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Q&A With Paul O’Brien, Vice President of Marketing at Zvents.com
Paul O’Brien is an old-hand at the online marketing game, having honed his skills with brands such as Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Paul, and it’s always impressive to meet well-rounded, knowledgeable thought leaders like him. If you think you have heard Paul’s name before, it could be because you recently read Online Marketing Heroes, in which he’s one of the 25 interviewed.
It is astounding to imagine, in this industry which evolves so rapidly, that some of us have been at this for a dozen years or more. Only yesterday, Google replaced Overture while Facebook was a twinkle in a teenager’s eye; technology continually evolves the landscape of our business. I was intrigued by web sites and html about 15 years ago (that being all it was at the time); enough to put some articles I had written about the Beatles and Don McLean’s American Pie online. The original site has been overhauled many times; its most recent iteration, a static instance of WordPress at http://www.rareexception.com.
While learning web design, I dabbled in SEO and other online marketing techniques. In my spare time, I managed corporate accounts for B2B technology vendor Insight out of Tempe, AZ. My website caught the attention of someone at Yahoo!, as they were in need of people with internet experience complemented by an industry/vertical. Yahoo! was the first portal to recognize the significant advertising budgets available in traditional business verticals, as well as the need to segment Sales and Business Development to support each verticals’ unique needs. I was brought on to run the Technology vertical for Yahoo! Shopping; later for Yahoo! at large. Yahoo! was invaluable experience that, unfortunately, is fairly unavailable today; that is, I was there early enough to wear all of the hats that one does at a startup, while working with the major partners (i.e. Dell and Best Buy) afforded such a big company. During this time, I was managing search, advertising, sponsorship and comparison shopping budgets.
From Yahoo!, I took over interactive marketing for Hewlett-Packard’s direct-to-consumer business (then hpshopping.com). At the time, the consumer business was responsible for the majority of HP’s paid search marketing. Part of my responsibilities included driving the bulk of the company’s SEO and online marketing strategy. It was there that I started seobrien.com and spearheaded a number of, then, theoretical search projects regarding searcher behavior, click-stream, and the synergy between paid and organic search; concepts we now consider foregone conclusions.
I was immensely fortunate 2 years ago when the opportunity to run marketing for Local Search engine Zvents presented itself. Again, like my time with Yahoo!, working with a unique instance in the evolution of the internet to both manage search and online marketing programs while defining the product on which we marketers advertise.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Teaching companies that SEO is neither marketing nor web design, but both. I think one of the greatest oversights we make as an industry is neglecting referring to SEO as a “practice.” We are practitioners of SEO in the same way that doctors and lawyers practice their field. That is, there are few certainties and each circumstance demands a unique approach. We practice SEO.
Too many companies want to fit the practice of SEO into a marketing P&L; a specific budget, forecast, and set of resources. Many vendors and consultants have perpetuated this expectation, offering a packaged service upon asking for the specific keywords and pages the company wants optimized – and where they want to appear in the search results. SEO is a philosophy that needs to be adopted by and throughout a company, not simply delivered by a 3rd party.
On the other hand, some companies treat it as the responsibility of the web designers or engineers; the consequence of which is often a lack of marketing expertise or an emphasis on design. I often find customer insights such as keyword research overlooked, a lack of attention to analytics, or content optimized for look and feel, or mere traffic, instead of conversion.
What has been your biggest success?
I’m most proud of a discovery regarding click stream, or rather, the “search stream,” before a purchase. We all know now that customers search more than once before making a purchase. What I studied is that the pattern of searches is an indication consumer behavior and intent. Consider, for example, that when you run a TV spot or drop a catalog with a celebrity involved, searches for your brand, products, and the celebrity (which shouldn’t be surprising) increase. But to what extent and in what pattern? Which celebrities create the most interest or awareness? Does the personality have a greater impact on demand for your brand or its products? These are the kinds of questions we can ask with a well structured and integrated search marketing program; one that comprehensively manages both paid and organic search with robust analytics in place to measure user activity. With that approach to search, my greatest success is having repeatedly seen triple digit growth in search traffic and performance.
How do you see the future of careers in search evolving?
Online marketing will continue to invade traditional marketing until we’re blended again as simply “Marketing.” I imagine that years ago, when television was invented, companies had a dedicated organization for TV commercials. It was only years later, as TV became a norm, that those resources we consumed by Marketing with TV playing its appropriate role in a greater marketing strategy. Online, and search, are still orphans. If not at least distinguished as “online,” they are relegated to test budgets or specific campaigns. Those of us in Search know that as much as 90% of the U.S. population goes online to search for more of what they’ve heard about off line. Future executives are those with much more online experience than off, but with sufficient offline experience to effectively manage both channels. Search marketers in such an organization wear three hats: marketer, support, and analyst. Marketers driving demand and fulfillment through search. Support roles helping optimize traditional marketing channels. And analysts who have unique insights on customer behavior and trends.
Any advice for those looking to build their careers?
Define yourself, while getting as broad experience as possible. Online marketing is still so alien to folks that the best way to find success in the industry is to find your niche, your expertise, while recognizing that a niche can limit you as much as opening the door. Does your expertise lie in ecommerce or social marketing? Are you highly analytical? Do you favor the creative work of an agency or developer? That expertise will help you develop a reputation, while standing out from the crowd; but recognize, that without broader experience, you limit yourself to always working on paid search or viral video. Online is about much more than Google and Facebook.
And, on the lighter side… What’s your favorite city and why?
San Diego, California. I find it amusing that people love Northern California because of the weather; from where I sit (I live in Los Gatos outside of San Jose), we have about four months of beautiful weather, warm enough that you can really go swimming outside. The rest of the year it runs about 65 degrees. Now, let me first point out that I can hear everyone else in the rest of the country crying foul, “did he really just complain about it being 65 all year round!?!” I grew up in Portage, Michigan; right here on my hand (imagine me pointing to a spot on the palm of my hand – people from Michigan will get it). The San Diego Zoo, Disney Land, Lego Land, Balboa Park, Coronado Island, La Jolla, a beautiful downtown, an easy to use airport, and it’s always 75 degrees. San Diego.
Do you know of any outstanding restaurants you could share with readers?
I just had dinner at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, California. It was featured in Esquire magazine as one of the best new restaurants in the country and it is well deserved. The chandeliers are made from fiber optics while a wine cellar descends two stories under a floor of glass. The TV in the bar is hidden behind a mirror above a fire place; a mirror that just dissolves when the game comes on.
That’s on the high end so in the more reasonably priced market, I have to point out the exceptional Asqew Grill in the Marina District of San Francisco; with a caveat that it was MUCH better before they redid their menu and changed the Cajun Chicken.
Of course, those that know me will probably scold me for not mentioning Baja Fresh; a guilty pleasure.
If someone were to offer to buy you a drink, what should it be?
Ketel One on the rocks with olives. That or a Jameson whiskey; I had the privilege of spending a week in Ireland with my wife, touring the distillery as distinguished guests.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
This may be a half-baked answer but I’m not sure I see myself out of the industry, entirely. With a website, a blog, and experience with a major portal, a publisher, a startup, and an advertiser, an eCommerce business, I see myself as having experienced different professions while always staying connected to what we do. You don’t live to work but work to live… I think it has to be a bit of both and you have to love what you do.
I suppose if I had to chance, I’d really enjoy being a college professor; of interactive marketing :)
What profession would you not like to do?
Working for the DMV or any environment in which the government or incumbent organization has so stifled efficiency that your job is something which shouldn’t even be required. I really hate to criticize it but our local DMV has someone who hands out the numbers people need to wait their turn! That, I would not like to do.
What are you reading right now?
I favor escapist books; thing that provide an opportunity to take my mind of work, the Clive Cussler novels are a favorite. Right now I’m reading Gregory Maguire’s Lost. Maquire wrote Wicked.
More about me:
The Rare Exception: http://www.rareexception.com
Duane Forrester is an in-house SEM with Microsoft, sits on the Board of Directors with SEMPO, can be found at his blog where he speaks about online marketing and monetizing websites and is the author of How To Make Money With Your Blog. The In House column appears on Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.