AMA with Annika Helendi: A Deep Dive into SEO and Content Marketing

A while ago, I did an AMA in a popular Facebook group for SEO experts – Fat Graph Content Ops (SEO & Content Marketing). Here are some of the most popular topics that came up there. Hopefully, some of these answers and discussions inspire you to grow your business with SEO and content marketing even further.

“What it’s like to be the first marketing hire at a promising startup?”

It’s super stressful, but also very exciting because as the first hire, you have to do everything and anything. It’s really rewarding seeing the numbers go up, the company growing and knowing that you’re the one who made it happen (at least the lead generation part).

“What it’s like when you go solo after an experience like this?”

I have always seen myself more on the entrepreneurial path than trying to climb the corporate career ladder, so going solo and working with different companies on a project basis feels right. It offers a lot of freedom and I’m able to grow quicker on both professional and personal levels. The best part of being a solo consultant is the fact that I can choose the clients that I work with and it’s been extremely rewarding seeing these startups grow (the only bad thing is that I can’t mention the names of the companies to you here). I also love the fact that I’m able to work on my own startup ideas on the side and fund these with consulting work. I’m a big fan of bootstrapping, so this works well for me (although it takes more time to get a new product off the ground).

“How should we structure a Go-To-Market strategy when launching a new product?”

Don’t try to scale your marketing efforts too early, instead focus on getting some traction as soon as possible. Don’t overthink a product launch, start selling your product right away and talk to the early users to get insights into what problems they are trying to solve (Lean Startup approach still works really well for most SaaS businesses) and start creating content based on that. Don’t focus on top-of-the-funnel at this time, focus on communicating your product value to the audience who is already actively looking for a solution. Tip: Publishing “Top 30+ X Tools for 2021” type of posts still works really well and you can promote them with Google Ads. + a ProductHunt launch is still a good way to get some quick feedback and early traction for really low effort.

In terms of structuring the GTM strategy – my advice would be to set goals based on early traction (1st paying customer, 10 paying customers, 50 paying customers) and to experiment a lot with different channels and messages and to see what helps you to reach these goals and what’s just a waste of time at this stage. In my experience, the early days should be spent in the hustler-mode and you shouldn’t work on setting up any long-term marketing processes yet. Try channels that give you quick feedback in terms of traction and don’t try to scale anything yet.

“I’m interviewing a couple of marketing people soon, so what should I pay attention to? What does the ideal marketing hire look like?”

Great question! It depends on the stage of the startup. I’ve noticed that the early stage needs a self-starter who can write well and is ready to experiment with different channels and for the later stages, the perfect marketing hire should bring in some expert knowledge about a specific channel and have a more strategic approach to marketing.

I’ve found a lot of success by doing paid test weeks for the top 1-3 candidates when hiring marketing people. We agree on a specific number of hours per day and pick a project for them with a concrete KPI goal. They have access to all of the resources within the company and they have to make their own plan and execute it during the week. Even if they fail to reach their KPI goal (for example – x amount of signups using only the email lists, or 100 new referral visits through new content), this shows how people make plans, how they communicate with the team, how they change plans if things are not working out, how they ask help, etc.

“In five years time will we still have sales-led organisations? Do you think there will ever be a time when buyers will no longer need any sales assistance”

Most of the SaaS startups that I’ve been working with over the years have been very light on the sales. I think this is mainly because of the different business cultures in Europe vs the US. The US companies that I have worked with are usually looking into SEO and content strategies way later (usually after A-round) compared to the European startups (eager to start with it from day 1).

So, do I think there will be a time when buyers will no longer need any sales assistance? – Yes, I’ve seen so many successful startups scaling their businesses by optimizing their self-service processes to perfection. BUT, I also know that startups leave a lot of money on the table if they’re not focusing on enterprise clients at all and for them, a sales team is definitely needed.

“What is the worst performing GTM strategy you ever worked on? Why did it fail?”

I hate to say this, because it was my decision and a naive one, but the worst GTM strategy was working on SEO-focused content marketing in an early-stage startup that had just raised a seed round and needed to show month-over-month growth to investors. Even though I knew that it was going to be worth the effort 18 months later, the rules of this game are different for funded vs bootstrapped startups.

“What’s the best one?”

The best one has been the same strategy (lots of SEO-focused content, very high quality, bottom-of-the-funnel topics), but in a bootstrapped company that knew how long it’s going to take.

“What should you have done differently in case of a funded startup?”

Should’ve leaned into paid acquisition way more than I did.

“What’s the most important channel a SaaS product should nurture in the 0-10k MRR phase?”

This stage still needs a lot of product and market validation, so depending on the product, I would focus on channels that give rapid feedback in terms of interest and conversions – PPC, email lists (for companies that are pivoting to a new product but have gathered the qualified emails beforehand), ProductHunt launches, etc.

1. How big of a factor do you consider links to be?

I consider them very important, but not as important as creating valuable content.

2. Do you monitor backlinks or simply built and forget?

I rarely monitor them. I might take a look once a quarter or so, but not more.

3. Did you do link exchanges at any point in time?

Only when a perfect opportunity presents itself.

“What creative strategies for link building did u try?”

One example – we had a really talented marketing guy in our team – Mart Virkus – who created comic strips that made fun of various developer-related topics (one of our target groups in Toggl) and these went viral in Hackernews, 9gag and tons of other places. The traffic it generated had a really low conversion rate, but these images created lots of backlinks to the site. I wrote about some other link building tactics I’ve tried in this blog post btw –

Scenario: You have 10,000 pages. You want to drive the most impact per time spent.

0 – What data do you ask your marketing team to give you or give you access to?

SEMrush, Google Search Console, Google Analytics + ask them to explain their current SEO/content strategy

1 – How do you analyze the data to find your highest leverage opportunities

Find out how many of these pages are ranking in Google and how many are bringing in traffic, find out the top pages and check their conversion rates. Then check the pages that are not driving traffic or ranking at all and figure out the reason why.

2 – What do you do next?

Depending on what the previous research uncovers, I would come up with a tactical plan:

  • If the pages are good and driving valuable traffic -> create a plan to create 10k new pages with similar value
  • if most of the pages are not ranking or driving traffic -> consolidate the pages, update the content or remove them if they are really low value and make a plan to start creating more valuable pages in the future.
  • if the pages are driving traffic but not converting the visitors into users, create a remarketing plan for this audience and start creating more new content that would be closer to the buying decision.

“How important is it to create a valuable tool or resource for your website when at early stages/pre-seed? Example: mortgage calculator, baby name generator, etc.”

This is a super valuable strategy because it can create so many great backlinks to your site and gives you an opportunity to do retargeting campaigns to that audience. Some examples:

“In the planning phase, what factors do you find crucial that would influence the likelihood that others will link to these?”

There has to be a big need for a resource like this and it has to provide value. If these things are covered then you’ll start seeing organic traffic and new links coming in without any effort on your side.

Tip – in your industry, find out what the top-ranking calculators/generators/mini-tools look like and just by improving the design (for example – clean design, no ads, one extra function, etc) can sometimes do the trick.

“Is this something you’ve tried? Why or why not? Build the tool without requiring opt-in for use, build links, let the tool age, then switch the tool to opt-in.”

I’m not sure if it would work. Usually, these link-worthy resources are really good at solving a really specific, yet simple problem and most people are not interested in any extra features (and if you start charging for this simple tool, nobody will buy, because there are 10 other free tools identical to your’s).

“Did you leverage Medium, Quora, or other similar channels to republish content (with canonical links)? How important is that?”

I did try it, but it wasn’t worth the effort. Especially Medium.

“Surprised to hear that about Medium, have you ever tried LinkedIn as an alternative?”

I’ve seen LinkedIn working well for some startups this way, but then the goal is usually to improve employer branding and not to do lead generation.

“Have you found success in link building without outreach? If yes, do you have some cases / examples or brainstorming tricks?”

Yes, I find most of the outreach techniques spammy and low value, so I’m mostly looking at link building from the point of view of – “what valuable content/resources would my target group organically link to?”

I recently wrote about the link building tactics that I’ve tried –

“People say that in link building outreach, we have to understand the person we’re reaching out to – understand their desires, give them value. What have you found works for getting in the head of the people you reach out to?”

My approach has been to talk to the customers first and learn about their motivations, ambitions, and problems. Then I create resources that they need and would link to and promote it to the wider target group (so not really doing individual outreach at all).

“How do you convince reluctant companies who refuse to give access to customers to gather voc data?”

I’ve usually contacted the customers directly (email and Twitter have worked well) and tried to create a personal connection. Again, I would recommend reading this book to get some good tips –

“Remote teams: What are challenges remote teams usually have to overcome? What can their leaders do to overcome them?”

I love a question about remote work. Thanks! I’m so happy that it’s so widespread now, but I also feel that most companies are not doing it the right way by trying to have some “hybrid” remote-office structure or by not embracing asynchronous communication.

The biggest challenges:

  • adopting a results-focused management style (every team member has their own OKRs)
  • embracing asynchronous communication (most video calls should be emails or memos)
  • being good at written communication (there should be an internal wiki article about every important process)

And the leaders should go all-in with remote work. Don’t do in-person meetings with some people and treat others as the remote workforce. Adopt a fully remote culture, start documenting all the important internal processes, trust your team to make decisions without your approval, set actionable KPIs for each team member and do monthly 1-1 meetings with them over video calls.

The funny thing about remote work is that as a leader you have to be more worried about people overworking and not about them slacking off. Also, all the informal communication has to be artificially facilitated – Friday get-togethers over video calls, in-person team retreats, etc.

“I really like this. Especially the part about informal communication. I was going to ask about that separately… How do leaders of remote teams check on the well-being of the members without it feeling like they have to do OT? I was imagining a remote version of walking down the hall, bumping into them, and asking how they’re doing and showing that it’s care for them as a person not their work output…”

Great question. Most of the fully remote businesses that I know have adopted some type of monthly 1-1 chat routine with every team member and this is the time to discuss topics like general motivation, well-being and to ask for feedback about your management decisions. These calls shouldn’t focus on work output at all, but instead are designed to “check the temperature” of the team and they have to be set up by the managers. The “bumping into each other down the hall” just doesn’t happen in a remote company.

“What was the keyword selection process like for you at Toggl and how did you scale content production?”

Preferring keywords that are close to the buying decision and exhausting these first.

Scaling content production – strong content strategy, clear content briefs and hiring freelance writers.

“How much Customer Data was included in the Organic SEO strategy?”

Understanding the most valuable target groups and their problems/workflows is extremely important when creating an organic SEO strategy. Setting up calls or meetings with them and asking the right questions (btw, “The Mom Test” is a great book to check out) doesn’t scale well, but it’s one of the best things you could do before creating the strategy. In Toggl, almost every team member regularly flew out to the US to meet with the customers in person and to learn about their workflows and insights.

“I’m interested to know what your creative link building approaches were in Toggl and how you prioritized which pages received links. Thanks!”

In Toggl, we actually didn’t focus on building links to specific pages. Back then, one of our big goals was to generate new referral traffic and increase signups from it. Improving these metrics resulted in great backlinks because we constantly needed to figure out ways to get our content and links on other domains and had to make sure that these links generated actual traffic. We really leaned into creating content that had the potential to go viral and generate organic links this way.

I already mentioned creating the comic strips that went viral, but we also launched this fun game – Unicorn Startup Simulator –

If you have some questions or topics you want me to write about, then don’t hesitate to let me know. Hopefully these answers help some startup founders and SEO specialists to get inspired and to grow their business further. Cheers!

Annika Helendi
Annika Helendi
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