An interview with John Doherty
In October, the Bay Area Search will host its SEO meet up on the topic of career development. According to a recent survey of BAS members, the two factors most in-house SEO’s say is holding them back from advancing their career are “technical knowledge,” and the area of “soft skills and relationships.”
Here to shed a bit of light on developing those soft skills, Holly Miller, Board of Directors for the SEO meetup group, sat down with fellow SEO and digital marketer, John Doherty to interview him about his company, Credo, and his quest to champion good business practices in consulting work.
Over the past three years, Doherty has dedicated himself, full time to his business. He shares what really works when scoping and landing freelance work and the skills SEO’s and marketers need in order to be successful navigating a career in-house or at an agency.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Meet John Doherty, founder of Credo – short for “credible”
Holly Miller: John, throughout your career, you’ve had an incredible breadth of experience in the online marketing industry. Tell us more about you and the company you’ve founded called Credo.
John Doherty: My name is John Doherty. My company is called Credo (getcredo.com), and I have a background in digital marketing (a decade’s worth) and building businesses. I’ve worked agency side and I’ve worked in house for a few years leading marketing and growth in a couple of nationwide rentals portals under the Zillow Group umbrella in San Francisco.
For the last three years, I’ve been building Credo and doing some of my own SEO consulting as well with large content sites, marketplaces, and e-commerce sites. I have a lot of different perspectives from having worked in an agency and working in house, running my own company, and freelancing. I’m excited to share some of that wisdom.
The skills every successful in-house or agency SEO needs today
HM: What are the different skills an SEO needs to navigate a successful career in either an in-house or agency role?
JD: There’s a difference in mindset between an agency SEO and an in house SEO. An agency SEO, you’re basically consulting with clients and doing audits. At some point, you’ve worked your way up the chain and you’re managing people, you’re doing more strategy work, and thinking long term about where SEO is going.
In-house is a different game. I’ve worked two years as an in-house SEO.
At the end of the day, your value is in figuring out how to you scale your SEO program and expedite your organic growth. That’s not going to be through you doing audits and writing code and creating content and building links.
In-house SEO’s need to evangelize SEO throughout the organization. If you’re in-house, you need to identify the areas where you are the best and where your skills are best put to use. Then lean on other people to help you out with the other things.
If you don’t have an in house content and marketing team, but you want to prioritize doing content marketing, you have to do the opportunity analysis of what it costs the business to have you do it versus hiring a specialist.
In-house SEO: How to scale your SEO program using outside resources
HM: For in-house SEO who is shouldering a lot on their own, when and how should he/she seek to bring on outside help?
JD: A great time to bring in outside help is when you need help scaling. The way you pitch it is important because for a lot of businesses if they haven’t invested in SEO, they don’t really know everything that goes into it. Instead, pitch it as an opportunity where you get them to help you prioritize.
Say, “I think this is what I need to be focusing my time on.” Honestly, track your time. Use a tool like Toggle or something like that to track the time that you’re spending for a couple of weeks. Or, just use a spreadsheet in Google Docs or whatever, and every 30 minutes write down what you’ve worked on for those 30 minutes. Then you can have an idea of what are you actually spending your time on.
Then, when you go to your boss and say, “Hey, I think we need to be doing X, Y, and Z. This thing, X, that’s going to move the needle for us, I was only able to dedicate four hours last week to that because of all these other things that I’m doing. I think it would be a much more efficient use of my time, and much better use of our resources, our budget etc., for me to be able to hire someone to do these things, to take half of my workload off. Then, I’m going to be able to shift my focus fully to X, which is going to be a much higher return for the business.”
That should make your boss say, “Wow, you’re actually being strategic and smart about this and not just being lazy and trying to get someone else to help you.”
HM: I agree. It’s semantics, but it’s also about understanding the best ROI for the business and the best use of your time. How can someone in-house make the most of working with an agency or SEO provider?
JD: The best way to start off engaging with a provider is having a direct idea of what it is you need because you’re the expert on how company works. If you already have technical SEO squared away, be humble and open to them giving you feedback because maybe there are things you’ve overlooked because you’re busy with everything else. Then you say, “What I really need is help with content marketing and outreach.” Some agencies will come alongside an in house SEO simply to help them get buy-in.
Proposal 101: How to close more business
HM: Let’s talk about the SEOs and digital marketers who freelance. In your experience, what are the skills more marketers need?
JD: Where I see a lot of marketers fall down is in closing work and in clarifying what the client is going to get and why this agency or professional is the right fit for their specific needs for their type of business.
HM: That usually starts with understanding the prospect’s needs and outlining it in a proposal. In your experience, what’s the best way for a marketer to pitch their services?
JD: A great proposal starts before you even put the proposal together. I’m a firm believer in a solid sales process, one that’s repeatable every time. With a prospective client, you spell out the process for them telling them when they’ll get the proposal, what will be in it, what the cost will be, and what the deliverables will be. Laying out the steps allows you to explain to the client what your next steps are so they’re not left wondering. You make it very easy and spell all that out for them.
On the Credo side, we do an initial phone call with the business and then they approve their project description. Then, we ask the agencies that are the right fit for them if they would like an introduction. Once the agencies agree, Credo makes the intros.
Credo is also trying to help set the right expectations around ranking number one; those kind of results aren’t guaranteed. No one guarantees them. Good SEOs and good marketers don’t guarantee their outcome, but they have a high success rate.
The scope email is the new alternative to an RFP
HM: How can more freelance SEO practitioners, in particular, get better at closing more business?
JD: On the marketer or agency side, what I tell people to do is have an initial phone conversation to get to know one another and discuss their business’ needs. Then go away and do some of your own investigation to make sure that what you’re seeing within tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs or whatever tools you’re using matches up with what the business is saying they need.
After you’ve done that, get back on another call and go over your findings. Talk about what you’ve discovered and what you think they need. Try to come to a consensus on that. Once you get off that phone call, send them an email. This is the scope email.
In the scope email say, “Hey, [Person], thanks for the call today. This is what we discussed and what I think you should work on. Let me know if you are in agreement and then I can send in a formal proposal.”
This gives you a leg up in the sales process because once they reply; it basically means they’ve already agreed to the project. A proposal is just a formality.
Too many marketers get into the RFP mindset of submitting a proposal instead of acting as if they’ve already won the business; “here’s a project that I know you need.”
I’ve literally seen this triple people’s close rates by changing that mindset.
On knowing your value: “What should I charge?”
HM: I love your perspective on this, John. It’s not only a mindset but also an actual tactic that has a very actionable approach. Let’s take it one step further. Let’s say someone actually does that. Now it’s time to put dollars behind your deliverables. Talk to me about how you’ve seen that process work best?
JD: Totally. In your proposal, the numbers that you give should never surprise the client. Once again, it starts before you’re going to send the proposal so on those phone calls, where you’re talking with them about their needs, that’s when you should be giving examples of cost.
I use a strategy called anchoring, where you say for example, “Okay, we’re working on any of the technical points you wanted. You’ve agreed to pay us $7,000 a month for the next couple months. We’re going to keep delivering these three things on X timeline.”
You anchor them to that, and you can tell from their response if that budget is way too high for them. You can gauge where they are and whether what you need to charge them is something they can actually afford. If they can’t, then you should refer them elsewhere. Don’t finish the project for cheaper just to try to close it.
Now, there are definitely exceptions because there are times when you (as a consultant) just need to bring in revenue. In which case, get it done, but I say, don’t negotiate on your rate. Negotiate on the skill for the project.
If they only have $3,000, and you know it’s going to cost them $9,000 to do a full SEO audit with research etc., just do the technical audit for them for $3,000.
Build that trust and provide them a ton of value. Because the end goal is that they’ll see you providing value and they’ll want to pay you for more projects.
Negotiate on the engagement size, not your hourly rate
JD: Another consideration in your proposal is: don’t negotiate on your hourly rate. You set it where it needs to be for a reason. Negotiate, instead, on the size of the engagement to work within their budget, if you want to. You don’t have to. After the initial discovery call or even after a second phone call, you can walk away at any time.
However, within the proposal, you should outline what the pricing is and why it is what it is. Not necessarily breaking it down by hours but describing the tasks you do personally.
For example, “If we kick off on October first, and you get me access to analytics, search console, et cetera by the end of that week, then I can deliver a technical audit and go over it with you in two weeks. I’ll deliver it to you on Thursday, and then the next Wednesday we should have a phone call to go over it.”
You’re telling them exactly what your timeline is. Also, what that timeline hinges upon, especially when it’s them getting you the access you need.
That helps them say ‘yes’ easily because they understand exactly what they’re getting. You’re basically telling them deliverables and the effort and work that you’re doing and your expertise.
You’re not selling them links, or pieces of content or something like that. You can do that if you’re doing ongoing services, but you also need to make it explicit.
You would say, “Okay, if you pay us $4,000 a month we’re going to deliver a new 1,500 word guide that’s keyword focused around the keywords that we’ve agreed to, that are focused on your business, and focused on your audience. We’re going to deliver a new one of those every single Monday, and we’re going to publish it on Tuesday, and promote it for the rest of the week. Then, the next week we’re going to do it again.”
It helps the client anchor to exactly what they’re getting for the money they’re spending. Based on what you’re delivering to them with the understanding that results will vary, based off of how often people link to the content, and what competitors are doing.
Considering freelancing? Avoid these three pitfalls
HM: That’s so important for a lot of solo SEOs to be able to walk the client through the process, and to not just say, “I’m going to deliver a video to you tomorrow, and it’s going to go viral.” If someone were to start as a freelance consultant tomorrow, what three pitfalls would they need to know about in order to avoid?
JD: I love that question. The things that you should avoid are:
First, undercharging. The clients that pay you the most are going to be your best and happiest clients. Now, it’s not completely true; I have one smaller personal consulting client that is fantastic, they don’t nickel and dime me, but I also set their expectations early on that I wasn’t going to let them push me around. They agreed to pay my hourly rate too, which is not cheap.
Basically, if you can pin yourself as the expert and say, “this is what I’m worth,” and be willing to walk away, you’re going to have much better clients. You’re going to be much happier and you’re also going to make more money.
The more you charge, the fewer clients you can bring on in order to reach the level of income or level of revenue that you need to sustain your business and yourself.
The second thing to avoid is optimizing your services by going after the bigger terms like “seo services,” “best SEO consultant.” These are really hard to rank for and it’s going to bring you crappy leads.
If you’re truly a senior SEO with a bunch of experience, focus on the type of business that you do the best work for and also the type of work that you do the best at.
If you’re not a great link builder, there are plenty of companies out there; you don’t have to take that opportunity. If you’re a phenomenal technical SEO and you have 10 years of experience working on huge e-commerce businesses and working with a Director of Marketing to scale the work that’s who you should be targeting. Don’t target broad, general SEO service terms.
My last piece of advice for people that are thinking about working for themselves is: don’t just jump. Launch your own site (yourename.com if you can get it). Write some content, write some focused blog posts around the kind of work that you do and who you do it for to start getting a few clients.
Ideally, you work to gradually get enough clients that you’ve replaced your current income with freelance work. Once you have enough clients that you’re basically making 60% of your salary and you have clients in the hopper that you’re about to close, that is the point when you can step into working for yourself and trust that you can make it work.
Also, save up money. You need at least six months of financial runway where if you quit your job today and tomorrow all of your clients stopped working with you you could still pay your bills for six months, without a problem.
HM: That’s very good advice. I can’t tell you how many marketing funnels I see enticing people to ‘go for it’ and become a freelance writer or online marketer. It’s scary how easy these ads make it out to be.
JD: Exactly: funnels. “Build your email list” etc. I can’t stress it enough, and I think this is going to be really helpful information for people who are working in house who are dreaming about working from home, working with their sweatpants on. It’s relatively easy, but you have to be smart about it. There are some steps that you really do need to take to protect yourself, your income, to make sure that you can actually be successful at this.
Passive income can be great. I had some of those channels, but they pale in comparison to other revenue models. I would caution would-be freelancers to approach those marketing claims of “making tens of thousands of dollars working from home,” with a huge grain of salt. Because if I’m putting in a month’s worth of work to make $22K, and they’re all one-time sales where they’re not going to buy from me again, I’ve done something wrong.
HM: Right, that’s not a repeatable, sustainable business model. It really is about figuring out what your strengths as a consultant are, what you really want to do, and the best revenue model for your business, delivering that value in a repeatable way that generates more business.
The SEO industry has evolved for the better
HM: Credo excels at connecting businesses to SEO and marketing resources. In what ways have you seen SEO change over the last few years?
JD: I’ve seen the SEO industry itself grow up. From talking to SEO’s, there’s a lot less of, “how do I spam to get links and trick the search engine?” Now, it’s a lot more around, “how do we use organic searches and great marketing?” because with SEO it’s everything: it’s technical, it’s content, and it’s link building—all of that is building the businesses. We’re not optimizing for rankings, we’re optimizing toward revenue and building businesses.
From the business side, people are looking a lot harder at what SEO can do to drive business forward.
HM: There are a lot of SEO experts out there. You personally do a lot of vetting. How does Credo qualify and determine an SEO expert?
JD: I started Credo about five and a half years ago because I grew tired of seeing people, some of my friends included, hiring “SEO agencies” that couldn’t actually deliver on what they said that they could deliver.
A lot of businesses are looking to engage with an SEO provider but also looking to really understand what they’re going to get for the money that they’re spending.
Helping businesses find the right provider to work with goes beyond, “can the SEO do the work?” The way we vet our providers that are within the Credo network is different in that we vet everyone before they’re even listed. We’re not trying to list everyone and rank them and be a search engine for agencies. It’s a different approach.
Providers have to apply to join and we do a couple things to match them up with businesses. We interview the SEO asking for a couple of their clients, or sites that they’ve worked on or worked with, and we ask for a description of what they’ve done. Then, we go and we look at the metrics in SEMRush, Ahrefs etc.
We’re looking to see, for example, if you’re building links, are they good links? What sort of links are you creating for them, and technically, how’s the website doing?
We also actually email the clients and ask them a series of questions to access the quantitative side; confirming they’ve worked with this person, confirming the project, asking if they can speak to the results and would they recommend that person to other people? We want to get that qualitative side as well, because that’s super important to us.
HM: Sounds like a very thorough job interview.
JD: That’s exactly the way I want it to be because I only want to send work to really good people.
HM: Who should be on the platform?
JD: The best fit for Credo are agencies looking to scale and grow and get more clients. Credo shouldn’t be the only channel anyone looking to get work on the side uses (i.e. freelancers and solo consultants). I want it to be another channel that you can get new clients through and trust that when a client comes to you through Credo, they’re going to be quality as well.
Honestly, Credo works best for agencies that are in the three to ten person range that are charging a few thousand dollars a month for SEO and content. Or, managing paid search as well.
How Credo is becoming the go-to resource for digital marketers on how to sell work, set expectations and structure profitable projects
HM: Based on a mission of matching qualified providers with businesses, what’s your vision for the next three to five years and how do you see Credo changing or improving the industry?
JD: I’m about three years in working on Credo full time. Long term, I see Credo developing in two ways. First, going deeper with the businesses by being their trusted advisor around hiring a marketing agency or someone full time. There are a lot of different ways that you can go about growing your business through digital marketing and it all stars with people.
Secondly, on the marketer side, I’m producing a lot more content around helping marketers become more successful. I’m realizing a lot of marketers don’t have a lot of the softer skills that are helpful when you’re out on your own. You need to know how to sell work, how to set expectations to deliver good work, how to structure projects so that they’re profitable and you’re not giving away the farm.
My vision is to help both marketers and agencies do a better job of building their individual businesses. There are a lot of people out there teaching marketing. But I don’t want to teach people how to do marketing; I want to teach them how to build a better marketing business.
Top 3 skills SEO & marketing professionals need today
HM: OK. To wrap things up, what three skills do SEO’s and marketers need today?
JD: You definitely need technical skills. You have to be at least reasonably technical, or at least have the knowledge there, or know someone who is. Second skill: a business mind.
There are a lot of SEOs out there, myself included, that have never taken a business class. I used to brag about that, and now I think it’s actually a hindrance to a lot of us. Learning to build business cases and be data driven is important because beyond measuring traffic coming in and rankings, you need to know how to measure behavior: are those people sticking around? Are they coming back? Are they buying? Are they buying repeatedly? What do we do with them afterwards?
Having that full marketing funnel view all the way to actualized revenue is a huge area of opportunity for SEOs these days and that’s what’s going to get you the budget.
If you think about it, that’s why PPC advertising (AdWords) has better buy-in than SEO; they’re selling the business impact, not links and ratings.
Lastly, the ability to work well across teams like product and development and to leverage other teams to get things done. A lot of SEOs are lone rangers. I’ve been guilty of this myself, but we need to learn to work well with other teams in order to actually get things done to drive the business results that we’re responsible for.
The big thing is, as SEOs we have to work our way up the chain and get buy-in from the top, so we have to start talking about SEO in terms of business impact and users and not just visitors and rankings. We have to talk about it as business people—we’re starting to—and I’m excited to see that trend continue.
HM: John, on behalf of the Bay Area Search, thank you again for your time.
JD: You’re very welcome.