Are your emails failing to reach and resonate with readers? Maybe, you’re asking for too much information without offering enough value. Every time someone opens their inbox, they’re flooded with people asking them to do something. What do they get in return?
Today’s guest is Brendan Hufford from SEO for the Rest of Us. Brendan emailed thousands of subscribers to ask: What frustrates them the most about SEO? As promised, Brendan followed up by sending every person who replied a custom video response. Was all his hard work worth the thoughtful effort?
Ben: Hey Brendan, how's it going this morning?
Brendan: Freaking great. I'm excited to chat about all of this stuff. How are you?
Ben: I'm doing all right. Like I was saying earlier, just kind of getting my week started this Monday morning, but I'm really excited to talk about your unique video strategy here. I think this is something our audience is really going to find interesting. Before we get too far along, would you mind introducing yourself to our audience and explain what you're working on with SEO for the Rest of Us?
Brendan: Absolutely. The short version is that I went to school to be a teacher because we let 18-year-olds decide what they want to do with their lives. My 18-year-old brain was like, I'll just stay in school forever, that sounds great. I was just moving along being a teacher, got my education administration degree. I was building some things on the side, little websites about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, became an assistant principal because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. That ended up being a huge mess.
For all of my ambition in education, I was rewarded with an extra 25 pounds around my midsection, not a great relationship with alcohol, Sunday night panic attacks. I was 30 at the time or late 20s. I have three boys, now we're going to have a 4th in October, but I just had my first kid and this can't be what life is. I took a step back, went back into the classroom at a different school, and managed to just get enough time and headspace to start serving as SEO clients.
I sold the Jiu-Jitsu stuff and joined an agency here in Chicago, which led me to another agency that I'm at now where I lead the SEO team and getting to work with some really big, cool clients and everything like that. The problem as I was building these teams, in trying to help them learn SEO—I was making tons of videos for them explaining things one-off or giving them blogs to read—when you onboard somebody, what do we onboard them with? How do we help them understand the nuance of how we think about SEO or how we think about content? I'm not going to lie to you. I got tired trying to find a blog post that could articulate something, that didn't just seem like a blog post that had been written based on 30 other blog posts; just that copycat content.
Especially, SEO was really hard to learn because it's one of the few things by nature of what SEO is. It's really hard to learn by Googling. Even if you go on YouTube, you watch half of those YouTube videos and it's like watching a wet blanket. It's so bad unless you watch like Miles Beckler—he's great—or the Ahrefs team—Sam over at Ahrefs—those great videos. But besides them, Ahrefs wasn’t even really making videos when I was running into this problem.
I started as SEO for the Rest of Us because I just kept hearing from people, for various reasons, they felt like SEO couldn't be for them. It was either too technical, or too creative, or whatever. I want this community that's just inclusive of everybody. We all feel like this can't be for us and it's hard to understand. Well, come over here, I'll use all of my teaching chops to explain it to you. That's what SEO for the Rest of Us’ core mission right now.
Ben: Very cool. I really love the way that brings two passions together for you, between your interest in SEO and your passion for teaching. I think that's great stuff.
What we're going to talk about—something that you did that really caught my attention—was you sent an email to your list, just asking folks to tell you what frustrates them the most about SEO. You offered to record a video response to every single reply that you got. I sent you a response to that question just because I was really curious to see how you're going to execute on that. I was also just honestly curious to see if you would actually respond. I imagined that could potentially have been just a ludicrous number of videos.
Brendan: Spoiler alert. It was. It was a ludicrous number of videos but continue.
Ben: Yeah, so that really got my attention. Sure enough, you responded with a very thoughtful response that actually answered the question and more. I'm curious on a fundamental level, how did you come up with this idea?
Brendan: I did the video idea for members of the SEO for the Rest of Us community when I first started it. Everybody who joined. Made them a custom video, hey, what's up, here’s what you said you were working on, here what I think, this aligns with what we're doing, and here's how we can be helpful, and I want to answer the specific questions you ask. I would just make those videos.
People love them. They were just Loom videos, it was just very easy. I love Loom videos. It's been broken on and off lately, but I love that it puts a little GIF in the email replies. I would wave because that's what tends to be in the GIF. I don't know. It just felt right for a lot of reasons.
I started there, and it just kind of made sense here. I got the idea to send the email out from listening to my friend Shane and Jocelyn Sams have a podcast called Flipped Lifestyle. Or maybe it's Flip Your Life; I forgot which title it is. They were teachers who changed their careers and launched a bunch of membership communities and stuff. I've known them for a long time and they just said on the podcast, we always send out this email, what frustrates you about this thing, to whatever community their people are opting into.
I was like, that’s cool. I should just send that to my whole list. People don't want to reply to emails, so how do I incentivize that? I don’t want to do a giveaway, it just seems weird. What if I just made it super personal, and I just did a video for everybody? That was the first email that I sent out.
Ben: Very cool. What was the response rate like? How many people actually took you up on that offer? If you're comfortable sharing; it's fine to just say it was a lot.
Brendan: I'm a big believer in just being honest about stuff. People like to brag about traffic numbers, subscriber numbers, and those types of things. Subscribers in traffic are costs. You don't make money based on getting a bunch of subscribers and a bunch of traffic. You get money based on sales and those types of things. Subscribers are a cost. Like most email list providers, you pay by the number of subscribers you have, so you're literally paying the bigger your list is.
I got 80,000 people on my list—that’s like my marketing bro voice. Cool. How many people actually read the emails? What's your open rate? If you ask people to reply, what will the reply rate be? If it's like 0.0001%, you got a crappy list. Maybe you built your list on giveaways or whatever, people just want free stuff, they don’t want to engage.
I’d rather have an engaged list. I'm always trying to do that crap that doesn't scale and keep my list super engaged. I only have about—and I clean it pretty regularly—2500 people on my email list. No matter what people replied—I want to take this tactic a little bit deeper here in a second—in the end (I think) I ended up making 50-something videos, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize each one takes 10 minutes, 500 minutes.
You reverse math that, that’s a full day of work just replying with videos, for a full day, nonstop, without eating or anything. That's the amount of time it took to reply, which is difficult, because as I said, I have a family, a day job, and I have other projects. It was quite an ask and quite an endeavor, but I wanted to incentivize people and I just want to build that deep relationship. You and I got to know each other better because of it, and that's true for everyone that I sent out.
What's cool is that I didn't send the videos out right away, I could've. I asked two follow-up questions. Whether people answer those follow-up questions or not, if they even replied to the first one I still made a video.
I asked them, “What's frustrating you?” and then I tried to clarify that. When they replied this is what's frustrating me, I asked them, “Is this something that's held you back from learning SEO?” If they replied to that, now I understand what they're frustrated with, why that's held them back from learning SEO.
If they replied to that, I was like, “Just one more, promise, last question before I make you the video. What would you say the cost has been? If you knew all of these answers to these questions a year ago, how much more money would you have made? How much more time would you have had back?”
I ask them those kinds of questions because I want them to quantify what this stuff was worth to them. I love SEO for a lot of reasons, but I'm also a marketer at heart. I want to understand the stuff for copy that I'm going to write. I want to understand the stuff for the content I'm going to create. I want to understand the public content and the content inside the community.
I got gold out of this, but I also got very specific granular buckets of things that I now need to make because I know these are the main pain points of the people on my email list. They might not be my pain points but these people that I want to serve, that's what they're struggling with and why.
Ben: Yes, and you're obviously going to get much, much more detailed insights into what those pain points are than what you would get just using a keyword research tool, or something that.
Brendan: Yeah, you're not going to find that in SEMrush, right?
Ben: Right. I'm curious, what were some of the most common SEO frustrations that you discovered? What were some of the common trends, or maybe some of the most interesting pain points that you were able to learn about your audience as a result of doing this?
Brendan: I pulled out three big buckets. Number one, people are struggling, whether they're in-house somewhere or with clients. I didn't realize this would even be a thing people would want to hear. I should have thought it through and I guess I could have thought about this enough and figured it out, but it's cool to hear validated.
They’re just struggling to get buy-in from internal, like selling SEO for the most part. My clients don't understand it, they want to pay me, but they still don't get SEO, or my director, the VP of whatever, doesn't understand SEO. I can't get buy-in with my team, I can’t get buy-in from the devs that I need to implement some stuff. All this stuff about buy-in, the explaining, and teaching SEO to the people that they interact with real closely.
That was the first bucket and was really surprising to me because I would have never put that in SEO for the Rest of Us. Also, a sub-bucket of that was people are like, hey, I'm doing this other thing right now, you went from being a freaking teacher and now you're leading the SEO team and working with clients like Allstate. Maybe we should talk about some stuff because you seem to have some things figured out that I'd like to know. Cool.
The next big bucket was the bucket that I would put your reply in, which is just about begging for backlinks, whether you're on the receiving end or the begging end. I don't want to bag, and I'm tired of getting these emails, whatever side it is. There's got to be a better way to do this, and I think I figured that out. I've got four or five kinds of tactics and ways that I think that through.
Link building is a big thing that we need to put in SEO for the Rest of Us and I also just need to talk about it more. I've written a pretty epic post on how to guest post and how to ask to guest post without being a smarmy jerk—most of those requests are for a lot of different reasons—how to write those emails or build relationships without being terrible, but I can go deeper on these other strategies where you don't have to do outreach. You don't even really have to talk to somebody; you can just create content because that’s what everybody says. Even Google. Create great content and people will link to it. No, they won't. You can create the best stuff ever and it's never going to get links. Anyway, we can go down that rabbit hole; that’s a whole another podcast, I'm sure.
The third bucket was around content. I know I need to make content. I just need to know I'm not wasting my time. That pain point of, I can do it, but I'm not sure the ROI is there, and I'm not sure that I'm not just wasting my time creating this stuff or wasting my money if I'm paying somebody.
If you knew you had a solid strategy, if you knew you had a content strategy that was a little bit better than (what I call) the content strategy shuffle where you do the export from whatever your keyword tool is where you sort the two columns for lowest keyword difficulty and highest search volume, and then you just think you're going to knock them out one at a time, that's what most people are doing. That’s not a content strategy, that's just a recipe for disaster.
That's the way most people think about content strategy. They're like, look, I can do that, but there's got to be a better way to go about this, and I'm like, cool. I've gotten asked this by hard-hitting executives on calls, face-to-face. I have the answer to that question that needs to go inside the community. Also just like what I write to my email list. I should probably do a month where I just talk about link building. They would find that really valuable. Or a month on content. Or month on getting buy-in, whatever.
That video response not only built a deeper relationship but helped me pull all of those things out. Like a total nerd, I copied and pasted them all into a doc, I did a word cloud for it; again, like a total dork. I just wanted to see and visualize what people need.
Ben: Something else worth taking a moment to touch on here is that Brendan’s plan to record a video response to every single person who asks for one could have easily backfired had he been unable to follow through. If you're going to attempt to do something like this or if you’re going to attempt to do anything that sounds a little bit crazy to try, it’s important to ensure that you do set aside enough time for yourself to actually pull it off within reasonable bounds.
It might feel like a lot of work, but I can tell you from personal experience with anything in marketing or with SEO, is that high-value tactics are worth investing your time into rather than simply sticking with the typical churn and burn tactics that everyone else has already run into the ground.
If you're not satisfied with the results that you're getting front anything, whether it’s email, whether it's cold outreach, whether it's not like anything that you're doing, if you feel like you're doing it in a way that is just the way that everybody always approaches like a given tactic, and you're doing things the way that's tried and true but the results aren't there, you may be thinking about things a little bit differently. Really carving out the time, just go all-in on something big might just be the thing that you need to do that's going to pay off. Now, back to Brendan.
Now, you have all these insights that you've gathered from your list. On a tactical level, how do you begin applying that's your work moving forward? Obviously, you can just talk about those things more, kind of gives you a sense of what people are going to care about. How do you repurpose those ideas across different things that you might do?
Brendan: I'll talk about repurposing and distribution, and that stuff here in a second. The biggest thing I did was I figured, if these are the things people need the most, do I just make three courses on this? Do I just make three separate things? I use Podia for SEO for the Rest of Us. I just make three separate products, roll them all into the membership, and kind of just give people this buffet of things because there's already a ton of content in there. But do I just add a few sections to the buffet, and be like, hey, there's more food over here, if you all want this. It's over there now, go ahead. Or do I create a structure that people know how to follow? That's the biggest thing that I'm taking from teaching. You can't come in on day one and just set those giant tomes, the history books that students get.
You couldn’t just set that on their desk and be like, just have it done by the end of the year; you're good. Start anywhere you want. It doesn't matter. Just any chapter. Just start there. Just have it done by the end of the year and we're good. There has to be some sort of sequence because themes and topics build on each other. We can't talk about link building until you understand content. We can't talk about content until you understand search intent.
Don't get me wrong. Like a self-starter, I can give you the buffet. I always joked about high school students that didn't need me; they just needed a library card. They probably would've been fine, like they don’t even need school. There are people like that in business and in SEO. They just need resources and they're good; they're fine. The problem is most of those resources are out there for free. I'm this way, I don't really need a course, it saves me time sometimes, but there are really no secrets. It’s all out there somewhere.
The big thing was just putting it in a framework that helps people understand. So, I broke it down into (I called it) the IAM SEO framework—Intent, Asset, and Medium. What is the intent behind people searching for this, whether they're searching on Google, YouTube, Pinterest, Amazon, Apple Podcasts, or wherever? What's their intent? What do they really want when they're searching for this thing? What asset are we going to create? Then, where is it going to live and how do we optimize it for where it's going to live, whether that's your website, or YouTube, et cetera?
I created the SEO roadmap, which just walks people through. Let's build the foundation. Let's understand how to choose a topic if you need that, how to build a connection with an audience, where keywords fit in here. People stress keyword research. It's funny that the more mature I get in my SEO career, the less (I think) keyword research matters, and then just how to write online.
I'll clickbait and call it SEO writing secrets, but people think there's a way to write for SEO that's better for ranking in Google than regular writing. Not really. Good writing, well-structured writing that hits the most important things, and it's well researched is usually going to be 90% of the way there.
So, build the foundation and build the structure. I'm using a building analogy. Let's build the structure. Let's talk about where to start with link building. Let's talk about where to start with the content strategy, how to rank if your website is brand new without having to really rank your own website, and then scaling these things. Let's scale link building strategy, let's talk about my five big ones that I've used really effectively. Let's talk about how to do a content audit. Now, at this point you have 100 pieces of content, let's talk about how to figure out what to keep, what to get rid of, how to make things better, what to combine, all of that sort of stuff, and just fitting it into a road map where all the people have to do is just put one foot in front of the next, in front of the next, and you're pretty solid.
Ben: Cool. If someone is listening to this show and they want to replicate your strategy of basically just sending a one-question survey to your list and promising to deliver value through a video response, even if it takes you 500 man-hours to do it, you're going to go the whole way and you're going to follow through. How would you recommend they approach it? What would be—I guess in a general sense—your best advice for them to actually make this tactic successful in their own situation?
Brendan: I'm a big believer in batching and using systems where I can. Having your email in one tab, having a separate tab for CloudApp, Loom, or whatever you're going to use. I like those platforms that make it real quick. There's no, I'm going to upload it to Google drive now and then share that link. It gives you the link, hit play on it, make sure you didn't lose audio because that happens sometimes, and just share the link, like hey, I made this video for you. Share the link. They’ll tell you when they watched it. If you really want to follow up with them later, you can see nobody's watched this video, stuff like that.
I would just make sure, take 2% of your total email list. That's how many videos, in honest, best case, you'll have to make. I think I have a pretty engaged list. If you can't video reply 2%–5% of your list, maybe don't do this. Maybe just send it to a segment of the list or whatever. If you have a small list and you're just starting out, especially if you're a SaaS company, or whatever you do, having this in the first email of like, hey, we're so glad you joined. I borrowed this from Joel Klettke. He’s a great copywriter, business casual copywriting. Joel said, just in your first email, ask them what brought them there today, like I just signed up. What brought you here? That's great, or you can say, what frustrates you the most about this? I'll send you a personal video reply if you let me know.
That's just such a great way to build that immediate engagement, immediate affinity with somebody on your email list. They can tell you exactly what they're frustrated about. Eventually, over time, you’ll see these themes. I like my method just because it covered the whole list, and now I can put it in the autoresponder going forward, but it also (just like I said) gave me those very clear patterns. If you get it dripped over time, you might not see the patterns as clearly as when I was reading 50 emails in a row.
Ben: I think that makes a lot of sense. The last question I'll throw your way—I think you've answered this indirectly in a number of different ways of this conversation—for a recipient of these emails and these videos, what do you think is really the value in it for them? What do you think makes that stand out so much from pretty much all the other types of email, all the other types of outreach that people are so used to seeing these days?
Brendan: Good question. For some reason, the videos are just way more engaging than just text, I'll send you an email back. They value profit. Even if you're a freaking expert and they’d love to hear from you, just seeing somebody's face and hearing their voice is so much more. Everybody wins. It's faster for you than probably typing out an email because you can just talk. If you ramble, people are very forgiving, you don't have to proofread, or edit, or anything like that, especially when you've done as much video and podcasting as I have or you have. We would probably both just do really well with this.
I think it's better for us, but it's also better for them. The value prop of, hey, I’ll send you another email, I don't want more email. I want less email. That’s not a good value proposition. If it's somebody that you look up to and respect and you read their emails, you're going to want to have that engagement with them. There are so many people, if they were like, I’ll make you a custom video reply, done. I'm in for that for sure. That’s free consulting on my specific thing.
There was a lot of the video replies where they're like, here's my company, here's what I'm struggling with, I need to know if we’re doing this thing. I gave him 10 minutes of free consulting where I focus just on them. Not even cold, I figured it out ahead of time and then made the video, so it had to be more than 10 minutes.
I think the value prop is really important, especially now when there is a lack of visible human contact. I just think it's so much more meaningful now because a lot of us aren't able to see people in an office or see people on a regular basis. I have mixed feelings now because it's really great. I think that we all have a bit of fatigue of being on Hangouts and Zoom constantly. Do I really want to stare at another weird 2D? ‘My brain doesn’t know how to process this 2D human in front of me’ kind of thing. Then, they have that forever.
If you pay for Loom, CloudApp, or whatever you're using, they have that video of you forever, and they can go back in their email and be like, what did he say? And they will watch you. I've got a couple of them that I've been playing three or four times, and that’s great. If it was valuable enough, they’ll watch it again. I also got that chance to engage with them visibly and verbally. I think it's pretty cool.
You’re also (like I said) figuring out other things. If you do this in a way of offering to do teardowns—I like to position them as build-ups—you want to do build-ups for somebody or teardowns, you can export those and use them publicly. Put it on your Twitter, put it on YouTube, whatever. You’re creating assets.
Ben: Absolutely. I think that's a great answer. That does it for all the questions I had. Before I let you go, I just like to thank you again for coming on the show and sharing some insight into just everything about how you approach this tactic. I really appreciate the transparency. I really think that our audience will be really excited about this one.
Brendan: Great. I'm really glad to hear that. If people want to see any of this stuff in action, you can literally just Google my first and last name. Spell it as bad as you want. I would say it was because I'm good at SEO. I just have a really unique name. I always joke my buddy, Justin Jackson, is just screwed. He'll never rank number one for Justin Jackson. It's a very common name for professional athletes, and there are four professional athletes Justin Jacksons, but if you Google Brendan Hufford, you spell it as wrong as you want, you’ll find me. You can also look up SEO for the Rest of Us. Just drop that into Google, that'll take you there as well. If I'm any good at what I do, if you want to see the result of all these questions that I asked, or you want to be on the email list for when I do things like that again, that’s a great place to start.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.