How to Clearly Communicate the Value of SEO and Get Executive Buy-In to Make Major Breakthroughs With Eli Schwartz [AMP 247]
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Marketers understand the value of search engine optimization (SEO), but they need to clearly communicate why it matters to get buy-in from executives, stakeholders, and clients.
Today’s guest is Eli Schwartz, a consultant and growth advisor. Also, he is the author of Product-Led SEO, a new book that describes how to communicate the value of SEO and think strategically and philosophically about SEO to be successful.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- What motivated Eli to write the book? Explain to leaders how to do SEO sensibly
- Sweet Spot: Start SEO when spending at least $1-2 million on paid marketing
- Disparity: How much is your company spending on paid marketing versus SEO?
- Big Problem: SEO blackboxes things and mystifies it intentionally with metrics
- Metrics vs. Outcomes: SEO is about speaking the same language, not keywords
- Big Budget: Put money in to produce content, create product, and make a profit
- Big Consequence: Prioritize SEO or continue to fall behind business competitors
- SEO Do’s and Don’ts: Focus on content but not allocate enough resources
- Monetary Value: Clearly communicate what you need and why to impact ROI
- SEO Standpoint: Create content from a product perspective for user engagement
- Priorities: Base SEO on users, not search volume/traffic, to get biggest benefits
- Leaders don’t need to understand SEO, but they need to know the outcomes
- Recipe for Success/Failure: Create product, product flops, and ideas don’t work
Ben: Hey, Eli, how’s it going this morning?
Eli: Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Ben.
Ben: Absolutely. Glad to have you on the show. What we’re going to be talking about in this episode is communicating the value of SEO to get executive buy-in, which might sound like a separate topic to some folks when it comes to talking about SEO, but I found from personal experience that it’s very difficult to get anything meaningful done with SEO if you don’t have buy-in. I think it’s a very common problem for a lot of folks, particularly in larger organizations.
I know that this is something that you yourself are passionate about. I’m going to assume that you are given that you’ve written a book titled Product-Led SEO recently. To kick things off, what inspired you to write this book? Why do you feel this was the right book for the current moment we’re in right now?
Eli: There are just so many reasons. I’d say the biggest reason is that I’ve been a full-time consultant and growth advisor for the last 2½ years, but prior to that, I was a full-time Director of Growth at SurveyMonkey and did a little consulting on the side. I was always having conversations with leaders, whether it was for the company I worked for, their consulting engagements, PR meetings, or VCs I was meeting, and I would explain to them how they should be doing SEO. They’re like, well, where do I learn more about this, and I had nowhere to point them to. That was really the motivation to be like, I need to start writing this down. Maybe I’ll start blogging about it. Then, I was like, this could actually be a book.
I was talking to a CMO at a company that raised tens of millions of dollars. She told me her OKR for a quarter was going to be increasing her domain score on Ahrefs. What number domain they would be in the world. I’m like, what is that going to do for your bottom line and for showing your investors that this is a worthwhile channel? Someone else once told me they want to increase their Alexa rank. All these things that made no sense.
One of the things I always ask—I always ask this today—whenever I talk to a company is how much are you spending on paid marketing? I think the SEO sweet spot when someone should start really building SEO is when they’re spending at least $1 million or $2 million on paid marketing.
I’ve talked to CEOs and I’d say, how much do you spend on paid marketing? They would say a couple of million dollars a month. Then I’d be like, how much are you spending on SEO? They’d be like, $50 or paying some service.
Do you not see the disparity there? Do you realize if you took 10% of your budget there, figured out how to optimize for it, buy content, and build an SEO channel, it would be so much more profitable than this other channel that you’re paying for, and if you stop paying it disappears.
I even had the same thing in my full-time role at SurveyMonkey where we spent $2 million–$5 million per month on paid marketing. I would have to struggle to be like, can I please have another software that costs me $10,000? Can I please hire one more person on my team? This person is going to cost $1000,000–$200,000 and they’re going to return 10X that.
That’s why I wrote this book. I really wanted to get this message out there. I just had a reminder of this. I put a tweet up online last week about how I was just talking to someone in the same scenario where I wanted them to spend $10,000 a month on SEO. They’re like, no, we’re not going to do that, but they spend millions of dollars on paid marketing. They want to nickel-and-dime on the SEO budget. It got a lot of engagement. Everyone complaining about the exact same thing.
There really is no book like this. Most of the SEO books are all tactical blocks. How do you pick your keywords? How do you optimize your title tags? What software should you use? I want to write this strategic book, like what is SEO? How do you think about it? How do you build it successfully within a company? How do you do it successfully on your own personal blog?
Ben: You’re really looking to help maybe facilitate a mindset shift when it comes to SEO, help people get better focus on the right things, and start with a strategy that’s actually aligned with business goals rather than some pseudo-vanity metric-type thing that might be useful but it’s not really a KPI. For example, to drive up your domain rating, your Alexa score, or whatever it is. I think that’s great stuff.
You’ve touched on this a little bit when you’re spotlighting some of the challenges that you found were just coming up time and again in conversations about SEO, in getting buy-in, and those types of things. To dive into that into a little bit deeper detail, what are some of the biggest challenges that you see marketers facing when it comes to getting buy-in for major SEO initiatives and to get executives on board to the idea of moving some of their marketing spend from other areas and putting it into SEO where the return might actually be greater than these other things they might be doing?
Eli: I touch on this a lot in my book. I think the biggest problem SEO has is that SEO tries to blackbox everything and mystify it intentionally. I’ve seen this so many times. A paid marketer comes into a meeting. They have a very clear spreadsheet which says, here’s the budget. I’m going to spend this amount of budget on Google, this budget on Facebook, this amount of budget on LinkedIn. This is going to be my CAC. This is going to be my return. This is going to be my LTV. This is how I’m going to improve efficiency. This is how my growth is going to go literally throughout the year or throughout the quarter. This is how my returns are going to go. Here’s my buffer. If you feel very generous today and you throw an extra million at me, I can also spend that, too.
Then, SEO comes into the room and says, all right, here’s what I need from you. I’m going to need all this money. We’re going to create all this stuff. Don’t ask me any details because it’s really complicated. Then, we’re going to throw it at Google. Google’s got an algorithm and it’s going to really blackbox it. If all goes well, it’s going to make us trillions of dollars. If it doesn’t go well, we’re going to lose our entire investment. Are you okay with that?
Then, the executives are going to be like, what if we don’t spend money? Then, the SEO bangs their head in the wall and be like, I’ll just go out and I’ll figure out how to make it work.
That I think is the biggest problem where you have all these other marketers who are very explicit with what they’re going to do from a deliverable standpoint and from a spend standpoint. I think even social media or even influencers. They also have some mystique around what they’re doing. They have very specific metrics. They can say, okay, here’s how much money to spend on social media. We need this person. We’re going to buy this influencer. We’re going to do all that. I don’t know necessarily what our outcomes are going to be, but I’m going to have metrics. I’m going to show you. I’m going to get likes. I’m going to get social followers. I’m going to get all this.
But SEO is really like, we’re going to do all this stuff and I’ll keep you posted. I think that’s the biggest problem when it comes to SEO. We put out keywords.
In my book, it talks about this a lot, the vanity metrics that you just mentioned. SEOs get themselves in trouble when they say, okay, these are the keywords I’m going to go after. Then, they come back to the boss for the next quarter and it was like, so those keywords, I just googled on my phone and you’re nowhere to be found, so no money for you.
We tie ourselves to these metrics that don’t really make any sense, that we have no control over. Instead, I advocate for speaking the same language. Come in and say, okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to produce this amount of content and I’m going to create this product. I’m going after this opportunity.
I was working with a company recently where the SEO opportunity built is a $2 billion a year profit opportunity. That’s a lot easier of a conversation to have. To say, okay, here’s how I’m going to spend the money. The opportunity is $2 billion a year. I’m not going to get $2 billion right away. It’s going to take five years, but that’s what we’re laddering into.
Again, it sounds big. You’re going to ask for a huge budget, but it’s a much easier conversation because in the executive’s minds, that makes a lot of sense then. Put money in. It builds an opportunity and sometimes it fails. Instead of, well, give me money, I’m going to come back to you in two weeks. I’m going to tell you that I got the keyword ranking, which I can’t get.
Ben: I absolutely agree that trying to make promises with SEO is difficult. Without the ability to make promises, it’s hard to get a budget just given that it’s a bit less predictable than maybe some other things are. It’s like, okay, if you give me $1, I can turn it into $3 tomorrow.
I think it’s super important to really put some focus on that and help people understand. If you can’t make a promise directly, maybe there are some things that you can do so you’re not like, I’m going to go after these keywords and your boss is like, you’re not ranking for these things in a timeline that they think is acceptable.
You’ve touched on this as well when it comes to the consequences of setting expectations and not meeting them. To go deeper into that, what are the potential consequences that companies might suffer if they’re either: (1) unable, for whatever reason, to move forward with SEO initiatives due to internal red tape or due to objections that stakeholders might have, or (2) if they do move forward with some big-budget SEO plan and then it either falls flat, it doesn’t start producing the promised returns as quickly as what a marketer said they could do if they just had more money, if they just had another tool, or if they just had another hire on their team?
Eli: I have multiple examples to really touch on this here. I worked with a company that did not do SEO. They hired me to partner with them and to help them build out an SEO channel and they didn’t do it. They didn’t allocate the resources they needed to. I worked with them for an entire year. Every quarter, they’ll be like, all right, what should we be doing for SEO? I’d be like, the first thing I told you. Literally, let’s just do that one thing. Then, they wouldn’t do it.
What happened to this company is they hired me and they spent all these resources. They had engineers sitting around idle and they didn’t get any for it. The competitors moved a year ahead and they didn’t. This company still hasn’t. They’ve now gone a different track because the CMO left and the people that I was working with left, so now they’re trying a different way, but they’re falling further behind. That’s the biggest consequence.
We can all look at the ecommerce war between Amazon and Walmart. I would say Walmart potentially has more resources available to them than Amazon ever did. Amazon and Walmart have been around for a long time, but who ranks number one? Amazon’s more visible. Amazon has built that business despite Walmart having the same distribution, the same products, having local stores, having all those things. They didn’t prioritize SEO. Now, it’s 2021. They’re trying, but they’re behind. You don’t want to be behind, especially if your competitor is moving forward.
The other thing I would say is that I’ve worked with some companies that did the wrong SEO. They focused on content, but they didn’t allocate the resources. For that, I have two great examples. One company I worked with spent $2 million on content, which they never built the CMS. When I joined this company, the content was sitting in a Google Drive folder. They’re like, we’ve done SEO. We have $2 million worth of content which actually has never been published because they still haven’t gotten the CMS and still haven’t gotten engineers. They still haven’t designed the pages as the content will be on and there was never a theory for why that content should exist. It was just based on keyword research. They outsourced it.
Another company I worked with built a blog. I am a huge fan of not creating any sort of content unless you know that there are users that will consume it, it makes sense for users, and it will end up converting. But this company did what some people call content marketing. They built a blog and they engaged with their users. They did keyword research. They spent $4 million on this content and the blog.
The content doesn’t belong to them now because it’s under some wonky license. They were allowed to have a blog, but they can’t repurpose the content, which is bizarre to me. Their blog just exists, but it has never converted anyone because it is a blog that is designed to read when this is a company that sells. They don’t monetize eyeballs.
If you don’t do SEO, then your competitors move ahead of you. If you don’t do the right SEO, you just lose your entire investment. But that’s not the way most people think of it. They usually think, well, if I do the wrong SEO, I get penalized by Google. I don’t think Google is a big, bad boogie man that’s going out to penalize anybody. Google’s looking to reward users with the right responses and right results, so let’s build to that. If you don’t build to that, you just get no benefit.
Ben: Right. I think that it is important to focus on. Companies definitely do worry that if they do the wrong things, they’re going to get “penalized,” but it definitely seems like Google’s attitude (from my perspective) has shifted away from punishing bad websites and more towards rewarding good websites.
Eli: Yeah. That’s the way it should be. We’re all users. That’s what we want to happen.
Ben: Something Eli talks about here is the importance of explaining value in terms of dollars and cents or to the same monetary value if you are in a country that uses other denominations of currency.
Stakeholders are not necessarily going to understand what tactics you want to execute, what tools you need, or anything else relating to SEO, but they will understand and care about how SEO can help grow the bottom line.
That’s really where conversations need to start before you get into making your case for some of those other things. In addition to developing the soft skills necessary to clearly communicate what you need and why, shifting the way that you think about SEO toward thinking about impact on ROI can really be transformative. It’s really something that needs to happen before you can then communicate that value to somebody else.
Now, back to Eli.
Again, you’ve touched on this a little bit as well, but to go a little bit deeper into another area of this conversation here, if a marketer is struggling to know which area of SEO they should be focusing on, they’re struggling to know what is the right area of SEO that they should really be putting their attention toward, how would you recommend they get started?
Eli: My book is called Product-Led SEO because I insist on viewing SEO as a product. The content we’re creating shouldn’t just be because people search it and because Google Keyword Planner tells us a lot of their monthly searches. It has to be from a product standpoint that we know users are going to engage with.
If users are your North Star and you have a lot of different product lines. I worked with a company, there’s a financial product line and many different uses for the financial product. Where we spent our effort and where we built SEO was the most profitable channel and where the user adoption was the easiest rather than having the scattershot approach.
I’ve been in this situation multiple times when it comes to international where I’m managing international SEO. You’re like, oh well, it’s global. We’re in 16 languages which comprise 150 countries. Where do you go first? You don’t go to that teeny tiny country. Let’s say for Portuguese, I would focus on Brazil. They speak Portuguese and have 100 million people.
I think that Portugal has 10 million people. I could be wrong. For anybody from Portugal listening and I got that wrong, I apologize. But Brazil has a lot more people speaking Portuguese, so if you have to optimize towards one language, that’s where you go.
The same goes from a product context. When you’re not focusing on international SEO and just doing SEO for a company that has a lot of different product lines, you optimize for where there are more users looking for your product, where your SEO is going to have the longest reach and the most impact. That’s where I prioritize based on users.
Now, that is not necessarily the way most people prioritize. A lot of people, when they do SEO, prioritize based on search volume, so they’re going to go after the most traffic. Maybe you’ll get the most traffic, but not necessarily the most benefit for the business.
Depending on where you sit within a company, if you’re an SEO manager, you want to get a raise, and you want to get a bigger team, rather than attaching yourself to some large attractive number of this is how many monthly searches I’m going to get, this is how much traffic I’m going to get, attach yourself to the place you’re going to make the most money because you can put a saunter in your step when you can say, well, guess what? I just drove $10 million last week. That’s what I do.
That’s how you get the bigger team, not by, did you know I’m number three on Google for a term that tens of millions of people search for a month?
Ben: Right. It almost seems to me like it makes sense to figure out the business strategy for what it is that your company is trying to be known for, what are the things that you sell, and really get very clear on that. Then, move into some of these other more tactical things like your keyword research or all that other stuff.
That’s great advice. Do you think it makes sense to think of them as two different phases, two different sides of things, or however you want to frame it?
Eli: Do you know what I think of it? I think it was just proper marketing. I think somehow, SEO became this separate channel and we mystify it potentially. It’s just like when you’re doing marketing, you come with your marketing plan because I have product market fit. Here are my users, this is how I’m going to market to them because this is the business goal. This is the strategy.
But then when it comes to SEO, it’s like, well, let’s throw all that aside and do something completely different. I want to bring SEO back home where it belongs, which is an acquisition channel. It’s a top-of-funnel acquisition channel if it’s a certain place. It’s not a bottom-of-funnel acquisition channel. You put it in its proper place which means that now, it can be in assistance towards those other middle-of-funnel.
Social media is a little bit lower in the funnel. I think paid marketing is at the bottom of the funnel. Brand marketing is potentially higher in the funnel than SEO. Make them all work together. That’s where SEO will be the most profitable.
Maybe for some businesses, there’s no real funnel. Ecommerce doesn’t have a funnel. It’s like search, buy. Make a lot of money.
I was fortunate when I worked at SurveyMonkey that SEO was closer to the bottom of the funnel because it was a free trial. People would just find it and start using it. We drove three quarters of revenue from SEO.
That was how I was able to get a bigger team. By me saying, I spent fractions of the amount of money on SEO that you spend on paid marketing and I’m driving four times as much revenue. Just make it a regular marketing channel. Measure the same marketing measuring stick that you’re measuring everything else. That’s how you’d be successful with SEO.
Ben: Sure. I love it. Once marketers have a solid grasp strategically on what they need to be doing when it comes to SEO, they figured out how to integrate, at least they have a vision in their minds of how to integrate SEO into a broader marketing strategy and then to a broader business strategy, and they understand its role, its place, and what they need to do, how should they start that conversation with internal stakeholders?
You’re talking to somebody who does not understand anything about Google, about search engines, about SEO, and about the potential value. And the fact that they might actually be fearful of those things for a number of reasons.
If you’re a marketer in that position and you’re confident at least in regards to your grasp on SEO, how do you start the conversation on a good footing so that you can move forward the way you want to?
Eli: I don’t think that executives really need to understand SEO. They don’t understand engineering unless they come from an engineering background. They don’t understand paid marketing. There are many executives of companies that are now spending money on Snapchat and TikTok that don’t know what Snapchat and Tiktok are. That’s fine. They don’t need to understand how SEO works. What they do need to understand are the outcomes, the work that’s going to be done, and of course the investment that’s going to be made.
You go into that meeting and you say, we are not achieving our potential when it comes to organic search. There are people that are searching on Google and they’re looking for what we should be visible for. That is an X million-dollar, X billion-dollar, X trillion-dollar opportunity. These are the things that we’re going to do.
I think when it comes to SEO, it’s not these are the things that I’m going to do for the next month. You say, these are the things I’m going to do over the next 1–3 years to achieve this large opportunity. These are the things I need today to start making this happen. Here’s my roadmap and here’s my plan, so fund this.
Now of course, you have milestones. When you say a three-year plan, you’re going to come back next quarter and you’re going to say, did you accomplish the things you said you’re going to do the next quarter? Not did you achieve the things you said you’re going to do next quarter because that might not be in an achievement cycle.
Over the next quarter, it might just be mapping out what you need to do, hiring the team, getting engineers, getting designs, or making mops of pages. Those are your milestones. It’s not the milestones and achievements that SEOs typically ask for, which is, give me this money, I’m going to write this amount of content, and I’m going to have this amount of results.
We’re building a larger opportunity just like a product. That’s why (again) I think of SEO as a product, which is you come up with a product idea. You’re like, I’m going to ship it before the next quarter is over. To come with a product idea, I’m going to need this amount of lead time. I’m going to need this team. I’m going to need a physical office space for them to sit and do all those things to set up. Then, you achieve it.
In my book, I talk about some very successful SEO products like Zillow, Amazon, and TripAdvisor. Those didn’t happen overnight. You’re building towards some ultimate goal.
That’s the way I would pitch it. They don’t necessarily need to understand the individual tactics. They actually don’t want to know about the individual tactics. They don’t think it’s necessary for them to even understand what the keywords are or what internal linking is.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in conversations where I have to explain what a canonical link is because I want to demonstrate that I’ve done some work. But no executive wants to go to sleep at night knowing what a canonical link is or whether it’s a 301 redirect or a 302 redirect. They just want to know, is my website working? Is it making me money? Are you returning the investment that I made here?
Ben: Right. That really is all they care about. Money goes out, more money comes back in.
I think that just goes back to what we’re talking about. The marketers themselves have to be very, very clear-minded about how they’re going to produce that result before you go into that conversation and start making promises you can’t keep.
Eli: Exactly. This is what I would say to all the marketers listening. It’s okay not to achieve the things you said you’re going to achieve. It’s okay to fail. I think SEOs don’t necessarily believe that because they say, these are all the tactics. This is my recipe. If I follow this recipe, I will be successful. But you don’t need a recipe because how many products are there that we’ve all experienced in the world that were launched to great fanfare which flopped?
We’re creating products. Products flop. Ideas don’t work. That’s okay. There’s no recipe for success.
I worked with companies that had all the SEO tactics and recipes for success on SEO and they failed. That was a failure because that’s what they set as their success. They said, we have the highest domain authority. We have the best content. We have the best backrooms. We have all the best stuff and we still can’t move above number seven on Google.
What I would tell them is move on. Go create more content, build more pages, go find other verticals, and do other things. But instead, they stay fixated on going from seven to one which is never going to happen. They remained as failures rather than if they would have moved that energy, moved all the money they spent on trying to move from seven to one, built something else, and instead just say, you know what, we’re not getting the tens of thousands dollars and millions of dollars we thought we’d get from being position 1 on this instead position 7, but we made $50 million somewhere else.
They failed and they continued to stay as failures. I think that’s one message for marketers to have. We’re building something and it may not work.
One of the things that I don’t talk about in the book is at SurveyMonkey, on the advice of someone that should have known better—it was older advice—we built that surveymonkey.co.uk focused on the UK audience. We were given great advice, but it took us three years to actually build that out. By the time we launched, it failed because by the time we launched it, mobile was more important. I don’t think people care as much about domains anymore as they used to because you don’t see the domains. On mobile, you just don’t see the domains. It doesn’t matter whether it’s .co.uk or .com.
We saw no measurable result. We actually saw negatives. Our visibility went down in the UK because we now had another domain and we had to deal with canonicals, redirects, cookies, and all these other things.
It’s okay. We failed. It took us three years to launch something and we failed. It was a product release and we failed. It’s okay to fail in SEO. It’s not okay to fail when you go and say, these are the things I’m going to do and as a result, I’m going to be successful, because now, you’re stuck defending yourself and you’re not.
Ben: Right. It almost seems to me that rather than a recipe, to my mind, what you’re looking for is an assuredness that you can’t have. You’re looking for a magic bullet or something that’s just going to let you go to sleep at night thinking you’ve got all the answers when what you really need is maybe a better problem-solving process that you can refine and you can you can adapt over time, so you find the answers through your process rather than trying to start with the answers that you can’t possibly have. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you ship something.
Eli: Yes, absolutely.
Ben: Once marketers have gotten as far as getting clear on why they’re going to do SEO, what they’re going to do, they’ve got buy-in, and their stakeholders understand the value of it, how can they set themselves up for success so that they can actually execute their ideas effectively and so that they don’t get to that point and then everything just blows up on the launch pad?
Eli: When you think of SEO as a product, there is so much more involved than just a piece of content and just some keywords that you’re writing. When you think about SEO as a product, you have all those other inputs that you need. You need design, you can’t just have content. It just can’t be on a WordPress post, it has to have design, it has to flow with what the users want. You need engineers to build something if you want to build something custom.
The way you prevent things from blowing up at the launch pad is to make the right ask and say, this is what I’m building towards. I’m building towards this multi billion-dollar opportunity, or if someone’s at a smaller company, building towards a multiple million or multiple $100,000 opportunity.
These are my investments, but in order to make this successful, I need design resources. I need engineering resources. I need this very specific budget for content. I need a project manager to make sure everything stays on track and I need someone else on my team.
You’re making that ask. Then, you build out your roadmap, your milestones, and what you’re going to do. If that gets funded, that should blow up. When you make your ask, put some buffer in there and say, I need four engineers when you really need two engineers just in case. You don’t want to fail.
That should blow up. The problem SEOs have is that we try to get too cheap on behalf of the company and say, well, I’m just giving you $10,000 for content. You give me $10,000. Before you know it, that’s going to be millions of dollars. That’s not really going to happen, so ask for the right thing.
If you have those resources and say, I can’t, I’m not going to write that content this quarter, I’m going to build a CMS this quarter, I’m going to get a good design, I’m going to get a good mock, I’m going to have this envision or figma that you can play around with and you can see, and we can continue moving towards this ultimate goal, it shouldn’t blow up on the launch pad.
It blows up on the launch pad when you don’t have the right resources, you walk out that meeting with your $10,000, and you’re like, oh, no, what do I do now? Know what you’re going to do when you come out of that meeting.
Ben: Yeah. I think that’s great advice. Eli, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing your insights with us. I really appreciate it.
Before I let you go, if our listeners are looking for either where they can just get a hold of you or where they can find your book, where would you direct them toward?
Eli: The book is on Amazon. Greatly appreciate it if they would buy it. Please leave a review so that other people would want to buy also.
You can find me on LinkedIn. Just look up Eli Schwartz. I have my own site. It’s elischwartz.co. I’m on Twitter, @5le.
Ben: Awesome. Great stuff. Thanks once again, Eli, for coming on the show. I really feel like I got a lot out of this conversation and I’m sure our audience will as well.
Eli: I hope so. Thank you for having me, Ben.
Ben: Thanks, Eli for coming on the show. Go check out his book if you haven’t already.
August 10, 2021