Becoming A Better Marketer

I’ve been in search for a few years now. I just realized recently that I graduated high school and started university a decade ago. While this seems like forever in some ways, in the perspective of life it’s not. After all, I don’t think people really figure out who they are and what they want out of life until they are in their mid to late 20s.

This has a parallel to professional life as well. When you start in an industry, you’re trying to prove yourself. You’re hustling. In the Internet marketing industry this might mean:

  • Building a personal brand
  • Blogging all the time
  • Guest blogging
  • Tweeting everything
  • Going to as many conferences as possible
  • Learning how to set up sites and optimize for traffic
  • (Insert hustle here)


My first job in SEO and online marketing full time was building links for an online education website owned by a marketing agency in Philadelphia. During this time, I was bottom of the heap, the new guy, doing what I was told. I was very fortunate to have a manager, who is still a trusted industry peer, who saw things similarly to myself and our other coworker.

I was very fortunate to have experience as a blogger and writer, and I could send a mean email and connect with bloggers in order to get links back to our site, which ended up working very well. Eventually, though, I realized that what I was being told to do and what was actually possible, and what didn’t violate my morals, was in constant tension and I needed to get out.

I was lucky enough to go to Distilled’s Linklove conference in London, which changed the course of my career. Within four weeks of returning from London, I had moved our main keyword, a 33k exact searches a month term, from 16 to 4. I had also accepted a job with Distilled in NYC and was preparing to move.

Embrace Changes in Yourself

Let me tell you – the first few years in an industry are FUN. I’ve had a blast with what I have been able to do in the past few years, including sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in our industry (Danny Sullivan, Michael Gray, Mike King, Rand Fishkin, Will Critchlow, and more).

I have to be honest with myself though – I’m the kind of person who has to constantly be moving forward. If I’m not deriving value from what I’m doing, I’m not happy. This is why I launched HireGun (besides the fact that I saw an opportunity) and why I constantly tinker with sites. It’s why I read everything I can and share it, so that I remember it.

This is also why I’m tired of the same old SEO games and industry drama. The figures debating it change from time to time, but the topics never change. Marketers asking me to prove that content is worthwhile? Asking me why you should stop buying links? I’d show you graphs of sites that have been rocked because of this, but that wouldn’t do any good. I get frustrated by people who just want a quick win and a silver bullet, and quite honestly I don’t want to fight those battles anymore.

The funny thing is that I used to enjoy all this. I used to enjoy the debates and the drama. I spent way too much time on it, expending my mental energy on it when I had bigger issues to tackle.

That’s brought me to where I am now.

Priorities change

I was recently chatting, at separate times, with Tom Critchlow and Ross Hudgens. Our paths have been very similar:

  • Hustle hustle
  • Write write
  • Burn out
  • Recover
  • Launch products instead of blog posts

Much like many things in life, the law of diminishing returns happens in professional lives. I used to get a lot out of publishing blog posts and driving traffic to this site. It was fun (and still is) to write a post that caused a stir and hit the front page of Hacker News. I enjoyed the rush, and the period served a purpose and I made a lot of awesome friends through it.

It also has taken me to where I am now. A few years of down-in-the-trenches hustling on my own site and for clients taught me a ton about marketing. I used to consider going back to school to get an MBA, but honestly the Internet has been my MBA. I have learned way more by working with actual businesses than I could ever learn in a business theory class, and I’ve made a lot of friends in the process.

Point blank – I’ve become bored and stagnated a bit. Some of you may have noticed this.

I could fill up my time again with freelance clients, but for what? An extra bit of money in my pocket each month that the government will take 1/3 of anyway? Nah. There are better ways to spend time.

But I cannot forget what I’ve learned up to this point:

  • How to drive traffic to a site
  • How to identify who wants which content
  • How to convert increasing numbers of the visitors you have
  • How to write good content
  • What types of marketing work when
  • Where risk is acceptable and where it is not

Where Things Go Now

Once you reach the point of saying “I’m bored with blogging” or “I’m bored with SEO” then comes the question “what next?” It’s a great question and one I’ve been thinking through a lot.

First, let me say that I’ll never completely stop blogging. I have cut back, like many before me have and many in the future will, but I will never fully quit. Writing is simply too fun for me. However, people like myself, Ross, and Tom have all cut back because of something else – a desire to do something bigger. I think of the shift this way.


Tactics are what you learn first. Tactics are how a strategy gets implemented. Without tactics, and tacticians, strategies fail. The best laid strategies fail without tacticians, and every great strategist or visionary starts with being a tactician first. Steve Jobs co-built the first Apple computer. Rand Fishkin used to hands-on build links for clients. Danny Sullivan built Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land off his own writing. Jack Dorsey coded Twitter.

Keeping with the metaphor, this is the blogger writing posts to get noticed and to teach (that’s incredibly important).

Sometimes, a tactician moves beyond tactics and begins to build strategies. They realize that they can leverage different areas of marketing, or whatever their skills of choice are, to get to something further such as money. This is the stage where you are able to see when different parts come into play and how to string them together, and measure the results, to achieve what you want to accomplish.

Finally, you grow into wanting to own something end to end. One marketing campaign after another is fun, sure. You learn with each campaign and keep moving. But for some of us, it’s not enough and you begin to stagnate. This is where I’ve come to, at least with clients where I cannot really control implementation and prioritisation. Now, I want to build something.

For more of my thoughts on managers, strategists, and contributers, read this post over on Medium.

Full Stack Marketing?

I’m both fond and not fond of the term “full stack marketer” but I don’t have a better way to explain it. It’s probably just a trendy word for a generalist, which is what I am. A full stack marketer understands:

  • Organic search
  • Paid search
  • Social
  • Content
  • Email marketing
  • Blogging
  • PR

Of course, you’re not a master of all of these but you’re able to talk about them intelligently, identify when someone doesn’t really know what they are talking about, and are able to incorporate each into a much larger strategy.

That’s the basis. Once you move into ownership, you start to understand product, positioning, branding, customer feedback loops, the psychology behind why people do what they do, revenue streams, and more.

Who knows where all this will end up. I’m working on HireGun pretty seriously and trying to learn product and market positioning. I’m learning more about lead generation and optimization and how to weigh priorities and ship features that I think will have the highest impact.


I’ve also written on Medium about Why I’m Not Coding Yet , yet I am also realizing the importance of UI and UX, removing roadblocks for both the service users and for myself. In the future some of this will be smart automation for trusted people while the rest will stay manual for a bit. I’m realizing, though, that scale necessitates automation, so automation it shall be.

Once again, these are the lessons I’m learning, and it feels good to learn once again.

Up and to the right.

Added after this post was finished: I’ve decided that joining HotPads is a way for me to keep moving forward. I’m stoked to contribute over there.

One thought on “Becoming A Better Marketer

  1. John,

    Great post & spot on about launching products instead of just blogging for blogs sake. I’ve found that when I have a product that I’m working on the blogging is way easier, I don’t get burnt out, & has more of purpose.

    Great job with HireGun & congrats again on the move to HotPads!

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