Mark Bealin is the Founder and Principal of SearchLab, a rapidly growing internet marketing agency that helps local businesses grow through search engine optimization, paid search marketing, and website design. We discuss the evolution of SEO, how to drive sales through conference speaking, and ways to get more conference speaking opportunities.
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Drive Sales Through Conference Speaking With Mark Bealin
My guest is Mark Bealin, the Founder and Principal of SearchLab. They offer local SEO and paid media services to small and medium-sized businesses, combining large agency capabilities with the enhanced attention of a boutique firm. Mark, welcome to the show.
It’s good to be on with you, Steve. I’m looking forward to this.
It’s good to have you, as well. I’m all into exploring what’s new in the SEO and the paid-media world, but let’s start with your journey. How did you end up founding a digital agency? What journey brought you to this point?
It starts around the Great Recession. I was interested in this thing as a kid. I used to trade baseball cards. I’ve always gravitated toward this thing. I had a normal job. I was working at a company called LocalLaunch! I did well there. During the Great Recession, we all were going to lose our jobs. This was in 2009.
At that point, I started my first agency, which was called Evolving Interactive. I worked there for eight years. For about five of those years, it was good. I then started to have a little bit more complications in my personal life. I got married. I started to have children and wanted to do different things than the other founders of that company.
It’s a funny story. I went and gave notice on January 10th of 2017. When I went home that day, my wife went into labor with my son. I had given notice and had a baby within 24 hours. It was a momentous day in my life. At that point, I stuck around for a little while. On March 1st, 2017, I started SearchLab. A lot of that had to do with wanting to provide for my kids. I’m the only owner of it. It has been a great experience ever since. There are a lot of things I’m leaving out there, but that’s the gist of it.
With any enterprise, there are ups and downs. Even when you’re growing, you don’t grow like this but you grow like this. That’s the nature of the beast. You figured out some things in this company based on what we discussed in our earlier precall. One of the things that grabbed my attention was the sales framework that you developed at SearchLab. Can you explain what that looks like and how you work it?
One of the things in my industry is there are a lot of conferences, trade shows, and that sort of thing. There are niches within those trade shows like conferences specifically for automobile dealerships or medical practices. I recognized pretty early on that being on those stages and connecting with our audience would be a key to our growth.
I was okay with getting on those stages, but I wasn’t great. I started to hire people who were good at it. The first person we hired was Greg Gifford, who is well-known. He speaks all over the world about SEO. It worked as I thought. As soon as he got on the stage, it was fine, but it was a problem because we were getting leads but we needed to clean up our sales process. At that point, we began hiring salespeople.
The components are these. You have a speaker who presents at the conference. You’re going to have a salesperson who’s going to take leads from that conference and bring them through an orderly sales process. Oftentimes, if not always, we will exhibit at those conferences. We’ll have a booth and we’ll have an exhibit where salespeople will look for people. They’ll cultivate relationships and bring them through an early process.
What’s interesting about us is our sales demonstrations are done by the product expert. The people who are on the stage do that. I don’t think Greg has ever put a name into our CRM once. The salesperson does all the hard work of negotiating a deal and getting it across the finish line. The product expert does a lot of the sales demonstration and the client-facing stuff.
What we’ve evolved into now is we’re going to be at something in the neighborhood of 30 conferences. We’ll have a sales presence there. We’ll have speakers at as many of those shows as we possibly can. We’re going to have three people on my team who a big part of their day-to-day life is to travel around, speak, and present at conferences. They take people through an orderly sales process, and the salespeople close those deals.
I know companies that attend conferences but I have never heard of someone doing it on such a large scale. It sounds like you’re at most, 30 conferences. It sounds like you’re at most. Are these specific niches that you’re targeting? What is your approach?
It was not super intentional but it will make sense. One of our biggest verticals is in automobile or auto dealerships. We work with 100-something car dealerships. That has been a great vertical for us. What happened is we did well for a car dealership and we performed well. They refer to you businesses. You begin to get more fame on the conference stages, and you get asked to more shows.
It has taken a life of its own. Over this time, we are interested in that. We’ll speak at vertical-specific conferences like NADA or Digital Dealer. We’ll speak at large digital marketing conferences like SMX or Pubcon. We’ll speak a whole bunch of vertical of twenty groups or smaller engagements with select targets like automobile dealerships.
Does your main lead generation tool the speaking and the conferences?
That’s what has done it. To give you some sense of how well that has performed for us, we were about barely over $1 million in 2019, and my top line. Now, it will be $7.5 million. That’s from 2019 to 2022. It has been a very effective strategy for us. It’s not the only thing we do. By far, our main focus is to try and be on the conference stages.
The folks on my team are good at this. They’re good at educating. They can speak well and present engaging contents that they do. Not everybody in that audience is a client of ours. You have to appeal to a lot of people who may never buy anything from you. That’s okay because there are enough people there who will become customers that it’s worthwhile.
Getting on the stage, is it all about word of mouth and customer referrals? How do you get on the stages?
Obviously, that’s the hardest part. It is going to be a bit of a cop-out. The biggest thing is to have the right kind of people who are education focused. They want to educate people. They’re good at it and they have presentation skills. From there, it is a matter of pitching like anything else. It is not rocket science. There’s a speaker submission form for every conference you can think of.
In the beginning stages, you’re going to have to get rejected a lot. It’s like sales. You’re going to have to apply to twenty conferences to be accepted to one. Once you get that opportunity though, it’s important that you nail it. When you’re on the stage and you have a chance to show what you’re capable of, you have to do a good job because that should lead to more opportunities.When you're on stage and you have a chance to show what you're capable of, you have to do a really good job because that should lead to more opportunities. Click To Tweet
If you perform well at a show and you get good scores from the audience, you’ll be asked back to that conference. Very often, that conference organizer is organizing another conference somewhere else. Becoming friends with the conference organizers is a good idea. That can help. Make sure you’re connected on LinkedIn. Make sure that you go out to dinner with them and stuff like that. Make sure that they remember who you are.
More than anything, if you’re not capable of giving a good presentation, then I wouldn’t even try. All this will be for nothing. If you’re capable of giving a good presentation, go through that period of rejection and getting told no a lot. Take any opportunity you can to practice. One of the things that I’ve seen people do is they’ll do the same talk a bunch of times.
They’ll start at a regional show and they’ll get a sense of how the talk does, “That joke didn’t land. This one was funny. Maybe I’ll go a little bit further next time. I’ll take it from the regional show to search marketing. I fine-tune it even more.” By the time you get to the vertical conference, the NADA or the Digital Dealer where you got to make a lot of money, that conference talk is going to be refined. It’s good if you’ve practiced it. That’s where you need to shine. You need to be invited back to that conference. You need to work with the conference organizers to get into other shows.
That’s great advice for speakers. I did that as well. I went to all the Rotary Clubs and the Lions Clubs. They were absolutely not the target market but it was a good way to practice speaking. I’ve got to the Vistage Circuit and those groups, and then you go from there. You get invited to conferences. That’s awesome.
Let’s talk a little bit about the SEO business. I’m always fascinated with how things change. Obviously, Google is changing their methods and the search words and all that stuff. How is SEO evolving? How are you on the service side changing how you do SEO and pay-per-click advertising? What are the trends in the Industry?
It is a constantly changing industry. We have to stay on our toes and make sure that we’re on top of things. In big ways, it doesn’t change dramatically. In the last couple of years, one of the things that have happened a lot is that Google has changed the SERP, the Search Engine Results Page itself. If you google the same term in 2017 or 2018, and you do that same search today, the search engine results page will look different. There are more features.
What Google is interested in is having a more immersive experience. It’s their term, immersive. It used to be you would google and they just want to get you off their site. They want you to click on another site and go. Now, they’re interested more in having you stay on that site. I’m a local SEO. That means I care about brick-and-mortar businesses or businesses that service a specific geographic area for trades.
For us, this isn’t super new, but it has become hugely important to take care of Google Business Profile, which was formally known as Google My Business. When people search for you, all this pertinent information that Google has gathered will appear on the right side of the search engine results page. It’s what’s called the Knowledge Panel.
Mike Blumenthal was a famous local SEO. He has coined the term, “Google is your new homepage.” What we’re finding and what has changed in the last couple of years is that people are doing a search. They call it a Zero Click Search, so people are not clicking on a website. They’ll do a search. They’ll figure out what they wanted to figure out, and they will never visit a website.
Tracking and proving that you’ve provided some value to your clients has become more challenging because they never go. Things like you’re opening hours or busy periods, or what your phone number is. They don’t ever have to go to your website anymore. If that stuff is incorrect on Google and you’re not taking care of this important blocking and tackling work.
If you don’t have specials during the COVID period, you didn’t have your COVID policies listed on Google, you’re not in Google Business Profile, you’re not answering those questions, and you’re not responding to your reviews, then you are leaving opportunities at the door. People will simply not go to your website sometimes now.
They’re going to use the information that Google has to make a buying decision. It has become more of an immersive experience. Where it’s going to go is even more down that rabbit hole. For example, if you did a search for hotels, you would see a very different SERP than you would if you searched for plumbers. It’s going to be different than car dealers.
There are special features for verticals, which I talked a lot about that are becoming more where I think Google is going to go. Their interest is in having an immersive experience. It’s not about you puddle jumping anymore. You land on Google and then you go somewhere else. They’d like to keep you and continue to serve you ads. They want to keep getting money and find new ways to serve you ads. They want you to stay on their website longer.
I certainly noticed that. I asked a lot of questions on Google, then the most likely answers, you just open up a little window and you can read it there. You don’t even have to leave. I don’t like to leave because I want to look at the other answer and the next answer and not be clicking back and forth. That is a good awareness to have that I am treated like that as well. In my content, I was wondering why these guys create that great content that shows up on a Twitter page and I don’t even know where this came from. This gave me the answer and don’t even have to engage with the creator of that content. That’s disappointing for the people who created that. That is interesting. What are the success factors of a successful pay-per-click program? What should people be doing?
Pay-per-click is more straightforward. For every dollar you put into it, you should get $3 out. It’s more cold, more practical, and more mathematics oriented. Our director of PPC who’s a huge deal in the industry was a math major in college. It’s that side of your brain a little bit more. You still have to write ad copies and do some creative work.
What I want to know is how much did I spend and how many leads did I get for that spend? How much did it cost per lead? What’s my return on ad spend? That’s the whole name of the game. There are a lot of things that we’re going to do to try and improve that. There are things that are native to Google. Google is becoming more automated ad features these days, which I don’t always like.
At the end of the day, this is a business decision. If you’re spending money with SearchLab and Google, and we’re not turning your money into more business opportunities for you, we shouldn’t be working together. We don’t deserve your money. At the end of the day, it’s a return on ad spend world. What are those desirable actions? Are you looking for phone calls, chats, or web forms?
We can have a discussion about that, but at the end of the day, how much is that form worth? How much is that conversion worth to you? How much are you willing to spend to get one? If we’re aligned on those goals, then making sure that as long as we’re under your target and you’re getting a good return on ad spend, it leads to a very happy and long relationship with the advertiser.
What does a good return represent? Is it 20%, 50%, or 200%? I just had a conversation with one of my guests who is running a direct mail firm. They can get a 13X return on ad spent. What constitutes a good return for someone’s advertising, given also the risk of maybe that’s not repeating or not being sustainable?
I’ll give you the same thing that I use internally. I’m also a business owner, so we have our own advertising. This is exactly what I do. It’s the way I look at it. Anything that I’m not getting three times the return is not worth it. If I’m getting a 2 to 1 return, it is not worth it because the opportunity cost isn’t there. Five times or better, I consider fine. Generally, anything above 5X is considered very good.
I’d be willing to invest more money in that. Anything lower than 3X, I could be spending that money better. These are the same way you would think about investments. I think about the allocation of advertising dollars. There is some truth to PPC is not a light where you’re going to turn it on and then all of a sudden, you’re getting money, but it is quicker than SEO.
I tell clients like expectation setting, “In month one, you may lose money. In month two, we’re going to break even. By month three and onward, this thing should be something that makes you money or else, I’ll just stay friends. We don’t need to have a relationship because you could do better elsewhere if we’re not doing that.” Fortunately, our retention in PPC is strong because we do deliver.
What I heard from some people is that SEO works for certain types of businesses. For example, local SEO is definitely something that is more engineerable. Whereas SEO for some business-to-business type businesses like consulting, it’s harder to make it profitable. Is this true?
That’s probably true. I would need more examples. For the industries that we work with, it’s very beneficial. What I would suggest to somebody who wanted to learn more about this is you probably have analytics on your website. How are you getting leads today? I would venture a guess that you’re probably getting leads from people who are finding you organically on a search engine unless you have a huge PPC budget.
It becomes something where it’s almost like you have to take care of the basics, no matter what. It’s so important because, for local businesses, this has completely replaced the Yellow Pages as the place for people to find local businesses. There may be examples where SEO doesn’t matter as much.
I know people who don’t care about their website. Entrepreneur friends of mine, sometimes it’s not their thing. For many, if not most small businesses, you neglect your organic search at your own paradigm. It is where the competition is happening. If people are trying to decide whether they going to buy from your business or your competitor’s business, chances are they’re going to go to Google. They’re going to get on there and start to look up things and start to do some searches. It may not be for everything, but four times more than not, that’s how their behavior is going to work.
Is this a matter of having something that’s a major category where people have the awareness that they have to search for that category? Plumbing is an obvious one. When my toilet is clogged, I look for a plumber. It’s very obvious and I want someone local because I don’t want to wait for anyone to come from a distance. It’s going to be a local plumber. I put in plumbing. That’s simple. What if it’s business coaching? There are so many different business coaches. How do you search for that? How do you get into the mind of the person searching? What are the search words that you’re going to give to them? How local do they have to be? How do you see that?
A lot of this is you’re going to do some research. You’re going to look at how are consumers working to find the services you provide. If you’re a business coach, chances are you could use tools or Google itself. You can find out a long list of words that are topically related that people are using to find your product. You can use a PPC campaign if you want to augment that research.
You can get real data about exactly how people are searching. I’m not just talking about the last search that they do like, “Business coach near me.” How do I know if I need a business coach? What’s the benefit of an E-Myth coach versus an EOS coach? Those sorts of questions. Once you know those terms and that they’re topically related, you’d want to create content around those pages.
If you have a page like, “What’s the difference between an EOS coach and an EMyth coach?” and you have the best page on the world wide web about that, Google should rank your page high on the search engine results page. Now, you’re in the middle of the funnel there. That person hasn’t bought from you yet, but they have been introduced to your brand.
You can start a marketing funnel at that point. You can start to serve them remarketing ads. You could start by maybe having them sign up for a newsletter and now you have their email address. You can start to serve them email marketing. The point is without traffic, there is no hope. You’re going to need to start by creating content that people will start to land on your site. It can be informational content.Without traffic, there is no hope. You need to start creating content that will lead people to land on your site. Click To Tweet
As you take them through an orderly marketing funnel, you get closer to getting a new client. There are ways that this can work. Where I find the dangerous question, I was trying to think of something where SEO doesn’t work as well. One of the things that’s hard is a brand new idea. If you have an app or something that no one has ever heard of before, it’s hard.
Generally speaking, what Google does well is you have an idea of what you want, and it’s going to give it to you. In the case of some brand new app that nobody has ever heard of, you need to make the public aware of that. If Google doesn’t do that as well, there’s another leverage I would try from a marketing standpoint.
First, you have to figure out the keywords, you generate the questions that include those keywords and that are likely being asked. You then create content to answer those questions, and then you channel it into a funnel. That’s a multi-step process. It’s pretty elaborate.
There’s a misnomer about how people search. People think you search for a Jeep dealer near me, and then you get your car, and that’s that. Google found in a study that the average person did 66 searches before they bought a car. There’s one story of somebody who did some impossible number of searches, 300 searches before they ended up buying a car.
What happens a lot is you are going through that awareness phase. You’re trying to figure out what’s the right kind of car for me? What are the options out there? At every step of the way, as SEOs, we want to connect with that customer. PPC is totally different. PPC is like, “I want to get you when you’re about to buy and you’re ready to buy, and I want to be the last click that you have because it’s too expensive.”
With SEO, I want to get you at any phase of your buying journey, and then take you through a process. Once you’re on the site, we can make all kinds of decisions. We can serve you remarketing ads. We can have easy calls to action on the site to get you to sign up for newsletters, test drives, and everything like that. As long as you’re on the site, we can start this marketing machine, but without the traffic, there’s no hope.
That’s a super valuable context for this whole exercise of being seen on the internet. It’s not about pushing, it’s about pulling. How do they even recognize me, and what is their thought process? It’s reverse engineering the buyer journey so that you get into their heads. What are the steps that they’re going to take to get here? How do we build out our infrastructure to serve them along the way? That’s pretty cool. Before we wrap up here, I’d like to ask you about your podcast. You have a podcast called Suds & Search. Why did you start this podcast and how does it help your business?
I’m glad you asked. Thank you. Suds & Search is my favorite thing I do. I started this agency. Our office was located in a neighborhood in Chicago called North Center. My neighborhood was microbreweries and agencies. That was it. They were startups like mine and a bunch of microbreweries. After work, you could go get a beer, and you would run into an expert at content marketing or web development or something like that. We’d have great conversations. As you can imagine, we’re talking about our work. We’re in the early stages of starting companies and so we’re full of passion. You have a couple of beers and you have a lively conversation.
I thought that if we could have a show about these conversations, I would like to watch that show. I think that would be a good show. That’s how we started up. We would go to the pubs and breweries near my neighborhood. They usually look nice. We would have a video component to it and we would sit in those breweries, have a couple of beers, and talk about whatever that guest was good at.
That was going swimmingly until COVID, and then all the breweries were closed. We had no shows. Fortunately, Greg said, “This is a blessing. We could do this over Zoom. We’ll keep having beers. There’s a little bit of a tribute to the place where we were but we can scale this a lot easier over Zoom and talk to people all over the world.”
That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve talked to people in many different countries. I had a list of all the people in SEO and PPC who I wanted to talk to at the beginning, and I’ve gone through all of them. It’s over 100 episodes now. It’s a very popular and meaningful podcast. I’m proud of it. We’re going to keep going for a while here. It has been a labor of love for sure.
Congratulations. It’s a thematic one as well. Lots of podcasts are just talking about general experiences and do not have a theme. I love that you have the search as a theme. For anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the search firm, then it’s a great place to start. Do check out Suds & Search with Mark Bealin. Where else can people find out about what SearchLab does and what you do? How can they connect with you?
My company is very active on major social media platforms. Twitter and LinkedIn are my personal preferences. That’s usually where I go. Facebook and Instagram are more for my kids and my personal life. Twitter and LinkedIn are my business outlets. On our company blog, every single week, we have a video series that comes out on Tuesdays from Greg called Local Search Tuesdays.
They’re very short 3 to 5-minute clips about something going on in the industry. My video series comes out on Thursdays, Suds & Search, which we talked about. I would appreciate anybody who would subscribe to those two things. If you’re interested in attending any of these conferences or where we’re going to be, we usually do promote what conferences we’re going to be at on our social media. I’d love to see you at a show or talk to you online. I’d love to talk to businesses. Anything I can do, I’d be happy to help.
We’ll definitely check it out. Mark obviously knows his stuff around search. Like it or not, we all have to learn it. That’s the future. It’s not going to go away. We better embrace it and get better at it. Myself included, I have to give myself a pep talk on this one as well. Mark, thanks for coming. Mark Bealin, the Founder and Principal of SearchLab. Check him out and check his company out.
If you like the conversation, you can go on MBPPod.com, which stands for Management Blueprint. You can find the past episodes and future episodes. If you’d like a custom business operating for your business, then visit StevePreda.com. You can download my books and test your company as well. They have surveys and a journey assessment. Thank you for tuning in and stay tuned for another exciting entrepreneur coming up in a couple of days. Thank you. Thanks, Mark.
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