In 2001, Neil Patel was foisted into the digital marketing game. We’ll get to that surprising origin story in a moment, but for now, you should know one thing about Neil: He’s second-to-none in the world of digital marketing, and has clocked millions in profits for multinational corporations like GM and Microsoft.

Now a 17-year veteran of marketing, Neil launched his own firm in 2017—Neil Patel Agency. Between interviews and meetings one recent afternoon, he sat down to share his entrepreneurial journey with ETR, as well as some key insights on the role of social media and content in today’s marketing world.

Word has it—from your own website, actually—that you accidentally got into marketing. As the story goes, you built an online job board in 2001 when you were just 16. That’s quite a project for a 16-year-old. What inspired it?

I was trying to find a job. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to create my own job board.

Wow, that’s an unusual approach.

Well, it failed miserably. People just didn’t come to it. And I realized early on that I needed to market what I made, so I hired a marketing firm.

How did you find them?

Just Google. I hired a few firms and kept paying people but I got almost no results.

And that motivated you to get into marketing yourself, right?

Roughly, yeah.

What did the marketing landscape look like in 2001?

Back then you did SEO and that was it. Some people had banner ads or used the pay-per-click models, but there really wasn’t anything more than that.

So how did you tackle marketing?

I created an online marketing agency. It had a terrible name, but we focused on SEO ranking and tried to generate leads that way. There wasn’t much that separated us from the crowd, but back then, there weren’t a lot of players either.

What were the key SEO strategies back in 2001?

Reciprocal link building. I link to you and you link back.

Nothing else?

You also tried to add your target keywords as many times as you could on a page. The more times you added it, the better off you were.

Sounds refreshingly simple, but let’s jump ahead to the more complex marketing world of 2018 and your current firm, Neil Patel Agency. One of the interesting things about your business model is your transparent vision framed around honesty. You have your core values clearly listed on your website, in fact. But how does that play out in an average marketing pitch?

It’s really simple. Instead of pitching our services first, we figure out how much we can actually help a potential client increase profits. If we don’t think we can, we won’t take them on.

I would imagine the response to that has been positive, but does it baffle people when you turn them away?

Most people don’t know about all of the internal calculations we’re doing to determine whether or not we can help them. We just let them know if they’re a good fit or not. Though now that you mention it, we should tell them why. It’s simple, but we should.

Let’s talk social media. I see you using Facebook a lot, but there are a lot of content sharing platforms out there—WordPress, Medium, YouTube, SoundCloud, and so on. Because there’s so much out there, I imagine it’s sometimes difficult for startups to navigate content sharing. Where should they start?

It’s like spaghetti—throw it against a wall and see what sticks. You can’t do everything at once as a startup because you don’t have enough time, so try out different platforms and see what resonates with your ideal customer.

You’re better off doing one thing really well than a million things poorly. So try, say, five different marketing experiments using different tools and then go all in on the one that works. Once it caps out, move on to another one. That’s how you keep expanding.

What about the algorithms that drive a lot of these platforms? It sounds like there’s no methodical approach to leveraging them for bigger reach, and yet if there are specific formulae on the back end, shouldn’t there be more of a formulaic approach to using them?

Well, no. Not really. The first step is analyzing your competition and seeing what’s working for them. Replicate it for yourself and see if it works for you.

But you also need to know your own story, your own audience, your own products and services. A lot of people assume that if it works for another guy it will work for them. But it won’t always.

That’s why I advocate for the “spaghetti approach.” After all, the deeper you get into the marketing game, the harder and more unpredictable it becomes. The algorithms have made it that way. So what works for you won’t necessarily work for me. And what worked three years ago doesn’t guarantee you success today.

Do you think that any one social platform will eclipse the others over the next 5 to 10 years?

No. I think what you’ll see a shift in how content is delivered. There’s going to be more crossover between the offline and online worlds, and the Internet of Things is going to make sharing information a lot different. Imagine getting your morning news via your bathroom mirror. It’s crazy, but that kind of stuff is happening.

Let’s talk about individual platforms because I think each one has its virtues. First, of course, is Google. It’s a behemoth and any digital advertiser out there uses Google rules to rank in searches—while also leveraging their analytics tools and AdWords portal. Is it really all-consuming in the ad world? Should advertisers be paying attention to anyone else’s rules or guidelines?

For search and SEO, no—Google is the boss. But performing well with Google is about a lot more than SEO ranking these days. Their algorithms consider how often your brand is searched, how many backlinks exist from external sites to your own, how many comments are on your site, how often people visit and what they look at, etc. You have to do a lot to perform well on Google these days.

Is it true that a big part of the Google game is patience—just waiting to let sound SEO practices and content strategy take effect?

Yeah, that and consistency. You’re not going to get results right away, but if you’re patient, thorough, and consistent, you’ll see a boost.

How patient?

A lot of people want to see results right now, which is why they fall off and never see anything. But it usually takes 6 months to a year to get real results.

What about the value of keywords in Google strategy? I was talking to another digital marketer recently and he said that the use of keywords in content is less “forced” than it once was. In other words, if you artificially insert target keywords, Google will actually ding you for misuse. So is it better to just write organically, keeping your keyword(s) in mind?

If you’re writing on a specific topic, you’re going to include the right keyword naturally. Google recognizes that. Think of Google like a thesaurus—it will recognize all variations of a keyword that make sense for your topic. No need to force it in.

Are you penalized if you use a keyword too many times?

Not that I’ve seen. But keep in mind that Google is looking at a lot more than keyword usage. It’s tracking how many times people read or engage with your content; how long they stay on your site; what other kinds of content they’re reading; and if they’re sharing or commenting on that content. Getting those metrics up are just as important as keyword placement.

What about LinkedIn? You posted recently about its serious potential for marketers. What makes it so promising?

There aren’t too many people trying to leverage it yet—they don’t see it as a “sexy” social network. But it’s really easy to use and the algorithms are more loose than other platforms because LinkedIn knows they’re not the top player.

In short, it’s easier to get organic growth on LinkedIn than it is on Facebook or Twitter.

What about Twitter? Is that more of a niche platform? I don’t see much posted about it anymore.

Twitter is good for driving traffic to content—especially for business-oriented users. A lot of people use Twitter to find news and information, but use Facebook to look at their friends’ pictures.

Dare I ask—what about Snapchat?

It’s really affordable, but the users don’t spend nearly as much as users on other platforms. It’s primarily a younger audience, so while advertising on Snapchat is cheaper than it is elsewhere, you’re also not likely to get a great return—unless you’re targeting that demographic.

For example, if you’re Taco Bell and want to do a branding campaign, Snapchat would work. But if you’re Microsoft and you’re pushing a cloud computing suite? Not so much.

What about non-mainstream platforms like Quora and Reddit?

We’ve tested Quora at the agency and we like it. But the problem is it just doesn’t drive the visitor counts. So even though we get, say, 10 sales from limited traffic (and that equals a really good ROI), it doesn’t compare to our Google AdWords campaigns that get 6,000 sales.

I want to switch gears and talk about content. There are a lot of resources online that claim an entrepreneur can be his or her own copywriter—no need to hire someone from outside. Is that really true?

Yes, you can do it yourself. It may not be as good as what a professional copywriter would create, but it can work.

There’s a huge misconception about copywriting. Everyone seems to think you have to be the most amazing writer to create copy that converts. But they’re forgetting two things: Copywriting is a formula that answers objections and offers a follow-up sequence to keep a customer in the fold. You can be a terrible writer, but if you have a great follow-up sequence and adequately address customers’ objections and pain points, then you can be successful.

You’re immersed in digital marketing all day, obviously. So who is doing really cool things in that world? Who is blazing a trail?

I love what DigitalMarketer is doing—they’re amazing at building funnels that capture lifetime customers. Brain Dean from Backlinko is really good for link building, and I love what Larry Kim is doing from MobileMonkey in the chatbot realm.

But you’ll find trendsetters everywhere. You’ll just find them for different aspects of digital marketing.

Part of the digital marketing game is very clearly about getting the click. Do you think there are ethical boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed just to get that click?

Well, sure. You should never be racist and probably never aggressive. But at the end of the day, will a curse word here or there matter? No. If people don’t like what you put out there, they won’t buy what you’re selling. The bigger error is not delivering on a promise made to a potential customer.

To your point about an ethical boundary: Years ago, Carls, Jr. used to run a ton of ad campaigns with half-naked girls. Now, you don’t see it. People would call them out and they’d lose business. Ten years ago, you could take people’s data and do whatever you wanted with it. Now, people like Mark Zuckerberg are being called to Congress to account for their abuse of user data.

In one of your recent videos on LinkedIn, you talked about the early days of Kissmetrics, the first company you founded. One of your points was a little counterintuitive to me. You said that you shouldn’t spend so much time on branding early on; just go out and get customers. But don’t you need the brand to bring in customers? What’s the bare minimum there?

You don’t necessarily need a brand, no. How many times have you bought something online without knowing who made it or asking what the company history is? People just buy things.

Now, if you’re talking about multi-million-dollar companies, yes, branding is very important. But when you’re small, brand doesn’t matter as much. Not until you grow significantly.

So it’s the product a business should be focusing on then.

Yes. The perfect example of this is Kissmetrics, actually. Early on, we got enough leads from our site to spend some time explaining our analytics tool. We didn’t pitch a brand—just a product. They thought it was cool!

Now, were they able to go out and explain our product to other people? No. That’s probably why it’s still a small company. But if you’re just starting out, that’s alright. Just focus on selling your product or service.

You’ve worked with big corporations like GM and Microsoft. What common pitfalls did you see in their marketing platforms?

They were all slow. They have the money, sure, but they move so slowly because of internal bureaucracy that the younger players can out-maneuver them, spend less, and eat their lunch. That doesn’t mean the big guys won’t win in the long run, but they just inherently move more slowly.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second. Let’s assume I’m a small business and I’m launching a product that I think solves a common problem. There are already products on the market to solve this problem, but I believe that mine is better. So, I employ all of the digital marketing tactics we talked about. But when I’m up against competitors who already have a bank of content out there, how will I ever get ahead?

You don’t have to get ahead. You just need to get a slice of the pie. Build a better product and undercut them on price and you’ll grow. As you bring in more revenue, you can add more staff to compete with content creation and advertising. But the way to get in the game is by selling your product at a lower price.

Plus, if you build a product that develops a following, your SEO will naturally follow—people will search for you more frequently on Google. That will help you rank higher which will, in turn, help your digital marketing efforts.

You’ve got a brand-new agency that already seems to be at capacity. What will you be focusing on in 2018?

Growing. I have great salespeople, but I need more of them—yesterday. So, 2018 will be about scaling.

For more information about Neil Patel and his agency, visit neilpatel.com.

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Jeff Steen

Jeff Steen is the Associate Editor of Early to Rise. Previously, he worked in food and hospitality journalism, but is currently focused on bringing unique, insightful content to the ETR world.