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Diary of a Modern Marketer: How I Learned That SEO Beats Ads

SEO Beat Ads

Dear Diary,

It's me Ryan, Content Marketer at Acadium. In my digital marketing journey, I have learned that SEO beats Ads and that content marketing is more defensible than social media advertising.

When I first started pursuing digital marketing as a career, I thought the best way to help clients was to redesign their website. To me, it was the obvious choice. It’s the first impression potential customers have with them. Additionally, during the pandemic, since customers aren’t going to stores anymore, it’s become even more important to have a well-designed website.

I tested this hypothesis with Jim Taylor Custom Saddlery, a custom saddle manufacturer. Jim’s website was basic and merely a place holder with a contact form. It failed to represent their brand as high quality and luxurious. To right this wrong, I redesigned their website and tried to create an image online that would compel people to pick up the phone and call Jim.

Redesigning the website was only the first step. Upon completing the new site, it was encouraging to hear Jim and his team comment on the website’s improved aesthetics. However, I wasn’t hearing that it was translating into sales.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about sales funnels or landing pages. I was primarily focused on the look and feel of the site.

Learning How to Drive Traffic Using Facebook ads

So, I faced an impasse. The website was looking good, but it had no traffic. The solution? Facebook ads.

I learned how to use Facebook ads while working with a mentor I found on Acadium’s platform. I convinced Jim to give me a budget to test out if Facebook ads could grow his business. It turns out Facebook ads work.

If you can learn how to run ads on Facebook or Google (which you can), then you’re immediately an asset to someone who needs traffic to their site quickly. I started running ads using some product imagery of the saddles and video content they were producing at the time.

Immediately, I was delighted to report to Jim that we had a dramatic uptick in web traffic. Jim shared my excitement because he started receiving several calls a day from potential customers.

The campaigns were such a success that I felt like Facebook ads were the answer to every business’s struggles. All you needed was the budget. For Jim, the campaigns had generated so much interest we had to turn off the ads so he could meet his demand.

Seeing Traffic Drop as Soon as the Ads Stopped

What happened after I turned off the Facebook ads shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did at the time. After I stopped running Facebook ads to drive traffic to Jim’s site, the traffic slumped back to what it was before the website redesign. I was shocked and disheartened. I thought that the brand awareness the ads generated would sustain increased traffic to the site even after turning them off. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

You Can’t Grow a Business on the Back of Ads

Seeing the traffic drop didn’t quench my belief that ads were the answer to every business’s problem. It just evolved. I had become a hammer and tried to treat every problem like it was nail. I was naive. I went to Jim and made the case that if he wanted to continue growing his business, he would have to continue buying ads.

In hindsight, I realized that paid ads were just one way to grow a business. Facebook ads aren’t a strategy but a channel.

I was convinced after running a single campaign that social media advertising was a money-in, results-out scheme. It is pay to play.

The Downsides of Relying on Facebook Ads

What I failed to realize was that these advertising platforms change.

  • Advertising costs increase as more people run ads.
  • It’s easy to be outspent by a competitor. Jim isn’t the only business in his niche, and he isn’t the biggest. He faces a risk because he could easily be outspent by a competitor on Facebook with a bigger budget.
  • Clients will filter you out. Ad fatigue is when your target audience sees the same ads so much that they become blind to them or, worse, annoyed by them. If you’re running ads constantly, your target market will get sick of seeing them.
  • You can’t stop paying for traffic. Once you stop pumping money into your campaigns, the traffic will drop because it’s the only channel you’re investing in. It feels like you become locked into a costly cycle.

I learned that to help a business grow, Facebook ads couldn’t be the only tool I used.

Becoming the Content Lead at Acadium

After my apprenticeship on Acadium, they invited me to share my experience on their podcast. Thanks to my enthusiasm about the results that running ads can bring to businesses, they hired me as a contractor to experiment with newer ad platforms like Quora, Snapchat and TikTok.

The experiments I carried out were to see if they could reliably bring in users to their platform. Although it was interesting to push out content on those platforms, they weren’t reliable channels for growth. I was beginning to learn that putting money behind content wouldn’t guarantee results.

We decided to drop the experimental ads and explore publishing organically instead. My role then transitioned to executing their content strategy.

Managing their blog was my introduction to content marketing. I couldn’t put money behind my efforts to generate results anymore but would, instead, earn the results by publishing engaging content. It was a challenge I was excited for.

Executing a Content Strategy

When I was running ads, I knew that people would see my content whether they wanted to or not, but now I had to earn their attention. If writing compelling content wasn’t challenging enough, I also had to optimize my content for search engines, which was an abstract and technical skill to me at the time.

Building Reliable Growth Through Content Marketing and SEO

I published three articles a week on their blog around topics related to their audience. I quickly learned about keyword research, using Yoast SEO to optimize my content and a myriad of other SEO best practices.

SEO tools I lived by

Some of the tools I learned to live by were:

  • Ubersuggest for affordable SEO research. I was able to monitor competitors, do keyword research, find content ideas, and monitor my sites for errors that would affect our ranking.
  • Notion for organizing my content calendar. When you manage content for a company, you'll most likely share your drafts via Google Docs. This makes it easy to leave comments and suggestions. It can get messy though with scatter docs floating around. To organize my publishing calendar Notion was a lifesaver. It helped me know exactly where I was at all times.
  • Grammarly is foundational for anyone who writes content. You will miss things when you write. You'll be thinking about a lot of different things but Grammarly catches the small details so you don’t make silly mistakes.
  • Yoast SEO is essential if your blog lives on a WordPress site. It will judge your content based on your chosen keyword and give you actionable recommendations to improve it. Yoast SEO will separate the writers from the content marketers.
  • Google Search Console is great for understanding if the effort you're putting into ranking is working. After setting it up with your website you can see how each blog post ranks in Google and what search queries it's showing up for. And it's free so there's no excuse not to leverage it.

These are just some of the tools that I would use every day as a content marketer.

Learning through Trial and Error

The frequency of publishing was a good teacher. I also had a great editor, Sydney, who gently called me out when my writing wasn’t up to par or made no sense at all (which was quite a bit early on).

Through trial and error and relentlessly publishing three times a week, we slowly started to see the results of our efforts.

Content marketing is hard to measure. I wanted to know within hours of publishing a blog post what results it was generating. I expected to see immediate results the same way I did when running Facebook ads to Jim’s website.

Over the quarter, we slowly started to see an uptick in the amount of traffic and impressions the blog was generating.

After four months, the blog impressions tripled, and the traffic rose with it. The realization that I could help a business grow by putting out content consistently and optimizing it was a light bulb moment.

Content marketing is also free. We didn’t have to pay to have people see our content. We could share the posts on LinkedIn or Twitter, enter conversations in Slack communities, or include the link in Reddit or Quora answers. We could also turn each article into a podcast or video to live on YouTube. It had far more utility benefits than one-off, expensive ads.

I learned that content marketing is slower but a much more reliable avenue for growth.

Not Relying on Ads for Growth

The realization of content marketing’s potential came at an opportune time. Acadium decided to move away from paid advertising and double down on more reliable growth opportunities. Unlike paid advertising, the results from organic content can compound over time.

As an article continues to rank higher in the search results, it will attract more visitors, more shares, and more sign-ups to their platform. Although it takes longer and more consistent effort, the results are worth it.

It’s been a windy road navigating digital marketing, but I’m now equipped to deliver great results for people like Jim.

Yours truly,

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Ryan Carruthers

Content Marketer
Ryan Carruthers is the Content Marketing Manager at Together Software, a company that builds software to help enterprise companies run effective mentorship programs within their organizations