them.
WILL: As you can imagine, we didn’t employ the writers and editorial staff to do all of that, so we built a process where we had an internal editorial team and platforms to manage external freelancers for the actual creative of that.
ANGIE: That we will use today.
WILL: Yeah, that we still use today. And UpScribed has clients using it external to Search Influence as well.
ANGIE: Because it turns out that is an agency problem. [laughs] Which is probably not a surprise to anyone. I think right now – it’s funny; I was actually chuckling inside my head that you maybe were a fly on the wall in the last few weeks, because we’ve been discussing literally writing out the services that we are going to spend all of our focus and time on. We do quarterly planning, we do annual planning. These are the services that we should be planning around, and that’s SEO and paid search. Sorry, SEO and paid advertising. I have to get my words right.
Then those other services that we do still offer, like website builds and PR and so forth, we would find really good partners if we don’t already have them. A lot of it we already have a great partner for. And to your point of what things we outsource, we outsource and partner with different people who are really good at that stuff. There’s people out there who are very good at video production. Why would we build that? That would be silly, because there’s some really great video production companies out there that we can use, and use their strengths.
WILL: And it turns out that somewhere in the last decade, people have forgotten how to do SEO. I think as everybody’s gotten on the whole inbound content marketing bandwagon, we’ve forgotten the basic blocking and tackling of SEO. Oftentimes, we’ll come across a site that has great content that’s completely inaccessible to search.
I think of myself as having grown up in SEO because back in 1999, we were using GoTo.com to try to figure out what keywords we were going to stuff into the metatags. So really, for us, when we think of the things that we’ve trained our team on historically and where we feel like we’re adding a lot of value, it’s in those places that are technical and quantitative and ultimately that we’re able to demonstrate very good return on those investments because of that tactical focus.
ROB: Has there ever been a service area that helped teach you some of these lessons? Like you dabbled in it and you realized – maybe it was websites, maybe there was something else. Sometimes our eyes get a little bit big for our appetites and we say, “Oh sure, let’s do that too,” and then we get our hand smacked one way or another.
ANGIE: I think maybe it wasn’t services and it was more so certain clients, probably, that led us down “Yeah, we can figure out cross-domain tracking for this and that,” and then you get into it and you’re like, whoa, this was a much bigger thing than we thought it was. But then you’re there and you’ve got to figure it out. So I think it was probably more the client side that drove us down some of these more technical areas.
ROB: That makes sense. If we broaden that a little bit, what are some bigger picture lessons you’ve learned along the way that if you were picking up the phone to yourself 15 years ago, you’d be like, “Hey, you’re going to want to do this. Don’t do that. Do this differently”?
WILL: This is one of those things – and I think time and maturity allow you to really look at these things in the right way. Almost all of those lessons helped us to better understand the kind of company that we want to be.
A great example is we spent about five years with a single reseller representing way too much of our business. The kind of work that they needed was much more fulfillment, much more high throughput work, and it was not as satisfying for our team to execute on. It didn’t make for the greatest work environment for some of our team for a while. And then after all that, they decided to take that business in-house, which meant that they were taking a really big chunk of our revenue with them.
I think that was a really good lesson learned. When you find yourself with too much concentration in one customer, you’ve really got to get busy making sure that you’re doing the business development work that makes them not so monolithic. I think anybody who’s ever worked with customers knows, when a customer comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to give you five times as much money,” you don’t say, “Hey, sorry, we can’t take that because that would screw up our customer concentration.”
ANGIE: Right, because a lot of people do talk about that. They say, “Don’t let a single customer get to X percentage of your revenue.” It’s like, don’t let them? So, say no? Who’s going to do that? No one’s going to do that. So really, the answer is not that. It’s when they offer that, you go and you find more of that in other clients.
ROB: Notoriously – I’m here in Atlanta, and one of the bigger agencies here for a good while has been Moxie, and they’re owned in a holding company now. But when they were acquired, at least if the street reports are to be believed, they had 200 or 300 people and 70% of their business was Verizon. Every time a new iPhone launched, they had to do all the in-store collateral, just fire drill. Are you going to say no to that? You’ve got 150 people you can put on the payroll to serve this client. You figure out how to grow out of it.
I think what is often the case with some of these reseller, these channel relationships, these subcontract relationships, is sometimes they’re selling a deal that you haven’t quite figured out how to sell yet. Was that your experience? Or did their business look a lot like business you were bringing in yourself?
WILL: It actually didn’t look like the business we were bringing in ourselves. In fact, we found ourselves with two account management teams, one that was serving our direct clients and one that was serving this reseller. And there were a couple of other smaller resellers as well, and their lived experience day to day was very different, and their understanding of the work that we did also was very different. So it was hard to move somebody from that partner account management team to the direct account management team or vice versa and have them be Day 1 ready.
ANGIE: The reseller was selling packages because you could sell them – you didn’t have to understand everything. If you have a large sales team, it is much easier to hand them a package that says, “This is what you’re getting on this month in Month 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,” whatever it is. It was the same work over and over, whereas our direct clients were much more about the marketing funnel and creativity and so forth.
ROB: So even some of those clients may have been – would it be fair to say they were a little bit smaller where the direct engagement might not make sense? Was there a delta in deal size, or was it just a matter of the relationship?
WILL: I think generally speaking, those that were coming in through our reseller partners were smaller than we would’ve approached directly.
WILL: They were much more true SMB. The other thing that we talk about as an opportunity and that we try to tell new business owners about when we encounter them is that we didn’t know how many services were available for small businesses when we started this up. Things like SBA’s Small Business Development Center and all of the different networks and ecosystems.
We literally had a meeting with one of those organizations, the local big entrepreneur ecosystem entity, and we sat down with them and we were like, “Hey, you guys are doing great things here. We’d love to get engaged. How can you help us out?” As we were talking to them, they started asking us questions like, “How many people do you have? How much revenue do you have?” At the end of the conversation, they were like, “You seem like the kind of people who could really help us out.”
ROB: [laughs] Wow.
WILL: Yeah. Not the plan. But I think there are so many of those services available that smaller entrepreneurs who are coming up in that classic startup ecosystem don’t really have a sense of.
ROB: What are a couple more of those that you would say someone should at least take a look at and not miss out on? Maybe New Orleans driven, maybe more national in scope. What should people pay attention to?
ANGIE: Later on – probably much later on, I went through the 10,000 Small Businesses program, I guess you would call it. It’s put on by Goldman Sachs, and I would say that’s a really good one. And it is everywhere. They’re all over the place. They do a really great job of walking through – you don’t have to go there with questions. They assume you don’t know anything and you’re going to learn it in the classes. So that’s a really good one.
WILL: I was going to say we have a number of purpose-driven organizations that I think are opportunities as well. There’s one called the Good Work Network that tends to work mostly with smaller businesses primarily in marginalized areas, and I’m sure that there are sort of sisters around the country. There’s one called Vet Launch, which is focused specifically on veteran entrepreneurs.
I would say that there are going to be dozens of these, and if you can find one that you can plug in consistent with their affinity, the resources are going to be invaluable.
ROB: That’s a great thought, to think about plugging into the affinity. It creates that extra link. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, it’s hard to ask for mentors, it’s hard to ask for advice. Sometimes that linkage can be a relationship you incubate over time, but it sounds like a great shortcut you’re talking about there, about navigating through a shared interest. That’s a really great thought there.
Angie, Will, I’m sure when people want to find Search Influence, I’m sure they can search for you and find you pretty quickly. But if people want to connect to you, how else should they go about finding you, connecting with you, and keeping track of what’s next for Search Influence?
WILL: Our website, searchinfluence.com, and our blog are really great places to start. We are pretty active as a company on Facebook and LinkedIn, and Instagram as well. Those are all great places to connect with us.
ROB: It’s not to be missed. LinkedIn in some ways seems to continue in effectiveness, even though – you probably have this worse than I do – the random connections. I don’t know how you handle them. I get a lot more than I’d like to get, I’ll put it that way.
WILL: What’s funny is that I’ve been getting a lot of them – a lot of my random connections lately have actually been somewhat relevant. So if I do choose to connect with folks, I’ll say, “Hey, I connected with you because I’m interested in this thing that’s in your bio. I’m not a buyer today, but I wanted to have you in my list of connections.”
WILL: Especially when you’re working B2B. When we’re approaching folks who work in higher ed or who work in hospitals and health systems, they’re on LinkedIn and they’re paying attention. So from a cold outreach to start a conversation perspective, I find LinkedIn to be the most effective.
ROB: Makes so much sense. Angie, Will, congratulations on building, growing, sustaining a meaningful business through making it through some challenging times and some good ones. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It’s really helpful. I think it’s motivating, and there’s great little tips all along the way to learn from. Thank you so much for sharing.
ANGIE: Yes, thank you for having us.
WILL: Yeah, Rob, thanks for having us on. I was glad to be introduced to your podcast because in prepping for this, I came across a number of episodes that I thought were really useful.
ROB: Well, thank you. We all need to get outside our head sometimes, and that’s part of it as well. Thanks for coming on. Be well.
ANGIE: Thank you.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.