Welcome to another episode from our “2Inspire” series!
We hope you learned a few tips and tricks from our previous interviews with Sujan Patel and Marvin Liao. Haven’t seen them? Then what are you waiting for? Find out how they got to where they are, what they did before that, what does a day or week in their professional/personal lives look like?
In this episode, we’re very excited to have Kevan Lee with us!
I’m sure that many of you already know who Kevan is. But for the ones that don’t, Kevan is the VP of Marketing at Buffer, a powerful social media management tool used by 3 million agencies, brands, publishers, and individuals. He wrote articles for prestigious websites such as Entrepreneur, Time, Fast Company, and Inc.
Geoff Knapp: Good I mean we look forward to having a quick chat about a number of topics related to your experience, your perspective. Why don’t you start by just telling us a little about yourself? What was your first job and how did that evolve into where you are today?
Kevan Lee: Absolutely! It was definitely an evolution. So I am born and raised in Idaho and in a very rural setting. Went to school up in Seattle for college and I got a journalism degree at school and it was around the time that newspapers were changing, the journalism industry was shifting so I found myself looking for a different career path than what I had planned on for my whole life. And fortunately social media became a thing right around that same time, so this is the early 2000s, and really took off and so did content marketing. This whole ecosystem that I didn’t even knew existed when I was in school. And so I took my writing passion and translated it into blogging. Blogging became content marketing and I was very fortunate to be able to get some experience there and then turn that into a job at Buffer. I joined Buffer as a content marketer, a writer and there were about 17 of us at Buffer when I joined and the team now is around 80 people. So I’ve had a chance to expand my skill set and grow as a person and develop into the job that I have now, which is VP of Marketing. So I lead the team here and I did come full circle, I’m back in Idaho again so I get to work from home here. We’re fully distributed around the world, so I run the team from here.
Geoff Knapp: Cool! So you talked about the size of the marketing organization of Buffer. What strategies are you deploying through those people and what are they focused on? Could just give us them some idea how you guys market and promote Buffer?
Kevan Lee: So out of our company of 80 there’s around ten or so to work primarily on the marketing side. We’ve split the marketing group into two buckets. We have a product bucket then we have a content and brand bucket.
The product bucket is a great group of folks and they are pretty deeply embedded onto the product teams themselves, so we’ll have some product marketers, we’ll have an engineer, designer, kind of a lead to tie it all together. And they are very product-focused so whatever the product team’s goals are, those are the marketers’ goals. So if it’s research, if it’s acquisition, if it’s retention, any type of growth metric, the product marketer exists to serve the needs of the product.
Then the branded content side it’s a bit different so that’s where all of our content marketing occurs. And we really focused that side of things on awareness and reach. We’re measuring sessions to blog or measuring listens and downloads to our podcast. Then on the brand side, we’re making sure everything is high quality and that we’re thinking outside the box to try some new and creative things. We’re going look into video series this year, basically, anything that can get the word out about Buffer and help people to build that bias from Buffer so that when they’re ready to choose a social media tool, we’re top of mind for them.
Geoff Knapp: In what ways are you measuring success both in those two groups and is it objective based, is it metric based, a combination of those? How do you balance those two things?
Kevan Lee: I’d say the product bucket is more metric-based. We’ll look at our growth rate overall as a company. We’ll end up breaking that down into levers, so, for instance, we’re looking at trial starts at this moment because that’s the lever that we want to pull to impact that growth rate. Now the branded content side is a bit more deliverable. So we want to ship a new podcast by the end of Q3, we want to start a video series by Q4. We’ll also look at reach sessions some of these larger traffic numbers, and then we do a fair amount of surveying on the awareness side. So we’ll ask surveys and set some baselines based on brand reach and awareness there. So how well do people know that Buffer does what we do and how much into the market have we got our positioning?
Geoff Knapp: What channels do you find to be particularly effective to you guys and then how has that changed over the years?
Kevan Lee: That’s a great one! Content has been kind of our calling card since I joined about five years ago. So we have our blog, that’s our main source of awareness and traffic and reach for us. And that’s you know several million a month and several million over the course of the year so that’s our primary focus there, through content. We also then share that on social media, we have some pretty big audiences there.
We are a social media management tools so of course, that’s kind of baked into our core of who we are. And we had a lot of success with podcasting recently so we have a podcast that has 25,000 weekly listens and we’re going be spinning off a new podcast. We found that that’s great both for the raw numbers but also for the personal connection that creates force. When it comes to the product side so we do have a lot of things like playbooks for launching and features, we’re big on product hunt whenever we send something out we have some pretty strong email channels that we use to nurture a list than to get some opens and clicks when we do have something to share there.
Geoff Knapp: I guess it’s natural you’d mention the blog, but that’s what I want to talk about next. So the blog is the go-to destination for anyone who’s interested in online marketing and social media. How did you sort of manage to get it to this place where it is kind of a de-facto leader and how do you keep challenging yourself to up the game and kind of stay “the destination”?
Kevan Lee: It’s a big task. I’m grateful for the folks we have on our team who get us there. So when I joined Buffer, that was my primary job, writing. The blog at the time was very productivity and life hacking focused. We got a huge reach and lots of social shares to that content but it didn’t align with our business value proposition. So it wasn’t really social media focused at the time. We chose to pivot as soon as I joined. That was about four or five years ago and we really started then just by building a lot of foundational content so we would write some articles that we knew would spread far and wide through social. We would do things like The ideal length of everything, The best time to post on these, Optimal timing, Optimal frequency, and those posts were really popular so we got a lot of backlinks.
Our domain authority increased really rapidly and we were in this fortunate position where we could write about any particular keyword or topic we wanted and be able to rank pretty quickly for that. So then we wrote four or five times a week and built up this really large library of SEO-focused content and the graph for those and there’s a little initial spike at first then the tails off but then it does pick back up over time. So when you have you know 50-60 posts like that a year that are our winners, the traffic really adds up and you end up showing up a lot and searched building that authority.
So that was the foundation, the building of it. And then the maintenance of it has been you know a whole other side – so one of the popular strategies that I’m sure you all have heard about is the skyscraper technique where you take a topic and you look at the best content out there for and then you write a piece of content that’s ten times greater than the best stuff there. So we ended up being skyscrapered a lot which is just the way it goes in content. So we then have to go back and skyscraper the skyscrapers. I don’t even know, it’s too many skyscrapers at this point but we have to keep refining our content to keep it updated but then also make it the very best resource out there. We’re not writing this to necessarily rank or to bring in sales for Buffer, we’re writing it to help people and so we want to create content that is supremely helpful, answers all the questions that they have.
And social media moves fast and something I wrote two years ago isn’t going to be relevant or helpful today so we have a whole system of updating our old posts. We’ll update the publication date as well so Google can see that it’s fresh content, that has helped us stay on the top of the rankings. A search is still you know 80-90% of our traffic in a given month so that’s a really big focus for us.
Geoff Knapp: I mean it’s an interesting challenge that you called out there. How in this world of measuring the effectiveness of your content distribution do you stay focused on the fact you’re not creating content specifically to get views, you’re creating content because you want to help people and kind of keeping that voice fresh. Is that something you have to constantly check yourself and internally around and make sure you’re focused on like who you’re delivering the message to, not the reach that you’re hoping to get from a metrics perspective?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting one because it does change your perspective a lot. So you have like a Google answer box for instance where someone can look for an answer, find it on a search result page and never come to your site and you have to be ok with that loss in traffic so to speak. You’re solving someone’s problem, you’re not maybe seeing that the actual numbers for it. We found that we had to understand our audience really well, so we would get a lot of people who would search for an answer, come to our site, read the blog post and then take off and go somewhere else and it’s like yeah that might have not looked good in Google Analytics necessarily but we helped that person, they got what they needed, they built this subconscious implicit awareness of Buffer that we are someone they can go to and trust, so you know maybe next time when they’re searching they’ll look out for an URL, maybe they hear about us in the space. It’s a long play I guess in some ways. So we have an SEO focused strategy which is like you know someone getting an answer, get it and leave, and we also have a different strategy for people who we expect to stay and subscribe and to stay in touch. And so we write different content for them. It’s kind of understanding both those audience and being ok with the outcomes from each.
Geoff Knapp: You guys clearly have a lot of experience right in developing really, really good content and then measuring the distribution. What advice or tips would you provide to, or have you provided, to individuals or companies that feel pretty good about their content but just are trying to figure out how to get the right reach, the right traffic? What’s the “getting started kit”?
Kevan Lee: Yeah that’s a great one! I would say that you need to look at content marketing as more of a long-term investment than a short-term game or growth hack. You need to be in it for the long haul so you expect like you know nine to twelve-month time length if you’re just getting started before you start seeing the results that you want. And you’re going to also notice that your distribution methods and your strategies are going to evolve over time so initially, it’s going to be a lot more hands-on, do things that don’t scale, kind of approaches, to be getting that distribution. Eventually, you might hit on like a social distribution channel, then eventually SEO and you get to a certain size that’s going to be really the core of your growth. So understanding these different phases of blog growth is really important as well. And then when it comes to actually getting results from the content, we believe pretty strongly but you should have your CTAs do one job for you. So rather than have a CTA for an email and a CTA for your product and a CTA for reading this next thing and this next thing, like all over the place. If you would really focus that, and we did this for email signup just a couple years ago and it was huge. Every CTA had the same job to perform and it made a very cohesive experience. We’re very big about the user experience on the blog so our users, our readers had a great experience, but also led to good results because you’re capturing people at these different points.
Geoff Knapp: And I’m thinking about those same things through a B2C lens versus B2B lens. How might I deploy thoughts or strategies differently?
Kevan Lee: So B2C and B2B, we’ve kind of been in this interesting intersection of B to C to B, so we kind of write for it all. Typically when we look at B2B we look at more of the buying journey so we want to start with consideration and then you know end up with the purchase intent at the very end, so we want to kind of walk them through this stage. So we’ll have top of funnel content, middle of the funnel content, bottom of the funnel content. It’s different types of content for each of those different sections. For the B2C where we typically focus quite a bit more on top of the funnel, it tends to be a shorter journey for them. It’s top of the funnel that has been really successful for us so those are the things that typically will go well on social media: the ideal length of everything, optimal times to post, kind of the life hacking productivity stuff that we used to do in the blog was really successful in the B2C space. We tend to focus more on that and then when it comes to B2B we do get a bit more rigid, or again I guess a bit more disciplined about how we work someone through that funnel.
Geoff Knapp: In the B2B space you talked about more discipline around funnel management so that leads to sales, how do you help companies or other folks connect the dots between the awareness driven in the B2C space and ultimately the bottom line results? I’ve seen companies struggle with that so I’m curious what your perspective is.
Kevan Lee: Yes and we’re a bit different too. We don’t have a sales team at Buffer, we don’t do much lead nurturing. If we get a bunch of email lists, you know email addresses from a list, we don’t really do anything with them. We would stick them on the blog list. A lot of it really is about like not forcing the sale on someone when they’re not ready for it. And so we tend to take this approach of capturing people when they come in, let them feel like they’re invited into to be part of your brand experience, and when they’re ready they will join.
We take more of an approach of consistency, reliability, we have a publishing schedule that we try to keep close to, we have an email schedule we try to keep close to because we can’t ever fully predict when someone’s gonna be ready. So we always try to be front and center in their minds so no matter what stage they’re at, we don’t tend to see it so much as a pure funnel, we kind of see it as more of a loop of sorts, and people move rapidly on that loop or slowly on that loop and as long as we’re present I think that’s the thing that we tend to optimize for over everything else.
Geoff Knapp: That makes sense. What are some of the common mistakes that you see companies make in either developing or maintaining their social media presence?
Kevan Lee: There can be a lot of pitfalls for sure! I think one of the main ones is trying to be everywhere. There are a couple of risks. The first one is if you’re smaller or stretching yourself too thin, there are so many different places to be on social these days. If you try to do it all is going to be quite a lot. The other risk is that you’re going to not deliver a great brand experience everywhere if you’re spread that thin as well. So if you have you know a presence everywhere, chances are one or two of those spots is going be great, the others not that great and your audience is going have an entry point like wherever they’re most interested. If you’re not really focused on Pinterest and it’s kind of fallen by the wayside, that might be someone’s only reference point to you and your brand, so there’s some risk there.
Geoff Knapp: Are there any particular examples of either products or brands that you think do a really good job and that would be an important takeaway for somebody that might be listening to this discussion?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, yeah. So some of the brands that we really admire are Allbirds, the shoe company. They have a wonderful Instagram presence and it’s unique from some of their other social profiles. Instagram by its nature is a very visual social media platform so their feed is very visual but they also understand that you know stories are kind of an extension of it but is it can be so much more too. It’s behind the scenes, it’s sharing user-generated content from customers who are reaching out and tallying Allbirds, it’s a very rich experience on stories. It’s a very visual and beautiful experience in their feed and if you go to their other social profiles you’ll see it’s a different voice or tone when you hit these different locations. One of my favorite ones that I’ve come across recently is a group Ugly drinks, they are flavored carbonated water that have a subscription service.
Geoff Knapp: And then in your own experience, maybe some things that you’ve been involved in or been really close to, do you have some examples of situations where you embarked on a strategy that didn’t go so well? And what did you take away from that to apply next time?
Kevan Lee: Yeah boy, lots of examples. This one I wouldn’t say didn’t go well but I think it taught us a very important lesson. So we had a Twitter chat that existed for many, many years and was and is a great part of our brand history. And it was very hard to make the call to stop doing that Twitter chat. It’s been I think a year ago exactly. The lesson that I took away from that is I guess in one sense it’s: trust your gut. We saw social media trends shifting, we saw attention shifting, we saw user expectations shifting on social networks, and we thought it was telling us that maybe a Twitter chat was not the thing anymore but it was such a big part of our brand it was very hard for us to actually come to terms with that. So looking ahead like how can we apply that lens to these other things that we’re doing, how can we question these long-standing things we’ve been doing for a long time that may not be as effective as they used to be, or may just need a little reinvention of sorts. So that’s one big thing. One of my lessons from her early on was podcast advertising which I think I could probably try it again. I think it’s been long enough, but when I first tried it I did not know what I was doing at all.
Geoff Knapp: One thing I’d like to ask is you is, when you think about companies delving into using more social media techniques and even having content driven by the community, that means to kind of losing a little bit the control of maybe the dialogue and message around your brand. How do you help companies or people that you advise to be comfortable with that and not overreact over something that might come back that’s not exactly what you’d hope for? In my experience, I’ve seen companies kind of struggle with attempting to be too controlling. So what are your thoughts there?
Kevan Lee: Yeah that’s a good one! We tend to be pretty open when it comes to the advice that we give. “Don’t control the experience” is probably our most common advice. I think maybe I should rephrase that. The way that you control the experience is by being very consistent yourself with your voice and tone as a brand so eventually you kind of train your audience and your tribe to recognize that voice and tone and to kind of mirror that back to you and their interactions with you. But at the same time, you’re still going to get outliers and then you know some folks who are maybe not on message and the way that you might like them to be. For us, it’s important that we respond to everyone.
I think when it comes to user-generated content you feature the stuff that you want to encourage more of, and so you’re looking for positive messages from the community that reflect your values and you know reposting those. Eventually, you kind of cultivate this culture of positivity or values that you want for your company. You’re going to get those outliers of course, and again, we do respond to everyone, we engage with everyone, we start those conversations. The worst thing you can do is just leave them be and let them spin out of control on their own. I think that absentee approach is not what works on social media for us these days. We want to be sure that we’re engaging even when it’s not something that what we wanted.
Geoff Knapp: That makes sense. You guys are a huge resource for people to come to stay up-to-date on trends and content. Where do you go to learn new stuff and challenge your current conventional wisdom and look at trends? What’s your go-to spot or spots?
Kevan Lee: There’s a few. So I’m really big into newsletters, so that’s the spot I go. A lot of the stuff that I look at is there’s one called The Interface which is run by Casey Newton from The Verge. And he talks a lot about kind of tech from a very broad sense. There’s someone called Matt Navara, he used to work for The Next Web and he runs his own social media agency and his Twitter account is great to follow. And then there are a few newsletters that speak specifically to brands, where we get a lot of inspiration from. There’s one called 2:00 p.m., there’s one called Lean Luxe and one called Loose threads and they kind of talk about the emerging direct-to-consumer space so they’re great for insights.
And then I personally have kind of a strategy where I follow ten or so brands on each of the social networks pretty closely, and I swap them in and out as the weeks go by, so there’s always fresh stuff. And I just learn from what they’re doing on there. Notice what they’re doing, try to replicate it myself on some test accounts I have set up just to kind of learn the process of what these folks are actually doing in the real world. I think there’s little that can replace that very hands-on real-time experience of what these brands are doing and trying it yourself.
Geoff Knapp: Cool! Do you have a favorite tool or favorite app that you lean on you know more than others?
Kevan Lee: Yeah I have like a Mount Rushmore of tools today. So Trello is one. Give me any job, I could find a way to make Trello fit with it. So I use it to keep myself organized day to day, we use it for editorial calendars at Buffer. I use it for goal tracking, I use it for like you name it. I use it for my management, so many different things I use Trello for.
I use Pocket religiously. So anytime I see something I learn that I want to read I will add Pocket and then try to get through my Pocket once a week or so. I tend to have a backlog of articles to read in there. But I try to make my way through.
Feedly is another great big one for me. As you can tell, blogs are a huge part of my life still today so I pull in tons of different content sources into Feedly, and their mobile app is great. So I scroll through the mobile app once or twice a week just to clear things out and add things to Pocket and then read them and of course, it all goes to Buffer to share later so I have a little system.
Geoff Knapp: That’s great! So you mentioned your kind of journey to the position here, it’s been a bit of an evolution. What are some of the best advice that you received along the way?
Kevan Lee: There’s a couple of different pieces. The first is, when I was joining Buffer it was absolutely amazing that the founders were just wonderful and one of them asked me what I want to do at Buffer on the long term, like where I see myself in a couple of years. And this is like a few weeks after joining so I was like, I’m just enjoying the ride. I had no idea, I didn’t even think about it. And eventually this evolved into a conversation about personal ambition and I explained that I don’t feel like I have ambition in the way that I would expect others to have ambition, like I don’t feel like I need to become a VP of Marketing in two years, I’m not on this particular track to CMO or I want this or the other thing. And it was explained to me that first of all that’s totally okay, ambition can look in different ways. But that this approach of just making the most of whatever opportunity is in front of you can be a totally fine approach as well, and I feel like I really took that to heart.
Geoff Knapp: That’s a really good perspective thanks, Kevan! Are there particular people that you find sort of inspirational, that you follow regularly? I mean you already mentioned a couple, like who do you look up to when you’re looking for advice?
Kevan Lee: Yeah I try to look to people who are different than me. So different in different backgrounds different ethnicities, different genders. I want to be inspired by a variety of people and experiences. So one person who’s been really instrumental to me is Hiten Shah, he’s a many times over founder of lots of different companies like KISSmetrics. He’s working on a product called FYI now, and really a great mentor and advisor for me. He’s always great whenever I reach out for an email. There are a couple people on my team who I have some really deep and wonderful relationships with. Courtney Seiter, she leads our people team, Katie Womersley leads our engineering team and Carolyn Kopprasch, she leads our product team. And having them in my life has been great.
Geoff Knapp: Are there some things in 2019 that you want to try or push yourself to do, that you’ve never done before?
Kevan Lee: Yeah! I want to start my own podcast. And I’m like 20 percent of the way there so I’ve recorded four episodes and now they’re just sitting there on my desktop kind of taunting me a little bit because I have to edit them and make them sound good. So that’s something I would love to try. I would love to get personally to ten thousand followers on Instagram and that is super hard. I’m at 200 right now so if anyone’s listening it wants to follow me then that’d be great! I want to learn how to bake bread! Those should keep me pretty busy.
Geoff Knapp: So are there things that you’re going to push Buffer to do that maybe hasn’t done before in 2019?
Kevan Lee: Yeah so for Buffer we have some exciting things! We want to launch a new podcast. Okay, I hinted at that earlier. So we have an existing podcast which is great, we want to do one that’s a bit more storytelling focused, more narrative focus so we’re going try that. We want to do a video series. Similar to what Wistia has done, they’ve been super inspiring for us with their 1 10 100 series. We learned to do something Netflix-worthy, so super highly produced and interesting to do there. And then we just want to get a lot better with I guess our data tracking and growth and be a bit more data-informed in some of the decisions that we make in terms of channels to choose, and tactics to try.
Geoff Knapp: Speaking of data are there some trends in digital marketing that maybe are overlooked by folks or that aren’t being highlighted enough, that our listeners could spend more time and attention to?
Kevan Lee: Yeah in terms of the data side, one thing that is becoming more important for us is the idea of multi-touch attribution. Now this concept has been around for a very long time but I think it’s especially important these days when you’re considering things like ROI for social media or influencer marketing, podcasting, videos. They can be more top of the funnel, more reach and awareness focused, but how do they actually tie back to ROI? But you can put together some multi-touch attribution models, even some kind of quick and dirty ones just to give you a general sense of things. I think that’s going to be super helpful. Then there are some really neat tools in terms of audience insights that have come out recently and so you might look at how that ties in with your ad strategy and your social strategy and then your user list. Like how can you tie these different audiences that you’ve built up and maintained and managed in these different spots? How can you tie them all together so that you’re painting this bigger brand experience picture? I think data is the thread that ties those things together.
Geoff Knapp: Great! If I’m a brand who’s either currently global or thinking about expanding globally, how should I think about managing an international social profile? How do you guys manage it, as Buffer is clearly a global brand?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, yeah that is a great one! I think the biggest thing for us is this idea of like when your global you’re always online, right? There’s always going to be someone, the sun never sets on you when you’re global. And so we’re lucky that, due to our approach to work, we are fully remote team distributed around the world so we can have someone online at every hour of the day.
When I log off, someone in Asia-Pacific logs on, when they log off someone in Europe logs on. So that round-the-clock coverage is great. And then we support that with a tool within Buffer called Reply that lets you collect all those social media conversations in one inbox. So we have a team that manages those 24/7. And just being responsive in that way. It sends a really powerful message to the international audience that you recognize them as people in this place that maybe it’s not where your headquarters it is or where you haven’t been before, but you are intentionally making time and space and committing resources energy to them and where they’re at. They don’t have to wait until your business hours to hear a response. And so that always-online approach is really wonderful and especially if you have a team organized in a way that you can manage it.
Geoff Knapp: What’s next for Buffer? Any new features or things on the horizon you want to tease out or give us a sneak peek into?
Kevan Lee: Yeah absolutely! We’re really embracing this idea of brand experience, visual marketing, kind of the direction that social media is going. And then we think Instagram is leading the way. So we’re going have some neat Instagram features coming out soon. Some things like first comment and some powerful things for the link in Bio functionality, so I’ll keep an eye out for that stuff. And we also have an analytics product that has been in Beta for a while now and it’s going to be making its way out into the public soon too, and there’s some really cool stuff in there in terms of insights, answers and we have stories analytics so it’s going to a really powerful addition to social media teams toolboxes.
Geoff Knapp: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave before we wrap it up here?
Kevan Lee: Yeah this has been a wonderful conversation! I think the themes that I’m pulling out is just the importance of understanding where social is out today and taking time to survey the landscape before you dive in fully. I think especially if you’re working like with the e-commerce perspective in mind there are so many wonderful things that social networks allow when it comes to shopping and e-commerce these days and if you can embrace those tools and features, you’re going to be ahead of the game. And you’re also going to be seeing those, we talked about data, you’re going to see the results come in in terms of ROI and revenue and everything. So social media is moving toward e-commerce, moving toward this you know whatever-the-consumer-needs kind of mentality. I think that’s gonna be really powerful for businesses.
Geoff Knapp: And if folks want to reach out to you and get more insights or find out more, where would you direct them?
Kevan Lee: So if you head to Instagram I’m @kevanlee there, same on Twitter, same on LinkedIn. my website is kevanlee.com and then the Buffer blog and the Buffer website would be great to check out too.
Geoff Knapp: Thank you Kevan, I really enjoyed the discussion as well and certainly to all of the folks out there you know consuming this 2Inspire series, I really appreciate your time and I hope you find it valuable as well. Look out for more!