The Zip episode 11
I call this episode ‘authentic local marketing’ not because my previous guests weren’t authentic, but because Mike Ramsey is not just a local marketer, he’s also created a business and lifestyle around his life as a small-city local, in Burley, Idaho. If you’re listening to my podcast as a primer on local marketing and storytelling, then this is the episode where you see how marketing and storytelling converge. Mike has spoken at industry events like Mozcon about content as it relates to local marketing – he’s the guy in this space to learn about storytelling form.
Megan Hannay: Mike Ramsey, thank you for being on the Zip today.
Mike Ramsey: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it Megan.
Megan: First off, I read that you started your agency after selling potatoes online, which is ironically relevant since you live in Idaho and Idaho is known for its potatoes. But how did that happen – how did you get an interest in online marketing and how did that have to do with potatoes.
Mike: [Laughter] So, I’m from Burley, Idaho, and at the time when I really got into internet marketing I was living in a town called Rexburg where my university was. I had been doing door to door sales through the summers at college for about three years. It was very, very hard work in the pest control space, but it taught me a ton about marketing and it taught me a ton about sales. I ended up becoming the Chief Marketing Officer of this regional pest control company who at the time had about seven locations. It was a really quick growing company and I was really diving into the world of marketing, so I signed up for a few classes. One of the classes was called Business 250 and the idea was that you have to create an online business and sell something by the end of the semester. Which was a great idea for a college class.
Megan: Yeah, that’s really interactive.
Mike: Yeah, definitely. So I go back to the drawing board and I’m coming up with different ideas of different things that I could do, and I started thinking about what we had access to that others probably didn’t in places. And between Burley and Rexburg, there’s massive – of course because it is southern Idaho – massive potato distribution and facilities and growers and everything else. So I just started thinking, hey what if I just sold potatoes. And I started doing competitive intelligence research on it. I didn’t know what I was doing at that point. SEO was this whole new world, so I was just looking up using the AdWords tool to see cost because I was largely going to be using paid ads to drive traffic. There was nobody advertising on potatoes at all. And still to this day, it’s still a completely underserved market. But the reason why is really interesting, because in order to sell potatoes in Idaho and use the word “Idaho potatoes” you actually have to become a licensed potato broker from the Idaho Potato Commission. Which is super random.
Megan: So did you do that?
Mike: I did.
Megan: Oh my gosh. I’ve never been anywhere in America that there weren’t potatoes in the grocery store, so is there a demand for potatoes online? Are there people that can’t get potatoes?
Mike: Well, they can get potatoes, but they can’t get Idaho big potatoes, so we named this company Huge Idaho Potato…
Megan: That’s hilarious.
Mike: … which I had to get permission for as well from the potato commission. We sold what’s called a 40 count potato. The idea behind a 40 count potato is that there are 40 potatoes in a 50 pound box so each potato weighs over a pound. Which is a big potato.
Mike: These are like, massive. So there was a ton of contact for that. People wanting that for parties and I started getting small restaurants contacting me and things. We abandoned it and I keep thinking, I really should start this up and do it right.
Megan: Yea if it was easy. You could even have an intern – if it’s a college project – come in and manage that.
Mike: Totally. So someday the Idaho potato site might be resurrected. It was fun while it lasted, we had a good time. The thing it did was show me the world of online marketing and I liked that. I realized I could live in Idaho and I could do something. Even though I maybe made $1,500 in the semester from this website because shipping costs were crazy and it was just learning, but it showed me that there was a way forward.
Megan: Great. Especially coming from door to door sales where you’ve been, before that had you thought of sales and marketing as what your job was? Which was like going to individual people and being like, hey do you want this thing. Was that transition, did that really, do you think that also affected how impressed you were by internet marketing?
Mike: Oh definitely. Because it was the amount of input for output went down dramatically in the online space. That was really appealing to me. Whereas before I was in the summer times I had to move to Minnesota for work one year, and I had to move out to Utah knocking doors. If I’m not working, I’m not making sales. So everything about it was just great. I love writing, I love speaking, I love designing, I love different aspects of math and arithmetic. I just felt like all of it came together in online marketing. So it was really kind of a fun discovery.
Megan: Yeah. That’s really cool and I like how it started in potatoes. I’m just imagining those people that are ordering those potatoes for parties. Like, “oh man what we really need for our party is giant potatoes.” Like what were those parties like.
Mike: Yeah. [Laughter]
Megan: So you now run a company called Nifty Marketing. I was reading up on Nifty on their Twitter page and they say they make local marketing sexy. So what is the sexiest part of local marketing and why do you and your team love it so much?
Mike: The reason we led with that is because for most people local marketing isn’t sexy. Also, the industries that we specifically focus on which is a lot of lead-generation type service companies, they’re not the most sexy either. But the thing that makes it fun is because these businesses have traditionally had pretty much no marketing other than having a budget for Yellow Pages and maybe some really hard or outdated sales channels and different things like that. That was their idea behind it. So all of a sudden they had an ability to establish a story and to tell a story, and to outreach to use more of a PR approach to their marketing and be able to reach a bigger audience and also reach other professionals in their space. Better networking with people doing what they do to build credibility and reputation. All of those things were really fun. We thought – most people look at these things as boring so let’s turn it around on its head, come up with creative and unique ideas for this, and give data behind it. As most people will talk about, data is sexy. I think all of those things combined together started to become a really appealing story for small businesses to get behind, which is why we saw tons of companies move into the local marketing space, and sadly many of them putting a bad taste in the mouth of small businesses who have had bad experiences.
Megan: About content creation, I know you write and speak a lot about content creation and being really creative in that. In fact you wrote a really good article on Moz which is now about 18 months old about some really amazing local marketing ideas. One of them is that in Burley you have a red truck that parks and has all of these signs that are all really protest-y and weird so you put up a Facebook ad about the red truck which obviously anyone local would totally relate to which I thought was a great idea. So if you were to do an update to that post, are there some new local content ideas that you’ve come up with, that your team has worked on in the past 18 months that you would add to that post?
Mike: We just actually released another study. This one might not be as creative or unique or individual as that one here in Burley that we did, because every city has its own thing that you can play on. But one thing that we have done recently is put a lot of study and time into the way that scholarship outreaching and scholarship link building was done. Which I think is a very, very local – it doesn’t have to be – but it can be a very local thing where good content mixed in with good link placements can just be a win for about any type of small business and also help their reputation in the community. This study was just published on Nifty Law which is our legal website that we focus our serving of lawyers on that brand. We found really, really interesting things like we looked at 2014, 2015, and 2016 and saw this massive trend in rejections for getting links in scholarship because as SEOs do, we break things. So many people searching for scholarships and trying to get scholarship links have just overwhelmed these universities so the data behind the reason why they were saying no was because there were too many requests that they simple couldn’t handle the demand. But at the same point, it’s probably the first honorable thing that SEOs have done…
Mike: … if schools are complaining about the amount of scholarships then maybe we will solve the problem with funding school in America through SEO. And everybody will love us.
Megan: That’s true. Do you still recommend then that a company use… I agree that starting a local scholarship for people in a particular state or a particular city. It could even be $500 or $1000, it doesn’t have to be a whole lot. Do you still recommend that as a method for getting some attention for your local business, or even a big business’s local sector? What are some tips to not be ignored?
Mike: I think it is a tactic that still has relevance. But to do it effectively you have to start getting creative about the type of scholarship and look beyond just getting links out of universities, high schools, etc. And looking at the scholarship and saying, “How can we create… is there a minority group, is there a special interest group that this scholarship could target, that could potentially have local media play…
Megan: Got it.
Mike: … that is more of a story.” There was a great speaker – and something that I always try to do myself at Mozcon – is talk about the storytelling and the value of storytelling in business. With stories, I think that’s what catches the emotional response that will get you in front of most media channels compared to just ads. That’s the difference. I ran a newspaper in our hometown for a few years. I started it after we started Nifty actually. I learned very quickly that the ultimate difference between the ads in our paper and the things people actually looked at was the story value. So if you can turn your ad into a story, native advertising whatever you want to call it, then that’s how you gain readers. I think that’s one of the areas that is very, very underserved in local marketing still is that people still look at local marketing as a way to just push out ads and discounts and “come here now for this 20% off.” But if you look at the local companies you love, generally speaking the people love the stories behind the companies. They love something that they can relate to, that strikes up empathy. So to me, whether it’s a scholarship or blogger outreach or whatever style of link building or marketing you’re doing, what is that unique story that you can either create or that you have in the company’s history that gets you into those doors that other companies can’t compete against.
Megan: I think that’s a really good thought. Basically what you’re talking about is mission. If you’re doing a scholarship, not just “okay let’s give it to a student” but like if it was a pest control company, maybe a student that’s interested in biology or something. You’re thinking more about… and that’s something at ZipSprout that we love to focus on too is giving to students or giving to local organizations. The more specialized and the more of a story you can make it, “this is why we’re doing this”, it just does make it really more interesting. I agree.
Mike: So think of for personal injury attorney, or a scholarship for somebody who has lost a loved one in an accident, or who has been hurt or something like that. There’s these different types of things where you can start to serve people. It starts creating a narrative around it and it becomes more than just the generic thing. That is where the value in potential future scholarships go. From 2014 through 2016, we saw the amount of no’s go up from like 5% to roughly around 40% on outreach which is a dramatic change. Of course some of that is you’re learning, we’re creating lists of places where we have a better guarantee, but the data study is very interesting to look through. I think the big differentiator is being that unique one. Like all things, once the tactic becomes overused, you have to find a creative spin on it to keep applying it. But is it going to be a good tactic for local, for the long haul? I would probably say so. I doubt it’s something that Google will really penalize. We definitely saw organic and ranking increases. We did a few good tricks like making embeds on the homepage, like dropdown. I don’t care if Google crawls the scholarship, but you can create a dropdown content on the homepage so that most of the links for the scholarship are actually hitting the homepage compared to some scholarship in the deep page. There’s a few tricks like that to ensure that you’re getting the most value when it comes to the links, but overall I just don’t see it dying and I don’t see Google penalizing companies that are offering scholarships. Talk about bad press.
Megan: Also, if there’s anyone that is a student listening or that knows a student, to know that tons of local businesses are, you know, to know that there are many more scholarships. It would be kind of cool if there was a way to find all of those if you’re a college student, just to see what might be available in your local area. If the schools have so many that they are not even able to link to them all, then there might be a bunch out there that aren’t even being found.
Mike: That’s an interesting thing, and I’m sure ZipSprout leads into that as far as listing the local opportunities for things. What we found in this was that more and more universities were using third party platforms for listing.
Megan: Because they just couldn’t keep up with it themselves.
Mike: So a great opportunity for ZipSprout there to continually become that third party platform for local events, scholarships, internships – we saw that same thing across internships. It’s very interesting thing. Definitely keep looking at.
Megan: We don’t even do scholarships yet but I’m like, man now maybe we should list them.
Your team at Nifty, you guys also work on digital marketing campaigns for true local businesses like lawyers who just serve one geographic area, but also more like franchise businesses like the US Storage Centers. How do you approach local marketing differently for both of these entities since one of these truly just serves a particular geographic region and the other serves multiple geographic regions?
Mike: Realistically, we don’t look at them that differently. I think it becomes a budget play. To me, the place that most multi-location businesses fail is that they try to look at it differently. They try to look at more of a broader regional reach but they don’t take into account the local, individual markets. When a lot of these companies are like okay what is my cost per location. I have 100, 200, 1000 locations. Which I actually think is a bad way to do it if you’re trying to do content. Especially true localized content. Now of course you have to have your base down where you build out the local pages for all of these locations and that’s more fixed, but what we as a company try to focus on once we’re at that point is that we take a list of locations. There’s always a few really important ones. Then you treat them like any local location, small business that you have, and you try to do more unique things. So for a company like you mentioned, the storage space that we work with, we focus still on doing events, doing outreach in those locations, trying to do donations, trying to do these things, because they need to have an individual identity in that market. If they don’t, then they will fall to a company that does. So that’s the challenge behind multi location businesses is what can they do in markets that are truly big needle-movers for them, to be as local as they can and to create that local content experience and have that story. That’s what we focused on more with those multi location business is more on the sponsorship end. And scholarships still work really, really well there, but doing those local sponsorships and being at local events. Showing up and doing different service projects and different things really breaks down that big company barrier and makes a company look very, very local.
Megan: That’s awesome. Would you recommend that for most businesses that are multi location, maybe in addition to a marketing team that covers their general brand, that they definitely look at specific local marketing experts for their locations just to make sure that they’re covering both of those? How should a company divide that?
Mike: I think they already do in a sense where they have a local marketing budget and they’ll have the overall brand building and brand monitoring and those different things. A lot of local companies get called in to handle basically the local directory side of the company. So you’ll have an overall company focusing on the marketing and the overall brand appearance but then everything from locations onward through that directory are handled by a local marketing expert. From an optimization standpoint, with the basics of local search and the blocking and tackling citations all the way through the local content ideas that can play in a brand and work with the overall brand. And then there’s some companies where their approach overall is fairly localized. Take an Airbnb. I thought their neighborhood guides – which I talked about in the local content marketing piece – were just a prime example of here’s a national brand that’s still doing a lot of their marketing in individual markets.
Megan: They do such a good job.
Mike: They do. They’re trying to gain awareness locally first compared to nationally, and then the national comes. They get talked about et cetera, but it always happens as they do something amazing in a specific location. Then if it’s good enough, it hits national news. Compared to the top down approach where they’re trying to do something nationally that local media picks up on. I think it’s very the reverse for Airbnb.
Megan: That’s true. Even the way they roll out certain features of their site. They choose a few cities at first and talk about it among the people who live in those cities or who are visiting those cities. Instead of saying okay across the board we’re going to do this. They’re a great business for who to look at on who’s doing it right as far as local marketing.
Another interesting thing that I find interesting about you and about Nifty is that you live and run your company from a pretty small city in southern Idaho. Why did you choose Burley to set up in and does it help your local marketing tactics or does it help you think like a local marketer since you’re a local such a small, unique – as in not a lot of people live there – kind of city?
Mike: I would say that, starting with the reason I did it and then moving into some of the benefits is that, and I told this a little bit at Mozcon this time actually. I quit the job in the pest control company on the day that we pushed forward on building a house in Burley. I was going to be able to live wherever I wanted, I was going to be able to travel from Burley, Idaho to basically go to all of these different pest control locations that this other company had. My wife and I were both from this town and we wanted to move back to be around family and some of those decisions that we choose to make at different times. So all at once it was like, hey I’m not going to do this, and I want to start and do something else. It was very difficult. My wife was pregnant at the time. I was just graduating college, quitting a job, and starting a company, basically making all of those choices all at once. Very, very difficult. But part of the reason why I wanted to do that from here and we didn’t drop the idea of building the house here is simply because my hometown does not have opportunity. It doesn’t have opportunity for people to move back and have jobs in the tech space at all. Outside of some agricultural tech jobs but there are very, very few of those in our community. So it was like okay, if your family doesn’t own a local business here or you’re not tied into some big farm operation, then a college educated person just wouldn’t choose to come back home.
Mike: So starting this, it was always that goal and that vision that we could create opportunity. We could create a place that would allow for that, and it has. We’re at 25 people. We have two offices – one in Burley and one in Boise, Idaho which is about 2-½ hours away. It’s brought a lot of people back to the community that were either born here, a few that were never even from the area, that are huge assets to a small town like ours. Very smart people who have good ideas who can help influence local government and can help and influence their local groups outside of that in other areas of passion. That became a really big thing for me. The reason we do this, and the reason I haven’t really gone remote and just have a bunch of remote workers is because actually helping to ignite some new things in the community. I think we can be a story for that. So that’s really why.
Now, it’s very difficult and it’s taken me a lot of years for people to know that that opportunity is there. Now we have a good stream of talent that are interested in coming back. But that is because we’re known among the high school students who were leaving and going out that they know there is actually an option to move and come back to Burley. I start that conversation while they’re in high school with certain kids that I see have a lot of talent. The benefits have been that being one of the very few tech spots in the town, we don’t have very much turn over. We retain our client really well and we’re able to create a really unique place where it is a very, very good job and good career for this area, so it just makes people content and they are overall very happy to stay. We can continue to provide that. I’ve enjoyed that aspect as well. At first I thought it was going to be one of our biggest liabilities because of how hard it is to find talent. But once that machine is created and we are able to get that talent, it becomes one of our biggest assets is that we just don’t have as high of turnover as a city where you have so many companies competing for talent so at an agency where the average tenure is a year and a half maybe. It’s very different here for that.
Megan: That’s really cool. That’s such an interesting, in a way you guys are a great analogy for what can be done. Since you’re an internet marketing company you can obviously be run from anywhere, but I think that’s kind of what we’re seeing in the local marketing space in general is that, like you were saying, the interesting parts about local marketing is that you can go beyond advertising. There’s so much more you can do and I think the internet has really opened a lot of those doors and I think that’s what you’re finding. If you wanted to start your company 20 years ago in Burley it would probably be a lot more difficult. I think that actually can be the same story for a lot of other smaller communities that want to start their own local tech scene is that it’s probably a lot easier, which is really neat.
So last question. If you could have lunch with – I usually say lunch with any industry-based person in the local marketing or local SEO industry that you admire – but I have a feeling you have already lunched with a lot of your heroes.
Mike: [Laughter] Yeah.
Megan: So I’ll just say if you could have lunch with anyone who you think is super smart, who would you pick.
Mike: I would say that the person that I look up to the most that I’m usually inspired by the most is probably Rand Fishkin. He has a lot of detractors out there, but anyone who reaches a certain level of success through transparency does. Bottom line. I haven’t always agreed with every idea or every approach in marketing – but the one thing that I’ve seen Rand do is be so transparent in the way that he does things and the data that he shares. Literally here is a guy who has, through a blog and through transparency, built a valued at $70 to $100 million dollar company simply through those means initially. People paid him largely for that community and the tools came much later. He’s one that I constantly find myself inspired by. It was just learning about that level of transparency.
It’s something that we’ve really tried to push at Nifty is that if we hang on to all of this data, we’re not telling any kind of story. We’re no more unique than any other company in this space. We look like any other digital agency. But if we’re willing to go out and take all of the things that we’ve done that work and share it with the community, 90% of the people won’t do it. 10% of the people will do it but will always respect us for sharing the idea and a majority of all of them will contact us and it will lead to relationships and connections and and it’s proved true. It’s so counterintuitive to think that you can give away your trade secrets and still do well in business or even do better, but that’s exactly what I learned through watching Moz and through others who have probably saw that through Rand as well.
I would say the local search space is very, very friendly in general. Some of the greatest people are good dear friends of mine who I have eaten with many times and learned much from. Mike Blumenthal, David Mihm, Matt McGee when he used to be heavily in local and now runs Search Engine Land, Mary Bowling, a lot of the partners at Local University. A lot of us really did learn this through some of these other people in the industry. We’ve all mirrored someone else and learned from other mentors. I do look at Rand as one that really led that charge of transparency.
Megan: That’s really cool to think about. Obviously Rand, the CEO of Moz.com… or the founder. I think he’s still the CEO…
Mike: I think his title now is the wizard of Moz…
Megan: [Laughter] Oh okay.
Mike: … which tells a lot about that because part of the reason that happened and he’s not the CEO anymore is because of a major bout of depression. He is so honest and shares his stories on why some of these things happened and why he’s best in the role now and his feelings on that. These are all things that entrepreneurs deal with, and struggle with. I just think that so many times I find myself shaking my head at all of the things that he experienced in agency or building the tool that I used in building my company, that it’s been nice to see that and see what somebody else has done and how they pushed through it.
Megan: I think especially in the marketing… I think in general our culture is leaning toward a time of more authenticity which is really great. People are being more themselves online or in social media or in their businesses. The fact that it can be done in an industry where it seems like some tactics should be guarded secrets, which they shouldn’t. You were talking about scholarships but you guys have obviously learned a lot and I don’t think sharing your knowledge in what you’ve done in scholarships means that you’re going to lose business to other people, because then you’re seen as thought leaders. It seems at first counterintuitive. It’s really cool that Rand and Moz have led the way in this space for doing that.
Mike, thank you so much for being on The Zip today. That is all the questions I have. I learned a lot and I really appreciate your time.
Mike: Thank you very much Megan for having me. I really enjoyed it.