Interview with Jonathon Colman of REI

I have never interviewed someone on this blog before. Every now and then, though, I come across someone who I think deserves to have more exposure in the industry because they add a lot of value and in genuinely an awesome person. One of those people to me is Jonathon Colman. He’ll introduce himself here in a minute, but he and I got connected online earlier this year, and since then I think we’ve both taught each other a lot. I’m looking forward to properly meeting him in person this next week as I’m in Seattle for Mozcon, and it is a pleasure to have the first interview published on this blog to be with him!

Find him here on Twitter and here on Google+. And he shares some awesome photos on Google+ too.


First, can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do and who you do it for?

Howdy, I’m Jonathon Colman (a.k.a. “Lothar of the Hill People“). Up until very recently, I was the in-house SEO for REI. But now I’m leaving SEO for a new information strategy role on a new team within REI’s e-Commerce ision. It’s nothing personal, I still really love SEO – but I’m interested in exploring other disciplines as well.

What would you say is your concentration in your new job? 

I’m partnering with a small, nimble team of colleagues to craft an information strategy that focuses on standards, enterprise content management, building new tools and features, researching and analyzing our competitors so that we can learn from them (and then do even better for our customers), rapid/lo-fidelity prototyping, and a lot more fun stuff.

We call ourselves the Channel 7 Action News Team when no one’s within earshot.

On a broader level, since REI’s a brick-and-mortar retailer as well as an e-commerce web site, we try to “cross the streams” and think about how best to meet the customers’ needs as they journey from desktop to mobile and tablets to our physical stores to the mountains and other places where they go on real adventures.

We try to provide consistent information in the most useful ways possible as the customer makes that journey and minimize any pain points that might spring up so that the customer always has the best (and easiest) possible time interacting with us. We call this process cross-channel experience design.

You’ve become relatively well-known for embracing the agile methodology at REI and using it to ship change. Why the agile methodology? What advantages does it have for getting things done over other project management styles you’ve tried?

John, just think of what you could do if:

  • The user/customer was always the core focus of your work, all the way down to how you organize your tasks and know when they’re done.
  • You were measured on shipping value to customers, not on how well you kissed ass or how politically adept you were.
  • You had only three standing meetings each month.
  • You worked as part of a cross-functional team that included design, development, content, analysis, and testing experts so that you had everyone you needed to make things happen all in one place.
  • You worked with someone whose sole job was removing impediments from your path so that you could be as productive as possible.
  • You worked with someone else whose sole job it was to determine the highest priorities based on hard customer data.
  • You didn’t have to be perfect; you only had to be good enough to release during each development cycle. And because of that, you released far, far more often than you would otherwise.

Sound too good to be true? Well, these aren’t pipe dreams — they’re all built into the Agile framework. Every other project management system is focused on the company or organization; Agile is focused on the customer outside those walls and delivering value to them quickly and iteratively.

Programmers and developers have practiced iterative software development for decades, since the late 1950s according to Wikipedia. But modern Agile methods didn’t really take off until the mid-1990s, hitting critical mass in 2001 when the Agile Manifesto was signed. And starting around 2008 smart teams and organizations started applying Agile methodologies to marketing.

I was lucky enough for Agile software development to be taking off at REI just as my need for technical infrastructure resources for SEO was like a needle hitting the red. Luckily, my leadership at REI supports both innovation and intrapreneurialism, so they took a chance on bringing me, a marketer, directly into the Agile development process. And it worked out better than we dared to dream — in less than a year’s time, we went from doing just a handful of tiny SEO projects to over 40 major releases that drove sustained (and massive) increases in qualified traffic.

I think it’s hard for larger and/or older organizations (especially those with brick and mortar outlets) to make these types of quick turns and nimble moves. But Scott Brinker tells us that we’re living in a time of marketing disruption. By 2017, marketing isions in large companies will be spending more on IT resources than IT isions themselves, according to Gartner. This gives rise to Scott’s concept of the Marketing Technologist, who understands that marketers need to be agile… because their customers already are.

What are the best resources for people who are looking to get started with the agile methodology?

Here are some of my favorites:

In Seattle, we have a new local Agile Marketing meetup that’s just taking off now. If your city doesn’t already have an agile marketing meetup, then now’s a perfect time to start one of your own!

The SprintZero Agile Marketing unconference just occurred in San Francisco. Here’s a write-up.

For something more SEO-specific, check out Tom Critchlow’s recent project management post as well as his internal innovation process at Distilled. This is exactly what Agile looks like in practice!

What has been the biggest obstacle that you’ve overcome with getting the agile methodology implemented?

One thing in particular that we’ve all had to face, no matter what domain we work in (SEO, IA/UX, content, development, etc.) is getting used to much shorter development cycles, which means that we can no longer chase perfection at the expense of not shipping something valuable to the customer.

We can no longer chase perfection at the expense of not shipping something valuable to the customer.

This is a big mind-shift. It’s an entirely different way of working and thinking about when something’s “done”. But once you clear this hurdle, you can finally see that perfection is not only unattainable, but trying to achieve it actually hurts your customers because it keeps you from getting something that’s good enough into their hands right now,when they need it.

You’re moving into cross-channel information architecture, user experience, and content strategy now. What made you want to make that move?

First of all, I love SEO. Let me say that again so it’s clear: I LOVE SEO. And if loving SEO is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

But I’m also interested in a few other things that usually fall outside of our sector. Beyond organic search, how should we structure our content and information assets across an enterprise so that they’re findable, usable, andinteroperable across different types of systems and platforms? How should information be governed within an organization so as to achieve those goals? And how do we best serve the customer with the information they need when they’re in one of our stores versus on their phone versus out in the wilderness without any signal?

This is a big part of why content strategy is so important for organizations. To answer these questions, we need tomap the customer journey in order to figure out all of their real (and potential) touchpoints with us. And we need to figure out which ones are sub-optimal, creating “pain points” for real people. And then we need to FIX IT!

That means that we need to act across the ecosystem of people, information, and technology in order to build, measure, and learn about what our customers need to be successful in their adventures and achieve their goals in the outdoors. There’s no magic key or silver bullet besides learning from our customers and serving them better with each iteration.

Why are information architecture and content strategy so important for SEO? Do you think most SEOs understand it? Can you share some good resources for starting to?

Without structuring, organizing, and managing our information — without thinking of it as a core business asset — we can’t begin to create meaningful experiences that drive real customer satisfaction and meet their needs. And without smart workflows, governance policies, and management tools, content (and it’s hot cousin, information) simply become just another “feature”. One that’s bolted on after design and production are done.

Does that sound familiar? It should: it’s the SEO-as-Band-Aid approach all over again! As an industry, we’ve come a long way from the whole “we’ve already launched, but now we need to fix it for SEO” days, but now we need to use our influence to elevate other voices for the greater good of our users and customers.

Remember how SEOs fought so hard to get a seat at the strategy table so that organic marketing could become a part of the way that an organization does business? Now SEOs should be fighting for their content, IA, and UX partners to also have voices in the discussion as well. Because it’s simply no use to drive awareness and traffic to experiences that are Epic #FAILs.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

Ok, now a personal question. I see you have a dog named Prim (aka the #bestdogever). What makes Prim the #bestdogever?

Prim loves her REI Ultra Dog Pack!

I mean, just look at her. Go on, I’ll wait. I mean, that photo says it all, right? She’s a 70-pound, four-year-old rottie/lab mix. And she’s named after either the little sister in The Hunger Games or a mathematician from Texas, depending on who you talk to.

We got Prim from our local Humane Society and she was like a smartphone that comes with all kinds of great apps pre-installed (sit, stay, come, speak, down, up, high five, etc.). More than that, she’s people-focused and wants to learn from people, which is even better. My wife, Marja, has even taught her a few new tricks, like the one we call “Missile Command”. Her talents, temperament, and snorgle-ability are more than enough for us to forgive her occasional bubbling seepage.

Unfortunately, she also came to us with a busted ACL in one of her back legs that was giving her a lot of pain and causing her to limp. But now that she’s had surgery to repair it and has taken some time to rest and recover (and work on that novel), we’re able to take her on longer and longer walks and get back to real training. Our goal is to get her out on the trails later on this summer.

Now if only we could teach her to fetch coffee for us.

Finally, what’s your favorite advice to give to a brand new SEO?

Think beyond the keyword, beyond the SERPs, beyond the search engine, beyond the browser. Try to get at your user’s/customer’s actual intent, not just their clickstream. The key is to understand what unique, real-world problems, challenges, and goals your user has… and then solve them.

To me, that’s the difference between Big SEO, which focuses on optimizing the strategic, end-to-end user experience, and Little SEO, which is focused solely on keyword and link tactics. Are both important? Sure. But if you sacrifice the user just to win a link or a brief change in ranking then you’ll have a hard time growing loyalty and returning customers over the long term. And who wants to be successful for a day, a month, a mere season? I think we should be aiming to be successful for the next hundred years.

Finally, as Kane Jamison recently pointed out to me, SEO success is all about “learning how to balance your addiction to reading SEO articles w/ actually doing it.” So now you’ve now come to the end of this interview, go do something that’s good for your users!

Thanks Jonathon for answering all my questions in such detail! Now over to you dear readers. What questions do you have for Jonathon?

18 thoughts on “Interview with Jonathon Colman of REI

  1. Every time I read something Jonathon says I learn something new. he is consistently able to present the concepts and ideas he values in an attractive and positive way.

    This interview, I think, works particularly well because the questions are coming from a position of some insight and as a result are drawing out valuable information.

    Good stuff from both of you.

  2. Great idea for a post and person of interest, John. Jon, I’ve always been interested in your tweets/thoughts related to UX. It would seem a mistake; yet, a number of employed tactics of brands almost assume consumers will come along for the ride (or already have as if a ‘given’ customer), or miss the UX through the ‘ranking’ trees.

    I’m a faithful consumer; but, I’m not easy to get or necessarily keep. Personally, I studied Psych and Lit, which both help me in the online marketing space as a content provider.

    In your direct experience and based off intuition.. how important do you believe ‘creative’ minds are in the future of online marketing? In your opinion, should a creative person continue procuring those talents or somewhat defer to more technical aspects of the online experience. (I understand could all be relative to team, size of brand, available resources, but would like to hear some of your thoughts).
    Lastly, never had a dog, but my landlord/friend’s chocolate lab, Bubba, is one of my hardcore boys in Colorado at this point. I ‘get’ the love.

    1. Great question, Anthony. I think creatives are hugely important to the future of online marketing, esp those focused on user experience and interaction design. Folks who design for use, interaction, and engagement are a lot different than those who design solely for appearance. And sites that are easy to understand and use are more likely to gain a passionate audience and rank well in search engines.

  3. Now if only I could take a dose of my own medicine and quit reading all of those excellent agile marketing resources…

    Great stuff Jonathon, looking forward to seeing your first presto related to the new position.

  4. Thanks John for this interview!

    Jonathon is of great inspiration and I strongly believe each SEO should evolve considering what he is doing.

    At least, I’m trying to and I’m gonna read, re-read and use all the valuable information inside this post.

    thanks both for this. I needed it.

  5. John and Jonathon,

    this is very good that you speak on topics like IA, UX, CRO, etc.
    I think that these areas will form into standalone disciplines during the next 2-3 years.
    I believe it’s an absolute must for any serious online marketer these days to dive into these disciplines and learn more about them. I’m sharing this article with our SEO team in Eastern Europe and with my fellow co-workers.
    I would also add Crowd Psychology to the list of disciplines that are important to know.

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