Learning From the Past, Defining the Future – Interview with Ian Lurie

18 Minute Read | Interviews

A key figure in the search marketing world, Ian Lurie has spent the past 20 years not only building his own internet marketing company based in Seattle, but a personal brand that’s become synonymous with originality, passion, and insight.

CEO and founder of Portent, Inc., Lurie’s authored multiple web marketing books including “Conversation Marketing” and “One Trick Ponies Get Shot”; is a regular contributor to the Portent blog; and has had his work published in a host of online publications such as Forbes and TechCrunch.

He is a regular speaker at search marketing conferences around the world, and I recently had the pleasure of meeting him at MozCon 2015 where we discussed everything from the (not so) changing nature of marketing to Lurie’s concept of ‘random affinities’.

Interview with Ian Lurie from Portent by Woj Kwasi

Woj: Welcome Ian.

Ian: Thanks Woj.

Woj: Thanks for taking the time… So Portent recently turned 20, holy shit, congrats!

Ian: Yeah, I said, “Holy shit,” and I didn’t even think to celebrate it until about six weeks before when someone said, “You should have a party or something.”

Woj: Yeah, I saw a post about that.

Ian: Yes, yeah just kind of about how we started and the idea of 747s instead of the Spruce Goose. You know, building stuff that lasts.

Right, so why did you start Portent and what was your original passion?

Ian: My passion has always been copywriting and writing in general, not just marketing copy. And I started Portent to do more with that and start to play around with all the opportunities that technology introduced. And it was very much at the time the idea that I was gonna make a living for a little while doing that.

Woj: Right. So the internet was a different place back in ’95.

Ian: I always like to say that “the entire internet fit on a very small cheap thumb drive at that point.”

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: We were helping clients sell using America Online. Seriously, I mean, doing customer support in chat rooms, so …

Woj: It was a different era in ’95!

Ian: Yes, yes it was.

Woj: But I guess there’s a lot of things that still translate to today’s era. You mentioned copywriting before.

What does Portent look like today compared to what it did back then?

Ian: Wow. A lot of more people, we’re 30 people now. We’re very cross-disciplinary. We’re doing creative work, but also SEO and paid search. I mean SEO is probably 70% of what we do. I rely a lot more on the expertise and smarts of my team. I mean, they have eclipsed me in many, many ways.

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: And I just kinda help them bring it all together. So it’s very, very different now.

Woj: Sure… And how many of your team are here at MozCon this year?

Ian: You know, you’d think that I would know, cause I was signing all the approvals, but I believe there’s five or six…

Woj: Oh wow.

Ian: We’re based in Seattle, so it’s easy.

Woj: Yeah, yeah. I’m thinking about sending a couple of people from my team next year because I’m spending more and more of my time growing the business and trying to expand it, whereas Mozcon is very tactical.

So what’s changed in the online industry between when you started and now? And what’s consistently worked?

Ian: What’s consistently worked is what’s always worked in marketing and as you know, I’m a broken record on this.

You need a clear message, well communicated and well executed.

You know, it used to be that well-executed meant fantastic TV, print, radio campaigns, but now well executed means visible in search, usable, and very fast. And maybe this is part of why I’m still doing this. The technology is amazing, but it hasn’t changed things all that much.

Woj: Yeah. I was recently reading “Ogilvy on Advertising”, and it’s just amazing how his principles still apply today.

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: I saw your talk from MozCon 2012 entitled “How to Earn Links Without Doing Anything”. Obviously the title was sarcastic… (watch video below)

Ian: Actually, Erica gave that title to me, I thought she was angry at me. I didn’t know what to do with that. But anyway, go ahead.

Woj: This question’s for all the lazy marketers out there…

Why do you have to hustle?

Ian: Your customers are human beings, and they’re random. There’s things that they like and things they don’t, and you have to push certain emotional buttons in non-manipulative ways to make it work.

This is why I get frustrated, and I know I’m sometimes known for getting publicly frustrated, with this idea that there’s a secret formula. There never has been, and there never will be until the computers are doing the actual buying.

And when that happens, you don’t need marketing anymore. So yeah, there’s no secret recipe. There never has been.

Buying links worked for five years, which in the lifetime of marketing is nothing, you just gotta keep that in mind.

Woj: Yeah. One of the first posts I ever saw of yours was about the idea of random affinities, a topic that really resonated with me. It’s where two unrelated themes are linked by a common audience. And I think the example you gave in you post was cyclists and “Adventure Time”.

Ian: Yep.

Woj: So I thought I’d be clever and try writing a post about CSS and pizza…

Ian: Okay.

Woj: …Because I heard web developers liked pizza.

Ian: Absolutely.

Woj: But I never put it up… I kept that one to myself. How was the idea of random affinities born?

Ian: It came about kind of organically over the last eight or nine years. You know, I’ve done a few posts linking some of my nerdier hobbies with marketing, things like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and marketing, and they really took off. So I started looking at that and comparing it to some of the things I learned in college, cause I did a lot of sociology in college, and realised that there are these random overlaps, and not very many people know how to exploit them. And if they don’t know how to exploit them then there’s real opportunities to be had.

Woj: I too dabbled in D&D.

Ian: I taught my son to play, he’s 15 now and his friends come in droves to play.

Woj: Wow.

Ian: Because it’s…

Woj: It’s different.

Ian: Yeah, it’s different and they love it. Once again, people haven’t changed all that much.

Woj: Yeah, and I think it’s our job to reignite inspiration in our children…

Ian: Yes.

Woj: …Through these different channels.

Ian: Yeah.

So you’ve co-authored an SEO book and more recently “One Trick Ponies,” where you explain the benefits of establishing strategic partnerships with businesses…

Ian: Mm-hmm.

Woj: And I couldn’t agree more. I love this idea, and I try to explain it to my potential clients when I’m pitching new business. The idea that we’re here to help grow your business and not just do your SEO. So how long did it take to put the book together, cause it’s a very unique marketing book.

Ian: Thanks.

Woj: … to the point where I thought It was going to start getting all “50 Shades of Grey” between the two main characters!

Ian: Ha! Yeah. No, no. No, that was not the intent. No, no.

Woj: Is there a part 2? Is something going to happen?

Ian: Yeah, no, I figured the two of them are both in separate, very happy relationships or something. So yeah, no.

Woj: I liked the way it worked through a specific scenario, which a lot of people can relate to. And the metaphors that one of the characters uses to explain how to work with a client whose poised to fire them was a really nice touch.

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: I highly recommend everyone check it out.

How long did it take you to put “One Trick Ponies” together?

Ian: The first version was about 150,000 words and it took me about 2 weeks, and then the final version took me about 6 months.

Woj: Wow.

Ian: Because I had to carve out so much of it, and it wasn’t originally in that storytelling format, so it took a lot of work to get it like that.

Woj: Right. It’s a good format and could be turned into an animated series or something.

Ian: I actually learned that format from an author named Patrick Lencioni who does a lot of corporate learning stuff and it works really well.

Woj: It’s very relatable.

So what are some ways to align teams so they adjust their mindsets, so they see opportunities beyond tactics?

Ian: I’ll let you know when I figure it out myself… No, it’s very difficult and look, that book is about the 1 in 50 cases where it works.

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: And the point is that it’s better to have a 1 in 50 ratio than 0 out of 50.

If you want teams to align, you’ve got to start with small strategic successes.

So walk through something backwards the way I describe in the book and map it to a real business value. Try it with something really small, like adjusting three title tags…

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: The contribution may be tiny and even if we can’t measure it, it’s going to be worth it. But if you can get them to do that once, you’re in good shape.

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: Quick self-promotion, I wrote an article on Medium about “getting to why not” and that sort of goes through the specifics of the small win.

Woj: Personally I find that team members get so focused on individual tactics…

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: …That they don’t see the bigger picture sometimes.

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: So I try to ask them, “Okay, you’ve got your tactic, what’s one thing you can do before that and one thing they can do after you action that tactic that’s going to impact the core strategy, and where we want to take the client.”

Ian: And keep asking, “Why are you doing that?”

“What’s the real justification for that tactic,” and I don’t mean why we should do this, but what is the goal that we are working towards? And if you can always move people back to that you’ll always see value.

What is whole brain marketing? And how do we bridge the gap between creative and data?

Ian: Whole brain marketing, actually…

Gianluca said it very well today, “Don’t be data driven, be data informed.”

Woj: Yes.

Ian: It’s the idea that, again, marketing is still marketing. There has to be this marriage of content and data driven, technology driven marketing. So if you’re building an e-commerce site, you still got to know how to produce really good creative for it. If you’re looking at Google Analytics data, you still have to be able to draw conclusions and then come up with creative new directions for it.

So it’s just balancing the quantitative and the qualitative.

Woj: Absolutely, and I think the other thing he touched on was the storytelling aspect.

Ian: Storytelling is very important. Translating data into a story for your clients. Great, we’ve got more links. Great, we’ve moved up in the rankings. What does that matter? And that’s the story part.

Woj: Okay, and…

Why is it important to be a good writer and to establish a voice?

Ian: Do you want my big thinking, philosophical explanation, or the more core business?

Woj: I’ll take both.

Ian: All right. The big philosophical one is that if we are professional communicators, we are the ones who can most impact the level of discourse everywhere and by communicating messages more effectively, and I don’t care if you’re communicating it about briefs, or politics or whatever, you know, pretzels.

The better you communicate the more you impact the overall way people communicate with each other.

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: So that’s the very philosophical.

Woj: So I’m thinking there should be a post about politics and pretzels.

Ian: Politics and… I like that.

Woj: Yeah, yeah.

Ian: The straight up business reason is look, we still communicate in a world of words, and you have to be able to write and communicate well in writing. Look, we still do emails, we still do all these other things you know, and then establishing a voice – it’s your personality.

Woj: Yeah. I’m looking at establishing my own brand. The company’s doing pretty well, and I’ve shortened my long European name to Woj Kwasi but I’ve always had the fear of writing something that’ll make me look dumb, or having someone call me out…

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: What’s some advice that you could give me (without using any shoe slogans)?

Ian: Right, right, yeah. No, you’re gonna fall flat on your face. I mean, I’ve done it so many times. I still do it. I’ve embarrassed myself publicly with stuff I’ve written. And when you do it, you just got to own it. I don’t claim to be infallible and if I say something wrong, or even if I unknowingly hurt someone’s feelings or something, I just own it right away and say, “okay, that’s not what I intended. I’m sorry.” Or if you feel very strongly about it you say, “well, you know what, I got to stick to my guns here, this is what I believe.” Just don’t over-think it.

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: Don’t hurt people’s feelings, don’t insult them, don’t attack them. My rule is that I don’t attack individuals, I may attack brands for silly things they’re doing, but not individuals.

Woj: Like Mig and Lexi both touched on today: you have to make mistakes…

Ian: Yes.

Woj: Before you can succeed.

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: So it’s just learning and iterating.

Ian: It’s the clients that can fear making mistakes. They have a great fear of this.

When really it’s not the mistake that screws you, it’s what you do after the mistake…

Woj: True.

In a recent interview with Nathalie Nahai you mentioned, “If you don’t have enough budget to invest in multiple tactics, hold on to your budget.” What did you mean by that?

Ian: Don’t become a single-tactic marketer. So for example, if you feel that your budget will only support link building, don’t put all your budget into link building, save that money, put it into really good writing. If you depend on a single tactic, something’s going to happen that yanks the rug out from under you. One of the speakers this morning said something like, “as soon as a best practice gets out there, it’s no longer a best practice.”

Woj: That’s the conversion rate guy.

Ian: Yeah. If you have a small budget, save it and put it into having the best product or the best whatever it is that you do. Or having that really powerful unique voice because that’s something no one can take away from you. A single tactic on the other hand, can be taken away from you, whether it’s Facebook organic, which is pretty much gone, or content spamming, article spinning, I remember that one. That’s pretty much gone. That’s dead.

Woj: Coincidentally, David Mihm’s talking about Facebook organic.

Ian: Yes, yes he is.

Why is the book “Conversation Marketing” relevant given we’re still selling to extremely evolved primates?

Ian: Okay, so little disclaimer, I wrote that in 2003, but it’s still relevant cause we’re still selling to highly evolved primates. Again, I’m a broken record on this, but there are basic rules and principles, and it doesn’t matter what tools you use to market, those rules and principles always hold true. Look at search now.

Okay, if you have a compelling experience for people they will link to you, and they will cite you, and that will help you move up in the rankings. If you have a crappy experience, you can attempt to artificially acquire that authority, but it doesn’t work.

Just like 30-40 years ago, you could get caught out trying to artificially stimulate an audience to talk about your product by doing things like hiring two people to talk about how wonderful a product is at a party. And if you got caught for that, it would destroy your brand. Basically, a lot of the rules haven’t changed.

The whole point of “Conversation Marketing” again is, “follow these basic rules.” All right, if you follow these basic rules, you will see success. It may take a while, but you will see success that can’t be taken away from you, which is a big theme for me. Future proofing is important.

Woj: It’s important, I think, for any marketer to ask themselves “is this tactic future proof?”

Ian: Yeah, I mean…

Woj: Is Google going to penalise you?

Ian: Yeah.

Woj: Are you gonna spend the next 12 months digging yourself out of a grave?

Ian: That’s right. I mean, if you’ve got a garage full of collectibles that you need to unload overnight, sure, spam away. But that’s not marketing, that’s aggressive selling…

Woj: Yeah.

Ian: There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a different thing. If you’re attempting to practice marketing, don’t do that.

Woj: And the primates aren’t that stupid anymore?

Ian: No.

Woj: They’re getting smarter and smarter. They can see through the bullshit.

Ian: And their little brains are all collected now…

Woj: That’s right.

Ian: …On the internet, so yeah.

Woj: So you mentioned that…

“Messages are becoming concise to the point where facts are irrelevant”. Why is this?

Ian: That statement is a little bitter on my part. But what I find now is people are so focused on the sound bite that the reasons behind it, and the information behind it, become irrelevant. This is a major part of my philosophical belief that we can improve the level of discourse.

There is a way to be concise, and still communicate facts.

Woj: It’s such a contrast to direct marketing mail outs when you’d get whole page of facts that sold a product or service.

Ian: Well it’s interesting, cause you still started with a concise idea that drew people in. And I guess, that’s part of my thing with this too. You can have that super concise message, but you’ve still gotta have something for people who want to explore further.

Woj: Mm-hmm.

Ian: And in fact, that’s my next big marketing exploration. The idea of marketing as ‘world building’ as opposed to storytelling is that…

Woj: World?

Ian: World building…

Woj: Okay.

Ian: …Another nerdy, gamey thing.

Woj: Ok, yeah.

Ian: I just think that you can have the concise message, but you need to be able to back it up.

Woj: Okay. And…

What are some resources people can check out to help improve their marketing?

Ian: Well, Ogilvy. There’s a book called “Scientific Advertising” by Claude Hopkins; Wil Reynolds talked about it, and it was one of the first books I ever read about marketing.

Woj: I think he mentioned “Team of Rivals” by Abraham Lincoln.

Ian: “Team of Rivals” by Abraham Lincoln, yes, that’s a great book about leadership and how you can get people who don’t agree with you to still participate and work with you. It’s very very important and then, and this is going to sound crazy, read the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” from Wizards of the Coast.

Woj: Really?

Ian: I’m not kidding, read it. There’s stuff in there about how to work with a group of people, in order to get them to participate, that will teach you more about marketing than every single book and blog post you’ll find anywhere else about marketing combined.

Woj: I’m starting to realise that the more I step outside of marketing, the more I learn about marketing.

Ian: Yes.

Woj: Because I’m like, “oh my god. This is the real world.”

Ian: Yes.

Woj: And it’s great.

Ian: It’s communications, it’s the most prevalent form of communications right now. It’s very powerful.

Finally, what are you plans for the future?

Ian: Personally, I’m working on a new book. For Portent… it’s just a matter of doing what we’re doing. Keep growing, and keep building a great leadership team. I don’t just mean executives, I mean people who lead the teams that do the work. And of course, keep teaching. That’s what I love doing. We don’t have any major business changes planned in the near future.

Woj: All right. Well, I really appreciate your time. Thank you, Ian.

Ian: Thank you for inviting me, this was great.

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